The Empty Space: Our Lady of Sljeme by Lincoln Jaques

There is a mountain north of Zagreb city called Medvednica. Its peak, Sljeme—literally ‘summit’ in English—crowns the tip at 1035 metres. In its entirety—Medvednica (Medved = ‘Bear’) and Sljeme—is known by locals as Zagrebačka gora, or Zagreb’s mountain. Bears once roamed its slopes, but they are all gone now. In winter, it is silenced by snow. Life ticks down into slow motion; the trees stand naked against the elements. The haunting forest silhouette shrugs off the cold and retreats into an empty, serene acquiescence. In winter it is a place to where gods retreat: you can feel their presence amongst the bare branches and the twisted boughs of the great oaks. Your boots that crush an imprint into the virgin snow join the many who trail along tracks blanketed by the infinite whiteness, a monotone that seems to blur all of nature into one. The footsteps are of all those who brave the bitter cold to seek out solace far above the city mayhem, for even in the darkest of winter it is a spiritual place. Each breath of air is like a gentle slap to the cheeks, an awakening out of a long coma. Occasionally, the light from a crisp, blue sky is let in for a while to illuminate the forest floor like a reflection in fine porcelain.

But in summer, after the snows have melted, meadows brim with daisies and buttercups. Children flit among the trees like bees stalking flowers for sweet pollen. The forest closes in upon itself. The trees thicken into a claustrophobic canopy, casting dark shadows onto the tracks below. The forest floor is coated in a fleshy, gangrene layer of moss and algae, from which grows fungi of all shapes and sizes. Across the forested slopes, birds arc in a sing-song above the natural rooftop, and creatures squawk and scrackle among the dead leaves, fallen branches, and thick compost of bark, buds, flowers and abandoned chrysalises, sniffing out prey and juicy roots for feeding.

The trees themselves are still true, ancient oaks planted in feudal times. As you venture among them, you are easily soon lost in a world where peasants, hunting and trapping for their dinner, once chopped wood and gathered fallen twigs to warm their families in the simple huts that one can imagine are still hidden deep within the enchanted forest.

Along with the oaks, great beeches and fir trees mix in with maples, their leaves full and mature, with tinges of rust-reds and choleric yellows seeping into their edges. Elms and chestnuts stand among them proudly, motionless, strong under the pressure of all the renewal, the growing, the new rings forming year by year, the push and shove of the enclosing, competitive forest. Occasionally where there is a clearing and the sun is granted a fighting chance to filter through to the floor, clusters of venus-hair ferns grow as if from the foreground of a magical realist’s dream. Their small, clover-shaped leaves stretch out for the moisture dripped down to them from the fluted leaves above. There are common bladder senna, sacks of white flowers like Chinese dumplings; alpine auriculas, dandelions. Wildflowers wave against the lush green as if fresh from a great loom that spreads newly knitted floral carpets across the open fields at the break of each dawn. Beacons of light and dark etch through the ceiling, spray out from behind leaves, branches, new buds, freshly sprouting shoots. And the deeper you go, the more the entire, disjecta membra of trees and shade and rocks thicken, and if you look up it is as if you gaze through a huge kaleidoscope of cynosure light that lets in the new and exits the old like a great, shallow-breathing lung. It can only be the work of a woody architect with time enough on their hands to attend to the minute details through millennia upon millennia of trial and error.

It was up this 1035-metre stalagmite that we tramped one European summer. Since leaving Zagreb during the Croatian war for independence that raged there from 1991 – 94, my wife had returned several times. But we had been married barely a year, and this was to be our first trip together to her homeland. It seemed, as a rite of passage into being accepted into the family fold, her brother had suggested we hike to Sljeme instead of taking the drive up the only road, infamous for causing motion sickness, that snaked up one side and down the other.

It’s not long before we are left far behind, my new brother-in-law and his children, used to such Sunday strolls, are long since swallowed up by the mountain’s twists and turns. It’s a tough climb, and we find ourselves following a well-beaten track, although its definition is marred by the thick roots of the trees that grow either side. Often our path is obstructed by these foundations of nature, and part of the fun and challenge was clambering over them, to press ahead to the summit. Always pressing ahead, as one feels that one can never go back, never give up, once a foot has stepped upon such a place.

But it was the silence and tranquillity of this mountain that most captivated me. As the path becomes steeper, and the vegetation becomes more animate and clings to our clothing, the tendrils of branches as soft as hair whipping at our cheeks, I feel more alive, more in the world.  I think of Marvell’s The Garden, and a particular verse springs alive:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less, 
Withdraws into its happiness:
The mind, that ocean where each kind 
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these, 
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made 
To a green thought in a green shade.

