God, it was so cold! The snow was coming down relentlessly, scrunching under the feet and the world was frozen. People were trying their best to remain indoors, where there was warmth, peace and tranquillity.
She was pregnant and her belly was already visible. The baby was moving and kicking inside. It was clueless. They had set their minds on going to the countryside for New Year’s Eve, in order to be with their loved ones.
But the weather was very bad. Nevertheless, she was not willing to give up. He was the worried one, while she had the world at her feet. She was carrying the child in her womb and nothing could harm her.
He kept telling her that it would be better for them to remain at home, but she was already packed and ready to go. She couldn’t understand where all that anxiousness was coming from. It wasn’t even that cold outside! But what else could he do? He had to agree with her.
They took the train and started their journey towards the white lands. It was different in the city, even when it snowed. People living in villages were not so fearful of nature and they understood that things don’t always go as planned.
In the train it was nice and warm. For her, it was something extraordinary. It seemed as if she was seeing the world through different eyes. Everything was brighter and more beautiful. She had to see for two.
Winter was so beautiful and misunderstood! She enjoyed it since she was just a child. She was a great admirer of the white wonder. Everything seemed so elegant and regal. She would always imagine the Snow Queen descending from her ice throne. Her thoughts were making her smile and the landscape was enchanting her. She took a book with her to read, but she couldn’t take her eyes off the window. She was afraid not to miss even the tiniest piece of landscape.
The train had travelled without a hitch for a long stretch, but it started to become more difficult for it to advance. The heavy snow on the rails was becoming more and more troublesome. The train stopped in a village, in a small railway station.
“We can’t go any further, because we could get snowed in. Please get off the train!”
“But the village we are supposed to get to is eighteen kilometres away,” she said astounded.
But the decision was already made. They couldn’t go any further and that was it. They got off the train resigned, in the small railway station made of stone. He wanted to grumble, since he had told her that they should remain at home. Who would leave in the middle of winter, in that stage of pregnancy, in that freezing cold, to climb up the mountains?
But there was nothing left to do at that point. It was late. She had to adapt. They went to an aunt’s house and the plan was to stay there until the following day, when they would think about what to do next. If it were up to him, they would get up early in the morning and take the first train back home.
But there was no chance of that. She was very cheerful and it seemed that not even his child was on his side, since it was constantly kicking and making his mother giggle. Not even faith was on his side. While they were sitting at his aunt’s table – actually, she was the wife of one of his uncles, who had died young, but in villages, such things were less important – some kind of cousin of his came by, who apparently was leaving in the morning and was headed in the right direction. From where his cousin would take them, they would only have five kilometres left to go.
“If there’s no other way, we’ll go by foot!”
He was going crazy at the thought of having to walk five kilometres through the snow, with his very pregnant wife. She wasn’t thinking about what could happen, she was simply ready for anything. And he couldn’t upset her.
In the end, they sat and chatted with his aunt, who was very keen on having guests. She had every treat you could imagine and she started laying them down in a fantastic parade of tastes.
The poor woman was probably bored, so she cooked. And what do you know? She had talent. They were both licking their fingers. He was trying to control himself, since it wasn’t nice to batten on food as if you were in the hospital. But she didn’t even try. She was eating everything the woman put in front of her and his aunt’s eyes sparked with joy. She was living there only with her mother, who was very old.
She told them about how she had married for love, but how faith had been cruel. Nevertheless, she accepted her faith and refused to drown in the jar of sadness. But she didn’t feel like starting it all over again. She was married for life and she was going to accompany her husband when the time would come.
The old woman was still fit and most importantly, she was still sane. She was a bit strange, but that was not caused by age, she had always been like that. That’s what the aunt was telling them. All old people were a bit strange.
“Mom lived here her entire life. When dad left to go to war, she walked with him for a while. When she returned home, she found out that my brother had also left for war, only he went to fight for the other side. He was a good boy, but very hard-headed, mom would say. After a while, she realised that she was pregnant. Neither of them ever returned home. People say that through our passes, the dead walk freely.”
“They don’t just say it, it’s true. I saw them. Condemned and restless souls. What do you think, that after a father and son fight against each other and end up who knows where, they could ever be at peace? And there are many others like them!”
The old woman took everybody by surprise. It was as if she had counted her steps and approached them on tiptoes in order to shock them with her otherworldly stories. She was talking about the dead, even about her own dead, as if they were regular people. She understood pain and suffering in a different way.
