Resurrection in Pivka | Robert Klose | The Piltdown Review

Resurrection in Pivka

Resurrection in Pivka

Max Sihodsky was known throughout the Russian community of New England as a loudmouth, cajoler, backslapper, bombast, and even crook. But he also had a reputation as a deeply spiritual man, and it was this virtue that trumped all his shortcomings. Discontented Slavs—mostly women—came to him from near and far to seek his counsel. He’d listen intently, never interrupting, as they wailed and bellowed their frustrations, disappointments, regrets and unfulfilled expectations. Then, once they’d dried their tears, he’d make a statement designed to improve their lives. Most swore by his magic. Over time, he left his job as a driver with United Parcel Service to capitalize on his skills by becoming a full-time marriage broker. He was wildly successful.

I had become friends with Max by accident. He had gotten a flat on the interstate during a pounding thunderstorm. When I noticed him struggling to change his tire, I pulled over and ushered him back into his car and did the job for him. That was three years ago, and he never ceased to be grateful. “I will pay you back one day, when you least expect it,” became his constant refrain. It was a running joke between us, and I developed the habit of waving him off.

Max became interested in me because I was a journalist with a specialty in Eastern Europe and had actually troubled myself to learn Russian. He was consumed whenever he saw one of my bylines, and no matter where I was in the world he’d call me on my cell phone to offer his commentary. “You’re right about the Slovaks,” he declaimed while I was working in Bratislava during Czechoslovakia’s so-called “velvet divorce.” “They’re a nation of hard-working peasants. They’ll lag behind the Czechs but will eventually do a respectable job building their own country. You’ll see.”

Of course, he was right.

It wasn’t easy being friends with a matchmaker. While I confided in Max about many things, I tried to keep him at arm’s length about my love life. If Max sensed any irregularity, any hint of discord, it was like blood in the water, and he would immediately begin to probe with the deliberation of a surgeon. He had excavated every last detail of two of my breakups from me, despite my best efforts to keep things to myself. And now another woman, whom I considered the love of my life, had left me, and I was haunted by the suspicion that Max was aware that I had suffered a loss. My suspicion took wings when the phone rang and Max insisted that I attend a party at his house.

I was not in the mood to attend any parties, but Max was nothing if not persuasive. “You must come,” he pleaded. “I’m proud to have you as a friend and I’d like you to meet some of the couples I’ve brought together.”

I was, truth to tell, intrigued. Even though I was fully aware of Max’s work, I had never met a single one of his clients. I had always wondered how they fared after he united them. I agreed to come.

On Friday I drove out to Max’s home, a palatial affair on a lovely Maine lake. Max hurried onto the front porch when he saw me pull up. He was sixty, balding, with roving, deep-set eyes and bushy eyebrows. His pupils were unusually small. He was not a very big man, but his impression was expansive. A cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth. “It’s about time you got here,” he said good-naturedly without removing the cigarette. He put a drink in my hand and then brought me into the parlor where his other guests were milling about. I counted seven couples. The women looked preoccupied and exotic, heavily caked with makeup. They chattered with one another in Russian but switched to English when addressing their American men.

Max threw his arm around my shoulder and confided in me. “These women are from the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine,” he said. “And those are their American husbands. I brought each and every one of these ladies over to meet their matches.”

“It’s quite a living,” I remarked.

“If you can call it that, yes.”

“They don’t look happy,” I said.

“They’re not,” said Max. “Their expectations have not been met. The glow has faded. But their disappointment is only temporary. These women expected a place where everything would be easy and they would be surrounded by culture, but what they’ve found are long winters, lumberjacks, plumbers, and a few assorted losers.”

I was startled by Max’s bleak assessment. I told him I didn’t understand. Didn’t these women know what they were getting into before they came to the States?

Max laughed. “They were so anxious to get out of Ukraine that they built fantasies in their heads about life in America. See that fellow over there? The chinless one with the rounded shoulders? His wife is Ivana, the one berating him. She fell in love with his picture. She even told me he looked like Tom Cruise. She has since recovered her eyesight. He’s a decent person, though, and really loves her.”

“But how can such a match last?”

