by Linly Wang (Australia)

I didn't expect to find Slovakia


We were a group of ten or eleven. Two were my flatmates, Sasha and José, and the others classmates of Sasha’s. For her birthday, we were invited to her hometown Dlhá nad Oravou in northern Slovakia. We were thrilled to be going; through a shaky all-night bus ride, a hungry layover in Kraków, a red-eye, and a midnight rattle along an unsealed mountain road in a van with the passenger door taped shut – “for safety”. Arriving at the town’s only hotel with the town’s only bar, Sasha’s uncles greeted us with mandatory homebrewed slivovica which we all tossed back, just thrilled to be there. The next day was the kind that smelled of good weather. It was late autumn. The sunlight was gentle but bright and washed the surrounding hills in gold. Sasha lead a hike that dipped into valley forests and rose onto grassy hilltops. We glimpsed towns below clustered on the banks of the Orava, its bends glinting and shimmering. Clouds cast dark patches that migrated together across the landscape, and a chill when they passed overhead. At some point, we found an apple tree. It was growing sideways, its branches pushing over a rotted fence. The apples were small and sour so we left them, uneaten, scattered at the base of the tree. As we scrambled up the next hill, I turned back to see wild boars scrounging through the remains. In the afternoon, the hike dispersed into small groups so each new wonder was discovered in cascading rounds of delight – Did you see the…? How great was the…? The final wonder was a crumbling church. Someone noticed the long shadows, that the wind had picked up, and suggested we turn back. The stone spire, still mostly intact, reached at least twenty metres into the air. The roof was gone but the walls were still standing well enough that the more adventurous of us could climb up to sit on long, cracked window ledges. At the base of a wall, José turned his phone flashlight on to investigate a hole in the ground just wide enough for adult shoulders. I had my own look and saw nothing. The hole absorbed all light hungrily and completely, but returned a faint echo. José shot a grin at me, whispered "treasure" and I felt I had no choice. A few of Sasha’s classmates were concerned but their curiosity rang louder. They lowered José down, legs first, holding a torch. I followed, deeply apprehensive, and the dark was immediately oppressive. José was swinging the torch around slowly, making weak arcs of light. I couldn’t speak. The air was stagnant, and bitter with age. It appeared to be a room no larger than a garage, though the ceiling was too low for José to stand upright. The beam of light from his torch settled low. I sensed José stumble a few steps backwards. The torchlight curved away wildly, then back. At first I couldn’t see more than irregular rocks piled knee-high up against the wall. But then I couldn’t breathe because they weren’t rocks. After surfacing, I still couldn’t speak. I felt whatever hung in the air below had seeped into me and I was reluctant to let it out above ground in case it spread. José, also silent, handed off the digital camera we’d taken with us and walked away. The others peered down at the tiny camera screen, agape. They counted out loud fifteen – “no, the picture’s cut off here so it’s probably closer to twenty” – human skulls. While we walked back along old train tracks, the others speculated: "a rushed grave" – "World War II victims" – "no, the church was more fourteenth century than twentieth" – "well, no one said they came together". Sasha had only disinterested suggestions – "it could be anything, maybe bandits, this was Slovak country after all". I lagged behind the group with José. Once, he pointed out the moon rising between hills, an uneven yellow, but otherwise we were silent.