Lila carefully prints each letter without looking them up in the Cyrillic Serbo-Croatian Alphabet book. She can write any word easily, from her head, something none of her first-grade classmates can do. But the best part is what she’s about to do next. Sitting on the floor, she gathers all her felt-pens and cradles the notebook in her lap. She’s leaning on the ottoman in the front room where they eat and her grandpa sleeps. Lila and her parents sleep in the bedroom which is the only other room in Grandpa’s house where they all live.
This isn’t just any boring homework. It’s for a contest. Lila is making a birthday card for Marshal Tito. Just as she finishes the salutation on the top of the card, Mommy walks in and starts picking up the breakfast dishes.
“Lila, why are you such a piglet?” she asks. Lila’s bowl is messy with the half-eaten cream-of-wheat. The mushy paste tasted of burnt milk but Lila can’t talk about that now. She picks a bright-green pen, pops its cap, and affixes it to the back-end.
Sunday mornings are the best because the whole family is at home. Mommy likes having her morning coffee and cigarette outside under the blossoming apricot tree while Daddy and Grandpa play chess at the kitchen table. Lila can see their slippered feet shifting and tapping the linoleum floor every once in a while.
“What’s this?” Mommy towers over Lila and reads aloud, craning her neck: “Happy birthday comrade Tito.” The fast way she reads it makes the sentence sound too simple. In Lila’s mind, it’s much cleverer.
“It’s for school. The teacher said they’ll send the best card to Tito.”
“Oh! Let’s see.” Mommy sits on the ottoman and extinguishes her half-smoked cigarette in Lila’s cream-of-wheat bowl. She never pays attention to Lila’s homework or her drawings, but this time, she looks excited, her beautiful green eyes twinkling. Lila huddles with her back against Mommy’s legs.
“Happy birthday comrade Tito.” This time, Mommy’s voice is more energetic. “Is that it? Shouldn’t there be more?”
“I’m going to draw a white violet underneath.”
“You mean a blue violet.”
“No, a white one, like the song.” Lila sings the first verse: “Comrade Tito, our white violet, the youth of Yugoslavia loves you.”
“Why, of course,” Mommy claps her hands. “I never really thought about that. The blue violets are ever so common. A white one is super-special, like Tito.”
Lila smiles and draws a vertical green line, and then two heart-shaped leaves sticking out on each side of the stem. She starts neatly filling in the leaves with green.
“Oh, my,” Grandpa says. “I bet that card will be stellar, like everything Lila does.” He chuckles and then there is an assertive clank of a chess-piece. “Ben, my son, I believe this is a checkmate if you don’t mind.”
“Let’s play one more,” Daddy says glumly. The wooden pieces rattle importantly. “You’re black this time.”
“You know what I’m thinking, Lila?” asks Mommy. “Shouldn’t it say ‘Dear Marshall’ rather than ‘Dear Comrade’? I mean, you’re just a child. He’s not your comrade. What you wrote is disrespectful.”
“Someone in the class asked that,” says Lila. “The teacher told us to address Tito as a comrade because he loves his Pioneers. She said that he is very…” Lila tries to remember the word Teacher Bosa used but she draws a blank. It’s a new word she’s never heard before.
“Loving?” Mommy suggests. “Fatherly?”
“No. Something else.”
“I’m curious,” says Grandpa. “Words are important, Lila. What did the teacher say?”
Lila closes her eyes and recalls the teacher’s wrinkled face, her thick, black, frowning eyebrows. She visualizes the lipstick-stained teeth slowly reciting the new word.
“Oh, I know! Humble. That’s the word. Tito is humble so we call him comrade instead of marshal.”
Grandpa snorts and clears his throat. He often does this when Mommy and Daddy talk. This is the first time he’s done it when Lila said something.
“Humble?” says Mommy. “Why should he be humble? He’s the greatest man on earth.”
