Pilgrims

medjugorje-tat

Toddy hurled the dice at his sister Maggie the very instant their father Elmer opened the door to let the motel housekeeper in. Maggie screamed, boomeranging the Wa-Hoo game board at Toddy in retaliation, marbles flying in all directions. Toddy ducked and laughed.

The housekeeper peeked over Elmer, who tried his best Bosnian on the woman: “The sheets are dirty. Stains.”

The maid spoke back to him in clipped words, still distracted by the ruckus.

“Kids.” Elmer shrugged.

The housekeeper went to English. “Our rooms are clean.”

“I don’t normally complain about things like this, but please look at these sheets.”

He led her to the bed, toward the table where the children were playing. Maggie sat slumped in the chair holding her hand over her eye, howling. “Toddy hurt me, Dad.”

Toddy was on his hands and knees and picking up the marbles. He always put away his toys—one good habit his mother had taught, and one that stuck—which Elmer adored, his boy being only eight. He kept his head down, away from his father’s stare.

Elmer pulled back the green floral print bedspread and showed the housekeeper the sheets. A yellow stain—the outer edge darker and more distinct—in the shape of a small country occupied the middle of the white sheet.

“See?”

“Dad!” Maggie sat up, crying harder. She pulled her hand down and blood trickled down the canal of her nose and cheek.

The housekeeper pointed at the girl.

“Toddy, get over here.” Elmer grit his teeth.

Toddy trudged over to his father and Maggie stood up and followed him. She glanced quickly in the mirror next to the TV set and saw the blood. She screamed—she was prone to screaming, at her age, going through the first change, plus her mother’s passing didn’t help any—and fell to the floor. The housekeeper rushed toward Maggie and propped her up on her legs. The housekeeper pulled a hand towel from the pocket in her apron and dabbed the girl’s eye. Maggie shuddered and grit her teeth like her father.

Elmer took a knee and held Toddy by the shoulders. “You hurt your sister, mister. Say you’re sorry. Apologize.”

“I’m sorry.” Toddy turned his head to the maid and his sister. Maggie cried and gripped the hand of the woman.

“I AM sorry.” Elmer squeezed the boy’s shoulders.

“I AM sorry.” Toddy squirmed. “Ow.”

“You hurt me and your mother, too.” Elmer squeezed Toddy’s shoulders tighter and started to shake him, slowly. Elmer turned his eyes up at the dresser, at the black lacquer box with a green ribbon, when he said your mother.

“Dad!” Maggie turned toward him.

“You be quiet, Margaret.” Elmer shook Toddy faster, squeezed him enough to make him cry. The boy’s head rocked back and forth. “You hurt all of us. The whole family.”

“Sir,” the maid stood up. She spoke quick and breathless in Bosnian and approached him. Her sentences, strings of the crude Shtokavian dialect hit his ear. Elmer remembered Lana teaching him various words she knew; her grandmother had given her both a crash course and a language book before Elmer and Lana’s first pilgrimage to Medjugore in 1997—before the children. Elmer realized this was why the maid switched to English: his Bosnian was too advanced, straight from the book and not the Shtokavian tongue. Lana’s family didn’t speak that kind.

“Sir, stop.” The maid pulled Elmer away from Toddy. The boy bit his lower lip and he shuddered wiping his eyes. Elmer turned to the maid and collapsed at her feet. Her short wavy hair was dark with strands of gray. She was plump in the belly and hips—a grandmother maybe, with grandchildren about Maggie and Toddy’s age. Maybe they were older—the woman looked at least in her late 50’s—and maybe they worked at one of the shops on the hillsides selling candles, or the white statues of the Virgin on the way to the shrine. Or maybe they worked as house and groundskeepers at the other motels and hostels. Or maybe at the cemetery digging graves for all those who were born here and all those who wished to be buried here. She was old enough to have lived a long life, to see all her children grow up and have their own.

Elmer grabbed the woman’s thick ankles and feet, covered in worn, nurse-like shoes. He held her and gushed, letting it all go, asking for forgiveness. The children now cried with their father, reaching for him, holding each other, their little bodies pressed as close as possible to one another.

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