Chapter 2

Chapter 2

Behind the Oleander Wreath

The afternoon passed in its usual manner, but the next morning was rather unusual. The Senate ordered the morning roll call earlier than usual, and then the sentries, dapifer’s subordinates, marched into citizens’ homes right after the people had returned. All their belongings were thoroughly searched. Una and Beta kept glancing at each other as two sentries threw their humble possessions to the ground, ignoring the fireplace that harmlessly occupied a shadow in the kitchen. They found nothing. Everyone was more than prepared for such unexpected searches all year round, if not before their first lashing, than surely afterwards. The Rector’s Palace remained silent after the morning, so Una concluded with satisfaction that they hadn’t found anything anywhere.

Beta served at the orphanage and really enjoyed her work. It was a place where the unwanted and rejected children ended up. She did everything that was asked of her, and even more. She made their meals, told them old stories, knitted socks, patched up clothing, invented games, tucked them into bed, and she loved all she did, because there was certainly no-one else to love them. Even the other employees were very reserved toward the children that got abandoned for various unknown reasons, so it happened often that the little ones scurried into Beta’s arms for their smallest and greatest needs. Beta would often joke with her mother that she would never have children of her own, because fifty of someone else’s sons and daughters were just enough for her. Still, what she enjoyed least was the night shift. Since all the children were asleep then, and the employees gone right after sunset, Beta had to sit on a chair next to the main entrance and stare at the darkness through a small slit in the gate. The gate itself was sealed shut and couldn’t be opened from the inside, so Beta could only leave in the morning, when the other employees came to work. This way they prevented the little ones from running away. To the left of the gate, there was a window with a foundling wheel, where people would lay the infant, and Beta would take it in after turning the wheel. Beta spent her nights in the orphanage praying to barely visible stars that no-one would head down St. Rocco’s street with a bundle in their arms, but it seemed often, even too often, that it happened, so she cried several times a month over sleepy newborns, holding them as if they were the most precious things in the world. She had been serving in the orphanage since she was fifteen. Many a child passed through her hands whom she never saw again, but she did sometimes encounter some in the City and pretended not to know them. It was very hard, but it was necessary. The Senate didn’t allow spending any prolonged time on the streets, and it especially forbade outbursts of emotions to which children were prone. One flogging was enough for Beta to memorize it. She hated her excessive sentimentality, but she had a difficult time saying goodbye, every single time. The unwanted children in the orphanage were in most cases a fruit of reckless love between spouses, but they were also frequently a fruit of lechery. The children had to stay in the orphanage until they were six, and then, according to Law, they had to be sent away into service. Boys were customarily sent onto ships, and girls as servants into the Palace itself or to other noble homes. Neither of them had easy lives, they were left to themselves, and the girls were often given the offensive name čupa[17]. To the arrogant lot that enjoyed the Senate’s favour, they were the lowest of the low, although they cleaned their shoes, cooked their meals, made their beds and indulged their every whim. Beta was just cleaning the dust off the inscription above the gate, the words flawlessly describing her emotions:

Cochalvit cor meu itra me et ditatione mea exeardescet igni.[18]

She often inquired about the children who had left the orphanage, but she always got the same answer – they were alive and in service, and if you had those two things in the Republic, you could consider yourself lucky.

“You can go home.”

Her dark thoughts were interrupted by a girl who had come to take the night shift. Only then did Beta realize that night had crept into the City and that her colleague had already put the children to bed. She went to the kitchen and put all the dishes away, then arranged the playroom by picking up all the rag dolls and balls, and finally tiptoed upstairs to count the sleeping children. Having assured herself everything was alright, she threw her robe on and stepped out into the street that smelled of freshly cooked dinners. Only a few people were out on Stradun when she crossed it on her way home. The smiles she gave them and received in return contained a whole lot more than it seemed, and she found herself thinking all the laws and beatings in the world couldn’t stop them from having a passing conversation just with their hearts. Beta’s thoughts rested now on one thing only. Tonight Spring arrives. Tonight we celebrate Yarilo.

