Nina Minefield Another Bear
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 burned down. 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 withmy 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 tothe 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.
Illustration: Oleg Lipchenko
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 somebody normal.
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 resembling ghosts. 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 his 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. Congratulations.
- 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 me 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 improvisations. 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.
Illustration: Oleg Lipchenko
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, apparently 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 howling stopped. She said the rebel snipers hidden behind the monkey cages wasted more bullets on her than on the Bosnian soldiers holding positions 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 bus window. 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 waving one of the biggest flags did not hide his disdain at me sitting among them, so he hollered something my way. I could not understand anything, 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 stadium walls. It was not even close to the colour of blood flowing down the sewers after the rain.
When the bottle was half empty, all our flags suddenly went down, and I could see the sorrow in the eyes of those who were singing 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. Perhaps they would have calmed down had our guys not started throwing bottles at them, but then they started throwing firecrackers 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 faces. Some looked at me with a snicker, others gazed seriously, with reproach, while the eyes of some others blamed me 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 could hear 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 the renewed 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 finger across 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.
Translated by Slobodan Drakulic and Patrizia Albanese