“They’re coming! May God preserve us, they’re coming!”
The townsfolk crept forth from their thatched log shacks to watch the growling monsters approach. Loaded on their backs were the bowed bodies of the taken. The sweet bitter stench of fear spread before the monsters’ arrival. Forked lightning lashed the dark skies behind, but no life-giving rain fell.
“I’d hoped they’d miss us. Not take our young…not take our means of survival.” The Father lifted his face and his cross against another purge.
The devil’s leviathans, loaded with their miseries, crashed into the village quiet. A frantic cacophony of hens scattered to escape their grinding wheels. Grim reapers in round helmets brandished guns at the community gathered and leered at the fresh-faced girls. An overstuffed grey uniform stalked among the watchers, poking the choicest, then pointing to the trucks.
“Fifteen Minutes! Get your things. We are taking you now.”
Guns and lurid comments pointed at their backs, Katerina and Halina scurried inside behind their mother. They threw their few belongings onto rough quilts and tied their swags. Their mother removed a small icon from the wall, kissed it and tucked it in Katerina’s bundle. Into Halina’s she tucked her rosary beads.
“Come to the church now. You need the Father’s blessing.”
The old man touched each young face before him with heavy love. As Katerina climbed into the back of the mighty truck, he pressed a small blue-veined pebble into her hand.
“So you’ll know your way home.”
Katerina pushed the pebble into her pocket. The trucks lumbered away. The silent, shocked anguish of the captives was deeper than the separation of death. Katerina turned the stone in her hand like a holy talisman.
The desolation of the work camp was in a horizon of nothings. The sod was frozen and the vegetables would not grow. The guards were merciless. Halina began to cough. Blood stained her mouth rag more each day. She died.
Katerina and her comrades battled the icy earth to make her place in the ground. She placed the rosary beads on Halina’s breast but a kindly warden lifted them off and pressed them back into her hand. He took his own from his jacket and placed them in the ever-cold hands. They threw the clods on the rough coffin until a mound grew above it. Katerina pressed an imprint of her mother’s icon into the earth and picked up a small stone to put in her pocket.
The guards disappeared one by one ahead of an orange booming sky that crept closer each day. When the booming stopped a bedraggled group of refugees struggled by their camp, heading south. Katerina watched, clinging to the barbed safety of her prison. Fellow inmates, starved and beaten, stood beside her.
A young man with a bobbing kiss curl and shreds of a uniform spoke to them in their language and said peace had come. The fighting was over. They would not have to feed the enemy soldiers anymore. He urged them to collect their things and travel south. It was the way home.
Katerina spat on the doorstep of the camp hut as she left and kicked its flimsy, imprisoning walls. She bent to pick up a tear-shaped pebble. The road to escape reached out before her.
In the south, word reached the refugees of the torture and death that many repatriated home met on their return. The regime of Communism was inflicting new pain. Katerina turned her back on the tales of horror and sought a new road home. A white pebble, softly rounded, found a way into her pocket. She had made a small bag for her gibbers so she could turn and tell them to guide her journey.
Holding hands among the nervous throng marshalled before the massive, throbbing ship, Katerina and her new husband with the kiss curl waited to embark. The world around them pulsated with energy and hope. They were going to a new land. Katerina bent and picked up a grey granite chip, her last touch of Europe, and tucked it in her pocket bag.
Standing on the upper deck, Katerina saw the portals of her new home. A world of sparking blue and olive green welcomed her. A waft of eucalypt and a shout and wave from two barely dressed teenagers convinced her this was a safe haven. A solitary metal nut rattled across the deck from where two sailors were fixing a door. Katerina scooped it up and slipped it in her pocket.
The people were kind and the food was plentiful but Petrov had been sent away to the north into hot country to work in the sugarcane. She could not go with him. She patted her growing stomach and headed to a creek not far from the huts in the camp where she had found some clay. She loved its sticky feel when she molded it into bowls and animals – the shapes of a home. An elderly man visited her grove and examined her creations.
“These should be fired. They’re fine work. I can show you how to do this properly.”
“I am from the camp. I will need to ask.”
“Leave it to me. I have a pottery near here and I need workers.”
As he went away, she felt the first kick of her child. A well-washed gibber of olive and cream streaked beauty caught her eye. She reached into the shallow waters of the creek to get it and put it in her pocket.
When the child was born the potter gave her an opal. She traced its coloured veins and marveled at its splendor. She called her child Opal, a new name for a new country. She collected stones after the birth of each of her children, when Petrov built their shack which became a house, when the children started school and when the old man arranged her first exhibition at a gallery and when Petrov died. Each milestone was marked and she told them like her mother had told her rosary beads.
Now she had chosen her last stone, a simple rough granite block with an orthodox cross engraved on its flattest surface. Beside the cross her name and Petrov’s would be carved and the stone would be placed in the quiet little cemetery overlooking the lake when the time came for her to go home. She was ready.
Her rheumy eyes searched out the paper that said Opal should have her mother’s precious ancient icon, Helen should have the rosary that had moved in the hands of every generation of her family’s women since memory began, Peter should have the house his father built and her last, her most treasured child, her Kate, who was born with clay on her hands, should have this great panel of pottery mosaic – her final toil. Her work-hardened hands moved over the surface of the great work with love, touching each intricate tile. There was the Father’s gaunt
church with its rounded apse that shaped her village’s life almost since Christ walked. There were her mother in her scarf and her father at the plough. There were the lines of desolate beech trees pricking the grey sky with their fingers and the endless steppe. There were her stones, her last offerings, placed among her tiles as a road. Her eyes moistened as she moved her fingers across the stones that told her life, that marked forever her road home.