A Day in Spring
It was a lovely day in spring, full of light and sound, as if cast in pure silver.
It is true that at times the dark clouds of a tragic past drifted across the clear sky of my memories; it is true that griefs, old and recent, often beat upon the sullen walls of my heart; it is true that former impetuous emotions of youth would sometimes rise again to the surface; it is true that in the depths of the cold pool of life’s actuality, the heavy stones of drowned longings would stir and, sighing, turn again; but all this could not overshadow, or trample, or undermine, or break up the broad meadow of my peace. Oh no! All the passions that, untamed and unsatisfied, still raged in the dark recesses of my being, could not erode the precious soil deposited there, layer by layer, by the river of five-and- thirty years of sharp experience, most of it troubled and stormy. So then, - this day in spring was truly lovely, full of light and sound, as if cast in pure silver.
And just so was Kadetka who, all unexpectedly, came with it.
To begin with, I woke up long before dawn, in the middle of the night. This was not strange in those days in May at the end of the War. At that time, every evening found me housed in a different part of the country and every morning summoned me from a light sleep to new decisive events which drew me forth at once upon the road and carried me away with bewildering speed from Črnomelj to Ravna Gora, from Ravna Gora to Ajdovščina, to Trieste, Gorizia, and finally along the greygreen waters of our Soča to my native Tolmin home. I slept lightly and uneasily. Every sound was like a blow in my ears, forever on the watch at night, and always I would start up and open my eyes, weary yet alert, and longing for the sight of home surroundings and familiar faces.
And now, too, I jerked my head upright and looked about me. I was lying in a low-ceilinged, narrow loft flooded with soft moonlight which filtered in through a single window, barred and netted. I stared in wonder, but only for a moment, because even before I had asked myself where I was, I recognized the loft, the window and the moonlight. I smiled, and the blissful thought which flashed up in me even before the smile, pressed me back upon my pillow like a kind familiar hand. I closed my eyes; but my heart and all my body was thrilled by a sense of calm and perfect happiness so strong that I had to tell myself, aloud:
"I am at home!... After fifteen years I am in bed once more under my own roof!..."
I lay down supine and greedily inhaled the air. It was soft, close, and pleasantly cool, like the dark wines of my country. At once I felt a new and heady vitality in my veins. Lightheartedly, I clasped my hands behind my head and abandoned myself to the undulating murmur of that spring:. night. It rocked me as in a cradle and began to raise me up and up. Soon it bore me to such heights of ecstasy that, with all the fervor of the boy within me, I began to recite under my breath:
"Dear home of my birth, oh house of my father’s roof,
The poor man’s castle, goal of the wand’rer afar;
The dove beneath foreign skies, bent on her homeward flight
Has longing to show her the way and guide her aright…"
The words sounded rich and solemn as would the anthem of a downtrodden people raised freely after a profound silence of centuries. The resonance of them expanded my chest and quickened my heartbeat. But oh! as suddenly my heart gave back a bitter ache, so poignant and overpowering that it hurled me down from my clouds of soaring rapture.
"That’s how it is!" I sighed. "Longing showed me the way through all those restless years. I have found the goal… And what have I found?..."
The bitter truth loomed up before me like a rugged perpendicular cliff. And in an instant I had run into it. My happiness that had been so calm and pure was broken up and troubled. Again the poem spoke. The words were still resonant and solemn, but they sounded grim and bitter:
"Dazed, the doves are circling above the burning house…
Forlorn my thoughts lament my desolate native land…
A gray day dawns: we are scattered far and wide,
As the needs of life compelled, or the unrest in our hearts;
Only the swallows remain in their shelter under the eaves -
We are stricken by the storm that has whirled us afar…"
Slowly the poem was engulfed in my bitter and angry mood. Yes, - all that the poet said was true, all - only nowhere was there safe shelter! No, there was none, not even in this remote and lonely cottage! Like a monstrous red-hot steam roller, the war had passed over the length and breadth of our land, crushing everything, scattering everything; ourselves included. There had been seven of us under this roof; and now - I had come home and found just one single swallow: only our little Auntie is at home, taking care of this three-hundred-year old nest and waiting for the birds to come back. If they do come back? My brother and sisters are sure to do so, because I know that they are alive; but my Father will never return. He waited and waited, the old diehard, and even survived till this spring. Barely a month ago, the last winter winds scattered his ashes over German soil. Auntie doesn’t know yet. From the first day of the Liberation, she has been airing his Sunday blacks which greeted me yesterday so grimly from the blossoming branches of our old pear-tree that I stood as if turned to stone.
I shook my head to drive away the memory of it, but it refused to be evicted. I saw myself quite plainly, rounding the corner and coming to a halt in the middle of the yard. Auntie stopped too, but only for a moment. Then she recognized me and flew up to me with a cry of joy such as I had never before heard from her lips. She pressed both my hands, sobbed and brokenly told me all that needed to be told. Then she dried her eyes with her apron and with her skinny fingers pushed a wisp of grey hair back under her faded black kerchief. Her keen eyes took stock of the whole of me, she nodded cheerily, and said with a happy sigh:
"Oh dear, how pleased your father will be!"
