I met Nina yesterday. I wish I hadn't.
She was walking across a massive steel beam -
the only remainder of a pretty wooden bridge
that resisted fire for two days, and then
With two canisters of water in her hands, she balanced on that beam.
At the other end I waited to cross to the other side,
where long line-ups of people
stood waiting, and where clamour of voices
and the smell of chlorinated water came from.
There was no time to move away.
I had a terrible night and I was not ready for talk.
Somebody among us working
in the city morgue stole gold jewellery from the
corpses they pulled out of the river last night.
That might have been ignored had the boys from the Military Police not
come just before midnight to take away the body of some young sergeant,
noticing that a pistol was missing from his holster.
They threatened to shoot us all and maybe
they would have, had they not gone to the morgue
director and found the pistol in his
hand. He shot himself in the basement of his house.
He shot his wife first. They told us to go home but nobody wanted to,
fearing gossip about the stolen gold. We all felt
safer in the morgue than at our homes.
We are all slowly going mad. Nobody is sure
any more where is the borderline of normality.
A shadow of what used to be Nina Rosh was coming towards me.
Once a girl to whose beauty no one was immune
Nina filled the boring concerts of the Sarajevo Philharmonic orchestra
with aroused high school boys
rather than the enthusiasts of Mozart.
Nina made her middle-aged violoncello professor
suddenly divorce his wife and after a brief bout of drinking,
disappear from this city prone to gossip and exaggeration.
This was the same Nina who looks at me
from an old photograph out of a time when we wore our
love and youth as a banner.
I barely recognized her.
I believe that the last time
I met her was a few days before the war entered
the city through cannon barrels.
We bumped into each other at the graveyard gates.
Her young cousin she walked with arm-in-arm
could not hide his embarrassment.
I could not either. Only a few locks remained of her long blond hair
sticking out from a woollen cap,
and a red blemish ran like paint spilled by an artist from her left ear to
the corner of her lips. It struck me as pretty disgusting.
For a few long minutes words
kept pouring out of her, describing some unfinished evens
without any connections,
and then her cousin dragged her away and she poured
that chaos of words on him alone.
On that occasion she turned only the right side of her face towards me.
* * *
Now she stopped paying attention to that. She embraced me like a
ruined house that leans against the neighbouring building,
tiredly, as if struggling not to fall down.
And then a shell whistled above our heads
and we scrambled for the first gateway, instinctively, without surprise and
before any fear.
Sorrow sets in later, when we hear the news and the names
of those who heard that sound for the last time.
The number of those is growing daily.
We sat down on a stairway.
I observed an ant walking across the lapel of her coat.
- I started to smoke at the worst time.
I can't stop any more - she said without
trying to hide the trembling hand that held the burning match.
Nobody hides that any more.
We all have trembling hands.
- Imagine, I got only half a kilo of tobacco for my mother's wedding ring the other day.
Those thieves. If I was in the government I would lock them all up.
Maybe that's why I drink.
I drink when I have it.
I used to get pure alcohol from the hospital while I worked there
but I could not stand blood.
Dad says that artists and blood do not go together.
They told me to be ashamed because
the wounded need alcohol more, but they drink it too.
They pour it in their tea or sell it. Nobody is stupid- she went on.
Sirens sounded an alarm. They were always too late. Nobody paid attention
to them anyway. Not any more. I watched two kids sitting in a garbage container,
picking through tin cans, searching for scraps of food. Who knows where
they came from. The city was already full of refugees who waited patiently
for hours in line-ups at the humanitarian kitchens, while packs of children
freely roamed throughout the city. Some of them would lie in the morgue
for days without anyone claiming the bodies.
We would buried them in common graves.
- I heard that you have a child too - said Nina, taking a break barely
long enough to catch her breath.
- I do - I said. She would not be more interested had I said no.
In the beginning of the war my wife and son took refuge in Italy
while I stayed behind, considering the fighting
to be caused by a mere misunderstanding.
I received only a single letter, long time ago, and then I lost track of them.
And then yesterday a foreign reporter brought me a letter. It would have been
better if he hadn't.
She was seeking a divorce because she wanted to live in Canada,
with some Italian.
Our marriage did not look like much anyway,
but I expected at least something more than a mere formality.
She was advising me to sell the apartment, if it was not already destroyed.
My son added a few lines as well. I understood none of them.
They were in Italian.
* * *
Through someone's apartment door a speaker could be heard wrapping
up the day's news. I missed the names of the wounded. I will catch up
with the dead ones tonight anyway. The broadcast ended with the anthem
of the city defenders and a recommendation not to move around the city
if not necessary. We walk around dead.
- It is nice to have someone - said Nina, strangely quietly.
- My dad is all I have left. He had a stroke last year,
so half of his body is paralyzed. He is confined to a bed.
Didn't you know that?
- No - said I. Even if I did, he was the last man
I'd feel even slightly compassionate about.
Twenty years ago this news might have even gladdened me.
Now I don't care. It doesn't even hurt to remember him the way
he was in those days.
- Young man - he addressed me condescendingly, the first time we
met in front of his door - the next time it comes to your mind to
come to us, and I believe that it will not, I suppose that you
will pay a visit to the barber first,
and put on something befitting this decent home.
I thought there was too much pleasure in the way he observed
my suddenly red and sweaty face to notice the sadness on Nina's face.
I never managed to tell him that Nina and I loved each other for a
long time and that this was a hard fact he should not be ignoring.
Now I think that he did not hate only me. He hated the very
natural way in which my generation negated his generation's
values and their blind dedication to the principles born after
a long gone war. He belonged to those who never stopped
cashing in their patriotism again and again.
Once a poor rural shepherd, now a wealthy former partisan,
he struggled with all his might not to have
that shepherd in himself recognized once again.
That is why he chose a future for his only daughter that I did not belong to.
So, while we fought over Nina - him with his authority,
me with my love - she just kept on crying.
Balancing between obedience to him and her own life, she discovered sorrow.
Him and I may have even enjoyed that emotional tug of war.
She did not.
He would burst into our highschool during our breaks just to prevent me
from seeing her even for a brief while - but then I knew the porter of the
theater who would secretly let me into her dressing room.
He managed to
discover the very last ally who helped me to arrange our secret meetings
- his own wife who subsequently wore a black eye for a while - but then
I knew their mailman who would show up at their door precisely when
her father would step out.
He brought me the news that Nina's
professor of violoncello keeps hanging around the house ever longer
and that her father regularly left at that time.
That old garbage used all the means at his disposal to keep me away.
I tried to figure out ways of endearing myself to him, but it would
all end up in a fantasy that he may suddenly die.Letters and brief
encounters were an insufficient compensation for the brush fire
that I carried within me.
* * *
Curses were coming from across the river. There was no water again.
Those who were cursing were the ones whose turn
it was to get their share of water.
That happened often, recently.
People were dispersing like a disgraced army,
dragging their empty canisters away.
Some kept waiting, while others put
their canisters underneath the eaves troughs to collect rain.
A shell whistled past again.
Mothers could be heard nearby calling
out for their children, checking if they were in the shelter.
Nina stopped talking for an instant, just enough to light a new cigarette.
Her fingers played with a thread on her coat,
the lingering memory of a button.
An ant crawled across her neck. She did not feel it.
Two weeks ago, when I decided to stop smoking
I left one cigarette in my pocket.
I felt it there at that moment. Two weeks here are like a lifetime.
- I watched you once on television - she said, busy winding
the little thread on her little finger
- I mean, while we still had electricity.
I did not understand a single word you said.
As if you were trying to make a house of words to hide in.
- You have such a house of your own too.
You have your violoncello.
- That is not my house. That is just an instrument.
She stared at my face from up close, surprised that I did not understand
her the way I should, and then she examined the left half of my face,
the one I always instinctively try to hide from my interlocutors.
- I did not know that you have such a big scar.
- One could make a decent face out of our two halves - I said.
She apparently did not hear me.
