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Harbinger

by VC Patel 6 months ago in fiction · updated 6 months ago
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A Balkan Tale

Harbinger
Photo by Kenrick Mills on Unsplash

“There isn’t much time,” he mumbles in a heavy Slavic accent, his gray fuzzed face sunken and hollow under the incandescent lights. Dark plum eyelids move back and forth with REM or with hallucinations from the infection’s grasp. His body trembles and rocks in the narrow hospital bed. “Death is here,” he begins before speaking another language that may or may not have been Russian. “Sova,” he rasps. And then again louder, almost shouting, he cries out “Sova!” with a great despair that frankly surprises her as he appears frighteningly frail.

“Shhhhh.” Lana lays a warm hand upon reptilian skin, baked and cracked tiles pulled taunt along muscle and sharp bone. He’s quite dehydrated despite the subcutaneous fluids dripping from the IV. “It’s only a dream,” she reassures him, her voice light and airy without a hint of weariness from the thirteen going on fourteen hour shift she’s already worked. It’s possible he can hear her. She has witnessed delirium take course many times, washing away memory, revealing hidden truths deep within the layers of forgotten places, sifting away pebbles and sand, until only the darkest stone remains.

It’s not unusual for people to confess as they die, Lana knows this. She’s been a working RN for almost 15 years. She knows all kinds of things about people she wishes she didn’t.

A gentle squeeze along her fingers startles her. “Ah, welcome back, Mr. Miroslav.” She smiles at faded blue-gray eyes that struggle to focus on her.

“Vlad,” he corrects after a beat.

“Vlad, you need to eat. What can I get you?”

“She was not a beautiful child,” he replies, shaking his head thoughtfully. “Her face was long. Her nose was quite big. From her grandfather, you see, he had a big nose but for a man it is good. A big nose is strength, presence. For her, it wasn’t good. She tried to hide her nose. How can you hide a nose? The nose tormented her. Then, she was grown into an incredibly beautiful woman. Her nose wasn’t her grandfather’s nose any longer. She made sure. She wasn’t just missing the nose, you see. That was the problem; I told her Mama this. She was missing many pieces. All the pieces we need to be strong and secure. She had none of those.”

He takes a long gasping breath as if he’d been running then says,” I believe it started with the nose.”

Lana places a plastic bottle of water in his hand, after removing the cap. “Drink this.”

“If it’s not rakija, keep it.” He turns away, staring at the door. “It’s not much longer now.” Those blue-gray eyes fixated.

“What is rakija?” Lana asks with genuine curiosity. “A juice?”

“A juice of delight,” he responds, his attention drifting to the lime green chair across the room. “Please, bring me the chair and the jacket,” he requests, motioning weakly with his hand to a folded pile of clothing on a small table near the closet. “My people believe it cures sickness, sadness, fever. The juice of prosperity and good luck distilled from fruits…errr…here they call it, what is that? They make it in the mountains? You get arrested.”

Lana frowns. “Do you mean Moonshine?”

“Yes, that is it. In my country it’s legal - the same as taking vitamins. You take every day.” He smiles for the first time revealing stained teeth and gummy lips. “Now, please, the chair and the jacket. Place it here by the bed.”

Lana does as he asks. She understands what he wants. She has to be careful. She doesn’t want to lose her job. She pushes the chair as close to the bed as possible then lays the heavy winter olive green jacket across the side closest to Vlad. It takes him a few moments to muster the strength and dexterity to grasp the slippery, puffy material then slide it over to himself. A few more, to retrieve a hefty ornate flask from an inside pocket. Lana studies the floor.

“You have extra cup?” he asks her, Lana shaking her head No with anticipation before he finishes. He takes an unused small plastic cup from the roll-away hospital table that’s angled near the bed, a bit of plastic wrap from an uneaten bowl of fruit cocktail. Pours a long pour of light yellow liquid into it, wraps the small cup tightly with trembling hands, and hands it to Lana.

“I better go.” Lana turns to leave but he motions her to stay a moment longer. Imploringly, she complies. She likes Vlad.

“For later.” He sets it down on the hospital table then raises his flask. “Živeli!” He takes a hearty swig. “To the beauty of this life,” he says in a toast to the ceiling, “may death come for me swiftly and without suffering.”

“You’re not going to die,” Lana says not knowing why she said it. You don’t tell patients they’re not going to die when you don’t know. It’s a rookie mistake. Hospitals take the best, even the strongest ones without mercy.

“My daughter’s name is Miliča.” He takes a long pull from the flask.

“Is that what you’re dreaming about?” she asks. “You said Sova, not,” Lana struggles to pronounce, “Mil-iča, I thought?”

