As spring’s warmth become heavier, her grandfather’s cough returned. It came suddenly ripping through the stillness of the dawn and causing her grandmother to gather herbs that were drying below the roof. The kitchen swelled with aromas of herbs and flowers, like summer meadows were boiling in the big black pots. Golden, ripe fields needed quick, strong hands, but her grandfather’s hands remained lifeless next to his big body. She will sneak in the bedroom every day to watch her grandfather, his still body, his eyes wide open but not seeing her, not knowing she was in the room. Sometimes his big body would jerk with sharp, involuntary movements and heavy groans would leave his chest. Sometimes his eyes will become wild with fear and cries would pierce the air. On those days her grandmother would run into the room and take her quickly away telling her not to be afraid. She was not afraid, she overheard others talking about her grandfather and how he is back in his battle, with his battalion in Stalingrad, that winter in 1943. It was a long time ago.
Illness lingered like a bad omen over their home, her brother’s hands were not strong enough for the golden fields, and neighbours were reluctant to lend their hands. He was the hero of the wrong war. He spat and cursed when his land was taken and swore to defend what was left with his life and the guns he brought home from Stalingrad. They made a report, sent it to their headquarters, and left him alone. They had a file and a record. They would check occasionally and remember constantly.
The schoolteacher brought the news that her father will be coming home soon. He said that her father has made friends in some important places and will be coming home to take them all with him in the big car to a better life. Her grandmother crossed herself. Her brothers were talking about the big engines pulling behind them long carriages and cars shining like the marbles in their pockets. She looked down at her shoes which were once new and shiny but were scuffed and worn out now, and she wondered what the big place would feel like.
The days moulded into each other, her grandmother’s eyes escaping over the dusty road searching for signs of her father’s return, her grandfather’s illness filling their home with the odour of earth and decay, shuffling of feet and whispers, always whispers. Some would pray and leave her grandmother with small parcels of food covered in cloth; others would take her aside and whisper for a long time, always glancing around first. It was said that her father has to wait for the old man to join his dead battalion before he can come home. The lines on her grandmother’s face became deeper and her small, claw-like hands clenched in a powerless fists.
The same hands that trembled with pain and fear while untying the scarf her mother fastened around the thick branch of an old tree at the very end of their orchard and put her young, white neck through it. Her long, slender body swaying in the breeze as light as her newborn son’s breath. She was dressed in her wedding finery, rich lace sparkling over heavy golden ornaments. She wished to be pretty for her journey to the land of angels and fairies who visited her often while she was carrying her third child. She spoke to them, and laughed with all the confidence of those who have seen into the unseen. The village said she has lost her mind, just like her mother did before her; it is the bad blood in that family and he should have never married her. The grandmother took her son’s face into her claw like hands and turned his lost eyes towards his three young children; she then wrapped a black cloth around their wedding photograph, and went out to find the priest. It is the only memory she has of her mother, the black cloth wrapped around the beautiful, still face of a young woman.
It was around that time that she took the yellow pad out of her school bag. She would wait for her brothers to fall asleep and her grandmother to take her position beside the grandfather’s bedside, and then she would open her pad and take the pencil out. She would sit very still and think over every word she would like to say. Her eyes would take on that distant look, seeing it all: fears hanging over her village, her grandfather’s anger and her grandmother’s worries, the impatience and youth of her brothers, the neglected fields and the neighbours’ gossip. She wished to say it all and use the most precious, most delicate words to describe the sound of the mouth accordion over the village fair, the smell of ripe orchards in the first lights of the early autumn, the sparkle of red and golden carriages carrying brides away while snow turns into diamonds beneath the horses’ hooves.
With the corner of her eye she caught the glimpse of the milky light coming from the window. Slowly, as thought waking from a long slumber she turned her head and glanced towards the bed; her grandmother’s chin was resting on her chest and her hands were clasped together in a silent prayer. She clicked the desk light off and her eyes glanced over the single sheet of yellow paper. On the top of the clear page it was written: ‘Dear Father …’ She carefully folded the paper and placed it back into her school bag and put the pencil next to it. She then walked quietly outside to fetch some firewood and start the day.