Lila isn’t quite sure what humble means and she’s hoping to hear an explanation but the adults remain silent. Mommy re-lights her half-cigarette and blows out a cloud of swirling smoke. Never mind, she’ll ask Grandpa later. A forceful bang of a chess piece breaks the silence.
“Checkmate,” Daddy shouts triumphantly.
Lila replaces the cap on the green felt pen. Mommy is right, the card looks too plain. If she adds the country’s flag, she’ll be able to use red and blue. She can also outline the five-pointed red star in yellow. With Daddy’s caliper, she can draw the star perfectly the way he’s shown her once. Her palms itch thinking about the pristine, shiny drawing tools, each one in its velvety slot in a leather-bound booklet that has a zipper all around. Daddy also owns a small round bottle of ink and huge rolls of translucent paper on which he draws lines for his engineering exams.
The next morning, Lila takes her creation to the school’s library where all the cards are being pinned on the wall. There are long rows of cards, one on top of the other, floor to ceiling, all different from each other, some big, some small, some more colorful than others. Some are smudged and creased as if kindergarten kids made them. When the librarian pins Lila’s card high up on the wall, she smiles and dramatically widens her eyes.
“What a lovely card you made,” she says. “It’s the best one so far.”
Lila likes it too. After Mommy helped her draw the flag, Lila had to start all over because Mommy’s star came out crooked. Lila made the second card all by herself, the way she wanted, and she even improved the letters by writing them in a curved line on the top of the card. The white violet is now in the middle, with the flag at the bottom. All around the edges, she drew tiny red stars, hammers, and sickles. Looking at the display, Lila sighs with content. Indeed, hers is by far the best.
Lila visits the library every day before going home. She enjoys looking at other cards too, especially those that have a lot of different colors in them and the ones with drawings of flowers. Now and then, Grandpa asks about the competition, and Lila shrugs her shoulders; she doesn’t know when the winner will be announced. Mommy never asks; Lila thinks that she’s upset because Grandpa used the first card to light the fire.
One day, shortly after Teacher Bosa writes a giant Cyrillic letter “Ф” on the blackboard, and everyone except Lila starts scratching with their pencils and filling up the pages of their lined notebooks copying the letter, again and again, and again, there’s a knock on the door. The school secretary walks into the classroom. The forty chairs screech, scraping the waxy parquet. Everyone stands up to greet the visitor. Lila sighs with relief; she is saved from the meaningless task, at least for a little while.
“Good morning children,” the secretary says. “Please sit down.” She is a short, slim woman with a Minnie Mouse voice. Her daughter Milena is in Lila’s class, one of the teacher’s favorites, together with Lidia whose both parents are doctors, and Karlo, whose dad works on television.
“The secretary has some news,” Teacher Bosa says. “The winner of the competition for the best birthday card for Marshal Tito has been selected. It’s someone from our class.”
Butterflies flutter in Lila’s tummy. She is the winner. Her card is the best. She doesn’t know how to behave so she tries to catch Teacher Bosa’s eye. But the teacher doesn’t look at anyone in particular. A few kids glance at Lila and smile. Everyone loves her card the best.
The secretary makes a funny sound clearing her throat and the boy sitting next to Lila, whose name is Martin, snickers.
“Mouse sneeze,” he whispers but Lila doesn’t respond. Martin’s jokes always make her laugh but she is now eager to hear the rest of the announcement.
“You all know that the card will be mailed to Tito,” the secretary continues, “and on his birthday, we’ll have a celebration. All of you first-graders will become Tito’s Pioneers. You will say the oath and receive your red bandanas. But that’s not all. The winner of the competition will be interviewed on television.”
The murmur of excitement fills the classroom. Teacher Bosa brusquely rapps her knuckles on the desk.
“This is a big honor for our school. The whole country will watch the ceremony. You should be proud of your schoolmate. Karlo, please stand up. Children, congratulate Karlo. He will represent our school as the winner of the best card.”