His accent thicker than it had been, he responds, “They go together.” His voice grows deeper with emotion, the blue-gray eyes shift to gray-blue, mostly filled with gray coldness, a bleak sky before a heavy snow. Unblinking, he replies, “When the Sove came, I knew it was the season of death. I know it again.”

Vlad takes several long pulls before setting the flask aside.

“What is Sova or did you say Sove?” she asks waiting for him to tell her, but he doesn’t.

Instead, “In my country there are many stories,” he begins to tell her a tale that will stay with her into the early morning hours of sleeplessness. “There are many beliefs.

“Superstitions, you see, or perhaps, tokens you call it?” Confusion clouds his expression.

No.” Vlad closes his eyes to remember. “Omens, yes, you call it omens.

“Where I’m from, we’re a simple people. We use symbols to decipher life. We believe rakija will cure our illness, breaking even the fiercest fever with its potency. We believe if an object breaks, better that object than a person; the potential hurt or injury is transferred to the broken pieces, you see.

”We believe the universe tells us what we need to know.

“Religion fills us with doubt and suspicion. Government has ruled our country’s religion for so long; it‘s all manipulation and propaganda to us. Culturally, our spirituality arises from the earth rather than God. God is an institution controlled by dictators so we read images found in our ordinary life; these images tell us what we need to know, what is coming, what has already come...“

“You don’t need to tell me this.” Lana‘s tone invites him to rest. Her shift is over, and she needs to rest as well. His voice entices her, his accent easy to listen to, his story compelling, she realizes, she doesn’t want him to stop. Yet, she already knows that any words spoken on the eve of either a departure or a resurrection will stay with her, to emerge later from shadows, when she feels weak or tired, restless and unrelieved, to trouble her with uncertainty and insecurity in the murkiest hours before a new dawn. Lana releases a breath she’s been holding, the sound of expelling air much too loud. The noise surprises them both.

Lana shrugs. “It’s been a very long shift,” she apologizes with a warm smile.

Vlad watches her, studying her dark tired eyes, before continuing in an overly easy manner, as if retelling a charming tale at cocktail hour. “My daughter wasn’t born here. In the Balkans, it‘s different than America. There are many farmers. Life is in the land, in the food, in the movement of people who have come together for centuries to survive.

“When she was very young, my daughter loved to go to the market. The market opened at 4:30am so Miliča rose at 3am with her Grandmother, Bakiča Anja. She was my mother, you see. Miliča would go with her every chance she could.

“Miliča loved fresh, hot mekike and oily beef burrek from the street vendors. She ate twice her size,” he says empathically, emitting a series of soft chuckles that warms Lana. ”Miliča loved so much to eat when she was young. My mother would say ‘we’ll lose all of our money taking Miliča to the market’. My Mama wasn’t wrong.

“When Miliča grew up, she loved other things. Bad things. There wasn’t enough to free her from this obsession. Not enough rakija, not enough drugs, not enough lying and stealing, not enough abuse. Not enough bad men. Not enough glamour or celebrity. Not enough violence or fear. There was not enough of anything for her satisfaction.

“She had no appetite for food, only for escape, for thrill, for pain. I don’t know why it was so. But it was…so. This appetite for bad things came upon her, a hunger with no cure.”

Lana pulls the chair, pushing the jacket aside, and sits down. Her feet throb inside the sneakers. “That sounds horrible,” she says, thinking of her own daughter. What would she do, if her little Tori ever got herself into that kind of trouble?

“Horrible is what happened after,” Vlad says, eyes drifting back to the door. Waiting. “Miliča met some very, very bad people. Powerful people. The money, the glamour, the drugs… then, of course, there was sex.

"Later, we learned too much about what commodities are bartered when you’re hooked, when you’re an addict, when you’re so beautiful on the outside, how you too become a vein to inject the drug for evil men.”

A flash of movement, quick rustling on the dark glass startles them. Two heads swivel in unison to the large hospital window. Outside, the night looms impenetrably, a dark glass reflecting back distorted pale faces instead of the night beyond. One old and haggard and the other a pale blob framed by dark curly hair that needs taming.

”My daughter disappeared on a Sunday morning in the Fall when the leaves glistened blood red, orange, a yellow spotted surprise here and there, far above.” Vlad speaks with a vividness and passion reserved for Slavic performers. His hands move with the words. Some words unusual, maybe what he intends, maybe only close but not quite.

“A wondrous artistry mixed with sun and light.” His eyes shift again, more blue than gray. “These sights brought us great pleasure, fluttering with the wind.

“My wife, Iva and I would sit on the bench by the patio. Our necks craned, staring high up until we moved about, crooked-necked all day.” A harsh laugh breaks free from his throat. "Crooked from craning up above the giant gray elephant’s trunks that sit by the lake behind our home where we loved and raised our children the best we could.