- You know, when I was in the hospital, there was a guy there
who wanted to cut my hair and another one who kept scratching my face
- She spoke without a break while fixated on my scar.
I lit a cigarette just to hide away from her gaze.
The scar that cut across the middle of my cheek almost all the way
to my chin started to sting. I knew I was imagining it.
Scars don't sting, they ache.
* * *
Nina went to the madhouse directly from the concert,
at a time when jealousy kept nibbling at me because of the gossip
surrounding the sudden divorce of her professor.
That was a painful time. I used to spend my days by the telephone
expecting her to call me, but she called ever less frequently.
Postcards from her tours were all there was.
I was at that concert. The conductor repeated the beginning after
Nina started playing some popular tune. The audience rewarded
that mischief with a long applause, the first time.
The next time nobody laughed any more.
Nina rested her violoncello on the chair, stood up and started to sing some
crude little song with swearwords. There was a nauseating silence.
Her father jumped out of his front row seat and carried her off the stage.
She could be heard begging him to finish her song. I ran to her dressing room.
Through a semi-open door I heard slaps and her father screaming.
- Pull yourself together. Pull yourself together.
You must not do this to me, you must not
- he shouted into the painful grimace that remained of Nina's face.
She was already drifting far away.
And then he saw me standing in the doorway.
A hatred one could feel with a hand flashed in his face.
His hand reached into his jacket, probably
looking for a place where he used to carry a pistol, and then his foot
kicked the door with such a force and furor that I flew through the
door of the dressing room across the corridor and crashed on top
of a pile of music stands. The last I heard was someone shrieking.
And then I saw a doctor hovering above me, explaining that
I had a devilish luck.
Half my face wrapped in bandages, they took me home.
I had a headache for days after. I sat in a room by the telephone under
the watchful eye of my mother who would leave me only occasionally
to go see the lawyer and plan the charges. In the end she gave up.
She would go briefly to church and return bringing the smell
of frankincense with her. It was all the same to me.
I heard her telling her favorite proverb to someone on the phone.
Only three things in life could not be hidden: a cough, poverty and love.
* * *
A thick rain was falling outside. I love rain because then they stop
shelling the city. Two soldiers passed down the street dragging
a tree trunk tied to a rope.
One of them said something to the two prostitutes
who kept waving from a deserted shop.
The city is full of prostitutes and the army is getting poorer.
Nina did not stop talking. She stared at a wall, lining up
sentences that rang through the empty stairwell.
An ant was crawling underneath her hear. She did not notice it.
- We rented a room to some soldier but he started to behave like a boor.
He became so brazen that he once pushed me to play the
anthem for him and my dad said that playing the anthem is
the lowest abasement for a musician. He deserved to become
a casualty at the front.
Dad would have thrown him out of the apartment,
but then that happened...
- Let's go - I said - they stopped shooting.
- How can I smoke then? You're lucky that you don't smoke.
- I will take your canisters. Mine are empty anyway.
- You are really kind - she said.
- For old time's sake.
- But how will I smoke in the rain?
A soldier came down the stairs. He cursed the war and rain and the enemy.
He did not recognize me. A couple of months ago he came to the morgue.
He identified his sister's body by thering on her finger.
He would not take anything she owned but then he came back in the evening,
drunk, with a gun and wanting to shoot me. We barely managed to restrain him.
I just asked him to sign a form as he took the ring.
* * *
It took me two months to find out were Nina was.
Her mother finally told me. Her madness was mentioned only by the way,
while the rage of the city fell upon the professor of violoncello,
who spent his days drowning in alcohol. Nobody mentioned me either.
They place Nina in a mountain hospital, far away from the city:
put more simply, she was in a primitive madhouse
enclosed within a tall fence.
As if they wanted to hide her from themselves.
They would not let mesee her.
My name was on the list of the unwanted
and the receptionist quite roughly told me that I would do best to catch
the first bus back to where I came from. Of course, I did not.
I circled the hospital and saw her in a courtyard behind a tall wire fence,
walking and muttering some children's song.
Even in those stained hospital
pajamas she was beautiful.
When I called her she did not recognize me.
I told her that I came to take her away and that I arranged with a
relative in Belgrade to take us in, but she said she couldn't,
because she had to practice a song for the hospital performance.
I kept showing her our photograph, reminding her of our oath that
we will never part, but Nina was far away.
She was looking at me
as if through a mist, trying to figure out why I am talking her into
not singing at the hospital performance.
I could not stand the fact that Nina was crazy and that
I belonged to the world of shadows. She started to scream when
I tried to jump the fence, so the guards came and I ended my
journey with a few slaps across my face and a ride in a police car, taking me back.
To the city.
The policeman who took me home instead to
the police station told me before
he left that I wasn't the only one who could
not accept things the way they are,
and that I was the easiest case of his day.
- I have become a taxi driver - he told me as
I stood there crying, delivering me
into the hands of my mother who trembled
in the doorway shot with anxiety.
More hard times.
* * *
I watched Nina walking beside me trying to relight a damp cigarette.
She would not stop talking about her father who does not understand
how hard it is to get medicine. She said she even phoned her old hospital
and that it was a shame they turned it into army barracks. She spoke of her
hospital with sorrow, like about her homeland.
An ant was crawling under her lip.
I reached out to remove it.
- Don't hurt me, please - she screamed and ran. I have not seen such horror in
any face before and I see horror daily at the morgue. What did she see in the
movement of my hand that reached out for the ant who behaved as if there
was no difference between Nina and a wall?
It appeared to me for a moment that she woke up from a long deep dream
and that brought back the choking question I have been carrying around
for years like an empty wallet. Had she recognized me at that moment?
I don't know. It seemed to me that in her wide open eyes I saw the same
Nina I had saved on an old photograph. I dashed after her, but Nina kept
running away. I watched her running down the street drenched in rain with
a soaked crumbling cigarette in her mouth and my two empty canisters
in her hands. Was she running away from my curiosity?
All I wanted is to ask her about the man they recently brought in
during an exchange of the dead. We found no documentation on him,
except for a tatoo on his left arm, at the height of his heart. It read Nina Rosh
. They buried him under that name. I put that name in the book of the
dead in an even handwriting that never betrayed the curiosity I sometimes feel.
It is like a sting of a scar.
* * *
I am seeing people off everyday. We who remain are walking around the city
like shadows, and we all fantasize a bit that we will all wake up one day at the
place where our nightmare had begun. One day I will put the name of Nina's
father among the other passers-by and that will remove the last proof that
I was that young man smiling from that photograph. The ant from Nina's face
will then disappear as well.
I wonder if a day might come when
I will not even believe that I met Nina yesterday.
I wish I had not.
In the beginning of the war they called us "Wolves," and we were terribly proud
of that - no less proud than we were enraged at being called "Pensioners" later on,
as someone from the City Headquarters nickamed us. There were ten of us,
protecting a fifty meters wide ravine, up on top of the Black Hill, and we
were doing it perfectly well - especially if we take into account that we
held a real weapon for the first time in our lives. We were all volunteers,
and many had picked up a gun more out of curiosity than because of a real
feeling that we were defending the city from the crazed and armed Peasants
who were getting ready for this war longer than we ever thought about war as such.
Everything appeared like in the movies, at first - until the day a student who
liked to be called Rambo tried to figure out how to use bow and arrow
to launch a hand grenade. We were scraping bits and pieces of his head off
the bunker wall and the nearby trees. It sounds stupid to say this, I know,
but we were grateful for his death, because it forced the rest of us to grow up
real fast after Rambo got blown to pieces.
After that incident we left the movies as the (only) source of our prewar
knowledge about war to movie actors, while we started feeling the weight
of the rifle in our hands and the heat of the helmet on our heads.
Buried into the muddy trenches deep in the bush, we were forced to grow up
like some gentle city plants stuck in the desert.
In the beginning, we used to jump every time an owl would hoot; later on,
we payed no attention to the howling of the hungry wolves in the mountains.
