Countryside near Dej, Transylvania
October 31, 1896
Love united Maria’s family. Their little house on the edge of the sleepy village may not have overflowed with love, but when she looked for it, it was there.
There was the way that her often overbearing mother, undisputed head of the family, would take the time to massage her father’s feet after a hard day’s work on the farm. Or all the times that she had comforted Maria as a child, such as the time Maria had fallen from a horse and broken an arm. Or when Bogdan, a Bucovina shepherd that Maria had grown up with, had finally died when Maria was 11. Her mother had been there for her during the first death the child had ever experienced, and the soul-crushing grief that had come with it.
Her father loved his family too. There were the fresh flowers that her father plucked from the farm or forest or someone’s garden in town and put on the table to make her mother happy. Or the way that he was always there for her, no matter what, whatever trials the family went through, a constant, quiet presence at her side, the rock her mother clung to to keep from being swept away by the turbulent waters of life’s tragedies and trials.
But though there was love, this did not mean that the family was always happy and without problems, or that they never disagreed. In fact, sometimes she found her family endlessly frustrating.
The sun had almost set, only a bright orange arc remained visible over the pine forest to the west. All day it had felt like a giant, warm guardian had been watching over them, protecting them by revealing the truth of all with its light. But now it was leaving them behind, preparing to abandon them to a world of darkness that hid the unknown. That’s why, at night, frail humans tended to cluster in stone and wood dwellings for protection instead, and lit fires to banish the dark. And their fears.
It was fall, deciduous trees hues of golds, oranges and reds that matched the late afternoon light. The air was chilled and free of most insects now. The dying sun cast the rustic old farmhouse and much of the recently harvested fields in cool shadow. Already, a crackling bonfire had been lit in a big, stone-lined pit between the house and the pen where the family kept their small flock of sheep. The blaze was part of an ritual, a beacon to ward off evil spirits on this night, All Hallow’s Eve.
Maria, sitting at the kitchen table with a book of German poetry, didn’t believe in All Hallow’s Night. She was young and smart and didn’t believe in any of the silly superstitious nonsense that the older generations did. Including her parents.
Maria’s mother, setting the table for dinner, was dressed much the same as her daughter, and most women in the region. They both wore ie, known as the Carpathian shirt, which was loose and flowing, similar in style to that traditionally worn by many Slavic peoples. The shirts were embroidered in great detail with geometric patterns, symbols, flowers and leaves, often using bright red or blue thread, which stood out sharply on the pure white background. The symbols and colours used in such embroidery were unique to each region and could tell the history of any family. Two pieces of black woollen fabric, the zadie, wrapped around white underskirts in the front and back like a double apron. It was very richly ornamented. While Maria was bareheaded to signify her youth, her hair coiled up in braids and decorated with red ribbons, her mama wore a maramă, a white cloth head covering with simple white patterns stitched into it, as was commonly worn by married women in southern Transylvania, where her family hailed from.
The elder woman, who was not often clumsy, accidentally knocked the salt over while shuffling plates around the table. She and Maria’s father, who was just coming in from building the fire, both froze at the sight of the tiny white particles strewn over the tabletop.
“Oh-oh,” was all her father managed. He was a hefty, well-bearded man whose eyes and lips could be far more expressive than his words usually were. He was dressed in his typical work attire: a black pieptar, or coat, made of embroidered sheepskin, the wool turned inside for warmth; white wool trousers tucked into his black leather boots; and a felt hat, also black, that he was in the process of taking off to hang by the door. He looked utterly exhausted after yet another long day preparing the fields for winter, seeing to their small flock of sheep, cleaning the pig pen, feeding the chickens and generally fixing everything from worn out doors to aging fenceposts.
“Oh dear!” her mother fretted as she quickly swept the salt up. “Please don’t let this be a sign. I don’t want the family to fight. Not tonight, of all nights.” In local culture, spilled salt portended conflict. She hurriedly tossed the salt over her shoulder, the proscribed way to ward off such bad luck. But in her haste, she’d neglected to look where she was throwing it.
“Hey!” Maria protested as salt landed on her shoulder. “Really, mama? You’re worried about spilling salt?” She rolled her blue eyes. “That’s ridiculous. How could spilling salt possibly cause something bad to happen? Why would we argue just because a little bit fell on the table?”
“Don’t mock your mother, Maria.” her father chided her as he hung up his leather work gloves next to the door. “That is disrespectful.”
“It’s just a silly superstition.” Maria protested in a high voice. “I can’t believe that people still believe such things. Like never blow out a candle or it will bring bad luck. Absurd. Who doesn’t blow on candles to put them out?” To prove her point, she leaned forward and blew out the candle in the centre of the table.
“Maria!” her mother gasped. The older woman hastily snatched a box of matches from a shelf and rushed to relight the candle. “Stop tempting fate, child. Especially on All Hallow’s Eve. Tonight is one of the most dangerous nights of the year. Which is why you will absolutely stay indoors from now until the sun rises tomorrow.” She frowned deeply at her daughter, then turned back to her cooking. She was making samala, a very common dish made from rolls of sour cabbage wrapped around minced pork, rice and spices, boiled in sauerkraut and tomato juice, amongst other, secret ingredients. There was also ciorba radauteana a delicious, fatty soup made with garden vegetables and fresh chicken and served with sour cream. There was also, of course, the last of the fresh bread that Maria made daily as soon as the sun rose.
Maria rolled her eyes again at her mother’s concern over some allegedly wicked date. In this, she felt so much smarter than her parents, despite being only sixteen. She spoke with a voice full of youthful contempt and defiance at such antiquated ideas. “Why? How is tonight unlike any other night? Are evil spirits really going to come and get us? Are there monsters in the woods out to eat us? Black magic and witches?” Maria sighed. “You’re as bad as grandma.”
“I heard that.” Her grandmother, Ana, intoned as she came down the stairs from one of the two bedrooms on the second floor; Maria shared her grandmother’s bedroom while her parents slept in the other. It was a mark of prosperity that the family lived in a home with so many rooms. Many families shared tiny, cramped cottages with only one floor. “Foolish child. You would do well not to make fun of the old ways. Traditions are very important! There is wisdom in them that you are too young and foolish to understand yet.”
“I know, I know. I’ll understand when I’m older. Grandma, I’m sixteen! I know enough already!” More than you, she thought, though dared not speak so rudely out loud. She did love her grandmother, but she completely disagreed with the old woman’s ancient beliefs.
“Bah. You know nothing,” the old woman spat before gingerly easing her old bones into a seat at the table. Ana turned her attention to her son and his wife and spoke with a tired voice. “I have finished the last of the linen embroidery. The girl’s dowry is ready.”
At the mention of the dowry, Maria went silent, her face as still as stone.
Her father, sitting next to her at the table, noticed her reaction. “Maria. Do not look so unhappy,” he implored with a measure of fatherly desperation. “Your marriage is only three days away. You should be excited.”
Maria looked away, a mixture of guilt, anger and fear swirling in her stomach. In response, teenage rebellion surged within her breast. “I don’t want to marry Ion,” she snapped.