For ever so long, Iskren Syeveratz had watched over the island’s elders, who without their offspring were like oysters without pearls. The octogenarian grandfathers and grandmothers sat in front of their stone houses looking out at the sea for the return of their children from the foreign lands, until they were petrified and turned into dust.
On his last day on the island, Iskren walked the town’s cobbled streets past the school wall with the slogans “Long Live Comrade Tito and Yugoslavia” and “Death to Fascism – Freedom to the People,” written in red paint. The wind opened and closed the gates of the empty houses built one above the other, hugging the semicircular contours of the hillside. When he came to the cemetery, he sat on the ground next to a pine-needle-covered mound with the names of his three baby brothers on a wooden marker:
SVATOPLUK 1960-1961 YEGOR 1962-1963 LJUT 1964-1965
He stayed there a long time, his head down. The cemetery angel covered with lichen watched him, while cicadas buzzed in the heat.
Iskren was twenty-one when he abandoned the Island of the Swallows; it had been four years since his parents and his older brother Golub bade farewell to him. He left the ancient olive groves, little bays and coves in his nine-meter fishing boat, round-bottomed and keelless, with two seats and a pair of oars. Along with his goat, he took a large jug of drinking water, a bottle of lavender oil, a pine branch with a bird’s nest on one end and a spindle-shaped seashell on the other, a bag of sea salt, a sack of hay for the goat, and a leather pouch with his salt money. He rowed through the waters of the Adriatic, each day eating a piece of bread, a smoke-dried sardela and a chunk of cheese. He quenched his thirst with goat’s milk and deceived his growling stomach with a dry fig or two. On the seventh day, he reached the Neretva river Delta. In the salt marshes, he decided to camp on an islet where he got accustomed to the quiet waters and watched herons and egrets fish among the reeds. Continuing up the river, he saw tangerine plantations and vineyards covering the wide riverbanks. By the eighth night, Iskren reached the river’s limestone canyon. He slept on a flat rock and dreamed about the dead he loved.
On the ninth day, he steered further to the north through the canyon, where he came upon a vast valley and a prosperous village beneath the wooded hills: thousands of acres of farmland, plum and apricot orchards, bee hives, cattle and sheep grazing in pastures, pumpkin fields, watermills, and two-story houses of polished stone with terracotta tiled roofs. A white church on the village square rang its bronze bell for service. A black hearse with two horses, followed by a long line of mourners, rumbled across the wooden bridge. The heavy clouds spilled over the snow-capped mountain on the horizon, darkening the river. The wind picked up and soon raindrops splashed around Iskren’s boat like fish jumping out of the water. The clouds descended into the valley, and children looked as if searching for faces amidst the clouds. A boy saw him as he was rowing his boat against the wind and waved.
Iskren did not cast anchor until he came to the foot of the hill that rose above the village. He used all of his salt money to buy a small piece of land on top of the hill, above the mists. There he made a home, first a simple tarp between two trees. He fished and sold his catch on the open market, offered his carpentry skills in the local wood workshop and delivered sacks of flour from the mill to the houses without young help. Little by little he acquired the basic tools: hammer, chisel, saw, nails, screwdriver, shovel.
He built his cottage into the south-facing side of the hill. He used local stone, with no mortar. Whenever he found a lazy rock, he put it to work in a fence or a wall for his modest cottage. Its steep slate roof resembled the hull of a ship anchored upside-down on the land. He made the door out of rough-cut planks, with a cross-beam, iron bolts, and a door-latch. The cottage was better than a shepherd’s hut, but fell short of even the most humble village dwelling. It had a single ground floor room, and a hay-loft with ample roof space where he could hang garlic and sausages from the rafters. He slept on the hay in the attic. From his bed he watched the stars through a small opening left in the roof. In addition to the goat pen, he built another shed; soon he would have enough money for a cow. That first spring he cleared the terraces on one side of the hill and planted the grapevine. Soon he lived self-sufficiently. Nevertheless, the villagers below were suspicious of a stranger who came like Noah and landed on top of their world.
“Who does he think he is, this newcomer, this hermit with long hair and beard up on the hill?” the young men laughed behind Iskren’s back.
“My son, aren’t you afraid all by yourself on that hill?” the elders asked him.
“This is where I want to be,” was his simple answer. As soon as he said that he started to doubt himself. Iskren knew that houses come and go. Was this his home? Why had he left his solitary life on the island only to become a hermit in a different place?
