Blesok no. 35, March-April, 2004
All Aunt Ljuba's Engagements
“I never seen this kind of pattern,” her father said. “I know every sweater you’ve knitted, but I never seen one like this.”
Although she did not lift her eyes from the red yarn that ran though her needles, Aunt Ljuba knew that her father was lying on his back and that he had placed his right arm under his head so he could more easily examine the boards of the ceiling.
“So you're an expert on patterns now,” Aunt Ljuba taunted him. “I thought you didn't care about them.”
“I know more about patterns than I do about grandmas,” he tried to joke, sitting up in bed. And then he got up. She felt the chill of his shadow passing over her head, though the sun did not enter the room because of the rich greenery of the vines. But this lasted only for a moment, because Grandpa Mone went to the doorway. Like a ghost. His gray head passed right under the flowerpots of blossoming violets, lined up in the recess of the wall directly across her window.
Maria lives right above Aunt Ljuba’s room. The tiny, rosy Maria. So sweet, so delicate. And her husband, Captain Bodo. A while ago, as he came down the stairs, Mr. Bodo was trying to sing the melody he started singing earlier in the morning, the very moment he woke up. In fact, his tiny, rosy Maria claims that Mr. Bodo starts his morning concert even before he opens his eyes. “As if the melodies spend the night on the tip of his tongue. And as soon as he opens his mouth, they fly out like birds,” Maria says, but Aunt Ljuba can't figure out whether she is complaining or wants to emphasize the vitality and joie de vivre of her husband.
Incidentally, Mr. Bodo’s singing is a special type, one that might easily be called unusual. He sort of whistles through his teeth, and the melody barely escapes his protruding but somewhat pursed lips, which quiver when the sound is released. It also seems that Mr. Bodo cannot imagine singing without including at least some element of the features of the more tranquil instruments, such as the flute.
Today, when he entered the porch, Mr. Bodo smiled politely at Aunt Ljuba. “Good morning, Miss Ljuba,” Mr. Bodo said, saluting military style. Whenever he went to the well to wash, Mr. Bodo would descend the stairs bareheaded, in the same manner he saluted.
Aunt Ljuba turned her head toward him, oddly situated on her long neck, and ignored her knitting for a moment, moving her eyes to the other window, from which she could easily follow the way the Captain removed his shirt and placed it on a broken branch. Then he buried the fingers of one hand into his chest hairs, and with his other carefully lowered the rope and its bucket into the well.
Then her father approached the well, carrying a sickle. He probably wants to sharpen it on the sandstone, thought Aunt Ljuba. He’s getting the vineyard ready. He’ll cut down the brush. He’ll scare off the green lizards.
Aunt Ljuba heard the door squeak above her head, and she knew it was Maria. She stopped for several moments at the balcony door, as if indecisive, then walked out onto it in her slippers, and all was quiet again. She must be leaning on the iron railing, thought Aunt Ljuba, and she could clearly see in her mind how the mild rays of the early sun coated Maria’s soft skin. As she stands in that manner, not yet fully awake and smiling, her eyes must wander curiously along the street that runs from the fountain to the Stone Bridge. Beyond the river are the barracks and the exercise fields, and further on the barren and gray hills that melt away in the haze. Along 23rd Infantry Regiment Street, or more precisely, along the cobblestone street that runs between the two rows of brightly painted houses, the shoes of the glossy horses are already clattering. Aunt Ljuba stops knitting again. She listens to the din that barely reached her room a while ago, which now suddenly fills the space around her. She immediately imagines the large, trimmed tails swaying, a lot like paint brushes, and she runs to the window that faces the street and looks for a long time at the playful, muscular beasts.
Captain Bodo quickly buttoned his uniform shirt, then returned to the porch across from Aunt Ljuba’s window, where he patiently waited for Maria to bring his hat.
Every morning, when the scampering horses reached 23rd Infantry Regiment Street, Aunt Ljuba’s heart filled with sadness. Who knows why, but it was exactly then that she remembered all the fiancés that left her for the barracks, riding away from her life.
