Long River Graduate Writing Award, Winner (2017)
“Petra, she say there be bones,” my grandmother told me, pointing beyond me to the old castle on top of the hill. The frame of the old, Slavic structure was about as beautiful as a decaying tooth with jagged corners. A revolting brownness permeated the place. Even so, my mind produced an image of a young girl in a long skirt, two braids down her back, eyes squinting, as my grandmother and I climbed the switchback path up to the castle. My Petra was in a translucent sepia, superimposed over the scene in front of me.
Until this moment, Petra was unknown, a half-sister whose name had disappeared from my grandmother’s oral history in the same way her plane’s trails of smoke had evaporated when she came to America: invisible as clean glass. Yet I was starting to think that things could never truly be gone, that even smoke trails became part of the nothingness we swallowed when we opened our mouths to breathe.
“Bones,” my Petra said, pointing. I imagined the soft stone walls of the castle crumbling when my breath hit them, when I got too close. This was not the kind of castle that had flags and polished stones. No, this was the kind that of castle that was molded together using brick and mortar into squat rectangles and squares on top of hills with hay bales in front of them — the kind barons would have taken over by the 1940s. The kind that a baron did take over by 1943. Even stepping near a hay bale was supposed to have been a gift, an honor; this is what my great-grandparents told themselves, I knew, as they scrubbed floors and led cows to graze when their children were gone, working someone else’s land.
“Ana,” my Petra said, and I saw her ghost-like figure in front of me, pulling on the low pocket of my grandmother’s skirt. “Ana.”
The castle would have risen before them back then, just the same as it did now, only its crumbling would not yet have been so complete, before the bombs; its repairs would not have required yellow and orange tape, pictorial signs from the government in Ljubljana, which was funding the project, telling those who walked by: this castle will be restored to its former splendor.
“Ach, vhat is this, splendor?” my grandmother asked, ignoring Petra as we passed the sign, walking up the hill’s goat paths, places where cars and carts could not go, only human legs, and even then just barely. The castle was high above, but not so high that you couldn’t climb there amidst the row of stumps that used to be fruit-bearing trees — trees cut down long ago, violently, and with an ax, I guessed, judging by their jagged remains. The castle was high enough that midway to the top of its hill, you could see the lambs below but could not hear their soft sheep noises, their almost donkey-like, mountain-sheep braying.
“Petra, she say there be bones,” my grandmother said again, this time pointing beyond me, as if she could not see my Petra. We moved our legs up higher on the steep parts of the hill, and my knees hit my chest. My Confirmation cross swung uncomfortably in the July heat. I had to wait a moment, wait for her to catch up to me, as her unsteady feet tangling in the roots beneath us. My grandmother’s face hardened when she moved her legs. She was breathing in so hard her nose looked pinched, and a Slovenian face hardening is an unpleasant thing. In the three weeks we had been in Slovenia, I’d gotten over the fact that in family photographs, I was the only one who smiled. But really, I wanted to know: what was the harm in smiling all the time? It made things look ever so much more pleasant, and I wanted to believe that even in the time of the old black and whites, the photos that dotted my family’s walls back in the U.S., that there must have been something, amidst all the trouble, to smile about.
“Grandma,” I said, tugging at her hand, the way I might have done years ago as a child, even though I was twenty-three. “Smile, be happy, we’re still moving. Just smile.”
She turned her head toward me, as just now we were reaching the castle’s base. Small drips of sweat fell from her still-black, but thinning, hair, and the sweat fell into the long lines beside her eyes. She opened her mouth and gritted her teeth.
“Now you be happy?” she said.
“Sure,” I said, wanting to pull the corners of her mouth upward. A smile was more than an open mouth and teeth stacked on top of each other. For goodness’ sake.
“You know, people no need-it to smile all the time if they be happy,” she said. “Sometime, they like-it keep to selves, vhat they be happy. Nobody need-it know.”
“Whatever,” I said. “Stara baba!”
“Joj, Lila, Američanka!” my grandmother said, raising her hands above her toward the sky, revealing the stains under her arms. It was hotter than anything out here. She always called me Američanka, when she was teasing.
“A stara baba no have-it no teeth!” she said. “I have-it teeth. Vhat they teach you in school?”
I laughed, but I wanted to say: give me a break, seriously. But you didn’t say things like that to a grandmother, especially not one you’d checked out of assisted living with your mother’s permission, not approval, and took to her home country, one last time. Or actually: just plain old one time, not one last time, just one time in the forty years she’d been refusing to speak proper English in Rhode Island. No one else had wanted to come.
“Why?” my mother had asked, as a piece of her dyed-blonde hair got stuck on her cheek, as her expression froze. “Why?”
