Mother was woken by the water drops father sprinkled on her face. It was March 14th, the day her hometown Elbasan celebrated the first day of spring, Ditën e Verës. When she opened her eyes she saw the first spring flowers on her pillow: carnations, daisies, violets. Father smiled. In his hands he had verore – the red and white string bracelet he tied on mother’s wrist.
“Can’t you see my wrists are swelling by the minute?” she said.
“So is your belly,” he said, leaning over and kissing her stomach, “But if you want that verore off, we need to go find the first swallow. It’s bad luck to take it off otherwise.”
As every year, on the vigil before the first day of spring, they’d spent the previous night around the neighborhood bonfire, burning juniper branches, warding off evil spirits, sending heat and flames into the sky. They’d made numerous wreaths out of tree branches and flowers, which now hung on every door, and they’d picked carefully the right patch of soil, grass, and flowers to bring into the house. The earth would sleep and wake with them on the first day of spring, and that same earth would bring prosperity and abundance to the family, would help the women’s bellies churn out healthy babies, their breasts pour forth fountains of milk, their bodies extend gracefully toward the sun, hips stacked solidly over strong legs, their bellies like a fern-lined basket, a cradle for babies yet to be born.
Pranvera, too, who up until the 14th had been a mellow fetus, decided to wake. As mother sat at the edge of the bed groaning at father’s love for tradition, Pranvera kicked, and the water broke. She was born in the front yard of their home, amidst daffodils and dandelion puffs, which landed on her nose and made her sneeze, and as soon as she felt the cool air, father tied a verore on her wrist and wrapped her in his arms. She heard her father’s husky voice, her mother’s sighs; she smelled the roasted meats, the rising sweet breads, and the ballakume. She smelled the fire ash from the previous night’s festivities, and she heard her mother weekly mutter:
“Look, the first swallow.”
Pranvera’s older sister, Morena, got her period first. She also did not grow past five feet. In fact, in her old age at ninety, Morena measured four feet five inches. She was not what the townspeople called lastar – the tall, sunward woman who would bless her husband with many children, but birth many she did. Many attributed her modest height to Morena’s bad posture, but she would swear that someone had stolen strands of her hair, her clipped nails, her discarded stockings, and had conjured a magic curse. She spent her later days looking under beds, cupboards, in chest corners, behind the TV, and in delicate, porcelain coffee cups that were seldom used. She was looking for the cursed ball of hair, nails, spit, and sticks from one of the fruit trees in her garden that had doomed her to modest stature. She never found it. Relentless, Morena asked for a particular witch doctor who lived an hour away from Elbasan, the only person, she claimed, who could break the curse. Her request was never honored, as was to be expected. And as these things go, she died short, adorned with sagging breasts, which rested on her abdomen, the belly button between them – a seeing eye. Those breasts had fed five children, all of whom attended her funeral. Pranvera was the only family member missing, aside from her parents who had long since passed. Instead, on Pranvera’s chair was a vase filled with milky water and large stems laden with green leaves.
Morena was six years older than Pranvera and even in her youth her breasts were very large. They hung off her chest with an unparalleled grace and roundness, her nipples straight arrows, even on balmy summer days. The bras mother bought for Morena were made of thick layers of cotton which unsuccessfully attempted to obscure her nipples.
She was an austere woman, the mother, and she found it difficult to talk about breasts, periods, and the nightly throes of lovemaking she shared with the girls’ father. She made love to him in the dark, lips tight, hands gripping the pillow, face hiding behind her crow black hair. Afterward she’d rise from the bed, burning, leaving ashes on the sheets, and on the floor where her feet touched the cold orange tile of their home. In silence she’d clean up in the bathroom, and even more quietly she’d slide back in bed, the smell of singed sheets in her nostrils as she’d round herself into a ball and sleep. The mother had never made peace with the orbs that graced her chest, or with the gorge nestled between them; she’d never taken pleasure in the roundness of her hips, the high pitch of her voice, or her long hair. In fact, she’d been so disappointed when Morena had made her pink, blood-stained, singing appearance – for her baby shrills sounded like a ghostly song – that she’d not held the baby for three days, until her breasts hurt so badly she had to let Morena’s little mouth suck the milk. For this the mother was grateful; the girl was good for something.