Max looked hurt. “They all do. Eventually the women realize that no matter what they have here, it’s much better than what they left. Ivana was a physicist who gave up everything to come to America. Now she sells beauty creams. However, she was making only thirty-five dollars a month in Ukraine. She’s making four hundred a week here. These women have a nurturing instinct like you wouldn’t believe. Which is why it took over a thousand years for their country to achieve independence. The only wish of the Ukrainian is to serve.”

I surveyed these socially awkward men with their unhappy Ukrainian wives and wondered why Max had brought them together for this so-called party.

“It’s part of my genius,” he said grandly. “I want them to compare. Even the biggest complainers will view their own matches as superior to everybody else’s. And they will take this belief home with them and then try to live it. This never fails. Trust me.”

Max turned me loose for a while. I attempted to wander among this congress of Ukrainian wives and found myself interrogated at every turn. What was I doing here? How did I know Max? Where was my wife? What? I’m not married? How could that be? At all costs, I had to marry. When they were done I felt as if I had been plucked.

I returned to Max, who was now holding a glass of vodka on ice. Before I had a chance to say a word Ivana marched up to him. She was very attractive, very blond and blue-eyed. Her pleasant face was framed by two immense black earrings which glistened as if producing their own light. She burst into tears and fell sobbing into Max’s arms. He took her aside. I listened intently.

She had been here six months already and nothing seemed to be improving. She hated the weather and the food. She couldn’t find hearty black bread anywhere. Her American husband spent most of his time along the riverbank, scavenging wood for their stove rather than buying it like everybody else. She even hated the roads. “Leaves were blowing right in front of us as we drove here,” she wept. “My God, I thought they were mice! What’s happening to me?”

Max focused on her with his tiny pupils. This encouraged her catharsis. For the next ten minutes Ivana purged, pulling Max by the lapels of his sports jacket and bouncing her head off his chest. Through it all he managed to hold onto his glass of vodka without spilling a drop. I looked on in silence and wonder. Ivana’s mascara ran as her glistening earrings bounced against her cheeks. “It will be all right,” said Max, who brought her head to rest on his shoulder with great tenderness. “Believe me. Trust me. Think of poor Oxana over there with her slug of a husband. I have a secret for you, so listen. He’s cheating on her.”

Ivana immediately perked up. “Is he?”

“Yes,” said Max. “Would I lie to you? He’s seeing a mere clerk in a local supermarket. Even she’s too good for him. She’ll eventually throw him away and then he’ll fall on his hands and knees and beg Oxana to take him back. So you see, you have to compare.” Then he took both her hands in his and held them for a long moment while he gave her a reassuring smile. “God will guide you,” he finally said.

Ivana sniffled, looked lovingly at Max, and smiled through the last of her tears. Then she dutifully went back to the others, only now she held her head high and took her stoop-shouldered husband by the arm, as if he were a trophy she had been lucky enough to win.

Max looked at me. “As you can see,” he said, “it’s a full-time job. You may think me a calculating man, but believe me when I tell you that I can feel their pain. I can feel anybody’s pain. It’s a gift.”

I asked him if he found all his women in Ukraine.

“I look all over Eastern Europe,” he said. “Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Slovenia, even Albania. I also speak each of those languages.” Then he turned the conversation to me. “By the way, where will your work take you next? How is Caroline? Answer the second question first.”

I froze. I had no choice but to tell him the truth. “She left me,” I said, and then closed my mouth tightly about the last word.

Max’s eyes flashed. “So you’re eligible,” he concluded.

I just stared at him, unable to speak. The truth—which I had no intention of divulging to Max—was that the woman who I thought would be my life’s companion had left me two months ago. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life. Although I was a committed agnostic, in the heat of passion on the first night we had made love I told her she was my proof of the existence of God. I never understood why she left me, and I was still grieving the loss. Without warning, Max seized my hand and held it in his. I tried to pull away, but his grip was too firm. He peered into my eyes. I tried to match his stare, but it was no use. I looked away. After a few moments Max let go. When I turned back to him he looked wounded. Then he said, ever so softly, “Tell me what you want.”

I told him there was nothing he could do. That I needed to concentrate on my work. If nothing else, it was therapeutic. In fact, I was headed for Croatia and Slovenia in a few days.

Max’s eyebrows took flight. “You don’t say! Like almost everything in my life, God has a hand in this. It so happens that I was going to hire someone to interview a Slovenian woman for me.”