“Eh, you know?”

Regret.

Yes, she knew regret. The killer of good men and women at the end, Lana had done this before, sitting, listening at the end of her shift or even beyond to stories of despair, joy, longing, anger and bitterness. She heard secret criminals tell their one-time truth before dying, hoping for redemption or at least a spot in purgatory. Worse was when she’d witnessed those not seeking any redemption at all for truly horrendous acts.

Lana once sat listening much like this to a 92 year old woman named Lydia who may have been the resident sweetie pie blue-haired granny on any other ward, but not that day, as the old hag spilled a sordid, unfeeling, disgusting account of molesting her son until he was nearly 18 years old. The abuse only ended when Granny Lydia found her only son hanging in the basement. The old woman felt no remorse or guilt rather a palpable rage consumed her confession how dare he leave her! In her twisted view, the mother owned the boy. In her diseased brain, the boy served her as a possession, a play thing, a sexual gratification, a mere extension of herself no different than masturbation.

On that particular night, Lana vomited profusely after leaving the room. Got down on her knees and prayed for the first time in many years that the devil would do his due diligence and take Granny Lydia straight to Hell.

“You can’t blame yourself.” Lana reaches for Vlad’s hand and finds coldness. Worried eyes dart to the monitor. 02 90%. BP normal. Pulse normal. She holds his hand a bit tighter to infuse warmth into the flesh to no avail.

“You can and you do.” Vlad moves his hand from her grasp. “The police were searching for Miliča because she was wanted in connection with the bad men. They didn’t care that she was our daughter. Or, that my wife, her Mama, grew sick with worry and despair.

“Crying and screaming, missing her, terrified of what was happening. Not knowing is the worst part. At least you think this is true until you start to know what’s happening. Then, there is worse.

“Acid on open flesh.”

Vlad’s head nods, resting on his chest. Dark plum eyelids flutter. He appears exhausted. “Go ahead and sleep now,” Lana encourages. Her shift is over. Time to go home. "You can tell me the rest tomorrow."

The yellow tint of his skin intensifies as he shifts position to lean back into the pillows for greater support. Alertness fades, a deep sleep, or perhaps the nightmares draw closer. He speaks unexpectedly, a deep timber to his voice. “On the third day, the first one arrived,” he says solemnly. “Sova. It was big. So very big. Like a wheel barrow, 4 ft. when the wings are spread. Two maybe three feet tall, with horns on its head. It hunted for a few days. Dropping blood and little carcasses down the tree where it perched.

“Miliča was running out of time. We knew this. We couldn’t stop it.

“The fifth day a second Sova came. There were now two Sove. The second was much bigger, striped with black and brown, a winged dark tiger, great horns and foot long feathers protruding from its massive head. The beaks cut sharp and deadly, dripping with blood along the massive elephant’s trunks, side-by-side.

“When it lifted this great ball of muscle to fly, wings spread out at least 6 feet, maybe 7, the white underneath taunted us, dark and crusty with blood and guts from the larger animals it began to bring. Leaving death throughout the yard, heaps of its kills at the base of the trees. They would make a noise, an eerie calling that echoed across the lake and into the forest, chilling your blood, making your skin tight and prickly, plucked like a raw chicken’s.

“Their golden eyes stalked us both, never losing sight as we paced and stared through the kitchen windows, the living room window, the dining room windows, the den window, the upstairs windows, the library window, tucking ourselves behind weighty damask curtains and schefflera plants themselves grown like trees, as if we could hide from the beasts.

“We spent days wandering from room to room on the backside of the house, afraid to go outside. We waited and watched, jumping each time the telephone rang.

“The police detective no longer accepted our calls. We received no news except that the monsters hunted fiercely. Each prey growing larger and bloodier, this was the work of beasts.

“Fear choked us.

“Fear for Miliča. We understood that Miliča would be gone from us soon. Her death a dead carcass spent from pain and misery, nothing kind or gentle in her departure.

“What we knew, we wish we didn’t. Our daughter was lost somewhere far away, thousands of miles in the desert with gun runners and drug dealers. Now two, Sove, dangerous winged monsters bring the promise of her painful and imminent death. What talons would rip her? Where would her entrails fall?

Lana watches Vlad’s face grow sallower under the harsh lights. His voice strains then deepens, rising and falling with hefts of emotions that thicken his Slavic pronunciations.

He stops speaking and looks to the door, staring and waiting, again staring and waiting. A long time passes. As if sensing Lana's decision to rise, Vlad begins to speak again in a soft, gentle tone that squeezes Lana’s heart hard until she sits back again, listening intently.