He rose early and watched the fog rolling over the peaceful valley, thick, white clouds like a large woman’s shawl, twisting and coiling around the bluish smoke from the blacksmith’s forge, unfolding its ragged edges from the outskirts to the village square, curling with the off-white smoke from the wood burning bakery oven, and then drifting in thin, broken patches, and spraying the hills with mist, dampening grass with cold dewdrops that smelled of burning kerosene oil and fresh baked bread. He could hear the blacksmith, already at work hammering on his anvil, beating the hot metal, soft thuds followed by the ringing sound, like distant bells. Iskren felt less lonely hearing it.
But he longed for the white of his island’s rocks and the shimmer of the sea. There was a hole in his chest where he collected his sorrow like rainwater. He stored away the memories of white stone reflected in the water, the sweetness of the lavender, the phosphorescence of sea algae under the moonbeams, the swallows circling over the tall chimney-pots. Here, on the hill, unfamiliar birds sang at dawn in the fog over the whispers of the poplar trees, followed by the plaintive cry of a sheep.
Filomena, a young woman with long braids wrapped around her head, the daughter of the blacksmith, climbed the hill every morning, herding her flock of sheep. She watched Iskren from afar at first, but each day drew nearer and nearer to his cottage. First just aware, then accustomed to the young woman’s presence, he worked in his vineyard, constructing trellises and pulling the weeds out. When he paused for a short rest, his eyes searched for hers.
One clear summer morning at sunrise, just after the big yellow flowers began opening on the pumpkin vines, a plane roared over the village and rained hundreds of leaflets on the village streets, orchards and pumpkin fields. Awakened by the loud plane’s engine, the children swarmed the valley, chasing after the pastel colored pages with small black print, laughing and smacking each other with their loot. By mid-day, when the yellow pumpkin flowers began folding in on themselves, the hungry children returned home to eat bread smeared with lard and sweet paprika, thinking no more of their thick stacks of seized pages. The bulletins announced the government officials’ decision to build a Hydropower Plant on the river for the prosperity of the region.
A year later there was a notice posted on their doors urging the villagers to start evacuating to higher ground. At the village meeting they decided unanimously to relocate up to Iskren’s Hill. For months the valley echoed from the noise of the dam’s construction. The villagers watched closely, standing behind the sign “No entry,” on the gorge’s narrow dirt road, as the dam embankments rose. Higher and higher. It was a monster.
At the same time, they built their new homes, brick by brick made from local clays, sand and grit. The cobbler wanted to salvage his old house and he pounded the limestone walls with picks and sledgehammers, but the stone wouldn’t yield. The old shopkeepers fed pigeons on the square, smoked and shook their heads.
“I have lived here my whole life and this is my home,” said the taylor. “I inherited the shop from my father and my father inherited it from his father. I know this valley like my own pockets.”
“Yes, you said that right,” said the herbalist. “Five generations of my family were born and died here. It’s a shame…everything must go, the parish church, the fortress remains, the cypress woods…”
“I thought they were here to stay. And come to think of it, you sold your herbs from these meadows to the officials who conspired all of this! You cured the police chief with your aphrodisiac! And I, the fool, I made the engineer’s suit jacket! I measured, I cut, I basted, I sewed, not paying attention when he told me ‘We want to improve the village.’ That criminal!”
“I don’t want development, I want to keep my shop right here and make lavender, rosemary and St. John’s wort oils until the day I die. Look at my shelves! Dog berries, bearberries, barberries, blackberry and mahaleb bush! Fennel, heather, knee-holly, thistle, wild marjoram, and…”
“Oh, yes, the sweet smell of the past!”
The pumpkins grew bigger than ever and apricots and plums were so abundant that the branches broke under the weight of the fruits. Farmers picked corn, dug up potatoes, and threshed wheat. The village women cooked and canned jams, preserves and syrups until they ran out of mason jars, earthenware jugs, crocks and bottles. The rows of pumpkins and squashes lined the shelves, counter tops and window sills while the women baked, boiled, steamed and pickled. When the work was finished the loudspeakers of the village square informed them about the upcoming opening ceremony for the dam at the end of the harvest. In a long procession the villagers trudged behind the oxen carts pulling their belongings up the hill. Women carried their framed wedding pictures in their arms, their sweet young faces next to their bitter, old ones.
