“Her moodiness...” my mother says in a loud whisper to Aunt Arlene. “It's those teenage hormones.”
I glare at the back of her head. She'd be moody too if she were responsible ... [+]
Aunt Mila was the one collecting the eggs every morning but the chore is now mine. We have an extra daily egg since she has flown off and Grandma uses them to bake a cake every other day. Grandpa and I can't keep up and the earlier, uneaten one, sits drying out on the sideboard. Before she throws the remnant out, I lick off the icing.
Grandma stopped talking after I brought the note from Mila's room. She clutched her side and beads of sweat sprang up on her forehead. I'd read the curt sentence: "Off with Captain Zolt, not coming back." Grandpa eased the note out of Grandma's shaking fingers, and after reading it, handed her a large glass of water and two pills.
Twelve days she burrowed in the bedroom and I wondered if she'd be like Mrs. Ronan, with a bedpan under her bed, left side of her face frozen. Grandpa said to give her time and now she's back to making cutlets in dill sauce for lunch, baking extra cakes, weeding her vegetable patch but when Grandpa or I speak to her, she only nods and no sound comes out of her lips.
Nobody told me to collect the eggs – I just knew. Grandpa takes the net bag to the Polus Center and drags it back bulging with cans and butcher's paper packages and I bet nobody told him either.
I didn't always live with Grandma and Grandpa and Mila, and that, Grandpa told me, was the problem. "We're thrilled to have you," he said, washing my hair in the bathtub, about a week after Mila's flight, "but your Grandma has never gotten over the business with your mom. She was sure Mila would finish her schooling, be a learned woman in the city, but she's lost that dream, too. You can understand that?" I had shampoo in my eyes but nodded. We don't talk about Mom. Pushing me through their door, dropping me off, Mom told me I'd have a good life with Grandma and Grandpa, that she just can't anymore, that she has to go. I don't even dream about her. But what I know is that I'll be a professional cyclist and race over mountains and boulevards. Then one day after I win a big race, I'll meet Mom in Krakow, or Dresden, or St. Petersburg and we'll sip champagne.
In the seven months I've been living here, Mila had twelve boyfriends. When she walked along the Danube promenade, married men, out for a walk with their wives, stopped and stared, and drivers pulled over their delivery trucks, asking her to give them just one smile so they can die happy. She laughed. When she came home after a date, we'd all be up, waiting for her, and she whirled around, mimicking the men trying to impress her with their French, or their muscles, buying her a fancy dinner with snails and oh-la-la soup and we giggled. Grandma usually finished laughing first and sent Mila and me to bed, saying, "You both have school in the morning."
The troop moving into the barracks at the edge of town brought the crash. Not just local boys and men now: the town was overrun with leathery-skinned soldiers, puffing dark cigarettes, who marched like men who'd killed and seen comrades maimed, who pounded the pavement like they'd pillaged ancient cities, men who glared at Mila.
Mila's morning songs to the hens suddenly had ominous words. It wasn't, "One egg here, ‘nother there, pies and omelettes everywhere," while prancing with me and the basket. Instead she crooned of snake venom and entombed princesses, of blazing fires and runaway horses; I listened and watched her gaze into the blood-orange horizon and her fingers gliding along the coop slats. No more nightly tales, no more new beaus. Late one night I heard Grandma's wheedling cries and Grandpa's soothing rumble, "She's smarter than all the soldiers of the world put together; she'll be fine, you'll see."
I haunt the streets, squint into cul-de-sacs and narrow passageways, through iron-wrought gates, sure I'll catch a glimpse of Mila's brow, her blonde locks, her magenta dress. I hear her laughter through a half-open window but when I sprint up, a stranger stares. At the market I sniff to catch a trace of her perfume but smell potatoes, beets and purple plums.
I need to undo her sentence. The soldiers are still in the barracks; the captain could not have carried her off. If I march up to the sentry and ask to speak to Zolt, will I find him, or be ordered off?
One of our hens has stopped laying. I sing them happy songs, about airy meringue, fat worms and brave roosters. When I come out of the coop, the sky is pulsing blue, the shrubs speckle-green and the grass shimmery. I breathe in the onset of another scorching day, longing to look directly into the sun and I tell myself I will not be sad.
For a whole week, that hen has not laid a single egg. Grandma counts the eggs I bring in; she knows. Her knife is sharp and on Sunday we are sure to have chicken stew.
Last night I woke and heard Grandma. She still had a voice after all, "Cursed, that's what I am, never should have had girls, better to have drowned them and myself in Moravsky Pond."
Grandpa's voice sizzled like butter in a hot pan, "Hush. Think of your blessings. Your parsley and dill, your grandson."
She wailed, misery from a deep cave.
The speckled hen must give me an egg.