 

***

 

Una and her daughter left their house a bit after midnight. After the City’s bell fell silent, having announced the mid of the night, they headed down the stone street, inaudible as the shadows, making sure even their breathing wasn’t heard. The darkness was thick and impenetrable, but to Beta’s mother, apparently, it presented no problem at all. She walked first, running her hand over the walls of the little houses they passed. Familiar protrusions and inscriptions rushed under her fingers, and she almost unknowingly calculated the rest of their way and determined their course. Beta held the hem of her skirt tightly and followed her blindly. She was convinced that her pounding heart that refused to shut up in the excitement would give her away any moment, but she enjoyed every step. Up until this year she could greet the Spring only inside the walls of their home, listening to her mother’s stories, but since she came of age in February, she could for the first time attend the celebration in the underground. Everything her mother had ever told her was now flying before her eyes, as she eagerly waited to see it all and compare it to the dreams she had had for years. Her mother slithered without hesitation through the very narrow streets that had been increasingly used for that precise purpose in the last few decades. Finally she stopped in a street that ended in front of a canal, under which the sea unfolded. There were but two steps between them and a fall. Seeing her mother look straight ahead, Beta realized they were heading for the northern stretch of the City Walls.

“Hold my hand and do everything I do”, her mother whispered quietly. Beta wondered if she could hear a hint of nervousness in her voice, but then she concluded that everyone must have been scared and that the passing years haven’t calmed them much. Her mother reached for something in the dense bush, and then came nearer to the canal, bending down too close to the edge. It was pitch black, but Beta feared the sentries, although she knew very well that the wooden draw bridge had been raised, the gates locked, and the main key was with the sentries in Logia[19]. Her mother was still fidgeting with something she couldn’t yet see, so she asked:

“What are you doing?”

“This is the only way to get across.”

Having said that, she stepped over the edge and, ignoring her daughter’s startled gasp, continued walking on air. With a pounding heart, Beta reached the edge only to see in the bleak moonlight that her mother was hurrying across the canal on a long and apparently tough plank.

“Hurry up, my child!” she whispered, already nearing the other side. Beta swallowed hard and stepped onto the plank, looking straight at the restless sea striking the stone edges so hard she could feel the foam on her feet. She obeyed her mother despite a strong feeling of vertigo that made her think she would plunge right into the restlessness. However, just as she steadied and balanced her steps, she saw something which made the blood in her veins freeze. Una was leading her straight toward Minčeta[20].

“Mom!” she whispered violently.

Una responded by waving her hand toward herself.

“Mommy!” Beta pleaded again, realizing that a note of panic had crawled into her voice. She couldn’t understand why her mother was heading straight for the most monumental tower, which must have been teeming with guards. For a moment she was convinced her poor mother had given in under the pressure and was leading them both to their doom, due to a silent nervous breakdown.

“Be quiet and follow me”, Una responded patiently.

When Beta stepped onto solid ground, her mother stopped just for a moment to whistle barely audibly. An identical reply returned from the other side, which they had just come from, and immediately thereafter, two shadows grabbed the plank and pulled it back. Beta stared wide-eyed at the spot which was gaping empty only a few seconds later. Una didn’t wait for her to come round, instead she hastened on. Beta hurried after her, dreading what would happen next. She was convinced her luck wouldn’t smile another time if she met the forces of the law. Una suddenly stopped and Beta noticed they were standing right beneath the City Walls that yawned under the night sky. Her mother began touching every stone in front of her, and then, to her daughter’s surprise, started climbing as agile as a cat.

“Follow my movements and be careful not to fall!”

As she touched the stones just like her mother, who had already climbed quite high, Beta felt her breath get stuck in her throat. She realized why her mother climbed so easily and quickly, because she was now herself rushing up the walls as if she had spent her whole life climbing heights. Having reached the top, Una peeked over it just enough to get a glance of the walkway, then threw her legs over the wall and helped her daughter do the same. She then scurried on, keeping close to the cold stone surrounding them.

“Was this what I think it was?”

Her mother shortly turned to smile at her.

“You’ve noticed the dents in the stone were perfectly synchronised with your movements as you climbed?”

“I was shocked.”

