Natali Petricic is a finalist for The Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.
We were the only family in the village to spend a few dinars on a photo. This was right after the second World War. Dalmatia was freed of Italian rule, and we were all poor, but I had a feeling I’d need that picture one day. I sat on a boulder, holding little Tomislav, bundled in woolen blankets, not more than a year old. Branko stood beside me, his hand on my shoulder. He was eight. A pile of wilted dark leaves were strewn around the large rock. Even though it was cold, I made Branko wear his good shorts with suspenders. His long pants were worn thin and patched at the knees. We all stared ahead, even Tomislav. It was as if he understood something important was happening and this wasn’t a moment for fussing.
Aloysius is missing. The thought flickers through my mind each time I look at the photo. I never mention the baby I lost. Why burden others? But I think about him every time I hold the black and white, willing him to appear.
My sister-in-law criticized me about the photo, cackling in the fields with others. “She spent money on a photo, while he slaves away on the boats. My brother’s wife, from the other island…” She began all of her laments about me like that. As if in the polje voices don’t echo. As if I were deaf. As if sooner or later, one by one, the villagers wouldn’t absorb me as one of their own in spite of themselves, as people do in these parts. They called themselves Catholics—church-goers, all of them. In my village, they warn of the self-proclaimers. If you do something, just do it. Don’t announce all over the hamlet that you never miss church. Don’t announce the amount you place on the plate passed around.
The day laborer leaves, and I’m resting only a minute when I hear her voice again. “Biljana, time for your bath.”
Who is this stupid woman again? Her face is familiar but I can’t place her. Forget her name. I turn my head towards the window. My geraniums peek up at the bottom edge of the glass. Red blossoms. Green leaves. They’re growing well this year. The same day laborer from today had come by weeks ago. He was a bit older and balding, but I agreed to his services. I usually do the planting myself, but I haven’t been myself as of late. With Ivan still at sea and the boys working abroad there is only me to tend to everything.
She sits on the edge of my bed, but then nudges at my side as if I’m a heavy sack of flour.
“Stop it,” I say.
“Come now. I’ll change your sheets. You can walk a bit, then I’ll give you a bath.” Her annoying nudge becomes a shove. She grits her teeth. “Get up.”
I scoot over to the other side, and hoist my legs over the bed’s edge. “I suppose you go to church every Sunday, do you? Contribute each time?”
She nods. I thought so. No wonder she’s self-righteous. My feet dangle over the side. She shakes her head, bright pink lips pursed. I laugh, noticing my dry mouth, sour breath. “They always said I was from the other island. But once I became a Mama…”
She continues to shake that blond head of hers. “OK, Mama from the other island. Let’s get to work.”
She’s not listening. She doesn’t deserve to hear about my first baby. I won’t bother.
I came from Dugi Otok. Long Island, called so because it’s a skinny island 45 kilometers long with 12 villages dotted throughout. People on Dugi Otok are more accepting of others. Maybe it’s because so many hamlets exist on my home island, or maybe because there’s a natural mingling of folks and marriages between the communities. Whatever the reason, people don’t have the same mentality towards outsiders as they did on the island I married onto. No one on Dugi Otok said, “Salata je najbolja od svoj vrtal.” The salad is best from your own garden. It took a couple of decades before they recognized me as one of their own. Even then, I’d occasionally hear someone refer to me as ona od drugi otok. She from the other island. To hell with them.
It’s the anniversary of my baby’s death. Aloysius. Only six months old, born during the war. I do not tell the woman. Her name is Jagoda and she’s nice enough, but I do not mention it all day.
I have rules about the death of my first baby: No one is allowed to speak his name. No one is to mention him. I want to kill the memory, although each year I silently mourn him on that day. I still blame Ivan with every beat of my heart. Stubborn Ivan, who never listens to what I say when it matters most. Stubborn Ivan, who does not believe in feelings. I never should have left the baby’s side, even to take a nap while sick. We both had whooping cough. I should have taken him with me, like I had wanted to. I never should have allowed him to be under Ivan’s care. My baby died in my husband’s bumbling hands while I slept.
The day laborer comes into the house, but I don’t talk to him. He carries a plant and talks, probably wants me to pay for it. I ignore him and he grows quiet. The man goes to the window, and waters the geraniums. He has a big head, like my boy, Branko.
Branko worried about me whenever this day came around. Even though I didn’t tell him it was the anniversary of the baby’s death, year after year, he always sensed something wasn’t right. Noticed the shift in me. Branko wondered aloud what was wrong, wanting to hug me and be by my side.
