Kutina, Ilova, Banova Jaruga, I keep track of the names. Each time the train stops at a station, I search my map for the village. Where am I? How far? With my fingertip, I trace the line from Zagreb to Oriovac, which I have circled in blue ink. For years it seems as though I have been inching toward this elusive village, the place where my mother was born between two World Wars, the place where she spent the first five years of her life, the place I have written about, but have never seen.
I am thirty-four, a woman traveling alone, unable to speak the language. In the back of my journal, I have written her address: Kujnik 5. I don’t know if the house still exists. By now it would be over a hundred years old. It could have been destroyed during the war since Oriovac is so close to the border of Bosnia. Strangely I feel unafraid, as if I am going somewhere familiar. I stare at the Slavonian landscape here in Eastern Croatia; the fields, hills, and church steeples fly past.
Before I left New York City, I explained to my friends that I had to go on this journey before I did anything else in my life. There was something driving me as I scraped together the money (credit cards, student loans) for my month-long Croatian odyssey. In 1993 I’d visited Croatia with my father, but because of the war it was too dangerous to travel to my mom’s village. Vedran, my Croatian friend, a doctor in his fifties with a peppery beard and wise face, peered over the rim of his glasses and told me with great certainty, “Going to Croatia will change you for the rest of your life. You’ll see.” My husband René told me, “I know this is a journey you have to make alone.” And I knew he was right.
I watch the villages from my window. Goats lift their heads as the train lurches to a stop. Gradually the train chugs forward out of the station. I wonder how my grandparents met. Did Katica notice the thin man with intense dark eyes at a local dance? Did Antun pass her on a dusty road? I assume that his family moved from Mrkopalj, a village nestled in a valley in Gorski Kotar all the way to Slavonia because of the rich farmland. My work, it’s turned out, has been all about guessing, finding the most-likely answers since there’s no one left to ask. My mother, just a child when both her parents died during WWII, may have never known how they met. At any rate, by the time Antun and Katica reached their late twenties, on Sunday the 28th of July, 1935, they had their first and only child, Marijana.
A warm wind whistles loudly through the open windows. The sound of the engine fills the compartment. Still I can hear chickens clucking behind me. A few rows back a woman is traveling with them. There is rustling, fluttering, and an occasional squawk. I feel the shift in myself. I experience calm-exhilaration, the sensation of knowing that I am exactly where I am supposed to be, that there is no other place in this world I could be, except on this train, on this day in August. I breathe in the dry air, knowing that I am completing a circle that my mother started long ago, and that no matter what happens today, whether I find the house where she was born, or not, that I will find something here.
Lipovljani, Nova Gradiška, Staro Petrovo Selo, I glance at my map, I am closer than I’ve ever been. I have to be careful so I don’t miss it. It could be the next village, or the one after that. I’m no more than three villages away. Nova Kapela- Batrina. At each train station, I keep my eyes fixed on the hanging-station sign, the name of the town. Sometimes I have to crane my head because my compartment doesn’t stop in a place where I can see. All of the people traveling with me are Slavonians going back to their villages. I watch them get on and off the train. Clearly I’m the only American, and even though I know I’m different than all of them, I feel an underlying understanding of them. I am part of the history of this place even if only one woman connects us.
The train begins to slow down again, I see multiple signs saying Oriolik on the wall of several small buildings. It is so similar, but it isn’t hers, I think to myself. Then I sit back down beside my backpack. The train picks up speed, and as we pass the small station I see the sign-Oriovac-flash past me.
“Oh my God. Oh my God! I missed it, I missed it!” I say loudly in astonishment. I grab my backpack and rush up the aisle as if I have the power to stop the train. I will stop the train if I have to. I stammer in English to the conductor, “I was supposed to get off there. I didn’t know. I was supposed to-” He says something in Croatian to two young women. One stands up. “Please, may I help?” she asks, separating each word, in a British-Croatian accent. I nod frantically. “I missed my stop.” She speaks with the conductor for a moment. I hear the word vlak, train, repeated a few times, then she tells me I will have to get off at the next stop, wait about 20 minutes, and then another train will come that will take me back to Oriovac.