The only things that still kept reminding us of the city and its life-style were
empty face-cream boxes we used to keep our booze money.
The enemy tried to break through our line twice: once we gave them
such a thrashing that they left behind two dead soldiers, some weapons
and an overturned armoured personnel carrier. Those two dead boys,
whose pockets contained nothing but some unused postal stamps and a
couple of porn magazines, were accredited to me - and I did not deny it
- even though I was quite sure I never fired in the direction of the
place where we found them.
We traded those two dead bodies with them, later on, for a live cow.
We put the corpses on a sled and they pulled it over from the
opposite direction; at the same time and speed we dragged
over to our side a skinny and terrified cow. The cow died before
the dawn because they, that garbage, had poisoned it before giving it to us
- and she was later counted as the last casualty in the Defence of the Black Hill.
We were bothered by having been duped much more than we cared about
having to drag the dead cow far away from our trenches to bury it.
The next morning we attacked them out of sheer revenge, and the only
outcome was that we used up much of our ammunition and succeeded in
siphoning about fifty litres of diesel oil from their overturned carrier.
We made a deal with them again - to send us a carton of cigarettes for a
canister of oil: cigarettes arrived, and they pulled away a rope with the
oil canister we had pissed in as much as we could, saving the oil for our lamps.
Then they cursed our mothers from their trenches, threatening to shoot
our families once they break into the city, and we reciprocated with an
even measure, promising them public hangings at the city square,
because we had found out that our cigarettes had arrived wet.
They probably pissed on them.
After that, we stopped trading and attacking each others.
It also appeared that our respective headquarters had forgotten all about us.
We listened to the news on our transistor radios, cheering like we used
to do at the soccer games whenever we heard that Ours have defeated the
Peasants at some front or another; the peasants across the battlefield would
give us a full measure of the same thing back, shooting at the trees above
our heads whenever the fortunes of war would favour their side.
They were doing it to us more often than we did it to them.
As the time passed, there was ever less shooting and our war soon
assumed the form of verbal combat. We would throw the empty
bottles of brandy at them, pretending to remember their sisters and wives
as the cheap prostitutes that could be bought for a pair of nylon stockings,
and they would throw in our direction bare sheep bones
and blown up condoms tied to stones, with our flag scribbled on them.
The fifty odd metres of space between us soon became a garbage dump,
thanks to the zeal with which we kept inventing new spites.
The bags of shit that kept piling up in the battlefield between us were
thrown from both sides with quite some regularity: we finally had to
ban this because they stank to both sides, especially in mid summer,
but the arsenal of verbal obscenities continued to grow. As we could
not see each other, each side nicknamed the other by the character of people's
voices: so, the most vocal on their side were Ass, Cock, Cretin and Guts;
the most prominent nicknames on our side, perhaps because of the number
of tricks played were Bastard, Vulture, Turd and myself, known as Sickness,
probably because of my endless coughing caused by too much smoking.
As time went by no one reacted to the cursing of mothers and sisters any more:
that was something that mainly younger and denser soldiers revelled in.
The passage of time elevated originality to the position of the main
criterion that would indicate who could be the potential victim.
We knew even who can easily be insulted in certain ways and how
intelligent are individuals on the other side. They knew just as well
who had the weakest nerves among us.
We would cheer up when Cock would start shouting from their side,
an obviously stupid and nervous little peasant who could never take
an insult without blowing up. Once we unnerved him so much that he
opened fire against our positions, and then we heard Guts screaming
at him that he will send him off to some real battle lines where he
could shoot to his heart's content, without making trouble for everybody
else, like here. The man who ticked him off was our Vulture.
- Little Coooock, listen up, let me tell you something.
- What do you want Vulture? If you are hungry, go to the toilet.
- I am not kidding, I think your mother was right.
- What are you trying to say?
- Well, the last time I was humping your mother, she says `get a condom,
you'll make me a cretin', and judging by you, I guess she was right.
After that, all obscenities went to the account of Cock's mother,
and it took us ten days to realize that he was either forbidden to talk
back or he left for some other battlefield.
The weakest point on our side was Turd, a pimpled, pretty stupid guy
from the countryside who came to Sarajevo a couple of years before the war,
quickly married quite a pretty daughter from a well-off Muslim family and
as quickly opened a burek shop.
After having sent his wife away to Germany,
he was evading military recruitment for six months,
hiding in his shop: they found him only
after the city was left without electricity so the reserves
of meat in his fridges started to reek.
His neighbours would not forgive him
for never once thinking of their hunger while
sitting surrounded by mounds of food.
Those from the city had sent him to me, not knowing what to do with him
down there, and I would send him to the city every three days - both in order
to get provisions and because I knew that no one would make up and portray
our victories and heroisms more fabulously than him. We regularly fed such
kind of information to our Headquarters.
When I was not sending him to fetch provisions, I would send him to replenish
the ammunition reserves we kept wasting in futile shooting at rabbits and pheasants.
Besides, all of us preferred to have him practice his quite theatrical religious
ceremonies at the mosque, rather than in a cramped bunker where we played cards.
All of us felt him like scabies.
Moreover, he was pathologically jealous, leaving the bunker when we would start
telling idle tales about wives and their lovers which we enjoyed as a universal theme.
He would not say a word to any of us for two days straight just because of the way
we commented on a photograph of his wife, saying she was a "good piece."
Turd left an impression that God had made him out of some leftovers.
Worse than that was the fact that in those endless shouting matches,
when we desperately tried
to stick it to the other side, his score was catastrophic.
His repertoire went
no further than cursing their mothers and families,
and even when he managed
to figure out something smarter than that someone from the opposite camp
would drop a lid on him so bad that everyone in our trench felt ashamed for him.
One could get away with bad jokes for the first three months or so,
but half a year of verbal warfare demanded at least some originality;
without it, there was no way of escaping humiliation. On one occasion
Turd almost got killed because of his stupidity. He crossed voices with Guts,
a deep resonant voice sounding as if it was coming from a cave - a witty joker
whose jabs at our expense would feel like shots, so in spite of the contempt
we felt for him as an enemy,
we also held a degree of respect for his sonorous voice.
Once we listened to the radio news that
killed our last hope that the war could
come to an end any time soon, when
Turd started howling across the field
- out of sheer neurosis, I suppose - that they were murderers and robbers,
and that only savages of their ilk could tear down mosques.
- That is no good, we do not like to touch other people's faith either - arrived
the pretty conciliatory voice of Guts from the other side.
- Why then do you keep tearing them down? - Turd was foaming by then.
- We figured out something better. We are producing blow-up mosques,
like balloons, so the next time we open fire, you can quickly deflate it and
transfer it someplace else. Out of his mind with blind ragem Turd jumped out
of the trench with his gun in his hands, and had we not grabbed his legs and
pulled him back in, the machine-gun fire that burst across the leaves above
our heads would have cut him down for sure.
And then it was Autumn.
We were still growling at each other pretty happy for not being in
the city below, from where we could hear shells exploding. We opened
fire a couple of times at the female underwear one of them raised up
on a stick, claiming that they are his souvenir of Turd's wife - and then
there was silence for some ten days. They were not responding to
out provocations, nor was there any smell of cooking coming from
their trenches. And then one night they retreated to their reserve positions,
leaving us their old trenches and the mine field in between
their old and new positions.
I informed the Headquarters about the conquest of fifty od
metres of space, but instead of any congratulations an order
arrived for me to stay behind with two soldiers only. All others were
to be sent back to the Headquarters, because the mine field between us
and the enemy meant that both sides will function as no more than
sentries from then on. I did not relish the fact of being thrown away
into a deep retirement in spite of being one of the most experienced
fighters, but I neither begrudged the fact that Winter was coming
and we had plenty of firewood until Spring. Nobody waited for me
in the city anyway, and I owed nothing to anyone. The other guys
were drawing lots from a hat to decide who will stay. Turd's luck
unfortunately decided that he would stay there with me,
having drawn a note saying
"bush," which he took as a sign of bad luck.