“A Slovenian woman?” I echoed.

“Yes. A real beauty. And intelligent. She lives in a godforsaken village called Pivka. Do you know it?”

I told him that I didn’t, that this trip would be my first to Slovenia. I asked him how he had discovered her.

“As with all these women, she was revealed to me. I was traveling from Trieste to Ljubljana on the train. I saw her in a compartment and asked if I could join her. She seemed disinterested at first, but disinterest is not rejection. Please remember that. Well, we got to talking and I sensed this yearning in her. Very sexual. To make a long story short, I believe her to be a caged bird ready to be set free. That’s where you come in.”

“Max,” I said, “I’d rather not . . .”

“Rather not what?” he said with a shrug. “Let me finish. I didn’t get a chance to complete the interview and have her fill out the paperwork. She had to get off the train. But we’ve stayed in touch.” Then he leaned toward me and put a beefy hand on my shoulder. “I can’t tell you how deeply, deeply grateful I would be if you would do me this favor. I know I still owe you for changing my tire so heroically during a downpour, so I’m ashamed to have to ask you for more help. But this woman is a real catch, a gem. I’ll find the best possible American man for her. And I would, of course, compensate you.”

“But I don’t know how close I’ll be to Pivka.”

Max blanched. “Slovenia is not Texas,” he said. “It’s more like Rhode Island. Once you get to Ljubljana you’ll be near everything.”

Before I knew it Max had a packet of papers in my hands. He laid everything out for me and showed me where this mystery woman was to sign. “Give yourself plenty of time,” he said. “You’ll be there during Holy Week, so it’s hard to say how the trains will run and which offices will be open. I’ll alert her to expect you.”

I never actually agreed to do Max’s bidding, yet I found myself in possession of those papers and the woman’s particulars as I left his house that night. My professional assignment was to assess the economic progress of Croatia and Slovenia since the breakup of Yugoslavia. Only God knew how much of my time the job would consume. If I didn’t get a chance to help Max out, so be it.

My flight to Croatia by way of Germany was uneventful. Once in Zagreb I checked into my hotel, slept for a few hours, and began to make my phone calls. I had braced myself for the inevitable Slav inefficiency and unreliability, but I was pleasantly surprised when all my calls went through, all the expected parties were available to talk to me, and all my appointments were met on time. I had planned on an entire week in Croatia, but within three days I found that I had all the information I needed and immediately prepared to continue on to Slovenia.

In Ljubljana, too, everything went smoothly. I couldn’t believe it. It was as if some hand were guiding not only my work, but the responses of everyone else involved. After four days of phone calls, meetings, and visits to state archives, I had more than enough information to put my article together. It struck me that I had almost a week to do with as I pleased. But my elation soon turned to despondency. With nothing structured to accomplish, I found myself in one of those states of crushing loneliness which typified my quiet moments since Caroline left my life.

I sat on the edge of my bed, riffling through the papers Max had given me, if only to distract myself. Was I actually considering assisting him with one of his insane matches? I looked at the cover letter. Addressed to no one in particular, it was meant to be read by whomever he could corral into doing this job for him. It read, “Go to number three Privyaskaia Street in Pivka. Ask for Anna Spiciarich. Tell her you are from Max. Then show her the papers. She speaks good English.”

I asked the desk clerk in the hotel about Pivka. He rolled his eyes, as if the thought of the place were painful. Then he pulled out a train schedule and gave me the information I needed. Two hours later I was sitting in a window seat, rumbling through the dark hills of the small country. Most of the other passengers chatted quietly. A Roma mother and son ate chicken from a blanket splayed across their laps. An old man, slumped against a window, tossed and turned as he snored. Before long the conductor was announcing Pivka.

I got off at the ancient stone station. With its black carriage lanterns and dingy windows, it looked like something out of a horror movie. I could see the village not far beyond the station, so I began to walk. If nothing else, I was experiencing a new place, and who knew what might become of my time here? Perhaps I would get a story out of it.