No one would ever understand my reasons for coming, I knew. Not even Grandma Ana, though I thought, now, that she probably had the closest shot — what with having made the decision to leave Yugoslavia behind, rendering most of it so forgotten in her memory just to survive. I’d left my sophomore year of college to come to Ljubljana, a place I’d visited family countless times before, and wandered the city, counting the stones along the Ljubljanica River. As if their numbers would add up to something that made sense. As if that was possible. But like a mathematician with imaginary numbers, I was still trying — still hoping that I could find something in my past, something intangible, so I could line it up and solve in a neat equation, so my future would come into view. But with a mother who was too young to remember, and relatives who didn’t always have the answers, taking Grandma Ana back to Slovenia had seemed like the only solution.
She was wheezing a bit now, as we sat, backs against the lower crumblings of the castle. I’d never guessed that returning to Slovenia would put so much strain on her — in the sense that it was possible for her to withstand any strain at all, as she rarely walked around in Rhode Island. We paused, glancing at the castle we’d finally reached: its walls still stretched toward the sky, all three stories. Nobody ever bothered to mention that castles, real, legitimate old castles — which were different from palaces, a fact none of my friend back home seemed to grasp — were just kind of glorified stone fortresses. Stone walls, bare insides: cold, dark. I’d walked through enough of them with my grandmother on this trip to know that.
“OK,” I said, as she breathed deeply, taking off her glasses and placing them in her lap. “So why did we come here?” We’d been to visit every relative, every neighbor she’d remembered, walking down winding roads to small houses in the villages, clusters of a dozen houses; cutting brush away in the woods from paths that my aunts and uncles didn’t remember existed, to find a pond that resembled a looking glass, with the clearest water you ever could see; stopping on the side of the road to pause next to a near trickle of water, so that she could tell us that, sixty years prior, this had been called Nežika Falls, which no one remembered but her, until she overturned a piece of rotting wood under a pile of leaves which bore that name.
“Why here?” I said again, waiting for my answer, wondering if would come in Slovenian or her half-English.
“You no remember? Vat I tell you about Petra?”
I thought back to the bottom of the hill. Yes, Petra. My great aunt, her sister. I’d been constructing their story in my head, my grandmother’s youthful self joining Petra halfway up the hill, visible to me from this vantage point.
“Petra say me: Ana, there be bones inside. Ve go there.”
Yes, my aunt, my teta, Petra would have had brown-red hair, I decided, like me, and she would have looked like my younger self: long, thin Slavic nose, but with skin that was too olive colored, and lips that were fuller and brighter, eyes that were bigger, than any good Slovenian’s — so different, in fact, that she would have been called a gypsy when she was being bad, just like my grandmother had called me when I’d maybe not so accidentally dropped her large, lazy, allergy-inducing cat off the porch when I was ten.
I imagined my grandmother’s story: how she and Teta Petra would have held onto each other’s hands as they walked along the dirt path to the castle, stopping to bless themselves at the open wooden boxes on poles — birdhouses sheltering crucifixes —that were at the end of each path that led out of the village. How they would have kissed their mother good-bye as they left, leaving her to do all the cleaning and the milking and the gardening and the cooking, and the men’s work outside, besides, as their father went door to door with his cart, peddling old jewelry he’d bought at the market in Ljubljana. How they would have come, with all the other village children, to the baron’s castle — some old man, claiming royal blood, who would rather live in the cold darkness of a crumbling stone wall than make an honest living for himself. How they would have rushed onto the hilly grounds, holding burlap sacks, collecting apples from the trees. I imagined the hill dotted with children, all young like my grandmother had been, all holding their sister’s hands, too, boosting each other up higher to reach the fruit on the top of the tree. The images of Petra and my young grandmother were bursting into color in front of me, as they ran a panting zig-zag toward the castle.
“If you even eat one bite, they take-it vhip and they smack you,” my grandmother said, as her hand made fast, harsh contact with my cheek.
“What?” I said, as I flinched, and my eyes started to water, more from the sharp, unexpectedness of the slap than from anything else. The scene in front of me faded back into translucent colorlessness. “What in the world?”
“Next time, you vatch,” she said, her way of apologizing while also saying, of course, that she hated when I daydreamed her stories to life, as if the words she gave me were not enough, instead of realizing they were everything: the fragments I used to piece together a moment in her history, as if somehow it was vitally important to understanding mine, my history, what I would leave on this earth for some future granddaughter to find. What paths and waterfalls would be forgotten all around me? What could I uncover, someday on the coast of Narragansett, some forty years into the future?
“And, if you no be good, all kids say they throw you in vith bones,” my grandmother said, finally telling me what little ghost Petra had been alluding to. “They take-it those Turks, what they be invading for hundred years, and they keep-it their bones, in cellar.”
“There are bones inside there, Ana,” I saw wispy ghost Petra say, as she tugged on my grandmother’s arm, my grandmother, who was a silent, unmoving cut-out from a black and white photograph from her First Communion: wearing a white dress and buckle shoes, with a large bow in her short white-blond hair.
