LITTLE NATA'S BAPTISM
You see, the questions began perhaps if there is a beginning at all with that, with Grandpa John's death. Or perhaps just a surmise. To tell the truth, the questions did not become much clearer long after his death and their only result was perplexity. The perplexity, I remember, swelled particularly one spring, as though with the lush growth of young leaves or from air bursting with some strange strength. More than once I interrupted my play in the sunlight and thought of my pals; "Gosh, they're playing and one day they'll let out their last breath like Grandpa John." Mother noticed that I was often lost in thought distraught and not eating well and took me to the doctor.
"Take off your clothes!" he told me.
I took them off.
"All, all, trousers too! And you, leave the room please!"
Afterwards he called my mother back and said, I remember, one single word, a strange word, big, very important and significant: "Puberty!" and called in the next patient.
Oh yes, he also prescribed some medicines for me: vitamin C? Beviplex and the like. Fortunately however, shortly afterwards we had a games class at school; we were doing the high jump: across the bar and onto the sand. And there was such one Mike the Measure, smart-Aleck, and an excellent pupil too. I cleared 120 cm; I was fleet of feet, quick, elastic: to clear the bar with "scissors" was a joke. But he cleared it too. All the others had already quit. I went over 125 cm and he went over 125 cm. I bit my lip, summoned all my strength and breath and hoopla! the bar trembled but stayed high up at 13o cm. My heart leaped with pride and joy! Mike tried and the bar fell once, fell twice... Mike looked at me askance, swallowed hard and I just smiled at him, like, you know: you're good, you're very good but well, sorry, there's no competing with me! And you know what happened then? Do you know? Mike the Measure ran up and would you believe it?! went across the bar his head first! A somersault across the bar he made 130. And that was not all! Now he looked at me, now he smiled at me and said:
"Hundred thirty five, I'll go first!" and another somersault.
Then I failed to clear it once, twice. I saw red. "Oh no, you won't, you sonuvabitch!" I screamed inaudibly and also went headfirst. We saw nothing and no one any more: we both cleared 14o, both dumping our kidneys in the sand. Then the teacher patted us, sweating and panting, on the shoulder:
"Very good, boys, enough for today!"
This Mike the Measure was a real pest. I could hardly ever get an excellent mark without his saying the next day: "Teacher, please, may I try for an excellent mark?"
And then I reciprocated tit for tat.
So life swept me with it and I forgot all questions and all riddles. Completely! Until today, that is until recently, or more exactly, until one autumn before the last. In the meantime I remembered those "How? Why?..." only once. And on that occasion the questions were less vague and thereby more agonising:
How was the world (and man in it) created?
Why was it created?
And what did it (world and man) mean?
But that was a long time ago, during my first leave as a student. I had come back to the village to see my folk and the snow was falling and screeching under my feet: paying tribute to my excellent grades it seemed to me. People were looking me over in some special way, like: Student! not unpleasant at all, don't you think?!
Our neighbour Bole, an old maid, invited us to lunch on her family saint's day. She was a devout Christian even though she swore at the top of her voice while whipping her horse on a muddy road; cursed its mother and shouted to high heaven. What else was there for her to do?! All she had was that cottage and a small plot of fallow land and was therefore forced to earn her livelihood working as a draywoman. That little horse was everything to her. She brushed it and caressed it and fed it and threw invectives at it when the bad road and inclement weather imperilled her daily bread: to overpower the storm's howls. Those v/ho did not know her, would stop even under the heaviest shower and turn towards that shrill, raucous voice, neither male nor female, and her curses as though towards some new and unexpected natural phenomenon. All they could see was a small body bent under the raincoat and downpour and then suddenly 0 wonders! a swishing, irate whip as if defying the storm dragon, and invectives again to outshoot the thunders. And 0 wonders once again! the cart got going and only the left rear wheel rolled with difficulty and swayed screeching as though having to bear the whole burden of her misfortune. Otherwise, in her own way, she was, as I have said, a devout Christian. And I accepted the invitation to lunch so as not to offend her lonely person's pride, that human lot, helplessness and ignorance, out of pity almost.
We were all at the table and the traditional cake was there, with the candle beside it, and waited for the priest to come and say the prayer as was the custom in the village; Father Laza knew the family saints of every household and visited them even uninvited. In one hand he carried a basket in which he put eggs, bacon, poultry, whatever they had given him, and in the other a bag with his paraphernalia, that is his church's and God's trappings. Well, at long last Father Laza turned up, his face flushed and fat, merry and cheerful. Bole crossed herself, struck a match and lit the candle. We stood up. Father Laza, all smiles, enquired after everyone's health and started to take things out of his bag: first he put the stole over his head, then took out the silver cross, incense, the prayer-book, but not the basil.
