“Are you coming, Mitza?” Mama called to me without turning around. I reminded myself that her sternness didn’t stem solely from her displeasure over the move to Zagreb. Strict discipline and high expectations were her daily prescription for righteous children; she often said, “The Proverbs say that ‘The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.’”
“Yes, Mama,” I called back.
Dressed in her usual mourning black and dark kerchief, worn in honor of my dead brother and sister, Mama walked ahead, looking like an ebony shadow against the gray autumnal sky. I was short of breath by the time I reached the summit, but I muffled my labored breathing. This was my duty.
Risking a cluck, I turned around; I loved the view from this vantage point. Titel spread out before us, and above the church spire, the vista of the town looked as though it clung to the banks of the Tisa. The dusty town was small, with only a town square, market, and a few governmental buildings at its center, but it was still beautiful.
But then I heard Mama lowering herself to the ground, and my guilt set in. This was no pleasure stroll; I should not be enjoying myself. This would be one of our last visits to the cemetery for a long time to come. Even Papa couldn’t make me feel better about our move today.
I took my place at Mama’s side before the gravestones. The pebbles dug into my knees, but I wanted to feel pain today. It seemed a reasonable sacrifice for the pain I was inflicting on Mama by sparking our move to Zagreb. Since I’d reach the limits of my local education, Papa wanted me to attend the Royal Classical High School in Zagreb. We wouldn’t be returning to Titel with any frequency. I glanced over at her. Her brown eyes were shut, and without their flinty animation, she looked older than her thirty-odd years. The burden of loss and the weight of daily minutiae had aged her.
I made the sign of the cross, closed my eyes, and offered a silent prayer to the souls of my long-departed brother and sister. They had always served as my invisible companions, a replacement for the friends I never had. How different my life might have been had they lived. Maybe with an older brother and sister by my side, I would not have been so lonely, secretly longing to play with the girls in the schoolyard, even the ones who hurt me.
A shaft of sunlight passed over me, and I opened my eyes. The arched marble gravestones of my older brother and sister stared back at me. Their names—Milica Mari? and Vuka?in Mari?—glistened in the sun as if they had just been chiseled, and I held back an impulse to run my finger along each of the letters.
Mama usually liked to keep our visits silent and reflective, but not that day. She reached for my hand and called out to the Virgin in our native, rarely used Serbian:
Bogorodice Djevo, radujsja
Mama was so loud that she drowned out the wind and the rustling leaves. And she was swaying. I felt embarrassed by the strength of Mama’s voice and her dramatic movements, especially when two mourners in the distance peered over at us.
Still, I chanted along. The words of the Hail Mary usually soothed me, but today, they felt unfamiliar. Almost thick on my tongue. Like a lie. Mama’s utterances sounded different too, not like reverential worship but like a condemnation. Of me, certainly not of the Virgin.
I tried to focus on the wind, the crackling of the branches and leaves, the gallop of hooves as horses passed by, anything but the words coming from Mama’s mouth. I did not need further reminders that so much rested on my success at the school in Zagreb. I had to succeed. Not just for myself and Mama and Papa but for my departed brother and sister too. Souls left behind.