Gathering Clouds

part 8 by Jen

 It hadn’t been easy.  Even in his sleep he wanted her.  He’d wake up to discover his hand had found its way under the tee-shirt he had given her to sleep in and cupped her breast, his leg thrown over her possessively.  He carefully extricated himself only to wake up half an hour later to find her head on his chest, his arms wrapped around her. He’d woken up a dozen times in the night to find her curled against him, resting on his chest, his hand in her hair, their legs wound around each other like vines.  He cursed the scrubs they were both wearing.  Her body gave off heat in the night and his body responded by finding her, always finding her.  He groaned, and shifted, and rolled her gently onto her side and she would sigh in her sleep and curl right back up to him.  Her body in the night was brutally honest and it clung to him, making him feel wanted and, he realized suddenly, loved.  She wanted him because she loved him, and it hit him like a lightning bolt that he wanted her far more and in far more ways than he had even realized.  He wanted her in his bed and he wanted her bottles in his shower and her lotions on his shelf and her papers scattered across his floor. 

 He put an arm around her gently, careful not to wake her.  He closed his eyes and tried to imagine himself with her a year from now, five years from now.  It was shockingly easy.  He had, in fact, been imagining it for weeks now just under the surface of his consciousness.  He’d been turning it over at night in his dreams.  Her face haunted his dreams, and it seemed to him that she waited for him patiently in his dream-world with a smile, happily watching him linger in his half-world with Marija and the children.  She never rushed him, never sought to push Marija out of his dreams.  He opened his eyes and looked at her sleeping face.  She loves them a bit too, he thought suddenly, because they were mine.

 I can tell her my last story, he thought.  And then she’ll know me, and I can give myself to her.

 Anna, with an uncanny ability to read his mind even in her sleep, curled deeper into his arms and reached a sleeping hand up to his cheek.

 *  *  *  *  *

 

Luka woke and slipped out of bed gently while Anna slept.  It killed him to leave her sleeping there when what he really wanted to do was to slide his hands up her tee-shirt and wake her up slowly, stroking her and kissing her, and then make love to her when she was soft and warm and drowsy.  Twice I’ve woken up with this woman, he thought shaking his head, and twice I’ve gotten out of bed.  He glanced at her sleeping form.  Soon, he thought with a smile.  I’ve waited this long, waited to give my full self to her, I can wait another day.

 He showered and dressed quickly, not wanting Anna to wake to an empty room.  She was just waking as he slipped the sweater he had given her the night before over his head.  He popped his head through the neck to see her confused and disappointed face.

 “Good morning, my Anna,” he said quickly, sitting on the side of the bed and leaning forward to give her a kiss.  “Mmmmm, I like the sound of that,” he said.

 She smiled.  “Me, too.”

 He said it again.  “Come on, Anna.  Get up sleepyhead, I’m hungry.  Let me bring you home so you can change, and then let’s go get breakfast.  And then let’s take a walk.  There’s something I want to tell you.”

 

*  *  *  *  *

 “You know, Marija was a virgin when we got married,” Luka said.  They were lying on their backs in Grant Park, the tops of their heads touching.  The last days of summer were fading.  I’ve spent a season with this woman, he thought.  Now I want the other three.  It’s time.

 “Really?  No, you never said that.”  She liked when Luka told her about Marija and their children, although she didn’t like to think about how her behavior must compare to a virgin bride.  She cringed to think once more how forward Luka must find her.  “But I’d guessed it,” she said encouragingly, wanting him to go on.  She wanted him to know he could share that part of his life with her, that she would always welcome it.  Initially they had been painful conversations, because he had to tell the story backwards, of course, starting with Vukovar and working his way back to the wedding in Sibenik.  Now it mostly made him happy to talk about his family.  Anna wanted to know them, too, these people he had loved and who had loved him.  They were a window to another part of him.  “You were both young, right?  Twenty?”

 “Yes, well, she was nineteen.  I was twenty.  She was beautiful, my Marija was.  All the boys tried to date her, tried to sleep with her.  I tried, too.  Oh, god how I tried,” he said laughing a little.  “I finally had to marry her to get her into bed.”  Luka laughed.  “No, really, Anna, I married her because I was desperate in love with her, I had been for years.  But I think we married sooner maybe because we wanted to sleep together too.”  Luka reached an arm over his head and found a strand of Anna’s hair and began curling it around his fingers. 

 “Marija wanted a family soon.  We didn’t really try to get pregnant, but we never tried not to, either.  She got pregnant with Jasna pretty quickly.”  Luka paused and in that moment he could feel Marija’s nails digging into his hand and hear her crying as Jasna came into the world.

