In the middle of October, when the sun still spread around its warm rays, my father and a few neighbors would gather in the backyard of our house to make rakija.
A Chinese tourist once called it “fire water,” but to us it was a traditional Serbian alcoholic drink. I tried it many times under the influence of the grown-ups who claimed that it killed all bacteria, germs, viruses, and could calm a toothache or reduce a fever. But honestly, I didn’t like it. It was so strong that once you sipped it and had it in your mouth, you could feel its stinging drops spread all around the walls of your mouth cavity like tiny needles. And when you swallowed it, the warmth would spread so fast through your upper body that in a few seconds you felt the heat skyrocket your temperature to a thousand degrees, and you would sweat as if you had been in a sauna. Your legs would feel weak and shaky and it was better for you if you didn’t attempt to walk for a while, otherwise you would probably end up stumbling down and kissing the ground.
Anyway, my family and all other Serbs believed that rakija was a cure for everything. No medicine could surpass its healing effects. Also, no other alcoholic drink could cause weirder hallucinations. One time, our neighbor Stevo was fighting with anacondas after he had left the local kafana—a Serbian bistro or pub—and he was so engaged in this fight with huge snakes that he stopped the traffic on the town’s main street, claiming it was the battlefield. My cousin Vera got so drunk once that she believed there were fairies asking her to climb up the tree and join them. Vera climbed up the tree and, after five minutes, she ended up on the ground again, falling directly on her butt. She couldn’t sit on it for almost three weeks.
One warm October day, after playing on the street with other kids from my neighborhood, I came home feeling weak. Everything was bathed in gold and red, with all those leaves falling down from the trees. The enjoyable warmth had enticed people to wear summer clothes, shorts and t-shirts, but that day the hairs on my body stood up and shivers ran down my spine. The cold chills turned into shaking and I ran into my yard, feeling sick.
When I opened the gate, I smelled the sweet, fruity smell of ripe plums permeating the air. It was delightful and provoked me to think about sweet purple plums. But no matter how compelling they were, how sweet, I was not feeling hungry. I went to the backyard and found my dad and our two neighbors there. They were gathered around our kazan—a still—and were chatting. The three of them were holding small shot glasses and, of course, tasting rakija in the making. Needless to say, tasting rakija again and again, while trying to make the best version of it, was obligatory. At the end of the day, all tasters were usually so drunk that they couldn’t tell the difference between my sister and me. And my sister and I were very different. They would wish Marina good night by saying, “Good night, Lena.” And I would be petted on my head with the words, “Marina, you are growing up so fast. You will be taller than Lena.” I guess it is necessary to mention that I was four years older than my sister Marina and much taller.
That afternoon, I bid them hello and told my dad that my head was burning and that I felt strange. Everything was spinning around and I was getting dizzy. He stood up from his stool, left his precious shot glass on a small round wooden table, and approached me. He pressed his warm, sticky palm to my forehead, spreading the fragrance of rakija to me, and kept it there for a few seconds. Then, he said, “You have a fever. Go to Nana. She will prepare the best medicine for you. You will feel better after a couple of hours. When I was your age, I never went to a doctor.”
Nana was my doctor. Thanks to her, I easily recovered from chicken pox, shingles, fever, and flu. Nana was my grandma. Her real name was Lena, the same as mine, but in Serbia we usually called our grandma “Nana” if we liked her. If we didn’t like her, we would address her as “grandmother” and avoid her as much as we could. My sister and I had always called my grandma “Nana,” showing our love and adoration for her.
I entered the house feeling pretty lightheaded and woozy. I felt that a terrible weakness was seizing my body. I began to suffer some dizzy spells. Everything around me was moving. I found Nana in the kitchen making pancakes. Sweet vanilla and spicy cinnamon lingered in the air. Nana offered me a pancake with delicious apricot jam filling. My favorite. When I refused, she looked at me in surprise and said, “You are not feeling well. You look like a ghost and you don’t have an appetite.” I nodded.
“Come here,” she said in a demanding voice. She left her pancake artistry and headed toward the bedroom. I followed her and she told me to take off all my clothes. While I did this, she disappeared through the door that led outside to the backyard. After a minute, she came back carrying a bottle of rakija. I was confused, but I was so weak that I didn’t have strength to ask questions and demand explanations. I believed she was an expert and had a gift of healing. Soon after, she told me to lie down because she wanted to massage me with rakija. I was feeling cold and my arms and legs were shaking. Those strange chills were roiling my body and I felt as though I had been lying naked on an iceberg.
Nana poured a bit of rakija into her palms and started massaging my shoulders, back, arms, stomach, legs, and feet. My body was heating up and I was comfortably numb. After Nana had finished massaging me, she grabbed one towel from the drawer, soaked it in rakija and wrapped it around my neck. She told me to go to bed and try to sleep. I complied. She told me, also, not to remove the rakija-soaked towel from my neck. When I lay down, she covered me up with the cotton sheet and promised me that I would feel better when I woke. She kissed my forehead and went back to the kitchen to finish her pancake art.
The room was filled with the strong smell of rakija, and even though I had never liked it, I felt that it was making me feel better. I was sleepy, my eyelids were heavy and they began to droop. I was half-asleep for some time and eventually I fell asleep completely.
When I woke up, it was pitch dark outside and I could see the carpet of stars through the half-open window. I smelled of alcohol. Rakija left its aftersmell all around the bedroom and even though I was not drinking it, I had inhaled it and it made me a bit tipsy. But, miracle! I was feeling better. No cold chills were running down my spine and my hands and legs were not shaking anymore. My forehead was not burning either. I finally removed the towel from my neck—it was almost dry—and uncovered myself to cool off as it was pretty warm in the room. I finally dressed and went to the kitchen.
Nana was sitting in a rocking chair and watching her favorite Latin soap opera, the one where every minute someone was crying or yelling—the actors using too many gestures and talking too loud. The big pile of pancakes waited for me on the table, and I was so hungry. When Nana saw me, she stood up and hurried to touch my forehead. Her smile assured me that my fever had gone. Then, she made me sit at the table and she rolled a few pancakes for me. One had my favorite apricot filling, the other one ground walnuts and honey, and the third one was filled with brown-sugar and cinnamon. I ate ravenously. And I knew I would not stop after the third pancake. My Nana was happy to see that my appetite had returned in full force. When I finished the sixth pancake and there was no room for more, I lay in bed and watched the soap opera with Nana.
Outside, my father and neighbors had reached the stage where they were singing and laughing and I knew that soon the neighbors’ wives would come to look for their husbands. Rakija really worked miracles with my fever. And it obviously performed wonders with the grown-ups as well. It brought them back to their childhood. Once they overdosed on rakija, they forgot about their stupid serious political arguments and complaints. You never heard them talking about low salaries, high prices, ridiculous taxes, corrupt government, bad bosses, or too much work. All you could hear was laughing, jokes, singing. Sometimes, when they continued their hanging out with rakija until late at night, they would even play games: hide and seek, hopscotch, jump rope, or monkey in the middle. During those times, I would sneak out of my bed and go to the window overlooking our backyard, where I would watch them and laugh. Those were hilarious scenes. I couldn’t remember any TV show that was funnier and more interesting. And those were probably moments when I liked grown-ups the most.