Saturday, December 13, 2008

A Family From The Mountains

They came from a tiny village in eastern Slovenia, where the high mountains were covered in thick trees and the winters were long and bleak. Even the summer months had a slight darkness about them, as though all the native creatures simply couldn’t let go of the cold memories of winter. They held on to them even through the warmest days, letting the shadows cover the fleeting moments of light. It would be the darkness, the increasing severity of the winters, that would push them away, far from the thick boulders and tall green trees that defined the land.
It was Tadej, the youngest son of the family, that first packed his sack and began the family migration. He left without any thought of a destination. He knew nothing of the world beyond the large village that lay at the valley floor, a day’s journey for him on mule-back. What lay further than this was a hazy vision that only existed within his imagination. He dreamt of colorful women, sweet wines and great shining cities of gold.
On the family farm, Tadej had been chosen as a courier, delivering the seasonal crops to the small markets of the local villages. Small businesses had been sprouting fast, they catered to the people that had stopped farming and devoted their labor to the small factories that had also began flourishing in the mountainous region. In ten years, he had watched many of his neighbors abandon their farms to move to the larger towns at the base of the mountains. As he watched them leave, with their burdened animals laden with bedding and house wares, he could not imagine leaving. He believed himself to be a man of the soil, dirty with earth and sweat. He gave his blood to the land, and in return, she delivered carrots and purple skinned potatoes. Year after year, she provided them with everything she was capable of…she gave herself to them without reservation, and he loved her for this. No, he could never leave. He liked visiting the towns, he rumbled past the apartment houses and the buildings of administration. He liked talking with the shop owners and young women who brought up water from the wells, but as the sun began to cool, he liked riding back to his home, his land at the top of the world.
When he arrived home, he always needed to put his barrels in the cellars. The cellars were deep and dark, Tadej remembered his grandfather shoveling out the earth to create the dark havens to store the vegetables. He had been a very small boy, and he remembered eating apple pieces out of a small wooden bowl while watching as the piles of loose soil piled high, like replicas of the mountains surrounding them. After putting away his supplies, he would give his mother the small piece chocolate she always requested from town.
She was a large woman, very plump and round. She had been made big and tough by the hearty diet of potatoes and tough meat, by the thick, cool air and the life of constant work. She would haul wood and beat dust from the family’s collection of colorful woolen rugs. The small wood house was laden with rugs. Tadej’s grandparents had been collectors, and in the summer nights, it would be common for travelling gypsy caravans to stop by their farm to show off their latest creations. Tadej remembered nights when the stars shined with complete abandon, and a group of travelers would crowd into their home, surrounding the hearth, singing sad songs of persecution to the upbeat melody of an accordion. Tadej, always a bit shy around people with such bravado, would watch quietly from a corner of the room, while the foreign women danced with their colorful scarves and his mother served liquor to all the guests.
Their move to the United States began five years before they voyaged by ship to the harbor of New York. The winters had been getting colder, Tadej first noticed it when the leaves of his favorite tree began to change colors in July. It was a mature tree that stood alone in a natural clearing of Silar trees. It was Tadej’s favorite tree and he visited it often. He sat and read at its base. Upon returning from his trips into town, he would come to it, tired and sleepy, and he would nap with one of its large roots in his arms. When his house seemed too small and the people within in just a bit too loud, he would bring a heavy rug and a thick blanket and spend the night outside by the base of the old tree.
He was dozing off in mid July, and a falling yellow leaf brushed across his face. With sleep filled eyes he gazed at it, simply observing its shape and color, without any thought to interrupt his exam. He just looked, as he would have looked at a small spider tramping across his skin. But then, his mind began to piece together associations, the way that brains do, and he saw the color, yellow. Yellow, the color of an approaching fall. But it was July, there should be months of sunshine until then. He looked up and saw that the upper canopy of the tree had begun to change colors. Most were still partially green, but the threat of an early winter was real. And when it came this early, it meant that winter would be especially cold and brutal. He took the leaf to his grandfather.
The old man had seen early seasons, but never by three months. The omen of the yellow leaf, as they came to call it, was the beginning of the coldest five years the tiny county had ever seen. Within this time, the growing times and harvests became shorter. In the first year, most of the radishes did not have enough time to grow before the first freeze. Then nearly the whole crop of the small purple potatoes froze in the cold hard ground. The family tried to dig them out, but the ground was as hard as a rock. Each year, the summer seemed to get shorter and the winter months intensified and spilled over into fall and spring. The gypsies had not come through in several years. Tadej figured they had remained in the more temperate lower altitudes.
After five years, the family’s resources were exhausted. They had cleared so much of the surrounding land for fire wood that the land was unrecognizable. The mules and horses required food that the land could no longer provide. The men of the family agreed that they could not survive another frozen season.