My other soldier would be Lamb, a student of medicine to
whom nothing made any difference any more, ever since he
buried both his father and mother within seven days, in the
early days of the war.
The others got packed up and left, shouting back that they will
regularly comfort our girlfriends at night and that they will send
us a manual with directions about how to use the shower and
blow drier. We really stank like skunks indeed: although I
washed my socks and underwear daily, I could smell the stench
of my freshly washed socks drying by the fire five metres away.
And then, finally, smoke rose up from the other side of the
field and everything went on as before, with a notable difference:
they also were apparently halved and the only known voice
that remained came from Guts - the other two obviously belonged
to some kids in puberty who were just mutating. They were
shouting across what they just had for dinner, making up steaks
with french fries, even though we could smell the burnt kidney
beans they ate; we made up stories of having octopus salad,
even though canned meat was the only food we tasted in months.
I would fire a bullet in the air on our side of the
bush from time to time, shouting that I have just killed a deer
- but our cauldron kept smelling of kidney
beans and disgusting canned food.
That is when it happened.
Cleaning some garbage they left in their former trenches,
Turd ran into a bundle of documents and started reading.
Those were applications for divorce
that lawyers from some foreign lands were sending
by couriers to the besieged city.
I knew the whole storu: after the first year of war
it was whispered all around like
some kind of a public secret. And then two soldiers
blew their heads off and ten more tried to
escape from the city barracks to reach the countries that
divorce applications were coming from.
The Military Authorities shut all
those papers into a safe, declaring the whole
issue to be a piece of the
enemy war propaganda: an item in psychological warfare intended to
weaken our military morale.
I had no one who could use the law stating
that long period of separation is a sufficient cause for divorce, so I
used the Headquarters' official release on the whole issue to roll my tobacco.
Turd had read too many of such documents we found,
so I could not tell him lies
about the special war - which was a story for little children to begin with.
He was burning with fire as I struggled to wrestl the documents from him,
to send them to the Headquarters.
- Look at this whore - he screamed in trance, showing me a piece of paper.
- Her husband lost both legs putting out the fire in their house, so she
would have a place to come back to with their child
- and now she wants to divorce him...
- Don't scream - I said. - Those fools across will hear you...
- How could I stop screaming - screw their harlot mothers: we are dying
here so that they would have a place to come back to,
while they warm up beds
for the Germans and Italians.
He was screaming so loud that
I grabbed him by the neck trying to shut him up.
He tore my rank insignia from my shirt. I could hardly care less:
I was half decommissioned anyway.
The next day he apologised and for
the next two days he kept busy using a tin can to throw
mud out of our trench, made a roof out of leaves
and talked to no one.
I did not dare to send him to the city for provisions so
I went there myself,
not so much because of the food, but because
I wanted to ask the
Headquarters to get him off my back and to send me
The Commander had a meeting, his deputy slept drunk on top of the
battlefield map, while the secretary plugged her nose,
gave me a bar of soap
and directed me to where the showers were.
I found two drunken boys there,
quarrelling about how many of them
humped the secretary last night and
whether she was better from the back or from the front.
Having noticed that I am having a shower without
taking off my uniform,
I went to collect our rations of food and ammunition,
bought a carton of brandy and started making
my way back to the mountain.
It appeared to me that up there exists at least
some kind of some order.
I watched the Moon waving in the half
empty bottle of brandy.
Once upon a time, long time ago, my mother told me that one
could die for looking at the Moon for too long.
If that was so, I would have been dead long time ago.
A few years before the war
I worked in an observatory, spending more time on
the Moon than on Earth.
Reaching our trenche some time before dawn
I saw Lamb running
towards me and I knew right away that something ghastly must
have transpired. An instant later I saw what happened: in the
middle of the mine field sat a wailing Turd, surrounded by a
heap of papers. I howled that he was an idiot, that he should
get back right away before he got killed and that I will have
him Court Martialled - but he just kept wailing:
"Which way should I return?"
- What do you mean which way, idiot, the same way
you got there - I screamed.
- I don't remember - he said and continued to wail.
That is when Lamb finally explained to me what happened.
After I left, Guts started calling Turd
and describing the sexual pleasures
women tend to indulge in when they are
far away from their husbands.
Guts told Turd how they often preferred to give themselves to
lawyers who could not only work their divorces out, but would
also manage to wring the property away from
their former husbands
in order to share it with the divorced women
- and so on, all in that sense.
Turd responded with curses, of course.
The other side loved the whoile exchange,
obviously having great fun - and then
Guts shouted it was a pity that
he does not know Turd's name because
he had a whole bunch of divorce
applications on him, so if Turd was interested, let him read them
himself - and then he flung a whole
bunch of papers into the mine field.
I need no more explanations.
The wind that used to bring from
their side the odour of stinky socks or of whatever they were cooking,
brought a couple of thrown papers straight into out trench, and those
were apparently real divorce applications.
Of course, Lamb could not remember when was it that this fool
of a Turd covered half the distance between the two trenches,
ending up in the middle of a mine field. It was all just the same
to him anyway. He understood what was going on only after he
heard Turd howling like a wolf and when they
started shotting from the other side.
He saw what I saw: there was Turd
in the middle of the mine field, howling
and clutching documents in one hand,
while propping himself against the
sign that said "Mine Field" with his
other arm which bled profusely.
Lamb told me they fired a few shots
, meant to scare Turd more than
anything else, but they obviously found
it more interesting to joke at
his expense than to finish him off.
Judging by the flashes of photo cameras
I could suppose that this scene
will be seen in many more trenches and
other places. I cursed the war and trenches,
and fools and Lamb who was
cowering in the corner of our trench as
if he was guilty of something,
accepting my insults as something he deserved and expected.
I tried to pull myself together and to figure out some solution,
but the way things looked to me,
I could count on God's help alone.
Then I fell asleep.
I don't know how long I fought the nightmares, but I woke up
spooked by the silence. My head was aching and an ugly nausea
settled into my stomach. Lamb sat by the extinguished fire, doodling
something in the ashes with a stick, in the middle of the mine field
sat Turd, not wailing any more, just whimpering, like a frozen dog.
On the other side of the field were the Peasants,
apparently tired of joking.
I tried to figure something out but my brain apparently worked badly:
all I felt was pure rage and a nauseating silence around me.
- Guts, why don't you kill him? - I shouted.
- Be a man and spare him this misery.
- Why don't you kill him? - Guts responded. - He's your soldier.
We don't need him one way or another.
- The man will bleed to death. If you have any soul left, let me at
least throw him some bandages - I continued.
- I am better than you think.
- Can we make a deal? - I went on without any comprehension
about what I was getting into. - Don't shoot, I will come out unarmed.
- Do as you please. No one will fire a shot from this side.
- Can I be sure about that?
- If my word is good enough, you can - came the
message from the other side.
As I packed some bandages into a bag I cursed myself and my
stupidity that pushed me into trusting a man who has been firing
his gun at me for months, trying to kill me. I thought I deserved
to become a free target and that I must have been born dumb,
if this was the only idea I managed to figure out.
From the depth of out trench the eyes of Lamb kept staring
straight at me: if he had said anything at all,
I would have given up.
He did not. I told him not to touch his rifle and if they end up
shooting me down he was under orders to leave the position,
go to the Headquarters and tell them about the meritorious
death of two stupids. Then I took a swig of brandy and jumped
out of the trench. I walked slowly towards the mine field,
feeling only nausea in my stomach and appearing bigger
to myself than I was. I wished my mother had given me
birth as a dwarf. It felt as if my steps were becomin shorter,
while the field that witnessed so many bullets and insults flying to
and fro grew increasingly enormous and menacing.
A pair of blood-shot eyeballs, heavy black bags under his eyes
and a muddy uniform - that was all that remained of Turd.
He looked straight ahead and he would not answer me at first,
when I asked him where he was hit.
- In my heart - he finally uttered, not looking up.
