On 9th July 2017, my grandfather passed away.
It was not anything unexpected: he was an old man, a few months till his 80th birthday. He suffered from gout, and recently had a surgery in which he was discovered to have intestinal tumor, and only one kidney since birth (we were perplexed, as such an anomaly would have been discovered when he signed up for draft). We knew this day would eventually come, but refused to believe it.
My grandfather was, as the old timers in these parts would say, “of old forge”: even well into his seventies, he was capable of physical labour that many people today would consider taxing, such as wood-chopping and field work. Despite having broken both his right arm and right leg, and having his shattered kneecap replaced with a plastic plate with screws, he had no trouble walking, or even riding a bike. He lost both his parents in his early twenties, and had to quit his (at the time) respectable job as a security guard to take care of his younger siblings, whom he all outlived. To put it bluntly, he was tougher than nails.
And that is why his departure hit us like a volley of missiles.
When his coffin was brought to his home, none of the present even bothered to hold back tears. He was brought in his bedroom through the window, where Keeping was to be held, per old Orthodox tradition. I stayed there for the most part, along with two dozen more people, but before night fell, I went home, tired and exhausted of all the events of the day. My little sister was waiting for me, too young to properly understand what happened, and her wide grin and rib-crushing hug were enough to alleviate at least a fraction of my pain. I managed to fall into dreamless sleep soon enough.
Burial was held the following day. After it was over, and we returned home, my uncle took me aside to tell me something.
“Michele,” he started. He lived in Italy for the large part of his life, and prefered calling me ‘Michele’ over my birth name. “Something interesting happened last night.”
Knowing my uncle as a merciless trickster and joker, I tempered my nerves for what was to come.
“What exactly?” I asked.
“After you left,” he continued, “somewhere about 10 hours, we heard scraping under the window. When we went to check it out; we had a sight to see.”
“And what was it?” I asked again, steeling myself.
My face dropped from the anticlimax. I must’ve made one ridiculous facial expression back then, because my uncle chuckled, despite the situation.
“There were five of them,” he went on. “Small buggers, not even half the size of the usual hedgehogs. Could fit them in a teacup. We found four of them trying to climb the wall and into the room. One of them even climbed halfway up the stairs.”
I skeptically raised my eyebrow: each of those stairs were tall enough that not even an adult hedgehog could climb even one of them, much less the runts that my uncle described.
“They were really friendly. We even tried picking them up. They didn’t run or even struggle. They left around midnight, and we weren’t able to find them since.” He paused for breath, and frowned. “Are there any hedgehogs here usually?”
“Not that I know of,” I answered, just as confused.
We continued the discussion on the way home, although we weren’t able to conclude what happened. My uncle returned to Italy a week later.---
I awoke this morning to a crack of thunder. I was raining daggers outside.
‘Great,’ I thought to myself. ‘Stuck inside for the rest of the bloody day.’
I decided a nice big cup of Earl Grey would be much appreciated by me, and descended downstairs. As I poured boiling water into the cup, I remembered, for God knows which time, the hedgehogs, and their strange behaviour that day.And then it hit me.
The detail I missed earlier.
Seemed trivial, but it made almost perfect sence.
My grandfather was the second oldest of his siblings, whom he all outlived, as I said before. They all passed away before he did; of disease, accidents, war, or simply of old age.
He had two sisters.
And three brothers.
The oldest of which, Rade, loved to tell the stories of how our grandfather used to teach him to climb trees when they were children.
I still don’t know what to think.
In honour of
Milica Vukas (1925-1944)
Mile Vukas (1938-2017)
Rade Vukas (1943-2016)
Dušan Vukas (1952-1982)
Ilija Vukas (1956-2016)
Jovanka Kosanović-Vukas (1957-2010)
Written by Helel ben Shahaar