Lidija (working title)

Opening Scene:

April 19, 1945

Afternoon

 

The orchard’s new bright green leaves struggled to hang onto their flailing branches against the Bora Nera’s cold hard hurricane-force gusts. The cherry blossom petals fared far worse, blowing across the garden in a blizzard, and Lidija worried real snow might soon follow. The windows rattled so loudly that the uninitiated would fear the panes might explode.

 

As a child, Lidija feared the Bora Nera. Her whole house might be blown off the edge of the Carso cliffs that bordered her family’s farm, to tumble onto the city of Trieste below. A loose shutter shattering against the rough stone walls could drive Lidija cowering under her bed, wrapped in her down comforter for protection.

 

Today, she sat erect, impatient, at her tea table in her salotto, under wide, polished rough-hewn beams she knew could bend imperceptibly with the force of a gust. Her window faced away from the Bora, the only reason it wasn’t shuttered tight. Her gray eyes still saw well enough to detect the impact of the wind on the gulf below. Fan patterns of rising whitecaps raced 100 kilometers across the dark Adriatic Sea to spend themselves on the wide beaches of the Po River delta. Her hands gripped the ends of her chair’s arms, her arms tense, her whole body ready to leap to its feet.

 

On three sides, bookcases lined the walls. On almost every shelf, gaps that might have held one, two, perhaps five volumes of literature, history and economics in Italian, German, English or Slovenian bore testimony to the confiscations of Mussolini’s Fascists and the purges of Trieste’s current occupiers, Nazi Germany. Even children’s fiction like Salgari’s pirate adventure stories weren’t safe from the censors, almost always depicting heroic revolutionaries challenging evil rulers.

 

Every time Lidija contemplated her library, the present and the missing, she had to suppress memories of the man with whom she had first developed a passion for books and politics. Though for years she had teasingly complained about how Stefan had dragged her to Vienna so he could go to university, she had always appreciated how he made sure her questions would be respected by his fellow students, and how he had won permission for her to attend his professors’ lectures.

 

Even how he had convinced her to come along.

 

His name appeared in her conscious mind only long enough to be registered before she angrily erased it: Stefan. And never, in 21 years, thanks to a survival instinct that both mothers and fathers could draw on, had she been forced to face the reason for her rage.

 

A soft knock at the salotto’s door drew her attention from the window. Her old friend Matej, a wiry, bent version of the intelligent farm hand who had taught her about the realities of agriculture, stood at the door. He looked a bit like a waiter, a white dishtowel thrown over his shoulder. Solicitous, he said, “Signora Lidija, the gentleman has arrived.”

 

 

This one’s no gentleman, Lidija thought, but she had to give him credit. She had summoned him, and he had come from Belgrade, 500 kilometers through German-held territory. She stood.

 

“Thank you, Matej. He must be soaked.”

 

Matej gave a slight nod.

 

“Fine, give him something from papa’s wardrobe to change into. And ask Neza to start the tea, it should be ready by the time our guest is comfortable.”

 

Matej nodded and withdrew, closing the door softly. Lidija listened to the muted sounds of the two men talking in the front hall. She recognized gratitude in her guest’s voice. Perhaps, she wondered, might a little courtesy give me a slight advantage?

 

She paced over to the window. She walked to her chair, but decided not to sit. She went back to the window. Newly arriving rain, in slashing horizontal sheets, made it impossible to see beyond the former formal garden, transmuted into a vegetable patch by the necessities of rationing. She turned and scanned the bookcases, then averted her eyes by focusing on the one painting on the salotto’s walls, hanging over the disused fireplace. A cutter, sailing taut and heeled over across a white-capped Bay of Trieste, framed in the gap of Piazza Unita’s opening to the sea. Beyond the city, gray-white karst cliffs rose to the edge of the plateau, touching a late-afternoon-blue sky. The spot on that cliff closest to her home had been touched by so many curious and instructive fingers that the paint had worn away to reveal the texture of the canvas.

 

Her father’s cutter, from the best days.

