To my grandparents
I didn’t want to marry him. I refused to look at him or answer any of his questions. Mom pinched, prodded and kicked me under the table. My skin turned purple in several places.
“Look alive, you good for nothing girl.”
I had to marry him.
Mom was always a mess of blood and feathers. The bodies danced after she cut off their heads. I understood the shock that ran through their extremities. It was like watching the water drip out of freshly washed linen. As a woman charged with the responsibilities of a small farm and several plots of land, as well as the burdensome moral duty of raising two daughters, my mother’s feeling bits had understandably atrophied.
I often saw my father in my dreams. I was only three when he died. My memories are bony baby birds: the warmth that emanated from his palms, how he used to hold me on his knee and kiss my cheek. I have lost the intimate details of his face. The sound of his laughter. I couldn’t tell you about any birthmarks or scars.
I often look at my brother trying to understand what kind of man dad was.
“Listen to me, Didina, this boy is from a good family. Marry him and you’ll never go hungry, understood? No lip. You know I can’t keep you forever. I’ve taught you everything there is to know.”
My palms were so tough that I couldn’t push my nails in no matter how hard I tried. I wanted to weep, but mother looked at the tears streaming down my face and slapped me.
“I forbid this mewling!”
So, so much was forbidden. During beatings, I thought of the colorful pictures in my school books. Mother took me out of school and brought me out into the wheat fields, where we worked in silence, side by side. When summertime came round, I would stare longingly at my mother’s dark figure as she kept cutting stalk after stalk with her sharpened scythe.
I had no say. No matter how many thoughts flurried in my head, not one would land onto my lips to sway my mother. She had a plan for me. It could not be put on hold. I was in love with someone else and nobody cared. I prayed and swept and dug and sewed around a void that licked at me, threatening to suck me in the same way it had my father.
The boy she had chosen as my groom was nineteen years old. His name was Jan. He shone the way people who pride themselves on their choices do. True luxury meant being allowed to choose. Jan visited more and more as the weeks went by. He brought something every time: wool, mutton, a few live chickens, milk, cheese. My mother considered all of these offerings extremely lavish. Whatever I consumed Jan would replenish.
Now, my life revolved around the farm and the church. Mother pretended the rest of the world didn’t exist. She watched me very closely. I read the Bible. Then I re-read the Bible. Then I read the thing another twenty times. I didn’t have any other books. I became convinced that thinking for long intervals causes migraines, and so I attempted to silence the voices that were hollering in my brain. Prayer erased me. Empty vessels travel furthest. Empty vessels travel fastest.
I was forced to talk to Jan as though I liked him when I served him food. Every time I cut off a chicken’s head with the cleaver, I thought of his fingers and his sex. He courted me with cottage cheese and leather, honey and goat’s milk. He patiently traded several animal corpses for my very live body. I was very beautiful. I knew, even if we didn’t have a mirror, even if taking a bath implied carrying several buckets from the well, heating them up on the fire and then pouring them into an aluminum tub.
One night, I dreamed that I was following father along the Jijia River. I kept falling behind.
“Wait for me! Stop!”, I called out to his broad shoulders.
When he turned towards me, daddy had Jan’s face. I woke up screaming. My mother slapped me.
“What is the matter with you?”
That morning, I dipped a few stalks of dried basil in holy water and made the sign of the cross over myself. I was not in love, but I was very hungry. It had been 13 years since daddy left for the war. Pellagra had killed a lot of children in our village. I was lucky to be alive and beautiful. I didn’t feel lucky at all.
I wondered why Jan persisted, despite my obvious dislike of him. I wondered where he was getting all that food and how his family had come to be wealthy. There was something unholy about money. It made people carry themselves differently.
Before his visits, I scooped dung in the stables, hoping the smell would put him off. The cows stared me down as they chewed their hay to a secret bodily rhythm. I had never known a more sincere gentleness. Their warmth made me feel safe and hopeful.