I couldn’t find the house because most of the streets had no signs. The villagers noticed me but no one approached. A gaggle of schoolgirls laughed behind their hands but moved on. A drunk stumbled toward me from behind a tree, his pants still unzipped from the impromptu piss he had taken. Finally, a large bear of a man in a battered sports jacket came up to me. I asked him if he spoke English. His face lit up. “Yes, yes,” he said. I asked him if he knew the address. He nodded and said he would take care of me and threw me a magnificent smile, revealing opposing racks of gold caps.

We walked along the dirt road as he regaled me with tales of the two years he had spent in Chicago. “Many Poles,” he said, shaking his head. Then he told me that he had tried to learn Polish, but the language was “too heavy.” “I met a girl,” he added, “but she was from Warsaw and I couldn’t understand a thing she said. So I am back here in this lovely place. It is like returning to life.”

“Slovenian must also be difficult,” I commented.

The man shook his head. “It’s easy,” he assured me. “Look at those laughing girls. Their heads are full of feathers but they learned it.” Then he laughed and slapped me on the back.

Before I knew it we had arrived at a weatherworn, white stucco cottage with a front garden that was mostly weeds, but even they were in bloom. A squat, elderly woman occupied the doorway. She was wearing a kerchief and a sweater that reached down to her calves. On her feet was a pair of ragged slippers. Her legs were stumplike and lined with purple veins, her ankles swollen. I watched for a few moments as she swept out the threshold.

“This is the house,” said my companion. “Marija!” he called as we approached her. Then he uttered several syllables in Slovenian. I understood nothing. The baba glanced at him, and then turned her gaze to me. She squinted her pale blue eyes against the intense sunlight and mouthed something. Then she smiled, but it was not a smile of recognition. How could it be? “Are you sure this is the house?” I asked my companion. “I’m looking for Anna Spiciarich.”

“Oh,” he said. “Well, this is the address on the paper you showed me. But it’s close enough, because this is Marija, her mother.”

A few moments later I found myself inside the small house, sitting at Marija’s kitchen table while the man conferred with her. The kitchen was small and cozy, with shelves full of knickknacks. A white enamel cookstove gave off a subtle warmth while a pot of cabbage simmered. The tablecloth was a rich, embroidered affair with intricate swirls and flowers.

Another woman, much younger, entered and I stood up. She had only one arm. She threw me a curious glance, nodded, and then went to Marija. A minute later all seemed in order. “I told you I would take care of you,” said my friend as he took my hand and pressed it warmly. “This is your Anna.” Then he winked at me. “Maybe you’ll find some happiness here. Goodbye.”

I was left alone with Marija and Anna. The younger woman was very attractive, perhaps thirty-five, with straight, jet-black hair she occasionally swept from her face. She had brown eyes and a wry smile that seemed to suggest foreknowledge of me. But I knew this was impossible. She addressed me in good English. “Well, all that we know is that you’re an American and have come looking for me.” As she spoke her mother began to busy herself at the stove.

“Max Sihodsky sent me,” I said.

“Who?” she inquired.

“Max,” I repeated. “He said he’d been in touch with you. He met you on a train to Ljubljana and, well, this is embarrassing because it makes me look like I’m in business with him, but I’m not. But he spoke to you about a match in America.”

Anna recoiled. Then a light of comprehension passed across her face. “I do remember speaking with some idiot on the train. He made himself right at home in my compartment and started to sing his own praises. I listened because his Slovenian was so good, despite his accent. All those women he spoke about! I thought he must be joking. He asked if I would like to come to America. Once again, I thought he was joking. The conversation ended there. I didn’t say another word to him.”

I sighed. “My God. Then I’m sorry. Look, I’m not part of his scheme. I’m a reporter. I work for a newspaper. I don’t want you to think I came all the way to Slovenia, to Pivka, just to drag you back to America. I can promise you that when I return home I will have very strong words for Max.”

Anna sat back as her mother brought tea and cake to the table. “Drink your tea,” she said, reaching out with her one hand to push the sugar toward me. “If you’ve come this far, you have to at least drink and eat.” Then, after a moment’s pause, “What did Max expect you to do once you found me?”

In light of the uncomfortable position Max had put me in, I hesitated, but Anna insisted. So I pulled out the papers and handed them to her. “Please,” I said, “all I know is that he told me to give these to you. I barely glanced at them.”

Anna picked up one of the pages, read for a moment, and then began to laugh. Her laughter was more like a song, light and melodic. It made me smile. “What?” I asked. “What’s so funny?”

