I was home to Slovakia for my first summer after college, feeling thoroughly confused by my bicontinental life and the challenges of reintegrating into my family after almost a year away with only a Christmas visit in the middle; not to mention trying to remember how to speak Slovak and figure out where I fit into the lives of my friends when things had changed so much for all of us.
The weather was beautiful, though: a laquer-blue sky over the red tile roofs of our little town, a bright summer sun, and the apricot trees waving around their little green unripe fruits in the breeze. I was sitting in a crowd in the courtyard in the back of the Lutheran church-complex. From the outside it didn’t look like a church at all because it had been built in the 1700s under the Patent of Toleration, when the Habsburg emperor Joseph II decided it wasn’t worth his trouble to exile, imprison, or enslave Lutherans anymore. He decreed they could build their own churches so long as there was no belltower or any other distinguishing churchly marks. Over the previous two years the back parts of the church had been renovated into a diaconal center with guests rooms and meeting spaces and a dining room whose kitchen was run by church ladies. It always smelled good there.
This particular occasion was not dinner but a performance by the youth. I didn’t really know what was going on (a not uncommon experience in Slovakia). Someone started reading what I took to be a short story, or possibly a poem. Three or four girls started dancing, a kind of liturgical dance. The two evidently went together.
Then the curious thing happened. The Slovak was much too fast for me to keep up with. I couldn’t figure out what the poem-thing was about at all, except for a handful words that slowed down long enough for me to snatch them out of the ether. The dance was either too abstract or too interpretive to correspond to the poem’s action. Yet the synergistic effect riveted me. I was deeply moved for reasons I could not understand. I remember sitting there, struggling to make sense of it, all the way till final moment as one of my dancing friends, Ina, thrust up triumphant hands to the sky. I shared the cathartic moment without having any idea how or why we had triumphed.
Afterwards I asked another friend, Soňa, if she could get me a copy of what was read. She passed along a photocopy with the poem “Matka Alžbeta”; I don’t think the author’s name was even on it. I took it home and started to work on reading and then translating it.
Understand that this was back in the Stone Ages before Google Translate or even a computerized dictionary, not like there would have been tons of options in Slovak anyway. I had a mid-sized yellow Slovak-English dictionary and had to look up every word I didn’t know, which somehow now seems unreasonably time-consuming. Sometimes the semantics would throw me off so completely I’d have to set that line aside and jump ahead; and then, in that mysterious way that happens with translation, I’d go back to it and discover that in the meanwhile my subconscious had sorted it out. I finished the poem, and was more amazed than ever. What a story. Truly, a triumph.
I never knew what to do with it. With each computer and word-processing upgrade it got passed along to the next electronic generation. Every so often I’d go hunting for something else and re-discover it, to be wowed once again. I read it at an open-mike night at seminary. The only person who spoke to me about it afterwards was another young woman who lived on my hall, someone I knew to be troubled and struggling mightily with her faith. She asked for a copy, tears in her eyes. She later died under strange and tragic circumstances. I hope that she drew some small comfort in her brief unhappy life from Matka Alžbeta.
Some time after that I asked another Slovak friend, Zuzana, to see if she could track anything down about the poem. She found out the author but otherwise hit dead-ends everywhere she turned. I wanted to publish it in Lutheran Forum but had no idea how to manage the international rights. So the poem went to sleep again.
In the past year I’ve been immersing myself in Slovak history and gradually relearning the language as I work on a book, and so it’s no surprise that Matka Alžbeta called out to me once again. I don’t think she’s content tucked away in a virtual folder anymore. It was time to offer her freely to any takers without subscription or firewall. I hope her terrible and beautiful story will bless many more; she’s certainly been a blessing to me.