Cold Dish; Warm New
“Nikola, Nikola, Nikic.” Nikola heard his Dad’s voice call into the dream: Mom stood in front of the stove in the kitchen. She carefully rolled the palachinka with the fresh blackberry paste she spooned out of a bowl. Her reddish golden hair was tied in the pink “work” ribbon she always wore while doing housework. The usual curler sat horizontally atop her forehead to curl her bangs. She smiled at him: “Mmmmm I have got your favorite here, Byue; special for you.” Nikola reached for the plate.
His father’s rough voice sounded, “Nikic, it’s time to get up and get ready for school. Let’s not be late again today.” Nikola’s eyes flickered open to the empty room. He swung his feet out of the warm bed and touched them on the cold floor. “Slippers,” Mom was always after him; “Don’t go round in the house with bare feet. You’ll catch the sniffles.” He scanned the room for the slippers—no where. Mom always put them on the bookshelf by his bed. Empty bookshelf; he bent over and found them under the bed, slipped them on and padded to the noises in the kitchen. He heard a plate warble to a stop on the kitchen table.
Dad pointed at a warm plate of palachinkas on the table in front of him. “Grandma made these for us. They’re pretty good.” Nikola looked at the plate—flat, no rolled up fruit paste—no honey, like Mom always did. The kitchen smelled of strong coffee, not the wonderful smell of cooking palachinkas, or of Mom’s perfume. “Go on, eat—we don’t want to be late for school. I got another note from the school psychologist. We have to get a routine down and get you to school on time.” Dad shrugged his shoulders, “I don’t know why, but she thinks it would be the best, so let’s you and I try to get that started. Okay?” Nikola nodded. Dad patted him on the shoulder. The touch felt funny to Nikola. Not like Mom’s warm palms on his cheeks and her soft lips on his forehead.
Nikola scrabbled the fork around the palachinkas and listened to Dad running water and shaving in the bathroom. “Come on, son, eat your breakfast and then get dressed,” Dad said, his voice sounding hollow through the hallway. Nikola pulled some papers from the top of the wastebasket pushed the palachinkas into the wastebasket and covered them with the papers.
He returned to his room and searched for clothes in the closet. He found the school uniform where grandma had hung it. He grimaced at his feelings and unhooked the uniform—how spoiled he must have been, for he missed how Mom always had the uniform lying on the bed, ready for him to step into. A shiver ran through him at that thought—he didn’t know why. He heard Dad’s wet feet make smacking steps as Dad left the shower and walked down the hall to Mom and Dad’s bedroom.
Nikola followed this sign and went to the bathroom. He stopped. It seemed as though his feet wouldn’t work. The rows of beauty creams, shampoos, things Nikola couldn’t even figure out what they were sat atop the small sink—and in every spot and cranny in the small room. Mom’s beauty stuff—but why? She was so beautiful! His feet twisted as on a pivot and he raced to the living room and stared hard at her face in the family portrait hanging on the wall. Yes, beautiful; he returned to the bathroom, but, but there, he suddenly couldn’t see her face in his mind. Dad called, “Come on son. We’ve got to move on. I have to get to work and you to school.”
Nikola closed his eyes and stepped in. With eyes closed, he felt his way through the medicine cabinet, touching the small bottle of perfume he’d bought for Mom, he quickly pulled away. He squeezed his eyes tighter to stop the tears. Why oh why had he wasted Mom’s beauty stuff. Just five years old, the curiosity had gotten him and he’d rubbed all kinds of her beauty stuff all over his body. He heard, once again, Mom’s upset voice at seeing him. He ran a finger along the sharp edge of the glass shelf and touched the small bottle of perfume again. He recalled all the work he’d done to save every Kuna he’d gotten for a year and bought Mom this perfume. She was very proud of it and would only wear it on special occasions. He lifted his fingers to his nose and smelled her perfume, paused, then quickly brushed his teeth, combed his hair and went out the bathroom door, opened his eyes to meet Dad in the kitchen.
