Sveta was a good girl. Always has been. But for some weeks, an inexorable guilt engulfed her. It was her fault that her father, the pillar of the family, was in a hospital fighting for his life. She suspected, and for good reasons, that she was the reason he was infected with the new virus.
She didn’t know where she got it. Maybe from the crowded marketplace where her mother sends her to buy the groceries. At first, she thought she had caught a cold from a trip she made in the woods at the edge of the town. Her mother sent her there to pick unripe nettles. Boiled first and then fried in the pan with onions, they made a nice dish when accompanied with fried eggs and polenta.
“It changes your blood,” said her mother. Sveta knew that this was a saying passed down from generation to generation and there was a bit of truth in that, perhaps because of the iron in the nettle leaves. But she had to pick only the freshly spawn ones, without the stinging hairs yet. She had a plastic glove for protection, anyway.
When she had a bag full of small nettles, she couldn’t avoid the pull of the beautiful spring flowers she encountered anywhere in the forest. Patches of color were here and there, made by the snowbells fully developed in that mid-March day or by the gently crocuses with their violet flowers. So, she picked some of each kind, making a lovely bouquet that will have to cheer the grim atmosphere in their apartment.
Once arrived at home, she left the bag of nettles in the kitchen for her mother to prepare them and put the flowers in a small vase in the living room. This room served also as a dormitory for her parents. Actually, lately, only for her father because her mother was sleeping with her in the other room. The vase was made by Sveta from clay at her art classes at school, and its raw and naïve look was perfectly in sync with the simplicity and beauty of the spring flowers she brought home.
That evening, her father was in a foul mood as usual lately.
“What’s with the flowers?” he asked, seeing them as the centerpiece on the table.
“I picked them up from the woods when I went for the nettles,” Sveta answered in her usual shy voice.
“Humph! Flowers! Can we eat them? No. Why didn’t you think to get more, make some smaller bouquets and sell them? Do you think we are swimming in money?”
And his voice was getting up a notch on the anger scale. But to Sveta’s relief, it looked like he didn’t expect an answer to that. And also, she hoped he will not force her to plunder the flowers of the forest to sell them on the street. She knew they were poor, but she didn’t have the guts to sell flowers on the streets.
A few days later she felt bad, her entire body was hurting. It was worse than at that time of the month and for sure, worse than her father beatings when she was not so compliant with his rules and requests.
Sometimes she felt her life was like in that rock song she liked so much.
A father with a mean backhand,
A mother ever so distant,
Although her love was not that bland…
But her youthful body overcome pretty quick the fever and the pain and she missed the school classes only for a few days. They were kept online anyway; no kid was allowed to go to school these days. She had an old laptop which didn’t even have a camera. But the teachers understood her situation and not questioned anymore why her face is not visible in the online classes. It was important that she was there. When the internet was working, anyway.
Now, just a rebel cough remained to bother her. They say on tv that you have to report if you are infected, but she didn’t do that and her family didn’t care at all. Her father just told her, “You girl, stay away so we don’t catch it too!” and that was it. And her mother moved back to sleep with her father in the living room.
In this East European country, (let’s name it Beldravia) where the doctors still wear white bonnets like the cooks in the grand restaurants, it was better to not get sick and need to go to hospital. People say that you go there with one sickness and come back with four more. If you ever come back.
So, Sveta was good and stayed away from her mother and father, although it was not so easy to do it in their crammed apartment with only two rooms, a small kitchen and a bathroom. They didn’t have the habit of gathering together to eat, anyway. Everyone had his time to eat when they could grab something. The exception was the supper when her father returned from work. If the dinner was not ready, her mother, or even the girl sometimes, were going to feel his wrath.
But life works in mysterious ways. No one else from the family got sick except her father. Soon, he started to cough and feel feverish. And weak. But he was strong enough to give Sveta a beating to remember because, he said, she gave him the bug.