And as these things go, during their teenage years Morena’d been no help to Pranvera. She’d not told her little sister of the flow, the mark of the woman and of the mother. It was to be ignored, forgotten for three weeks until it returned, a perennial bloom. Perhaps their quietude would usher it away, would make the pangs more bearable, would cool their bedewed brows, and would make the blood drop stains on the white sheets disappear. Pranvera had wondered about the blood on the sheets, but her mother and Morena’s silence was a shroud of reverence she couldn’t bring herself to disturb with questions.
Pranvera heard for the first time about periods when she was ten. The subject sent her and her friends in a flurry of whispers toward a dark alley. Their murmurs set them in a sweat, pearly drops running over their ruby lips.
“A whole week of bleeding?”
Her friends were sure that the blood, her blood, would fall on folded pads of the white cotton fabric she had seen her grandmother and aunts in the village use as cheesecloth.
“Are you serious?” one of her friends asked.
“Yeah! You won’t grow once you get them. I won’t get any taller than this,” Lira, the most knowledgeable of them said, “But the boobs will grow, that’s what my sister said. She said that she has a hard time finding a bra that fits.”
“So you’ll be short forever? Does that mean you won’t have children?” Pranvera asked.
Lira met her gaze, breathing heavily, two points visible beneath her t-shirt.
“Aida says that she grew more, but she plays basketball and jumps a lot, that’s why,” Lira added.
Pranvera took jumping to be the answer. She did not want to be short, and she did not want to have big breasts like her sister. She especially disliked their fleshy bounce when Morena ran. She was embarrassed when young men on the street called “Nice tits!” every time Morena went out wearing a sundress. Pranvera prayed for tangerine-sized ones, manageable, especially in the midst of frequent jumping.
She was the second of her friends to get a bra. She showed her breasts to Lira one day. They looked like little carrot bottoms sticking out of the ground without the leafy greens, the brown areola tinged pink, the little girl fat still holding on to its edges. Pranvera smiled sheepishly when she showed them off – the little swells – but Lira remained unimpressed, showing her perky, much larger breasts with relish. Their discussion on periods and growth motivated Pranvera to spend hours jumping and reaching for a concrete ledge that stretched over the entryway to her neighbor’s house. She could not reach it, but she would be able to eventually, she was convinced, and that would indicate her graceful and erect growth, like a cypress.
One morning, months after her first period, she woke to a ray of sun thieving between the curtains. Mother had opened the windows again at six in the morning to let out the exhales, the sighs, and sweat vapors. The carnations and geraniums on the window sills were there for this morning ritual. Their scent was Pranvera’s alarm clock. Mother was arguing with father in the next room, about what, Pranvera didn’t know. The apartment smelled like French toast, which was probably resting on porcelain plates on the dining table. Probably already cold. She could smell the tea, still hot, steam rising from the cups, swirling, curling, dipping – it had discovered wings.
She sat up in her bed embalmed in the humid air. Morena was softly purring, legs spread on the bed, sheet wrapped around her thigh, nightgown to her waist, revealing her spartan underwear with a strip of lace on the waistband. It was upon Morena’s insistence that mother had sewn the cheap lace on them as an afterthought. Her lips were parted. A few strands of hair were stuck in the corner of her mouth, and she had wrapped her arms tightly around her chest as if she were holding someone.
Pranvera got up, moved the hair out of Morena’s mouth, and walked to the bathroom. Father had placed by the sink a few branches from their cherry tree that had bloomed. She spit out the toothpaste, washed her face, and looked in the mirror for the first time that morning. She touched her cheeks, fingertips resting on her cheekbones. She pinched them the way she had seen her aunts do on their summer visits to Pranvera’s home. They flushed red. Pranvera smiled at her reflection. She spit one more time. She washed her face again and noticed the water evaporate off her skin in a blind flight. She tried to wash again but the water hissed on her skin and halted mid-contact becoming vapor, white swirls filling the bathroom. Pranvera’s red cheeks glowed like raspberries on gray mornings, her hair riding the vapor, twisting with it, rolling in and under – lovers enraptured. And in the vaporous bathroom, Pranvera started falling, down, further away from the sun, a wilting flower, and as she slid through the vapor toward the floor, she knocked down the jar of cherry flowers, which first sprung in the air, and then broke into shards, adorning Pranvera’s hair in cherry blossoms and sharp glass.