You couldn’t tell her age. She was like a character from a painting, with no beginning, no end and no age. She was dressed in finely woven clothes that had been sewed by hand and she had wool socks. She was a testament to a world that no longer existed.
“Mom, I’m not sure that you remember them, you…”
“Oh, but I do. God is not forgiving enough to bless me with forgetfulness, he is punishing me to remember everything.”
You could tell nothing from her face, it was empty. Not sad, not happy, just empty. She took out a flask of blood-like wine and poured herself a glass. She poured another glass for her, but she instinctively placed her hand on her womb and shook her head in refusal. She didn’t even care about the other two at the table.
“Just drink one glass! It will make the baby stronger during these times, in these places.”
She thought about her doctor’s advices, who had told her that one glass of wine from time to time was not the end of the world, only not to exaggerate. Therefore, she accepted the glass tacitly. She had never seen wine like that. It had the texture of oil and the colour of real blood, dark cherry red, almost black. And it had an exquisite tasted. She felt that her lips would get coloured from the amazing texture of the drink.
“I’ve been drinking one glass of this wine every day. It’s made out of my grapes that grow in the yard. An old and proud variety of grapes that grows even if nobody gives it a chance. It’s my secret. My husband planted them with his bare hands and while he was still around, he took a lot of care of them. When they are about to ripen, he comes by and caresses them and sings to them. That’s why they grow and taste like this.”
She wasn’t crazy or old, she was simply extraordinary. And she was very curious to hear her tales. The old woman was saying that she had seen the dead. But how could she approach such a topic, how could she ask about it? It was better to let it go.
They were offered a small and welcoming room to get some rest. She was still thinking about that wine. She had never tasted anything like it. And she was also thinking about him, the man of the house, who died in battle, but who was coming back to caress his grapes. She was restless. Could the old woman actually see him?
She had to get some rest. Her feet were so swollen that she felt as if her shoes would pop off. She was in an advanced state of pregnancy, but he was petite. Her doctor kept telling her that she should be lying more in bed, with her feet up. But that was his job; to repeat the same things over and over again.
She would have liked to talk about it with her man, but he was always so anchored in reality and was never willing to tackle such topics. He would even get wound up about them. She could take advantage of the fact that he was doing his best not to upset her, but it wasn’t fun to talk about something that was so important with somebody that was unable to understand it.
She loved him a lot and she enjoyed their life, but he couldn’t understand these things. Everything was about the here and now, about what is provable and tangible. He couldn’t understand that there was one universe above them, another beneath them, another right around the corner and so on. He was anchored in reality, focusing on money, work, the crib, belongings and debts. There were times when she hated him for being blind to all these other things, other times she was jealous of him.
He was already snoring, while her thoughts were running wild. What did seeing him mean? Could she talk with him or touch him? What was she feeling, how was she feeling, what and how did she perceive the experience? She believed her, of course she did. The baby was sleeping soundly in her womb.
She woke up suddenly, agitated and sweating. It was 3:33 a.m. The baby was kicking like crazy. In her dream, the woods were white, like a painting made by a madman. From time to time she could see eyes, but they would quickly disappear. She could hear a blend of voices and breaths. There was someone crying and another person whining. You could feel the pain in the air and she was breathing it. She has her hand on her womb at all times, because the baby was extremely agitated.
Something was wrong. She felt pain; not physical pain, but emotional pain. Restlessness, betrayal, frenzy, pain, loneliness, dread and insecurity. She could hear all these emotions. The woods were trying to comfort all of these souls, but they were writhing in their eternal misery.
She went back to sleep after the baby calmed down. The creaking of the house was getting on her nerves. She had the feeling that there was somebody walking around the house.
“The dead walk freely around here,” she kept hearing in her head.
In the morning she felt very well-rested for the type of night she had had. He slept like a log. He had no idea about what has happened. After breakfast, he went outside with his cousin to remove the snow from the car, in order for them to leave.
“Did you sleep well?” The friendly aunt asked her.
“Oh, yes. I dreamt a lot of nonsense, but I’m fine.”
“Be careful, my child, the dead can be very hateful and nothing provokes them more than a life that’s about to begin.”
“Mom, don’t frighten her!”
The old woman had once again appeared out of nowhere, with her deer-like steps and her perfect way of being. And she was very old, but how old exactly?
“No, no, it’s fine, I want to hear what she has to say.”
“The woods, did you dream about the woods?”
“And about the dead?”