Of course, he didn’t report it as well. But he had no choice one day when he was feeling so bad and couldn’t breathe well. He put Sveta to call 112 and finally an ambulance came and took him away. According to their protocol, the paramedics reported them further, and they were put in quarantine for two weeks.
This time it was no joke. A police officer was checking them each day in the morning and in the evening to see they don’t leave their house. Some good Samaritans from the apartment building provided them some basic foods for the little money their father left them.
These two weeks passed pretty quickly. They didn’t have much, but at least they had peace. A feeling that was long lost from their souls.
The peace was disturbed one day, about three weeks since their father was taken. A phone call from the hospital told them in a dry tone that Mr. Vadim Blanko died of covid-19.
Sveta was torn apart. She was at last liberated from the menacing shadow of her father, but she was feeling guilty for his death. But she didn’t have time to fall into despair and wither away, because she had to give her mother a hand with the funeral preparations. So, they put on the best black clothes they had and went first to the closest funeral home to buy a coffin for the little money they had. Good thing the guy at the funeral house allowed them to pay for the coffin in four monthly installments. Next trip was to the hospital to retrieve the dominator father’s remains.
Sveta’s timid walk along the cemetery alleys, with a bunch of spring flowers in her hand, was a sad and soothing picture at the same time. Another week has passed and Sveta went at her father’s grave to bring more flowers. The same spring flowers from the forest. She couldn’t afford to buy flowers, anyway. But she preferred the simple beauty of the snowbells, crocuses and violets.
She looked at the wooden cross which had painted in black her father’s name; Vadim Blanko, Age 44. That remained from his tempestuous nature. A name and a number for the age.
She heard rare steps on the gravel of the alley that separated the graves. She turned and let out a fearful cry. Also, she clutched the flowers to her chest like a shield. As if the wild flowers could’ve protected her with their purity and resilience.
Her father’s ghost was looking at her. He was thin, with sunken cheeks, and his clothes looked too big for him.
“Please, Sveta, my daughter, don’t be afraid!” he said with a pained breath. “It’s me, your father. I am not dead. The hospital made a mistake. Who knows who you buried here?”
“But how...” was all she could muster.
“My girl, I was in the ICU for over two weeks. I was intubated and sedated and all I saw and felt was a vast darkness in which ugly demons were trying to get me. But I clung to life. Do you know how? With an image of you in my mind and of those flowers you brought from the woods. As pure as you. When the fear of grim reaper was getting me, I was imagining those flowers. And I said to myself that I want to see again the joy in your eyes when you put them in that little vase, sniffing them, although the smell is not their strong suit.”
And her transformed father was silent for a moment. He looked with sorrow at the grave, at the cross with his name on it.
“It’s better to be on this side of the grass, that's for sure.”
“But how did you know to find me here?” insisted Sveta.
“Today they released me from the hospital since I can walk. Although I get tired pretty quickly. First, I startled your mother by appearing so suddenly at home. How should I know they declared me dead?”
“Is she alright?” asked the girl, being concerned about her mother after this shocking episode.
“Yes, I calmed her. It’s Friday evening, I left her watching the news on tv. She told me where to find you.”
Sveta was looking still fearful at the man in front of her. Yes, he looked frail now, but what guaranties she had that he will not be the same mean individual when he will get stronger?
As if reading her mind, or more likely seeing the concern on her face, Vadim continued, “I know I was mean to you and your mother, my girl. Please, forgive me!”
Because until now she could not hope to hear those words coming from this man, Sveta let a tear slip from her eyes and bowed her head in acceptance.
Her father came closer and hugged her.
“Please leave those flowers for this poor soul here,” he said next, pointing to the grave. “I hope they eventually will find ho he was. These flowers cannot help him anymore, but for me they did a miracle.”
Sveta made a mental connection; those are spring flowers, and spring is the season for rebirth. So, it made sense those flowers helped his father to be reborn from the death represented by his selfishness and narrow mind.
But what about the next winter?