“Vince, are you alright?” cried Jure, running toward his brother.
Minutes before, all had been as usual. Every day Vince, Jure, Danica, and Katarina walked the road from their farmhouse to the village school in Stara Lipa two kilometers away. Only today something had gone terribly wrong.
The explosion was heard throughout the Slovenian countryside, resounding in every direction. In the houses, people stopped midway through their breakfast, while those already in the fields dropped their hoes and sickles. All were overcome with the terror known only to those who have seen death approach. The people of Nova Lipa were all too familiar with grenades.
For an inquisitive boy of ten, though, a grenade seemed like a harmless enough toy. Vince had seen a dark, oval-shaped object glistening under the sun’s rays near the edge of the bush. Fearless, he ran ahead of the others toward the foreign object. He picked it up in his hands and examined its rough exterior, running his fingers over the metal.
“What a strange ball this is,” he said aloud to himself.
Without thought for his own safety, he threw it into the air and caught it. Vince thought, “I wonder how far I can throw it.” He had never had a real ball before. All the boys in the village played catch with whatever they could get a hold of, but this seemed like the perfect tool for throwing. Raising his right hand high into the air, Vince swung with all his might into the field
adjacent to the woods. The ensuing explosion and its aftermath left scars in his mind and on his body for the rest of his life.
“We’ll have to carry him home,” exclaimed Katarina, the oldest sister.
“Oh, no! What will Mama say? We weren’t supposed to stop and play on the way. Now we’ll all be in trouble for missing school,” Danica worried.
“What a stupid thing to say, Danica! Can’t you see our brother is in pain? Help him!” Jure cried.
Vince had lost consciousness for only a moment. Had he not thrown far enough, he could have been killed, but fate had other ideas for his future. As he awoke, he screamed, “My leg…it hurts, it hurts! Help me!”
Katarina bent over to examine the bloodied knee, exposed to the bone. “Can you stand up if you lean on us?” she asked.
“I don’t know! Help me! It hurts so much!”
“Ooh, it’s awful!” squealed Danica.
Jure and Katarina gently helped Vince to his feet. Grimacing in pain, he held on tightly to his brother and sister.
“Danica, run ahead and tell Mama that Vince has been hurt badly,” ordered Katarina.
Frightened by the excessive bleeding, and still in shock from the sudden explosion, Danica nevertheless found within herself the necessary strength to do what was needed. She turned around and began to run with all her might in the direction of her home in the small village of Nova Lipa. A little while later, she entered the stucco two-room house, panting and crying.
“Danica, what happened? Where are the others? The explosion…I heard it and I was so frightened. They’re alright, aren’t they? Tell me, Danica! Tell me what happened,” Mama cried in anguish.
“Vince…” Danica panted, “He’s hurt. He’s bleeding. Katarina said to get help.”
“Oh my Lord!”
“It’s his knee, Mama. It’s bloody. It hurts.”
“You stay here with the children. I’m going to see Stefan Murkovic for help.”
Mama picked up her skirts and ran down the road to the Murkovic house four doors away. Stefan was one of the few men left in the village. Those who were young and physically able left to fight with the Partisans. Stefan had stayed behind with his wife and children to work on the family farm because there was no one else to do the job. His wife, Iva, was seriously ill with a respiratory disease, and his children were only four and two years of age. There was no one else in the household to look after the family, and so Stefan was obligated to stay at home.
Banging frantically at the weather-beaten front door, Mama screamed, “I need help! Hurry! Someone come!”
Stefan promptly opened the door to his tiny cottage exclaiming, “The explosion…someone’s been hurt? Where? What can I do?”
“Vince…on the way to school. Hurry, please come!”
Stefan turned on his heel and called to his wife, “Iva, there’s been trouble. I’m going down the road towards the school. Stay here and watch the children till I come back.”
Stefan was a strong, sturdy young man, as were most of the young men in Nova Lipa. Years of difficult field work and barn-building had resulted in toughened, muscular, hard-working males. Even the women were coarse and hardened by years of hard labour in the fields and difficult childbirth.