“If you want to damn somebody, then curse him to move,” the village baker’s wife said to the butcher’s wife, eating roasted pumpkin seeds and spitting out the shells. The midwife carried her cat on her shoulder, a distaff in her left hand and a spindle in the right hand, spinning the wool and singing.
The farmer said, “The engineer talks about prosperity…’Aren’t you happy to get electricity? A new house on a hill?’ I asked him if the new house will have my plum orchard, my bee hives, a shed for curing hams and bacon, a chicken pen, sweet meadows for my cows, good soil for my vegetables, a woodshed, a corner to put my hundred-liter cauldron with the plums on the fire, a cold cellar for my plum rakija in oak casks? Tell me, neighbor?”
The village teacher, a small, thin man with a white moustache and hair, refused to go away. He was known for his gift to imitate others’ voices. After he retired he would sit under the pergola covered with grapevines in his front yard and he would speak in his own voice and the voices of his pupils. It was as if he were conducting a class of twenty children, but all the while it was just him. His son was killed in World War Two when a German bomber “Stuka” dived directly at him. The teacher could imitate the whistling, screaming sound “Stuka” made in its vertical dive just before releasing the bombs. His son was blown into small pieces, vanishing without a trace. The teacher later found a piece of “Stuka” tell-tale gull wing when one plane was shot down and crashed. He built the green-gray wing piece into his pergola. Old teacher died from the heart attack when police tried to force him to leave his house. Only then they let him stay, buried under the pergola.
When the water was unleashed, waves crept toward the abandoned houses. They covered the stone-paved streets, the doorsteps, and finally the kitchen floors, scrubbed clean for the last time. The water spilled over the fields and gardens, drowning any leftover crops and red geraniums in old cooking pots. The villagers stood solemnly while the muddy water slowly rose. For the first few days, the lake was a dark, brown vessel that swelled and bulged, full of small dead rodents, uprooted young poplars, and broken furniture. The villagers rode in boats over the submerged village and around the stone chimneys. Silent as fish, they mourned their village. Driftwood passed by like last thoughts. The water kept rising. Finally, the tall black cypress trees disappeared underneath it.
Then one spring morning after the mist had lifted and sun came out, a turquoise lake came into being in place of the valley. An official in a camel coat measured the water depth: ninety-two meters. The new houses had their backs turned towards the lake, so only their blind windowless walls overlooked the water. Yet the lake reflected the hill and the houses, as if the drowned village had been brought back to life. The villagers walked to the water’s edge every day until their eyes became fierce from grief.
The third summer, under humidity and moisture drawn from the lake, the grapes in Iskren’s vineyards first became soft and watery, then shriveled, covered in powdery mildew. After the mold ruined Iskren’s vineyards, he decided to plant an apple orchard instead. The villagers tried to heal their grief with St. John’s wort oil, sage honey, corn silk, and plum rakija. Their known world had been submerged beneath the water, and the new landscape was not yet part of them. Iskren remembered his own displacement, and felt responsible for their homesickness, as if his sorrow had somehow altered the landscape where he now felt at home. He often dreamed of the children walking on the village’s submerged streets, using the old shortcuts in the darkness of the lake’s womb.
Iskren walked along the lake every day. He carried with him the letters from his brother Golub and wrote his notes on the envelopes:
Counted fifty-five stars.
Saw the king of the snakes.
Dove in the lake for ten minutes.
He saved the folded envelopes in the cracks in the cottage’s walls, but the letters he kept sewed into the lining of his old coat. Iskren, mother’s hair is turning gray.
He bought another small piece of land adjacent to the lake. Thick moss grew in deep green tufted bunches under the mature oak trees. The moist moss cushions provided relief from the summer heat. He liked to lie down on the spongy softness and observe the oak bark covered with ferns and lichen. Spider webs hung like curtains around him. He was alone.
Until one day he sensed that Filomena, a young woman with long braids wrapped around her head, followed him. She lurked behind trees, fences, and walls. He felt her eyes on his back while working on his crops or resting by the lake’s shore. Once he took a short nap in the middle of the day before going back to work his land. From behind his closed eyelids he imagined her hover over him within an inch from his skin, and then flutter onto his body like a leaf in the wind. At night, he was aware that Filomena hid with the hedgehogs, crickets, and owls in the hazel woods bordering his land. She spied on him as he washed his dishes and then left the greasy water outside for the badgers.