“Leave me be, boy,” I had said. Branko gazed up at me with that sad dog face of his. I swear, that boy always looked to me as if I was his sun, his life. Part of me liked it, but the other part, the core of my soul, didn’t indulge him. A boy needs to be strong to survive in this world. Otherwise the winter wind can carry him away. Like Aloysius.
Branko was born a couple of years after the first baby died, and I was afraid for a long time. He looked unwell as an infant. His bald head had the appearance of a shriveled up head of lettuce left on the porch. He was long and lean. Too skinny. He had these bulging eyes and a double chin. Wherever I went, that big head, those big eyes seemed to follow me. I wanted him to look like Aloysius, but he didn’t. For the first year I waited for Branko to die, and when he didn’t I still could not relax. When Tomislav came along four years later, I was relieved. Tomislav resembled the old baby a little. He was short and squat like my clan. He looked sturdy. I knew not to make the same mistake: I would not let Ivan hold the boys.
I forbade mention of the first baby’s name. All complied, not wanting to bring about the craziness I went through when we buried his tiny body in the mass grave behind the church. Even though he was baptized, they wouldn’t allow me to put him in the regular graveyard.
“Be reasonable,” Ivan said. “If the rule is broken for us, then everyone would demand the same.”
“So? Who cares?” The people in his village are petty—someone would care, someone would create a feud over the matter.
Ivan sighed, shaking his head in that terse way of his. I know the math of the situation. In some families more die than survive. There’s limited space in the graves. So? And I know at the root of this is their ignorant belief: niti ne zna da je ziv. He doesn’t even know that he’s alive. As if the passing of a baby doesn’t count as a real death. But I knew his smile and his cry. I knew by the way his eyes tracked me around a room that he was thinking and alert. He knew who his Mama was, he knew he was alive. He watched without judgment, unlike all those around me. To Aloysius I wasn’t some woman from the other island.
All of my people came from Dugi Otok the day we put the baby to rest. I insisted on praying for him for three days after he took his last breath. Even though he was an infant, I still stayed with his body the entire time. I wrapped him in his soft white blanket still smelling of my milk. I didn’t get my way with his resting site. My Aloysius was placed on the bottom of a plank of wood in a mass grave containing many other infants, as if they were one person. Dirt was sprinkled on top of him. The concrete lid was placed over him after we left. And when another baby died in the village, it would open once again, as would the wound in my heart.
I’m confused. Days pass that I cannot account for. This is what I know: I have a strange new neighbor. She’s not one for words, but who am I to judge? The geraniums outside my kitchen window grow well. A blonde woman named Jagoda cares for me. She always smells like coffee. At least she doesn’t smoke.
Sometimes two men lurk outside my door. Once you hire one day laborer, they start to congregate like feral cats looking for scraps. I pretend to speak to Ivan so they think a man is on the premises. On hot days there is the faint smell of piss in the air. I am embarrassed to admit. Never mind. Ivan has been gone for a long time. I don’t hear word from him. The boys do not write. That is unlike them. Where is Tomislav? Branko? What are they doing this very moment that is more important than their Mama? I wonder if I am the only survivor.
The night after we buried Aloysius, I crept out of the house once I heard the others snoring. We never locked the doors. I was quiet and didn’t need to jangle any keys or bolt any locks. I ran through the village with wool slippers on my feet. At nineteen I was fast. Cold air filling my lungs, cutting through my insides like a knife. Wind whipping through my hair that January night. I sprinted past my sister-in-law’s house around the bend. At the crossroads I bolted past the mulberry tree in the fork. It was clear, a full moon in the sky. Cold, cold air enveloped me. I didn’t care if I froze to death. I couldn’t feel my body. As I ran I gazed up at the heavens and they were my blanket. All of those stars and celestial bodies compressed, shards of glass and diamonds gleaming from above. I imagined my Aloysius’s soul was amongst them. Star dust, a speck in the sky watching over all of us.
Jagoda appears at the foot of my bed, startling me. She says something, but I can’t hear her words. The scent of coffee surrounds her.
“Where is that laborer when I need him? There’s work to be done.”
She tilts her head to one side. “You mean your sons? The one visiting from America or the one who lives in town?” She is so stupid.
“No, my sons are young. The worker is bald and old. You don’t know.”
Her eyes drop down, she sighs, and that’s when I know I must have lost myself again. I close my eyes.