He was close to the brink of madness. I threw him some cigarettes
and bandages: they fell right by his side, but he paid no attention.
I stood there nervously for another instant, nausea dancing in my
stomach. And then, suddenly, from the other side appeared Guts.
I was surprised how much he did not resemble my images of him.
I pictured a husky peasant, closer to ploughing the field than leafing
through a book - but he was tall, skinny and bearded,
resembling myself (with my weight not far off that of a
concentration camp inmate), rather than my image of himself.
- I imagined you as a soldier, not so scrawny
- he said, with a poorly concealed smile.
- I was totally wrong about you too - I said, assessing the
fastest route to scramble back to our trench.
- You know what, I want to tell you that no one is glad because
of what happened to this wretch.
Even though he would not fall on my conscience,
I have sent a boy to the Headquarters, to find the
blueprint of the mine field, or the one who put them down.
So much from us.
As to you, don't shoot any more,
some of you might get hurt - he said and laughed aloud.
That was his favourite joke
and we had heard it at least a hundred times before.
He also threw a pack of
cigarettes to Turd and we took off to our respective sides.
I dropped into the trench and grabbed a bottle of brandy.
My legs hurt as if
I had just walked several kilometres.
Lamb would not raise his head even
when I pushed the bottle into his hand.
He looked like an endlessly ashamed child.
With darkness, sleet started falling.
I checked on Turd with my flashlight and
those from the other side did the same.
He stared at the ground in front of himself and smoked.
We drank, not so much out of craving, but rather from
the need to forget that terrible nausea that
sat in our stomachs not letting us fall asleep.
Around midnight we could hear Turd singing.
It sounded like a prayer at first,
but later on we recognized a combination of our and Arab words which,
taken together, probably meant nothing or something only he knew.
Now it sounded like a child's lament, then as a prayer,
and then like plain wailing.
He would stop briefly, just to light another cigarette, and then he went
back to it again, in a raspy voice that made our hairs stand on end.
Just before dawn he lost his voice, so I went out to check on him.
The tracks in the snow told me that someone from their side must
have checked on him as well. His face was blue and he did not raise
his eyes when I begged him to unpack the bandages and at least wrap
them around the bloody sleeve of his trench coat.
I watched that miserable figure that drove me to rage for months.
Now it awakened in me some strange feeling of guilt,
perhaps among other things because every word
I could think of as potentially meaningful
sounded stupid and hollow,
when squared with the fact that there was
no way for me to help him.
Guts appeared from the other side, shouting that they have not found
the soldier nor the blueprint of the mine field yet, but that there is a
chance that his boy might find the man at some other Headquarters.
- Doesn't anybody among you know the pattern? - I tried to feel
the terrain suspiciously.
- When they laid it down they gave all of us a leave - answered
Guts quite nervously, his crumpled face convincing me that he
was wide awake until the morning. As I was about to leave,
I heard him explain to Turd that those documents that dragged him
into the mine field were actually forgeries printed by his Headquarters
as a part and parcel of the special war, and that if he would have
known this could happen he would have never
made jokes about the issue.
I could not tell whether he was comforting Turd or apologizing,
but whatever it was it sounded unusual.
Finally he said something
his Command would have his head for
- quite unlikely for someone
whose voice we used to hate for months,
imagining the kinds of death
we would have him die if we could just lay our hands on him.
- I am not asking you to forgive me - he said.
-By the time worms
will be eating us all under the ground, everything will be forgiven
to everyone. Had anybody asked me,
this war would have never happened.
I was pushed into it no less than you.
Here, watch, we are wearing the
same uniforms and only our flags are different. If this mine field
was not here between us I would not know how to
distinguish your soldiers from mine...
Maybe he would have said something else, but then he noticed me
as I stopped half way to our side, listening. So, he just threw
Turd another pack of cigarettes and went back to their trench.
Turd never raised his head as Guts spoke. The hand he could not feel
any more clutched a bloody piece of paper, one of those that appeared
more important to him than the mine field.
I thought we were all going mad. Left in the bush for months,
scrawny, drowsy, with one single wish
- to survive - we were increasingly
It had been a long time since I opened one of the
few books I took with me as I left home.
I opened them only when I
needed some paper to roll a cigarette, or when I used their pages
as toilet paper. My favourite writers were gradually becoming
reduced to covers. We pleaded with Turd for some time, asking
him to sell us his prayer book, but he refused to even hear about it.
That book now lied on the piece of canvas he left behind,
covered with a fine layer of snow, ignored by everyone.
We met again around noon, when the sun started to melt the first
light covers of snow here and there. He called out for me from a
distant corner of the field, far away from Turd, so I knew he was
about to give me some bad news. The news were bad: the man
who planted the mines was shot, executed by their firing squad
seven days earlier - for some nasty subversion on their side - and
with him went the blueprints of all the mine fields he had laid.
What was even worse,
Guts had received a direct order to end this
farce because some foreign journalists
got their hands on the picture
of a soldier in a mine field.
That meant that he was expected to send a dispatch
informing his Headquarters that
the case is closed by tomorrow
evening at the latest. We both knew what that meant.
- Talk him into running for it - he said -
and let him have whatever God
grants him. If he makes it out,
a weight will be lifted from our minds as well,
because none of my men wants to shoot him
and you should not count on me.
If he refuses to run, you kill him, he's yours.
I cursed their mine field and he cursed the kind of army whose
soldiers run into mine fields.
Turd would not react to my calls again.
Surrounded with cigarette butts,
he stared at the cigarette burning between his fingers, mumbling
something unintelligible. Half of his uniform was soaked in blood.
I kept telling him to try to pull himself together, take his chances and
dash back to our line; I said it would be best to do it now, while it
was still daylight, so we could take him to the city hospital right away;
I told him that the mines were obviously planted by one of their quacks,
and that it was logical to expect that the guy must have made all kinds
of mistakes - or else Turd would have never made it to the middle of the
field. I felt pretty stupid talking to a wall, and my words were coming
back to me hollow and senseless, because the essence of what I was doing
- and that I could not utter - was that I was talking him into a suicide.
I wanted to throw him a pack of cigarettes, but there were several
unopened packs lying around him, so I gave up. I returned to the trench
with the same nausea I felt when I left it.
Lamb sat in a corner of the trench
and sobbed. It has been a long time since
we cooked something and our
monthly ration of brandy was down.
I told Lamb that I am going off to chop some wood, took a fresh
bottle of brandy and went to the mountain meadow below our trenches
where I used to go whenever I had no idea what to do with my time.
I would lie down, stretch my body and listen to birds chirrup, or watch
the squirrels frolic in the high branches of the tall trees. A foolhardy
rabbit almost jumped into my lap, but I had no will to shoot.
I allowed the sun that penetrated my trench coat like tenderness
and retreated from it like vapour, to intoxicate me. Fantasizing about
a special helicopter unit arriving, extracting Turd from the mine field
and taking off with Turd on board, waiving his hand at us from the sky
- I fell asleep. I dreamt about Turd's bloody hand crawling underneath
my pillow, and me running and hiding from it in the
most unlikely places: a morgue, a graveyard,
on top of a skyscraper... And then I woke
up to a gun shot.
It was getting dark when I jumped into the trench and Lamb was
so drunk that it took me a couple of minutes to bring him to hi
s senses, only to hear that he knows nothing, and that he had also
heard a shot. I snapped at him that he was really making himself
very useful, while he stared through me with an almost otherworldly
drug addict kind of a gaze. A flashlight cut through the darkness
from the other side, circling around the spot where Turd should
have been, so I directed my own beam of light in that direction.
Turd was lying by the sign marking the mine field, his head bloody,
a cigarette burning low in the corner of his mouth. I watched that
stretched body and felt nothing - or just that bitterness of tobacco
in a dry throat and a nausea that settled in my guts ever since this
whole mess had started. There was some sense of relief, perhaps,
tiny as a particle of sand.
- Good shot boys - I cried out - Straight in the head.
- Don't be a fool - came the well known resounding
voice from across the field
- Nobody fired a shot from here.