Mother had come to trust Jan and left us alone more often. There was something very soothing about staring at my own hands in motion as they set and then cleared the table for him. I refused to look into his eyes. My arms never opened to greet his silhouette. I never smiled at the sight of him. My protest was that of an insect flapping about on the surface of a full water bucket, waiting to die.
“Didina, I’d like us to marry next month. I’ve spoken to the priest. My father will kill four calves.”
My mouth watered, but I said nothing. My hands kept scrubbing the pot they had been working on. Yes, make your offering to me, I am your false god. I happily receive this bounty.
“I know you’re angry with me now, but I promise I will never do wrong by you. You have to learn to love me.”
“So do you.”
I turned towards my fiancé. He was just a boy with the skin of his palms coming undone. Our eyes were the same color, but my gaze was merciless. I hoped he understood that I would not be his safe place. I would not make his house a home.
That night, I wrote to the man I loved:
I can never see you again, or else my heart will break in a million new ways and I will die. I’ll miss you for the rest of my life and the longing will shroud me on my wedding day. It will be my true veil. I will never meet your eyes in passing. I will act as though your body is a most holy statue and avert my undeserving gaze. I pray that one day, if God be just, we will meet again as lovers.
You are always in my head.
I snuck out of the house in the middle of the night with my heart pounding at the mischief of this self-allotted freedom. The roads were dark and all the dogs met my shadow’s long train with wild barking. He did not live very far.
I whistled and waited for his figure to materialize in the night.
“Dina, what are you doing here? It’s not safe for you to be out this late.”
I wished I could scoop his whispers in my palms and hold them next to my heart, as if they were kittens. I wished I could grab him and run away into nothingness, over unknown rivers and borders. I wished I could touch his face and feel the texture of the skin that blanketed his immortal soul.
“I have something for you.”
When I handed over the letter, our fingertips touched. I remembered what our life was like before Jan proposed. The dancing, the fire, the laughter, our hands clasped together. He used to spin me round like I could turn back time.
“Let me walk you home.”
He put the letter in his shoe and stepped on my words so many times, they might have turned into wine. We walked very slowly, but it seemed like it had only been seconds before I recognized the well in front of our house. Daddy had built it.
Words bubbled up behind my lips until they formed a crust. Forbidden words. Sweet, wonderful, sinful words. Words in the name of which mankind renounced paradise. Even after delivering the letter, I kept writing in my mind. I love you and I dream of your nakedness. I’ve often watched you when you bathed in the river and you stir something inside me, something ancient and wild and not of this world. I love you and I wish you could court me. I love you. You are the most beautiful of my sorrows. You are a noble pain. You are my Bible.
We never kissed. We would never kiss. His silhouette dissolved into nothingness. I could not, in fact, turn back time. The wind roared. I spread out my fingers and pretended it was him, holding my hand.
Inside the house, I was met by the unforgiving gaze of Saint George. He stared down at me as if I was a she-dragon, something wicked and dangerous that needed to be put out of its misery. Mother snored. I lit a candle and opened the Bible.
Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’
The man I loved was burrowed in my chest. He had shrunken and built himself a home in the hollows of my heart. The places he touched burned with golden flame and sizzled out into the void. The void, that ate all my hopes and dreams. The void, that ate my will and my freedom. The void, that welcomed prayer and submission.
Mother wore black and waited for daddy to return. Mother had built a grave for daddy, but there was nothing in it. Mother too must have been in love. They had a few good years together. At least she could look back at them. All I had were fragments, little bits that vanished once I tried to grab them.
I put out the candle and went to sleep. I dreamed of four calves rolling slowly on their spikes. Their flesh had been doused in honey. They shone brilliantly with each lick of the fire. I swallowed my own spit expectantly. Who would I have been, had I not grown up hungry?
“You’re marrying rich”, said my friend Flora, whose own wedding had been a couple of months back. “You should take great care to fulfill your wifely duties. Men have needs, and yours works very hard. He’s building you a house, after all.”
“Wifely duties?” I asked with my eyes glued to the ground. I was always a natural at finding clay. I often dug it up to patch the walls of the chicken coop.
Flora laughed at me. She had a wise air about her.
