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Drinking with the Mayor of Mariková

By Harry Ledgerwood

Art by Isabel Walter

In Slovak, catastrophe is katastrofa. When meeting our guide for the day – Miroslav, the Mayor of Mariková in Slovakia – the first word that came out of his mouth was katastrofa. My girlfriend’s father caught buying his host beer at the village supermarket was a catastrophe of successful custom. The two men exited the shop carrying baskets of beer, spirits, and various snacks. I had met Miroslav a week prior whilst my girlfriend’s mother, whose family holds a long connection to the area, was paying her taxes, in cash, in the village Obecný úrad; a plain, cream building which sat across from a graveyard and held both the Post Office – the source of post, newspapers, and local gossip from the ladies behind the plexiglass screen – and the Mayor’s Office. Today, the man who I had seen only in proper mayoral attire was in cargo shorts and a khaki t-shirt; through his clothing, he assimilated from the thin strip of civilisation that wound through the valley into the trees and moss on each side.

We shook hands and he invited the four of us – my girlfriend, her parents, and myself – into his jeep, which brandished a badge on its bonnet indicating his status as a hunter. Miroslav, like many of the men I had met in the region, had a practical build with strong and worn hands and a rigid handshake. He had white hair and a thick moustache that reached the corners of his mouth and no further.

We left and headed up the opposite side of the valley to where we were staying, high into the Javorníky mountains. The mayor knew everyone in every house. Many of them were not owned by locals, but rather holidaymakers, and stayed empty almost year-round until the weather warmed in the summer. Further uphill, the houses became more scattered but Miroslav’s understanding of not just the current occupants but the history of tenants prior never wavered. Some areas would appear abandoned if not for the electricity lines running through the thin trees towards them. These powerlines were a reminder of the Communist regime that lasted forty years; all being equal, no man was to go without electricity. Thus, even the remote settlements – in which those who lived in them had an hour’s walk each way to reach the bus stop at the bottom of the valley (before a further commute by bus to their workplaces) – were supplied with power.

Our car thumped along the forest roads as we rounded the mountain. Few cars could reach this area, perhaps because only a few drivers were as skilled as ours to navigate mudslides, puddles, half-paths, and fallen trees. At one point the sideways tilt of the road was so steep that all I could see out of the mucky back window was the clean blue of the sky cracking through the ruffle of treetops.

When we stopped Miroslav reached back and handed me binoculars to admire the landscape. We trekked up a steep incline towards a lookout point he had been promising to take my girlfriend and her family for years. It was called Rozhľadňa Orgoňova Kýčera Beside the simple thin-beamed tower that filled a gap in the treeline was a dense information board with the history of the area’s namesake: the pagan hero Orgoň.

As Christianity slowly overtook the region, and the world, Orgoň would not abandon his devotion to Paganism and the gods he placed his faith in. With each settlement gradually being converted, Orgoň took to the mountains to hide from the prosecuting missionaries. One night, black clouds wrecked the sky and a storm fell upon our hero, who began questioning where his gods had gone. After long, the clouds were gone, and so, too, was Orgoň. Two symbols remain of Orgoň today. The first is a perfectly carved wooden statue of his likeness overlooking the slope down to the settlements tht rejected him. The second is a series of rocks dotted about the area with markings and symbols believed to have appeared after the storm, after Orgoň disappeared.

Atop the lookout tower, Miroslav recounted the later history of the region. Miroslav is ex-army – twenty-seven years – and proud of the region for its historical position as an important battleground of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His gold teeth shone through his cheeky, endearing grin as he claimed that the mix of nations that have passed through the region is, “What makes the women so beautiful.”

My Slovak being particularly poor, his encyclopaedic knowledge of the region was translated by my girlfriend’s mother. After gesturing towards the distant mountains and waving his hand across the valley, he moved that same hand towards the clear bottle he had been inconspicuously holding throughout his speech. I understood this. Slivovica – a powerful drink made of distilled plum – was commonly given to family, neighbours, guests, and passers-by in a gesture of goodwill. He filled five plastic cups and handed them to us.

Na zdravie,” said Miroslav and raised his hand. We touched cups and drank. Miroslav told a brief anecdote about how they used to touch knuckles wrapped around the glasses, rather than the glasses themselves, to stop the factory foreman from hearing them drink during a shift. Skin on skin didn’t make the same clink.

