A narrow brick path let up to a collection of dozens of roses, all tucked securely into the wet ground. These flowers marked the entrance of a tall, tan-colored house with light blue window shades. I planted myself into the soft dirt and watched all the fluttering birds circling the structure. A squeaky window slid open, and a petite, delicate woman yelled out a greeting in Serbian.
It was my aunt, who rushed to the window, and down several fleets of stairs before she burst out of the door and embraced us all. A jumble of words I couldn’t sort out filled my ears, and I stood awkwardly nodding my head. I watched my parents chattering away and my brother responding in crisp, almost-fluent sentences. I tried to remember the few Serbian words I knew, but I could only recall the simple words that meant “yes” and “no.”
Aunt Sanja led my brother Stefan and me up two flights of stairs before she stopped and opened a door at the end of the hallway. It revealed a little blue bed with a nightstand for a companion. My brother, not caring if the room was meant for him or not, collapsed into the bed and closed his eyes. My aunt smiled and quietly shut the door. We walked across the hall to a small room that looked equally as comfortable. Brief exchanges of sentences were spoken before my aunt grinned and asked, “Be downstairs in — er — 20 minuta (minutes).” I hugged her eagerly, full of love at her efforts and so happy to see her.
After Aunt Sanja closed the door, I flopped down onto the bed and shut my eyes. A feeling of anxiety and worry washed over me. How was I supposed to communicate with my family? A knot formed in my stomach when I thought about their stressed faces when they tried to speak English for me. I wished I could be like my brother whose mind soaked in any language he studied — he was a polyglot, and I could speak only English.
I jumped up from the bed and unzipped the blue suitcase my mother had bought me. A little compartment revealed my journal, which I opened and began scribbling down Serbian phrases. My list held 15 words by the time my aunt appeared at the door again. Stefan joined us in the hallway, and we walked down the wooden steps to the family room.
We had not taken even three steps before my brother and I were bombarded with hugs and kisses. Bundles of happy voices fluttered around, and the feeling of belonging to this extended family lessened the uneasiness of my not being able to communicate with them. When I had a chance to look up, I saw my family packed onto leather couches and sinking armchairs. A welcoming followed, in which boiled potatoes and thick, brown steaks were laid out onto plates and served to everyone in the room. Dozens of happy phrases were told to Stefan and me again and again.
After every plate had been eaten clean, a layered cake covered in icing was set in the middle of the coffee table. The chattering reduced to softy, sleepy whispers as the dessert was scooped onto plates, and I settled back into my chair to enjoy it.
When I awoke the next morning, sunlight was leaking through the little window onto my face. Back at home, I would have usually stayed in my bed and stared up at the ceiling for a while, but excitement overtook common habit, and I leaped from the soft gray sheets onto the wooden floor. The fresh feeling of being the only one awake — or so it seemed — in a silent house swept over me. I rummaged around in my suitcase until my hands felt my rubbery shoes, and I quickly put them on. I slowly opened the door, trying to avoid any squealing noises, and slipped out into the hallway. A window framing a scene of a cherry tree grove cast light over the carpeted hall.
I carefully made my way down the steps, not wanting to wake anyone. Downstairs, someone had decorated the kitchen with ruffled blue flowers and had drawn the curtains up with lace. A bowl of pretzel sticks was on the table, surrounded by a few crumbs. I was unsure whether they were leftovers from the previous night, or if someone was already up and was perhaps outside in the backyard.
A burst of soft wind and warmth met me at the door, and taking a step out, I welcomed it gladly. The trees full of almost ripe cherries rocked back and forth, and the rising sun reflected onto the wet roses. A few blades of grass stuck out of the crowd but otherwise, the lawn had been neatly cut. An old man hobbled by on the dusty dirt path that was separated from the summer house by a tall gate. A few chickens were scattered behind him, clucking at the distant hills that awaited them.
A stone path led me around the house and onto a dusty plot of earth. It was occupied by only a splintery yellow doghouse. I stood silently, wondering if whatever was in there would accept my presence easily. After taking a strangled step toward the small living space, I retreated and jogged down the grassy hill to a small shelter. I decided to wait until my parents were up to become acquainted with the creature.
