Mama grabs my hand as we walk into the dim apartment. “I need you,” she says. My body bends with the combined burden of mama and the growing child inside me.
The curtains are pulled together tightly as if to conceal that which is inside. My youngest aunt, my childhood friend. Laid out on a tattered brown sofa in her living room, surrounded by a circle of shrunken middle-aged women. Their shoulders bow like sunflowers at the end of July. The weight they carry is too much to count. Some faces are thin, others round. But today they are all the same. I notice the crumpled tissues wedged into the sofa corners. Probably heavy with tears. Mama does the same. They are after all, sisters.
And then the nail polish. It glows on my dead aunt’s toenails like a series of beacons in the darkness of the room. A brightest blue, the kind worn by little girls to a birthday party or to the pool. And here is a forty year old woman, dead and childlike, her chosen nail-polish color as rebellious as her life. Its intensity has no place among the faded furniture, the smell of cigarettes, vodka and fear.
We approach her now. She is a doll in a window display. All pretty and fragile, her skin the color of porcelain… a delicate bone-china doll. Precious. She looks lovely. How is that possible? She is dead, dead, dead. Her curly blonde hair is wild and tumbling, locks strewn and escaping even in death, reaching for something else.
Mama looks at me with something like horror in her swollen eyes and my aunt number three runs to the bathroom to vomit.
My dead aunt’s limbs are tidily arranged by her husband in a pose he must have thought suitable to the circumstance. When he called for help, when she started choking, when the air went out of her together with her life force. What exactly did he feel?
“Where is her little girl?” Mama whispers because to talk loudly means disrespect, even if it is your baby sister dead for only an hour or so. The little girl, my cousin, only nine, sent away to her godmother’s house. She is still innocent, unaware that her mama is gone. Running, twirling in her pretty new skirt that my aunt bought just yesterday on sale. She is soaking in the sunshine, filling her lungs and her eyes with that magical wonderment found only in childhood. She has no clue yet. No idea that today will saturate the rest of her life with the colors of sorrow, loneliness… blue.
The weather has been freaky in this Slavonian city sandwiched between swampland and centuries old forests. Humid and mosquito riddled, it breathed heavily in the summer. It’s July and I too can’t breathe in this room. Most people here don’t have air-conditioning. Too expensive. It smells musty in the small apartment with all of us there. I can smell something else too. Death maybe.
A memory niggles its way into the clammy room and into my mind. I am seven. My aunt is twelve. Her hair is already wildly glorious and spilling everywhere… its tendrils glistening in the sunshine, often found in a bowl of soup or elsewhere. There was so much of it. Her hair overpowers her petite body. The shape of her face is a heart, adorned with eyes that are dark with lashes but blue inside like the sky on a good summer’s day. Blue like the nail polish on her dead feet.
Grandfather is angry because I have locked the gate and gone on an impromptu visit to my piano playing friend’s house. Grandfather had to jump over the gate since I had the only key.
“Thank God he survived,” grandmother said. She clutches her chest as if in the throes of a heart attack.
The call of the piano was stronger than the fear of grandfather’s slick tree branch and its sting on my bottom. Grandfather’s eyes settle on me. My legs feel heavy. I can’t move.
“Come here.” He grabs my hand. I know what’s coming. I will get the whipping, it will hurt like nobody’s business and then grandfather and I will watch a war movie together.
My aunt is sitting on the cobbled steps and eating a green apple. The steps lead to a red roofed verandah that lines one half of my grandparents house.
“Tsk tsk, she didn’t do it daddy.”
She bites into the apple and her eyes twinkle. Her lips open into a sneer. Later I asked whether she had winked at me but she denied it with a flick of her wrist and a giggle.
The walnut tree above us is heavy with leaves and age. Jealously, it guards the yard from the sun. Yet, a playful sliver of light sneaks cleverly past it and lights my aunt’s golden hair on fire. She looks like an angel I think and forget about grandfather’s whipping. He is spellbound by the sight of his youngest daughter’s transformation. A halo of light envelopes her shape on the steps where she continues to eat her apple down to the pits, then spits them out in a wide arc. They land at my feet. Her eyes are crystalline gems, wet and fluid when she raises them to look at grandfather.
“Please daddy.” she says.
Grandfather lets go of my hand. He seems startled as if he wasn’t sure where he was, like the old lady who lived down the street and we called mad Mara.
My aunt smiles. Her teeth are small and sharp. I know that for sure. She has bitten me before.
Mama and my five remaining aunts form a defense line by the casket at the chapel where their baby sister rests. They are all dressed in black of course. Their hair is threaded with various stages of grey and they possess identical noses due to which they are recognized as sisters across the city. They hold each other firmly under the arm, clinging together like a family of bewildered crows.
Here in front of them, lies their sister. The youngest, but first to go. Somebody has dressed her in white and she is small, almost covered in sweet smelling flowers of all shades. Wreaths with exaggerated ribbons frame the coffin. I can’t see her feet and I panic. They are encircled in a carpet of vivid color as if she has just stepped into a meadow in full bloom. Her face is grayish but that somebody has applied pink lipstick to her dead lips and they shine. Probably aunt number four. She is always mindful of one’s looks. No reason to go out looking awful now. Look at all these people paying respects, sneaking a last look at their sister. In each of their eyes a covert question, a thirst for gossip. How exactly did she die?
Everyone is crying. People hug my mom and aunts one, two, three, four and five. Number six is in the coffin. I kiss old women in black scarves and no teeth. Their skin is paper thin, their eyes tinged white from cataracts. I hug old men wearing Slavonian caps and pocket watches. My grandparent’s friends. They smell like old people and like mothballs. Selfishly, I wish my grandparents were here.
“How is this possible?” Mama and her sisters say repeatedly.
“Thank you, dear God, that mama and father are not alive to see this day.” Aunt number two blows her nose into a linen handkerchief and the others nod in agreement.
“Yes, thank God.” Mama says and nobody argues. For once, they agree on something.
My gaze wanders and I see her.
My little cousin is standing by her mama’s casket. Her blue eyes, so like my aunt’s, are dry but also empty of all else. Her heart-shaped face is not that of a nine year old. I hug her, smoothing her wildly escaping wisps of blonde hair. It’s big for her, the hair. It swallows her waiflike body, the skinny arms and legs like those of yet another china doll.
I take the little girl’s hand and we walk behind the procession. The casket is closed now. Prayers have been said. Hymns sung, wreaths laid and tears shed. Promises are made. Baked bread, cabbage with beans and poppy seed rolls will be delivered. Taking care of the little one after school. Yes, no problem my aunt’s friends say. Empty rehearsed words are spoken. They exist in every language for such occasions.
What else can they possibly say?
My cousin clutches a blood-red rose in her hand. She places it on the musky smelling earth beneath which her mama sleeps. I close my eyes tightly because the sun is so bright, so bright and it stings my eyes. But that is not why I am crying.
I am crying because the little girl’s nails are painted blue.
Zvezdana Rashkovich is an author born in the Balkans, raised in the Sudan and currently living the expat life in Dubai after many years spent in Oregon. She is fluent in Arabic and Serbo Croat. Her fiction, memoir, articles and poetry can be found in the When Women Waken anthologies, Huffington Post, Inculture Parent, Expat Focus and Inkapture among others.