Dear God! How time flies. She’d knit two parts. Then she’d knit two more. Then she’d knit the sleeves, sew them, and – see, it’s already dark, then it's dawn. Sometimes it seemed to her that centuries flew by.
Aunt Ljuba's first fiancé was Sergeant Rade. Then there was the post office clerk Vlada Savich. Vlada Savich asked for the house as a dowry for marrying Aunt Ljuba. Of course, in addition to the house he asked for some cash.
And Sergeant Rade was even less modest. What did he ask for?
He wanted a lot, but he got nothing. That was why Rade broke the engagement with Aunt Ljuba, deserted her, and overnight became engaged to little Zinka, the girl from the officers' canteen. Aunt Ljuba said, “Good for him! He took one who serves breakfast to just about half the mess hall.”
Aunt Ljuba remembered the morning Rade announced he was leaving. “He came down the stairs so confused that I understood immediately.” She later related the event in an attempt to find comedy in the thing that actually caused the most pain. “God, he looked like such a nitwit as he balanced on the toes of his left foot. He leaned back and forth, twisting on that foot of his. It was like he was putting out a cigarette with the toes of his polished shoe. That's the way it seemed, and he was afraid to look me in the eyes.”
“Are you leaving because of the dowry or because of me?” Aunt Ljuba asked.
“We discussed it yesterday,” Rade managed to answer, letting her know that the discussion was over unless she had a new proposal, but that he really expected them just to say good-bye.
“And no doubt he expected me to give in to his blackmail. Well, don’t go on hoping for that, I thought, and I waited for him to look at me. But he didn't look at me, and he didn't ask me anything either. He was so confused.”
Aunt Ljuba stood in the doorway all that time. She was used to having Sergeant Rade kiss her on the cheek before he left for his regular morning exercises. She’d lift her face, and he’d kiss her. That morning she stood at the door without doing anything. But deep inside she wished that Sergeant Rade would still kiss her, though he was leaving for good. Maybe she’d be able to handle this first separation more easily that way.
When Vlada Savich the post office clerk jilted her, he left only his business card. Aunt Ljuba’s father, Grandpa Mone, at first wanted to collect rent from him, by court order if necessary (Vlada Savich, like Sergeant Rade, had been their tenant); and he wanted to do so only because Vlada Savich had left in the middle of the month, without giving notice, and he hadn't paid for the month in advance. But Aunt Ljuba did not permit any court action. She told her father that fondness couldn’t be bought. But she also said that she had no intention of charging for her illusions. Lord, she said this to everybody so reasonably that her father didn’t try to contradict her.
Right after Vlada Savich left, Aunt Ljuba asked Grandpa Mone to buy her a knitting machine. She candidly declared that only getting into serious business would save us from the troubles that life wanted to dish out, and that he, as a father, had to help her realize her intentions.
To be sure, after they bought the machine things became easier. She made money. She became independent. Also, now people entered her life in a different manner. She accepted them without being intimidated, and she judged them on the same terms they judged her.
For example, Lieutenant Haralampie. Lieutenant Haralampie was kicked out of Aunt Ljuba’s house and heart when she showed him the gate after hearing he regularly visited the Kurbevi's brothel, located at the curve of the City Clock Tower. Lieutenant Haralampie later referred to his honor as an officer and the fact that he had visited the aforementioned bar only once.
“It’s not a bar, it’s a whorehouse!” Aunt Ljuba insisted.
“It’s a bar, sweetheart. On my word as an officer!” Lieutenant Haralampie claimed unconvincingly, knowing that he couldn’t overturn Aunt Ljuba's judgment.
Of all her separations, she really remembered only one. It was when Yug left. Yug played in the “23rd Infantry Regiment Orchestra.” He played the flute. He had very beautiful hands, with long, pampered fingers. And whiskers like the wings of a swallow. He spoke in a whisper. Aunt Ljuba truly died when Yug whispered to her.
Yug left on a Monday, along with the “23rd Infantry Orchestra.” He left without asking her to go with him. Actually, he wrote her beautiful letters in his ornate handwriting. He hinted at some imminent changes that would surely place him in a position to more freely plan his future and that of Aunt Ljuba, he apologized for his being unsettled, and often his letters were full of heavy self-recriminations that Aunt Ljuba could never really understand.