But she couldn’t stop. She finally dropped the paper and put her hand over her mouth to stifle herself. “Oh, I haven’t laughed this hard in a long time. He wants me to come to America to be matched with, as he says here, ‘a man with great possibilities, as yet unidentified.’ He guarantees my happiness!”

Her reaction helped me to relax. “I’m glad you’re taking this in good spirits,” I said. “I can’t believe he would write such a thing. On second thought, I can believe it.”

It was getting late in the day. I looked out the window and could see the sun beginning to lose its power, growing orange and skirting the distant treeline. Anna noticed my searching gaze. “You can stay here tonight,” she said. “You’re a guest and you seem like a nice person.” Then she turned to her mother and spoke softly to her. The old woman nodded and smiled. “I have a few errands,” said Anna. “I won’t see you until the morning, but please stay for breakfast. Do you eat eggs?”

“I’ll eat whatever you have,” I said.

“Good night, then.”

With Anna gone, intense silence reigned in the house. I sat up at the table for a little while longer. Sometimes Marija sat with me, nattering in a language I had no hope of understanding. At other moments she’d get up and go about her cleaning or primping or puttering. She prepared a room for me. Its centerpiece was a monumental feather bed with a hand-stitched quilt. Over the bed was an immense felt-tone portrait of Christ exposing his bleeding heart. I lay down and quickly fell asleep.

The next morning brought a brilliant, cloudless sky. I heard Marija milling about downstairs. There were other sounds as well. The clank of a cowbell from the road, a rush of wind through the arbor, children’s voices, a door closing. When I arrived in the kitchen, Anna was sitting at the table with her mother. A freshly cut rose adorned a simple glass vase in the center of the table. “How did you sleep?” she asked.

“Like the man in the moon.”

She translated this for Marija, who smiled and nodded.

“I forgot to tell you last night that your English is excellent,” I complimented her.

“Television is responsible for everything, the good and the bad. But I’m still trying to improve my English. I can say, ‘You’re the next contestant on The Price Is Right,’ but I cannot explain how a car works.”

“Neither can I.”

Marija put some eggs and bread on the table for me. I sat down and enjoyed the breeze that entered through the window.

“The weather is unusually warm for this time of year,” said Anna. “I am happy to show you the village, if that’s something you want.”

I told her I would like to see as much as I could. Then I pulled out a small black notebook and laid it on the table. “If I don’t write things down I’ll forget them. I’ve already filled fifty pages since arriving in Croatia.”

“You may not have a lot to write about here in Pivka. It’s Holy Week and things are very quiet right now as people prepare for their Easter meals. And not much will be open in the village.”

I was, of course, curious about Anna’s missing limb, but I assumed she would offer an explanation in due time. I couldn’t help but watch as she deftly maneuvered about her environment. After we ate, she tucked the milk container under her chin and picked up two plates from the table. She glanced at me and I looked away, embarrassed. “Curiosity killed the cat,” she said with a smile, and I felt even more embarrassed.

After breakfast Marija shooed both of us out of the house. Anna lived a short stretch down the road. She took me to her home. From the outside it was almost identical to Marija’s, except that it was freshly whitewashed, all the roof tiles were intact, and the garden was a carefully designed affair, tightly mulched and devoid of weeds. We entered and I was warmed by a home which was clean and neat, with tastefully appointed rooms, cut flowers in simple vases, and a canary singing its heart out in a wooden cage. “It’s lovely,” I said.

“Thank you,” said Anna. “When you live alone, you can have things exactly as you like.”

I noticed two framed pictures of children on the wall, both with blue eyes and blond hair. “Those are my children,” she said. “Katja and Stiepan. Eleven and twelve.”

“They’re beautiful.”

“They live with their father,” she said. “He took them away two years ago. To tell you the truth, I was surprised, because he was not very assertive. He was very dependent, but he somehow found the courage to tell me that he needed to be embraced with two arms.”

“That’s cruel.”

“True. But for Alex it was an act of supreme courage. Believe it or not but when he said that, for the first time I felt that he had become a man.”

“I can’t think of anything worse than losing one’s children.”