Without hesitating, Stefan ran down the gravel village road in the direction of the village school. He passed many homes similar to his own. They were small, made of stucco or stone, wth small wooden barns and sheds surrounding them. Linden trees, a symbol of the nation, grew everywhere in the village, and wildflowers grew profusely. In the background, the Gorjanci range stood guard over the small communities dotting the White Carniola region. This early June morning, Stefan heard the chirping of many varieties of birds, and he smelled the fresh country air as he dodged chickens on the roadway. It took about 5 minutes for him to reach the Jankovic children.
Scooping Vince into his arms, Stefan swiftly began walking back towards the village. “Are you alright?” he asked.
“It hurts…my knee,” Vince replied. It had been about a quarter hour since the accident and he had borne his pain well for a ten year old boy. No tears, no whining. Not for Vince. He was brave in spite of the excruciating pain. Being the oldest boy in the family had its responsibilities. He was the head of the house now that his father was fighting in the war, and his grandfather was in America earning money to bring back home. It would be a disgrace for him to act like a baby. He was a man and needed to act like a man.
Vince’s brother and sisters followed as Stefan carried him home. When they entered the house, Mama ran to him and began to cry.
“Lay him on the bed,” she managed to say.
Stefan set the tall, thin, dark-haired boy on one of the several beds in the room, and asked Mama for some clean water and a clean cloth. He then carefully washed the wound and examined the knee closely. It was a deep gash, but Stefan knew enough from his own experiences that the wound would heal. “You’re lucky, Vince. You’ll be fine. In time you’ll run again,” he said.
“Thank the Lord.” Mama took out her rosary and said a silent prayer.
“How did you get hurt?” Stefan wondered, as he wound a cloth around the damaged knee.
“I picked up a ball and threw it, that’s all I know,” replied Vince.
“You fool!” exclaimed Mama. “If your father were here he would say you deserved to be hurt.”
“It’s best to let the boy alone, Marija. He’s suffering enough without feeling blame,” Stefan interjected. “Be grateful it wasn’t worse.”
“Who will help me in the fields now?” Mama asked. Once she realized her boy was not seriously wounded, she became angry with him for disobeying her order to stay away from strange objects and strange people. Vince’s curiosity seemed to always get him in trouble.
“Calm down now, Marija. You have a good strong boy in Jure, and besides, in a couple of weeks, Vince will be up and out of bed and soon ready to go back to work. All he needs is some rest and time to heal.”
“You have Danica and I to help,” offered Katarina. “Girls can work as well as boys.”
Katarina was thirteen, and she along with eleven-year-old Danica helped to take care of little Joze and Tone. Joze was a rambunctious five-year-old, while Tone was only two. There had been two other girls born in the family, but both had died as babies. No one in Nova Lipa went to see a doctor. Families took care of their own. Death was not an uncommon event by any means, but it was dreaded and feared. Sometimes it was difficult for the church-going villagers to understand why God selected some people to die young. They knew, though, that He had a reason for everything He did.
“Well, I suppose we’ll have to make the best of things,” said Mama. “What burden will God place on my shoulders next?”
The days had quickly begun to shorten as September came to an end in Nova Lipa. As Katarina prepared the evening meal for her family, she paused to watch the sunset. Glorious shades of purple surrounded the red ball of fire as it slowly sank in the sky. Mauve, violet, lilac, such beautiful colours, thought Katarina. Was it this beautiful anywhere else in the world?
“Danica, help me set the supper table. Soon Mama and boys will be home, and I know they’ll be starving after a good day’s work in the fields,” she told her sister, who had been looking after the little ones, Joze and Tone.
Darkness quickly descended around the home. It was nearly pitch black by the time Mama and her two older boys, Vince and Jure, arrived home. Exhausted, Mama sat by the stove, while Danica and Katarina set out a simple meal of potato soup and unleavened bread. As soon as the
older boys had scrubbed off the day’s dirt, they seated themselves at the table, with Vince at the head, in his father’s place. The girls settled their younger brothers down to eat, and Mama wearily rose to wash up before the meal. It was difficult for her to keep the family farm running without a man. How fortunate it was that she had two good, strong boys and two helpful young daughters to see her through. Some days it seemed as though the war would never end. Would she ever see her husband again?