“Our people may have been subdued and humiliated, but never lost spirit. You’re aware of the fact that, when the City was founded, everyone entering it had to bring a stone matching their own weight. They may have been tortured and oppressed to raise the Republic, but…”

She turned again quickly.

“They built it to always be on our side.”

Beta sighed, astonished. She was almost dizzy of all the excitement. After a slight curve, they stopped in front of a niche in the stone

“This looks like someone walled up a door”, Beta said quietly. Her mother started feeling her own nape and said:

“I notified them we’ve arrived. They’ll open up any moment now.”

Beta gaped at her mother, just about to ask whom and how she had notified, when a light poured out on her face. She started blinking intensely and raised a hand over her face.

“Forgive me, how rude of me!”

The light decreased. After rubbing her eyes to chase away the glow, Beta saw an old man with a torch.

“Glad to see you! We’ve gathered in large numbers.”

“Glad to be here”, Una replied.

The old man bowed to her daughter.

“This must be Beta! Welcome, child! Come, come, we’re not expecting a lot more people, the celebration is about to begin.”

Having said that, he raised the torch high above his head, revealing an earthen staircase leading into the deep. They began to descend. Beta turned after a few steps to see the door and maybe close it, but it seemed – maybe because of the darkness now devoid of the torch’s light – there wasn’t anything to be closed. She continued down behind her mother, trying to remember if the old man had opened anything when he appeared. Their steps were silent and soft as they went down and Beta noticed her chest had started to hurt from her uneven breaths. All the excitement seemed to make her forget how to breathe, so she forced herself to pull herself together lest she miss a single moment. The very thought of being underneath the serpents’ lair made her light-headed, but still, something else was bothering her. She could have been wrong, but it seemed as though there was something unsaid between Una and the old man. Beta regarded this as the happiest event ever, but they didn’t seem to share her opinion. Then again, she thought, maybe the fear of dapifers and sentries was stronger than the happiness and joy that were supposed to fill the underground. Maybe they were all truly happy, but more uneasy and afraid of the price they would have to pay if it were all exposed. Beta decided to try to find out.

“What is it, mother? Aren’t you happy we’ll greet the Spring together for the first time?”

Una turned to her daughter and revealed her pale face.

“Of course I am. I couldn’t be happier that we will finally share this experience.”

Beta noticed her mother’s effort to convince her of what she was saying, and, for the first time that night, she started to really worry, but then she had an idea.

“It’s because of him, isn’t it?” she whispered, as they went on carefully down a seemingly endless staircase, winding under their feet. “You’re sad because he’s not with us again, aren’t you?”

Una stared down at her feet and Beta felt like she wasn’t doing it to avoid slipping, but to avoid her eyes.

“Yes, that bothers me”, she replied softly. Beta felt relief. Throughout her childhood and youth she had already got used to her father’s absence, but she didn’t feel it as a shortage. He was just never there. Her mother might have had trouble dealing with his absence, she had after all spent with him a whole lifetime more than her daughter. Beta took her mother’s hand and stopped her.

“Please, don’t think about that! The two of us will now have fun and greet Yarilo better than ever before!”

A shadow passed over her mother’s face. The smile she gave her daughter was weak, but honest. She kissed Beta’s forehead, then they heard a soft cough under them. The old man smiled politely.

“Just a bit further and I promise we’re there”, he said, addressing Beta more than Una, who wasn’t new to it. They continued down the damp staircase, followed by the pleasant torchlight with flames dancing above the old man’s head. The tunnel, which in Beta’s opinion took years to build, winded like a snake while they descended, and suddenly she couldn’t shake the impression that there was something supernatural about it. The warmth surrounding them was protective and encouraging, and the torchlight in the old man’s hand promised some new paths, leading away from the life she had known so far. The earthen walls around them glistened under the light like tiny pearls, and the silence receded with every step they took. Just as she wondered if she would ever be free from the euphoria sitting on her chest and hindering her breathing, somewhere in the back she heard a song:

 

…over large clumps, where Jura sets foot, there fields bear fruit!

 

Carried by the merry voices and completely enchanted by the song, Beta quickened her pace and accidentally bumped into her mother’s back.

