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.