 “She carried a pregnancy fairly easily, all things considered.  All these romantic notions about pregnancy, it can be hard you know?  But both deliveries were long and painful for her.  Marija would clench her teeth and make these unbearable noises.  I’d delivered babies before, but they sounded so different coming from my own wife.  I could hardly stand it to hear it I thought it was going to kill me.  To think she was in pain and I couldn’t do anything for her.  And she really was in pain, Anna.  Especially with Jasna.  She was harder to deliver than Marko.  The first one usually is, and Marija was still pretty young when she had Jasna.  I think she was scared, but she never would have admitted it.  Her mother was away when the labor started, and she felt alone.  I was useless.  I couldn’t stop being her husband long enough to be a doctor, and trust me, Anna, when a baby is being born husbands are useless.  Towards the end when the contractions kept coming closer and closer she just started crying and I couldn’t do anything but she wanted me there.  I thought I would die to hear her cry like that.”  He seemed to be considering if he should go on.  Anna reached over her head and caressed the inside of his wrist.  “It was amazing though, she recovered from a delivery faster than almost any woman I’ve ever seen.  After Jasna was born already she says now she needs a brother.  Then Marko was born and we were so happy with him and she says let’s make more babies.”  He fell silent.

 He felt Anna take his hand.  Her grip was sure and strong, like she was.  Solid.  I can borrow strength from her, he thought.  “Did you want more children, Luka?”  She felt his grip tighten.  Luka was quiet.  Later.

 “Yes,” he said, forcing himself to continue.

 They were quiet again.

 “Would you want kids again now, Luka?  I mean, do you think you would want a family again one day?”

 “Yes.” He wanted all of that back in his life one day.  He saw Anna with him.

 Anna hesitated.  She knew better than to push him, but she had also come to recognize his ghosts, and the park was full of them.  It was as if the sun had gone behind a cloud.  Luka’s fingers were tangled in her hair and she could feel him working her curls like a worry doll.  He’d been dancing around something all day.

 “Yes,” he said again, “we wanted…” Luka sighed.  “Marija was pregnant.”

 “What?”  She couldn’t have heard that right.  Ohgodohgodohgod. 

 “Marija was pregnant.  Almost seven months.  She wanted…”

 Anna rolled around to Luka’s side and put her arm across his chest.

 “Four.  She wanted four.  She thought with three the middle one would get left out, but with four everybody would have a friend.  And she hoped for two of each, so nobody would feel ganged up on.”

 Anna pressed closer to Luka and stroked his hair and forehead.  “I’m sorry, Luka,” she whispered, knowing how lame an offering it was.  “I’m so sorry.” 

 “What kind of man gets his wife pregnant in the middle of a siege?”

 “Luka?”

 “It wasn’t enough I brought two children there to be slaughtered, I had to make more?”

 “Luka don’t be ridiculous.  This isn’t your fault.  You couldn’t have known when you moved there what would happen and women get pregnant and it’s not your fault.  You don’t really think that do you?”

 “Of course it’s my fault, Anna.  It was my job to take care of them and it was my job to be careful and it was my job to make sure Marija didn’t get pregnant and I didn’t do any of those things.”

 “Luka.  You’re just one man.  You can’t be responsible for everything.”

 “I wasn’t responsible for everything, Anna, I only had to responsible for *them* and I wasn’t.”

 “And things happen that are out of your hands, Luka.”
“They were my family, Anna.  That’s never out of my hands.”

 “So say the war never happened, or say you lived someplace else or you had gotten refugee visas to Switzerland, and one day Marija’s walking home from the market and she gets hit by a bus and dies. That’s your fault too?”

 “It’s not the same thing, Anna.”

 “Only in scale, Luka.”

 “It’s not the same thing, Anna.”

 Anna sighed.  He would have been, what, twenty-five then, she thought, no twenty-six?  Awfully young to have a family at all, let alone in a place like Vukovar, and to be responsible for them like that.  She tried to think how a twenty-six year old Luka would have seen the world, and then she thought that maybe she already knew a little.  Sometimes she thought Luka’s sense of moral development hadn’t kept up with the rest of him, that although his body had aged over the years parts of his personality were still twenty-six.  His black and white moral center was painfully na´ve sometimes, she thought.  Shades of gray might be prominent in his wardrobe but they certainly were not part of his moral palette.  Things and people were good or bad, right or wrong.  Poor Luka couldn’t even figure out how to be a gentleman and make love to her at the same time, she thought.  He had woken her once or twice in the night unwrapping himself from her in his tortured attempt to, to what?  Restore his honor?  Hers?  Who knows. Everything is a zero sum game with him, she thought in frustration.  I’m lying here on the grass with a man who saw his family murdered when he was twenty-six, she reminded herself.  Give him a break.  Remember what it was like to be twenty-six, Anna.  You thought things were pretty simple then, too, all right and wrong, good and bad, black and white. The memories he has of Vukovar are the memories of a twenty-six year old father and husband who lost his wife and children in the most brutal way.  They had been his job, his responsibility, and in his mind he had failed them.  He’ll always see it through that filter.  Maybe when it comes to Vukovar and Marija and the children, he’ll always be twenty-six, and maybe that’s just fine.