#

The salotto door opened, and Matej gestured for her guest to enter. As Lidija turned to face him, she heard her first name. She couldn’t help thinking, what a maleducato. Even Communists should have good manners. But she smiled a polite matriarch’s smile, and felt appreciative when he said, “Never have I felt more warmly received. How do I look?” He turned to show off her father’s thick wool hunting jacket and a pair of heavy wool mountaineering pants.

 

“You’re welcome, Vukasin. I appreciate the effort you made to come, and that your boss allowed you to.”

 

“Oh, it was nothing,” he said, a bit of mischief in his voice. “How could I pass up an invitation from one of the few surviving intellectuals of Slovenian Nationalism, and one who can still get the attention of bankers?”

 

She held her hand out for him, but low enough that he had to bend forward to reach it.

 

He recognized the move, and, knowing their history, wondered if Tito had learned it from her, or vice versa: A very effective way to establish status.

 

The door opened again, and Neza brought in the tea tray. Lidija winced slightly at the mismatched porcelain, a legacy of family disputes, years of use, and the privations of war.

“You must be cold and starving both,” she said.

 

“Nice and warm now,” Vukasin said, hugging himself in the heavy coat, “but yes, starving.”

 

“I’m worried this Bora Nera will ruin my early lettuce. I don’t mind the cherries getting stripped of their blossoms, it’s always hard to get any of that fruit with all the birds around, at least the apple blossoms haven’t popped yet, or I’d be very worried.”

 

“I don’t know if it’s cold enough to kill lettuce,” he said, “but it’s certainly cold enough to freeze a man to death.”

 

She picked up the teapot and lifted the lid. The scented steam satisfied her. “Passionflower,” she said, “grown right her on our farm.” She shrugged. “It’s a weed, really. Did you know it’s medicinal? Helps you relax, eases anxiety.”

 

“Sounds perfect,” he said amicably.

 

“May I?”

 

“Thank you!”

 

She poured the dark yellow tea into the thin porcelain cups. “I’m afraid we’ve had to water down the milk to stretch it,” she said, “but we do have a bit sugar.”

 

“Where in the hell did you find sugar?”

 

She glanced up at him from under her thinned eyebrows. “I learned to hoard in the first war. But I guess you were in diapers then, what would you know?”

 

He took the slap with aplomb.

 

“Well?”

 

“Two, thank you.” He stirred.

 

“I’m not very happy with your boss, Vukasin.”

 

He smiled. “I’d heard you can be quite direct.” He took a sip. “I’m sorry to hear that. We all appreciate the support you’ve given Tito, and consider you an important ally.”

 

“Then why isn’t he doing more to keep my support? Instead, I hear about Slovenian officers disappearing. I’m supposed to believe that’s all the SS? That your commissars aren’t tipping off the Gestapo? Nice trick, get rid of a real or potential opponent without getting bloody hands.”

 

“Lidija. Tito has always spoken highly of you.”

 

“Cut the crap. Stalin didn’t put him in that job because he’s good at flattery.” She picked up a dish loaded with brown bread, slices of dried meat and a small bowl of oil. “It’s been tough to make good bread, but we still have a bit of speck left. The oil comes from our own trees.”

 

“You are most generous,” he said, making himself an open-faced sandwich. He took a bite and chewed, washing the mouthful down with tea. “It might help you to know that Tito has been working diligently to complement Stalin’s support with aid from others.”

 

“Who is he cutting deals with?”

 

“He prefers to collaborate with committed leaders such as yourself.”

 

“Basta! What have the English offered him? The Americans? He’s probably asking for Friuli, and Albania, a chunk of Greece to slap onto Macedonia, a slice of Hungary.”

 

Vukasin smiled. “It might interest you to know that he has also suggested Slovenia’s northern border be moved northward to satisfy the aspirations of your comrades in what has been southern Austria. But for right now, Tito is fully committed to work with the United States of America and Great Britain to eliminate the Wehrmarcht from the Balkans.”

 

“Slovenia is not part of the Balkans.”

