We came onto a well-maintained highway, not too early on Saturday morning. Once, years ago, endless rivers of automobiles ran through this valley, on route to Aegean Sea. The humming of engines domed over the landscape day and night. Civil wars and unrest forced travellers to seek out different routes since, but the river of dark asphalt, hardened and ghostly, continues its lonesome journey south.
The cooling system in the car wasn’t working yesterday. Today, refreshing air blows out of the three small boxes, thankfully. On this, last day of August, forecast promised the hottest day of the sweltering summer.
Behind we left the divided city. The chasm between two sides runs deep. Yesterday, near the hospital where I was born, a makeshift bomb exploded. One more city under the siege of terror. The black, sweaty highway seems a more deserving heir to this land.
The girls are chatting away in mixed languages, I am mostly silent. When I was a child, my small family came every summer down this highway, from the north. Often I stayed with my grandparents for the entire summer. I don’t know if I came too soon this time. The year before I immigrated to Canada, I came to say goodbye. Perhaps waiting until I was old would have made this journey more symbolic. But there is a hidden agenda as well. I want Isabella to smell the authentic, mystical breath of the south, so that she will forever search for it anywhere she goes, just as I have. She doesn’t know it yet. Only 6 years old, her round face and bright eyes are windows on her effervescence, here or anywhere – she is a happy child.
The rivulets of my bloodline have produced new children over the years, and some of the older, bigger streams have dried up and gone on to the other side of life. In the car there is one new, fresh vein, Julija, and on went her grandmother Lepa, my beloved aunt. Julija’s mother Lile married this man I’ve never met before and now they look as if they have spent a hundred years together, twenty of that too much, perhaps. She has aged in a fashion life often stores for passionate women; he is still a boy, with round cheeks, rotund belly and even disgruntlement over the way life has turned out.
We are driving towards the southern end of Macedonia, to a small town where our family is from. It is a long-awaited journey through a beautiful land. Many hills fill the terrain with wide valleys between, where distant red roofs cap the white walls beneath in straight lines. Soon we join the flow of river Vardar as it rushes towards the sea. I look out the window, losing my breath at every curve of the road.
Before entering Valandovo, we decide to take a detour and go uphill. There is a tiny monastery there, perched on the side of the massive hill, surrounded with gigantic maple and oak trees. In truth, it hasn’t been a monastery for at least a hundred years. The old tales tell of its wealth and monks who raised herds of goats. Elaborate network of pipes carried the milk downhill to the markets and the people of the valley. An old couple always lived in the quarters right across; they tended to the building and its humble grounds. The old stone tiles have not cracked any more since I was here last.
There is a water current that runs through this part of the hill, which has been tapped into with many open drinking fountains at the monastery and in places downhill. Without a drop of rain for at least six months during long, hot summers, this corner of Eden rescues its vineyards and orchards only because of the few streams coming down the hills, and the murky waters of Vardar. That is not the only magic bestowed by this water. It is believed to cure blindness, lift off veils of misery from the eyes of unhappy people, and prevent all future ailments that may be tempted to inflict the sight of those who visit. So we all wash our faces and eyes in the ice-cold water. Children shriek and we spray each other merrily.
Vlad wants to show me everything (although from Skopje, he adopted this land like his own), I want Isabella to experience it for the first time in all its glory, Lile, always a mother, is warning me intermittently of all the changes, making sure I don’t get my heart broken because things are not what they used to be, and the children, including Vlad, are simply happy. The three of them climb one magnificent maple and yodel in unison, pounding their chests. After descent from the vertiginous branch thick as a tree trunk in a young forest, they run over and climb another to scan the valley below. Lile and I sit in the shade quietly. I interrupt the beatific peace with little chants: “Oh, it is so beautiful!” every now and then.
After we pay our respects inside the tiny church and light candles for the living and the dead, we get in the car again and drive into town. First we come upon the cemetery, on the steep side of the hill. It is Saturday afternoon and cemetery as busy as a promenade. The little white church at the end of the long climb has a bell tower of moderate height and, like everything else in the valley, inhabited since ancient times, is only a tad over 70 years old. The earthquake of 1931 levelled everything that people ever built in this area. There was only one life lost then, a young shepherd, whose death became a legend since. The miracle of such material devastation at one pole of the universal balance, with everybody’s life spared but the young boy’s, at the other, mystified to this day those with warm tickle of curiosity and wonder still in them.
The busy coming and going crowd at the cemetery goes on about the usual business. Older women wear black dresses but I spot a few with tiny white polka dots, occasionally a dark shade of gray covers their thin bodies; older men in neat, well-worn pants and shirts, with dull colours of earthy, dark spectrum. Lile knows everybody and she dispenses greetings over her shoulder while quickly empties the vase with wilted flowers on her mother’s grave, puts back fresh flowers we brought in the car with us, cleans up the deep gray marble of the headstone. It says in engraved letters that Lepa Kostadinova died at age 71. There is a porcelain daguerreotype of her broad beautiful face and by her side, one of her husband, with his date of birth awaiting another date to be added in the years to come. I look at Lepa’s face for a long time. There is sadness but mostly deep calm. It is the order of life, for old people to leave and young ones to remain in their place. My mother died young and that is why, perhaps, I am peculiarly sensitive to imbalance around me. I glance at faces as they pass by, wondering if I’ll recognize some of them. Valandovo is a town of only a few thousand souls. They look back at me, curious at the sight of an unfamiliar face. Isabella is chattering noisily with Julija, syllables of English like soap bubbles bouncing softly around her. It is surprising how both of us are enduring the heat so well. It is late in the day and still well over 40 degrees.