Two rows in front of Lila, Karlo’s ginger head pops up, a shock of curls sticking out any which way. The pupils cheer and clap. The teacher keeps talking. A crazy buzz fills Lila’s ears.
“No!” The sound of her own angry voice startles Lila. The classroom goes quiet. Everyone looks at her, even the secretary. The teacher’s stern gaze bores into her. All those eyes, the gaping mouths, Karlo the winner instead of her. It’s all too much. Lila pushes back her chair and runs between the rows of kids, around the two women, swings open the door, and dashes into the hallway. She darts down the stairs to the first floor and toward the library. Tears blur her vision but she keeps running. She has to see her beautiful card.
When she bursts into the library, the school’s director and the librarian stop their conversation and look at her quizzically but she ignores them. Breathless, she stares at the display, searching for her white violet. It’s supposed to be there, near the middle of the third row from the top, between the badly creased red card and the one with a purple smudge. But it’s not there. Some other, very ugly one, is pinned in its place. Lila carefully scrutinizes each row, hearing her heart drum loudly in her chest. Maybe her card has been moved to another spot for some reason. She strains her eyes so hard, they start to hurt. Nope. Her card isn’t there at all.
“What are you doing here, little girl?” The librarian touches Lila’s shoulder. “Shouldn’t you be in the class?”
“My card’s missing. Someone stole it.”
“What do you mean?” asks the director.
“There,” Lila points to the ugly card. “My card was there. It was the best one. Someone stole it.”
“Oh, yes, I remember.” The librarian smiles. She crouches and takes Lila’s hand. “Your card was lovely. Very precisely written and drawn. But this morning, it was gone. I thought you changed your mind and decided to keep it. It was very pretty indeed. Picture perfect!”
“Lila, you naughty girl!” Teacher Bosa stomps through the door. “You were not allowed to touch the display, let alone remove something. And how dare you leave the class without permission? What am I going to do with you?” All three adults stare at Lila.
“I didn’t take it,” she says. “Someone replaced it with this ugly one.”
“What are you talking about?” the teacher thunders. “That’s Karlo’s card. It’s wonderful, just like a first grader’s card is supposed to look. I remember yours. Did your parents make it?”
Lila feels her jaw drop. The teacher’s accusation is so incredible, it makes her feel numb.
“I suppose this one’s nice enough,” The director’s nose almost touches Karlo’s card. Lila used to like the director. He always smiled and patted the kids, especially boys. She once heard Martin call him an “old poof”. She didn’t know what that meant but it sounded cute, like some kind of a puppy. But now, she doesn’t like him at all.
She examines Karlo’s card. It reads: “Dear Marshal Tito! Your Pioneers Love You!” There’s a red star, terribly askew, even worse than Mommy’s. The letters A in marshal look like stick-men with tiny chests and long crooked legs. It doesn’t even say comrade. It’s all wrong and still, the adults like it. How is that possible?
“I can imagine Tito chuckling when he reads it,” Teacher Bosa says cheerfully. “And you,” she groans and grasps Lila’s shoulders nudging her toward the door. “Go back to the classroom and be quiet for once. You may be smart but you are the most misbehaved pupil I’ve ever had.”
Lila stares at her shoes as she walks out of the library. She feels her cheeks burning. The recess has started and the children are pouring out of the classrooms. As she stands by the stairs wondering what to do, Karlo jumps in front of her, followed by several boys from the class.
“Sour grapes,” he shouts and laughs in her face. His breath smells off and he looks crazy with an evil grin and flushed face. Even his pink, floppy ears seemingly taunt Lila. Without thinking, she thrusts her hands into his chest with all the strength she has. Karlo’s laughing mouth becomes a wide-open hole, eyes swimming madly on his freckled face. His body slams against the wall and slides down to the tiled floor. Some of the kids peer at Lila with awe while others giggle pointing at the crying Karlo.
“What’s going on here?” a teacher yells, her head popping above the crowd.