- And who blew that guys head off - I asked bitterly
- Would it be a squirrel?
- Ask him, let him tell you - wind brought back Guts' voice,
raspy and drowsy - See how to get him out of there as soon as possible,
or we'll have some wolves and vultures on our backs pretty soon.
I did not believe their story about no shots having been fired
from their side. Turd did not like weapons. On several occasions
he had trouble finding his own gun, so it struck me as unbelievable
that he would carry a pistol without me knowing. Fuck it, said I
to myself, and left to check it out, my flashlight in my hand.
Turd was lying with his eyes open skywards, and his pale sunken
face appeared as if he had been dead for quite a while.
The obviously fresh steaming blood that kept pouring out of the
hole in his head testified that he could have not been not dead
for very long. On top of his trench coat riddled with cigarette burns,
there lied a pistol indeed, one of those small things
we called "a lady's gun"
- a gun we saw as an insult to real pistols.
- Fuck it - said Guts from the other side. - I feel sorry for him.
God help him, but perhaps this is for the best.
Now you can tell your people he died in combat.
- Something like that - said I, lighting half a cigarette.
I inhaled the smoke desperately,
like a drowning man breathes the air.
- Let's pull him out tomorrow.
We can talk about the price.
- I don't deal in corpses - Guts snapped back quite angrily,
telling me that I must be stupid if I don't understand that they
would have preferred this never happenning. I told him I was
not stupid and added something dumb about having been born a
smart baby but someone obviously mixing me up at the maternity
ward. Suddenly, Guts burst out laughing: he held his belly with both
hands and laughed. An instant later I heard myself laughing with him.
We must have been a ghostly sight as we laughed with our flashlights
resting upon a dead man. No one is normal in war. Perhaps I used to
be normal, way back when. I used to take off to the bush to cry my
woes out, in the beginning, I was too shy to do that later on.
They advised us to make metal hooks, tie them to a rope, try to
snag Turd like a fish and then drag him out to our side without
looking out from our trench, so that the exploding mines would
not blast out heads off. Lamb finally lit a fire, we took the handles off
some water buckets, softened them in the fire and made a few hooks.
Some time after midnight we ran out of rope so I asked them if they
had any, and they threw us a bag with rope and a few packs of cigarettes.
I told them we had something for them as well and threw
a bottle of brandy
from the edge of the mine field. Someone on their side yelled and cursed
my mother, because the bottle apparently caught him pissing,
but judging by the merry cheers
coming from their trench later in the night,
it appeared that all was forgiven.
On of them shouted that I should practice
assassination attempts of that kind more often. Later on, one of their
younger guards told some stupid joke, and we all agreed it was stupid
and that if that guy gets killed it will be for telling bad jokes,
not from the bullet.
It was as if an invisible weight was lifted from our backs. Even
the languid Lamb livened up, telling me how they pulled his brother
from a frozen lake in a similar way: he went to fish at a hole in the ice
his father blasted open with dynamite. I did not ask whether his brother
was pulled out alive. That question belonged to another ambience.
It was enough that he had spoken up, so I could stop feeling alone
and avoid asking myself questions that will hurt me much less later
on than at that moment. We fell asleep with ropes in our hands
without an agreement about who will stand guard and when.
It started to snow.
And that is when it happened.
At the crack of dawn we were startled by a deep growl. I jumped up,
peaked from our trench and stopped frozen by the sight that made every
hair on my head stand on end.
In the middle of the mine field, a huge grey
bear was struggling to drag Turd's body away. He had dragged him a
few metres already, and now he rested. He kept groaning with effort.
By the tracks left in the snow, I could see that he walked through the
field at least a couple of times before trying to drag the corpse away
. A realization instantaneously struck my mind: no mine had exploded.
That in turn woke up the nausea that always attacked me stealthily,
by surprise - and then I freaked out.
I grabbed my machine-gun, jumped out of the trench and started
shooting at the bear like a madman. I could almost see every bullet
that hit him. He tried to run to the other side of the field as I changed
my clip, but they also opened fire from over there.
Beside me, Lamb screamed and fired,
completely out of his mind. We fired at the bear
like in a trance, as if we were desperately
pouring out all the bitterness,
misfortune and rage that settled within us since who knows when.
I don't know how long the shooting went on. All I know is that the
bear finally rose up on his hinds as if trying to climb to the sky,
showing us his enormous, bloody figure; he let out a voice sounding
like a moan, then dropped dead on top of the sign
marking the mine field.
With smoking guns in our hands, engulfed by a gunpowder mist,
we stood and silently watched as life gushed
out from the forest giant with his ever shorter breaths.
We stood facing each other. We could shoot at them.
They could shoot at us, too.
They took their helmets off and crossed themselves as
I entered what we knew as the mine field and
dragged Turd's corpse to the trench.
He felt very light. I could hear Lambs teeth chatter as he followed
the bloody trail left in the snow as I carried Turd's body away.
Before wrapping him up in a piece of canvas I had trouble opening
his stiff hand that still firmly clutched a piece of paper. It was a
divorce application - and it was not from his wife. I stared at that
crumpled piece of paper soaked in blood, and I could think nothing.
In this piece of canvas lied a real corpse of a real man who lost
his life in a fake mine field, running after a forged document.
I asked myself whether we were two real armies or whether we
were just poor actors in a bad drama, putting an effort in because
somebody kept watching us from the side. And yet, we lost
ourselves in our reality play, so much so that we even forgot
our own names, calling each other by the nicknames we never
chose - names given to us by our enemies. It would have been
so good if Turd could stand up and wipe off his make-up, so
we could take down the props, sigh in relief and go home,
where jam-filled doughnuts smell so sweet and children are
lazily getting ready to take off for school. Turd never moved:
not when I threw the bloody paper into the fire, nor when I
tied his hands and legs with a rope, or when I moaned with
pain that ripped through my intestines.
I had to pay some peasant - who immediately informed me
that he is a patriot but not a fool - to take Turd's body back
to the city tied on the back of his horse. I also sent a letter
to the Headquarters, describing the recent events. A young
captain arrived with twenty odd soldiers before the nightfall,
carrying an order for me to pack up my things and report to
the Headquarters with Lamb right away. I wanted to tell him
what happened, but he turned his back on me. We never
said goodbye as I was leaving.
Back at the Headquarters, my own captain kept cursing m
e and calling me a traitor, even though there was a time when
he naively thought I was close to earning a gold medal,
or so he said. He threatened to have me shot by a firing squad,
to have me locked up in prison for having collaborated with
the enemy forces, and so on, all in that style. He bought me
a drink in the end, informing me I was transferred to the
Headquarters guards. Turd's case ended up in a file
marked with "Heroic Death."
I could not care less.
I just wished to tell him how it all happened, but he
would not listen. He said he had burnt the report I wrote
about the events at the Black Hill, and then he walked out
of the Cantina. Lamb and I went on drinking until dawn and
then went our separate ways. I heard later on that he stood
guard the night when the arsenal blew up. He was put in
a file marked "Disappeared."
Speaking about the Black Hill, I heard only that our guys
pulled back to our old positions, not because of the enemy's
advance but because the bear's corpse started rotting. It was the
suffocating stench that drove them off, nothing more.
Then I ran away from the war, dreaming about waking up
one day without a pain in my guts.
I gradually started to forget it all until I saw Guts, just the
other day, here in Toronto.
I was coming back from the doctor who had examined me
for the umpteenth time, convincing me once again that there
is nothing in my stomach and that nothing hurts me. I was
on my way home, when I saw a man sleeping underneath
a maple tree: I recognized Guts right away. He was sleeping
with some crutches resting bu the side of his empty trouser
legs. By the crutches was a little cardboard box where someone
scribbled "Please help a victim of war." On top of his belly
wavered an empty wine bottle,
and beside him squirrels insolently
kept taking away pieces of a sandwich he
had not managed to finish.
He was breathing hard, sounding as if he was moaning.
