MY GRANDMOTHER HAD HER OWN STYLE
of storytelling, a style that avoided accommodating her listeners in
any way. She never started right in with what happened, which was,
of course, what you wanted to hear. First, she had to make you see
where the story took place, especially if it took place in her village,
which was where most of the stories she considered worth telling took
place. You had to hear about the fence cleverly woven of branches,
the dirt yard full of chickens, the four fat pigs that her son sold
off when our mother was pregnant with Madeline and couldn't stand the
smell of them. "What's the matter with her nose, huh?" Staramajka
asked us. "Everybody else can stand to smell a pig, no matter what
special condition they are in, but my Marko, to make his brother's
wife happy, he sells all the pigs. 'I can buy them back later,'
Marko said, but then the army came and took him, so we ended up
with no men and no pigs either. That's why the mayor asked us to
take the Turk in the first place no pigs on the premises."
My ears perked up at this early mention of the Turk, but it was a
false alarm. We had yet to hear (not for the first time) about the
crucifix that guarded the end of the single street flanked with
yellow houses, about the thick clay walls of the houses and their
thatched roofs, about storks who liked to nest in summer on the
chimneys big birds with long pink legs. "Pretty to look at but
they make a big mess. Not at our house, though, because of my
rooster. He didn't like those storks. If one came, he would
crow like crazy and make it fly off. He was better than a guard
dog, my rooster. When soldiers came to the village and stole our
chickens and pigs, they never laid a finger on that rooster of mine.
Your grandpa called him " and for the rooster's name, she always
switched from Croatian to Hungarian, which my sister and I had never
learned to speak, adding, as if she were sorry to inconvenience us,
"His name means something I can't say to children."
"We're not children," I protested, but my sister Madeline, who
was sitting in a cloud of featherbeds with her greased and
gauze-wrapped hands in her lap, looked satisfied, under the
circumstances, to be a child for a while. I think she liked
Staramajka's long preambles anyway, probably because she
remembered the village herself she was five or six when they
left it and she liked to have the lines and shapes of the place
redrawn for her now and again to keep them sharp and clear.
"Speak for yourself," she said to me. "And don't interrupt."
Staramajka made a great show of ignoring both of us, sitting
back in her wooden rocking chair. This was the same chair she
hauled out to the porch every fine morning and dragged back
inside every night, the same one in which she spent most of
her evenings beside the radio in the dining room, listening
to the Voice of Firestone, the same one in which we would find
her dead one day, looking very much the way she did right now:
her eyes closed and her face toward the ceiling, the cheekbones
high and round like apples, the rest scooped hollow by her lack
of teeth. When she was ready to resume her story, she opened her
eyes and peered at us from deep caverns under the bony shelf of
her forehead, making us feel that we were in the presence of one
both ancient and timeless. In years, she must have been about 65.
Reprinted with permission
Copyright © 2001
by Mary Helen Stefaniak