But once, perhaps in a moment of resolve, or perhaps in a moment of despair, Aunt Ljuba answered that his letters lacked compassion, that they unnecessarily complicated their relationship, and that the self-torture led nowhere. Then she wrote that people require clear and precise language, even in matters of love, that love does not obligate one to self-examination and self-accusation, and that she considered her insistence on this kind of relationship a small sacrifice to ask of him.
Then Aunt Ljuba waited for an answer. She remembered well that she wrote the letter on Friday, the seventh of September, and that Yug must have read it on Sunday. So, according to her calculation, the answer, if Yug answered at all, would arrive on Tuesday or Wednesday, certainly no later than Thursday. When Friday, the fourteenth of September, passed with no answer, Aunt Ljuba went out onto the street three times (she never did this before). Once she even asked the postman what the chances were that a letter could be lost. “None!” Cane Tref mercilessly declared, burying all her hopes.
So she stopped going out. She even stopped grieving for Yug. She sat and knitted her woolen sweaters, oblivious to how fast the weeks, even years, passed. She finally discovered, quite by accident, and almost surprised herself at this discovery, that the days of being overwhelmed by thoughts of some young man, met by chance on the street or on the promenade, were long gone. She discovered that she was much more interested in memories than in life, and she knew immediately that this was something to be concerned about.
This awareness, which helped her evaluate her situation more realistically, was perhaps one reason why Aunt Ljuba gave in to her father's insistence that she look for her life's companion among the people of our street. As a matter of fact, she was not very sure how this thought took over. One thing was certain: her father, from the very beginning, cunningly and steadfastly managed to involve himself in her dilemmas and in her fate. He incessantly complained about his own loneliness, and he never forgot her bad luck, which was for him a new drop of bile in his bitter cup.
And it all began very obscurely. It started on Sundays, after the liturgy, seeing how his peers would visit four or five houses before they went home from church. They would visit their daughters or sons, bringing buns and lollipops for their grandchildren. “And I, what is my fate?” he would moan. “Anastasija, your sister, went to Strumica. Your brother remained in Skopje. Galaba married somebody in Novo Selo. And where will I go if you too go off somewhere? Your mother and I will have to move immediately. Under the crosses of St. Petka.”
Even before he was specific about his intentions for her, her father invited Koljo Nikodinovski to the house. He had asked him to take a look at the knitting machine and, if possible, to give his opinion concerning a loose screw on its handle.
Koljo Nikodinovski had recently returned from Skopje. He had attended some kind of mechanics' course, and now, before his exams, he had returned home, proud and spruced up, smooth even under his skin, and very talkative. Of course, he apologized for not bringing his tools. (Oh, he would have had his tools, but in this instance he had no idea how much he was supposed to help. Still, he advised Grandpa Mone to talk directly to the representative of the company. He thought he could easily get him the address. “Companies care about their reputations!” Koljo Nikodinovski said all of this with great authority and expertise.)
“Did you see him? A spruced-up screwdriver,” Aunt Ljuba coldly judged him when he left, but a bitter tone of envy was evident in her words.
“He's just like you: stubborn, irreconcilable. He immediately starts sniffing around what he should just grab,” her father countered, justifying his choice, but at the same time admiring the incisive way she quickly judged people.
“I feel wretched,” Aunt Ljuba bristled. “Don’t make me cry, please. Everything should be done in proportion. And you need a little tact to do what you have in mind!”
“Yesterday he was nobody, but tomorrow…”
“It’s too soon to talk about tomorrow, and, sorry to say, he still reeks of what he was yesterday,” Aunt Ljuba interrupted again, thinking of the pans of burek Koljo used to deliver to the barracks every day. “He’s just a little spruced-up monkey. And I don’t think he'll ever amount to more than he's always been.”
“Whatever I've got becomes twice as much with him,” her father insisted.