The thermometer showed 40.5 C the first time mother inserted it into Pranvera’s mouth, and 41.7 thirty minutes later. Mother screamed. Father brought aspirin and water. Morena woke to the uproar. Pranvera’s hands shook, then her arms, then her legs. Her body was engaged in a slow symphony that built steadily, piercing and pierced through with individual sounds.
Mother and father stopped their attempts to control the convulsions. They stood numb and frigid, her hands on her mouth, tears flowing, his hands balled into fists.
Pranvera was in a coma for three months. She was serene. Her cheeks were always flushed and her temperature was a steady 38 degrees. Uncles, aunts, and cousins would routinely come to visit the family, bringing fresh cheeses and butter, whole chickens, that morning’s eggs, wild greens, and teas. The neighbors would visit, too. They would bring little walnut cookies, fig and watermelon rind jams, pickled olives and eggplants, braids of garlic and bags of potatoes, chamomile and rosemary bouquets, wild honey and freshly squeezed lemon elixirs.
Mother and father no longer engaged in lovemaking. At first neither wanted to, but after the first few weeks of Pranvera’s coma, father made an attempt. Mother slid through the sheets and father rubbed her shoulders which stiffened at the touch. He slipped his hands to her waist, but she pushed him away, sat up in bed, and said:
“You’re a pig. How can you think of such things when our daughter’s dying?” Father never tried again, letting pain settle on the mattress, always turning his back to it.
Pranvera rested lightly on the bed and she looked like she hovered, her black hair combed neatly against the frilly pillow case, fingers crossing atop her stomach that rose and fell to shallow breath. Her mother would change the sheets every morning even though they were never dirtied or creased. She bleached them, rinsed them in lavender and rosemary water and ironed them early in the morning to a flat crisp. She held back the tears as she changed the sheets for fear of dripping on their faultless surface. And once she was done spreading them on Pranvera’s bed, and once she was done combing Pranvera’s hair, changing her nightgown, lying her on the bed, the mother would go to the kitchen and mix holy water she’d collected from the priest, wildflower honey, crushed bay leaves, walnut butter, and pine tree sap. She’d return to Pranvera’s room, and using two fingers, she’d smear the mixture on the door frame, on the bed’s headboard, and on Pranvera’s lips. Years later, mother told Morena that a witch doctor who lived an hour from Elbasan had recommended the concoction.
The morning of Pranvera’s return mother and father overslept. Unaware, they were tangled into each other’s arms, her hair covering his forehead, his hand on her breast. Morena was also sleeping. She’d snuck out of the house during the night and had spent it amongst the bay laurel trees with her boyfriend who had tried to count the stars while touching every recess of her skin. Morena had returned early that morning, had not changed into her nightgown, and had forgotten to take off the bay leaf crown she wore during her thieved love affair.
At first, they all heard a faint murmur. Then Pranvera began to shriek. Mother started from her bed, throwing father’s hand away from her breast. He was confused, naturally. All three ran to the side of her bed. Pranvera looked at them wide-eyed as she grabbed the sheets and thrashed. Mother wiped Pranvera’s brow, kissed her head, and smoothed her hair. And then they all froze in silence as they saw her nightgown tear and green leaves sprout with a flourish out of Pranvera’s nipples.
Lira was the first person outside of the family who was allowed to see Pranvera. She froze at the sight.
“Come,” said Pranvera shifting in bed, “Here, sit down.”
“Um, yeah, I think. What happened? They won’t tell me anything.” Pranvera whispered. She started crying. “You’re so pretty, Lira. And tall, too. Look at you.”
“You were in a coma for a while. Woke up three days ago, and then these.” Lira said pointing at Pranvera’s breasts, “They’re something.”
“I know. D’you think they’ll go away?”
“Don’t know.” Lira replied.
She held Pranvera’s hand and with the other she gently touched the leaves. Leaf by leaf, stem by stem, she reached the pink flesh. They looked at each other, the two friends, and sat on Pranvera’s bed awhile.