I remember battling over this verse in a master’s class at university, which seems almost a lifetime ago now. It’s funny that after all these years those particular lines come back to me. Within the stilted confines of a tutorial room, it was hard to transport oneself into such a poem. The imagination was blunted by fluorescent lighting and threadbare carpets and unwashed windows that faced out into red-brick walls. But here, in the natural setting that the poem speaks of so beautifully, the true meaning of nature in turn speaks directly to the heart. Marvell’s poem deals with the grand issues, such as death, renewal, the gift of knowledge, the fall of mankind; followed by hope, salvation, the opportunity to change. It is a reflection of ourselves held up to the great mirror of the natural world. The ‘green thoughts’ and ‘green shades’ are gifts from nature, allowing us to create and re-create our own view of the world, to provide us with the highest gifts of all: ideas and imagination. It is here on this mountain that we are let free to wander and given the space to contemplate. But the greatest pleasure is to walk free amongst the trees and shrubs, to test yourself, to fail miserably, to win small victories, to aim high, to sink low, then get back on your feet and start again.

My thoughts are interrupted by a blackbird that breaks through the soft roof of leaves, its wings beating wildly. It rests on a branch; its weight bends the thin bough. It darts its tiny head around, its orange beak like a small flame against the backdrop of midnight-black feathers. Then, as quickly as it came, it’s gone, the bough shaken in its wake, an empty space. Another sign of the all too brief pleasures of life.

Finally, we reach Sljeme. It has cooled considerably at this altitude. The trees are sparse; there are more open green fields of wild grasses. It could be a scene from a Van Gogh. I notice a group of people milling about an old church. For our hard work, we are rewarded by having arrived at the shrine of Our Lady of Sljeme, perhaps the highlight of one’s trip to this sacred place. Built in 1932 on the thirteen-hundredth anniversary of Croatian settlement and subsequent conversion to Christianity, it is a small, puritan structure, built of green stones taken from Sljeme, simply designed and modestly presented. On the front corner, to the left of the entrance, an elegant bell tower tapers up into the treetops as if an extension of the forest itself. Mountain climbers, hikers and catholic pilgrims alike flock here each year for the famous Christmas Eve midnight mass. I step eagerly up to the entrance. It is suddenly empty and quiet, the small crowd melted away, and we are left alone. Inside, it takes a moment for our eyes to adjust to reveal stacks of seventies oak-stained and crimson-cushioned chairs pushed to one side. It is hollow and sparse. The floor is made of large granite slabs, worn smooth by the shuffling feet of the devout. You could fit no more than twenty souls in here. Candles burn at the altar, mysteriously lighting up the face of the Mary Magdalene, her head bent as if listening intently to the sorrows of the world. She clutches to her breast the crowned, infant Christ, innocent looking, not knowing what future yet beholds him. I breathe in the bouquet of melted beeswax and the bitter soot that has eaten its way into the mortar. As if the candles are not enough, spotlights bolted into the flagstones throw up a yellow light to illuminate the painting. It is cold, despite being the middle of summer. You can only imagine what it’s like in winter—the only sign of heating are two old, electric bar heaters either side of the altar. On the walls surrounding the altar are frescos, not of classical biblical scenes as you’d expect, but of flowers, their petals blooming with colour, purples, violets, reds, yellows and greens, so fresh and alive it is as if they have just been cut from the meadows outside. A testament to the importance placed on nature by those who built this chapel. Across the ceiling, and along the walls, there are a multitude of small gems. Motifs from Croatia’s art and history are laid out, framed by thick beams of polished oak, in bas-relief, giving it the look and feel of a minuscule Sistine Chapel. It is because of these motifs, along with what the building stands for, that this is such a beloved and protected monument. The designs of the motifs remind me also of the family crests and arms found in many English churches and stately homes. But these are more elaborate and complex; they speak of war, invasion, campaigns, Christianity, conversion, miracles, culture, customs, language…all of Croatia’s great feats of history are here. It is an imprint of Slavonic brilliance.

I stand for a long time and listen to the beautiful silence. Outside I can hear the soft rap of a woodpecker hidden up somewhere high in the trees. Then someone calls our names. I take my wife’s hand and we venture back out into the light once again.

About the contributor

Lincoln Jaques’ poetry and fiction appear in Mother Mary Comes to Me: A Pop Culture Poetry Anthology (Madville Publishing), a fine line (NZ Poetry Society), The Blue Nib, Mayhem, Shot Glass Journal, Poetry New Zealand Yearbook, and Flash Frontiers. He lives in Auckland.

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  1. Those are the landscapes/greens/forests of my childhood in Germany, not far from the Czech border. I also know Croatia rather well, but never took the path up the Sljeme. These forests are full of my old friends: elves, witches, werewolves, dwarves and you conjured them up with your words. Thank you. Rose

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