Our Roots Will Dry Out in the End

Ivan Zoric

Illustration by Dante Luiz

On Christmas Eve of the coldest January on record, the Communist Party Secret Police shot my grandfather in our front yard, as he was about to carry Badnjak into the house. I learned two things that night. One, plum brandy and secrets will get you killed in combination. The other? Rains loved the taste of our blood.

It’s been forty years since that night and I still can’t get the image of a blood-soaked oak branch out of my head. All my life I have been dreaming of a red Christmas. The real one, not the commercialized Western version that my kids and husband love so much. I let them enjoy their fantasy. It’s easier that way. One less argument to battle over, one less fight with no winner and a house full of defeated.

It wasn’t always like this. There was love under this roof, once. Youth is gullible that way, easy to manipulate, even when both sides believe in its sincerity. Oh, but we were players, both of us. I was a beautiful immigrant bride and Jack, well, he was the one to save me from the lifetime of poverty and struggle. There are worse things that an empty stomach, I’ve come to find out. Bruises whisper at night, their songs always blue. When kids finally arrived, we shared the same lullaby.

Except on Christmas.

Snow is early this year, and there is a good two feet of it in our front yard, blanketing the bushes and trees. Blueberries, rosemary, a plum, two palms and an oak. Always an oak. Our roots run deep. I stare out the window, a cup in hand, the smell of coffee strong and comforting.

My girls are out on the porch with Jack, completely enamored with the Christmas lights show he had worked on all day. He’s grinning, or at least I know he is under all that beard he grew out of spite. Bruised ego as a fashion statement was so like him.

Net radio is playing Christmas music, and it’s a never-ending medley of someone being cold, heartbroken and missing teeth. What they loved, I had lived. No wonder I hated it with passion.

I look at the pile of presents under the tree. Wrong looking tree, all green and straight and nothing like my oak. No roots, steel appendages holding it in place, just for the length of a lie. How many weeks is that? Two? Three, if lucky, before it gets discarded on the curb, and we decorate the house with misery again.

It’s almost ten, and soon they’ll be inside, ready to be warm and tucked in. By eleven, I will have the house to myself.

I walk over to the bathroom, lock the doors and look at myself in the mirror. The year has not been good to me, I’m all cheekbones and frown now. Weathered, just like my grandma used to be. Hair has gotten long since last Christmas, almost a full eight inches of curls. My girls loved it and played with it every chance they got. We all knew why. It wasn’t meant to last.

‘Quick, get the scissors,’ I say and reach for the cabinet.

My mother is standing in the doorway, the look on her face pure agony. She’s white knuckling a pair of scissors, as if she believes she could break them in half. She’s more terrified than I am, but then again, I am six and the shock has not set in yet. There is a body getting cold, out in the yard, and I still have cookie crumbs all over my face.

‘Don’t just stand there, Radinka, hand them over!’ Grandma’s voice is cool fire, not allowing for any argument or doubt. She grabs the scissors out of my mother’s hands and cuts off my braid in a single motion. Then she starts working on the rest.

‘We do not have much time, Maja,’ she says. ‘Do you remember what to do?’

I nod, remembering what she told me.

‘Good, good’, she says, still cutting around my ears. I want to sneeze but know better than to move. Blades and ears love to dance, if given the chance.

I’m holding a loaf of bread in one hand and a bottle of rakija and a wax candle in the other. They’re all too big for me, made to be held by older hands. Grandpa’s hands. I swallow hard.

I’ll have to walk by his body on my way to the pile of firewood in the back of the yard. Grandma said not to look and that they will carry him in later and I will never have to think about it again. Then she cusses under her breath, something about drunks and men and trust. Years later, I would find out exactly what she meant, all on my own.

Just make it to the firewood. Say the words. Come back.

She made it sound so easy.

I looked, of course.

The bullet took the top of his skull clean off and there were frozen chunks of brain scattered around his old winter hat. It looked a lot like that sausage he used to make out of pig insides, and I could feel all those cookies coming back up. I pushed the sugar and walnuts down for the second time, and step around grandpa’s body. He’s still squeezing the Badnjak, oak leaves speckled red and white. This is the exact moment when I start hating Santa Claus’s color pattern.

It’s freezing cold outside and although grandma had warmed up both the bread and the drink, they both feel like icicles. I should have worn gloves.

The firewood pile is massive, some six feet high and a good twenty feet long, and it looms over me. I can’t see the moon or the stars behind it, just the ever-present darkness. It smells bad, too, way worse than the fresh copper smell I had just left behind. This is an old smell; the smell of all things rotten and forgotten. The smell of what comes after decay.

I speak then, masking my voice to be deeper, like grandma told me. Like a boy. Like a man. Like grandpa.

‘German, German, wherever you are, come to dinner right now, and in the summer don’t let me see your eyes anywhere!’