Past the tree I ran, past the cemetery on my right, then the lokva to my left, moonlight shimmering off the water’s surface. I slowed once I reached the doors of the white-washed church. I bent over, hands on legs, head down, panting. I allowed myself to rest for only a moment before summoning the strength to stand. A noise from inside the church echoed, like a bucket falling over, metal to concrete. I froze. Listened. But there was nothing more. I skirted around the structure to the back.
They had left the lid ajar. At a point in the funeral I began to shriek and pull my hair, roll on the ground, and I don’t know what else. I wasn’t inside of myself. The disturbance must have distracted the men from securing the top. It wasn’t difficult to slide it over. The only obstacle between my child and me. The odor slapped me as I reached down. All of the oils and herbs we had rubbed on were overtaken by the rot of death. There he was: swaddled in a white wool blanket, shining like a star against the dark night. I picked up the bundle.
“Would you like a kek? Biscuit?” The words interrupt me. My neighbor offers me a box of goodies.
“Ne, hvala.” I mind my manners, wait for the second offering, and then I nod. I never decline a treat. Who knows when the next one will come? Hvala Bogu. Thank God.
I’m at my neighbor’s house. I look about her kitchen, but then I spot my lace curtains. The red geraniums. No. I am home. She must have stopped by while I was deep in thought. Why would she bring over goodies? She doesn’t need to; I have enough now. Plus, I am a generous hostess. Everyone knows. I sigh, then take a bite of the biscuit, savoring the vanilla while my neighbor jabbers on about something. It’s all so confusing at times.
I stayed like that for some time, cradling the small bundle, pressing his cold body into my bosom, the blanket scratchy against my skin. Then the idea descended upon me and I knew what needed to be done. Carrying Aloysius, I walked to the graveyard. I pressed the black iron gate open. The hinges creaked. The naked branches of the mulberry trees swayed in the wind. I looked at the heavens. The full moon shone down on me. I knew God would not hold it against me. In the corner of the cemetery I found shovels stored in a wooden shed.
I heard my name. At first I thought it may have been God speaking. But when I turned, it was the new priest, the one who said the service in Latin earlier. Father Pero. He was no longer in the robes he wore earlier that day, but black pants and sweater. In his hands he held a rosary, so he must have been the one in the church. He was slightly taller than I was, with a wide frame, broad shoulders.
“I suppose you want to stop me,” I said, glaring at him like a wolf about to pounce, shovel in one hand, baby in the other.
Father Pero was speechless, looking from me to the tool in my hand, to the infant. I could see the understanding coming across as his eyebrows softened, his face tilting to the side, his eyes dropping to the ground.
“You don’t know. You’ve never had a child. You’re just a celibate priest who can’t even love, so excuse me. I need to make this right for my son. Go alert the others, see if I care.”
He nodded and started to walk away. I placed Aloysius next to his paternal grandmother’s grave. She would take care of him until we could be reunited.
I mustered up my strength, then thrust the shovel’s blade into the hard ground. Only a small amount of dirt came up, but I was not new to digging the land. Continuous effort, malo po malo. Little by little, even the hardest earth gives. In front of my eyes, another blade cut into the ground. I looked up. Across from me Father Pero held a shovel. I assessed my helper: the priest had a back like a brick wall, wide shoulders. By the way he grasped the tool and garnered much soil in only a couple of motions, I could tell he would be of much assistance.
I don’t know how long we dug for, how long it took. Not a word passed between us. Moonlight lit the graveyard, and we finished before sunlight threatened. We placed the baby inside. I kissed his small forehead.
Father whispered a prayer, and then we replaced the soil. We worked quickly and silently, nothing but the wind and the occasional coyote howling in the distance. Before we left, I gathered dead leaves and growth, and spread them across the grave.
I take out the photo I keep in my nightstand. I peer at our images, wishing Aloysius was with us. We were so young, they were so little. Tomislav. Branko. Me, their Mama. The photo reminds me. We are well, we are still here on this Earth. Together.
Sometimes I forget all about the picture. I lose days and when the fog finally lifts, I look different. Pink patches around my blood shot eyes. Hoarse voice. It was as if I were crying, but that is impossible. Since the first baby died, I don’t cry.
Natali Petricic is a first-generation Croatian-American whose parents emigrated from the Dalmatia region of Croatia. Her short stories have appeared in CALYX, Santa Monica Review, The Fem, Rosebud and Joyland. Her novella, Leaf Boats, is included in the Running Wild Novella Anthology, Volume 3. She is a former PEN USA Emerging Voices Fellow and PEN USA Mark program participant. Natali is currently working on a novel.