“Sorry!” she breathed, embarrassed, covering her face. “Please, forgive me, but I’m so excited!”

The old man turned and smiled. In the semi-dark infused only by the torchlight, his smile seemed all too weary.

“It never stops, my child. We’re here.”

He stretched the arm with the torch and revealed a heavy wooden door. Hanging on it, there was a delightful wreath with perfectly fresh oleander flowers intertwined in its thin wires. The simple beauty of it stopped Beta’s breath. Never before had she thought that flowers could have feelings, never until now, because she could swear the wreath was smiling and wishing her a warm welcome. She gawked at it like hypnotised and almost ignored the old man, who grabbed the knob, opened the door and said from somewhere further away:

“Welcome to the underground.”

Beta’s senses sharpened as she walked in. The underground appeared to have no beginning and no end, and hundreds and hundreds of people inside contributed to that feeling. From the corner of her eye she saw the old man and her mother separating and blending in with the crowd, but she was so captivated she had barely noticed. It was a simple earthen room of immensely large proportions. She couldn’t see the ceiling, so she assumed that, as dark as it was, it disappeared out of the reach of candles, lanterns and torches flickering everywhere. That which left her completely breathless were the flowers. They were everywhere, on the ground, the earthen walls, the clothes, the hands and the tables. Girls dancing in a kolo[21] had birch twigs on their heads, and young men jumping over small bonfires wore green leaves. Beta surprisingly noticed there were several dances taking place all around her, and as far as her eye could see people were celebrating the coming of Spring in various ways. There were mirrors in wooden frames lined up everywhere around them, so the space looked endlessly large. To her right, older women sat at wooden tables and diligently painted on eggs. Just as she had assumed, the only motives she saw were green grass, colourful flowers and bright sunshine, which were, of course, fitting for the occasion. To her left she saw large, wooden troughs with cold water, full of herbs and flowers. The air smelled sweeter and nicer than ever in Beta’s life and she wished she never had to leave.

“For our new sister”, said the old man, who approached out of nowhere and put a birch wreath on her head. Beta felt her eyes fill with tears.

“Thank you”, she scarcely uttered, feeling pride spread through her chest. The song being sung quietly entered her heart so unexpectedly and undoubtedly that Beta was certain she would never forget it:

 

From green woods

To all our fields,

With muddy shoes,

And golden frills,

Where Jura steps,

The grass grows,

Where Jura jumps,

The grass sprouts!

 

Una came to her daughter and hugged her tightly.

“Beta, my daughter… I love you dearly.”

Though a bit stunned by her mother’s gesture, Beta was glad. She gently caressed her mother’s cheeks, then kissed both. Una reached for something in her pocket and pulled out a decorated egg.

“Take good care of this souvenir-gift. It will be a light to you in the darkness and a guideline to the right path. And never, never forget who you are.”

Beta nodded in understanding, despite the voices in her head begging her to ask her mother what she was talking about. She took the egg and put it away in her apron. Una held her hands tightly and Beta could feel sorrow scratching on her heart. Her mother seemed so crestfallen that her husband couldn’t attend such an important event, she feared her daughter would experience the same ache, especially after she had already lost Victor. Beta wanted to tell her that everything would be fine, that they had each other, but then the song died down and the dancing stopped. The old man who led them into the underground waved his hand softly, asking for attention.

“Dearly beloved”, he began, assuming a central position as people came closer to hear better. “We have gathered here today to greet Yarilo and his Spring. To some of us Yarilo is an old friend, and to some he is a stranger only about to become familiar. Precisely for the newcomers, please, allow me to repeat myself this year once again. Once, long ago, we celebrated the Spring in ways which are now impossible to do, but through the years we have learned that we can greet Yarilo with similar practices and preserve the tradition unchanged.”

 At the mention of the old ways, Beta smiled at her mother. Although Una didn’t say much about the world before the Great War, she told her that they had once celebrated Yarilo under the sun and the blue sky.

“Many years ago was the last time we chased Morana away with fires and across the water. By creating the underground, old practices became unrealisable because it was impossible to make noise and burn large straw dolls, but now we have small straw dolls we rip apart with our hands and we sing songs to chase Morana away. Along with her, old worries go, and what comes is the strength and joy of newly awoken life. Young men used to jump over high bonfires and we managed to preserve that, but in a smaller version. We needed some warmth anyway.”

