Last stop: Walthamstow Central (short stories)

An Easter Fairy Tale

“She’ll be buried again on Easter Monday!” says mother, as the saliva of an unpredictable and ominous April storm oozes down the window pane. “And this time with no resurrection!”

“Again?” ask my brother and I; two vagabonds who turned their back on the land of their ancestors and the ancient family home nestling between the Malvasia and Teran vines that had managed to survive both Mussolini and the waves of emigration which, like Attila, had ravaged the adjacent hills. In a decade of intellectual and academic escapades we have abandoned the beauty of our ancestral home for the pursuit of urban decadence, and our father has become reconciled to the cruel fact that his vines are doomed to die with him. The knowledge that our grandfather’s fertile and familiar clusters will turn into a cemetery hurts like a sharp knife forced into his heart.

“Zlatica has... died before!” Says father, closing the massive black doors and starting to switch off any appliance that can be hit by lightning. On our farmstead, whose altitude rivals even the city of Motovun, civilisation is switched off at the first sign of a storm. It has been like that ever since my brother and I can remember.

After unplugging the phone and the television, father also switches off the main fuse in the hallway leading to the bedrooms on the first floor. The gloomy darkness suddenly floods through our kitchen, interrupted at times by bolts of lightning that cut through the yellowish, flower-pattern curtain from an imprenetrable concrete-grey sky.

In the middle of the table covered with a nylon cherry-pattern tablecloth, mother puts a scented incense candle into a holder consisting of an empty powdered vitamin drink container filled with pages from an old local newspaper.
Next to it mother places a bowl of colourful Easter eggs, painted with dripping wax and cooked with onion peel and plumwood scratchings.

“I always liked the yellow dogwood better than this red colour, but now they claim that dogwood is poisonous!” says father and takes an egg from the bowl, breaks it by rolling it across the table and then places his hundred kilos onto the chair next to the window.

“Once upon a time women couldn’t just eat like that whatever and whenever they wanted!” continues mother. “Zlatica was preparing eggs for Easter, just like us. She painted them with wax and boiled them in onion peel. She wanted to check whether they were cooked ...”

The storm is getting closer and growing noisier. The branches of the old oak tree are waving its branches mercilessly against the gray and fragile roof tiles. Motovun is disappearing in a medley of black clouds, swirls of rain and hail and snow from U?ka Mountain, the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who have seized the whole hill of our farmstead in their powerful arms.

“It all happened over sixty years ago ...” adds father.

“Oh my God she was so beautiful! There was no rival to her beauty in the whole of Istra and far beyond. She had just put the yolk in her mouth when someone knocked at the door and she swallowed it whole! It got stuck in her throat and she suffocated.

“She died… just from a hard-boiled yolk?”

“Of course! You think that that cannot happen?”

The smell of incense is becoming fiercer, the whirlwind is hitting nearer and nearer and the tablecloth is getting covered with the reddish eggshells. A dull clap of thunder next to the window shakes the kitchen table violently, making the bulb flicker.

Mother jumps and crosses herself in the hope that the weather will clear in a few hours and we’ll be able to get the eggs, spring onions, hams and sweet bread blessed at the Easter Eve Vigil.

“I could make an Easter pie too! I haven’t made one for ages.” Mother disappears into the dark hallway and returns a minute later carrying a wooden board and a sieve with flour. She puts it all on the table and then inserts another two pieces of wood into the stove. As she opens its hatch, the light of tortured flame, struggling with violent winds rolling down the steep chimney, spreads rapidly around the kitchen. In the pale candle light our faces are transformed into eerie forgotten portraits of happy families gathering together around the table, with the mother figure disappearing in the dark and appearing again knowing every inch of the house by heart. She opens the refrigerator and takes out cured ham, bacon, cooked asparagus, a piece of cheese and two eggs. In a chipped terracotta bowl she prepares the yeast.