Tadej packed his small sack and set out in the early morning. He walked down the little road that he always took to town. But as the sun rose in the sky, and he entered the town, he did not stop at the well or the markets that had become fixtures in his weekly routine. He continued walking, out of town, past all the landmarks that were familiar to him. He took the road that brought other traders from the towns of the low lands. He walked, knowing he must find a better place to bring his family.
He was searching for more farmland, a place where he and his family could raise sheep and pigs and once again reap the tender life of the earth. He knew that the earth had become angry at them. She had became cold and harsh, turning her pretty face from them. She had become like a dead statue. She would not give them life, and, as life begets life, they could not stay there much longer. Tadej walked fast, he was aware that the food reserves in the cellar were diminishing fast. There were barrels of potatoes and apples, and many, many jugs of wine, but after another freezing winter it would all be gone, and soon after, they would all starve. This thought, the picture of his thick mother withering from hunger, made him walk with more determination. If he happened to pass another tradesman, he would ask them about their land, and if they knew the land which the sun had begun to favor.
He walked for three days until he found a train depot. He had never seen a train, but a couple of the market owners had told him of an invention that moved people and goods faster than the speediest horse. When he arrived in this town, larger and busier than any he had ever seen, it was a scene beyond anything he could imagine. The landscape was teeming, reminding him of the ant swarms he would watch as a young boy. The streets were chaotic. Horses, mules and humans morphed into an undulating crowd that heaved and pulsated with a never ceasing force.
He heard a sound in the far distance, a screeching whistle that roared through the town, the land, and his ears with a deafening force. As it grew louder with each second, he looked around for the source of this unnatural sound. A woman was passing by him just then and he grabbed her arm with a firm grip. She looked at him, shocked and stunned by this sudden assault on her free movement. "What is that sound, miss?" his voice revealing his fear. "It’s the train," she said and she pulled her arm free, fleeing from his grip. As she ran away from him, he felt the ground rumble under his feet. He winced and he heard the blood curdling sound of another long whistle. It was the beast, made of black metal, emitting smoke like a blood thirsty dragon. Perhaps it was his sense of impending doom, but he knew then that mounting this other worldly beast would deliver him to another world, it alone could take him to a new fertile land. As afraid as he was before this terrible apparition, he felt his blood rushing through his veins with a force he had never felt before, he felt himself become truly alive and glowing with reckless courage.
Tadej had been gone seven months and the family had not heard from him. His father, fearing the worst, had decided that the family could wait no longer, they would have to leave their land before Tadej sent for them. This winter had been the worst yet. The snow piled and piled, the winds never ceased. It took all their strength just to keep warm. The animals were dying without the grasses they had been accustomed to and the cold was only adding to their misery.
At the end of March, they bundled together all their most beautiful rugs, their photos and the small set of silver tea cups that had been a family heirloom. The grandmother gathered her bottles of salves and her collection of sketches, a lifetime of landscape drawings. Each family member gathered the few things they could not part with and they bundled it all onto their four mules and two horses and began to walk the single lane trail into town. Arriving at the closest town, Grandfather was stopped by his old friend who managed the post office. A letter from Tadej had arrived the previous night. It urged them to come "west." He had found a small piece of land. It was in the valley of a land called "Mexico." The family, excited and nervous, followed the same path he had walked out of town. They walked to the large city even further down the mountain and boarded the great dragon he warned them about in his letter. After five months of travel, the family was reunited with Tadej in the San Joaquin valley.
After only four months, Grandfather was found dead in his bed. He had been very old when they began the descent from the mountains of Slovenia. The train ride, the boat ride, and the second train across the vast land they had come to, it had all been very hard on his old tired body. He had been made tough by years of work in the fields, but his age had truly begun to show when the cold winters began. The thought that kept him alive on the journey was the thought of seeing the new piece of land. Every day, before rising, he thought of this new bright land that Tadej had written about. Gold land and gold light, where the earth thrives with abandon. This was what pushed him forward, it allowed him to move and breathe. Before he died, and he knew it was coming soon, he wanted to see this land that his grandson had discovered.
And when he did finally see the golden land that nestled in the soft contours of this new mysterious mountains, and he saw his family living again from the earth that was no longer angry at them but loved them as it had so many years ago, his body finally relaxed and it allowed himself to depart peacefully. They found him in the morning, cold and hard, with his eyes closed and his wrinkled face calm. Leaving aside the day chores, the remaining family members walked around the circumference of their new land, holding a small white candle and chanting very old prayers.
Tadej found a new tree on which to rest every day, up on a hill of soft dry grass and sliding dusty pebbles. From there, he could see that the world was new and he was getting old. He would soon become Grandfather, and his face would be full of wrinkles and his arms would be brittle and weak, and some day, sooner than he could expect it, it would be time again to die.

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