Laughter filled the crowded underground. Beta smiled widely, looking at the small dug-out holes containing fires wide enough only for two-three people to sit around and warm up their hands. The old man continued:

“I am more glad than you can imagine that we have kept some of the nicest old practices entirely. No-one could take away the songs, nor the planting of trees a week before Spring, but we also still have the greeting with blossoming twigs. I don’t want to bother you any more with the past, so I will just wish you all the best and ask you to make Yarilo feel welcome by having fun.”

The crowd broke into applause. Una walked up to him to begin a conversation, and Beta looked around to decide where to start exploring. The kolo continued again, so now, through the fires of many candles, lanterns and torches, there flew another song:

 

Morana’s winter is gone,

Green Jura has now come,

To the fields from the green wood,

Down the path for our greater good.

 

“Excuse me, is this your first Spring?”

Beta turned to the voice that had interrupted her carefully observing the eggs being painted and decorated. The girl waiting for her answer had big beautiful eyes and long blonde hair in a thick braid.

“Yes, it’s my first time here”, she answered, slightly confused. The girl clapped excitedly and extended her hand.

“Mine, too! My name is Terra, my mother is in the same service as yours.”

Beta remembered her mother talking about a colleague she liked, who had a daughter her age.

“I’m Beta, nice to meet you.”

Terra smiled charmingly.

“I know, you’re the daughter of the great Marin Ghetaldus. I saw you in the City, going to work. I serve at St. Clare’s, so we’re not that far away.”

Beta suddenly remembered her lovely face after she had mentioned the female monastery just next to the Gate of Pile[22].

“Yes, I’ve seen you, too, many times”, Beta said, not wanting to finish the thought and admit to this nice girl that she had never said ‘hi’ because she preferred to dwell in her own world instead of the real one.

“So, what would you like to try first?” Terra asked, as they walked among people dancing, singing or just talking.

“Well, I was thinking of chasing Morana out first”, suggested Beta, pointing to the women sitting at one of the tables, making small straw dolls.

“Good idea”, Terra commended her, turning toward the hard-working women. “Yesterday at home I slammed the window a dozen times, and my father nearly threw me into the sea. I was lucky none of the sentries were nearby, otherwise the wind would be carrying me through the City now.”

Beta was slightly shocked by the ease with which she joked about burning at the stake, but at the same time she admired her courage. She shook her head at her failed attempt of reviving old practices. Chasing Morana away with noise was definitely not recommended in times like these.

“Here you go”, one of the women at the table said kindly. They both accepted small straw dolls and thanked her. Beta noted the doll had just a head, arms, legs and a white ribbon around its neck. While she pondered what to do with it, Terra had already wrung her doll’s neck and thrown the severed head onto the floor. She stomped it with her heavy boot and then started ripping out the rest of the doll. Beta stared at her confounded, as Terra threw pieces of straw all around. She realized her mouth had been wide open the whole time. Terra met her eyes and inquired, confused:

“What is it?”

Beta closed her mouth and shook her head. She realized this girl was much more than just a pretty head. Terra waved impatiently, pointing to her doll, and Beta immediately started to rip the straw figure carefully, bit by bit, throwing the remains cautiously down on the floor. Terra rolled her eyes.

“It’s obvious you work at the orphanage.”

Beta ignored her comment and looked around the room. She started pushing through the dancers.

“So, who did you come with? Parents, brothers? Boyfriend?”

Beta winced at her open question. A tiny sting of pain made her excited heart skip a beat and continue in its ecstatic rhythm.

“Just my mother.”

Her heart bestirred immediately by the memory of Victor. The celebration would have been even more joyous in his presence, his silly jokes and charming smile would win the whole underground.

“I’m here with my whole family, every last one of us came tonight”, Terra continued cheerfully.  “I don’t have a boyfriend yet, so I sincerely hope I’ll be holding someone’s hand by next Spring.”

She glanced sideways at Beta.

“Of course, this isn’t bad, either.”

