Plum Blood Red
The day the partisan came to the krčma to shoot Rittmeister Singer was the day I found out I would have a sister in this world. Her name would be Julia, and by the time she was born Singer would have escaped into Bavaria, replaced by the good man Schaden in the valley of death.
The krčma was a community place-an institution patronized by members of the township and other esteemed residents of our village. It was a tavern, an eatery, and a place to warm your feet when the weather moved in during the winter months.
Above all, it was a home.
Mama gave birth to me in a bedroom on the second floor where the living quarters were, "spring fruit of the Slovak hills," as she liked to say. You can see the window from the street and I think of it often now, picture the midwife moving about. In the next room, where my sister would eventually be born, were the helper quarters, and after a long hallway a small living room gave my father the quiet he required to read and drink his cognac before retiring to the master bedroom.
During the war, our rooms were rarely vacant. For a while a Ukrainian platoon stayed in our mountain town, drinking heavily and singing patriotic songs in the streets, their German overseers having taken the best beds for their own. At the very least, and this not often for obvious reasons, the partisans came down from the trees long enough to put their ammunition belts on the table and drink a pint of beer. They liked best the smaller theater in back; we would play Chaplin films from time to time, though the reels eventually fell into disrepair. Mama had to cook food for both kinds of patron, and though she concealed the wares of only one, she remained outwardly indifferent for the sake of her family.
The townspeople knew her as Jolana. She was heavyset and strong from years of work, and wore her thin white hair up and held back from her weathered face with a long-toothed hair comb. Her sharp grey eyes rarely betrayed a smile, and though hobbled from a bad right hip, she still seemed to outpace anyone tasked with keeping up with her, as I often was.
Always there was work to be done.
She was hardened now from the wars and the occupying armies and the people appreciated it because people appreciate the honorable things they relate to in another. And every citizen who wasn't a sympathizer or made a coward had faced the same interrogations, seen the same summary executions carried out ruthlessly in the street by the Hlinka guard. It wasn't world war in Lúčka, it was a mosaic of intolerable things made tolerable by necessity.
It was the sound of a German Panzer division gullying the muddy mountain roads as it rumbled into town ahead of a full division of haggard young Germans down from somewhere where the fighting was.
It was police-state occupation and control-midnight knocks by cloaked policemen asking dangerous questions, their faces sterile and inhumane like wild dogs on a carcass.
"Papers," they asked, looking over your shoulder to survey the room. "Okay," and a long look into your eyes. They can find things in there, Mama told me once after rewarding me with a ration of marzipan. "So wipe that boyish smile off your face this instant."
It was watching Milos, the butcher, and his wife being dragged into the street by their hair, kicking and shouting out as they were tossed into paddy wagons like kitchen discards.
To Nováky. Auschwitz-Birkenau. Terezín.
It was the black stain of a bloodspot on yesterday's snow.
Mama held tight because she knew it would be over soon and her instinct was sound. One day in late summer the German officers ordered the Ukrainians up-"up, you ragged dogs!"-and as they filed out of town to resume their westward retreat, this time finally, Mama called me out back because there was still butter to churn and eggs to collect from the chickens.
Papa was convalescing in the Serafinov sanatorium at the time. "They'll be coming down now, Jolana," he said from his hospital bed. "The mountain fighters." He spoke softly, still weak from a burst membrane in his lungs. His hair was salt and pepper, full stubble to match, and his body looked vacuum-sealed in his bed the way the sky blue hospital blanket clung to his war-nourished supine frame. He gestured with a pale bony hand and Mama held me close. "They'll be dressed in black just as the secret police were, and after the same wretched things."
Mama was calloused to it like her hands were to heat from so many years of cooking. I swear that woman could reach into a pot of boiling water or stick a pig just the same-without flinching or even a second thought. And it made little difference to her who was pointing the gun, as long as they weren't pointing it at me.
Late fall, 1944, felt like a final ebb. Radio reports crackling in from Prague, Warsaw, and London detailed allied bombings of the retreating Axis footsoldiers we recently bid good riddance. I remember how the P-52’s buzzed our hillsides as the last of them marched away from the krčma; distant booms left hope that it would be the Americans or Britons that came knocking next. When liberators did finally descend on our town, it was through the Lesser Fatras, the mountains in the east. Their insignia was red.