“The feel of your child’s sweet hand, soft smile, the growing burst of emotion inside when you hold her, carry her near your heart. The smell of her hair, her breath, her tiny feet, you once inhaled so deeply, kissed so tenderly,” he says. “You give her life and promise. Give her joy and gratitude among the toys and open fields, the flowers, butterflies, the fluffy orange kitten to keep her warm at night. From the moment you first regard your baby, her delicate life ebbs through you until you are the fiercest and bravest. You’ll give everything to protect her. Give your life.”

Tears stream down his sunken face.

“We cried and screamed. Night to day, the blood grew more plentiful. Carcasses stacked up higher. Fluids dripped darkly on the trees until only slivers of elephant’s trunks remained. The lake lay in a pool of blackness behind. Iva bent to madness. Myself, I began to drink.

“Until the eighth day came.

“The sound of rushing air fills my head,” Vlad says looking upward, his face awash with grief, watching the unseen unfold. “The wind is so strong. Blackness consumes us all. This is it. I’m already running. I realize, from a very faraway place, floating along, I’m completely drunk and uncoordinated, terrified.

“Having been held prisoner in my own home, my madness nudges me to action. I have a rifle. I recall this.” Vlad pauses, his gaze drawn to the darkened hospital window. Lana thinks she hears something on the window pane, the rustling returns. She doesn’t turn or look. “The third Sova is a monster. Wings of Icarus, black with blood and death, there is no sun in its shadow,” he speaks, groaning. “The third owl is here and I’m finally ready - a madman charges out into the yard with the loaded rifle, my bare feet stomping through death and blood, guts of animals between my toes and up to my knees, some the size of children, these winged tigers circling terrors above me, lifting and swooping. I hear the sound even now. Their beaks razor sharp, talons as long as my forearm, I think only of Miliča. I feel her departure, an echo of emptiness deep within my soul, a fleeting rush of pain sucking my insides into vacuous spaces. Iva’s already gone. She can no longer speak or see. Crumpled on the kitchen floor as, you see, Miliča is no longer, and we know.”

A gasping breath escapes Vlad, Lana jumping as she hangs on every word. “I fire. And reload,” he booms with vigor. “I fire. And reload. On and on, blood raining from the sky until they are all gone. ’They can take more,’ I tell Iva who doesn’t care. Iva wants to go. Iva would give herself to their talons, if she could.” He sputters with frustration, spit flying. His wrinkled brown spotted hands vigorously in motion, recreating a symphony of anguish. “Perhaps that’s why I did it, to save Iva. What would I do without Iva? Death doesn’t go away because you want it to. Once it has taken perch, it must be ripped from the branch.

"You must fight it or it’ll keep taking.

“‘We have other children.’ My voice burns fire as I shout to Iva, firing and firing again. My anger spills out. ‘We must think of the children.’ Iva has left me too.” A single cry of anguish, Vlad ‘s words trail away as he slips further down into the bed.

Deeply breathing, sleep takes him.

Lana pulls the sheets up around slender shoulders. She stares at the sleeping figure for many moments. “Rest now,” she says. “You’ll be better soon. I’ll come see you tomorrow,” she promises before she goes.

+++++

Outside, the night air is cold. Her breath steams. Lana hugs her coat tightly. The streets glisten with fresh snow stark against the blackness of the late hour. Sheets of ice run alongside the street gutters. Icicle daggers hang from the lanterns, large as swords in some spots.

She walks quickly and sips slowly from the cup. The juice feels hot and wonderful and finishes with a delightful apricot tingle, warming her from the inside.

It’s delicious. She quietly thanks Vlad.

Above her, the rustling from the hospital window returns and grows louder. Flapping wings stretch a lengthy span of golden brown, spotted amber and ivory jewels along the wingtips, followed by a stark underbelly of glowing white. A heart-shaped mask the same color as fresh snow and a small black beak emerge for a brief glimpse stopping Lana in her tracks.

The heels of her sneakers skid and crunch upsetting her balance as the mighty bird swoops gracefully into the light of the lanterns, fully illuminated, a fresh and new angel. Lana rights herself, eyes never leaving the magnificent sight. Powerful wings lift and it speeds off into the darkness above.

The owl’s mighty wings still beating loudly in her mind, Lana stares up into the empty night sky with disbelief.

Sova,” she whispers, releasing a puff of hot steam from her lips.

A much kinder and gentler owl than what Vlad had encountered with Miliča. Lana looks back at the hospital, understanding she won’t see Vlad again. Sadness pricks behind her eyes as Lana lifts the flimsy plastic cup. Studies the gold liquid saturated with memory then tilts her head back, taking a long luxurious swallow. The last of the rakija burns an apricot essence down her throat.

fiction

About the author

VC Patel

There are many worlds inside me. I spend a lot of time there exploring.

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