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of Martengrad

January in Martengrad, they walk heads down, collars up through the muddy snowy streets, shivering and cursing the salt ruining their shoes. Yet come February, they breathe through their noses again, feel their coats less heavy and have cheeks less red, not even when, mid-month, they celebrate the day of wine. Because it is then, mid-month through the little of the Sechko brothers, as they call February, that the days of red and white emerge.

Even if you had lived all of your life there, you would have forgotten about it. The cold of the winter winds falling from the mountain would have frozen the notion in your mind, up until you turn at a corner and see it, the first one. It would be a stall, nothing more, but it would be covered in red and white, and this is when you will remember that winter is taking its last weakening breaths, that spring is coming, and, above all, that the first of March is near.

And it is all because of those innocent red and white beauties, almost too fragile to be thousands of years old: the precious, precious treasure of the martenitzi.

They come in all shapes and sizes: bracelets and brooches, but also rings and earrings, door decorations, tiny pins, dolls, necklaces, bracelets again, weaved pictures, useless figures. Perhaps that one first stall would only have the simplest bracelets and dolls, but once you've seen that, they're everywhere, more and more as the end of the month approaches.

Soon now, Martengrad will live entirely for the martenitzi. You would walk downtown and trip over one stall of them to land at another, next to a third; you would get out of the bus on the market stop and be greeted by beaming wall of martenitzi, and a crowd of people waiting to buy one. There would be the cheap ones, made, who knows why, in China; and then there would be the ones of the March Company, whose stalls are high and wooden and whose sellers wear huge hats in red and white.

There is more to come. People will wrap the trunks of trees in red and white and put up signs and hang red and white dolls on their doors and inside their houses. They would buy tones and tones of bracelets, review their collection from the years past, calculate which ones they can give away and to whom, and who it is exactly that should have the big brooch martenitza from their favorite aunt. On the great eve, all of Martengrad holds its breath.

And the next day, the first of March, everyone has martenitzi and exchanges martenitzi so that there are more and more to be worn; students dress in white and red and compete among each other to collect the most and keep them for the longest time. They'd wear as many as possible - all the bracelets (for these are the common favorites), and all of the brooches, and the rings and earrings, and the necklaces, and everything else that can be worn. People in the buses would be red and white, as well as the ones in the streets. The day might be gloomy or bright, but the faces would be happy.

Some time thereafter, the frenzy would die out a bit and not as many people would wear as many martenitzi. The arms once covered from wrist to elbow would now carry ten bracelets, and then maybe five, and in the end two at most.

But everyone will hold on to them for a while, for Martengrad is not done waiting at all. There is something more expected, and you can feel it in the air, in the first rays of the sun, in the first song of a bird in the park. And then, when you feel like no one can possibly hold their breath any longer, it would at last be there. It wouldn't be a stork, at least not in the center of Martengrad, but some of those who live at the edge would take their martenitzi off, and you would know there has been one, and wait to see it yourself. But for the most part, it wouldn't really be until you see the first bush covered in yellow, or the first tree blooming in white or pink, that you would take your last martenitza off and tie it on a twig.

For the rest of the year, Martengrad pretends to be normal, as if spring has been like any other season. Yet, should you look around, you will no doubt find a fruit-tree with hundreds of martenitzi hanging shyly from its branches. Some of them are perhaps older than you are.

There isn't a single person in Martengrad to whom it might ever occur to take them down.