My mother squeezed one of my hands tight, my aunt Zora the other as they led me into the church to introduce me face-to-face to Saint Nikola.
My father Branko stayed at home with Loza, who, at six, my mother said, was still too young to understand why there were icons of Saint Nikola in both our kitchen and our bedroom, or why my mother went to church every Sunday, rain or snow.
My father never went to church and my mother always explained his absence to our neighbors.
“Branko’s not feeling well, poor soul, he overworked himself in the cornfields last night,” I once heard her explain to the neighbors three houses down the hill. The Sunday after that: “He’s got a commission in Pirot, big vineyard, the boss won’t have anyone else’s but Branko’s hands working his vines.” As she spoke, she scratched her underarm raw. And the Sunday after that: “Branko? He had to go to Blato to help out an uncle with a mare who’s been in labor for two days!”
“I have an uncle?” I said loudly, cheerfully, excited, forgetting that that information was a part of my mother’s Sunday, pre-church fairytales. I didn’t think I had any relatives besides my sister and parents. An uncle, someone who would give me candy and slide me a little money when my parents weren’t looking, that I could save to buy shoes one day and not wear ugly opanci all the time.
Our neighbors looked at me, then at my mother, who blushed like a ponceau flower. “Of course you do, you silly, Uncle Marko from Blato, remember?” Then she began explaining heatedly, waving her hands in the air, talking with every joint, bone and muscle of her skinny frame: “Ruza’s just like Branko, you know, her memory is not real good. Not quite school material. I better teach her a good trade and marry her off well.”
Every Sunday morning since I turned eight, my mother and I would meet aunt Zora and go to church, to listen to the old priest chant and sing and bless. We also lit candles, and said a short prayer for our family’s good health, for the dead to see the light wherever they are, and for the ground on them to be light.
That Sunday I asked my mother, “Mama, why isn’t the priest singing in Serbian, so I could understand?”
She shushed me at first, putting her index finger across her mouth, widening her eyes. Then, after the service, she said, “Serbian is not a godly language. God speaks another language and that’s the one our priest sings in.”
“What’s God’s language?” I asked, my eyebrows lifting.
“Old Church Slavonic,” she whispered back.
I looked at the priest at that moment, at his long, black dress, at his apron with golden threaded crosses and embroidery, at his bushy beard. “So, then, the priest is singing to God, not me. Why do I have to go listen to him for an hour standing up?”
My mother looked at me, wrinkles deepening between her eyebrows like our river after rain.
“Did you hear that from your father? God shrivel his legs and rot them. Ruza, we don’t question God, or the church. We obey. Like you obey your parents, we, all of us are God’s children and we obey the church rules.”
I grew up with my parents constantly arguing about church. They didn’t even try to hide their arguments from Loza and me. It was as if they were at war, firmly embedded in their own beliefs. Our house was small anyway, just two rooms divided by a long hallway. The family bedroom was in the back, looking at the road, somehow in a quiet nook, hidden. The bathroom was outside, by the barn, the water pump a few feet away from our front door.
During this week’s argument, my father Branko asked my mother, in a calm, assured voice: “Who else in this village, any village, doesn’t bend his spine for a living?”
“Who are you, the anti-Christ?” was my mother’s response, so frequent I would mouth it while she said it. “Who cares what priests do or don’t do. They have a sack on their back, like the rest of us, to collect their sins in.” She pulled the wooden cross she always wore around her neck on a string, even when she bathed, and held it in her hand, as if to ask God silently not to strike my father down.
“Church or hocus-pocus? How does that illiterate priest know that God exists, let alone what he wants or needs us to do? But he certainly knows that his belly needs pork roast and red wine and puts it on our tab,” my father would elaborate, still calmly, his face scrunched, stern, determined. As if he knew. As if he were sure.
I slowly looked up at mother then, wary of her reaction, her next move, her next curse. She would squeeze my hand to the point that it hurt. I would squeal. She wouldn’t let go.
“Then, don’t go asking him for help later when you need it. And don’t pollute my children with your communist propaganda,” she said, and swirled me around with her out the door, leaving him with Loza, as punishment. She knew that if she took Loza and left me, that that would have been a reward for all of us. This way, we were all paying for our respective sins, some known, some unknown. But we all had them. Even my little sister.