Rustic North

Serbian Festival, Somerville, MA

Inside the tent, the crowd’s murmur roars in tune with the ocean that separates them from the continent where their grandparents are buried. There is laughter and gossip and declarations of disapproval and the smell of coffee as thick as wet dirt.

The first dancers take the stage. A line of children jumps in interweaving rows. The girls wear tunics and skirts, their black aprons embroidered with flowers and patterns in angular cross-stitching. The audience claps. Mothers crane their necks. Camera flashes temporarily blind.

The ladies at the food table have been awake since dawn. One of them is wondering if she will be able to duck out and have a cigarette before the day is over. Their faces are bleary from exhaustion as they dump food onto paper plates. They serve sausage, lamb, coleslaw, rice, and a cheese pie made from brittle petals of dough. The bar serves strictly American delicacies: Sam Adams and Sutter Home.

The church parking lot is full of smoke from the barbeque. Across the tent, the dancers can smell cooked meats and onions. They jangle tiny bells. One girl smiles broadly, revealing all of her teeth. She leaps back and forth, concentrating on the steps. During one of the rehearsals in the church basement, the dance teacher, her voice thick with a Baltic accent, reminded them, “Smile, children!” The girl took this advice very seriously, and flexes her cheeks as she flexes her feet to the rhythm: onetwothreefourfivesix—one… two three four. She is wearing lipstick for the first time. It tastes waxy, feels heavy, like a second layer of skin. She bows deeply when it is all over and runs to her mother.

The older men sit with pants pulled up to their waist, their hair slicked in side parts. Their wives and the widows who sit with them wear tweed skirts and pink rouge. They clap along with the music, and only stand when the priest walks through the tent, thanking the parishioners for attending. Then the elders stand on uneasy legs, their eyes crinkling with affection. They each shake the priest’s hand and are reluctant to release it. He speaks with them gently, nodding the long black scrub growing from his chin.

The dance teacher grabs the microphone, and announces that she’d like to welcome, “the newest member of our community,” her fourteen-day-old niece, Marija. The baby sleeps through the announcement, her eyes wrinkled shut, her hair a black static. She’s swaddled in a pink blanket and in the warmth of the brood she doesn’t yet understand, united by a place she has never been to.

Three women step onstage to slow, sad music. They wear headscarves. They look at their feet, then at the peak in the tent. The tempo speeds and they stamp their feet emphatically to the beat until they are skipping and stomping and two men in furry hats join them. They kick up their legs and shout, “Hey!”

In St. Sava Orthodox Church, light glows through the fingertips and toes of the stained glass barefoot saints. A screen stands in the apse, painted with flat medieval faces. Above it, on the walls and ceiling of the domed altar is a painting of the last supper, the beards on the giant apostles are intricate swirls that could contain entire universes. Angels ascend, leaving laymen in their wake.

The traditions of Orthodoxy date back to Byzantium, the church literature says. It is an ancient, solemn religion. Though some of the followers might not pray when they should, and some may curse when they are alone and some are lecherous or stingy or cruel to their mothers, they all can agree that theirs is one of the oldest Christian traditions, the best, in their opinion, and though the holy synod is across the world, they are tied to their heritage under the vaulted ceilings of the church.

In the church basement, the children chase each other, laughter catching in their throats. They run among wooden screens displaying an exhibit of black and white photographs depicting old women standing in the street, a homeless man sleeping by a fountain. The children are not interested in boring pictures. They are playing tag. One of the dancers has changed out of her traditional garb in favor of a pink sweatshirt and matching leggings. Her little brother is clumsy on his feet. He is It and will probably stay that way forever. He falls down again and again and moans, “Wait for me!” The older children laugh. They have designated a patch of north wall Home Base. They are invincible when they stand there, untouchable. They slap the wall, shrieking, “Safe! Base! Home base!”

Dessert is being served in the tent. As a live band plays Balkan folk music and fresh crepes are made on a hot plate, filled with chocolate paste and jams. There is baklava, too. The children beg their parents to buy it. The pastry shatters into flakes when touched with a fork. The children whine, frustrated that something right in front of them can be so sweet and familiar, but so difficult to grasp and to hold.

Cara Bayles lives, writes, and works in the Greater Boston area.