After supper, Marija let her girls take care of the dishes and put the children to bed. She went outside for a moment and stared at the darkness. Somewhere out there was her husband, either dead or alive. She didn’t know which. Looking towards the heavens, she prayed in silence for the safe return of her husband, Ivan. Then she turned around and returned to her children. Joze and Tone were safely tucked into their beds in the second room, which slept the whole family. Jure and Vince stoked the fire in the stove, which was off to one side of the room, and talked about the week’s events at school, and their progress in the fields. September was a busy month for the farmers. Danica and Katarina finished their chores and sat with Mama at the table in the corner of the room. Mama had lit two kerosene lamps, and both sat on the table. Saturday night was the time for Mama to mend any tears on the children’s well-worn clothes. Already they had been patched several times. Although she could barely see what she was doing, Mama’s expert fingers worked quickly.
“I wonder if Grandfather is making lots of money in America. He said he would come back a rich man, but we’ve already waited for a long time,” she said cynically.
“Papa said we will all be rich someday,” said Danica.
“We’ll have a fine house and won’t need to work our fingers to the bone,” added Katarina.
“I wouldn’t get any grand ideas if I were you, young ladies. You’ll be working hard for as long as you’re able, mark my words. And you’ll be grateful for the bread and milk on your table,” Mama told them.
Vince had tuned in to the conversation and prophetically spoke, “I’m going to leave here someday and go to America, just like Grandfather. I’m going to have a big, fine house and lots of money, and maybe even one of those motor cars. Then I’ll send for all of you to come and join me. We’ll never be poor again.”
Mama laughed, “What nonsense, boy! This is your home. You’re the eldest son, this will all be yours one day. It’s your legacy and your responsibility. Honestly, the things I hear from you children! You’re off in your own little world!”
“I think maybe there is a different world out there. I want to see it someday,” Vince insisted.
“Well, children, I think we’ve had enough idle chatter for one day. Tomorrow is church. Time for bed.”
Katarina and Danica took off their dresses and put on their nightshirts, then settled themselves into their bed. They whispered for a while about school and boys. Jure, like Joze and Tone, fell asleep almost before his head hit the pillow. Mama wondered how much longer she could continue to care for two small children, run a household and a farm, without her husband. Life was hard and getting harder. Exhaustion set in and they all fell asleep eventually.
All, that is, except for Vince. America, he was thinking, was the land of opportunity. Someday he would be rich. He would show them all. There had to be more to life than this. He had plans
for something grander for himself and his family. People talked about the money that could be made in that far off land. He would see for himself.
While the ten year old boy inside dreamed his wondrous fantasy, the wind outside shook the branches of the linden tree in front of the house. The tree had survived for hundreds of years rooted in its native soil. The stone table and benches underneath the tree had borne the weight and burdens of many generations of Vince’s family and they would endure. But young men, like trees, can be uprooted by the winds of change. As Vince dreamed of a better future far from his birthplace, the moon shone on the metal plaque nailed to the house. It read, “13 Nova Lipa”. For as long as anyone could remember, this had been the Jankovic homestead. No member of the family strayed very far for too long. This was home. There was no escaping it. Unless you were a boy dreaming of America, and destined for a future in Canada.
Ivanka Fear is a Slovenian born writer and retired teacher residing in midwestern Ontario, Canada. She holds a B.A. and B.Ed., majoring in English and French literature, from Western University. Her poems and short stories appear in or are forthcoming in Spadina Literary Review, Montreal Writes, Spillwords, Commuterlit, Canadian Stories, Adelaide Literary, October Hill, Scarlet Leaf Review, Polar Borealis, Lighten Up, Bewildering Stories, The Sirens Call, Utopia Science Fiction, The Literary Hatchet, Wellington Street Review, Aphelion, Sad Girl Review, Tales From the Moonlit Path, Muddy River Poetry Review, Unfading Daydream, Understorey, and Suspense Magazine. She has recently completed her fourth mystery/suspense novel, and is currently looking for a publisher. You can read more about her at https://ivankafear.wix.com/mysite