 

“Like I said, the first goal is to eliminate the Germans. That is Tito’s sole purpose. And he asks only for armaments, equipment and trainers.”

 

“Vukasin, please,” Lidija said, sitting back and crossing her arms in front of her. “I’m not an ignorant peasant grandmother. His sole purpose is personal power. For instance, just as soon as Tito arrived in Belgrade — well after the battle to liberate it, I might add, and a battle won thanks to the Red Army — the first thing he did was set himself up in the former king’s palace. And the second thing he did was find himself another staffetta to be his new concubine.” She waved dismissively. “I have trouble with men like that.”

 

“Would you have him live in a tent? He needs a safe building with room to accommodate foreign dignitaries in comfort.”

 

“And a pretty girl to fuck in exchange for a few extra ration tickets for her starving family. How many so-called wives has he ditched so far? Three? Four? Not to mention children.”

 

“Such language. You of all people ought to appreciate Tito’s human side.”

 

It was her turn to stare.

 

In a monotone, as if reading from a dossier, he said, “You’ve been separated from your husband for 20 years. Your eldest daughter broke off relations with you 10 years ago. Over the past few years you’ve managed to alienate every significant figure in the Slovenian nationalist movement.” He waved a hand at the window and life came back to his voice. “You’re alone, Lidija. Alone with your little farm and your big fortune. A fortune left to you by your papa.” He set his cup down. “Your money can’t buy you everything you want.”

 

She suppressed a desire to retort. How dare he, she thought. She picked up the teapot, managing to hide a tremor in her hand. “More?”

 

“Thank you.”

 

She poured and nodded toward the milk and sugar. “Help yourself.” He added cream and a small spoonful of sugar.

 

Lidija poured her own teacup, stirred in a few drops of milk and a few grains of sugar, then set the small spoon onto the saucer with a quiet ping. She looked up at Vukasin. “Let me be clear. If Tito wishes my continued support, I want a public pledge that Slovenia will be granted autonomy under some sort of federalist political structure in the post-war Yugoslavia. I want a public commitment that decisions about how Slovenia is to be managed — its politics, its economy, its social systems — be made in Ljubljana, not Belgrade, and through a multi-party, democratic system, not a one-party autocracy.”

 

“I appreciate your openness. But why do you insist on autonomy when Tito promised that Slovenia, Serbia and the others would have national rights in a new Yugoslavian federation?”

 

“Based in Serbia,” she said, shaking her head, “where that stupid king of theirs tried to assert his dominion over Slovenia. These four years, Slovenia’s been drawn and quartered by foreigners, each determined to destroy Slovenia as a nation, a culture, a language. The Italians were even poetic about it: ‘Cancellazione come nazione.'”

 

“Dear Lidija, must I remind you that Tito’s mother was Slovenian.”

 

“Must I remind you that Communists dismiss such distinctions as irrelevant? And Tito’s promises are worthless. Per l’amor di Dio, Vukasin. I heard it on Radio Londra, that he told Churchill something like ‘I have stated publicly that we don’t intend to introduce Communism.’ Hah! That’s been his mission for 25 years, the only reason Stalin is helping him.” She shook her head. “I can’t believe Churchill believed him.”

 

“Perhaps there are other elements in play that you and I cannot see,” Vukasin said. “I suspect Churchill is very good at chess.”

 

Lidija studied him. “Thank you for admitting Tito’s commitment to Communism.”

 

“Do you really think all the men and women who have joined the Partisans would risk their lives just to restore the status quo ante? Without the promise of social revolution, there would be no Partisan armies.”

 

 

Lidija drummed her fingers on the table. Social revolution? That would include land reform. She would lose the farm. She could sacrifice much, but the farm she would never relinquish. But she decided now wasn’t the time to fight that battle, and shifted focus. “One thing we Slovenians will insist on is the preservation of our churches. Isn’t it ironic that the Germans, so many of them Catholic, would wipe out the church because they saw it as a hotbed of the resistance? Stalin did too. Yet our churches provided the safe havens for our underground schools, for the organization of the resistance. I worry that you Communists are atheists. For Slovenia, I want a public commitment that our ties with the Roman Church will be respected. No more churches desecrated, no more priests disappeared.”

