On October 11th, Alfred and I traveled back to Valbona from Tirana. A strange feeling of weight lifting, the closer we get to the mountains – to home! It’s strange to travel with Alfred, because of course he must have done this journey a thousand times, seriously and probably, and for me, COME to think of it, it’s only the second, which is ridiculous, but I can’t help it. It’s like every Christmas morning any child in the world has ever known, and all of mine twice, or maybe four times, rolled up into one big ball and delivered with lashings of whipped cream. I’m going home! The turn-off through Lezhe, the funny little village by the water, the old woman by the spigot on the mountainside – they’re still there, and of course, what I dream the most of seeing, the mountains, my mountains, his mountains. My mountains. Only of course, smart mountains, you can’t see much of them. It is raining. It is raining as if it’s always been raining, with fog and mist complete. I scrub at the window of the minibus as we leave Bajrum Curri, trying to keep a patch clear, but it’s ridiculous, and I can’t, as even as I clear the condensation off the inside, more forms outside and raindrops chase each other down the glass, and truth be told, I don’t even care. I can’t SEE the mountains, but I can feel them all around me, and feel the air changing, crispening, beginning to snap a little. The rain beads on all the windows, the fog and mist wrap the ‘bus, and we are traveling blind. But the mountains, nonetheless, are there. I can feel them.
At Rilindja we get out – here are Naim and Lirim, grinning and waiting. “So!” says Naim, “You made it, did you?” And shakes my hand. I had thought we were going on to the family farms at Dunishe, but Alfred tells me “We’re staying here.” Oh? Oh, okay. Lovely (bukur!). Only, I have dreamed of seeing Sose and Rugova for months (well okay, only two, but they were two long months, and definitely plural), imagining their surprise at my return, my, dammit, homecoming . . . . So we sit and eat, gather ourselves together, and then “There are no clean sheets” says Alfred so, oh yes, I’m back now, finally back, because “Well, I’ll just run up to the houses and get some,” I say. And before you know it, I’ve bundled the old sheets into a sack, and gathered up my presents, and swathed myself in coat, hat and scarf, and am saying “No really, no bother, I’ll just run up the road.” It’s getting dark, and raining wolves and eagles. Alfred wants me to borrow his waterproof, but I want to wear my “going back to Albania” coat purchased with a gift from my grandmother. I’ve been waiting two months to wear it! Alfred says his coat is better for the rain, “But mine is so fashionable,” I say, and Naim laughs at me saying “Oh yes, Catherine – You’ll really impress the cows!” “Of course,” I say, “You always have to keep up with the Cowses” and Alfred does his Alfred act, and Lirim always thinks I’m mad, anyhow, and so I tear away from these dear men (boys?) and then, there I am, trudging up the road to Dunishe. I am alone, in the rain and dark, on the road, with the mountains around me, and I am so HAPPY that it would be unbearable to have anyone else around. I walk, and hug my sack of laundry to me, and could sing or laugh out loud, but I don’t and as I’m thinking “I’m here, I’m HERE, I’m really here,” I realize there are two women coming down the road, toward me, carrying umbrellas. I am just getting ready to say “Mirembrema” when I realize that one of the women is Sose, and just about the time I am realizing this, she is beginning to realize that I am ME – I see the same confusion and wonder dawning in her face, as my arrivals seem likely to always cause her. So I just rush forward and hug her. I’m not surprised she’s confused. Alfred, being Alfred, has not told her I’m coming. Typical. (But the mountains knew.) When she pulls herself out of wonder with a shake, she tells me she’s out looking for the cows, which have gotten out. I say I understand, that I’m just running up to the house, and we leave each other, carry on, on our ways. For some reason I thought she’d be more overjoyed to see me, but . . . . nevermind. I am so happy to be here, that my happiness is enough for everyone. “Ben shetitje” I say, meaning bej shetitje “YOU take yourself for a walk,” instead of “I go for a walk,” and Sose laughs and repeats it and we pass on. I struggle up the last twist of the road-which-is-barely-a-road, make the turn to the farms, follow the road, and pass, two cows, which look suspiciously like Sose’s, trying to get into an auntie’s neighboring hay-rick. Huh. But what do I know?
