A violet evening was enveloping the town, its gray haze concealing the silhouette of the hills in the distance. Nineteen seventy one had brought this small city on the banks of the Danube a summer full of long and exhaustingly hot days. Once the capital and largest city of this region, a city which had been the unconquerable boundary marker between the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, it was now only the second largest in this part of the Pannonian Plain, which stretched across Hungary all the way to the Austrian Alps.
The plain was bisected by the Danube, firmly linking central Europe with the people of this region and bringing, on its gray waves, a breath of European influence. Novi Sad—Neoplanta—was the name given to the city which had formed long ago around the medieval fortress built above the banks of the Danube. It was the second largest in Europe. There was only one other similar fortress, in Verdun, France, which made the people of Novi Sad especially proud of theirs.
The walls of the fortress had been blown upon not only by the winds of history, but those of war, of culture and of ideology. The eddies resulting from the collision of East and West created fertile ground for all kinds of alternative blends, a mixture of everything one could imagine. The clash of different, centuries-old influences, conflicting with the new era, also laid the ground for rebellion and long-overdue change.
The sky to the east was darkening, and two or three fallen leaves circled in front of the half-open door of the house. The air was warm and sweet. Who would have believed it was October? A breeze began to sigh and the birds were flying very low. The century-old bricks of the pavement finally got the dust blown off them after a long dry summer.
The dream began with a storm and the huge volume of rain which watered the streets that day. The wind smashed the main glass of the window on the street side of the house on Kralja Aleksandra Street, then continued to batter the empty casement against its frame. The mixture of warm and cold wind could be felt on the skin, while the air boded both a release of tension and the approaching apocalypse. It had always been like that, here in the Balkans where the Mediterranean and northern Alpine climates met and clashed. The change in the weather at this time of year always brought storms.
Mum and Dad, who had at that moment been preparing to spend another summer evening together, were suddenly forced by the gusts of wind to go outside to fix the window. With each passing minute, the wind grew stronger. Dad attempted to hammer in a nail to prevent the casement from flapping, while Mum held a raincoat over his back to try to keep him a little bit dry. When they finished the job, they went back into the house. They were soaked to the skin and pressed themselves up to the fire.
There was an aroma of toast in the air and they were laughing, as if everything in that moment said, “this is it, this is life to the full.” Before them was hope for a successful and happy life, as only fairy tales could have promised. They had finally found one another, and life was good.
The storm passed quickly. The next thing I remember was waking the following day in a soft, warm bed. The air carried a fresh scent of earth and of washed pavements. My still-new heeled slippers were waiting for me by the bed, the ones I’d gotten a few months ago for my birthday. Happy that they were finally mine, I stretched in satisfaction. I thought of my grandfather and his part in this unrestrained pursuit of mine for slippers exactly like these. They said of him that a week before the onset of his final illness he’d bought a fashionable hat, spending his entire savings on it! I was like him, everyone said, and had inherited my love for fashion from him. They were more correct than they imagined. My love for fashion was not simply a phase I was going through. It was part of my genetic makeup.
I was roused from my thoughts by Mum, who was standing in the room with my clothes in her hands. “Come now, let’s get dressed.” She was clearly in a hurry because she was also trying to get herself ready to go out too. She caressed my hair a few times, took me in her arms and began to dress me. When she finished, she went to her make-up mirror and took out her comb.
“Svetlana, what do you think? Should I wear the pink dress?” Mum held her hair up in a fashionable pose.
“That’s the one that suits you best, Mum!” I was convinced that I knew more about fashion than she did.
I looked on in admiration as she dressed, and gave her a broad smile. She was beautiful, with her pearly white teeth and her carefully styled, auburn hair.
What would I do without her? I wondered. I would die if anything ever happened to her. I cast off these dark thoughts and slid into my new slippers. They were way too large for my small feet. I clomped awkwardly over to my teddy bear, which I’d carelessly thrown across the room the evening before. I hugged him and got back into bed so I could watch Mum from the best possible angle. I was so proud that she was my Mum.