I strike a match and light the candles, shadows dancing across the logs as I do so. It’s a frantic dance, short-lived and all consuming. I take a bite of the bread and sip some rakija. It burns all the way down, nothing like that pleasant warmth of red wine grandpa used to let me try when he thought grandma wasn’t looking.

The wind whistles and howls as I stare into the darkness. Eternity passes. Then another one.

Finally, the candle dies, and I turn back towards the house, tired way beyond all of my six years.

‘Wait’, the whisper comes from somewhere behind the wood pile.

I sneak out of the house a few minutes before midnight. Jack’s sound asleep, his snoring reaching a crescendo. Good thing I have white noise machine for the girl’s bedroom. One Christmas gift I actually found useful.

It’s snowing again, big fluffy snowflakes sticking to my lashes. Winter makes for a bad mascara.

My footsteps make a squeaky sound as I pace across our property, and I focus on that instead of thinking what’s ahead.

I’ve missed a year.

I fell sick with Norovirus the winter before and spent a couple of days in the ER, hooked on IV to recover from dehydration. Ask me what the worst part of it was? It was not the throwing up or being so weak I almost died, no. It was the forest fires that came that summer. It was the smoke that made the air the most toxic air ever recorded. It was the millions of acres of land burnt and thousand of lives and families destroyed.

I missed a year.

There is a shed at the edge of our property, where the fence meets the dirt road. No one ever goes there, the building is a home to a family of racoons now and perhaps an opossum or two, if the nights get really cold. I built a woodpile there, over years, dragging all the logs and big branches I could find in the area. Jack never found out. It would have been different if I had purchased the wood. He would have been livid and demanded explanations. It was easier this way. I was handy with the axe, ever since childhood, and we were both happy when I was gone from the house.

The girls were much harder to fool. A few times I caught them following me around, hiding behind trees and in the bushes. Curiosity runs in the family, deep, like our roots. Like oak.

I found that standing still for long periods of time made them bored. They would run back to the house, to daddy and video games and leave mom alone to her ways. Just like the weirdo she is. His words, not mine.

The snow is swirling around in the beam of my flashlight. A sleeping giant of a woodpile breathes and grunts the midnight air. Everything snores around here.

My voice cut through it. It’s deep and raspy, years of practice turned into craft. In some other life, I would have made a great metal band front woman. Rammstein had nothing on me.

‘German, German, wherever you are, come to dinner right now, and in the summer don’t let me see your eyes anywhere!’

I pull a bread roll out of pocket and a small flask of plum brandy. I chew and I swallow, and I wash it down, and it never gets easy, even after all these years. I can still taste those cookies trying to come back up, a phantom vomit haunting me from across the divide.

I wait for a minute and then I turn the flashlight off.

‘You’re early,’ it says. ‘This is not your Christmas. Nor mine.’

‘I’m late,’ I say. ‘Eleven months late. Look where that got us.’

It laughs like a razorblade, all cuts and swishes.

‘A deal is a deal. One must eat, or one must rage. This is the old world’

I nod, and I’m not ever sure it can see me. I’m not sure I want to see it. Some spirits are better left off in the dark.

‘You hungry?’ I ask.

‘Very. I missed the taste of you, boy.’

It’s funny, isn’t it? Forty years, thirty-nine Christmas Eves and it still did not know. Always this old-world bullshit, this tradition that spans centuries. The man of the house had to be the one to feed the spirit. Shows how much spirits know. Circle jerk of machismo. I had to play along, and I hated it. I hoped that one night it would choke on it.

I produce a small filleting knife and cut the side of my wrist, another soon-to-be scar in a fine mash on my arms. Ironic that I never had to explain that one to Jack. He just assumed I was cutting myself. I was, but for an entirely different reason. The rains loved the taste of our blood.

I let it drip in the snow and wipe the knife with a napkin and then toss that towards the wood pile, as well.

There is a sickly sound coming out of the dark, like someone biting into an ice cream.

‘Slow down, you’ll get a brain freeze,’ I say, but it just ignores me. It always does at this point. Ever since the night it made me scoop handfuls of my grandpa’s blood from the snow. I never figured out if it was because he was an alcoholic and it loved its liquor with a side of iron. God knows I’m not any better. Sometimes it’s just easier that way.

‘See you next year,’ I say and head back to the house.

The girls are still asleep when I walk in their bedroom to tuck them in. I stand in the dark, silent as a prayer, and I look at their twin angel faces. I wonder how I will ever make a choice. My roots will dry out in the end, but our roots? Our roots grow deep. ∎

Ivan Zoric lives and writes in Portland, Oregon after surviving a turbulent childhood in war torn country whose name does not exist anymore.

His writing central themes are immigration, displacement and the horror at the heart of losing identity.

He has been published in Tales to Terrify, A Walk In a Darker Wood and A Walk In the City of Shadows.

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