And Papa was right. Immediately, the partisans started to come down from the highlands that surround Lúčka. These were the same gritty men that had pecked at the Hlinkova Garda, the Slovak police working under Heydrich's thumb, and at the Nazi warhorse as it retreated through Czechoslovakia, forest ambushes and the assassination of rank-and-file sentinels their modus operandi. They sought shelter, drink, and sustenance at the krčma, their wartime oasis, and now they were thirsty for drink and the blood of any German, be he so by birth or by name. Austrians. The Swiss. It didn't matter. They aimed to make any memory of that awful stench of fascism and Aryan exceptionalism vanish from liberated Czechoslovakia forever, a forever never fated to last.
* * *
It was quiet at the restaurant the day they came for Rittmeister Singer. Word of an armistice was spreading and the people were slowly exhaling, some even considering life without an occupying army or puppet government sent from abroad, that cynical, slow-stepping embrace so natural to Slavs. Jan Singer, an old officer of the Austro-Hungarian guard turned tipsy such-and-such, came in and took his normal spot near the kitchen.
"Pan Singer. Welcome."
"Jolana, my sweet." He turned to me with his tousled head of blond hair and sleepy blue eyes. His tie was undone down to the first button of his white collared shirt, his brown suit in desperate need of a pressing. He sat down and reached to pinch my cheek. "My how your dear Annuska has grown."
"Enough to put in and honest day's work," said Mama.
"High honor coming from you."
"Thank you, Rittmeister. What will it be?"
"Oh, just an ale to help me along for now. Have the young blueberry bring it." He waved his hand. "And just what is it that my sweet Jozefina is fixing today?" He lifted his nose toward the kitchen. "Could that be duck I smell?"
Before Mama could answer Singer was up and rushing off to the open partition where he liked to rest his elbows and flatter the plump Jozefina, apprentice cook to my mother.
"Hello in there!" he said, bursting into the kitchen instead.
"Oh!" came the startled cry of Jozefina, followed closely by a dropped tin clattering to the floor.
"Anninka," said Mama as she hurried after the Rittmeister. "Fetch the beer and not too much head this time."
* * *
The Rittmeister owned the fabrika in town, a faded cement factory situated near the far bank of the Rajčianka, and enjoyed the comforts of a spacious home on the hill. When the German officers found it suitable to their needs, Singer obliged them and took leave of the village-not without lining his pockets, as the rumors went. The story was that he spent the years '43 and '44 in Vienna, out of German reach and away from partisan crosshairs. Now the German apparatus was gone, peace was on the horizon, and Singer had returned.
Like the other town dignitaries, Singer had his own assigned place at the krčma, his napkin encircled with a hand-crocheted ring unique to his name, a detail temporary wayfarers were deprived of. And for good reason, as I had learned early on.
"How many times has my wife faced a drunk gun of the Hlinka guard?" yelled my father once, after a particularly rowdy squad of young mountain fighters had soused themselves on wine from the cellar and made a mess of things in the dining area. "And the Hungarians before them? Maybe more than all you shaky virgins combined." He held a stiff finger up at the door. "Show respect when you come to this place, goddammit! All of you idiots!" He lowered his hand and glared at his guests. "We have a business to run no matter who is doing the killing in the fields."
"Your beer," I said to Singer now, who had emerged from the kitchen all red in the face. He took his place and drank deeply. The dining room was otherwise empty.
"Such a sweetheart," he replied. "Won't you send for three fingers of slivovica to go with the duck? My sweet Jozefina got me all in a tizzy, and that plum brandy from Branislav Hansmann always does me good. He burns it himself, you know. No one makes it like Hansmann, not in all of Žilinský kraj." He winked. "Some day I'll explain how he makes it."
"Make it two, little girl. I wouldn't want such a distinguished guest to drink alone."
Singer turned to the entrance. A man stood in the doorway, having entered quietly while the rest of us were engaged with the Rittmeister and the dinner hour now rapidly approaching. He wore a collared white shirt, crisply pressed, beneath a black trench coat that extended down past knee-high boots scuffed at the toes. His eyes were cold, heavy-lidded, and with him drifted in the smell of liquor on the afternoon wind. A Czech-made automatic pistol was slung over his right shoulder, held down but with two hands and at the ready.
"You should know, pan Singer, that your co-conspirator Hansmann won't be burning any more slivka. Little girl, go fetch your mother, won't you?" He drew a flask from an inside breast pocket, unscrewed the top and swilled. "There is business here."
I ran for the kitchen but my mother already stood in the doorway with her arms crossed over her protruding belly. Her gray eyes were fixed on the partisan.
"Anna! Come now!" she said and then clutched me to her hip with a firm hand. "We don't serve the public until five," she said to the man in the coat. "You'll have to come back once dinner is served."
"No, pani Filipová. It's no bother. My brothers from the mountain have eaten well since the Germans left. I'm only here to ensure that it stays that way." He turned to Singer, swaying a bit as he did.
