Toward the Other Shore
A new short story by Ottawa author Jana Begovic (reprinted from Chantwood Literary Magazine)
“Go away, bird from hell! Leave me alone, you devil incarnate, you torturer!”
Tears were rolling down her face and the stars that once glittered in her eyes were replaced by brief flares of madness. That short-lived fire of rage gave way to a look of infinite anguish and melancholy as, like a deflated doll, she crumpled to the floor. Her blonde hair was matted and lustreless from lack of brushing, the nails on her fingers were bitten down to the quick and the socks on her bare legs had holes that gaped like the wounds in her soul. She could not have known that I was sent not to frighten her or add to her agony, but to lead her soul, once her mortal body shook off the shackles of depression and pain, toward the other shore to which all souls cross sooner or later. Her life was the unremembered destiny she had chosen herself when the time came to decide on a new incarnation.
Her baby was crying and she tried to lift herself from the floor and reach the crib, but instead she collapsed back down on the floor, breaking into sobs and wails of ineffable hurt. I have been watching her for days and observing her struggle to fight the demons of depression, and to don a mask of forced cheer in front of her parents and husband, who did not understand why a young mother who had married out of deep love, and who was overjoyed at the news of pregnancy, would succumb to such sadness for no apparent reason.
With great effort that made her break into a sweat, she stood up and took the crying baby in her arms. She breastfed him in a rocking chair and having eaten, the baby fell asleep. With a vacant gaze in her eyes, she lowered the baby into its crib, and like a sleepwalker walked through the door at the moment the clock struck three p.m., the time her husband finished his work at the shipyard.
I flew low above her head cawing occasionally, but this time she did not screech at me or throw stones damning me to hell. She left the house dragging her feet as if she carried an inordinately heavy burden, but with every new step her movement gained in speed and resolve. It was the time I had awaited.
At the end of the street, she took a left turn and cut across a field on which a huge placard was advertising a hotel development project. The wind picked up and its sound mixed with that of the crashing waves. A couple of hundred feet farther, majestic white rocks towered over a deep precipice. On the bottom was a tiny pebbled beach that few people visited due to the treacherous path down the cliff leading to it.
Under the increasing velocity of the wind, the sea frothed furiously around the rocks jutting into its blue. Even on an August day like this one, its waters looked cold and the troughs of the waves foreboding. She reached the largest cliff and stood on its edge with arms raised as if in supplication to a deity to save her from herself. She did not wait long before plunging to her death. Her fall was swift and unstoppable, and as soon as her body hit the rocks at the bottom, her soul separated from it, meeting me in mid-air. It was only then that she realized I was there to guide her toward love and light and away from the torment of the earthly dimension she had chosen. She looked at me as if seeing me for the first time, and her gaze caressed my black feathers tenderly.
“Is it my time to go?”
“It is. The other shore awaits you.”
“What will happen to my baby?”
“He has his own destiny.”
“Promise me you will watch over him until he is safe.”
“I do not linger in the same place after I have guided souls back home, but I shall stay to guide him toward love.”
And with a light and soaring swish, I led her toward the clouds and the opening of effervescent light from which loving arms were emerging to welcome a new soul into eternity.
I flew back to her house window and with a loud croak announced my presence to her husband, who was walking from one room to the next in alarm, looking for her. He saw me but did not react. He was the sort of man who felt a natural affinity to all creatures, including ravens. He even left bread crumbs for me on the window sill more than once, and whistled softly to draw my attention to the food.
“Where could she be? She did not call us today. Did you have a fight?” His mother-in-law’s voice let loose a barrage of implicit accusations, shrill with worry. What her daughter saw in Bruno, a plain shipyard worker, albeit attractive with his thick black hair and sky-blue eyes, she could never understand. Yes, one could not deny that he was a handsome man, but good looks do not provide a life of comfort. She took Karlo in her arms, rocking him gently and humming a lullaby. Bruno asked her to stay with the baby while he went out to find Sonya.
“It’s hard to believe she left the baby alone! Something must have happened to her.” His voice cracked like shattered glass with worry and disbelief.
His mother-in-law gave him a look of reproach, but remained silent. She never believed him when he told her that Sonya’s sadness was inexplicable to him, that he always hurried home from work to help her with housework, diaper washing and ironing, but her melancholy was a cloak she never seemed to be able to shed for longer than a few hours. She refused to see a doctor saying that the changing weather, especially the almost incessantly blowing winds, were the cause of her melancholic moods.