"Get me some of yours, will you, I've used up mine serving the Lord, I've none left!"
"I haven't got it, Father!" Bole said.
"What?!" The priest shuffled his feet and looked around as though he'd left the basil somewhere here.
We all stood round the table with bent heads, silent, the candle burned, the cake...The priest began to mumble something under his breath, something like "Easy does it, easy does it" and kept turning around. Then he quickly and somehow briefly, as if on the sly, crossed himself, muttered presumably "Forgive me, Lord!" and pointed through the window at the frozen little garden, half-buried in snow:
"Get me that smeller!"
Bole started: "That weed, Father?!" and looked at him fixedly with her small eyes.
"What weed?! It's a smeller, don't you see? Come on, get it!"
And then something extraordinary happened, something that even if had not come as a surprise or perhaps a comedy shook one's innermost self by its forceful and innocent determination, the force of true faith. Bole gave another start, seemed to shrink, for an instant her small body became even smaller and more pitiful or was it only a misleading instant? because suddenly she thundered, heavily, like a drayman:
"Out, priest, blast your mouth!" Her toothless mouth sprayed spittle in all directions. "Get out, out! Out, you greedy swine, you want to defile my holy cake?!" Then she slammed the door behind him and meekly bent over the table, her wrinkled, black peasant face now pale, troubled and grave. "Forgive me, my Lord!" she whispered barely audibly, crossed herself and kissed the cake. She did all this without a shade of hesitation, question or doubt. As though her conduct had been decided a long time ago, even for situations like this. And a priest, my good people, is still a priest, not only one of the village elders but also God's servant, so to speak, the servant of that same god in whose honour Bole lit her candle. And yet, she never gave it a thought! Not for a single moment! One had to ask in admiration: what is It? No, not only that she was earning her livelihood with her own, peasant's, draywoman's hands, honestly, painstakingly as though out of spite. Nor that she accounted to no one but God whether she would, or would not, have enough bread and saw her hard life as a blessing rather than loneliness. Yes, This was It but also much more than just that. She believed. Therefore, she knew. She was not tormented by any questions. She was at peace, she knew what she had to do. She would know it also when her last hour came. How I envied her for that, envied that toothless, perished, semiliterate and primitive peasant, I student, excellent pupil, educated and young! I admired her too. And perhaps I hated something too, felt humiliated and ridiculous. Because, just think, I had come to that lunch out of pity! What incredible nonsense, what self-deception, what ignorance! Be it as it may, I trembled silently and every bite I took from her modest table felt in my stomach now as burning embers, divine punishment and invitation to penitence, now as a blessing and peace, Lord's flesh and blood.
So, it was the only occasion when I remembered those questions, my helplessness and agony. In vain, once again, because not only did they continue unanswered but all those mixed feelings and impressions of that lunch added just another riddle more is it possible for a man of science, a man, that is, who refuses to put god at the end of a finite series of questions, a man, that is, who refuses to mark the end of his knowledge with god and thus simply substitute his ignorance for him, is it possible for such a man to have God at all?... His definitive view of the world and its purpose, a view harmonious and basically rounded off, with no further questions, qualitatively new questions? Or is he doomed to perpetual questions and restlessness, perpetual re-examinations and agonies? And where then can he find peace and reconciliation?!
But, as I have said, all this was a long time ago.
Completely forgotten almost.
And then, that autumn came. Or rather, two springs ago my daughter was born. My heart leaped with proud joy and nothing more. I took the hospital certificate and my identity card, bought stamps for two dinars and went to the Municipal Hall to have my child-entered in the birth register. You know the works: father's name, mother's name, date and place of birth? The female clerk types, tup, tup, tup. "What will you call her?"
"Natalya", I say, "after her mother's grandmother on the father's side. Nine sons and daughters she had, brought them all up with her own hands. Lost her husband early, she did, no help from anywhere, and yet lived to be ninety. One great-grand-child should bear her name"...