"And bravo," said the Rittmeister. "You and your compatriots fought hard for this village." He leaned in. "We are indebted to you for your efforts." He paused and his face darkened. "I lost a few people myself, young man. In both struggles."
"The hell you did," said the partisan as he took a step forward and raised the barrel of his firearm.
"No," cried my mother. "Not in front of the child!"
"Singer! Ready yourself you swine!"
"Be calm, young man. Be civil, for Christ's sake. The war is nearly over and there are children about."
"And while it was still on? Where were you? In Munich sipping your lunch pint and thumbing my brothers to the German cahoots you boarded in that fancy home on the hill." The partisan drew back the sliding mechanism on his automatic pistol and let it click back into place as he took another imprecise step toward the Rittmeister.
"Please, not here!" pleaded my mother. "Not when I have one child in hand and a second in the womb!"
"Shut up!" yelled the partisan. He shifted uneasily, and motioned with the barrel of the gun. "Now take her away. I have business with this imposter I intend on finishing."
Singer didn't wait. He jumped up, knocking his beer to the floor as he darted toward the kitchen doors where my mother and I stood. Mama threw me to the corner and fell to cover me as the partisan let off a burst from his pistol, bap bap bap! A painting on the far wall dropped straight to the floor, and we heard Singer scrambling out the back of the restaurant toward the forested hills. The partisan cursed and ran after him.
My mother held me in her arms as I sobbed for fear of my life and the intimidating sound of the automatic pistol. The very air shook with its report and we heard the partisan shout and let off again somewhere behind the restaurant. When the gunfire ceased, Jozefina came from the kitchen to console me. I wiped my snot with her grease-stained apron.
"Shush now," said my mother. "Stop your crying. The bad men are gone now. It does no good to cry."
And I ceased my tears because she shed none. She didn't cry. I cannot now remember a time she ever did. Perhaps she didn't know how to let herself after all she had seen. Maybe she only knew how to see after her family, her blood-how to do the day's work and wake up the next day to begin it again. To stick the pig and bleed him dry because hungry mouths were waiting. She did it during the darkest times, and would continue to, I knew, because now there would be one more mouth to feed.
* * *
"That Singer is fortunate," said Papa after Mama recounted the story at his bedside in Serafinov. "Word came back to me that the partisan was drunk and stumbled on the low stoop out back before the coops, nearly shot himself in the leg on the way down."
"They'll be after him now, Dano," said Mama.
"They'll be after them all, darling. Singer knows it. He's long gone, I bet, over the border and back into Vienna. Maybe Germany. He would have been wise to leave before the Russians come, anyway. You might think to keep our Anna out of the krčma a while." He looked at his wife's belly. "At least until some of these matters are settled. We serve many workers from the fabrika."
Each day the dawn whistle sounded and workers from Lúčka crossed the bridge, over the chilly waters of the Rajčianka running down from the Lesser Fatras, and punched in for a full day of work. And each day, after the last whistle sounded, a handful of these workers came to the krčma to dust off and have a meal.
One of these men was Karol Schaden, lead accountant for the cement factory and the only guest that could make my mother smile while she worked.
"Dessert, pan Schaden?" asked my mother one Christmas Eve before the first fighting broke out.
"Heavens, no! If I eat any more catfish I'll burst like Houdini's appendix, or Napoleon's ego after invading Moscow. Well, I suppose a slice of your currant pie wouldn't hurt me any."
Schaden was born outside of Pressburg, as Bratislava was then called, to a Swiss father and Slovak mother homesteaded near the Danube. Despite mandatory conscription during the First World War, and considerable efforts at assimilation by the Austro-Hungarian regime, Schaden spoke only Slovak, having spent his time in a Bratislava regiment that never quite made it to the Serbian front. After losing his father at a young age, Schaden's name was the only Germanic thing about him.
He was in his fifties now. People liked him. He was always dressed well, clean cut and polite in his three-piece suit and polished shoes, as he was when he came to the krčma tonight just after our return from Serafinov.
"Alo, Jolana," said Schaden, stroking his dainty mustache. "Autumn has descended from the mountains! Our hunters are out in the crisp air and the geese are too fat to outrun the aim of their rifles. Might we tonight benefit from the spoils of a successful hunt? Or morsels leftover from a bygone feast?"
"Oh Schaden," said my mother affectionately. "Always a poet. Anna," she ordered, "run to get Mr. Schaden an ale. Go on!"
When I came back the hushed voices of my mother and Schaden gave me pause at the swinging door leading back into the dining area.