“Please,” said Anna, raising her hand. “I have put those feelings exactly where I want them. Well, now you know a lot about me. Except for this.” She pointed to her other side. There wasn’t even a stump as evidence that an arm had once been there. “You must be wondering.”

“Yes, but it would have been rude to ask.”

“It was five years ago. I was haying with Alex. We don’t have much land, but we did it as a sort of hobby. He was driving the tractor, of course, and I was working behind whatever you call that haying machine in English. I tripped and fell. The machine didn’t tear my arm off, as you might think. It just ripped up the muscle and bone. I screamed out to Alex. But when he saw what had happened he fainted. So I screamed louder until my mother came out. She put on a tourniquet and called the doctor. She saved my life.”

“Now I know I don’t like Alex.”

“It’s not his fault,” said Anna. “He’s just weak. I married a weak man and now I’m free of him.”

“But the price.”

Anna’s eyes grew moist. “I’ll see my children again,” she said with conviction. “Alex never really liked the idea of kids, and he’s not very good with them. He doesn’t understand why they’re not rational. Once they become teenagers with their demands and sexual issues he will ship them back to me. And so all I need is patience. Do you know what I really miss? At night in bed, reaching over and feeling for the other person. Even if it was only Alex. Would you like to go for a walk?”

We set out down the road. The village, as she had warned me, was extremely still, although there were some small, rewarding scenes. An elderly couple tending their flower boxes, two little boys digging a hole by the side of the road, a man repairing a fence in front of his home. The sun shone intensely down upon it all, as if sanctifying everyone’s enterprise. I stopped a couple of times to make a few notes and rudimentary sketches. I asked Anna if she worked.

“I was trained as an engineer but came here with Alex because of his work as a forester,” she told me. “Now I edit for two magazines, and believe it or not I am able to save some money. I don’t have to travel. The computer has made all things possible.”

“As an engineer you could make a lot of money, I’d think. Why have you stayed in Pivka?”

Anna closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Then she opened them. “Do you smell the sweetness of the air? Why would I want to live anywhere else? Now tell me about yourself. You said you’re a journalist. What do you write about?”

“Mostly Eastern European affairs. I’ve always been fascinated with this part of the world. There’s something unpredictable about it. I always have the feeling that anything can happen here.”

“It’s true,” agreed Anna. “In these small places, belief in magic is very strong.”

We spent the rest of the day idling. Anna introduced me to everyone we met, which meant that we couldn’t walk ten paces without stopping to chat. Nuns, children, old women, a drunk, a town official. All seemed to be a part of her bailiwick, all greeted her warmly. I felt the powerful sense of community, which was only accentuated by the sense of embrace offered by the narrow paths and closely planted homes of the village.

Anna was very easy to be with. She said what was on her mind and yet kept me wondering what morsels of her experience and personality she might not yet have revealed. She seemed totally at home with herself, and even when she fleetingly took my hand to lead me down a path, or to approach a new sight, I felt there was nothing in it but the friendly gesture it was.

Toward the end of our long walk we passed a small kiosk selling imported oranges from Morocco. She bought one from an ancient woman. “Here,” said Anna as she took one of the globes. “Eat.”

As I took the fruit from her I smiled. “You know,” I said, “this is how all the world’s troubles started.”

“See, already you have found inspiration in little Pivka.”

I peeled the fruit and exposed the red pulp. A blood orange.

By the time we got back to her house we were talking like intimates, as if we had known each other for years. I had tried to bury Caroline deep in the back of my mind, but Anna had teased her out and I felt tears come to my eyes. Anna noticed this and reached up to brush them away. When she touched me I felt a shiver run through my body.

Is it any surprise that we slept together that night? In her lovely bed which smelled of rose petals. It was as if it were the next logical thing to do. This was the only time she displayed any self-consciousness: she would not undress in the light, for fear, I presumed, that I would see the blank shoulder where her arm had been amputated at the joint. “I don’t care,” I said as she slipped out of her clothes in the darkness.

“But I do,” she said. “And it’s my body.”

We made love slowly and earnestly. It was odd having that one arm slung around me, making its way down my side. I had to learn not to anticipate the embrace of its missing companion. What was also odd was that we talked during lovemaking. Not the false, impassioned gasps of partners who will say anything to make sure the other will not run off, but actual heartfelt words, carefully considered. “Do you think our bodies fit well together?” she asked me.

