A SANCTUARY OF THE HUMAN RIVER
White Christmas 1957
Swimming is the first thing we ever do.
Before we breathe, before we cry, before we crawl,
we swim in the waters of the womb. Then the walls close in
and we tumble-turn into position, ready to dive into the open
- Fiona Capp in Sane Days
You will not believe me, my story cannot be believed, but you can only
gain an understanding of my Mother's village if you visualise a
colorless light of the Central European winter. The village had no
beginning it was as eternal as water. Somewhere between Poland, Russia,
Austria and Hungary was the Village's Black Creek covered in ice and
snow. A place where no villager could resist a small talk and gossip.
Villagers trapped by a life they didn't choose, and had no control over
the direction of their East Side Story.
Tucked away in the folds of the ancient mountains that embrace the
Kezmarok and Poprad valleys lay a royal town called Vrbov (meaning
(Czech Out the Heart of the Mittleuropean Map)
A weeping at times. But mostly happy little village of a few hundred
souls with a robust sense of humour. It gets dark early in December.
The Vrbov definition of winter: streets are snowbound, the road is
quiet, the mountain air is very, very cold. That day in 1957, Vrbov was
gripped by mid winter night frostiness. It was two evenings before
Christmas Eve. Children and dogs no longer romped in the snow watched
over by women wearing headscarves and long dresses. All the children
were inside warm houses listening for the bells of Saint Nicholas'
sleigh and motherly figures were bustling about with Christmas
preparations. Every twig is draped in red and green memory.
Slowly, like the heavy curtain of a play's final act, white night
descended upon the small mountain village. It was impossible not to
notice how suddenly the temperature dropped, and how the fragile
leaf-like frost built up icicle by icicle on the glass in the windows.
Footpaths lay buried under piles of snow. Snowmen stood in public
places lording over Vrbov territory. The village was all wrapped up in
white like a giant Christmas present.
For more than seven hundred years, Vrbov's 200 or so chimneys had faced
the winter northerly wind which would wake up in Poland (to be exact,
in Krakow) at around five, pass through Zakopane ten minutes later and
almost immediately strike Vrbov's isolated white streets with a vicious
force. The blizzard, like the thunder, in the High Tatra Mountains,
could be heard in full voice across both sides of the border.
That night birds were perched on low branches of every poplar and
seemed to be watching a human figure walking briskly below. The
whipping wind shouting in the tops of the poplars didn't seem to bother
that determined little figure, rugged up in a black woollen shawl and
long skirt, who plodded doggedly through the milky snow, leaving deep
footprints that soon vanished like liquid silk in the gale. There were
few paths more heavily beaten or more slippery in winter than those
leading to a cream terrace situated in the Horna Ulica (Upper
She stumbled often. Yet with every slip, her determination to dive
headlong into the deep white emptiness, her stubborn resolve to reach
her destination in the face of nature's hostility, only seemed to
increase. The air, cold as ice, appeared to have taken shelter in the
warm flood of her whistle.
The happy whistle was interupted when she almost slipped on the steps
leading to the cream terrace she knew well. Now she wiped the snow off
the ends of her chestnut hair, and removed her shawl. Aware that her
teeth had bitten into her lip, she took a deep breath and rang the
doorbell. Her breath steamed in the evening chill. On the other side,
the sound of footsteps grew louder and when the door opened, a familiar
odour of pharmaceuticals wafted out, embracing her with
Number Seven at Horna Ulica looked like a set for a Christmas movie,
except instead of a facade of shopping centres it had a facade of white
forests and a garrage doors hidden by one-meter-snowbanks. The terrace
house was as private as a priest's confessional. Confessions, in the
shape of exceptional happenings, often stopped here. The terrace was
full of warmth from the open fire, huge divans, bright embroidered
cushions and the smell of baking and pharmacy rolled into one.