I sat down, waiting for him to wake up.
I wanted to ask him whether he was the one who threw that
little lady's gun to Turd and whether he ever suspected that the
mine field between us was fake,
so I decided to wait until he woke up.
I wanted to ask him if he ever met Turd in his dreams,
because he never left my dreams.
So I sat there waiting,
while he whined in his sleep.
Then I went to the liquor store and bought a
bottle of brandy to share
with Guts when he woke up. When I returned he was gone.
There was no trace of him, not even the grass pressed down
where he slept. It was as if someone had left only the stage props,
kicking the actor out of the rehearsal, sending him back home to
learn his lines until the end and not to mess it all up with
That nausea was back in my stomach once again, attacking
stealthily as usual, when I least expected it.
I opened the bottle, leaned against that maple tree
and started to drink.
It feels like I am still sitting there.
Translated by Slobodan Drakulic with Patrizia Albanese
I would have never guessed that the war had come so close,
had I not gotten stuck at a bus terminal of a township in
the Bosnian countryside. The bus for Sarajevo was
parked at the platform, but the driver was nowhere in sight,
even half an hour after we should have departed. Taxicabs
with no drivers were parked all around, shops were open with
no vendors, and some panhandler had left his cane and
a hat full of small change in a hurry.
"The driver is at a meeting, " a fat cashier said,
continuing to embroider a flag I have never seen before. "
They're all at the meeting, it'll end when it's over,
and you can wait in the tavern, " said she, pointing
with her thumb over her shoulder. She probably
despised anyone who was not at the meeting.
Underneath the unfinished flag
I could see a hole in her sock .
Once in the tavern , I saw half-empty beer bottles
on the tables and I solved the riddle I carried with me
ever since childhood . I heard the answer from a tipsy
bored Gypsy who sat on his accordion case , in the corner
of the establishment , waiting for the patrons to come back
. He told me he did not know what the meeting was about ,
and that he did not give a damn about the flags and
their peoples , and he was happy
that Gypsies had no state , so they
had no reason to worry about it .
He complained that the good times for the Gypsies were
long gone , so that he was forced to play in the cafes for
small change instead of making good money playing in
the open farmers markets . There were no farmers markets
left any more and most of Gypsies have moved over to Italy ,
sensing the coming of the war . I bought him a couple of
beers and found out the detail that preoccupied my boyish
imagination such a long time ago .
As a boy , I was fascinated by the scene of the great Bosnian
bear obediently dancing on his hinds in front of a little Gypsy
boy who beat a drum . In my boyish mind , the picture of the
powerful bear - The undisputed master of the forest , at whose
mention the shepherds' blood froze in their veins - clashed
with the picture of the animal obediently up on its hinds and
dancing at the first sound of the drum.
My uncle , strong as a bull , heated up by powerful home
- brewed brandy and the flaming glances of his fiancee ,
bet in the tavern that he will wrestle with the bear in the morning .
The next morning , when the betting party arrived to pick him up ,
he was already on the bus to Sarajevo , allegedly due to an urgent
business affair that could not wait .
The little Gypsy boy beating his drum looked so poor and
unimpressive that he could be forgotten the moment he
picked up his coins , had he not had his secret . I can still
remember the contemptuous glance he cast down on me after
I offered him my new shoes and my grandfather?s ham
in exchange for his secret . I did not know at that time that
some secrets are not for sale .
And here is his secret . Some crafty and sufficiently
crazy hunters had to steal a newborn
bear cub and run away with it as fast
as they could . They feared the mother bear , who would
desperately follow their track until she went mad with pain
and slaughtered the first flock of sheep she stumbled upon .
The rest was routine.
They would drill a hole through the cub's nose and drive a ring
through it so it would not run away . They would the push the
cub onto a sheet of metal , red-hot from the fire burning beneath .
As the bear started to hop in the pain , the Gypsies would beat their
drums . Six months of this painful ritual would make the cub
start getting up on its hinds understanding that it is less painful
to hop on two legs than on four . The beat of the drum would fill
its mind as a painful invitation to dance . Teaching it to bow after
someone had thrown a coin into the hat was a matter of nuance ,
taught on the same red-hot metal , at a different drum beat .
Moving from one farmers' market to another , the bear would
get used to living with the Gypsies, forgetting the forest as the
ancient native land it never became acquainted with .
Then authorities banned such an abuse to protect the bears
and put wandering Gypsies under control.
No village their wagon
trains passed through was left unperturbed ,
because the Gypsies
were good merchants - and even better thieves .
There was a saying about them .
Before you start trading with the Gypsies swallow
your wallet , so you can think about the deal until the morning.
The bears were just an attraction.
" You have no idea how much I loved my bear ," the Gypsy
told me through his tears . " All my children learned how to
walk with his help . I left him in the deep forest ten times ,
and ten times he came back ."
"Imagine, " he added , " the last time I took him to the forest
I fired a shot above his head .
He stood up and started to dance ."
That year the hunters' associations banned
the bear hunt because it was embarrassing
to shoot an animal walking upright .
The hunters were also embarrassed to acknowledge that they
were sharing their lunches with the tame forest bears .
At that point a bunch of man burst into the tavern ,
talking loudly .
The gypsy started unpacking his accordion and
I ran towards the sound
of the bus engine revving at the terminal . I jumped like a bear
would jump at the sound of the drum .
Half way to Sarajevo I noticed that my wallet was missing .
" You paid well your secret " I said to my reflection
in the bus window .
We drove down the road through a thick forest .
I kept thinking that
it was indeed better not to know some secrets.
At one point in my life I used to make some
pocket money working in the Sarajevo Zoo .
I suffered then , because other guys at the high
school started to shave while I kept telling
myself that those few
hairs underneath my nose are in fact a mustache .
I worked as a guide on the weekends and
cleaned the cages on workdays .
I was helping Kanada , a Gypsy woman
in charge of cleaning five cages : the foxes ,
wolves , bears , lions , and tigers .
I would start with the last three cages , hose in hand ,
after Kanada locked the animals up in spare cage .
I would enter the cages with a gas- mask on my face
and a water hose in hand .
The terrible stench made my eyes burn .
There was a saying that you
would wake up after sleeping
with a fox only if you were a fox yourself .
Kanada was just under fifty , dark skinned and tall .
She was probably beautiful , before someone
left her a big scar across her forehead.
People used to say that she was named
after her father - a Canadian soldier serving in Italy after
the Second World War. Another version of the story was
that she never married,
because she fell in love with a Canadian
tourist and promised to wait for his return.
Whatever the truth may have been, she wore a windbreaker,
winters and summers, with a small Canadian flag
sown to the back.
She was always somber, and the only time a smile
would flutter across her face,
would be when she was working around the bears.
She would enter the cage without a fret, talking gently
in her gypsy tongue, and the bears would lie down on
their backs and breathe loudly while she
scratched them behind their ears.
One evening, after closing time,
I saw her lying on the concrete floor,
looking at the stars through the cage bars.
That would, perhaps not be so unusual, but beside her lied
a couple of bears, one on each side. Seeing her unmoving eyes
and a bit of her body showing between the bear furs, I ran to
the night guard, telling him that Kanada was in the cage,
apparently crushed by the bears. He waved his hand in
denial continuing to watch television, saying that Kanada
was the last person the bears might hurt.
"Didn't you notice," he said, somewhat maliciously,
"That she is more of a bear than a human being?"
I got used to such scenes later on.
I didn't think it was strange
that she christened a newborn bear cub as Son,
and that she was the only one mother bear
allowed to take her cub and show
it to the children. I don't know whether
I have ever seen someone
pamper a baby as gently as she pampered that bear cub.
Our manager was quite a swine, caring more about the money to
be made through ticket sales, the marry-go-round and the pinball
machines, than about the animals. He told me Kanada got the
job only because the Yugoslav authorities of the time insisted on
jobs being created for the Gypsies.