Pranvera’s family gradually opened the doors to aunts, uncles, and cousins, but after a while the neighbors came, then, Pranvera herself started sunbathing on the front porch, for the leaves needed the sun. Father had built a sturdy day bed that stayed outside, at the foot of which Mother would set a basin of water laced with honey, sea salt, and rose essence where Pranvera would soak her feet while lying down. Nobody knew whether it was evaporation or Pranvera’s feet, but after lengthy sun bathing, the basin was empty of the nourishing water, and the leaves on Pranvera’s breasts were greener and larger. Slowly, as her leaves reached and faced the sun, so did she face the world.
For a while, Pranvera’s story covered the front pages of newspapers and was repeated every hour on news channels. After the initial shock, Pranvera made peace with the foliage. And after a while she started walking through the streets chest forward, greenery tearing through her clothing, reaching toward any passerby. Lawyers, nannies, street-sweepers, teachers, little schoolboys – they all leaned closer to Pranvera’s breasts. When she laughed the air rushed through, swelling her ribcage, shaking the leaves and stems; they lengthened and the flesh swelled and sagged under the weight.
People from the surrounding villages and towns came to Elbasan out of curiosity. The girl with the green-leafed breasts, they called her. At first it was just a few people, but later, as word spread, as the hormonal teenage boys, many of whom traveled to Elbasan with stolen money, reported on the sight, people started coming in large numbers. It was during one of these pilgrimages that they found out what happened when Pranvera’s leaves were picked and stems broken.
When Pranvera stepped out on a cool, autumn morning she was greeted by a large crowd. She smiled as she walked past. They followed, murmuring shyly at first and then began shouting her name. One particular boy, the one who had declared his undying love for Pranvera on national TV the week before, pushed his way through the crowd and touched her hand, then her shoulder, then her leaves. Another boy pushed him and as he fell, he held on to one of Pranvera’s stems, which snapped. Milk flowed out of the wound; the boy tasted the milk and declared it the nectar of the gods. It was then that the crowd became frantic. People reached to catch the white drops, they pushed toward the broken stem to drink, they smeared drops of milk mixed with dirt on their bruises, sores, and warts, and all was healed. And in the midst of it all, she stood inert, looking at the milk flow, her arms limp by her side, looking at the scene as if from a different body, a body that was closer to the sun than her own would ever be. She felt like she was floating above it all, and in that moment, under the pellucid autumn sky, Pranvera relished her leaves, loved them like a mother does her newborn. It was under her approving smile that Pranvera’s fate was decided.
They would immure her behind a wall, like in the legend of Rozafa her mother had told so many times at bedtime; they would leave nothing exposed but her chest cascading with leaves. She’d walk into the wall cavity desirously, like a baby going into the belly whence it came; she’d press her bare back on the cold wall, place her hands behind her head as if lying down for a nap and her draping hair would reach for unruly roots that penetrated the wall, and it would tie itself to these earthly extensions, forever binding the girl to the earth and to the sky that would quench her thirst on stormy nights. Thus settled, Pranvera would watch the wall rise up brick by brick; she would see her parents holding on to one another and Morena would be there, too. As they would place the final stones, just as those stones would cover sun and sky, she would close her eyes.
But on summer nights she would hear her parents once again able to love, she would hear Lira singing with the drunk men at the neighborhood bar, she would hear the fire cracking before the first day of spring, the songs and laugher, the first swallows, and she would hear Morena’s sighs and moans echoing amongst the chestnut trees and city walls, Morena’s screams during her five births, the cries of the five baby girls greeting the day. And she would hear her nieces come to the immured virgin’s wall to touch and eat and bring the spring’s first flowers as an offering.
And the people would come and see her – the immured virgin with fertile breasts. They would touch the smooth skin of her heavy orbs which stayed pink; they would smell the green flourish, they would eat its leaves, and they would snap the stems and plant them in their gardens, in hopes that it would bring luck to their daughters. The milk that flowed would be collected and drunk by young virgins, barren brides, and ailing menopausal women. Pranvera, behind the wall covered in stone and stucco, would smile with each caress and pluck, and would dream of swallows perching on her branches, moss growing on her stones, and rivers of milk reaching for the earth.
Eralda Lameborshi was born in the Albanian city of Berat known as the city of a thousand windows. She has degrees in computer science and English and is currently a PhD candidate at Texas A&M University writing on contemporary film and literature of exile, migration, and immigration.
Photo credit: Amy Sanford