 He had stopped talking and his face was turned away from her.  She pressed closer.  “I’m sorry, Luka,” she whispered.

 “She carried big,” Luka said as if from a great distance, “there was no mistaking her pregnancy and they raped her anyway before they killed her.”  He thought he was going to vomit and he clenched his teeth to force down the bile. 

 Anna cringed. Oh god. She had hoped against hope he wouldn’t say that one thing, even though she knew he would, she had hoped Marija at least would have been spared that one thing.  What am I going to do when he knows where I’ve been?  I can’t tell him.

 “We didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl.”  His voice was breaking and Anna could hardly hear him.  “So I don’t know…we didn’t have a name picked, so I don’t know my own baby’s name.  Sometimes at night I talk to my family, it sounds crazy I know, but I tell them about my life here and it helps me keep them close to me.  But when I go to say goodnight, I can never say goodnight to…to my baby, because I don’t know its name.  Sometimes I think I will see my family again one day, you know when I die, but that maybe I will walk right past my own baby because I don’t recognize it.”

 “No, no Luka, no, oh no,” Anna whispered.  Her heart was breaking in a dozen different ways.  “No, no it wouldn’t be like that.  You’d know.  You would, Luka, you’d know.  Besides, they’ll all be together, right, so it would be with Marija, she’ll be holding it.  And she’ll hand it to you and say ‘Luka, look, see our beautiful baby.  Now come on, let’s go make another.’”

 Luka turned to face her with red eyes. 

 “At least with Jasna and Marko I can remember holding them, close my eyes and see their faces!  But I have nothing.”  His shoulders were heaving and he drew breath in short gulps.  “I had another child, but I have nothing to remember.”  His body was wracked with silent sobs.

 Anna pulled him to her and he buried his face in her neck.  She stroked his hair and whispered his name softly, holding him close.   

“Luka, Luka.  It’s okay, Luka, you’re okay.  It’s safe here, Luka, you can cry for your family here, Luka.  I’ll keep you safe here.  It’s okay Luka, you don’t have to hold it in anymore.”

Luka shook in her arms until he was exhausted.  Slowly his shoulders stopped heaving and his breathing became regular.  Anna held him tightly and they lay on the grass together for a long time.  He had grown so quiet and still Anna thought he had fallen asleep.  Finally he pushed himself up on one elbow and looked down at her.  His eyes were red-rimmed.

“Thank you for letting me finally tell somebody,” he whispered.  “I’ve been waiting so long to tell you.  It’s why I couldn’t…I wanted to tell you everything.  I don’t mean to make it so hard for you.”

“You’ve never told anybody?” Anna asked.  Oh no.

“I can’t.  I can’t bear to think about it, to say it…” his voice trailed off.  “I’m sorry to put it on you.”

“Luka, don’t apologize.  Don’t ever apologize for that.  I want you to put it on me, Luka, it’s what people do for the people they love,” Anna said simply.  It was impossible not to say it.

Luka closed his eyes.  He took a deep breath.  “It’s been such a long time, I’d forgotten.”

Anna looked up at his face no longer looking down at her and kicked herself for saying too much.  She’d been so careful with him until now; though it was pointless anyway.  Soon he’d be gone.  Luka.  Oh Luka, I love you and you’re going to hate me soon.

Suddenly he opened his eyes.  “Thank you for reminding me.”  He lowered himself and kissed her.  “Marija would like you, Anna.”

No she wouldn’t and you won’t either.

Luka stood up and reached down for her.  “Come on, get up.  Let’s walk a bit.”

He helped her to her feet and put his arm around her waist and pulled her close to his side.  He felt her strength flow into him, felt her pouring herself into him like water to fill his low places.  I take so much from her, he thought. She nourishes me, he thought suddenly, that’s why she always makes me think of bread. What on earth is she doing with me, he wondered?  I can’t be good for her.  I’m going to use her up.  My love takes so much from her; maybe it would be better for her if I didn’t love her so much.

 She put her arm around him and looked at him and tried to remember when she had fallen in love with him, and found that she couldn’t.  Probably from the first.  Oh god I’m going to lose all of this. 

 “Not yet, Luka.  You need to know something.”

 

to part 9

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