 

“Perhaps you ask too much,” Vukasin said. He sipped his tea. “Must I point out that some priests expressed their political views so loudly as to interfere with their pastoral duties.” He put his hands together as if in prayer and rolled his eyes toward the heavens. “My favorite priestly slogan ‘Communism is a syphilitic infection.'” Then, as if offering tea himself, he asked, “Would you care for a roster of clerics who betrayed their own parishioners? The vast majority of Slovenians will be grateful if Tito takes the priests off their necks.”

 

She raised her cup in his direction. “Artfully said. But Tito also needs Slovenia’s industrial base, his only potential source of generating exports. It will be quite difficult for Slovenia’s entrepreneurs to continue producing if they are stripped of the means of production in the name of some foolish concept of worker control.”

 

“But…”

 

She held her hand up. “Stop. Engels was an industrialist and stock speculator, and the only reason Marx could philosophize was thanks to unsecured loans from a family of capitalists. Yes, unregulated capitalism causes problems and injustice. So regulate it, intelligently. And keep in mind that every improvement in the human condition started with the desire to produce more food for less effort.”

 

He looked at her blankly.

 

She smirked. “Why do you think agriculture was invented? Because it produces more food per hour of individual effort than hunting and gathering. It produced surpluses, which could then be traded for other goods, and provide the resources to explore other ways to improve the human condition that don’t involve growing food, such as medicine, science, art. All innovation flows from an individual’s belief that if she invents a better way, or a new tool, and thereby produces more surplus, she’ll share in that surplus. You’ve demonized the profit motive, but you and I wouldn’t be alive without it.”

 

“From each…”

 

“Bullshit. Look at Stalin’s actual results.” She shook her head. “And the worst? Collectivized agriculture. Hah! It destroyed food production in the early 30s. And then Stalin manipulated those shortages to eliminate a few million political opponents in Ukraine.”

 

“Collectivization of agriculture was sabotaged by lazy farmers and foreign agents determined to undermine Stalin’s leadership.”

 

“Enough. You commissars only talk in slogans. And Tito wouldn’t hesitate to use Stalin’s tactics to eliminate troublesome opponents, perhaps Bosnia’s Muslims, or, if he gets his hands on that sorry pile of rubble called Albania, the Albanians.” Lidija pointed at the now-empty plate of bread and speck. “I can call for more.”

 

“No, thank you.”

 

“Well, in any case, I’ll make sure you get sent off with some provisions to get you to wherever you’re traipsing next.”

 

“You’re too kind.”

 

“Vukasin, I hope my position is clear: Autonomy for Slovenia in exchange for continued funding and political support. Take it or leave it.”

 

“You can’t stop now,” he said. “The Germans have become hesitant. They don’t care about the Anglo-Americans closing in, they’re worried about the Russians and what they’ll do to their women. They’d rather hunker down in their barracks waiting for the order to go home. If we let up, they may regroup, make a stand and prolong the war.”

 

“If it’s so important to keep the pressure on the Germans,” Lidija said, her manner formal and cold, “why do I keep hearing about assassinations of Slovenian Partisans?”

 

He shrugged. “Sometimes people get caught in the crossfire. The wrong place at the wrong time.”

 

“Vukasin,” she hissed. “A single officer, sitting in a mountain camp, catches a bullet from an invisible shooter at a long distance, and you call that an accident?”

 

He set his teacup down. “I hope you will reconsider.”

 

“Tito won my support with a promise. Everything I’m seeing suggests that he has no intention of honoring that promise. If he refuses my terms, I will do my best to see to it that not another penny of Trieste’s and Slovenia’s treasure goes to support a cold-blooded murderer and would-be tyrant.”

 

“I would hate to see you — or your family — regret such a statement,” he said, his voice cold and hard.

 

She quickly rose to her feet, turned slightly away from him, her chin high. “This conversation is over.”