I looked at the clothes, so like a black banner waving idly in the spring breeze. Auntie followed my eyes, smiled and said with gleeful pride:
"Yes, they’re his. For two years I had them hidden. In the bedroom, and the corn-bin, in the byre and the hay-loft, in the hen house and the pigsty, shifting them from one hiding place to another… Oh, don’t look at me like that You’ll never guess why I hid them so carefully"
I shook my head.
"Just think how heartless people have grown" Auntie cried angrily and clenched her fists. "No, you wouldn’t believe it, but the very same evening they marched your father off, Martin-Beyond-the-Dam came shambling up to the house, spat a mouthful of brown slime, and said quite coolly: ‘Annie, I’ve come for Andrew’s duds.’ And then he spat again. It’s true that Martin hasn’t heart enough for half a man; it’s true that he’s been a grave-digger these thirty years; but all the same his words went through me like a knife. You can imagine I didn’t find an answer at once. But Martin just went on, and this time he hurt me still more. ‘He’ll surely never put them on again himself,’ he yapped and waved his hand. It froze me to the marrow of my bones, but I got back my breath. ‘Well then, you won’t either!’ said I- I was just boiling inside. It doesn’t sound nice, but I tell you straight, if I had had a knife in my hand, I’d have gone for him with it. But, because I hadn’t, I just hissed at him: ‘You dead man’s croaker, have you taken to burying folks alive?’ Martin looked at me from under his brow, spat, and then he said, cold as ice: ‘Over there they do bury them alive, too… In fact I’m told they never bury them at all. Too many of ’em. I’m told they just burn’em up in ovens. I felt so wild with rage that I was more than a match for him. ‘Then I’ll light the stove myself and burn his things. After all, I’ve got plenty of wood in the house.’"
Auntie heaved a great sigh of relief and then pushed back that rebellious strand of hair which had once more escaped from under the kerchief and looked at me brightly as if to say: "Didn’t I tell him off properly?"
"You told him off properly." The words almost choked me.
"All right," she proudly agreed. "He took himself off. But when he was out of the cowshed I began to tremble. I hid all of your father’s things which were still of some value. These blacks of which he was so proud I shifted from one place to another; yet I was always afraid for them. Three times a day "I would go and look whether they were still where I had hidden them and do you know why? Oh, you’ll never believe me. You’ll tell me that I’m an old fool. Yes, do, because I really am! Just think, the very first night it suddenly came to me in a dream. ‘Martin’s a gravedigger, isn’t that a token that father won’t come back any more?’ I shivered and stared into the dark. But then something whispered to me: ‘If you keep his clothes he will come back; if you lose them he won’t.’ Of course I realized at once that that was just an old wife’s foolishness. But I felt better. You don’t know how I clung to this thought. I just drew myself up. And when I met Martin I made fun of him in my mind and shook my finger as if I would make fun of death and shake my finger at it. ‘Oh, no, you don’t!
My eyes were fixed on her long and slightly crooked bony finger which seemed almost transparent in the evening sun. Then I looked her in the eyes. Their expression was a mixture of frank surprise and veiled pride. She was obviously waiting for a word from me. And as no word came, she passed her hand over her forehead with that familiar gesture, although that lively wisp of hair was scarcely showing from under the kerchief. She shook her head and sighed:
"An odd thing, isn’t it? What I want to say, isn’t it odd that one gets obsessed with such thoughts. After all the horrors we’ve been through, it’s silly, isn’t it?"
"We don’t know yet what we’ve been through?" I slowly wrung the words out of my throat.
"Oh, what we know is quite enough!" Auntie made a resolute gesture and again wiped her forehead.
"But I ask you, are such thoughts silly or not? Tell me straight!"
"Of course they’re silly…" I agreed miserably.
"They got such a tight hold on me! But don’t think the worse of me for that! An old body may get slack about faith but she’ll never shake off superstition!"
"That’s probably true", said I.
"Of course it’s true", nodded Auntie. "Well, now I’ve done at least with that superstition."
She waved her hand and went to the clothes. She straightened a sleeve which the wind had lifted and entangled with the wild shoots of the dying tree. Then she nodded happily and called out: "Just think how glad he’ll be! He’ll come home straight from the camp, he’ll be all dirty and in rags. God knows where they’ve dragged him about, poor dear, and where he’s tramping now! Well, he’ll have a wash and change, You know yourself that he ways liked to be well dressed."
"I know, I know," I murmured.
"Do you remember, when he had changed on Sunday afternoon, how he used to pace the room, with his head thrown back. He’d turn on his heel ever so lightly, shake his shoulders and look at himself. Mother would give a little laugh and then she would clap her hands and admire him out loud: ‘My, how handsome you are!’ But he stood still, drew himself up even more, stroked the back of his nose with his open hand and agreed quite seriously: ‘Of course, I am handsome!’ Do you remember how they both used to laugh then!"