One cloudy day in June the yugo, the warm south wind from the sea, rattled the latch on Iskren’s door. He took his new cow to the lake. The water was darkened but calm, despite the drizzle. He could hear the sheep bleating nearby. The cow’s hooves sunk deep into the bank’s soft mud. The heads of two water snakes were raised above the water like periscopes. The faint sound of footsteps splashed in the puddles. When he turned, he saw Filomena, dressed in a white embroidered blouse, a calico skirt, and black rubber boots. Her hair was in braids, and she was clutching her hands to her breast. Their eyes locked.
“Thanks be to Jesus and Mary,” she greeted him.
“Thanks for ever and ever,” he said.
“I know you.”
She was wet to the skin, quivering, her gray eyes looking at his beard that reached to his chest by now. She drew a deep breath, “You’re not old.”
“No, I’m not.”
Filomena was standing in a puddle that was growing, surrounded by a body of water that seemed to transform into a small lake. She looked lost, almost bereaved. Water dripped off her skin. When Iskren looked at her forlorn face, and her little, sad mouth, he thought that perhaps, she had been one of those children who found their boots empty of presents on Saint Nicholas’ Holiday, even though they had polished them well, and put them out the night before. Could it be that her plainness came from a sinking heart?
“What’s your family name?” he asked.
She told him how she and her parents lived on the other side of the village, in a small house with blue shutters.
He had passed by the house many times before. Their fenced yard, full of bumps and hollows, was overgrown with wild roses. Jars filled with rose petals, sugar and water brew baked in the sun on top of the chicken hut. Tall crimson hollyhocks grew under the kitchen window. A stack of black locust firewood lay near the front door. In the evening, the hens stirred and clucked in their nests. The frogs croaked in the distance. He could just see Filomena’s head, covered with a scarf and framed in the window, her expression serious as she adjusted the knot under her chin.
Each day Iskren worked on clearing his woods by the lake, felling sections of the thick oak forest to line up the trees diagonally, so that the effect was airy, with beams of sunlight intersecting into a web. Once, he found Filomena sitting on a large rock. It was a place in the forest covered in forest moss and liverworts. Nearby was a spring that formed a small pool under the outcrop. Filomena had brought a pumpkin pie and some buttermilk. She shared her picnic with Iskren and told him the dream she had had last winter.
“I was walking in the mist through the forest. I wanted to get to the fairy ring, not far from here. A small old woman appeared out of nowhere and spoke to me, ‘Filomena, go to the southern slope of the mountain. Cross the creek and you will see a lonely rock in the middle of the clearing. Make sure that nobody follows you. Turn the rock over, and underneath it you will find gold.’ The next morning I put on my boots and wrapped myself in my big white shawl. The snow was deep, and the wind was blowing and covering my tracks. I found the rock, but it was enormous. I didn’t think I could move it, but the moment I gave it a little shove, it toppled over, almost by itself. The ground below was black, swirling with thousands of ants, moving in all directions. The wind jerked at my shawl. I ran home without looking back once. I only told my granny what had just happened. She took my head into her hands and looked deep into my eyes,’Foolish child! You should have scooped up those ants into your apron! Don’t you see? They were a fairy offering, and would have turned into pure gold. Who has ever heard of ants out in mid-winter?’”
As she was getting ready to leave, Iskren kissed her hand. “I often dream of walking under the lake. It’s quiet and dark. I’m lost. I walk and walk on the lake-bed until I see the village…sunlight, streaming on the teacher’s house. I see school children climbing on his pergola. And then I wake up.”
Another time Filomena brought a potato pie, coiled like a golden snake in a blue enamel pan. She smelled of the fresh cream that she had skimmed off the cooled milk that morning, layering it in a wooden bowl. Iskren put his head in Filomena’s lap and closed his eyes. She lowered her head down and kissed him on the forehead, eyelids. The woods were quiet. She kissed him on the lips. “I love you forever and ever.” He took her face into his hands and suddenly became aware of their ruggedness against her smooth cheeks, their thick, calloused skin. He closed his eyes again. They fell together on the moss bed. With her head between rockrose and sandwort, Filomena said, “Listen to the pounding of my heart.” He kissed her breasts and listened. She told him how she fell in love with his almond-shaped eyes, his swallow eyebrows, and the scar on the left side of his face, above the beard. She was stirred by his loneliness, his routine and diligence, and by the way he gazed at the mountain on the horizon to predict the weather, not one bit like the hot-tempered young men from the village who stunk of tobacco and plum brandy.
“You smell like lavender,” she said.
