My mother Mika would then keep talking and walking fast, almost dragging me behind her, as if she were trying to pull my arm off. Her leather-laced footwear, opanci, raised dust up to her knees and my hips, throwing pebbles behind us as if we were baby horses. I wasn’t sure if she talked to me or to my father still, even though he couldn’t hear. Or to God.
“Satan, I tell you. Never goes to church. Don’t criticize what you’re not meant to understand…”
She kept talking under her chin, her volume slowly decreasing as we went up the hill on the carpet made out of colorful pebbles, framed with tall oaks, poplars and pines, then down into the shiny moist meadow that smelled so sweetly, then along a creek where you could actually see fish swim, orange and gray.
Half an hour later we would see my aunt Zora in front of a small, rundown church, straw under its roof, chickens and piglets roaming in front of it. She waved with a white handkerchief.
Zora was a stocky woman, massive, like an armoire. Next to my coat hanger of a mother she looked even bigger, as if they were two different species. When she leaned down to kiss me she always called me “auntie’s soul,” and she always kissed me three times, my right cheek twice, her lips pursed and moist. Later I had to wipe them off with my sleeve, carefully so my mother wouldn’t see.
She wasn’t my real aunt. My mother was an orphan and an only child. Aunt Zora was my mother’s best friend. She always wore wide skirts with flowers, her belly like a balloon even if she was too old to have a baby in it, and always the same rubber boots, slightly muddy. Her scarf never matched her skirt but had flowers too, just different shapes and colors.
My mother always wore black. She swore that she would not take the black off until one of her children got married, if she lived long enough to see that.
My father stopped wearing black a year after Radica died. “My clothes don’t mourn my children, my heart does, and I don’t care what the villagers say,” he said.
My mother asked him then, her face bursting red: “Why didn’t you dress yourself in rainbow rags the minute your child was in the ground?”
“For you,” he said. “’Cause I knew you wanted me to wear black.”
“Then come to church with us, also for me.”
“I’ll go to church when I’m dead,” he said.
My mother and aunt Zora guided me inside the church. It was dark and it smelled of familiar burning herbs. The candles flickered, a hundred of them in the left corner. The priest smiled when he saw us. My mother and aunt bowed to him.
He came closer.
“And whom do we have here?” he asked my mother, staring at me.
“My oldest, Father. Ruza.”
I looked up. He was older than my parents, his beard and hair looked curdled like my mother’s yarn and he smelled of church. His eyes were dark and round like two buttons, framed by long forests of lashes, some white.
“What a pretty little girl,” he said. “Beautiful red hair. Very unusual for this part of Serbia.” He was looking at me as if I were an apparition.
“She takes after my husband’s late aunt, God rest her soul,” my mother explained, covering my hair with her hands.
“When God makes someone distinctive, there’s always a reason for that,” the priest said.
My mother and aunt Zora looked at each other, then down at the floor, as if afraid to look up at him again, as if he were suddenly the sun and could scorch their eyes.
“God bless your little girl. Ruza,” he said, and made a cross with his right hand above my head. He pet me, slowly, gently. Then he gave a sign, by lowering and lifting his hand. My mother and Zora were allowed to look up. “How are Saint Nikola’s feast preparations going?” he asked my mother.
“Well, father, well. We gathered all the food and wine we need, invited all of our neighbors, relatives and friends, some even from Blato, Nis and Pirot. The only thing left is to cook and prepare. When could you come to bless the house?”
“This year I’m busier than usual, more families are celebrating Saint Nikola as their Patron Saint. So, the eve before,” he said. “Have the water ready, the incense and a clean towel. And the contribution for the church, of course.”
He then made another cross over the three of us, both my mother and aunt crossed themselves, and then my mother pulled my hand hard, so I clumsily crossed myself too.
The priest laughed and slowly walked toward the altar, looking back at me.
“Branko doesn’t mind the priest coming over?” Zora whispered.