“Come on, Ana!” Petra would have said, dragging my grandmother along, up the hill, as they paused between groups of children, sneaking between trees, when the baron wasn’t looking. There would not have been soldiers, or any other kind of rule enforcers; only the baron, a sickly old man who wore an overcoat even in the summer, who lived in the old castle more due to squatter’s rights than to a bloodline. But the hint of something royal was enough for the villagers to send their children at his request.
“I want to see the bones,” Petra would have whispered, as they finally reached the end of the row of trees, and looked around to see where the baron was. He would not have been in sight, of this much I was sure. They would have dashed up the goat path — this baron, for all his laziness, would at least have had goats — until they reached the top of the steep hill, the bottom floor of the castle. The baron would not have been in sight, this much I had to believe, as the girls peered between the stone bars of the cellar windows, as they laid on their stomachs, small grains of sand and tiny pebbles under their tummies. They could not have known that the only offense more punishable than eating an apple was approaching the castle. Petra saw the bones, she must have. There must have been skeletons with skulls and femurs and joints and knuckles and toes and rib cages, all scattered together; maybe she saw the piles rise into human form, walking toward her. Maybe she saw that; maybe that’s what made her less aware than my grandmother as the baron approached, whip in one hand, the other hidden behind his back.
My grandmother could not be blamed for pulling away from the window; she must have seen what was in the baron’s other, hidden hand. She was only ten years old, Petra eight. Who can be blamed at the age of ten for pulling away for a moment in shock and fear on a day when you were only supposed to be picking apples? Who can be blamed for running down the goat path as fast as her legs could carry her? Who could know that a sickly old man would approach Petra, still on her tummy, still staring straight ahead, and swing his ax down on her back until her body was lifeless?
“I never no see cellar,” my grandmother said, as she stood. “That be why we come here.”
I sat, unable to rise, as wispy ghost Petra disappeared in front of me, her face somber as her body folded in half, her torso and head hitting the ground. I waved my hand in front of me to clear the mist of her feet, still planted, in the rough soil, and her skirt that somehow still hung over her legs. She faded from color to black and white to sepia tones in front of me until she was gone.
My grandmother reached toward me with her hand, as if, in her plump frailness, she could lift me. I wondered if in this spot Petra died, or if it was just over there, beyond the corner, or five feet away, or twenty. My grandmother had never told anyone in America, not even my mother, that she’d had a sister; I’d have doubted the accuracy of her story — old women are prone to fabricate tales at the ends of their lives, I knew — but for the fact that we had seen her headstone, still carefully tended, with flowers and candles, in the village below.
My grandmother was humming now, as she pulled her hand away, and began walking past me, so that I could only catch the first phrases as she began to softly sing:
Ona mene čese da kri iz glave teče
Ti si mene česala na čelo poljubila, mamica moja…
I translated the words roughly in my head as I found the strength to stand:
She combs my hair till blood runs from my head
You combed my hair and kissed my forehead, oh mommy of mine…
I recognized it as an old folk song, one that step-children sang about their stepmothers, and remembered, for some reason, the fact that my cousin had told me that sometimes it wasn’t sadness or wars that kept people in Slovenia from smiling — that it was the fact that they were mostly all missing a few teeth and didn’t have braces, not like I’d had, lucky American.
“Wait, wait,” I said, as I rose, for some reason wanting to call my grandmother simply Ana as her sister had done.
My grandmother paused in front of me, as if she were waiting, and then turned around and began walking back down the hill.
“I no remember,” she called back. “I no remember vhere she vas.” Her eyes were fixed in front of her, down the goat paths, down past the line of stumps.
“It no matter,” she said, and she continued back down the hill, saying only: “To je to.” It was the typical Slovenian ending to a story: That is all. It meant: no more questions. It meant: that’s it, that’s all that happened. It meant: there’s nothing more to say.
I didn’t know in that moment if the ache in the back of my throat was because Petra died, or because my grandmother couldn’t remember where, or if it was because, before she’d said to je to, she’d said that the reason they’d come was to see what was in the cellar, really. Or if it was because, after forty years, when she came close to the crumbling castle, she turned and walked away. As if to say, no one owes you forgiveness. As if to say, there are reasons, in Slovenia, that we end stories with to je to, and, despite the fact that you have never lived here, you are half-Slovenian, you know. You ought to consider that ending once in a while; it’s how we move on.
But I was putting words into my grandmother’s mouth. She was walking down the hill, and wispy Petra ghost was gone. I turned, reached back toward the castle, tracing with my eyes the place where the bottom stones met the dirt until I found a small window with columns, nearly halfway around. I knelt, hands and knees on the gravel, and lowered my head to the ground so that I could see whatever was waiting beyond those crumbling walls and look it straight in the eye.
An excerpt of this piece first appeared in the 2017 edition of Long River Review. The above represents the unedited, full version of this piece.