Autumn came and brought red rosehips to Filomena’s yard. During one of the harvest gatherings, Filomena overheard a man saying to her father, “I’m telling you. Iskren stood in the middle of the clearing, just like a scarecrow, and blue jays were landing on his palms.” One of the women cooking rosehip preserve in a communal cauldron swore that she had seen Iskren catch not one but six carp on a single hook as if the water itself strung fishes for him. The children, helping their mothers crush apples for apple cider, whispered about how Iskren dove into the lake, sat on its bottom drinking chicory.
Frightened by their talk, Filomena snuck over to Iskren’s house. Just above his door there was an abandoned bird nest; a gray, muddy structure with grass and branches thrown together, as if in a hurry. When Iskren came out, she screamed and ran a few steps back from him. The top half of his face was brown like leaves on the ground, the bottom white like a candle. She knew the upper part very well – his scar, his almond-shaped eyes, his dark eyebrows like swallows. But it was the first time she had seen the lower part of his face. The skin was as delicate as parchment paper, pale after being under the beard for a decade.
She said, “I came to tell you that the villagers are beginning to talk about you. Some are asking whether the lake would ever have come into existence if it hadn’t been for you.”
He stood on his doorstep like an apparition. Who was he? He looked unfamiliar, a stranger once more, although without the beard his cover was down. It seemed even his cottage had sunk into the ground, as if hiding, its roof covered with grass and wildflowers. She touched his pale cheeks, smooth like a young unfledged bird. Perhaps this is how he looked when his parents and brother first departed the island, just a boy left behind to survive on his own.
“Who are you?” she whispered. He said nothing, just looked at the lake behind her.
November came. The village would have seemed deserted if it weren’t for smoke rising from the chimneys. Snow covered the unpaved streets and roofs. Hundreds of grackles gathered on bare trees, gawking or flying about in the mist. Filomena sat next to the window embroidering flowers and birds onto cotton pillow covers. As she looked at the snow, she thought of the worker ants scurrying along. How could she have known that those ants were magical? Where had they come from? They did not belong in the snow.
On the other side of the village, Iskren watched the falling snow. Again and again he remembered the Island of the Swallows, and the vigor of maestral, the wind coming from the open sea. This lake, confined within its shores, seemed too small for his large heart, and he realized that the villagers had created an island of isolation around him. He would never be like them, and they would always live alongside each other. He was trapped, like the lake waters within their boundaries. His father Gashpar used to say that people from the land and people from the sea look at the world with different eyes, “Because, you know, the blackberry bush is not the same thing to you that it is to somebody else.” Iskren went to the cupboard and took out one of the possessions which he had brought from the island: a smooth sea scallop shell, scoured by the Adriatic. He put his gray coat on, the same old coat he wore both summer and winter, unwilling to part with his brother’s letters. Dear brother Iskren, We have very sad news to tell you. On the day after… The thick layer of paper worked as a shield from the cold. He put the shell in one of Filomena’s boots, which she had left by her door. As he was leaving he remembered the ripe blackberries that had grown behind his old house on the island, their warmth, and the scent of the sun-baked dirt under his bare feet.
In spring the ferns slowly unfurled from tightly-wound coils. Filomena came to the ferns’ spot, bringing drooping clusters of fragrant black locust blossoms, sprinkled with sugar. She ate the creamy-white flowers slowly, hoping for Iskren to come. But Iskren’s cottage was empty. There was no sign of life on his land, except a couple of anthills that had appeared out of nowhere. “I know that you love me,” she thought. She removed her head kerchief and lifted her dreamy face towards the sky.
What Filomena didn’t know was that if a shepherd or some villager had happened to pass by in that moment when the sun fell on the glossy braids plaited around her head like a crown, she would have been mistaken for a nymph, and that person would have been changed forever. For the sighting of such a fairy like creature must foretell a miraculous life.
Aggie Zivaljevic was born in Sarajevo, in the former Yugoslavia, and hold an MFA in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College. Most recently, her short story “Eva’s Room” won third place in the Summer Literary Seminars 2012 Unified Literary Contest, chosen by Mary Gaitskill. Her fiction has appeared in Grey Sparrow Journal, Narrative Magazine, Joyland Literary Magazine, Crab Orchard Review and Speakeasy. “Where is My Boy?” was selected as one of the top five stories in Narrative’s Magazine Story of the Week section in 2009-2010. She works at Hicklebee’s Children’s Bookstore in the Willow Glen neighborhood of San Jose, California.