“Keep your calculations for the market. They give me heartburn. An awl. That’s what he is. An awl for mending shoes.”
My God, Aunt Ljuba said this just three weeks before they were engaged. In fact, at the moment of her betrothal to Koljo, she still felt that her sarcastic words echoed in the room, and that not enough hours or days had passed for what had been said to die out or at least turn into a mere memory, something else that we can, if we want, push away from ourselves in disdain.
Aunt Ljuba's engagement went unnoticed. It was not really an event at all, nothing to be commemorated as a particularly important occurrence. It was just a contract that was supposed to form the basis for the marital happiness of Aunt Ljuba and Koljo Nikodinovski.
Koljo Nikodinovski came directly from Skopje for the engagement, on the 3:15 train. He said he was coming right from the train. But that he just stopped off at home to see the Old Man. (I couldn’t bring him here with me. I think you understand me, he’s utterly frail. I think the most awful thing is when life starts to squeeze you from the feet up. Paralysis can throw you into terrible feebleness. I told him: Fight, Old Bone! Don’t give up! With your toes, with your toenails if necessary, fight. And he goes silent. Sighs).
After he sat down, Koljo took a blue envelope from his inner pocket and carefully placed it on the table. Drumming on it with his finger, smiling, with inexplicable assurance in his voice, he suddenly declared that he would no longer drag greasy burek pans through outlying streets and around the barracks with their barbed wire fences. He was a driver already. He needed only to buy a car. And he had some brochures with him. But he had left them home.
Aunt Ljuba stopped knitting, turned to him, and looked at him intently. Her neck became even thinner and longer. Aunt Ljuba's gaze froze on Koljo's eyes.
“And how do you intend to do that?” Aunt Ljuba asked.
“I didn’t study in order to go on making burek,” Koljo said, absorbing her gaze. Then he pointed to the blue envelope. “I didn’t work in vain for this piece of paper.”
“So you suddenly want to mingle with real people, huh?” Aunt Ljuba smiled. “You hear that, Mone?” She always addressed her father by name. “Koljo wants to give up his burek pans. And how are you thinking of doing this?” Aunt Ljuba continued her rigorous interrogation.
“I thought we’d talk about that together,” Koljo said.
“See, he wants to talk.” She turned to her father and started getting up from the knitting machine. Except that Koljo Nikodinovski didn’t realize how long it would take for her to get out from the layers of the sweater that fell on her knees.
“Say no more,” she said and went to the cupboard. The glasses and bottles clattered as she arranged them on the nickel-plated tray. “It’s all clear. How much do you need to buy this car?” she asked without turning toward him.
“Just a little,” Koljo blurted out. “And it’ll be paid back in a year. I figured it out. In just one year the investment will pay off.” His determination again put a gleam in his eyes.
“Couldn’t you start with a carriage? Every career starts from the bottom,” her father said, joining the discussion. He was either really afraid that Aunt Ljuba would agree to Koljo’s request, or he just wanted to delay his daughter's hasty decision.
“And who’s crazy enough to wrack his brains in school in order to ride a carriage afterwards? And what business can be done with a carriage? Our merchants don't ride on wooden wheels anymore. What kind of business would somebody have driving a carriage? I thought all this out while I was studying. It’s out of the question.”
My God, how logical this damn fool was! So exact that nobody had the power to oppose him. Even Aunt Ljuba said nothing as she served him.
They toasted. The brandy was very strong. It burned through their veins.
And the next day workmen came. They started knocking down the wall and building a huge gate. Nobody knew what for. Until one morning Koljo came down the hill in a black Ford, a square box so shiny that the whole street seemed to be reflected in it.
At dusk, Aunt Ljuba appeared under the vines in a long violet dress, tight to her waist with rich pleats above her shiny shoes. She climbed onto the front seat and adjusted her hat, Koljo slammed the door, started the engine, and with a clamor they drove onto the street, then down to the river and the gardens. By evening the engagement of Aunt Ljuba and Koljo Nikodinovski was no longer a secret for any of the inhabitants of 23rd Infantry Regiment Street.