“We’ll have this talk again after the wedding.”
I had often imagined fucking. The fleeting touches during the hora told of something more. Couples snuck off to private places under the cover of darkness, to further their dancing and their love. Not me, though. My mother was always watching. God was always watching. Perhaps that was partly why so many of the local boys flocked around me. I was some sort of final frontier they dared each other to conquer. Their failures furthered the game of seduction. We danced on in corporeal purgatory.
Now, Jan. He was playing the long game. We had danced together before, spinning until our knees weakened, but he had not made much of an impression on me. Many girls fought for his attention. They came to him with stomachs the size of walnuts, eager to jump to his every beck and call.
Our wedding would be the talk of the village. We were an unexpected match. Two people who hardly ever spoke. He would not let me make the food. Instead, Jan hired a dozen women to roll the szarma, cook the calves, and stir the polenta.
“I’d like to give your hands the chance to rest. At least now, for the wedding.”
There was sweetness in this remark. No one had ever told me to rest before. Work punctuated my days. Animals to be fed, earth to be tended to, stalks to be cut. I needed to do something so that I would stop thinking.
At night, a shadow stretched across the little street that led up to my house. A soft whistle often pierced the air. I knew the lips it flew out of all too well. I’d studied them for nights on end. I bit into my pillow. I held my breath. I prayed for him to walk away and find happiness elsewhere. I told myself he was dead and wept as if it was true.
Jan gave me money and I bought a few yards of white satin and lace. I’d often spend hours in front of the sewing machine and my mother didn’t dare reprimand me for it. I acted as though I was making the dress for someone else. I’d sewn for Flora, for Maria, for mother, for my sister Ana. This wedding dress felt like an elaborate burial shroud.
I sometimes tried it on and let my eyes wander towards the empty space behind my right shoulder. I imagined my beloved with his nose glued to my neck, peaking at me, whispering the beautiful words that lock lovers away from the rest of the world. I imagined laying down in an open casket, ready to find my soulmate in the afterlife. A vampire bride. A country bumpkin.
At night, the whistling persisted. It never sounded sad or strained. I hit myself in the thigh to stop my feet from running out the door to meet him. I thought of what I would say to him. I hoped he understood that I was a hostage in this marriage. I hoped he would love somebody new, and then changed my mind and wished he would never stop loving me.
“Mammy tells me you’ve been working on your dress”, says Jan as I cut the freshly baked bread in front of him.
Mammy. She had tried so hard to give dad a son. Ana and I, a pair of burdens. Now that my sister was married and I was following suit, mother probably felt like she could breathe again. Jan was her absolute favorite: the lean, blond shepherd that never came in empty-handed. The perfect solution for her problem child. A provincial prince that smelled bad and worked hard.
“I enjoy sewing. It helps me think.”
“Am I ever in your thoughts?”
“More than I would like.”
He’s visibly flattered by this admission. The quality of my thoughts about him does not concern him. Whether I’m looking forward to our future together or imagining ways to poison the food he eats is of equal value to him. That’s the problem with practical people: they lack imagination.
“Didina, has anyone ever told you how prettily you move? It looks like you’re dancing when you set the table.”
I felt my cheeks light up. I turned away to cover them with my palms. Was I so vain that it flattered me to be seen waltzing among dishes? I’ve often daydreamed of such a scene. It wasn’t proper. It felt uncanny.
“Thank you”, I said without facing him. “How’s the house?”
“You’ll love it. Sturdy and warm. What are your favorite flowers?”
“Tiger lilies. Jasmine tobacco. Chrysanthemums.”
“I think you’ll plant a wonderful garden for us. A small paradise.”
Us. Him and I. Following this man to a home he built, to give him children and flowers, to cook the dead and feed them to the living. This smiling man who sees me as a pet. An architect of a small-scale Eden he’ll visit every now and then when the sheep aren’t out to pasture.
My ears started ringing and that was when I heard it again. The whistling.
Fotografie Copertă © Hu Jundi / 胡峻涤 (n. 1962), Oil on Canvas