Dad turned from the counter, handed a lunch bag to him, gave him a serious, haunted look and said, “Now, I want your promise that you’ll eat your lunch. You are getting skinnier and skinnier. The school doctor says you’re not getting enough nutrition. Now I know that I can’t cook like Mom, but we still have to eat. Grandma’s helping and my food is eatable, so I want you to eat. You promise?” Nikola nodded, accepted the heavy lunch bag, shouldered his book bag, slipped out the door and headed down the street. He heard Dad calling, “Goodbye,” from the kitchen window, but didn’t look back.
At the street corner, where Mom always left him before heading off to work at the bank, he gave the lunch bag to a group of pretty Gypsy girls. They giggled at him and took the food before he cut across to a rubble strewn block that had been bombed. The booms and shaking ground still reverberated in him. Mom would hold him tightly, but he could feel her trembling as she spoke soothing words to him. He couldn’t remember what the buildings had looked like. It was like a great giant had stomped on them and his memory. He wondered if the men who had bombed them were blind like the blind man who had stepped on his toy house in the apartment hallway. Mom had said that the blind man couldn’t see, so he should be forgiven.
He began to search in the rubble. First he found a very sharp edged rock that he was sure would cut deeply when it hit its mark. He placed it in the white linen bag that had held Mom’s wedding silverware, before someone had stolen it while they had been down in the air raid shelter. It clunked against the other rocks he’d been collecting. Next he found a very jagged edged—what, he thought might have been a melted piece of steel. It would hurt. Three more small, but very heavy stones clunked into the bag before he reached the sidewalk and made his way to school.
School went by in a blur. The teachers’ voices sounded like the teacher on the Charlie Brown American cartoon Mom had taken him to see: “Waaawaaawaaawawa,” they sounded all day. The English teacher, Mrs. Kronovic, patted him on the head and he focused long enough to actually see her concerned face. She shook him a little by the shoulders. “Nikola, Nikic, listen to me. I want you to write a poem about your mom. Do you understand?” He nodded and felt the stones in the bag in the front pocket of his book bag, poking his finger hard against the sharp, rough edge of one stone. He nodded again. The sound of the teacher’s voice followed him out the door like smoke from a smoldering building.
The school day continued on as a drunken man’s blur, an unfocused camera lens. Nikola saw and felt nothing. The other students, once his friends, seemed to be rag dolls saying stupid stuff. The end of school bell rang and Nikola raced to his locker, dropped in his book bag, but took out the linen bag of rocks. He bumped through the students, reached the street and ran down to the trolley stop. Down the stairs he raced with the stone bag clapping against his knee. Down in the darkened cave of the overpass things seemed to sharpen into focus. What had Mom called it; Plato’s cave, it never had made any sense to him; Mom was very smart.
The trolley took forever before it screeched to a stop in front of him. He dropped the token down the throat of the ever-ready open token mouth and found a seat in the back. As each kilometer went by, excitement rose in his chest. At last. At last. It was his turn. The thoughts seemed to rattle in the growing rhythm with the trolley wheels.
The trolley stopped and he eagerly jumped out into the bright sun light. His legs seemed to not be able to slow down. He ran past a statue of a man sitting on a park bench and remembered something about this figure, “Matoš, a poet,” his mother had said. “He was a thinker–Nikola, I want you to be a thinker—perhaps even a poet. Think son about everything. Think—don’t just react, my boy.” Nikola ran on.
The crowd in front of the main street where they were to come down was deep into the block jutting off of it, so Nikola had to wiggle his way through the people, but nothing was going to stop him now. Finally, it was his turn; finally. He pushed into a crack between a large man holding a rock in each hand and a woman with a bag holding loaves of bread. Nikola waited impatiently. It was his turn. His turn. He listened to the man with the rocks swearing and conversely, he listened to the woman praying. Nikola remembered Mom praying.