“Lila beat up Karlo!” someone shouts. Bewildered, Lila turns away and runs. She can’t imagine going back to the class or waiting for Grandpa to walk her home. She keeps running through the streets and only stops to look left and right before crossing the roads.
She finds Grandpa at the kitchen table, playing chess by himself. A newspaper with the moves of a grandmaster game is spread on the table. When Lila tells him what happened, minus the detail of her pushing Karlo, Grandpa takes off his spectacles and scratches his beard.
“I never liked that woman,” he says. “Bosa is a Bosnian peasant name. Her folks must have been refugees after the war. Very unsophisticated people. Different from us.”
“Why did she say Karlo’s card was the best? Mine was much better.”
“Oh, she knows that, but she also knows that you don’t need encouragement. You see, Lila,” Grandpa chuckles and cradles her chin with his leathery hand. “You’re too clever for your own good. But don’t worry. The cream always rises to the top.”
Lila doesn’t get what the cream has to do with this but just the way Grandpa talks always makes her feel good. He is her best friend in the whole world. She sucks on a honey bonbon he’s given her and mulls everything over and over in her head.
When Mommy and Daddy come home from work, she has to tell the whole story again, skipping the part with Karlo in the hallway.
“What competition?” asks Daddy. “Why wasn’t I told about this? I disagree in principle with young children competing this way. It’s incompatible with an undeveloped psyche. And don’t let me start on the skewed values of mainstream society. When I was Lila’s age, I won a drawing competition. I was supposed to go to Japan. And, you know what happened? They sent another kid, the son of a politician. Told me my drawing got lost, never to be seen again. Ha!” He slams his fist on the table.
“This is the first time I hear about that,” Grandpa says.
“Well, you’re old. Dementia may be settling in.”
“Lila, did you take your card?” Mommy asks.
“I didn’t!” Lila fights the tears that start to sting her eyes. “My card was supposed to win, not Karlo’s.”
“There, there,” says Grandpa. “None of this is Lila’s fault. It’s that Bosnian woman’s orchestration. She is promoting her protégé at Lila’s expense. We all know how things work in this country.”
Mama rolls her eyes. “Grandpa, please. Remember, Lila, brotherhood and unity above all.” Still, Grandpa keeps his ground.
“That’s all nice and fine, but someone should talk with that crafty persona. She strikes me as spiteful and poorly educated. An offspring of primitive peasant folk most likely.”
“What does it matter where she is from?” Mommy snaps. “My parents were peasants too.”
“That’s different, your folks are Serbs. Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, those places are, well, not quite at the level.”
“Brotherhood and unity,” Mommy repeats lifting her index finger. “Above all!”
“That’s enough,” Daddy raises his voice. “I won’t have my child’s head filled with nonsense. Bistra, you’ll go see Lila’s teacher tomorrow. Is that understood? And you,” he points at Grandpa. “Mind your opinions. We are raising a child with progressive ideals here.”
Grandpa snorts, folds his newspaper, and shuffles to the courtyard.
The next morning, holding Grandpa’s hand on the way to the school, Lila is apprehensive. She slinks into the classroom and sits at her desk. She notices Karlo, safe, and sound, sitting straighter than ever in his chair. He turns and self-righteously smirks at Lila. Teacher Bosa waits for everyone to sit down before ordering Lila to stand up and explain why she left the school without permission the previous day. Lila answers shortly that her mommy would come later to talk to her. She hopes that’s the end of it for now but Teacher Bosa stares at her meanly over her black-rimmed spectacles. She theatrically slam-opens the giant ledger, licks her thumb, and flips through the pages. Then she beckons Lila with her finger.
When she approaches the teacher’s desk, Lila sees her name printed in big black letters at the top of the page. The teacher’s sharp red-painted nail stabs a rubric titled “Behavior”. There’s a large red number one scribbled next to it. Lila suddenly feels dizzy. Only the naughtiest boys receive the lowest mark for behavior. All the other numbers on Lila’s page are fivers – the top marks. Reading: five. Writing: five. Drawing: five. Algebra: five. Five, Five, Five. And then that hideous ace.