"OK, OK!" smiled the clerk for an instant. "No special columns for that. Sign here! Stamps? You'll have to have it sealed downstairs! Next I"
You see, when I married I did it without music and brassbands. The best man and I put on ties, and the bride, my wife, had her dress cleansed before the wedding. And nothing else: three official photographs by the official photographer and a bunch of flowers from our best man, a nice bunch, that's true white gladioli with a red ribbon. His wife immediately went off on her own errands. It was Thursday, eleven o'clock, and since she'd left the office anyway, she might as well... With the best man we went to a restaurant for lunch: not to cook on the first day, you know how difficult landladies can be. And what else could be done? We had absolutely nothing. Nothing: two beggars and that thing between them. One needed resources to acquire something, one needed effort, renunciation. That is why the registration did not look odd. Simply, we knew what we wanted. And that is not so little our God of Wedding was there even without a prayer and without a cross. After all, we are even proud of it.
But to come back to the baptism, i.e. entering my daughter in the birth register; things were different then. I did not realise it right away. All I felt was a certain unease in a vague sort of way. The first autumn passed by: from an uninterested and dumb, just born undefined creature my daughter turned into a really nice baby, acquired some traits of her own, a look of her own now I could recognise her among thousands. Sometime in winter her cooing which could mean anything: "Wa''r, wa''r, wa''r", or "Ma quick, pee, pee", or "beary, bunny", "kaka kaka", i.e. everything and nothing, acquired the form of the first word. And just think which! Not "Mommy", not "Daddy", but "Granny". I felt a pang. It grew into anxiety. Roughly like this: marriage is one thing people get married and unmarried all the time; this is something else, a new life, one's own blood. Come what may, a child stays after you. Not only after you, but also after your father's father and your mother's mother, the grandmother, all your known and unknown forebears, their known and unknown troubles, desires, sacrifices. Can it, then, be just like that?! A signature, a stamp, next?! But to take the child to the church that would be real nonsense!
Thus the autumn came, the one I started to tell about. It was Friday and on Fridays my wife worked late hours at her school. Our Nata was tossing and crawling in her cot, "Mommy come, granny, grandad, morrow" she cooed, then hugged her teddy bear and fell asleep. And I pushed the curtains impatiently and watched the street as the dusk fell.
"Get the child ready, pack,' we're going!" I told my wife as soon as she entered the house.
"Your village, to Bosnia!"
And imagine] She understood. She asked no more, she said no more. Not even the most natural thing: "But I've got no one there now!" We started to pack, silently, solemnly almost. The baptism had already begun.
The wind met us at the foot of the cemetery, autumnal, cold but bracing with the pale morning sun on the horizon behind the wooded slope, bracing and getting to one's bones, blindly, indifferently, making no distinction between a strongman and a frail woman or a helpless child, and yet, at the same time, stirring in one's heart a kind of warmth, a ray of hope, future. We pulled our scarves tighter, I clasped Nata tighter in my arms and, step by step, we ascended the dirt road towards the summit. And above us, against the crimson sky, the outlines of crosses. One beside the other, a small one side by side with a big one, the straight next to the crooked, densely packed like some unique army of veterans in repose, no one the first and no one the last, no beginning and no end. The windy sun was already high above the horizon when we reached the cemetery paths overgrown with frost-covered grass and weeds. For a long time we roamed through the weeds swaying in the wind until we found Grandma Nata's grave among its equals. A wooden cross, almost colourless, half-rotten, its foot mossy but otherwise surprisingly straight; only the bar was tilted, cracked longitudinally here and there and the carved lettering barely legible: NA..LIJA.... 865... Around it, the tomb was almost flat, densely overgrown with weeds. When we approached it, silent, our heads bent and bare, the wind was still howling, crosses around us all looked alike, grass played under our feet insensitive to our step... in that all-embracing howl and turbulence perfect indifference and peace. Nothing showed that we were there. Although like a balm and salvation rather than an insult odd nevertheless! In the earth we were standing on, were the bones of our great-grandmother, her bones and her blood and yet nothing. The wind did not start howling louder nor did the sun get warmer and the cross did not move. Nothing eternal, mysterious permanence! Only Nata in my arms stirred sleepily and hugging her closer, I felt suddenly her pulse on my chest: the noise and breath of her heart, tiny but for all that faster, livelier, her blood. The new life begins and the man, while bowing to that crooked cross, suddenly feels that there is no end to the mystery, that everything is unfathomable unless it is in one's heart and it is there, once and for all.
You see, on our way there we tried to think what we would say over the grave to make it worthy of Grandma Nata's anguish and struggle to bring up her offspring; endurance and sacrifice without questions and without grumble cannot but arouse profoundest respect.
And now we were there and we said nothing.
And guess what?! That was It, the Right Thing. As though we had said all that there was to be said on such an occasion and much more than that.
(From ESSAY ON GOD,
translated by Miroslava-Mirka Jankoviζ)