Zvezdana Rashkovich


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 PostInculture ParentExpat Focus and Inkapture among others.