“You did this to yourself,” Teacher Bosa says. “Now go back to your desk, pick up your things, and switch your seat with Mara. From now on, you will be sitting next to Karlo. You must apologize to him. And you better be quiet as a bug until the end of the school year if you want to improve your behavior grade. I don’t want to hear a peep from you from now on.”
This is the longest day of Lila’s life. Karlo keeps sneering at her. He still smells funny and his nose is in a need of a handkerchief. When the last bell finally sounds, Lila is the first one out of the door. She finds Mommy standing in the hallway in front of the teacher’s gathering room, looking antsy but very beautiful in her yellow mini dress with a hammer and sickle pin on the collar. The only other person Lila has ever seen wearing such a pin is Teacher Bosa.
“Oh, Lila!” Mommy cries out. “Don’t you ever look at yourself in the mirror?” Lila reaches up and finds her right pigtail up high, almost on the top of her head. The other one is below her left ear. Grandpa can’t grasp the proper hairstyling for girls and this time, Lila forgot to check his handiwork.
“Sorry, Mommy,” she whispers and pulls on her pigtails trying to straighten them. Mommy reaches to help but there’s no time. Teacher Bosa appears with the ledger under her arm. She glares at Lila and points toward the exit.
“Out,” she says. “Pupils are not allowed here.”
Lila goes outside and sits on the stairs in front of the school entrance. The old, scuffed stone cools her thighs. The schoolyard is almost empty, except for a few straggling girls, a deflated ball, and some papers torn from a notebook rolling in the breeze across the basketball court. She prepares herself for a long wait and imagines Mommy interrogating Teacher Bosa, demanding for Lila’s card to be found and proclaimed a winner. In her mind, she can see her perfect card on display again but this time, a huge sign with the word “WINNER” points at it for everyone to see.
“Lila, why didn’t you tell me that you hit that boy?” Mommy ‘s shadow darkens the sky. She stands on the step above Lila, fists on her waist.
“He taunted me first. I didn’t push him very hard. He fell. Boys are supposed to be strong.” Mommy stares down at her for a moment and then she shakes her head. “I sometimes forget that you are just a little child.” She clomps down the stairs in her chunky-heel sandals, fingering her purse. Lila knows that she wants to smoke but would rather die than light a cigarette in public.
“Did they find my card?” asks Lila. Mommy quietly straightens her back and heads toward the street so Lila runs after her and repeats her question.
“Lila, please,” Mommy’s voice sounds tired. “I’ve got to sit down and have a smoke. I worked all day and walked from the office to save the bus fare. My legs are killing me. I didn’t need this today.”
Lila starts sulking but Mommy halts and turns to her with a smile. “I have an idea. I don’t feel like going home yet. I could do without your grandpa’s droning and I just can’t face the messy house right now. Let’s go to the park. Would you like to see the swans?”
Lila loves the swans. She nods and they make their way to the nearest bus stop where they catch a bus to the city center. All kinds of good and bad things swirl in Lila’s head: Teacher Bosa’s unfairness, the loss of her card, going with Mommy to the park on a workday, the swans, it’s too much excitement all at once. Lila’s tummy feels jittery like pudding. She folds in her seat and her mouth fills with bitter mush. With a mix of horror and relief, she expels it on the floor. Mommy jumps out of her seat and drags Lila away from the mess.
“Stop the bus!” the ticket-woman screams from her elevated seat at the back of the bus. The driver curses. The bus stops and the door slides open.
“Get out!” the ticket-woman says to Mommy.
“My child is sick, we’re not getting out,” Mommy yells to the driver and pushes Lila into a clean seat. Some passengers offer words of support. The driver curses again, the door shuts, and the bus starts moving again.
“Who’s gonna clean this up?” the ticket-lady grumbles. “I’m not your servant.”
