Where Else Can You Find Pies Like That?
by Marina J. Neary
part 1 of 2
(Eastern Poland, 1985)
Joseph and Katherine lived under the same roof in chaste contentment. Joseph, a twenty-year old seminarian, looked at Katherine and felt nothing that would compromise the salvation of his soul. Father Athanasius wasn’t always right after all. Not all women were brazen temptresses, at least not this one. The very sight of Katherine’s round, stiff face set on top of a square body chased all unclean thoughts away. Holy serenity originated somewhere in the area of his stomach and then spread north and south.
And Katherine, every time she looked at Joseph, wanted to bring him a bowl of oatmeal with homemade butter and strawberry preserves, or a plate of blueberry pancakes, or a slice of cherry pie with a jar of whole milk. He would chew obediently, while she would lean her round head on her red fist and mutter, “Why, you’re even scrawnier than my boy Stephan, God rest his soul.”
Stephan had died in a motorcycle accident just a year earlier. His friends erected a cross in his honor on the side of the road. Traveling through Polish countryside, you see such a cross every kilometer, because nobody bothers to pave the roads or to teach sheep and cows traffic regulations. Still, it is vodka from across the border that causes most tragedies on the road as well as anywhere else.
“I don’t drink,” Joseph told Katherine the very first day. “Father Athanasius wouldn’t approve.”
“What a pity. I have some excellent cherry wine in the basement, like our Savior’s blood.”
And the cherry wine would appear on the table regularly. After just a few sips Joseph would remove his eyeglasses, take Katherine’s hand and say, “You’re sweet, Aunt Kitty.”
She would pat him on the head, just the way she did that night when she found him unconscious, stuffed in an abandoned telephone booth, his hands tied with a telephone cord and the words “Pope’s Concubine” written on his forehead in green ink.
“Who did this to you?” she would ask him from time to time. “Do you remember anything at all?”
“Not much. Father Athanasius sent me to town to buy textbooks for the library. Everything was going well, but then... I felt this pain around the bridge of my nose. And then... I opened my eyes, and there you were.”
“Does Father Athanasius know where you are? Doesn’t he expect you back?”
“Probably... But I like it much better here, with you. Sometimes I wonder if I died that night and went to heaven. Aunt Kitty... Your hands are never idle, and your clothes are made of wool. You’re the woman of noble character, straight from the Bible. I’ll leave if you don’t want me here.”
“Bah, your head is full of rubbish! Go to bed. You’ll find Stephan’s old shirts in the closet.”
She would light up the old oil lamp, escort Joseph to Stephan’s bed and cover him with three woolen blankets.
“Why don’t you have an image of the blessed Virgin over the bed?” Joseph asked once.
Katherine wagged her hand and looked aside.
“There used to be one, in a pearled frame, but then thieves broke in and took it, and I never got a new one. My Stephan had his own Madonna — with blue hair, lights everywhere. I took that filth down afterwards. Go to sleep, restless soul.”
The boy would fall asleep, oblivious to Katherine’s gaze lingering on him for hours afterwards. His usual waking time was between ten and eleven in the morning. He would kick the blankets off one by one, recite his prayers, and be out of bed by noon.
“Why don’t you put me to work, Aunt Kitty?” he asked one morning. “Why don’t you tell me to milk the cow or take her to the field?”
“Because, dear child, that’s the only cow I’ve got. If God forbid, something should happen to it...”
“But I feel so useless!”
“That doesn’t make you much different from my Stephan.”
“Perhaps I could go to town, get a job...”
“Doing what? Preaching on the streets? Don’t be stupid. Go inside, eat something. Where else can you get such pies?”
So the boy ate his pie obediently, which set a tradition for the next two months.
Then in early August, while Katherine and Joseph were drinking tea outside under an apple tree, a girl appeared at the gate. One could tell she was from Warsaw by her hair, mercilessly bleached and curled. Joseph had only seen such hair on Renaissance angels painted on the cupola of the cathedral. She was dragging a suitcase with one wheel missing.
“You don’t have a bomb in your suitcase, do you?” Katherine asked, being in an unusually cheerful mood that evening.
The girl dropped her baggage by the gate, kicked off her shoes and fluttered towards the house as if she had lived there her entire life. Katherine moved aside, making room on the bench for the mysterious guest, but the girl chose to sit down next to Joseph.
“My name is Isabelle. I’m sure you know it by now. Stephan must’ve told you.”