“Perfect symmetry,” I told her.

She slapped me on the back. “Don’t play the writer with me,” she said, and I could feel her smile even in the dark. “Just love me.”

“I have to leave in four days.”

“I have no intention of trying to make you stay. I like you and this feels good. That’s all I want right now.” There followed a few moments of silence, after which Anna whispered, “Today is Holy Thursday.”

“Does that make this a sin?”

“No,” she said and pulled me closer to her.

The next morning, Good Friday, I snuck back into Marija’s house. She was already in the kitchen, cooking. When I entered in my disheveled state, she threw me a beguiling smile, as if to say, Ah, the young. I kissed her on the cheek.

I spent the day alternating between solitary walks with notebook in hand, spending time with Anna, and making fruitless attempts to help Marija around the house—every time I lifted my hand to assist her, she playfully slapped it away.

I could barely write quickly enough to record all my impressions. As my time in Slovenia drew on, I felt a sort of pressure building, as if indecision were beginning to assert itself. I forced myself to think ahead, to think of home, and of the work I would have to do to get my article in final shape. Despite my growing restlessness, Anna and I made love again that night, and once again it was sweet and affirming.

“You know,” she said as we lay next to each other, “I didn’t go to church today.”

“Do you usually go?”

“Only on the holiest days. Like today.”

“Do you feel guilty?”

“Not for having missed church,” she said after a pause. “But I feel guilty for not feeling guilty about it.”

“Anna,” I said. “I love you.”

The moonlight passing through the window cast a shallow glow upon her face, placing it half in darkness and half in light. She just stared at me, or perhaps through me, as if plumbing my mind with her own emotions. I watched as her eyes fluttered and then closed.

Pivka River
Pivka River

The next day we walked along the riverbank, holding hands. I suddenly found myself sick with grief at the thought of leaving her. “Anna,” I said. “I think this place has captured my heart.”

She put her hand on her hip and feigned a defiant pose. “Oh, and all the time I thought it was me.”

“It is you.”

She shook her head. “Please don’t try to take me down this path.”

“Don’t you love me?”

She patted my cheek as if I were a milk-faced boy. “Yes, of course I do. But I see clearly how my future is going to go. My children will soon be back and I will spend my time learning about the years I missed with them. That’s what I want. It’s what I’m waiting for.”

“Stories don’t always go the way we want them to.”

“Maybe,” she said. “But I like to think I can make a story do anything I want. Change it, erase it, make it stand on its head. Don’t you agree?”

I wanted to pursue the debate, but something caught Anna’s eye. “Look,” she said. “Over there. These Roma are roasting a pig.”

I looked down the riverbank a ways and saw a band of a dozen or so people sitting on blankets and milling about a spit. A large pig was roasting over a fire, the fat dripping from it in gobs, making the flames dance and crackle. We walked toward them. The women wore long dresses and head scarves. One man was playing an accordion while another, in a moth-eaten tweed jacket and jeans, danced barefoot. Three small, naked children ran about while a teenage couple held hands. “Do they live here?” I asked.

“No, they’re just passing through. They’ll steal a few things, make some noise, and continue on their way.”

The Roma eyed us as we approached them. The dancing man smiled broadly, revealing an incongruence of black spaces and gold caps. He raised a bottle and handed it to Anna. She thanked him and drank, then passed the bottle to me. I took a cautious sip, which went down my throat like fire. Before I knew it we were sitting on a blanket and eating. Anna chatted amiably with these people, introducing me as an exotic guest from America, which elicited their intense interest. “They speak their own language,” she said. “Their Slovenian is very poor. But we understand each other. They want to know if you speak any languages other than English.”

“Some German,” I said, and when Anna translated this, several of them nodded.

We stayed with the Roma until evening fell. The accordion continued to swell, as if it were a mournful soul in its own right. The women sang. A ten-year-old boy came over to me and kissed my hand. The men played cards. The flames continued to leap, spawning sparks which disappeared into the night. “It’s time to go,” said Anna.

“I could stay here forever. These people seem completely happy.”

“They have nothing but each other. And the rest of the world hates them. Happiness is the only thing they own.”