"Kanada," he used to say, "Was the only one among them who
lived in a high-rise flat and did not lift up the parquet floors
to burn them in the middle of the living room, like all the other
Gypsies who were showing the authorities how much they
missed the confiscated tents and wagons."
I knew he was telling a half -truth, but I said nothing because
by then I was in love with his daughter, Julia.
She was my first love. She was the only other person allowed
to watch Kanada stare at the stars, surrounded by bears.
This gave me a chance to caress her breasts that
did not resist my fingers.
I did not know then, that she would end up
marrying a new night guard,
a few years later, and live in a house by the fence of the zoo.
I thought she deserved more, back then.
She was the only one I told a secret that seemed as big as the sky.
One summer night I took her to the cage and started rhythmically
beating on a metal plate with the bears' names on it.
Two forest giants appeared, looming mountain-high
on their hinds.
They clumsily swung about to the rhythm of my beating,
not noticing the cub running between them all confused,
growling for attention. Their eyes were turned skywards, and
nothing else existed for them but the sound and memory.
I have no idea how long I beat on that plate,
thinking only of Julia's laughter.
The bears must have bowed when the silver bracelet
fell off Julia's wrist as we ran towards the tall grass to hide
from the searching flashlight of the night guard.
The bears retreated deeper into their cage,
as if nothing had happened,
and the stars remained at the same unreachable pots in the sky.
That night Julia started crying, as if she understood
more than I could gather.
I understood only that my big secret ended up in tears.
I used to show the same thing to other girls later on.
I made up stories about the long months I spent taming
those ferocious forest beasts which attacked me a number
of times, by the way.
Then one night, as I beat on the plate, Kanada appeared
behind my back, with a terrible expression of disgust and
rage on he face
. She would have probably strangled me with her bare hands,
had my girlfriend not screamed, terrified by the terrible gaze
Kanada shot at me. As we were running away, she hit my back
with curses. "A day will come for someone to remind you of
something you will want to forget," I heard her screaming as
I scrambled for the exit.
I never went back to the zoo, even though the manager kept
sending me messages saying everything was fine, and that I
should pay no attention to Kanada's demand that I should
apologize to the bears. The summer had already flown away
anyway. I never went back, mostly due to the fear that I
might encounter Kanada's gaze. The last I heard about the
zoo came from Julia. Some time in the middle of the war
I recognized her in a long line of people, waiting at
the semi-destroyed bus terminal, desperately believing
that the announced bus will arrive and take them out of the city.
I was the driver who came to tell them that they are waiting in vain.
She was pregnant and still lived in the house by the zoo.
The zoo unfortunately found itself in a no-man?s-land
between the rebels and our army.
She told me the zoo was more, that the animals were
either killed by the shells, let loose from the cages,
or died of starvation.
Only the released nightingales and the parrots, which never
flew farther than the next treetop,
were left as a reminder of the former animal kingdom that
used to exist there.
"The sharpshooters have moved into the cages," she said,
"And may god leave them there after they have
spent their ammunition."
She told me the unbelievable story about the way Kanada
and the bears met their end.
During those first six months of the war,
when nobody could sleep at night because of the howling
of the animals starving in their cages, Kanada was
the only one
who dared to go and feed them. Every night, she would fill the
bags full of food and crawl through the tall grass to the cages.
Sometimes she made three trips a night, and the neighbors
knew which animal kind has been fed , once their
She said the rebel snipers hidden behind the monkey
more bullets on her than on the Bosnian soldiers
around the cages with boars. Kanada made only one mistake,
when she rose up to scratch her Son through the bars.
The bullet went straight to her heart, yet she managed
to crawl to the cage
and open its door. She died there.
"What happened after she died could only be called the
bear suicide," said Julia.
"Having seen Kanada lying dead in a pool of blood
with her eyes gazing skywards, the two bears stood up on their
hinds and kept smashing their heads against the bars until
they crushed their skulls and died,"
"Imagine," she said before leaving, "while the bears
were smashing their heads against the bars, the little bear,
Son, rose on his hinds and started a funny dance.
The way Gypsy bears used to dance in the country markets."
Three years later I left the besieged Sarajevo and gave myself
a word that I will continue my life as if that war had never happened.
I would take a job as a city bus driver and smile at the people as if
I had never driven the dead and wounded. The bus siren
will not remind
me of the war alarm sirens and I will never run to the shelter again.
I will have in my apartment only a small pocket mirror that cannot
accommodate a whole face, so I will not be able to see the deep
shrapnel scar across my forehead, nor will I care how much hair
I may have after the war. I took with me only an album with
some pre-war photographs. Only one wartime photo accidentally
got in there: it shows Vera and me burning books in a kitchen stove.
I took the photograph out of the album and flung it out of the
Like this, it will feel as if Vera was not killed.
I sat at the bus terminal in a small Southern Italian town whose name
I can hardly remember. Across the street, the blue summer sky bathed
in the laundromat window. The window said they cleaned clothes in
two hours, but when I dumped the little clothes I managed to take
with me on the counter, the owner told me that it would take four
hours after all. He charged me in advance.
"You have just time enough to see a football game," said the
black-eyed Chinese man. "Our guys are playing against
Rome today and no man should miss that." I liked the way he
used the words our guys and how he incautiously exempted
himself from the company of men.
I will go to see the game, I told myself, and I will be with our guys.
I will buy myself a team flag and become one of our guys having fun.
I will curse the referee, I will whistle at every fault made
by the opposing team, I will sing our team's anthem and scream out
loud when we score a goal. I will be a fan who goes
to drink with
other fans afterwards, commenting on the match at
the top of our lungs.
I will be just a fan among other fans.
I waited patiently in the long lineup for tickets,
I bought a flag,
I smuggled a bottle of brandy in the leg of my pants,
and I sat at
the place where our flags were most numerous. A man
of the biggest flags did not hide his disdain at me sitting
so he hollered something my way. I could not understand
so I took out the brandy bottle and offered him a drink.
He laughed and drank out of the bottle.
Later on they all laughed and patted me on the shoulders,
and a guy covered in hundreds of tattoos gave me
a fan scarf.
I jumped off my seat when those in front of me
jumped up and
I whistled when they whistled. I could barely
see one corner of the field,
largely hidden by the huge flag in front of me,
so I had no need to ask what
was the colour of our team's uniforms.
That was not the same football stadium
where we used to
bury the dead.
That stadium does not exist anymore,
I kept telling myself.
I don't think
I have ever seen such a beautiful red sun
setting behind the
It was not even close to the colour
of blood flowing down
after the rain.
When the bottle was half empty,
all our flags suddenly
, and I could see the sorrow in the eyes of those who
around me until a moment ago. The opposing team
scored a goal.
Different flags went up some hundred
meters away, and the
people who were silent an instant ago,
were jumping up
and down now, showing us their middle fingers.
would have calmed down had our guys not
bottles at them, but then they started throwing
our way. As the first one exploded near me,
that old nausea
I brought back from the war returned, so
I dove between the seats,
the flag covering my head. I kept telling
myself that those
are not shells and that the war was long over for me,
but my body shook terribly, just like it did the day they
were bandaging my head in a blood-soaked street.
When I finally got back up on my feet that refused to
lift me up for who knows how long, our guys were
still standing around me, but the magic had left their
Some looked at me with a snicker,
others gazed seriously,
with reproach, while the eyes of some others
for the goal. The tattooed fellow took back his scarf,
showing with disgust how wet it was with sweat.
I wanted to tell them something, but instead of
my own voice
I could let out only a growl, like the growl one
beneath the Gypsy tents a long time ago.
I left the stadium having forgotten the flag, which
for a moment
appeared as a ticket to the world I used to
live in long ago.
I went back to the Laundromat, listening to
chants and songs of the fans. When I looked
at the Laundromat
shop window I did not see myself in its reflection.
There, on the bench sat a man who moved his
a map spread over his knees, a strange man
searching on the map
for a place and a country in which the
New Year's Eves are so
deserted that even a wild bear could pass
through the city without being noticed.