Saint Nikola’s Shoes

“He just says good day, and leaves. Doesn’t stay for the prayer. And doesn’t leave any money, I have to pull it out of my secret jar.”

Then the two of them looked at me, kept looking at me, staring at me.

“Still want those shoes, Ruza?”

That was a code to keep my mouth shut. I nodded.

Then they escorted me to the candle corner.

“This is where you light candles for the living, and this is where you light them for the dead. Here, you take these four for the living,” my mother said.

I couldn’t reach “the living” area, a high, metal framed square dish filled with sand, so my aunt picked me up and let me light candles with one already lit. I wondered whose candle I was using to light my family’s. I wondered if it mattered. I hoped it would be someone I would like. Another girl. Another girl with no shoes.

“One for my father, one for my mother, one for sister Loza, and the last one for me,” I whispered and looked at aunt Zora’s face for approval. She nodded.

“Now think of a little prayer for your family. Something you want for them, for yourself,” my aunt said.

“I want shoes, real shoes,” I whispered, prompting Zora’s big eyes to pop out as if stuck on a fork. Her face told me I should have been embarrassed for wanting such small, material thing as shoes, but I didn’t care. That’s what I wanted at that moment, and I was in a church. I had to be honest with God.

I saw a few other girls in our village with pretty little red shoes. They looked so happy to me. I wanted to be that happy as well. That pretty.

My mother didn’t hear my wish. She was kneeling down, lighting candles for the dead. For her parents, for her grandparents, for her in-laws, and for her children.

When Zora put me back down, I was next to my mother’s face, warm and moist from all the candles lit for the dead. She crossed herself. I saw the candles’ lit cotton tips in her eyes, flickering, bathing in liquid I still remembered the taste of.

Then my mother got up from her knees, brushing them of dirt, and walked me to an icon, Saint Nikola’s icon. He was also an old man with a long, white and black beard.

“Was Saint Nikola the priest’s father?” I asked.

“Why do you ask that?” my mother said.

“ ‘Cause they look just alike.”

As I looked deep down into the flat, slightly chipped eyes of Saint Nikola on painted wood I wondered what he did to become a Saint. Or what sins he didn’t commit. Did he ever want shoes badly, or did he walk barefoot, content, without caring about other children laughing at him? I wasn’t that good of a girl. But as a girl, I could never become a Saint in Serbia anyway. So what was the point? I didn’t ask the icon anything. My mother’s eyes would have devoured me.

“Now kiss his icon,” aunt Zora said.

“But why?”

“That’s what you do. Out of respect.”

I didn’t want to kiss the icon I had seen other people kissing many times before, so I grazed it with my nose and kissed the air around it. I looked up. Both women smiled at me.

“And here, now you put this money below the icon.”

“Why does he need money, mama? He’s a Saint. Doesn’t he have enough money?”

“Stop asking silly questions, Ruza, and place the money on the icon. It’s for the church, not for Saint Nikola.”

“What about my shoes?” I asked, my eyes now watering. Whenever I would mention shoes, my mother would say that I had perfectly good opanci, and I didn’t go to school anyway. Who would see my shoes? The sheep? And we didn’t have money for anything unnecessary, she said. My mother called shoes luxury. Something I would one day get from my husband. We needed money for other things more—seeds, animal food, house repairs, a four-wheeled cart.

I thought opanci were the ugliest thing I ever saw in Gorchintzi. They were tan and pointy, like little paper boats, and laced up, all the way to below my knees. They were really boys’ shoes, not girls’ shoes, but girls like me still had to wear them.

“Ruza!” my mother said as I glanced down at my scuffed opanci, still holding the money. Her eyes were about to shoot thunders at me, so I released my tight grip on a hundred Dinar bill, barely enough to buy me soles. It landed, all scrunched and moist, over Saint Nikola’s mouth and beard.