The train stops, and I climb down. The young woman climbs down after me. “Once we leave, you cross to other side,” she points over the train, “and wait for next train, yes?”
“Yes, thank you, hvala ljepa.” I nod obediently. She hops back on the train and waves. The train leaves. Behind me there is a tiny, abandoned station with paint chipping off the walls. A sign says Kuti. I stare down the endless train tracks. A rooster crows, ku, kuroo, kuroooo, ku, kuroo, kuroooo. In less than half an hour, I am supposed to meet my translator, Ivana, in Oriovac. I sigh and walk across to the other side. God really has a sense of humor, I think to myself. I could probably walk; I look down the tracks toward Oriovac. In my mind, I can hear my Croatian-American friend, Angela’s voice telling me, “Don’t go walking off any roads or through any fields, there are still mines.” I’d laughed. Then she’d narrowed her dark eyes in worry, “No, I’m serious, Catherine, promise me.” Now I gaze across the tilled fields beyond the track.
The sun is bright, and it is too hot to sit on the platform. A man drives by in a tractor. An old woman carries a pail of water from a well to her house. Swallows swoop and chatter. I am the only one waiting. I put my hand on the top of my head; my brown hair is burning hot. Far off in the distance, I see a train. I squint and shade my eyes with my hand. Quickly I slip on my backpack and step forward. The horn blows; the train doesn’t slow down. Does it know it’s supposed to stop for me? The horn blares again, clearly it’s not stopping. I take a step back just as the train roars past; the force sends me backward, stumbling into the ditch behind me. I get up and dust myself off, my heart pounding. “Don’t get yourself killed before you get there,” I tell myself.
When the next train comes, it slows down and I climb on with great relief. The conductor asks for my ticket. In English, with many hand gestures, I explain that I missed my stop and need to go back. He chuckles. I pull out my wallet, hoping I’ve exchanged enough money to pay him and my translator. He shakes his hands, “Ne, ne, ne.” I pause and look at him quizzically. And he shakes his hands again. I smile gratefully.
A few minutes pass and the train stops. I get off and stare at the sign in front of the station: Oriovac. Finally, I’m here.
“Kaaterine?” asks a petite young woman in her early twenties, in a long bright blue dress.
“Ivana?” I ask. From a payphone in a Zagreb post office, I had called a Slavonski Brod tourist agency and gotten in contact with Ivana; she offered to be my translator today.
“Yes! I thought it was you, when the train stopped,” Ivana says happily, in a slightly nasal voice.
“I missed my stop,” I smile sheepishly.
A man appears with a Clark Gable moustache. He greets us warmly, then quickly leads us to his car as if he senses our urgency. Ivana explains to me that she has arranged for Zdravko, who has lived in the village all his life, to help us search for the house. In the car, I pull out my small black photo album with pictures of my mother’s family, and my mother’s house. Ivana and Zdravko both scrutinize the black and white photograph of the house. They speak quickly in Croatian. Zdravko shakes his head worriedly. We pass a street sign saying Kujnik. My mother’s street! Adrenaline rushes through me. Excitedly Zdravko explains in Croatian, while Ivana translates, that since my mother lived in the village all the numbers on the houses have changed. We will have to ask around. I learn that Oriovac now has 3000 people and 22 streets.
We drive past a visibly old house. Paint is peeling. Half of it is a light blue, the other half is light green. I shrug and tell Ivana, “Even if we don’t find it, at least I’ll know it looked something like that one.”
We pull into someone’s dirt driveway along Kujnik Street. Zdravko speaks in rapid-fire Croatian to someone fixing a car. A spry elderly woman pushes open a door and we are led into a kitchen. Her two adult daughters stand quietly in the background, listening intently. I pull out my small album. At the table, everyone huddles around it, and the old woman holds it carefully. She looks at every picture, even the ones that aren’t in Oriovac. I learn little phrases like, moja mama, moja baka, moja dido, my mother, my grandmother, my grandfather, because they say them in Croatian after I say them in English.
The elderly woman shakes her head unhappily. She doesn’t remember ever hearing about my grandparents; she doesn’t know which house could have been my mother’s. Zdravko speaks quickly as if he is determined to not let this setback stop us.