We said our goodbyes. As we turned away, the ten-year-old boy ran up to me and held out my wallet. I was speechless. I looked at the Roma, and then at Anna, who said, “Did you think he kissed you because he liked you? He’s in training. But don’t judge these people too harshly. If you’re ever in trouble, they would be the first to help. Everyone else would not want to get involved in your problem, but the Roma have nothing to lose.”

As we turned to leave, an elderly man in a torn black sports jacket spoke to me in halting German. He had almost no teeth. “Maybe you’ll find a Slovenian girl here,” he said. “You can hit a Slovenian girl.” Then he reached out and pinched a crone on the rump. She whooped and shook her finger at him.

That night it was Anna who seemed torn. When I tried to follow her into her house she turned on the threshold and placed her hand against my chest. “Maybe it’s best to begin the goodbye now.”

“You’re breaking my heart.”

She looked long and hard at me. “Just what is it that you want?” she implored.

“You.”

She shook her head. “I can’t come with you to America,” she said.

Anna turned from me and slowly closed the door. The light inside her house blinked out. I returned to Marija’s house, heartsick. The only way to get hold of my emotions was to gird myself for the trip ahead. The evening’s only saving grace was the silence, because no conversation was possible between me and Marija.

I went to bed but couldn’t sleep. I tossed on the immense feather mattress, under the ghastly image of Christ’s bleeding heart. What should I do? Stay longer and continue to implore Anna? Follow her around in the hope of wearing her down? I looked over at Max’s papers lying on the small table by the window. What on earth made him think that someone like Anna would allow herself to become one of his tragic women? She was not someone who needed saving. And then there was that missing arm.

I found myself staring up at Christ’s heart. It was an odd symbol. The very expression “bleeding heart” connoted piteousness, surely not the intent of whomever had branded the image in association with Christ. I looked at my watch. Midnight. It occurred to me it was now Easter Sunday, the most important day of the Christian calendar. My parochial school instruction came flooding back to me. Was it St. Paul who said that if it were not for the Resurrection, all our efforts would be in vain? The Resurrection was the fulfillment of every promise Christ had made. It was God’s seal of approval for all the good works of his son, and of his sacrifice. After the Great Flood, the Resurrection was the only other second chance God had ever given the world. Suddenly I was filled with a sense of the immensity of the gift. It overwhelmed me. How rare, I thought, were second chances in anyone’s life, let alone the whole of humankind. For the man of faith, it was an irresistible offer. But what about me, an unbeliever, a wretch?

I got dressed and left Marija’s house. I did not hurry, but walked with the deliberation of a man who knew exactly what he was moving towards. I pounded on Anna’s door until she opened it. “I knew you would come,” she said.

“I’m not willing to lose you,” I told her.

“Then stay.”

“I wish it were so simple. But maybe I can work something out.”

“Last night you wanted me to come with you, but I told you what’s holding me here right now.”

I gave those last two words a desperate embrace. “Then eventually we may be able to negotiate something. Other people live in two worlds, so I don’t see why we couldn’t. Or maybe we will wind up in one or the other.”

Anna smiled. “I don’t mind having something grand to think about.”

The next morning I made two calls. One was to my newspaper, from which I managed to wrangle a month-long extension of my stay, so long as I continued to send them stories on deadline. The other was to Max. “She won’t sign the papers,” I told him, wondering what he would say to that.

“Of course not.”

His response surprised me. “What do you mean?” I demanded. “Are you saying you knew she wouldn’t sign?”

“Why would a woman like that want anything to do with a cheap show like mine?” he said, full of cheer.

“Then why did you send me here?”

“Why do you ask? Didn’t things work out?”

“You mean, you thought that Anna and I . . . ?”

“Max doesn’t think. He knows. I could feel the pain of your loneliness. And now you’re happy, right?”

“Yes,” I said. “Beyond my wildest dreams. I’m staying with her. We’re going to work something out,”

“Then it’s a match! I owed you,” he added, “and now I’ve paid my debt. I knew she was perfect for you.”

“Yes. But please don’t ever ask me to work for you again.”

“Who knows?” he said, ever the fatalist. “Maybe you can find me some other unhappy girls in Slovenia who long for greener pastures and can cook. You have my phone number. Na zdrovya!”  

shortlink: dogb.us/pivka

          

               

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