“There are no servants in this country, comrade,” says Mommy. “Do your job.” Lila notices the woman’s gaze pausing on Mommy’s hammer and sickle pin. She scrunches her lips and turns away.
“Some people!” Mommy laughs. “What on earth did Grandpa give you for breakfast?”
“Bread and butter,” Lila answers. “And chamomile tea.” She can’t recall ever throwing up before.
They disembark at the bus station in the city center and walk down the Danube Street with all the shops and cafes, toward the park. The early May painted the trees in bright shades of green and sprinkled the lawns with tiny pink daisies. They find a perfectly sun-dappled bench by the pond. The water is murky but still like a mirror, no swans anywhere. Many young couples walk on the paved pathways pushing strollers. Pigeons swirl around an old man with hands full of bread crumbs. Some kids lick deliciously looking ice cream cones.
Mommy lights her cigarette and hungrily sucks on it. “Do you want an ice cream?” she asks, letting out a long, cloudy breath. Lila nods, trying not to think about the milky, yellowish pool of vomit on the bus. Mommy pulls out her wallet that looks like a little sack with a golden clasp. She unlatches it and turns it over on her palm. A few coins fall out. She purses her lips making them look like the golden clasp.
“Well, I suppose we’ll walk home. There isn’t enough for your ice cream and the bus fare.” She hands all the change to Lila.
The street vendor has three flavors of ice cream: vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. Lila is allergic to strawberries. Mommy and Daddy always order vanilla but she decides to go with chocolate. The ice cream drips over her fingers and she licks them hurriedly before Mommy notices and wipes them with a handkerchief.
They sit quietly on the bench, enjoying their different treats, but after a while, Lila has to ask again about her card.
“I don’t want to hear a word about that card ever again,” Mommy says. “Bosa has no idea what happened to it and she doesn’t care. What does it matter anyway? Someone took it. It’s gone. Water under the bridge. Why would you ever want to be on television anyway? That’s not important at all. What matters is that you will soon be a Tito’s Pioneer. That’s a wonderful thing.”
Lila contemplates this. She does want to be on television and she doesn’t get why wearing a red bandana around her neck is so special. She already has silky red ribbons on her pigtails. There’s so much she doesn’t understand and she really, really wants her card with the white violet back, even if it didn’t win the award.
“Why are you undisciplined at school? Bosa went on and on about you fiddling and drawing doodles all the time.” Mommy puts her hand on Lila’s shoulder but Lila shrugs it off.
“School’s boring,” she says. “Other kids can’t read. She makes us repeat letter after letter all together and we have to draw straight and slanted lines for hours. I can’t bear it. Reading is easy for me. I hate doing the same things like all those dumb kids.”
“Is that right?” Mommy giggles. “Everyone else is dumb and you’re a genius.” She nudges Lila with her elbow. Lila is still a little bit angry but she likes it when Mommy jokes with her like that. She smiles and nuzzles Mommy’s forearm.
“Eeek, you’ll mess up my dress with ice cream.” She makes a funny face and laughs.
“Mommy, is Grandpa right? Does Teacher Bosa hate me because she is Bosnian?”
“No.” Mommy squishes the cigarette butt with her heel. “She’s just an old cow. And stop moping about that card. You can draw another one and we can mail it to Tito just for fun. How about that?”
Right at that moment, something glistens at the edge of Lila’s vision. A majestic white bird emerges from the shade, gliding proudly across the pond. Another one follows her and then a smaller one trails behind. Their cloud-like plumage is brilliantly white like the most pristine snow Lila has ever seen. They look like some incredible beings from another world.
“Look at that,” Mommy says. “A family: father, mother, and a child. Just like us.”
Lila watches the birds, mesmerized. Mommy is right. Lila can make another card and she can draw whatever she likes. She will draw beautiful things every single day. When she gets home, she’ll make a drawing of the swan family. The big Daddy Swan and slightly smaller Mommy Swan with a little Daughter Swan in the middle. She will add one more, a dear, old, Grandpa Swan.