Bruno hurried from the house and began knocking on his neighbours’ doors asking if anyone had seen Sonya. He had almost reached the end of the street when a boy, who was playing marbles with a group of children, told him he had seen Sonya run across the field toward the shore. At that moment the premonition that had been gnawing at his insides filled him with a cold dread. With leaden legs he dragged himself to the rocks, terrified of looking down. It did not take him long to spot her body sprawled below on the sharp pebbles, some of which were coloured crimson. He howled in pain and fell to his knees sobbing. Why was he not able to help her, why did he not insist they consult a doctor! What would happen to little Karlo?
I stood on the ground watching him behind a lavender shrub that against all odds was growing from a small patch of soil on the rock, but he was not aware of my presence. I flapped my wings a few times wanting to tell him that his wife was happy now, but most humans either do not see or do not know how to interpret the many signs sent to them as guidance.
The next few hours were a pandemonium of shouts, tears, cries and confusion. It was quite a task to get down to the secluded beach to hoist her body up on an improvised stretcher and lift it on ropes. Her parents wanted an immediate burial in the local cemetery. Their faces had turned to stone, and so had their hearts, for wordlessly, they blamed him for the death of their daughter. She had been a girl full of joy before she gave birth to Karlo. Girls like that were resilient, impervious to sadness unless someone breathed it into them.
Her parents left without a goodbye, without offering help or asking how he would take care of a six month-old baby. They vanished as if they did not live on the other side of the island, just a few kilometers away. For the next few days his home was full with women bringing food for him and home-made infant formula from cow’s milk. These women would shoo me away whenever they would see me sitting on the window sill, so I tried to be more discreet.
Bruno received approval from work for three months of unpaid leave to take care of his son. He directed all his energy to giving his baby all he could, trying desperately to replace his mother. Day after day came and went, and he felt as if he were stringing them on a necklace made from pearls of grief, until one day he realized that he had to go back to work in three days and that he had no one with whom to leave little Karlo. His neighbours had stopped coming when they thought he could manage on his own, and with only exchanges of pleasantries on the street, or an occasional telephone call, they left him to struggle alone. I was his one regular visitor, but he did not seem aware of my presence.
One day, as he was wheeling the baby down the street, he saw a group of nuns. As they smiled at Karlo, he suddenly had the idea of visiting the convent in the hills, which had a small orphanage. The thought of having found the solution ignited his heart with hope, and he decided to visit the convent without delay. He went back home to leave the baby carriage, and with Karlo in his arms, climbed the steep hill to the top on which the white convent building stood perched like a solitary seagull.
Out of breath, he stopped at the entrance and turned around to take in the view. The beauty of the majestic cypresses bedazzled him and a shy smile made a crack in the mask of sorrow veiling his face. In the distance, the sea shimmered and sparkled under the midday sun. The air was infused with the intoxicating smell of sea grasses and the cacophony of insect buzzing and chirps. The wonder and resplendence of nature excited his every sense and he felt that he was emerging into light from the world of darkness. Taking in the horizon line where the sea embraced the sky, he imagined a shore where happy people lived. At the same moment he spotted me sitting on a log and said, “Have you been following me around, you handsome devil?” And then he hugged Karlo closer to his chest and covered swiftly the last fifty feet to the convent gate.
As soon as he entered the convent, a young nun asked him if he might have gotten lost. He said he wanted to speak with Mother Superior, and she took him to a sparsely furnished room and asked him to take a seat on a simple wooden chair. Karlo began to squirm and whimper in his arms and he knew it was time to change his diaper, but he had brought none with him.
“What can I do for you, my son?” The gentle voice felt like a caress of a bird’s wing, and at that moment a feeling of desperation washed over him. Feeling as vulnerable as a little boy, he had to exert all his willpower to prevent tears from splashing down his cheeks.
Mother Superior was old and frail, and walked with great difficulty leaning on a gnarled cane. The same young nun who had met him at the entrance was helping her walk, without raising her gaze to further inspect the visitor.
“I have come to seek a place for my son in your orphanage. His mother died and I have no family who can take care of him. I must return to work next week. On some days, I could come after work and take him home.”
“We only accept children three years of age and older. We cannot accept a baby. I am sorry, my son, for your loss but remember that God only lays as heavy a burden on our shoulders as we can bear.”
The young nun came closer and looked at Karlo. When she extended her arms to hold him, Karlo extended his little arms toward her and smiled. Bruno handed him over transfixed at the sight. Cradled in the nun’s arms, Karlo closed his eyes as slumber overtook him. The nun rocked him with affection and when her gaze met his, he saw the blue of the Adriatic Sea dance in her eyes.