Soon he drives us to another house on Kujnik Street. We step into the garden by the side of the house. An old woman, dressed completely in black, sits on a stool outside beneath the shade of a tree. She wears a knee-length skirt, a blouse, and her head is covered with a black scarf. She heaves her body up. Wrinkles line every inch of her face. Her lips sink in; she has no teeth. Her middle-aged daughter steps from the house with a curious gentle expression in her eyes. While Ivana and Zdravko explain things about me in Croatian, I start to understand bits and pieces, mama rodjena slavoniji-mother was born in Slavonia, mama je umerla-mother is dead. I hear my grandparents’ last names, Kanjer and Smolčić every few words. I realize these names now belong to me. The middle-aged woman smiles, her eyes soften as she looks at me. The old woman reaches for the photograph album. Standing, she turns each page slowly, studying each picture as if it were of the greatest importance. I feel a slow ache in my heart as if these people somehow understand how much it took for me to get here.
The old woman raises her watery eyes, and tells Ivana in Croatian that she’s sorry. She wishes I came three years ago when there were a few really old people still alive, ones who would have remembered my grandparents. She looks at the photo of the house again and shakes her head. She asks if I have any brothers and sisters? Any Croatian relatives? No one?
She is the first Smolčić I have ever met. It is my grandmother’s maiden name. Because my grandparents left this village and died so long ago, and my grandmother cut off ties with her family, I will never know if I am somehow related to this woman. “Ivana, thank her for trying.” Before anything is translated the old woman takes two steps toward me. Her withered hands reach out, she firmly cups my cheeks, leans forward, and kisses me with her dry lips.
Zdravko bustles us off into the car again. We drive a few houses down, back to the half-blue and half-green painted house. We enter the neighbor’s dining room. A husband, wife, and their little boy are eating lunch. They stand. They discuss things with Zdravko and keep saying Kanjer.
A few moments later we are outside in front of the half-blue, half-green house. Zdravko turns and looks carefully at the photograph and back at the house. He motions me over. We stand in the shade beside the road. A car roars by us. I stare at the black and white photograph that I have looked at so many times in my New York apartment. I see my grandfather standing in front of the white-paned window. My mom’s bakica standing in the doorway. I have imagined being here in this village; I have imagined knocking on doors, hoping someone would help me.
“Katarina, gledi,” Zdravko says and points at one chimney in the photo and then one on the roof in front of us. He points at another chimney farther back in the photo, and then points to the next one on the roof in front of us. He points at each window in the photo and matches them to the house in front of us. He points to the door in the photo, and then at the one in front of us.
I blink. I ask, “Is this it? Is this my mom’s house?” He nods, grinning. I stare at the photo (taken almost seventy years ago) and then at the house. I see how they’re one in the same. The hairs on my arms rise. Ivana comes up behind us, throws her arms around me and says, “This is your mother’s house! We found it! I can’t believe we found it. I was so worried we wouldn’t find anything.”
We wander through the house, which we’ve discovered has two owners, each owning half. No one lives here anymore. One half is used for storage; containers full of grain are organized in neat stacks. Ivana and I climb a ladder and stare into the attic. I speak to her in half-sentences, half thoughts. I’m too excited for language. We go outside and enter the other half of the house. Paint is chipping from the walls; it is filled with old unwanted things: a scythe hanging on the wall, old broken dressers, a bicycle lying on the floor, a tapestry of the crucifixion, “My granny has one just like that,” Ivana tells me.
I stand there in silence for a moment. I can almost see my mother sleeping on the flat, white-tiled ceramic oven. I wonder where the kitchen was in this house. “The warmest place in the house,” she’d told me. The bricks retained heat deep into the night. Surely Katica would have lined the top with blankets. I could imagine my mom, a little girl, head on a pillow, nestling beneath a goose-down comforter. Katica would tickle her daughter’s belly, shake her head slowly, saying in a sing-song voice, “Ti si mala, mala, mala. Ti si mala, mala, mala.” My little, little one. My little, little one. The same words Marijana would one day say to her own daughter.
I continue scanning the walls, the floor, and something catches my eye. I stop breathing for a second. It’s a sled, with metal runners, just like the one my mom’s father once made her. Of all the things to be on the floor, there’s a sled. And even though I know that it couldn’t possibly be the one her father made her, it feels as if she’s giving me a sign, as if she’s whispering, Catherine, this is the house.