"I know, I know…" I murmured rather more loudly, resolutely lifted my feet and turned towards the threshold.
"And mother would laugh at him even now if she were alive," continued Auntie as she followed me. "And she would laugh at you; because you, too, like to show off your new clothes. Do you remember how she used to clasp her hands and say to your father: ‘Oh, but that boy takes altogether after you! Just look at him! As if born to be a lord!’ Father would laugh, and then say very seriously: ‘Nancy, we’ll both be glad if it turns out that he’s not born to be a slave!’ And he was right, wasn’t he?"
Without a word I crossed the threshold. Auntie followed me. The big room was all washed and scrubbed and tidied as if on the eve of a holiday. All four windows were wide open but I noticed the fumes of petrol all the same.
"Isn’t there a smell of petrol?" said I.
"Of course there is," Auntie nodded, well pleased with herself.
"I’ve cleaned and oiled the harmonium. You know that he’ll sit down to it at once and try to get some music out of it. He was always very much taken up with it, especially these last years. Not even in our worst straits would he think of parting with it. And you may believe me that we were really in straits if I tell you that he would get up in the middle of the night and begin playing in the dark. But why am I telling you all this when you remember it yourself! The cows went from the shed, the larches from the meadow, there’s not a walnut tree left beside the house, nor an oak, but the harmonium is still here. I can’t quite understand that. You know, I’ve no ear for music."
I nodded and fixed my eyes on the harmonium which stood behind the door all bright with polish. The lid was open. The light played upon the black and white keys as if they were alive and waiting impatiently for the touch of a hand.
"Do you remember," resumed Auntie after a silence, "how your father would say that some people have hearts even though they’ve got no ear?"
"I know…" I nodded and looked at her.
"He used to say it about me, too," she said slowly. She pushed that rebellious strand of hair from her forehead and gave me a lively glance.
"I don’t remember," I lied.
"It’s all the same," she waved a deprecating hand. "This war has been such a thunderstorm that even I haven’t escaped the lightning. I hope that it opened my heart and that now I can hear."
"I hope so, too…" I smiled at her.
She opened her arms and pointed around the room. "You see I’ve got everything ready," she boasted, "I’ve thought of everything!"
"I see," I agreed.
She laughed happily. Suddenly she opened her mouth, clutched her head with both her hands and looked at me with something like horror. "But I forgot about you!" she cried. "Good Lord, I’m looking at you as if you were a stranger. You must be hungry! And where are you going to sleep!"
I tried to laugh it off. "Well, I am really something of a stranger! I’m not hungry, and I’ll sleep in my loft if the old bedstead is still there."
"It is, it is! I’ll first go and make your bed and then you’ll have supper," said Auntie resolutely and whirled out of the room.
I went up to the harmonium, drew my fingers over the cold, dumb keys and then slowly closed the lid. I turned and paced the room. I patted the backs of our ramshackle chairs and stroked the smooth worm-eaten table. I stood motionless. I felt the old, potent, irresistible peace of home slowly enfolding me again.
Something creaked behind my back. My ear recognized the sound at once. I turned and stared at the old wall clock beside the stove. The poor old thing was hoarsely preparing to strike. It was tilted a little like some nice old woman with her head a bit on one side. After each stroke, it trembled slightly but the stroke was clear and full. The faded round dial looked at me devotedly and nodded meekly as if to say:
"Have you forgotten me?... You see I’m still here, still alive and still marking time for you…"
"Time…’ I murmured and strode up to the clock. I lovingly took hold of its face with both hands and put it straight. Immediately the pendulum slowed down and presently stopped. At that moment tiny footsteps came tripping down the stairs. Auntie opened the door, stood still and gasped out:
"No, no, just tilt it, its heart is giving out."
"Its heart is giving out…?"
"Of course. It’s a hundred years old!"
"A hundred years…" I repeated, tilted the clock again and restarted the pendulum.
"That’s right," said Auntie well pleased as the regular ticktack started once more. "Now, do put down your gun and come with me into the kitchen and have something to eat!"
I deposited my knapsack and Sten gun on the seat beside the stove and went into the kitchen. In next to no time, Auntie served me with fried eggs and milk. I did not feel like eating, but I ate because Auntie stood over me, watching me ecstatically as if I were performing some uncommon rite. When I laid down my fork, she spun round again briskly:
"Good Lord, it’s dark already!" she cried and darted out for Father’s clothes. She quickly cleared the table and prepared to iron them. "You see, I’ll press them tonight," she said. "And not only the trousers, also the coat. I know that he won’t be here tomorrow, but all the same, won’t it be nice if everything is prepared?"
"Of course it will," I agree and turned quickly towards the darkened entry.
"Where are you going?" Auntie fussed after me.
"I’m tired," I protested. "We’ve had little sleep these days."
"Silly old fool that I am. How is it I never thought of that?!" Auntie struck her forehead with the flat of her hand. "Of course you’ve had little sleep! Now go and lie down. Lie down and go to sleep!"
I staggered up the steep creaking steps to my loft and lay down. And I actually dropped off quite quickly.