“Margarita, we already have too many children under our wing,” said Mother Superior in a tremulous voice as if guessing the young nun’s thoughts.
“Please Mother… allow me to take care of this boy. I had a dream in which I heard the Lord’s voice whisper to me that there was a purpose ahead of me, a calling… and my heart is telling me that this is it, to raise this orphan until he can go back into the world.”
“You already have other children to tend to in addition to so many other duties and I am afraid that another child, especially one of such a tender age, will be too much—”
“I am young and strong. I will take him with me to the garden. He can sleep while I weed. The older children can also watch him. Please, Mother. Let this be; I know it is the Lord’s will.”
The old nun sighed deeply. Then she looked at Bruno and said, “Go home, my child, and leave your son with us. You may visit him on Sundays if you cannot come on other days to take him home with you. If he has not been baptized, he will have his baptism in three weeks when Father Alfonso visits us again. We are a poor convent living on donations and we hope you can help us raise your son by giving to our sisters of mercy.”
“Yes, of course, I will be happy to give a part of my wages for the upbringing of my son. I do not know when I will be able to take him back with me for good…” His voice choked as the pain of an imminent parting with his son fissured it.
“Go with God’s peace now!”
He left the convent in a daze. His arms felt empty and heavy and his son’s scent lingered on his shirt, filling his eyes with the mist of longing and the sting of suppressed tears. The sorrow of parting coloured his surroundings a deep hue of heartache. Tears finally broke down the dam of his resistance and streamed down his face. His sobs made his chest heave and constrict in the most profound sorrow. He sat on a rock and cried for long time, until the well of tears dried up, leaving a thumping ache in his heart. I flew around him cawing, but he remained oblivious to my presence.
He went back to work the next day and asked his boss for permission to work extended hours in order to replenish his savings that the last three months without work had wiped out. He dreaded going back to his hollow, empty house in which even the walls seemed to scream with the wounds of his irreplaceable loss. He would come home exhausted and fall into a dreamless sleep. His work days ended too late for him to pick Karlo up and bring him home. He could not even bring himself to visit him for the first two weeks fearing that he would not be able to tear himself away from his son again. When he mustered the courage to see him, his hands were trembling with trepidation and his heart quivering with anticipation. He imagined Karlo’s little face distorted with the anguish of abandonment by both parents.
He was asked to wait in the garden. He sat on a bench under a canopy of ripening grapes that provided shade. He looked around admiring the breathtaking beauty of flowers, orange and lemon trees and neat rows of vegetables. A feeling of serenity washed over him and he felt himself relax.
He did not hear her come into the garden until a shadow on the ground revealed her presence. Margarita had a warm smile on her face as she handed him Karlo, who was swaddled in a thin and soft blanket embroidered with tiny blue flowers. He was asleep and the golden wispy locks that escaped from under his cap gave him a cherubic look.
“How has he been?”
“He cried a lot the first two days and then there was a big change. If he wakes up you will be surprised by the sounds he makes, but maybe he had been cooing before you brought him to us.”
Margarita lowered her gaze, blushing as if she had said something inappropriate.
“He is sitting quite firmly, he eats well and enjoys the time he spends with me in the garden.”
“Where does he sleep?”
“With me in my chamber.” She blushed again. “I implored Mother Superior to allow me to have him with me all the time. I have a big scarf and carry him in it while I am going about my duties. Only during prayer times is he with a girl who helps in the kitchen. I must say, I find it hard to focus on prayer when he is not with me, but God will forgive me, for I have no other sins.”
“Why did you decide to become a nun?” His voice had a quiver in it revealing that he feared his question might be too prying.
“God spoke to me when I was eight years old. I fell into a well, but I heard a voice tell me not to be afraid and that I would be found and saved. Ever since then I have believed God is always watching over me and that I should serve him.”
Karlo moved in Bruno’s arms and started crying. Bruno tried to soothe him by whispering softly to him and calling him daddy’s little boy and daddy’s precious gem.
The time spent with Karlo and Margarita felt like a salve on his pain-pierced soul. The tenderness with which she held and looked at Karlo warmed Bruno’s heart with hopes of a brighter future. After that day, he spent two hours every Sunday at the convent playing with his son. Most of the time, Margarita would leave them alone together.
Winter and spring rode on the wings of time and it was summer again. Little Karlo grew into a happy little boy with a bubbling laugh. He called Margarita, “Ma,” and planted little kisses on her face whenever she would pick him up. Her eyes were bursting with stars of happiness and she looked like the luckiest and proudest mother in the world.