Beta smiled.

“You don’t have anyone special?”

Terra’s persistence was making her uncomfortable. She nervously stroked her hand and muttered:

“No.”

He wasn’t just special, he was my everything in this world.

Terra seemed to finally notice her discomfort so she turned and started searching for something.

“What do you know of this place?” Beta asked in order to avert her thoughts and the direction of the conversation.

“Not much”, she replied, pointing to a wooden bench, where they then went to sit. “My father told me that during the planning of the underground, Lunarians had a problem with where to put the gathering area. One of the elders said it would be best to put it where the enemy least expected it, and the others met his idea with great approval. They waited a while longer, and when the sentries started building St. Lawrence[23] for the Rector, at the same time Lunarians built under the ground. Sentries worked during the day, and Lunarians at night.”

Beta shook her head in disbelief.

“And for how long has this existed?”

Terra shrugged her shoulders.

“I’m not sure, I think several decades.”

“And why was St. Lawrence never finished?”

“Oh, I really don’t know that”, Terra admitted sincerely. “My father said I wouldn’t understand, so I assume it has to do with some decision of the Senate.”

Beta fell silent. She was overwhelmed with emotions and a peace that she had been longing to feel. Togetherness and love that reigned here were so unbelievably vastly different from the bare subsisting on the surface that made her resent waking up in the mornings. She looked at all the radiant, thrilled faces, listened to the merry songs, and wondered why they had no right to this life. More than that, she was fascinated by the bravery of the Lunarians. Embedding an invisible word into the flag on Stradun to inspire courage and hope in the hearts of the citizens was one thing, but building their gathering area right underneath a fortress raised in honour of the most terrifying man in the world was borderline madness. The old man she had come with passed by their bench, and Beta suddenly wished to discuss it further with her mother.

“Excuse me!” she called to him clumsily. “Where can I find my mother?”

For a moment he seemed to look right through her, his gaze glassy and pensive. Beta interpreted it as confused by the noise and the immense crowd, and his advanced age, so she patiently clarified:

“Una Ghetaldus, you brought us both down here a while ago?”

The old man blinked twice before answering somewhat absently:

“Oh, well, I don’t know.”

The way he said it upset Beta. In fact, her anxiety grew the moment he turned and disappeared in the celebrating crowd. She faced Terra and said:

“Something’s wrong.”

Terra stood up immediately.

“Don’t worry, I’m sure your mother is here somewhere.”

Beta shook her head, all of a sudden feeling nauseous. Something was off, something was telling her that… something. She felt heat spreading through her body under the pressure. Terra looked very worried. She grabbed her new friend’s hand and tried to soothe her:

“Come, let’s find your mother so you’ll see there’s no reason to worry.”

Beta nodded, saving words that weren’t coming to her anyway, moving alongside her among the sea of colourful dresses and dance moves. Someone threw a handful of petals in the air, someone else put a blossoming twig in her hand. Her eyes flew wildly from one person to another, and as the people happily and softly grazed one another with twigs, she felt a violent urge to escape to the surface. Suddenly it all looked so wrong and bad, she was convinced she would throw up. Her vision kept getting blurry, so she desperately held onto Terra’s hand. She looked around in search of the door, and when she finally managed to focus her sight on it, she saw the same old man holding the door ajar and staring ahead with a frozen look.

“Terra!” Beta whispered and turned her toward the door. She looked in that direction just as Beta’s mother came through the door. Her face was cold and indecipherable. Beta’s pulse skipped at the same time the song stopped, and silence came too abruptly. Behind her mother, there stood silhouettes in black hoods. The words Una spoke then, pointing at the crowd, cut Beta like a blade through the chest:

“I told you. Traitors.”

What followed thereafter was unreal. The underground was swiftly swarmed by sentries with swords in their hands. Shouting and screams broke out among the earthen walls and, instead of the song that had just resounded, a deafening noise arose. Beta felt her legs give up on her, she was sinking into the darkness. Before her whole body drooped down on the flower-laden soil, she saw black hoods mixed with the crying, screaming crowd, and behind them, standing proud as some ice queen, her mother, the real traitor.

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