I felt repeated taps and repeated grabbing of my shoulder as I was asleep. The sound that no man wants to hear when he is in a deep slumber is, “Vladimir, wake up. It is time to go to work.”
I slowly opened my eyes at the sight of my father already wearing his work uniform. Black corduroy pants, with dark brown and black wool flannel. I could see my reflection in his black-rimmed round glasses. The only light in the room was coming from the sun starting to rise because it was the crack of dawn.
My father looked at me with concentration, with those bright blue ocean-like eyes. His face looked serious, but I wasn’t sure what he was serious about.
“Let’s not be late. We have one hour to go to work. Hurry up!” He said again as he left my room.
I looked over and saw my older brother, George. George was dressed in black corduroy pants with a black corduroy jacket. George looked at the ground as he buttoned up his jacket. George always looks at the ground when he gets dressed. I am not sure why.
“Vladimir, we are always waiting for you. Hurry up!” George said as he walked out of our room, without giving me a look.
I ripped off the white sheet that covered me, jumped off the mattress that was laid on the ground, and quickly found what I hoped were clean clothes. I chose black slacks that barely fit me anymore because they were hardly above my ankles and a black, wool button-down. I grabbed my peeling leather jacket and put it on as I ran into the kitchen that was just outside of mine, George’s, and Vera’s room.
Vera is my older sister. Vera is normally awake before everyone else. Vera is probably behind the house feeding the chickens, the two cows, the bunnies, and whatever animal shows up. I am not sure what she is doing now.
“Vladimir, you don’t have time to sit down and eat. I put your food in this napkin.” My mother said as she handed me a crinkled napkin that covered two pieces of cheese, one slice of a cut tomato, and a piece of bread. “Thank you, mami.” I said and gave her a kiss on the cheek as I ran outside to meet my father and George.
“Vladimir, your boots!” My dad yelled as I looked down and saw my bare feet.
“Shit.” I mumbled as I gave George my food and ran back into the house and into my room to put on white socks that covered the part of my leg the pants did not cover.
I quickly laced up my peeling leather boots on the porch and ran to my dad and George.
The three of us closed the creaking gate to our house and started to walk down the dusty concrete road toward the mountains that lived across from our village. Ahead of us, we saw other sons and fathers walking up the mountains.
The horizon shifted into sky blue as the shades of red and orange began to vanish. The only red and orange left were in the clouds. The sun was not bright enough to shine through the trees as it normally does at noon.
The crisp, cold air in the mountains always made it feel like you took your first breath in life, and it made you feel invincible. The bright green trees that were blooming in the summer began to turn red, brown, or yellow as the season started to change. If you were quiet enough, you could hear the streams of water nearby and hear the fish jumping in and out of it.
It was a shame that the purpose of this hike was only in favor of the Communists so that they could have their energy and leave nothing for our people and take from us. Turning off our power at night to save "their money".
Soon, the crisp air would be masked by the smell of fathers teaching their sons how to smoke the cigarettes they rolled the night before. I heard a father whisper to his son, “Smoking helps you more than these communists will.” Out of fear, there was a Communist in the trees waiting to hurt anyone who spoke against them and their party.
My father, brother, and I hardly speak to each other when we go to work. We keep quiet until we are back home. I walked in the middle of them and noticed that they both looked toward the ground while they walked. They both had the look of tiredness drooping on their faces. I was the only one who looked ahead.
The more we walked, the sounds of drills and machines became clearer. My breathing started to become uneven because the smell of coal started to take over my body. Your body gets used to it the more you are around it. The crisp air that filled my lungs was being polluted with black air. Finally, we arrived at work.
There were three giant buildings cemented together with crimson and gray bricks. Standing side by side. These buildings produced electricity by burning coal in a boiler to produce steam. There were four rusted orange drill machines that we would take underground and remove coal from the Earth. Inside one of the buildings was an elevator that took men underground.
Behind these buildings, there was a stream of water where we would splash our faces when our faces became too black, or if we became thirsty. The mountain water was always cold and refreshing. The mountain of rocks behind the water stream was where we all sat for our 30-minute break. The only break we would get was during the entire 12-hour workday. For seven days a week.
“ALL OF YOU IN YOUR UNIFORMS NOW! WORK STARTS AS SOON AS YOUR UNIFORM IS ON!”
Darkness soon took over the sky, with only the moonlight lighting our way back home. My co-workers were quieter than they were in the morning. The only sound in the night was our feet walking on the rubble-filled road, and the snapping of twigs. I was basking in the smell of wet wood from the short rainfall that happened in the middle of the day. All of us were wet. All of us were covered in soot. All of us were tired. We had another half hour of walking before we were home.
I looked at my father and George. Again, they only looked at the dark ground while I looked ahead.
“Why do you always look down?” I asked George.
“What?” George replied.
“You always look at the ground when we walk to and from work. Babi does too.”
George shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I didn't notice I do that.”
“What are you talking about, Vladimir?” My father joined in.
“Babi, you and George always look down at the ground when you walk. Why?” I asked.
My father looked at me like I was crazy. My father turned his head and said, “It’s nothing.”
