A short fictional story by me, split into three parts.
Part 1: Need
I married Josef out of necessity. Do not mistake me, the need I felt at the time did not mean I married the first man who showed the slightest interest, but perhaps, had circumstances been different, I would have chosen with my heart rather than my head.
I was only fifteen when our village on the outskirts of Belgrade, Yugoslavia was invaded in 1941. My country was dismembered, the Axis group dividing it into new borders based on their own political desires. Cut off from our own countrymen in other regions and the supplies that came with them, desperation set in with the hopelessness. Being the youngest child in a house with eight children, I was left behind while my brothers went off to fight with the Partisans. My sister and I were responsible for helping my parents keep the house and the animals. Getting an education was no longer a priority. Instead, each morning we would wake with the rooster’s call, feed the animals, clean out their stalls and then work on neighbouring farms for money or food. This was what our life was now centred around.
In our village it was difficult to tell who the enemy was. As the occupation and war continued around us, and the bread lines grew, the resistance groups started to fight amongst themselves, and sometimes would even kill our own people depending on who would reward them. Hunger makes people do things they would not do in a peaceful world; this is something I have seen for myself.
I had known Josef since we were children, the same way most people in the village knew each other. He was from a family who were slightly better off and owned a large farm, and our family worked on the land for payment with some other townspeople. With the division of our country, the economy in ruin and the scarcity of food, these class divisions no longer applied. Everyone had to do what they could to survive, and so I grew closer to my old schoolmate as we worked together on his family’s farm in the first few years of invasion.
Mecike was the nickname he gave me, a more personal and endearing sound than my actual name, Melanija. When we were small schoolchildren he used to tease me about how skinny I was and called me the runt of the litter, and in our younger days I hated him. I wanted to rip his blonde curls from his puny little head! How much it contrasted with my own straight ebony coloured hair. But as we ploughed the fields side by side there was no more teasing, just the sound of him softly calling me Mecike as he made bad jokes in an effort to make me laugh. There was a light in him. The days did not seem as long in his company. And I no longer wanted to rip those curls out, but instead would sneak glances at the way beads of sweat would drip from them.
As the years of the war and occupation went on, the rumble of our hungry bellies grew more constant. Hunger did not discriminate, and we all found work where we could to ensure survival. Fear and rumour are also strong weapons of war, and with the resistance groups and what was left of the Yugoslav army fighting to retake Yugoslavia and drive the invaders out, we were left to defend our own belongings from looters. But rumours of worse met our ears as the Red Army of the Soviet Union started freeing the Axis occupied countries, and marched closer to us.
Stories filtered through the village of women being raped by the liberators, from young girls to elderly women. Why would our allies rape us? It made little sense to our ears, but the rumours persisted. Tales were spun, that those who were married might be spared if their husbands were in the village to defend them. Much softer targets would be found instead, they said, as if we women were nothing more than a commodity to be looted like everything else.
By this time I was nineteen, and a prime target for the Red Army treatment according to the rumour mill. Every day, it seemed a different terror seemed to be waiting for us during the war. And so when Josef proposed, a quick wedding at the Protestant church was arranged, with only our parents present. The scarcity of food and the constant fear that hung over the village like a thick fog meant the traditional three day Serbian wedding would not occur, but it didn’t matter to us. There was little cause for celebration in those days, yet I remember how happy I felt. How at peace for the first time in years, if only for a fleeting moment. I had known him all my life, and cared for him dearly, and I told myself that this was for the best. He was my closest friend, and would keep me safe, and he did.
Unfortunately the rumours proved to be true, which is not to say that all of the Soviets behaved so disgracefully, but it is always those that do that people remember. Perhaps our village was spared the worst of it, as most of us were left alone, but our men protected us also. My parents had a cellar, and at nights the women of the family were made to hide in the cellar while the men stood guard with shotguns. All we could do was sit and quietly pray while we waited for the night to end, hoping we would not hear gunshots from the other side of the door. During the war, young men were conscripted to the army, and so when it was Josef’s turn to go, it was our fathers, brothers or uncles who would stand guard. This nightly vigil went on for many months. I do remember that two girls I went to school with were, sadly, violated, but compared to the magnitude of what we heard before the Red Army arrived, things could have been much worse. I married Josef out of necessity, and he had kept me safe.
As the Soviets pushed the Germans and their Axis allies out of Yugoslavia in 1945, the Partisans captured the town of Zagreb and overthrew the occupying political regime, and Josef returned home from his stint in the army safely. We were hopeful our country would be reunited soon, and that food and medicine would start filtering in. We newlyweds lived with my parents, who appreciated having a young man around to help my father. This was where we would stay until the world could recover from what had happened.
I married Josef out of necessity, but the friendship between us grew into love. And now, there he hangs…