A rumble of heavy engine noise washed in front of the parade. The rumble frightened Nikola. It sounded like the tank noises he’d heard before . . . . But they weren’t tanks. They were tractors pulling trailers crowded with standing people. Nikola fingered the rocks in the linen bag. He chose the heaviest one to throw first. The first tractor came to view. The people on the trailers all huddled together with their backs to the crowd and their heads bent forward to protect themselves from the things the crowd threw. Nikola raised his arm to throw, not wanting to miss his only chance.
He paused; the tractor reminded him of Grandpa’s tractor on the farm. The one Mom had finally let him ride last summer. He looked at the people on the trailer before him—the ones, but they were just people. The men didn’t look like the monsters he’d expected. Women huddled around their children, protecting the little ones with their bodies. Nikola fingered the stone—then amazingly, he saw Mom! It was as though stars burst before his eyes. He shook his head; he couldn’t believe it. She stood slightly turned away from the crowd along the street. “Mom! Mom! Mom!” Nikola screamed. “Mom!” his small voice, shrilling in the heavy noise of the crowd.
”It’s me, Nikola! Mom, it’s me!” he screamed, his small, shrill voice seeming to slice through the angry rumble of the crowd around him. The woman turned his way—all the women turned his way—all moms turning to their child. As the woman on the trailer turned she pushed a little boy behind her skirts—a little blond haired boy like Nikola once had been. Nikola’s chest seemed to cave in upon itself. It wasn’t Mom and the little boy wasn’t him, but he knew them—not by name, not by friendship, but by knowing himself and his mom. He dropped the stone and then the soft linen bag of hard rocks. The man with the rocks in his hands raised his right hand to throw. It scraped against Nikola’s left cheek. Nikola shouted, “No!” He grabbed at the man’s arm. The man lifted him with the stone. Nikola dangled like a caught fish pulled directly from the human sea. “No!” he screamed into the man’s ear. “Don’t hurt them. Don’t hurt anymore!” The man turned to look at him, as if noticing him for the first time.
“My baby,” the man said. A tear ran down the side of his cheek. “They killed my baby,” the man repeated, but lowered Nikola to the ground. The trailer was passing and Nikola saw the woman crying and the little boy’s eyes wide with terror.
“Mom,” Nikola said and grabbed a loaf of bread from the woman’s bag beside him. He ran to the trailer and reached the bread up to the woman. Her hunger reached for it, but she paused. The little boy took it from him.
Suddenly, quiet fell on the crowd like a blanket of the understanding at a wake; all die; all suffer; all love; all are human, the hate screaming crowd stopped. Stones, bricks, wood clattered to the concrete in the abrupt silence. The trailers passed by. The only voice heard was Nikola’s soft crying: “Momma, Momma, Momma, I love you. Why Momma? Why Momma? Why?” The lady with the bag of bread came to him and lifted him and held him to her chest. They wept the sorrow of life, together, in the mystery of a new understanding.
A cry, a fear, no worry mother is always near
my tiny baby boy, waving arms in the air
I, for eternity and beyond, your mother dear
I to circle with you the carousel of life’s fare
Your tears of all baby learning stream
mine in the want for you—O the not knowing of what to do
you with trembling cheeks; an unknown dream
my tiny baby boy, I share with you all that I know; my love to you
Take from me the strength of struggles
a spider web art of holding to in swirling gales
the rib cage joy and suffer of giggles
come fly the kite of human love with full happy sail
I live to give to you, my baby boy,
this hazy map hope of life
I to share the great bubbling of your joy
to you I give my baby boy, your life, my love, my life
In a sober mood I began to digest Mirrela’s great story. She had done what I’d been learning and teaching seemingly forever now, the need for Universal Human Value in fiction. ……..
You can read more at: http://www.amazon.com/Will-Eat-Crocodile-Alfred-Krush-ebook/dp/B00BRJKLEI