Ashes Above Us

Someone found the jar in the basement of my aunts’ Zagreb apartment building and immediately alerted the police. The fetus was floating inside and I imagine it sitting on a metal shelf, towards the back, the dust on the glass so thick that the person making the discovery – the building’s custodian, perhaps – could not at first identify the contents. Perhaps he shook it, or took a handkerchief from his back pocket in order to study its depths. Perhaps he thought it was someone’s forgotten canning, summer vegetables lost in vinegar, until a pair of alien eyes appeared in front of him.

The police launched a full investigation and there were stories in the newspaper. The fetus was nearly full-term and there was a question of whether it had, in fact, drawn breath. The specter of infanticide hung over the building and neighbors’ shock turned towards suspicion. Who fit the bill, they wondered, regarding one another in the stairwell where the light was always a little blue, like the thinnest milk. Whose daughter, or wife, or sister? There was talk of criminal charges. Whoever it was would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

There was an autopsy and the police declared it an old crime. A tragedy, perhaps. No one could be certain. It might have been an illegal late-term abortion or perhaps the baby had been stillborn, its mother unwilling to part with it. In any event, the jar and its contents were at least forty years old. Who knew where the mother was, or if she were even alive anymore?

My aunts told me the news when I visited them one Sunday for lunch, then looked down into their soup bowls. Aunt Katja tore her bread into tiny pieces, leaving them on the vinyl tablecloth in a ragged constellation.

The girl is German. In my mind, she is slight with blonde hair and light-colored eyes. She arrives by plane, circa 1960, posing as a tourist. The Yugoslav economy relies on tourism and I doubt she is asked any questions coming through passport control. Still, she clutches her handbag. She does not understand a word of the local language and tourists are less common here, in the republic’s capital, than on the Adriatic Coast.

My aunts have agreed to let her stay in their apartment as a favor to a nephew’s friend. The friend is an American GI stationed in Munich. They have never met him, the American, and do not approve of the situation. Both women had wanted to have children of their own and do not understand how fate can be so cruel, delivering offspring to people who do not want them.

But they are pragmatists, too. They understand advancement as a series of favors, a long line of pacts one must make with devils, both foreign and domestic. They want to help their nephew, who works with the American man, and so they volunteer the small room off the kitchen, the one where Aunt Katja and Uncle Mile sleep on a single, childless bed.

Abortions in Germany are strictly verboten in those years and the penalties are harsh. Abortion in Yugoslavia has been legal since 1952, because so many women died of botched ones after the war. But there are limitations and it is legal only for citizens. Facilitating one for a foreigner is a serious crime and they realize from the moment the girl – jadna, my aunts say to me decades later, piteous, a face like a child’s – appears at their apartment door that they are playing with fire.

Their nephew’s friend has lied. She was supposed to be barely pregnant but she is, in fact, quite far along. One of their neighbors is a rumored police informant and so they pull her quickly into the apartment.

I imagine them standing just inside the front door, dumbstruck by the size of her. There must be some mistake, they say to one another as the girl’s nervous eyes take them in.

The “doctor” appears at the apartment’s front door some time later, his approach so quiet that they have not heard his steps in the stairwell.

The women object at this point, in strenuous whispers. The girl, seated now on the loveseat in the front room, looks from one face to another, understanding nothing and growing visibly frightened. But the man is not an ordinary doctor and he sums up my village aunts in an instant. He tells them that they are already neck deep, already complicit. There is no backing out of it now. And he has yet to be paid.

It is unspeakable what happens next, in the tiny room off the kitchen, one of my aunts tells me. And she doesn’t tell me, not specifically. I do not know if they have waited in another part of the apartment, perhaps instructed to turn on a radio. Or if they are summoned when things go wrong, stopping short when they see the bleeding, the girl and her suffering on that narrow bed.

My aunt says that the fetus disappears with him, afterward. I picture a secret compartment in his doctor’s bag but a jar is possible, too. The only birth to which they will have any proximity disappears down the stairs with the man, his business done, his footsteps so silent that the neighbors are none the wiser.