That June, Bruno was promoted to manager in the shipyard. His salary doubled and his working hours became more regular. More and more he craved to have Karlo back in his house where he belonged. Convents may be for orphans, but his son was not one of those unfortunate children.
One day at the fish market he almost collided with his mother-in-law. She looked frail and withered and her eyes were absent of light. He did not know what to say and was taken aback when she spoke.
“Will you ever be able to forgive me? I was mad with agony over losing Sonya…I blamed you, but you were always a good husband to her. I learned about the affliction she suffered. We should have forced her to see a doctor. We want to see Karlo…we want to be in his life. Will you allow us to be his grandparents?” At saying this she burst into tears and looked so pitiable that the fishmonger asked if he could help her in any way and offered her a large fish at no cost.
The decision was made. Bruno would go to the convent on Sunday and shower the nuns with money and gifts, express his deepest gratitude for all that was done for Karlo, and bring his son back home where he belonged.
That Sunday, the island was hit by a hail storm and climbing up the hill was so treacherous that Bruno almost turned back. When he arrived at the convent, he was drenched to the skin and shivering both from cold and the anticipation of reuniting with his son for good. My feathers were also wet and I wanted to crawl into a tree hole, but did not wish to lose sight of him. When he arrived at the gate, he had to wait for ten minutes until someone appeared. Sister Luiza opened the door and her eyes were filled with surprise.
“Come in quickly. You should not have come in this weather.”
He asked to see Mother Superior and was ushered into her study. He placed the gifts he brought on an old desk, hoping they were not damaged by the storm, and on top of the gift boxes, he laid a white envelope stuffed with money. Luckily, the water that soaked his raincoat had not reached his inside jacket pocket.
Mother Superior entered with a shuffle and laboured breathing. Her smile was wan and it was clear her health was rapidly deteriorating. Her gaze immediately fell on the envelope and with a trembling hand she took it and glanced inside.
“You have been generous with your monthly donations and you did not need to give us more.” Her voice had a timbre of insincerity that Bruno did not detect in his excitement to be reunited with his son. He had already decided he would take him next Sunday, and today he would only announce his decision and make the arrangements.
“That is the least I could do…I mean, of course, I could never repay you. You saved both Karlo and me. Thank you. I have come to let you know that my circumstances have changed and I can now count on the help of my in-laws. After all, Karlo should have his grandparents in his life. I would like to take him off your hands next Sunday. I pledge to continue to support your charitable work as much as I can.”
“I am happy to hear that, my son. Children do benefit from their grandparents’ love and I am sure our little Karlo will be overjoyed to see them. We will miss him very much, but trust you will bring him for visits. I will send for Margarita. Excuse me, my son. It is time for me to retreat to my chamber.”
When she left, a sudden sense of unease filled Bruno. For the first time he thought of Margarita and her great affection for Karlo. But convents were for nuns, and not for children. After all, Margarita would now have more time for proper worship and her other responsibilities.
When he turned around he saw her in the doorway. Her face was ghastly white and her lower lip was trembling. Tears were rolling down her pale face and she was wiping them with the back of her habit sleeve. A lock of strawberry blonde hair fell from under her coif, and in spite of her somewhat dishevelled and distraught state, the beauty of her face and her heart suddenly became apparent to him. He felt the razor-sharp compunction of causing her so much grief, of hurting the woman who had replaced his son’s mother.
Stuttering, he said, “You must have heard…”
She lowered her gaze, sobbing. He wanted to comfort her, but had no words; he extended and retracted his hand, not daring to offend and humiliate her with his touch. He had not expected to witness pain of such crushing magnitude.
As if reading his thoughts, she whispered, “This is not just pain, this is…this is the evisceration of my heart and soul. Karlo is like a son to me and my heart is breaking at the thought of losing him.”
“But I will bring him for visits…”
“He sleeps with me. I had to beg and implore to get that permission…his hand is in mine all night long. I’ve never known that love before. My parents had seven children and had to work hard, and my mother never touched me. She toiled hard on the land and we, the children, helped her as much as we could. I never had anything of my own, not even a toy or a doll. My parents took me to the Santa Clara convent first when I was thirteen. It was cold and dark and frightening. This is…this was a happy place, but when Karlo leaves, there will be darkness in my soul that not even the light of God can penetrate.”