Watching a grill smeared with coal did not seem as appealing as resuming my expedition, so I bounced off of the picnic bench I was sitting on and bounded down the steps that emerged from the bright field. Large, brown bricks substituted for a sidewalk, and I leaped from each one, daring myself not to step on the patches of grass. Gleaming brightly in the midst of the morning scene was a fenced basketball court. The flooring was painted a dark green, reminding me of a shady forest floor.
I skipped down an adjacent path toward two twisted trees that cradled a plastic red swing. Light brown ropes emerging from the swing were attached to the branches above. I hopped onto the swing, where I pushed my feet forward and swung them back, rocking underneath the tree’s maternal shadow in innocent pleasure. I jumped off fairly quickly, though, distracted by the echo of a soothing voice.
Another fence was stuck into the ground a few feet away, and cautiously looking over the edge, I saw overlapping green hills that guarded three distant mountains.
A bit farther down, I could see an old woman with a patterned headscarf tossing something to a jumble of gray and brown goats. She was speaking to her beloved animals in Serbian, but I could tell that she didn’t treat them as goats. She cooed to her pets as if they were human, smiling with delight when they made noises of appreciation.
The old woman slowly began moving down a path, and I followed her from my distance. I neared a tall brick structure inside a garden that rippled with popping yellow and red marigolds. Roses almost identical to the ones in the front yard neatly lined the wall, and small blue flowers were planted with petals untouched by the dirt. I would have gone on admiring the plants, but the woman was leading her goats farther down the valley below. I wanted to watch them gracefully walk the hills, but climbing up onto the brick wall was the only way to see them. My stomach churned, thinking of one misplaced step ... I retreated back up the hill and sat down to enjoy the soft, dew-covered grass.
The morning feeling and smells had seeped into the kitchen by the time I returned. My aunt and mother were frying palachinkas in a pan, turning over each thin pancake after a few moments. Stefan was setting the breakfast table a few feet away.
“Hey, Vera,” he said as he unscrewed the lid of a peanut butter jar.
“Have you been outside?” I asked quietly, as if the backyard was my own secret.
He shook his head and I determinedly said that we were going there after breakfast. Plates clattered onto the table as my aunt repeatedly urged us to eat. I stabbed my butter-knife into a chocolaty spread and gently layered the Nutella onto a pancake. My stomach was pleading for a bite as I raised the palachinka to my mouth, but I quickly set it down. Footsteps creaked from above, and I could hear someone bounding down the stairs. Damir, my cousin, appeared into the hallway and sat down by me.
“How’s it going, Princess?” he asked with a big grin.
I shoved him in the arm and reminded him that he couldn’t call me that anymore. It filled me with a bubbling feeling, though, that churned around my arms and legs and stomach.
Maybe I couldn’t speak in the same way as my family or understand them all the time. But perhaps we had a different way of communicating. A way where something else protruded from the stressed words we spoke. A kind of love found at the central core of our hearts, one that broke the barriers of language and proved that compassion was something physical; the deepest sort of love is one that is felt, not spoken. Yesterday, I was worried about embarrassing myself. I thought that even the simplest phrases would be clouded with differences in tongue, but now —
The front door opened, awoke me, and I stared out at the morning as I started eating again. Now, I wasn’t bothered by that. There was something almost magical about the summerhouse gardens. Something that washed away anxiety and replenished one’s mind with simple beauties. I realized that I was in Europe, in a backyard as captivating and treasured as a museum exhibit, with a family that I loved, and I knew that any fears about coming were miniscule and no longer mattered. My head was surrounded by newly found questions and an exploring urge that I had felt this morning was covering all over me again. I felt a new blossoming of courage spring within me. With my sword held high, I was ready to conquer the summerhouse’s gardens. I would walk on the brick structure and see the entire mountain range for myself, and I would meet the inhabitant of the doghouse.
“Princess,” Stefan said with a sneer. I glared at him, and stuck out my tongue. I knew I was going to need a bit more than a sword to confront that name.