He spoke more about the region’s history. Stories of men held at gunpoint by enemy soldiers and neighbours betraying and killing neighbours are worn through the tough exteriors of those who inhabit the valley. These were the true catastrophes of the land and Miroslav’s tone was strict, like a schoolmaster, as he told them. He filled our glasses again. Looking around at the sweep of the valley painted with hamlets and red-roofed settlements, I saw vast beauty and a front of resilience against a history marked with violence and poverty. We drank another and headed back to the car.

The car journey to Miroslav’s hunting cabin was rockier than the journey up and my girlfriend’s mother had a grip on the roof handles that could strangle a snake. As we approached the settlement he stopped outside a cabin and sounded the horn – a stout shirtless man from Prague came out and greeted us. On hearing I was Scottish he replied: “Aren’t we all?” I am not quite sure what he meant, but it is true that Slovakia and Scotland indeed feel like sisterly countries connected by histories of war, oppression, and alcohol.

Bounding down deeper into the small settlement with only a handful of houses, we turned the corner to Miroslav’s cabin. All at once, the forest opened up to reveal a wealth of fruit trees and fresh air. Plum trees stretched across the car window and continued down the hillside endlessly. No cars could be heard; only birdsongs and rustling leaves filled the silence. As the leaves fluttered in the gentle wind they changed colours, adding to the infinite greens that soaked the area.

Miroslav’s hunting cabin had a wooden porch overlooking the countryside. The inside was cosy with small windows, lots of drink, and game mantled upon the walls. A large set of stag’s antlers watched over the living room area. Miroslav told us the method of counting its points – always count the side with the most.

Outside the cabin was a stone-bricked seating area with a roof and another set of stag’s antlers. In the middle was a round table and he joked that it was like King Arthur’s and that no one was unequal at his feasts. We sat down and Miroslav produced another bottle of distilled fruit, most likely one of the multitudes available from the surrounding trees, and poured it into crystalline shot glasses. We were on Hruškovica and Radegast Czech beer now and would also be served multiple shots of Jablkovica and Borovička throughout the course of the afternoon. We were also served food; hearty, feel-good, feel-full food.

Shortly after arriving Miroslav fired up the kotlík – a black cylindrical cooker with a curved chimney coming out of the side and an open top on which he placed a wide pan. The meal consisted of thick-cut pork and Oštiepok (a cheese traditionally served with a plum sauce) cooked in pork fat accompanied by potato skins filled with Bryndza cheese and topped with bacon. All seasoned and cooked to perfection.

When we had finished, Miroslav hurried towards his cabin and wheeled out a miniature cannon he had built himself. He learned learned the basics from his military days. It was a fine model, with a wooden carriage, wheels, and a black barrel. He poured gunpowder into the top and then scrunched up a small bit of kitchen foil into a perfectly packed ball and loaded it into the front. Like a general, he ordered us to step back as he faced it down the hill towards his neighbours. He lit the fuse, and within a second, the mayor had unleashed his wrath upon the valley as the tinfoil cannonball flew through the low plum trees and landed softly on the grass. He grinned a proud and delightful grin and I can imagine our delighted laughs were heard in the neighbouring settlements. We packed our things and, in his final act as host, Miroslav offered to walk us down back to where we came.

Passing over streams and through puddles it seemed as if we were some of the lucky few who would ever see this pocket of the world. Glimpses of old landmarks, houses, and stables stood overgrown with leaves and trees. But Miroslav knew what was once there and constantly made sure to share the stories of these places. We climbed up a steep slope towards a large opening in the trees where it looked as if another drop would be waiting for us on the opposite side. Instead, when we reached the top we saw a mass of fresh tree stumps and tire tracks. Behind these stumps, further towards the main road, the trees were sparse and looked thinner, weaker. Miroslav ran up to a stump and looked beside it before shaking his head. We looked over and saw a cluster of glass that had been crushed by a large vehicle passing through. Slowly Miroslav lifted from his pocket a single shot glass he had wished to fill. Nature and alcohol, the beating hearts of this region, had been destroyed under these giant tires: katastrofa.

HARRY LEDGERWOOD is from Ayr, Scotland and now lives in Oxford where he is currently studying an MSt in Creative Writing.


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