The aunt was quiet, with her back against the stove, but she didn’t seem surprised at all, by any of it. She would’ve simply liked to avoid the conversation, nothing else.
“The new life growing inside you. They are jealous and filled with pain and suffering. I know. I myself was once pregnant and alone. The first time, when I was pregnant with the boy, I only had a few dreams and I didn’t give them a second thought. I would wake up in the middle of the night and he would be kicking in my womb, but I didn’t think much of it. I knew from my mother and grandmother what kind of things happened around here, but I was very young and didn’t believe them. I didn’t pay much attention to any of it.”
She was reliving every moment and placing her hand on her womb out of reflex, searching for the baby that was no longer there.
“But when I was pregnant with her, it got really bad. Both her father and her brother were mad with jealousy and pain. They would grimace in every possible way and wouldn’t leave me be. I don’t hold a grudge against them. I forgave them and I kept telling them that they were forgiven.”
Out of nowhere, she crossed herself.
“I asked the priest to hold a service for them. Who knows where they are, because they never returned home for me to bury them, to cry for them and to reconcile them. That’s why they are here, wandering. When I’ll go them, but in the proper way, I’ll press them to calm down and I’ll succeed. But until then, we must be cautious. Be careful where you go and what you do. They can be vicious.”
It was her turn to cross herself. Not out of fear, but out of pity for them, for all of them.
“They wanted to kill me. They came after me in the woods, when I was approaching my due date and they did everything in their power to prevent me from returning home.”
“Did they attack you?”
“Yes, they attacked me. They wanted us to go to them, right then and there. Both of us. But I am a mother and I know one thing: the dead with the dead and the living with the living. Only when the time comes.”
“And how did you escape?”
“The wolves, dear, the wolves. The dead fear the wolves! They protected me.”
What she had heard was going to stay with her for a long time. She was no longer keen on leaving or having fun or anything else for that matter. She used to enjoy a crowd, getting dolled-up, trying on earrings and stuff like that and so did he. They would play around, matching each other’s outfits, they were pedantic. And now, all his relatives were in the village, at her parents-in-law’s. And she had something extra to show off, an impressive belly.
But she no longer felt like going. She wanted to stay there, with the old woman, to eat all the treats and not have to show off. She still had so many questions for that woman. She felt so sad when she got into the car that she wanted to cry. She didn’t even pay attention to the road. It felt as if they had just gotten into the car when they had to get off.
The weather had calmed down a bit and it didn’t seem to be as freezing cold as before. He was happy about it and he became more optimistic about walking five kilometres without any problems and in no rush. They might even enjoy the walk.
However, her mind was somewhere else, even though it was still agile. She kept going over her conversation with the old woman. She knew she had to go back. The road seemed deserted and forgotten.
“In the end, I believe it’s good that it’s just us, don’t you think? I feel closer to you here, in the nature!”
But she knew that they were not alone. From time to time she could hear whispering and wailing around her. They hated her! The old woman was right. They hated her because she was carrying life inside her, which was something that they lacked altogether. The baby was becoming more agitated and he kept kicking. It knew the truth. Nevertheless, she had to keep quiet; she couldn’t utter something like that. In any case, he wouldn’t have believed her and he would only worry.
She had a false smile on her face and an indescribable fear in her heart. She kept placing her hand on her womb, as if she were checking to see whether it was still there. But she was already aware that it was there, since the baby was kicking hard. She wanted a girl and she could almost see her; beautiful and brave. They kept walking.
Suddenly, he stopped and signalled her to be quiet. For a moment, she thought that she had been wrong about him and that he could see and hear everything like her and the old woman.
“Can you hear that?”
She could hear it, of course she could, but she was afraid to say it out loud.
“The wolves! They are close! They’ve been following us for a while, but I didn’t want to frighten you.”
“The wolves… yes, I can hear them.”
Suddenly, everything was better. They were there for her, protecting her and her womb. The wolves! They started walking again. Every time the wailing and crying started, the wolves would howl and cover their sounds. Afterwards, it was quiet.
They arrived out of breath in front of the gate. They were safe. Her father-in-law came out to greet them. He kept quiet, listening to the noises in the distance.
“The wolves followed you here. Thank God you managed to escape!”
The father and the son embraced each other and quickly went inside to the relatives, the stories and the food. She turned around to face the woods. She could see the eyes, exactly like in her dream.
“Yes, the wolves accompanied us here. Thank God for them!”
She placed her hand on the womb and felt the baby reacting.
“My little she-wolf.”
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