But why? All I could think was they were depressed or something. They never seemed to enjoy the beauty of nature. To see the different colors of birds, to see the bunnies or deer, the color of the sky, and the changing color of the leaves and trees. Why am I the only one who enjoys looking at this?
There has been a voice echoing in my head for the past few days. The voice kept saying “keep going forward.” I wasn’t sure what that meant. I thought I was going crazy. I thought that I want more in this life than what I am doing now. I don’t want to live under these rules. I don’t want to wake up at the ass crack of dawn, hike a mountain every morning in any weather condition, only to be covered in soot, and make eight dollars a week. For what? Why should I work hard so someone else lives better than me, or my family? I work hard. I deserve to live a nice life. I should listen to Greek music without sneaking into the woods, with the radio in my ear having the fear of a communist coming to shoot me for listening to Greek music.
Last night, before I fell asleep, I thought about fleeing to Greece for better work. Maybe it was better money. But there are soldiers on both sides of the country who are guarding the borders to prevent any crossing. Whether it is coming into Albania or going out of Albania. I could not think of a safe way to cross the border without being arrested or killed.
Even if I crossed into Greece, they cannot know I am Albanian. Do I learn Greek? Do I pretend I am mute, or deaf? Do I act like a donkey? Should I cross the border safely and then worry about that? How can I leave my parents and siblings, and my other family behind? I doubt George would come along with me. Vera, definitely not. My parents are in their early 50s. They can’t walk the way they used to. I’m 21 years old. I can’t stay in this communist country forever. I won’t allow myself to.
Wait a minute. The Pindus.
“George. Let’s go out for drinks with Keti.” I spoke.
“Vladimir, it’s eight p.m. We must be awake at six.” George said almost disappointed.
“George, one drink. I need to talk to you two.”
George looked at me with that same drooped face and said, “Okay.”
Finally, we came down from the mountains and walked into our village. Keti, our cousin, lived in the city that was a 10-minute walk.
“Babi, we are going out for drinks at Valbona with Keti. Tell mami.” I told my father as he looked at George and I was confused. He turned and opened the gate to the house and went home.
“You want to what?!?” Both Keti and my brother yelled when I told them I wanted to flee to Greece.
“Shhhh. No one can hear this conversation. You don’t understand. It would be good for the three of us! We are still young.” I spoke.
“Vladimir, we have a job,” George said.
“But it’s killing us slowly George. We can breathe fresh ocean air. Have the sand between our-”
“And get killed, Vladimir. Either by communists or mami.”
Keti and George sipped on their raki. As they looked at me as if I were an alien from a different planet. I sighed and ate a piece of cheese.
“How do you plan to sneak over?” Keti asked, breaking the silence.
“The Pindus Mountains.” I replied.
Both started laughing at me. I rolled my eyes and sipped my raki.
“You? You’re going to walk through the mountains? And hope to stumble into Greece?” George asked as if he was mocking me.
“I don’t see you having a better idea,” I replied.
“My better idea is living,” George replied.
“How do you know there aren’t any soldiers in those mountains?” Keti asked.
“I don’t. But none of those pigs are brave enough to stay with the bears, or wolves.”
“And you are?” George said while chuckling.
“Vladimir, it’s almost a three to four-day walk. How are you going to manage it?” Keti asked.
“I save my money. I can kill with the knife I carved, and bring my own food. I can bring a blanket.”
Silence took over the table. We all looked at each other. I still was not sure how I was going to tell my mother and father about leaving. I was not sure how I was going to quit my job, or if I was simply going to leave. All I knew was that in three months when my birthday arrives in June, I would no longer be here.
“Okay. Let’s do it.” Keti broke the silence again.
George and I looked at him surprised. Silence took over the table once again. The only sound was the belting laughter of the town drunks with the mixed conversations and the overwhelming smell of raki and cigarettes. Then, darkness erupted in the building. Everyone went quiet. We all looked outside the windows and noticed pitch black.
“Everyone, time to pay! The lights have been turned off since it is 10 p.m. Curfew.” The bartender yelled in the bar. With that, we put down one dollar and left the bar to go back home.
It was midnight. It was time for Keti and me to leave. He came to my home since it was riskier to leave the town. As Keti and I put bread, cheese, onions, tomatoes, and cherries into our bags, my father came from out of his room and approached me saying, “Are you two ready to leave?”. Keti and I nodded yes.
We walked outside of the house and stood next to the gate. My father and I looked at each other. “Keti, can you start walking? I will catch up.” I spoke. Keti nodded, opened the gate, and started walking.
“Have a safe journey. Please write, or call if you can. Let me know where you are and if you are safe. We will worry about you.” My father said.
I grabbed him and pulled him into a hug. Tears were leaving my eyes like an open faucet. Soon, he grabbed me just as tight, and I heard him sniffle.
“Babi, calling you will be the first thing I do when I walk into Greece.” I said choking between tears.
Soon, we let go of each other. My father looked at me with those same ocean-blue eyes, now drowning in water.
“Vladimir, don’t stop looking ahead.” He said to me as he kissed my forehead.
I left home and caught up with Keti. As we neared the entrance of the mountain, I looked back and saw my father standing in the middle of the road next to the house. Staring at us. He would also be staring at us the moment our figures disappeared into the mountains.