"What is it, Jolana? No goose? It's quite fine, quite fine. I'm getting a little plump as it is. I'll eat anything you table." He smiled. "Even a cup of tripe soup will do."
"Schaden, listen. They came Sunday to shoot Singer."
Schaden drew back in surprise. "The Rittmeister? What for? He's a civilian and the war is over."
Mama shook her head.
"Tell me, is he dead?"
I pushed through the door and my mother sat up straight, feigned at fixing her blouse.
"-I fear the partisans will make another sweep," she continued.
"I see," said Schaden. He stroked his mustache and studied me as I placed his beer on the table.
"You have deep blue eyes, like winter stars," he said to me. "And gypsy brown curls like my own daughter once had. Tell me, my frog. What is an honest man to do?"
I looked to Mama but she was looking down at the twist of apron held between her fingers. Schaden took a sip of his ale.
"Run," I said. "Run for the hills like pan Singer did."
* * *
A week later the doctors diagnosed Papa with pneumonia, a complication of his weakened condition. Recovery would be slow and he would have to remain at Serafinov another month. Still, he was in good spirits when we came with news of Karol Schaden.
"How are you feeling?" asked Mama.
"Fine, Jolana." He coughed deeply and spit up a small plug of phlegm. Mama handed him her blue kerchief. "Just fine. What of that Singer? He still owes us money."
"Gone, Dano. It's as you predicted."
Mama winced and the shadow of an early autumn cloud passed over the room. How Papa knew I never ascertained.
"I have it from the regulars that the partisan has been down at the factory," she replied. "He waits outside the gate with a list of names, hollering them one by one as the laborers punch out." Papa looked out the window, despondent behind the darkness now shrouding the white of his eyes.
"I always liked that Schaden," he said evenly. "He was an honest man."
"Word is that when the partisan called Schaden's name yesterday, he answered. 'I am Schaden,' he said, and the partisan grabbed him by the collar, dragged him to the bridge over the river and shot him in the back of the neck, Dano, left him there to bleed in front of the factory men as they filed out."
I cried into my sleeve. My father was quiet.
"It won't end soon," he said after a while. He looked at me and tried to smile but instead shook his head with a sigh. I always admired him for that, for telling me things as they were and never as a child ought to hear them-for knowing that I was no child, and hadn't been for some years.
* * *
When the Russians did come, there was some confusion among the hospital staff, a nervous tension, as if each nurse was deciding whether to cut and run. Not for green pastures. Not for hillsides yellow with mustard bloom. Just somewhere. We all felt it, and my father succumbed while his world hung in the balance.
For Mama, the decision to stay was made long ago, and though the krčma, that singular place woven into the very fibers of her wind-whipped muscles, was appropriated by the State, she remained in Lúčka, having taken a small plot near the foot of the hillside that bore her.
I think of her now when I walk with Julia to university and see not villagers but shop workers-when I turn a corner and see not partisans, or plainclothes policemen, but a tandem of Soviet infantrymen. I think of her when we, my sister and I and all subjects herein, salute not the führer but the honor of the industrial proletariat, and take yet another permanent step away from the simplicities that make life whole, as Mama used to say.
And when I look out the window now, here on another grey tomorrow in the tomorrow decade, I know my mother is still toiling somewhere, committed to a work more sacred than any system built upon it, and like her, when the day's work is finally done, I see another cold sun setting on the Carpathians, far fewer worshippers there to await its return.
Click here to view a glossary of historical and foreign language terms, compliled by the author to accompany this story.
Author’s note. This story is very loosely based on my grandmother’s telling of her experiences in the time immediately following the exit of Axis forces from Czechoslovakia near the end of the war; my great-grandmother’s, too—may she rest in peace. Some of the details, such as the partisans sneaking down during the war to eat and drink at the cantina, setting their ammunition belts down; the disappearance of the Jewish family; and the appearance of Ukrainians among the Nazi ranks, are genuine experiences that were recounted to me without solicitation.
Eastern Europe, and specifically my Slovak heritage, has contributed greatly to my genesis as a fiction writer. My undergraduate studies steered me toward heavy doses of Russian literature, which I still make a study of to this day, though my interests have expanded to include any of the Slavic states (Dalkey Archive Press is a wonderful source of material, in this regard). My own upbringing in a Slovak matriarchy has always provided places to invent from—learning the Slovak language, going back to live in Bratislava for a year or, in the case of this particular story, listening to my grandmother and great-grandmother recount their experiences during the Second World War and then behind the Iron Curtain. - AM
Anthony Martin lives in San Diego. He makes his living writing professionally, but finds no greater fulfillment than the craft of writing creatively.
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