Lost in her memories, Aunt Ljuba did not even notice Maria coming down from the floor above. But suddenly she saw the private holding the horse by its reins as Captain Bodo climbed into the saddle. Then the captain adjusted the cap he took from Maria's tiny pink hands, took the reins, and sat quite securely on the restless back of the white horse. With his right hand he patted its long white neck. The horse stopped gamboling and started rhythmically dancing on the cobblestones; and the captain held his head high. He did not even look at Maria; he was completely immersed in this play of strength and manhood, all converted into a desire and attempt to tame this friskiness, to subdue it. With merely half an ear he heard the clomping of the private’s horse, which followed his as they went down to the barracks.
Maria went back under the trellis. She wanted to pluck the grapes that had lavishly spread along the vines this year, but she changed her mind and sat at the low tripod squeezing her fists between her knees, white from being bent. For several minutes she listened intently to the rhythm of the knitting machine, and she could imagine the metal teeth leading the thread from one loop to another and how one half of the sweater was growing. For a moment she felt Sofia's muzzle on her forearm, and then she saw the animal's tongue licking the white spot under her neck. Maria let the cat stretch out on her lap, and she ran her fingers down its soft fur.
“Hey!” Aunt Ljuba’s father called from the porch. Aunt Ljuba just had to lift her eyes to see him. Actually, she’d forgotten about him. Or she was too absorbed with Maria. Maria on the balcony. Maria on the stairs. Maria pressed against the white horse. She was fairly sure that she must be a good lover. She noticed that whenever she would see Mr. Bodo off, she touched her rosy hand to the bulging veins of the white horse, below the saddle, on its flanks. And the white horse, feeling this caress, merely twitched its ears as though they were a pair of scissors. Aunt Ljuba couldn’t really explain how her father had suddenly appeared in the doorway with the same sickle he had sharpened a while ago. As if he had an axe in his hand. And the sickle was indeed an axe, as he used it to separate roosters from their crested heads with a single blow. “Hey!” her father called again. “I thought we'd pick some grapes.”
“Put down that sickle,” Aunt Ljuba yelled. “At least put it down while you're prancing around the house.”
“Why should I put it down? And what makes you think you should be giving me orders?” he burst in at once. “You think I should kowtow to those I've raised, those I've stood on their feet?”
Aunt Ljuba got out from under the machine and came to the doorway. She was wearing her long blue dress with its fish-like design, fish in some vague, light-gray shade, sort of dark silver.
“So why are you telling me that you're going for grapes?” Aunt Ljuba asked quite calmly.
“I said, we can go together, if it’s possible.”
“Tomorrow's Friday. A bunch of peasants are coming for their sweaters.”
“Oh yeah,” her father said, suddenly agreeable and restrained. “I completely forgot that tomorrow's a market day.”
“Lots of people go to vineyards alone. When did you start being different from others?” Aunt Ljuba said.
Maria placed the cat on the ground as if she were putting down a full jug that she didn't want to spill, and then she got up, swaying on her hips. When she came to the overhang of the summer kitchen, she reached for some dried fruit from the counter, picking through them a long time before taking a bite. They should really be soaked first; that way the taste of apricots comes alive on the palate. Maria remembered when she climbed up the branches of the apricot tree they were harvesting at the vineyard in Sujtlak.
“You’ll get all scratched up,” Aunt Ljuba called, sitting at the boundary marker.
Maria laughed as she tried to get to the ripe fruits. But she didn't try too hard. In all that striving and climbing the branches, the desire to play and frolic was greater than the need to pick fruit.
Watching her eating the dried fruit, Aunt Ljuba also remembered the picking of apricots. In her demeanor was a lot of feigned naivete. She remembered her conclusion then. And now, unfortunately, she knew she wasn’t wrong in her judgment. She was too sweet not to be desirable, Aunt Ljuba thought at the very moment Maria appeared in the doorway.
“Take me too, I haven’t been to the vineyard for quite a while,” she said to Grandpa Mone. Grandpa Mone stared at her for a long time, who knows why, and promised her nothing when he left for higher ground.
Translated by: Elizabeta Bakovska