Saint Nikola’s Shoes

Every December 19, our friends and relatives from Gorchintzi and neighboring villages and towns began strolling into our house for lunches and dinners three days in a row. We didn’t have enough room for all them to come in one day. So our house in those three days became busier than our village’s only store.

It didn’t smell like a house anymore, it smelled like the kafana in Pirot my father took me to once without my mother’s knowledge. It smelled of fried perch and boiled slivovitz, garlic white bean paste and stuffed dry, red peppers, baklava and minced sugary-walnut wheat, and was filled with the sounds of the metal dishes neighborhood women washed around the clock in metal buckets, and emptied in the backyard by the frozen water pump.

Saint Nikola protected our house, my mother repeated even more frequently around that time of the year, as if we would otherwise forget and stop working or praying or take his icons off our walls. Our house and all of us in it, she emphasized. That’s why we stored food from June every year, why we pickled cabbage, cucumbers, green tomatoes, cauliflower and carrots and kept huge barrels of them in the barn. Even sold my favorite pet-lamb to buy fish.

All for Saint Nikola.

When I was Loza’s age, I thought Saint Nikola was a Serbian king. That was the only reason we would prepare for his feast half a year in advance and my mother wouldn’t sleep for days before and after.

But he actually never showed up for it.

“Mama, how come Saint Nikola never comes to our feast?” I finally asked my mother. “Does he know I cried for my lamb we had to sell?”

“He knows everything. He appreciates your sacrifice,” she said, and continued cutting a huge head of pink, smelly, sour cabbage.

“If he is supposed to protect us, why did he let Radica die, Mama?” I asked my mother the eve before Saint Nikola’s feast as she pulled on her flour-whitened skirt. Her arms were in dough up to her elbows. She was making a sour cabbage pie.

I looked up and saw my mother looking through our small kitchen window. Her arms were red from strain, white from flour, brownish, sticky and peeling where the water and flour met. They froze on top of the thick, white pile of dough like a statue’s, next to a rolling pin, a metal bowl of water and a small bucket of pig’s fat.

She was silent and still for a few moments, and so was I, looking up at her and holding onto her black apron as if I would fall into a well if I let go. I felt pain in my stomach. Something was churning, then slowly moving up to my chest and throat, and it became a little harder to breathe and swallow.

She finally looked down at me, took a deep breath like I did when the village doctor asked me to, and said: “He needed her more than we did.” She tore a piece of dough from the pile with her hand, and rolled it flat with the rolling pin.


One thing my parents never fought over was whether to have Saint Nikola’s feast.

My father said it wasn’t really religious, it was an old Serbian tradition, passed on from father to son. It was a custom and a reason to drink, eat and sing with friends. Celebrate the fact that we were alive, healthy, and together. But when my mother overheard him mention Saint Nikola, she called out to me, loudly, with authority.

“Ruza, I need your help with this pie. Now.”

A pie was a sign for my father to stop talking to me about anything that had to do with religion.

“Uh huh, a pie, well, that’s serious, Ruza, you better run,” he said. He petted my curly red hair, pulled on a curl or two and smiled at me, his teeth glistening.

And of course, I had to obey my mother. I ran to her.

She was barely taller than I, but she grabbed my shoulders hard and said: “If you have a question about God or Saints, you come to me, you hear? Your father is a Communist, we are not. You and I believe in God and celebrate Saint Nikola, got it? Count your blessings. He protects us, I’m sure of that, from much worse. And don’t you ever forget that, ever.” She let go of my shoulders, and continued stuffing sour cabbage leaves with cut carrots, potatoes and rice, and glancing through the fogged kitchen window into the darkness. “And don’t tell anybody your father is a Communist!”

I nodded.

“What’s a Communist, Mama?” I asked.

“It’s someone who doesn’t believe in God,” she said.