The girl plans to board a return flight to Germany as soon as it is done. She is unsteady, and bleeding, but she can still walk, and my aunts need her to go.

I don’t know who drives her to the airport and I wonder if – this time – she raises eyebrows as she passes through passport control, a pale ghost, posters of the seaside on either side of her. Dovidjenja! Auf Wiedersehen! Come again!

In her wake, my aunts huddle at the kitchen table. The door to the small room is closed. The sheets will need to be disposed of, perhaps burned.

They will hear later that the girl collapsed at Munich airport, having lost a lot of blood. There is even a hint of sepsis when my aunts tell me the story and their telling is one part exorcism, one part complaint. They could have paid mightily for what happened, they tell me. Jail would have been the least of their worries.

The nephew, in Germany, is horrified. He had never seen the girl in person and the American friend had said that she was mere weeks along.

In the kitchen, each aunt drinks from a shallow fildžan. They think, in the colorless afterwards, how things might have ended differently. They could have invented a poor niece from the provinces. They could have hidden the girl for a few more days, or weeks, or months, then sent her on her way, claiming the child as their own. But as quickly as the ideas come – too late, in any event – they dismiss them because to su priče za malu djecu. (They are stories for small children.)

The trams on Branimirova Street pass at intervals, wheels squealing. My aunts study the grounds at the bottom of their empty cups though there is no need now for fortune-telling. There will be weeks of fear, and weeks of expecting the police to appear at their door. (They don’t, but, in any event, the cups do not project that far into the future).

To their neighbors, my aunts profess ignorance about the jar. Shock. To me, incredulity. So many years later, it could not be the same one. Impossible. But they are uneasy. The discovery has stirred up something, a gray, decaying mass poised to threaten the shore. Is it not enough that they are childless, that their husbands are dead, that they must fend for themselves?

The fervor dies down. The police decide that there is no case to be had, no charges to pursue.

On my aunts’ street, the pre-war buildings are all decrepit stucco. Pastel colors have returned to other districts, like a black-and-white film edging towards Technicolor, but have yet to appear here. All the buildings along their block are gray, as if smeared in ash from the nearby railroad yard.

Visiting my aunts in the evening, I walk past the ankle-height windows of the street’s other basements. I imagine glass jars behind them. They line the block, resting on ledges and in hidey-holes, like a vast catacombs. Perhaps they sit in basements all around the city.

Not just this city, I think. All cities.

The American GI remained in Germany after his enlistment. He married a different German girl, opened a business, had children.

I want to know what became of the girl but my aunts don’t know anything more about her, not even her name. Her light eyes slipped from sight the moment she left their apartment, unsteady, shoes not yet filled with blood. But I can tell that she haunts the small room which they later turn into a špajz, using it as a pantry to store flour and pickled cabbage.

They think she lived. They can’t be certain.

My Blues

Tell me it will be enough. Tell me it will be enough to wipe away the spreading stain of blue.

Palimpsest Istanbul

Palimpsest: the term came to me at that moment. I knew the Greeks had coined the term to denote the scraping or washing off old texts from a page—be it parchment, papyrus, or vellum—for reuse, as I knew the word could now be, and is, used figuratively for situations of overwriting or layered meanings. But it was only when I saw the buried texts that I realized my latest purchase was in fact one itself, the same time I understood the concept’s usefulness as a trope to characterize my whole trip.

Surface Tension

My mother has what you might call a tradition. Each summer, when the Connecticut heat slides towards 90 and the humidity makes it feel like you're breathing through cotton balls, my mother goes outside to her car, rolls up all the windows, closes the door, and sits in it for as long as she can manage. She alerts no one. Seven to eight minutes later, she throws open the front door, gasping, eyes squinting from the sweat that could no longer be held back by her eyelashes. She smiles as sweat pools inside her shoes and eventually spills out of them, leaving two watery footprints on the floor when she walks to her bathroom for a shower. I wonder for a second what Yemaya would have to say about the oceans at her feet.