A pale orange light radiating from the street lamp just metres away
gave the moment a mystical aura. The soundtrack of knifes and forks
clinked invitingly. A middle-aged man wearing a white coat opened the
wooden door and looked down at the petitely built, woman who stood
five-foot-three. She had sky-blue eyes and wore her slightly
gray-streaked, honey brown hair in a bun. The corridor felt like holy
ground, a place where she took off her shoes because custom also
demanded it. Shoes were removed so that dirt and chaos of outside was
No one ever forgot the first time they met the only man in Vrbov who
got away with wearing white mask and rubber gloves. People marvelled
that anyone could be so at ease and at peace with the world and at the
same time claiming to be a keen supporter of a local soccer team. A
team that seemed to lose every match. To the men of Vrbov he was a
'city boy,' as he could not tell a difference between a goat and
chamois. It was even less well known that the medical profession had a
stronger connection to music than animals and that doctors were often
good musicians. Dr Rusniak was often found polishing his precious
musical instrument using the soft, piable chammy in the living room of
his home, where an upright piano had pride of place.
"Ahoj, Maria!" called Dr Rusniak, the keeper of every woman's secret
fears and wishes. Welcome was in this greeting and a amiable curiosity.
Peached skinned, Maria Imrichova, born and bred on Vrbov's customs, is
more likely to kiss than to shake hands even with a person she is
meeting for the first time. If you are in Vrbov you kiss. Dr Rusniak
kissed Maria on her rosy cheeks three times without thinking about it.
For someone who could not manage one kiss without looking
embarrassingly ackward not so long ago, he has come a long way.
Politeness was his old trademark: "After you,' 'No, no after you." He
stood out in a village crowd, not just because he always dressed
impeccably, but also because his deep educated voice belonged to
another part of Czechoslovakia: Bratislava maybe or even Martin. He
spoke proper Slovak, like radio announcer or the school principal, and
even better. Every one around him sprinkled shs and cheshes in their
sentences as often as they could. This was Spis region!
He spoke softly, looking at people's eyes and touching their very soul.
His eyebrows were as black as the coal from Ostrava, his
spinach-coloured eyes penetrating and dominant, and behind them worked
a methodical and intellectual mind.
For seven years now his thorough approach to mind and body had won the
confidence of many of the Vrbov folk. Nothing important happened in
Vrbov that Doctor Rusniak did not know about. People liked him, but he
imagined whispers behind his back. Men were wary of anyone who had a
gift for success. However, wherever he went women insisted on confiding
Rumour had it that Dr Rusniak laughed at villagers who thought that
evil eye existed. It was said that he held a view that no amount of
garlic in the house was going to ward off the bad spirits. No one has
ever seen a lucky horseshoe in his house! However, his house was
crammed with folkloric memorabilia, "Don't open a drawer or fujara will
"Maria, what's up? Is something wrong?" Doktor Rusniak said in a soft
voice as he offered her a chair.
She replied, "Doctor, I've lost all my appetite. Maybe I've got some
kind of bad food poisoning. I am alos finding it difficult to name
objects and people. I think I am becoming forgetfull in a way I find
difficult to make even a shopping list. Maybe it's just the change of
life. . . you know, the one Helena told me she was going
Maria's voice was half women half child. Men liked it. Women liked her
long thin fingers, once a source of embarrassment. If you squinted in a
smoky room she looked like Audrey Hepburn.
He laid her gently on his examination table and checked her closely. At
first he frowned with concentration, but soon his eyes grew large and
he tried hard to keep the crinkles from forming. First a broad smile
began to emerge.
Why is Dr Rusniak chuckling, where is the traditional medical precept,
'First, do no harm? Maria thought but did not ask aloud. How could he
be so rude, laughing at me?
He did his best to control himself, but it proved too much and a gust
of laughter filled the room.
He chuckled more, 'Well, Maria, every house in Vrbov has a garden, but
yours is particularly fertile. The end of this "sickness" will be a
baptism - congratulations!' Maria's jaw dropped with the shock of the
diagnosis. There was a truckload of baritone laughter loud enough to
rattle the metal instruments sitting on top of the chifforobe.
An astonishing range of expressions crossed her face- astonishment,
deep thought, and a strange awe that bespoke a sense of joy.
'Boh, Pane Boze, Boh, Pane Boze.' Maria, addressed God several times.
She searched for words halfway between joy and surprise. She laughed
enough for both of us. Maria would raise me in the heart of a modest
village, poor in things and rich in soul.
Life is strange and getting stranger, she thought to herself. Maria
would not tell you her age, but Dr Rusnak would. At 42, Maria was
pregnant with her sixth child. Her fair hair was pulled back in a
ponytail. Because of her height Maria tended to look up at things and
people, as if the world were composed of fascinating tall trees. You
would think if Maria didn't know, that the doctor was an ordinary man.