A tall woman of around 80, her back curved, approaches Lile. She glances at me frequently and I join them. Lile gives her compliments on her beauty and she, in a manner of seasoned coquette, tilts her head and concedes that she once was a celebrated beauty, with evidence of that visible to this day, as many would attest. A pristine smile lifts her lined cheeks. I ask her to pose for my camera and her eyes sparkle.
We visit our grandparents, Marija and Nikola, and Lile quickly repeats her cleaning routine, miraculously producing another bouquet of flowers she has brought. I feel ashamed, never having thought of it.
After the cemetery we follow the road further into town. The first house to visit is uncle Jovan’s. It was built next to our grandparents’ old house. The garden in front of the two houses was always cared for with great affection. Every year, I remember, worries about the grim prospects of rain at the sight of impeccably azure sky dominated conversations among townsfolk, but at the end of each day, the water from the hills eased the blistering trail of the Sun on their gardens. Neatly arranged between concrete paths, or in carefully positioned stone urns, they added to the fragrant air that always hung above this valley. Canopy of grapevine over them created welcome shade.
The house is still painted white. The row of pomegranate trees to the far side grew thick and tall over the years. Instead of the hanging grapevine, there are tight brown clusters of kiwi. People of Valandovo are experimental lot; they firmly believe that theirs is the most fruitful land on earth and so they will grow virtually everything – the more exotic the better. Kiwi, as it turns out, is the latest craze in this green-thumb town.
Out of the house come the familiar figures of uncle Jovan and his son Nikola – one tall and round in the middle section, the other tall and skinny like a grapevine. They are both balding, the father more advanced and gray, the son dark-haired and tanned from working outside. Behind them follow my cousin’s wife and son, neither of them I’ve met before. Beautiful woman with dark eyes and honey-blond hair; the boy is only 10, fair and shy, he keeps closely to his grandfather. We greet; give them small gifts we have brought. Soon nine chairs are assembled and a little folding table. Daughter-in-law lays plates with thickly sliced white cheese, olives and grapes.
The conversation ebbs and stretches like an unaccustomed muscle at work. We exchange the usual questions, and then halt. Vlad and Lile help. I look around; that is all I really want to do. Isabella wants to see everything, and especially the house. She’s been fascinated with houses since we arrived. They take her in for a tour. My grandparents’ house is dark. It belongs now to our middle uncle who lives in Skopje. That is the house I wanted to see. Uncle Jovan unlocks the door for me, but I only step in and step right out. It isn’t there. I don’t know what it is that I am looking for, but it isn’t there.
Nikola lifts Isabella to touch the kiwi. “They are fuzzy like little animals!” she is delighted. He breaks off a cluster of ‘fuzzies’ and gives it to her. Her face beams with gratitude, as she poses for the camera.
It is a short visit; Lile reminds us that we still have another uncle to visit. We say ‘good-byes’ and pack into the car again. A hundred yards down the road, our youngest uncle is sitting outside, in a plastic chair with colourful stripes, awaiting our visit. Lile telephoned yesterday to announce our arrival. His wife comes out of the house and they greet us with customary kisses on the cheeks. As soon as we sit down, out comes a traditional glass dish encased in a chrome base, filled with homemade fig jam, polished spoons, and glasses of water for everyone. Isabella wants to see the house; my aunt takes her inside. They both look very much like uncle Jovan, portly and grayer, otherwise unchanged. The youngest among that generation would be around 70, eldest over 80, but it is the younger generation that withered under the pressures of the times.
The evening cover takes over the skies and the countless stars light up. Uncle Momo tells us how he watched the meteor shower few summers ago, from that very spot, his favourite – the western side of the sky ablaze with streaming colours, he said waving his arm in a broad gesture.
My excitement has levelled off. I like the story about the meteors. Three quarters of an hour later we are back in the car. Two youthful elders standing side by side in the garden look on as we drive down the road. Lile’s face is tense. She turns to look at me and explodes: “They couldn’t at least pretend to be happy, could they!” And she falls into a barrage of words, enraged. Dear, sweet Lile. I feel relieved, and place my hand on her shoulder: “It doesn’t matter. I’m happy to be here.”
We drive across town to her father’s house. The streets are familiar but nothing looks the same as we pass by. It really doesn’t matter. It’s not here.
It is in the old house where her mother lived and died that the magic suddenly comes to life. Right at the bottom, in the dark and damp atrium, then up two flights of stairs – everything is the way I remembered it. The old man who outlived his vivacious wife never moved a thing, and so this shrine welcomes us fully preserved. Now I want to see the entire house. With Isabella and Julija in tow, I open every door: the basement room where aunt Lepa toiled in her youth raising three daughters, while her vicious in-laws luxuriated upstairs, ringing their brass bell for her to come up and serve them; the room on the middle floor where she spent another number of years sewing dresses for young and old women in town; the dank bathroom with metal tub on rusty feet; the musty storage room with merchant tools a hundred years old; the black peeled-off Singer sewing machine, which she pedalled with swollen, tireless feet; thick layers of linens in tall, creaking chiffoniers; the bed where Lile and I, often other cousins too, lay muffling giggles late into the night – Isabella and Julija jump right onto it – this is where they will sleep tonight. From every nook, off the uneven walls, up the curved staircase, the loving ghost of my aunt Lepa comes out hurriedly, carrying a coffer filled with memories. Swift and bouncy, smiling even while screaming in exasperation, always saucy, she waited for me.
Lile’s voice, still angry and laced with tears, speaks to Vlad in the other room: “As if she were here only yesterday! Old selfish farts!” His soothing voice mutters unintelligibly. She is so much like her mother; she doesn’t even know it. I will tell her in the morning that I’ve found what I came to see. The spirit still lives here.