When Katherine heard another woman utter her son’s name, her square face turned rectangular. “You look hungry, sweetheart,” she said to the guest in an icy voice. “Don’t be shy. Help yourself.”
The last invitation was completely unnecessary. Isabelle tore a chunk of bread and dipped it into the saucer filled with strawberry preserves. “I had my reservations about coming here,” the girl continued. “I’m convinced that all of it is God’s punishment.”
Katherine pointed at Joseph. “Here’s your expert on God, sweetheart. Ask him.”
The boy revived instantly. “Speak, beloved sister. What leads you to believe that our merciful Lord is punishing you?”
“It’s my fault that Stephan is dead, even though the policeman insisted that it was just an accident.”
Katherine’s face became even longer and whiter, while Joseph’s eyes rapidly widened and blazed up.
“I summoned Stephan to Warsaw. At that time, I was five months pregnant with his baby and kept craving fresh strawberries, in the middle of winter. One evening Stephan got tired of my whining and hopped on his motorcycle, in wet snow...
“I waited for two hours, and then... Then the police showed up at the doorstep. I fainted before they finished telling me what had happened. Later that night I gave birth to a dead baby. That’s pretty much the reason why I came here. Will you ever forgive me? Should I leave now?”
The frozen curve of wrinkles on Katherine’s forehead stirred. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she mumbled in a ghostly voice. “It’s getting dark, and it’s a long way back to Warsaw. Spend the night here. Joseph took Stephan’s old bed. You can take mine. I’ll bring out fresh sheets.”
“And you?” Joseph asked. “Where will you sleep, Aunt Kitty?”
“In the barn. It wouldn’t be the first time. Stephan used to bring all sorts of cutthroats into the house, and they’d stay up all night drinking and listening to their satanic music.”
In the morning when Katherine went to wake up the guest, she discovered that the fresh pillowcases were all wet with perspiration. Isabelle had developed a fever overnight. Her bleached hair was like a yellow sponge.
Joseph was kneeling before the bed, holding the girl’s hand and praying. When Katherine came in, he lifted his head and glanced at her.
“Look, Aunt Kitty... What fragile fingers she has! Did you have such fingers when you were young?”
Katherine shoved her red hands in his face. “Look, you fool, and decide for yourself. Did I ever have lily fingers?”
“Should we call a doctor, Aunt Kitty?”
“I’ve never called a doctor before, not even when I found you in the phone booth. She’ll live, no worries.”
Katherine turned out to be right. Isabelle’s fever broke later that night. The girl sat up in her bed and turned her pale face, in the aura of bleached dry curls, towards her hostess.
“You’re a saint for letting me stay, Aunt Kitty. I just can’t imagine coming back to that apartment in Warsaw.”
“And what about my prayer?” Joseph inquired. “Don’t you think that the Holy Spirit had something to do with your recovery?”
Isabelle stretched her hand out, and he saw no other choice but to take it. And once he was holding that hand, he couldn’t resist kissing it.
“I confess I was worried,” he said. “And I’m not accustomed to worrying about anybody. Aunt Kitty is never sick. She’s so strong. You should’ve seen how much water she can carry in a bucket.”
“Enough about me,” Katherine interrupted him. “I’m only here to cook.”
She returned to her soups and jams. Joseph remained sitting on the bed, toying with Isabelle’s hand.
“Her son was one crazy savage,” the girl whispered with a mixture of nostalgia and terror. “He’d fly on his motorcycle all night like a demon. The police hated him. So did my parents. They cut my allowance off when they found out that I was carrying his baby. Would you believe it? His death made many people happy. Poor Katherine... For some reason I feel obligated to stay with her in this house. I have this feeling that she wants me here.”
“That’s grand!” Joseph exclaimed, beaming. “Perhaps you and I could go to church together.”
At that moment Katherine announced that dinner was ready. Isabelle attempted to persuade Joseph that she was well enough to sit at the table, but he insisted on delivering her dinner to her bed.
“Young lady, you’d better not stain the sheets with gravy,” Katherine warned her. “Have mercy on that linen!”
The girl shuddered and immediately planted a huge gravy spot on the sheet, right over the embroidery. Her eyes immediately filled with tears. “I’ll wash it, I promise!”
“Forget it,” Katherine growled with resignation. “You might as well wipe your hands and your mouth with that sheet. I’ll have to soak and scrub it anyhow. Go ahead, finish your dinner.”
* * *
Copyright © 2010 by Marina J. Neary