It took million smiles for him to get those irresistable crow's feet.
Dr Rusniak's face was at once open and close His smile, ever
contradictory. Dr Rusniak's amazement at the pregnancy was borne out by
statistics showing that a woman's odds at conceiving in her 40s are
about 700 to one. Maria had come to believe strange things about
pregnancies. She felt mother and child were together in deep spiritual
ways, ways deeper than physical touch and ways that surpassed physical
passing. For the sixth time she realized she was no longer separate.
She was part of everything, one with the spacious sky and limitless
ocean. It was an easy way to be, the right way to be. It was easy to
believe that the next world was separate from this world but a
different dimension of it.
Dr Rusniak's laughter lifted Maria's heart and peeled away her anxiety.
How could she and her sisters miss the signs? How ...? The familiar
morning sickness. Previously everyone knew when she was pregnant. She'd
left and kept coming back for things she'd forgotten, like keys,
shopping lists or the candles for the church. Maria's sisters would
notice her behaving forgetfully and say, 'Oh yes, Maria you are
In less then five months time she was going to surrender to the
mysterious biological forces of labour and love. All her womanly
instincts were moved and excited by the unexpected opportunity to once
again create a new human being.
Maria bid farewell to the amused Doctor and again made her way on the
Doctor returned back his other life-long patient, his passion for all
manner of things electronic: cables, soldering irons, integrated
circuits, manuals, radios, oscilloscopes, capacitors, resistors,
Still blushing, she wondered how she was going to break the
unbelievable news to her husband Jozef (Jozo). She tightened her scarf
and drifted through the snow, filled with a happy feeling of well-being
under a silvery, slivery crescent moon which hanged above motionless
snowclouds. Maria looked in time to see part of the moon reflected in a
monochrome mirror on the pavement. On the way to the Doctor, Maria was
oblivious to the mirror of packed ice in the pavement, ruts as hard as
steel, made the going dangerous for Maria. It would not be the first
time that she slid on ice. As she was looking for a better foothold in
the thinner snow to the side of the walk she tried to convince herself
with muttering, "I must not fall!" Mindful now of her unborn child. She
wished Jozo could have made it to the doctor with her, but someone had
to serve the dinner and read the usual 'Dobru Noc' good night story to
The night was young, but by six the village was motionless. No
footsteps. Cold. The wind had now faltered. Her crisp footsteps were
lost in the black air and the silver gleam of the moon. Slovak moon
loomed in Maria's peripheral vision. She walked towards St. Servac's
parish church. She thought of an old folk song,'Icy Moon.'Nothing is as
beautiful as when the edges of the moon scribble hidden messages.
Maria's heart was unusually light when, she decided to sit down and
stare at the moon from the park fence facing the village well with its
wooden pump. People walk a lot in Vrbov. Its main street is usually
crowded. But not on a icy night in the midle of winter. Maria sat
alone, save for a black and brown cat next to the pump visibly busy
chasing snowflakes. Maria's body feeling tired, but mysteriously filled
with peace and that special delight in being alive right now. The low
shrubs in a corner of the park looked exquisite like a bevy of swans.
The needle-sharp branches floated like wings of feather. The wind
brought down branches from the pine trees in the cemetery, and the
power winked out, streetlight by streetlight.
Born in the shadow of High Tatra peaks, Maria, like her highlander
mother and her mother's mother, never seemed to feel the icy cold.
Often she would quickly carry her children to the outside toilet in her
bare feet, undaunted by the midnight snow. It helped to have a
grandmother who pioneered an ice swimming for the girls.
For a while she pondered at her good fortune, at being two instead of
one. In the moonlight, the tall bell tower and the sign of the cross
leaned against her silhouette like a royal crown, studded with
diamonds. From the tower all her family forests and seven different
towns could be seen, the view had never come unstuck through the mouth
of time. While Maria went to sleep few years before Hitler's invasion
and awakened on her honeymoon as owner of one of the forest, when she
walked through a main door of the town hall in 1948 and came out from a
side door all the family forests were taken from her and her siblings
by the socialist state. During the Great Soviet Experiment at the heart
of Europe in 1948 Orwell acquired the necessary knowledge and insight
for backdrop to Nineteen Eighty-Four.