So I carry on to the house. I stand outside, struggling not to drop the laundry as I unlace my shoes. I knock on the door. I have dreamed and dreamed and dreamed about this moment. I knock on the door. No answer, so I push it open, and come on in. I am taking off my boots when Rugova emerges from the gloom at the end of the corridor . . . . . Ketrin? She says. PO! Eshte Une! We rush at each other, and giggle and hug, and before you know it, I’m in the kitchen, and we are having little Turkish coffees and babbling at each other in the baby pigeon shqip she is kind enough to speak to me. I deliver the laundry, collect new sheets, give presents, we sit in the kitchen, gossip as well as we can, and all is going well (well, well!) when there’s a knock on the door. A woman is standing in the rain at the back door, under an umbrella. She’s telling Rugova that there’s a cow standing in the mown pastures on the other side of the fence, behind the house. Rugova seems to be mystified as to why she’s being told this. “But Sose,” I try to say, “Sose says the cows are msising.” It’s too much for me to say, and even now, the cow could be on the move . . . “Prit!” I say, “Wait!” and pull on my boots, and rush out into the dark and rain, and around the fence, and there indeed is a cow. Well. It looks like one of the cows I met over the summer. In any case, given the evidence of the woman, it isn’t supposed to be in the field, so I think, at worst, I will lock this cow in our byre, and if it’s the wrong one, we’ll sort it out later. I look at the cow, and the cow ignores me, but seems nervous at my presence. Quick! There’s no time to lose! Except . . . . my useful bit of rope is with Alfred, down at Rilindja (I always try to carry one) . . . . so instead, I reach up, and yank the ends of my lacy knitted scarf out of my coat, unwrap it from my head and neck, and wonder if it’s strong enough. Well, cows are docile, aren’t they? So I only need to make the suggestion . . . . I wrap the scarf around the cow’s neck, and tug suggestively. I find that I might as well be tugging at the great wall of China. But this, I am increasingly certain, is Sose’s cow. So I wrap the delicate poofy silken stuff around the cows horns, and . . . . TUG. And then, annoyed, I take a step back, dig in my heels, and haul away for all I’m worth. It’s not a tall cow, luckily. I manage to drag the cow forward a step, or at least drag its head up, and stop it grazing. “Now COW,” I think, and then say out loud. And then begins one of the most wonderfully silly things I’ve been allowed to do in years. I DRAG the cow, forcibly, and against its will, step by step, through the rain and the dark and the mud. I am slipping in the mud, the delicate stuff of my scarf has turned to steel, and the cow is . . . . irritated. At one point I slip, and nearly go down, and the cow steps on my foot. My hat has slipped over my eyes, I am drenched in rain, the cow is only just ceding defeat, but I manage to haul her through the gate, slithering and slipping, and dragging away, my body weight and enthusiasm against hers. I get her behind the house, have just gotten wedged in the tricky narrow bit between the boulders and the wall of the house, just where you have to squeeze through to make the sharp left turn to the cowshed, we pop through, suddenly, and just when I’ve nearly gotten this renegade cow to the gate of the shed, I hear . . . . the cavalry! Rugova arrives, wrapped in a waterproof, and with shoes on three times the size of her feet. She sees the cowshed open, the gate ajar, and shouts “Ho!” sees me struggling with my cow and yells “HET!” . . . . and oh. I forgot “het” . . . the cow’s head goes up, it trips nimbly, rapidly, if guiltily through the gate, shrugging off my scarf as it goes, and I turn in time to see Rugova spin around, spy the other cow in a field to the right, march in, deliver a swift kick to the head, yell “Het!” once more, and the second cow skitters in to join the first. We slam the cowshed door shut, close the gate and wrap the wire round, and are laughing and slipping back down to the house. “Super-Us!” I yell, and Rugova laughs and points at her shoes, and we are back in the kitchen, and drinking coffee again, when we hear Sose come in. As ever, I don’t understand the exchange between them, wish I did, when Rugova tells her we captured the cows, but I don’t, and Sose goes off to milk them. Rugova and I return to the kitchen. After we finish our coffee, I say goodnight to Rugova, then pass out into the night. I turn up to the cowshed, and yell goodnight to Sose. She tells me to tell Alfred that the cows are found, and I say okay, I will, and then I set off back down the road, in the now pitch dark late night blackness, and rain, and I am alone, and there are wolves in the valley, and I am, I realize, as perfectly happy as it’s possible for a human being to be. The road is dark, and I stumble along it, pushing my rain-soaked hat out of my eyes, and there, in the distance, are the lights of Rilindja.
I’m home. I’ve come home.