“Her father was a wealthy landowner with a stable of pedigree oxen. His daughter had to be buried with a bunch of gold around her neck. Cut the ham and bacon in small cubes and fry it lightly!” She orders pushing a chopping board in front of me.

Mother kneads the bread and puts it aside to rise. A titillating scent of fried ham, bacon and asparagus instantly overpowers the rain and hail that are pounding on the windows and smashing the roof tiles one after the other, threatening to unleash a torrent of dirty water through the outside wall of the kitchen at any moment. To the pan mother adds chunks of cheese, two beaten eggs, a lot of pepper and a tiny amount of grated Parmesan cheese.

“Zlatica’s father’s servant, Jakov, a hard-working but poor lad from the village of Brkac, stayed behind at the cemetery to arrange her grave. He listened for any noise and when he was sure that there was no one around - her grave was out of the way, under the cedar tree - he rolled up his sleeves and decided to dig up the grave and take the gold that was hanging around her neck. He planned to sell it to Udatny’s Jewellers in Pazin and take the first ship to Australia.”

“And he was right to do it!” Father joins in. “What would a dead person do with gold? What nonsense!”

“Oh ... you stupid man! If someone wants to bury some gold – why shouldn’t they?”

“There’s nothing there after you die...and living people can do something with it!”

“How do you know that there is nothing there? How can you talk like that? And when did you last go to confession anyway?” Mother persists.

When no one is looking she still prays her rosary with a passionate devotion; as if paying a debt to herself and to our ancestors. During the threatening storms she lights candles and crosses herself with tears in her eyes.

“Jakov had never done such a thing before; yes he was very poor but also honest. He crossed himself and hoped that God would help him. God could see the misery he lived in and knew that he would get on a ship to Australia and come back in fifty years’ time to put the most beautiful gold chain on her grave.”

Mother divides the risen dough into two parts, makes a hole in one of them and fills it with fried mixture from the pan, then covers it with the other piece of dough, pressing the edges together so it will not spill out, and places it in the oven.
The storm goes on, bending the heavy tree tops, and the hail is mercilessly cutting the new Malvasia and Teran vine saplings. Father lost his zeal a long time ago. During evenings like this he used to curse all the saints of the Catholic calendar but tonight, with his wistful glance fixed on the window, he stoically says only "destroy, just destroy, destroy everything”.

“Jakov dug out the grave as quickly as he could and opened the white coffin. You see, young girls and children were always buried in a white coffin in those days. She was so pale that the moment he opened it a light came over the village as if it was dawn. He was breathless. Of course he had noticed her before; he’d looked at her out of the corner of his eye after working in the fields and then washing himself in the backyard. Seeing her lying dead in the grave, he started crying...”

“And here is what those foreign soap operas make of normal women and old true stories!” commented father.

“Shut up you silly old man! He slipped and fell, and his heavy and coarse hands landed on her chest. She was so fragile and delicate, he felt as if he could break her. From the force of the blow the yolk popped out from her throat and she opened her eyes. Zlatica instinctively put her arms around his neck and screamed ‘Jakov’. She recognised him.”

The storm is slowly disappearing behind the east side of the hill and behind the curtain the lights of Motovun are clearer than ever. The smell of mother’s traditional Easter pie is beginning to seep from the oven; that lusty tang of freshly baked bread, seasoned with asparagus and bacon, that even makes the saints on the calendar feel hungry.

“And they lived happily until death ... sixty summers later ... parted them. She never ate a boiled egg again. .. And this morning, her neighbour Marija told me, she asked for an Easter egg, because she had forgotten what they tasted like.”

Mother opens the heavy door demonstratively and lets the clear night into the kitchen. Father reconnects us to civilisation. The Easter pie is already in the bag with the other foods for the blessing at the Vigil.

“See...the weather has cleared just in time for midnight mass!” says mother and puts out the candle.

(Published in Vecernji list, late 1990ies, Short story competiton)

Copyright Milka Sculac Sennett