Our passports were stamped and we were given permission to drive on. We drove along the potholed highway, noticing the cement-domed bunkers, and sandbagged trenches, remnants of the communist regimes’ paranoia of foreign invaders, and turned left toward Sotira on a single-lane road. At a crossroad, we turned onto a dirt road snaking along the river Drinos that over the millennia had carved an opening through the Mourgana Mountain range.
Stumped by the boulder blocking the road, we were about to turn back, when two men walking by showed us a goat path on the side of the hill that was passable by car.
The path was steep and rocky but Jon was confident he could drive across it. He ordered us out of the car in case the car rolled over the cliff, revved my father’s old Toyota, and drove up and around the hill while we waited nervously at the bottom. I sighed in relief when I saw the car on the other side of the boulder.
As we continued driving toward the village, Nicholas pointed at the ruins of a bridge on our left, its arches still intact, the river rushing underneath.
“Wow! That bridge actually exists. I thought I had imagined it,” I said.
Ahead, on the side of the road, an old woman bundled in a shawl, was warming her hands by the fire she had built in the snow.
Mother motioned for Jon to stop the car. She cranked down the window. “What are you doing out here in the cold?”
“Who’s going to mind the animals?” she replied. A few goats grazed nearby, their snouts burrowing through snow for some tender green shoots.
“Any news of the village?”
“Everything is the same, just emptying of young people. Babo Kitchena died a couple of weeks ago. She was old and suffering. Now she’s at peace.”
“Life to us,” mother uttered the traditional blessing. “I heard of her death. I would have liked to come to the funeral but the weather was so bad. Stay warm,” she called out as the car headed toward the village.
I recognized the stone grain mill by the side of the river, and around the corner, the first houses of Sotira were in sight. Within the crags of ragged mountains, in a spit of land by the side of the river and up the hill, approximately two hundred houses built of gray stone and sloping slate roofs, clustered together. The village was desolate, the only signs of life were smoke billowing out of a few chimneys, and in the distance we saw a black clad woman, bent over and shuffling toward the church at the center of the village.
It seemed like a dream to be here, after so many years. My eyes traversed across the roaring river in front of us, snow-covered fir and plane trees at the base of the hill, and low-lying bushes up the gravely hill, to the top, where I found Babo, a rocky protrusion in the shape of an old woman. She was smaller than I had expected; in my dreams the old woman dominated the sky.
“That’s where we hiked on the night of our escape,” I told my family, pointing to the path we took to reach Babo.