Just then, Dad peered out of the bathroom. He had white foam on his face, and was holding something in his hand that looked like a broken ball-point pen.
“Maria, hurry up. I’ll be finished shaving in two minutes. We can’t be late today.”
As I watched them, warm rays of love broke out in my heart, like invisible threads, connecting me to them. They were so beautiful and I loved them.
“Come on, little one, let’s have a kiss, jump up in my lap.” Dad drew near, having finished his shaving ritual. His smile was broad and his arms ready to receive my leap. I smelled the nose-tickling scent of his aftershave, and felt his soft velvet skin. Being close to Dad made me feel whole.
After a tight hug, he put me down on the soft carpet and reached for his suit jacket. When he stood up, I looked at him, so tall and dignified. In his navy blue suit, with his blue eyes and black hair, he reminded me of some wickedly elegant and intelligent actor, one whose face was perfect for a movie about the American president. I thought he fit effortlessly into that image, and I was proud.
“You’re staying with Granddad today. You’re going to go into town and then to the market. I’ve heard he’s decided to buy you the biggest watermelon he can find. The biggest in the whole market. Imagine that! We’re coming in the afternoon, about three o’clock. Be good, we love you!” And then he turned to Granddad, whom we were living with at the time. “It’s that important Party meeting today. See you this afternoon.” He said a few more words to him and then left the apartment with Mum.
At least twenty minutes after they had gone, my heart was still fit to burst with the love I felt for them. The vivid image of their faces stayed with me and all I could think about was when I would see them again. I jumped to my feet and ran to the mirror to see if I was as beautiful as they were. The antique mirror that hung on the wall reflected two little eyes, peering over the white blanket I had wrapped myself in.
“A real angel,” my huge aunt had said the last time she saw me. She’d said it countless times before. She’d sighed as she hovered over my little head with her bright red painted lips, which were terrifyingly reminiscent of the Joker from Batman.
As I continued to study my features in the mirror I thought to myself, we really are a happy family. “Just how many relatives do we have?” I asked myself, clearly aware that there was a wealth in having many friends. I could not have imagined then, in my child’s world, how spoiled things can become when we grow up. The magic of love can disappear, and if it does it is nearly impossible to get back. But at that moment, young as I was, I recognized what a significant thing it was that there were so many of us in our family and that we all loved each other.
I had an unspoiled and inquisitive eye with which I investigated my world. My face in the mirror seemed to ask “What’s next?” There was an untamable curiosity there—the very thing that would ultimately spoil the tranquility and ease of that carefree time.
I turned from the mirror to launch myself into the day I was to spend with my grandfather. How big was the biggest watermelon? Hmm, I ought to investigate that today, that and whether he was really prepared to buy it for me. This too was a measurement of that strange music of life we call love, because if Granddad really loved me, he would buy the biggest one, however big it was.
That’s how it was the last time I tested how much they really loved me.
* * *
Things changed drastically on my fifth birthday. My godmother, as though watching an elite military aircraft do a loop-the-loop, had excitedly cried, “Look out!” as my small hand buried itself in my birthday cake. Ironically or not, the cake was called a Reform Cake. When you do something like this, maybe you stir up your own life in the same way, and maybe this was the reason why my life would later take the turns it would, turns that would for the most part begin with that very word, reform. But the reform would come about thanks to none other than my Aunt Mara. Her only child—her miracle child—Datza, my cousin, was already part of the story of reform which had begun to befall us. That day however, they proved to my young mind that they loved me, because they allowed me to behave like a spoiled and indulged child.
The last few days had been like the most beautiful dream. I knew that what I felt was true and innocent joy, full of life-giving energy. I could not have imagined how often in the future I would wish I was back reliving those very moments. In those days I did not know that there was a corrupt joy too. That was yet to come, foreshadowed by the false innocence of my trifling misdemeanors, which cunningly concealed a vast destructive force steadily growing deep within in me.
All of these subjects reared their heads, without asking me whether I wanted to think about them or not. Despite my secure environment, rising within me like the sun rising at dawn, was a need to define the purpose for my existence. For life was becoming an enigma which I could even then begin to sense.