The lights come up on an old woman holding a candle. It is Auntie Rula.
Do you hear a child crying in the cellar? Yes, yes, it is you. Patsy! Back again to haunt your old Auntie Rula. But why are you crying, child? Or are you laughing? Crying, laughing—with you, they always sounded the same. Ah yes, to you, to the world, she is Nadia Mulvenya Porochnjik, the great Croat poetess. The name Nadia has so many diminutives: Nadi, Nadji, Dadi, Didi, Dina, Dani, Nana, Donna, Dodo. But me, I always called her Patsy. And before she ever sang to you, she sang to goats.
She turns and, through a slight adjustment of her shawl, becomes a girl of 16, reciting a poem to a goat.
Walking along the road of life,
I hadn’t journeyed very far
When someone pulled over,
his name was Death.
I didn’t know he had a car.
She looks to the goat, hopefully.
Oh, you always say the same thing about my poems: Nya-a-a-a-a-a-h! But you shan’t upset me today; it’s my birthday!
Why, thank you. Mama is having a party for me! Uncle Nathan’s going to be there, and Auntie Rula and cousin Irena. Mama said I could even invite my own friends. I wanted to invite you. “Oh, he’ll just stink up the house,” Mama said. Isn’t love supposed to smell?
She turns again.
The dining room table is covered with Grandma Porochnjik’s good lace tablecloth and on top of it are the candles we use only on Croatian holidays. There’s a huge tureen of blood sausage and beets; there’s pickled onions, and cabbage pudding and turnips carved to look like roses! I’m just about to pick one when from behind me I hear a voice:
Imitating Uncle Nathan’s gravelly baritone:
“Now there’s a young lady I could eat!” It’s Uncle Nathan! He’s wearing his new leg and wants to dance.
She curtsies coquettishly and begins to dance—a waltz interposed with limp hops.
While we’re dancing, Gregor, the gardener, comes in and asks if cousin Irena would like to see his bush. Irena laughs and goes out with him—and suddenly I smell goats.
Her arms transform from holding a dance partner to holding a box.
She tears it open furiously.
A dress! A dress with a zipper!
She spins with glee, but when she is forward again we see that it is years later. She takes up a pen, dips it in an inkwell and begins to write.
October 30, 1912. I never wore that dress. Just as I opened the box Mama began to hiccup and couldn’t stop. We thought it funny at first, but then it went on all night and by morning she had to be taken to the sanatorium at Zlatny.
She bounces as if in a train.
Auntie Rula and Uncle Nathan have invited me to come live with them in Zagreb.
She disembarks and steps onto the street.
I’m excited by the big city with its electric lights and sausage stands.
Smiles to herself.
Auntie Rula says it doesn’t look right, a girl eating sausage on the street. She doesn’t know how it helps my poems:
Knocking on a heart
Ready to burst.
Love’s ache keener.
I only know it,
She sits and tats.
Strange to be writing poetry in the midst of so much violence. A war’s broken out: Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro have attacked Turkey, and Serbia’s overrun Albania. Thank God I’m Croat. Still, Uncle Nathan’s gone off to the front. “War or no war,” he says, “people still need postcards.” Auntie Rula’s very brave, and Irena’s too busy with her suitors to care much at all.
I don’t have any suitors. Oh, it’s silly really. I have my studies and my poetry. I don’t have time for boys.
She turns and it is a year later.
August 12, 1913. I’ve met a boy! A young student I met on the trolley. I dropped a turnip, he picked it up and asked if I’d like to go for a sausage. I said yes, and suddenly felt as if all of Zagreb were watching me! While we ate, we talked about the war. Now Serbia’s attacked Macedonia, so Bulgaria’s attacked Serbia, so Greece, Turkey, and Rumania are attacking Bulgaria. Gavvy—his name’s Gavrilo—he’s Serbian. But I don’t care! I don’t care if the whole world knows!
She walks upstage and turns. She is calmer now; her voice lower.
Valentine’s Day, 1914. Today I am a woman. I have known love, I have found peace, a peace nothing in this world can destroy. Each night as I leave the house, Irena says, “Seeing your Serb again?” How I pity her with her hard lips grown crusty at the corners from drinking too swiftly from the cup of love.
She turns and is quite exhilarated.
Ring, bells, ring! Sing, heart, sing! Oh, blessed, blessed day! Gavrilo’s asked me to marry him! Auntie Rula says I’m to wear the same Croatian wedding harness Grandma Porochnjik wore on her wedding day. Uncle Nathan will lead me through the streets of Zagreb and each maiden will offer me a carrot as I pass. So it’s settled, then! I’m to become Mrs. Gavrilo Princip!
June 15, 1914. Gavrilo’s edgy lately, spending less time with me and more with that Serbian crowd of his. Is it the engagement? I throw myself into my poems. More philosophical now: is rhyme necessary? And then I wonder: what ever happened to Mama?
Dejection turns into exasperation. She mops herself with a handkerchief.
June 25. Heat unbearable. Zagreb a cesspool. Gavrilo and I argue in cafe—him with that Serbian nonsense again; me with my rhyme schemes. Says he needs space, going to Sarajevo for a couple days. The Archduke’ll be passing through. Maybe the excitement will do him good.
She turns and exasperation has become despair.
June 28, 1914. I can’t believe it! The Archduke has been assassinated and all the papers say Gavrilo did it! Now Austria-Hungary’s declared war on Serbia, Germany’s declared war on Russia, and France and Great Britain have declared war on Germany. Irena’s just gloating!
Oh, war! War!
What is it good for?
She turns and, through an adjustment of her shawl, she is once again Auntie Rula. Her eyes are moist with tears.
Absolutely nothing. The next day Patsy left Zagreb for a small farm just outside Vlonjic where she lived alone for the rest of her life. Did I say alone? No, she was never alone. She always had the goats. She struggles against the tears. When she died, in the cellar we found over 2,000 poems—and every one of them rhymed. What courage! The Eastern European folk music swells as she blows out the candle and the lights fade.
Copyright © 1988 by Jeffrey Essmann.
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