Ivana, Zdravko, and I stand outside, marveling at our discovery. A couple of women cross the street and ask us questions. One tall slender woman who speaks a little English says to me, “I knew this was the one you were looking for!” clapping her hands together. She lives across the street with her family. Quickly she invites us to her house so we can escape the heat. There is a wooden cross on the white wall in her kitchen. She gives me a glass of suk, fruit juice, and I watch Ivana, Zdravko, and the woman speak in raised voices, waving their arms excitedly in the air.
The woman’s two tall graceful, teenage daughters appear. They take me outside and introduce me to their goats and the new litter of kittens. We sit on the ground, and as the kitten pounce on our toes, they tell me how they hid in the basement during the war, and how they covered their ears during the bombings. “I was afraid. It was so loud,” one of them said to me, pressing her lips together.
Before I leave, the entire family comes out onto the porch. They discuss how the priest is away so I can’t go through the town records of the births, marriages, and deaths. They promise to look for me. And months after I come home, when they go through the church records themselves, they will write that they discovered that grandmother, Anka Lalić, was my mother’s godmother.
Ivana and Zdravko drive me to the cemetery on the hillside, and we search the stones for names. There aren’t any Kanjers or Smolčićs. We drive to Zdravko’s house beside the school. His three children, eight, ten, and eleven, one boy and two girls, hide from me shyly, then I catch sight of them, peeking behind the couch and through a crack in the doorway. Soon Zdravko’s wife is serving freshly baked pastries, and I’m watching videos of them dancing in Slavonian festivals, and their son is climbing up the doorframe like Spiderman, showing off for me.
All the grown-ups pile in the car, and we head to the church. I stand across the street, wondering if this is where my grandparents were married. I imagine my great- grandmother walking through the doors for mass. A small elderly nun, dressed in a black robe and a habit, unlocks the gates and we follow her in. I dip my fingertips in the holy water and cross myself with my right hand. Zdravko’s wife, who speaks no English, communicates with me by repeating certain Croatian words, and using sign language, pointing, gesturing, showing me where people confess their sins, holding her hands in prayer. Before we leave, I tug on Ivana’s sleeve and whisper, “Do you think we’ll still have time to go to the Sava River before my train leaves?”
“Yes, that’s where we will go next.”
We drive across the train tracks, through another village, which lies beside the Sava. We walk past a bombed-out stone church and a wandering cow. Then, for the first time, I see the Sava River. It is much wider than I imagined, and on this particular day it is smooth and calm. Ivana tells me that the Sava can rise quickly and has a strong current. The four of us climb down the bank and sit on a small wooden pier. I begin to pull off my shoes and hesitate. “Is it okay?” I ask a little embarassed of my urgency.
“Why not?” she waves her hand at me as if I’m being silly. Ivana squats beside me, her dress hanging over her knees. I sit on the edge of the wooden dockk and slip my bare feet in the water. This is what I’ve been waiting for. The temperature of the water instantly makes me want to jump in and swim. I sigh, swinging my legs back and forth, laughing. It feels as if I’m been baptized by the Sava.
Zdravko grins at me, kicks off his sandals, sits beside me, and puts his feet in the water. Zdravko’s wife stands, chatting with us, while Ivana translates. Across the river is Bosnia. Serbs are fishing on the banks, behind them is a village; I can see the spire of a mosque. The Bosnian hills become blue as the sun sets. Ivana explains that Serbs and Muslims live in the village across from us, and that Croatians from this side used to have vineyards over there. I ask if they can still go there. Zdravko and his wife shake their heads, no.
A lanky boy, about the age of fourteen, stands beside us on the pier. He dives into the river. We watch him swim, his legs kicking, his arms crawling forward, freestyle. When he gets to the middle of the river, he stands up. The water reaches his ribs. He turns around and swims back to the Croatian side.
Zdravko says something in Croatian; his eyes grow bright. Ivana translates. He says that he imagined what it must have been like to have traveled all this way to my mother’s village to find her house. His wife pats his arm tenderly. I gaze down and move my feet back and forth through the water of the Sava River.