There are some places where you would think that until we arrived, the locals had never seen a woman hold a shovel. This could be reasonably inferred from the reactions of said locals upon seeing a woman hold a shovel.
But I’m here to tell you that this is a lie.
I have seen a Croatian woman hold a shovel, and she is a force to be reckoned with.
Gospođa Fruk is the owner and landlady of Fruk, a self-catered accommodation of sorts, frequented by our team of archaeologists, and, as far as I know, anyone else who might be hopelessly lost in rural Eastern Croatia. Located on one of the two main roads in Vrbanja, Fruk welcomes its visitors with a warm peach-colored exterior and flower garden with enough gnomes to take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in a death match.
A stout older woman with short white shiny hair, Gospođa Fruk is the embodiment of the dictionary definition for “matriarch.” She is a shrewd businesswoman and attentive mother, grandmother, and wife. One day I asked her if she ever sleeps. Of course, she said. What a strange question. I don’t think it’s a strange question at all, and frankly, I don’t believe her.
Normal literary custom suggests that it is conventional to say that one rises when the rooster crows. I haven’t been on many farms, but every rooster that I’ve encountered in Croatia appears to suffer from chronic insomnia. One time Andreja even showed me a rooster that crowed all night long while wandering in front of traffic. To say that Gospođa Fruk woke with the roosters would be inaccurate because the roosters just seem to stay awake forever making as much noise as possible until they die of exhaustion. I’m sure the roosters are certainly a contributing factor, but more than likely it’s her military-grade worth ethic that compels her to be awake at dawn, known in America as “that-small-period-of-time-during-which-it’s-socially-acceptable-to-eat-at-a-Denny’s.”
It is quite possible that Gospođa Fruk is not a human, but rather some sort of bionic woman crafted from high-efficiency biomechanics, computers, and synthetic skin in a top-secret research laboratory with a grant to design a superhuman.
During my time at Fruk this summer, every morning after hitting the snooze button on my alarm fifty-three times, the fifty-fourth sound I would hear was always Gospođa Fruk sweeping the floor, her long calico dress swishing along with the motion of the broom. After that, she would feed the geese, water the plants, wash the laundry, hang the laundry, change the beds, work in the office, and on occasion when we’d return, we’d find her planting new flowers in places we didn’t even realize could accommodate more flowers. I don’t know about you, but if I water a plant, that’s enough chores for a week.
And these are just the things that we saw her do outside. I’m not sure what she was doing inside, but I’m sure she wasn’t lounging on the couch reading O Magazine.
You will not be surprised then to know that Gospođa Fruk, despite being a woman, is well practiced in the handling of shovels. She is so well practiced, in fact, that she wields it like a wizard and wields a wand, making others gasp in awe at the versatility of such a seemingly simple tool.
To be fair, I was not present when the following events took place. That said, the story has been told to me so many dozens of times, that I am comfortable enough to retell it.
One thing that a respectable landlady and businesswoman will not have in her guest rooms is a snake. This is wonderful for anyone who, again, happens to get hopelessly lost in rural Croatia because there are a lot of them and they’re huge. The last thing most normal people with well-functioning brains would want is to wake up next to a snake the length of your entire arm span. This season, the snakes had been doing particularly well because of the floods, so there were even more of them than usual. Wonderful if you’re a snake, not so great if you’re an archaeologist whose trench walls keep falling down because they’ve been undermined by snake holes. Is it just me or is the wall hissing again? This ain’t no Chamber of Secrets, Beady Eyes. Move on out.
As long as you aren’t the Crocodile Hunter, and you aren’t because he’s dead, chasing snakes out of the trench all day only to come home and find one in your reptile-free-sanctuary would be at least a little bit annoying.
Skippy, the site director’s dog, felt the same way. After a busy day of eating mice and frogs in the hot sun, Skippy was in no mood to be dealing with intruders and made her feelings known to Lisa, Andreja, and Gospođa Fruk. Gospođa Fruk’s husband emerged from inside to see what sort of problems the archaeologists and their reprobate dog were causing this time (the previous commotion had been caused by Skippy killing one of their chickens, so his concern was not unfounded).
Gospođa Fruk bent down and looked under the bed in the outdoor room. She stood up, nodded, and said something to her husband in Croatian, who returned with a pitchfork. Gospođa Fruk looked at the pitchfork and then looked at her husband with an expression that clearly said, “The hell do you expect me to do with this?” Shaking her head, she walked past her husband, into the tool shed, and returned with a shovel. Using the shovel, she then pulled the snake out from under the bed, decapitated it, then calmly picked up both pieces and put them in the trash bin.
And that’s the story of the time the Gospođa Fruk killed the snake under the bed.