Bruno tried to speak, but could not find words. The walls of the tiny room seemed to shrink and suffocate him. Her distress was palpable; it permeated his skin, tightening his chest. He thought of Karlo, realizing that his son would have to go through another trauma of loss if he tore him away from Margarita. But what could he do? He could not leave his son in a convent. He had plans for him. He wanted him to go to school, to leave the island and become somebody, a doctor, a pilot, an engineer.
He ran his fingers through his black hair unaware of the nervous gesture. And then, he whispered, not even recognizing his own voice, “Why don’t you marry me?”
She raised her eyes and the look of sheer astonishment widened them.
“I know it comes as a shock. I had no plans to ask you to marry me, but I see no other solution that would ensure Karlo’s happiness. And, perhaps you will get accustomed to living with me. I am a hard-working and honest man…and…I promise not to impose my will on you in any indecent way.” His cheeks had turned crimson.
The look of disbelief in her eyes softened into an emotion he was not able to decipher. He blushed and started to apologize for his preposterous proposal, but heard a soft sigh preceding her reply.
“I love Karlo so much that I would feel tempted to marry the devil himself if that would mean keeping him. But how can I marry you and devote my life to you and Karlo and abandon serving God and the orphans here, and the old and the sick in the town, and my nun sisters? It would be selfish to deny my time to others in order to love one child only.” Now her eyes were filled with a new kind of anguish that he could see was tearing her soul asunder. She had one heart only and all around her were wails for love.
“You will still have time to give of yourself to others, if that is what you wish. Can’t you love God in your heart and commune with him from anywhere? You could still visit the convent and help their wards because Karlo will have his grandparents to look after him. Please think about this. I know this must be a heart-wrenching decision for you, and my proposal may be selfish in the sense that I do not want Karlo to lose another mother. And I must admit I have grown to enjoy your company…and….” His voice became a whisper as embarrassment over his last words flushed his cheeks.
“I need time to think and talk to God. I will give you my answer next Sunday.”
The door closed behind her and a faint scent of lavender hung in the air. The days stretched on and untypically for the season, it rained almost incessantly. When Sunday came, the rain stopped and the hill turned into a verdant paradise gilded with frolicking sunrays. I watched Bruno climb it nervously fearing Margarita’s decision. His thumping heart was telling him that his marriage proposal was not as impetuous as he had thought, for he had become aware of his feelings for Margarita, feelings that made him feel ashamed.
She met him in the garden. Karlo ran into his arms and after a long hug wanted to play with a small white cat. Bruno looked at Margarita, not daring to ask her what she had decided. When a shy smile graced her lips, he knew that life was once again on his side.
Two weeks later they were married. The shock of a nun leaving the convent reverberated through the little town, fanning gossip and speculation. Bruno’s in-laws, upon seeing the deep bond between Margarita and Karlo, welcomed her with open hearts. Bruno was beaming with happiness as his life was stitched back together. And his happiness grew even more when after a year Margareta gave birth to a baby girl. They called her Sonya after his first wife. When Sonya was a year old, they took her for the first time to visit the grave of the woman whose name she bore. Little Karlo laid a bouquet of yellow roses on the tombstone and turned to Margarita.
“I know my real mom sleeps here. And you told me she loved me very much. If you love someone, why do you have to leave them?”
“God calls people to himself, but he always makes sure he sends others to them so that the string of love is never broken.”
And she smiled happily at her family. Bruno draped his arm around her shoulders and placed a kiss on her thick, long hair. I cawed several times and he raised his gaze to meet mine. It looked as if he winked at me. That was the sign that my promise to Sonya was fulfilled. It was time for me to find another soul in need of guidance to the other shore.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As far back as she can remember, Jana Begovic has been fascinated by storytelling and intoxicated with the written word. As a young child, she began spinning tales, talking to an imaginary friend and devouring fairy tales. As a teenager, she wrote maudlin love poetry, and as a young mother a collection of fables. Her love of reading and writing propelled her toward studies of languages and literature resulting in B.A. degrees in English and German Languages and Literature, an M.A. Degree in Literary Studies, as well as a B.Ed. Degree in English and Dramatic Arts. She works for the Government of Canada in the field of military language training and testing and her work, as a subject matter expert, has taken her all over the world. She was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina but has lived in Canada since 1991.
Among her publications are an academic article published by Cambridge Scholars, UK, the novel “Poisonous Whispers” published by Roane Publishing, N.Y., as well as a few other articles and blogs. Currently, she is working on a sequel to “Poisonous Whispers”, and editing a collection of children’s stories.
She lives in Ottawa, Ontario with her husband.