I Know Who You Are
by Zvezdana Rashkovich
I can see her clearly.
It is harvest season in the Balkans and still dark outside, but a peasant woman rises and kindles the fire. Her village is nestled high in the hills, like a forgotten marble isolated among the rugged and beautiful forests of Kordun. She stirs the semolina porridge and doles it out to her husband and children. She eats last. She is a woman with a serious face, one that hasn’t found much to enjoy; her wrinkles and lines are not from laughter but worry. Her hair is thick and dark- her socks are long and patterned with that Slavic motif. Red and white. She is my great grandmother.
I can see another, too.
It is winter and war is raging across Europe. She presses a child against her breast, stifling his cries; he will give them away. She follows a long procession of women, old men… children. The snow is deep and powdery soft. She sinks in up to her thighs. She is one step closer to a warm fire, a loaf of bread, maybe salt if they’re lucky. She thinks of a husband, dead now – shot in the war. Her eyes are deep-set but twinkle with a smoldering fire like molten chocolate- behind her heavy wool shawl. Her hair is dark like a night that’s filled with fear. Her face, round like a gold coin, is enclosed by rosy cheeks like she is some Slavic Snowhite. A thick dark braid rests between her shoulder blades and her wide skirts swing as she walks. Above, the forest is silent, and she remembers her mother’s tales of nymphs that are tall as linden trees.
She is my grandmother.
I close my eyes again and see.
This girl is young and painfully slim, that same thick hair, piled into a chic fifties bun. Her cheekbones are delicate like a fragile bird, her wrists and ankles slim. Made for dancing ballet and playing the piano. So unlike her mother and her mother’s mother. The girl’s head is full of poetry and stories, dreams of a Balkan girl from the mountains, a newcomer to town. Her dreams are too grand. What will become of it asks her mother.
Her dresses are few but elegant and her shoes pointy- her smile is quick and mysterious. She fancies herself a Hollywood movie star or a princess of all the sands of Arabia, anything but a poor Balkan girl with a story bearing on her shoulders, a heritage to carry like the heavy bales of hay and buckets of water and bushels of kindling her ancestors bore.
She is my mother.
And here I am. Arrived here only due to them. My female ancestors. Women of the mountain and of the plains -women warriors- women heroes -women mothers -women with secrets and women with dreams.
Who will tell their tales for those who know them not? They are forgotten, mostly kept alive by the burning curiosity of their descendant, a girl so unlike them that she might very well not be one of them at all. My hair is pale and soft; I am not a war heroine or a hard-working peasant or a ballerina.
All I want to do is write stories.
I remember when I was little and living with my grandparents in a small Slavonian town by the banks of the Drava river, my grandmother used to set me in her lap before bedtime. Grandmother wore a long cotton nightgown and smelled of lavender, red apples and pomegranate jam. She told me stories about her village, about the war… and how I came to be in her lap. I was always greedy. I asked too much and talked too much. At school I got in trouble for talking during class. Grandmother complained about my insatiable questions as she watched the news on a small black and white TV. But because I asked I also got answers. Tales large and wide like an embrace filled my mind and those that made my young skin break into goose bumps…
Grandmother taught me that amongst the thick forests resided fairies and willow-like nymphs more beautiful than any living thing. She told me about courage and starvation and racism and ethnic hatred and socialism and communists and about becoming a pioneer in grade one – finally placing that star adorned cap on my head. Just like the partisans my grandmother talked about.
The more grandmother talked the more I wanted to know. My female kinfolk fascinated me. Who were these strong and valiant women? What did they do, think, want and dream off? When I write I write about women. Any women. All women. But also the stories of my mother, step-grandmother, my maternal aunts, my sisters, my grandmother… all of them scintillating question marks. Each a thrilling and beautiful fairy tale waiting to be written.
On winter nights gathered around a flickering, fast melting candle my ancestors retold their stories, weaving and spinning skillfully as they would do with an intricate pattern of needlework. If they had known how to write they surely would have been writers. But the voice is enough and the stories flow from mother to daughter and beyond. Their gaze is lowered but their passionate hearts beat like those of winged, jewel-encrusted dragons. The women are wise and hide their strength and their passion. It is the way of the land. And of their men-folk.
Nevertheless, their shared memories and their combined experiences formed this clan of women with rough hands and weathered faces. Hardworking and honest. Peasant women, the salt and bread of the earth. Them I will follow. Their deeds are many and they are braver and stronger than any man except- no one will remember if they don’t pass the stories on.
This, I realized had to be my responsibility. Grandmother’s stories, her words, her quirky phrases – proverbs, her dialect, her folk tales and folk songs. Recipes and family secrets…
I will be their scribe, I decide – I will write their history down, I tell my mother.
I will do it because we are blood and in the Balkans blood is everything. I do it because I feel their breath on my neck and because they visit me in my dreams. Because I want to reach out and hug them – place my humbled head on their wise and gentle hearts. I want to prostrate my body on the ground in front of them and cry.
I want to tell them, “I know who you are. You have done well. Come rest now.”
We are connected across realms of time- the gold thread that connects us is like the most intricately sewn lace wedding dress, delicate but strong and timeless. Just like us.
I write to pass it on to my daughters and one day to their daughters.
Our blood is one. My letters might be English but the Slavic language of all my female ancestors flows through my pen. My ink is red and bleeds of love and songs of war and my tears mix with it all. My hair is long and dark and my eyes twinkle as I hear their beautiful Balkan song. I am a gypsy, a nymph, a willow beauty from the deepest forest. I am a mother, a storyteller, a healer and a soldier. I am my mother’s daughter and she is her mother’s daughter.
And so on and so on until eternity unites us once again.