This is another short story set in the Balkans. If you liked ‘The Mother’ in the ‘Conflict’ issue on overtheredline.com, then I hope you’ll enjoy this.
Candlewax and Broken China
Perhaps it was close to here, twenty odd years ago, that we scrambled uphill in the guilty darkness, my mother dragging an old suitcase, its peeling Communist stickers being shredded by the brambles. She had made me pack a few things in my PE holdall, we had climbed out of my bedroom window onto the garage roof, and dropped down by the side of the house. What I had done had cracked the eggshell vault of the sky, and now at the age of nine I was hatched into an altogether less knowable world. When I stopped to look back into the valley, to find the tiny biscuit-golden windows of our house shining in the gloom, my mother hurried me on, conceding nothing to sentiment or explanation.
At the top of the hill we climbed over a stone wall and out onto a road. Walking further into the night we sat down at a bus stop. Some time later a car pulled up, and my mother reached into her handbag and pulled out a slab of Deutschmarks, pushing them into the driver’s palm. I knew that dinars were no good anymore, one of many recent, perplexing changes. I knew that the Bosniaks were going to fight us, because it was on the radio, and I knew that my father wanted St Basil to help us, because he kept saying so, which was odd. That night I thought my father was so angry with me that he would never speak to me again. It turns out I was right, about the last part at least.
It was the first Sunday in Advent, 1991, and my mother and I had been staying at my aunt’s house for several weeks, while my father was away. Now he had returned for the weekend. My parents had been arguing, which was hardly unusual, although this time there was something furtive about it which made it harder to bear. We had just finished dinner, and were still seated around the table. I expect I was squirming on my seat, waiting to get down. Yet the atmosphere was so charged that I didn’t dare ask. My father kept talking about Foca, a town up the valley to the West. My mother wasn’t happy, her lip curling as she listened to my father speak. She had a wary, hunted look that worried me. A while back, she had appeared one morning with a bruise on one cheek and a broken, submissive air. I was old enough to guess what had happened. Anyhow, a row was brewing, and I wanted to leave, but when I asked, Dad snarled at me and kept talking.
My grandfather had died the year before, and in his place at the head of the table next to me stood a large porcelain figure of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, seated on a rock base that held two burning candles. It belonged to my grandmother, and her grandmother before her. We treated it a bit like an icon, I suppose; every Christmas Eve it would be placed on the sideboard and we would say a prayer, cross ourselves and walk past it.
It was getting late, and my aunt rose to clear the dessert bowls or something. I probably blocked out much of what was said, which is a shame since I’d love to know now. But what I do remember is this: looking for distractions, I started to play with the hot wax that had pooled on the base of the Madonna and Child. My father began to shout, my mother was shaking, when suddenly someone grasped my elbow from behind and pushed hard. Mary and Jesus shattered in tinkling fragments on the tiles. The candles rolled away, smouldering.
The first sound to break the silence was my grandmother sobbing. My father stood, shaking with rage, and I slid off my chair, trying to muster the courage to run. He walked around the table, twisted my ear and roared: I was a selfish, ungrateful, idiot child. Then he slapped me on the face so hard that I fell. Unexpectedly, my mother intervened, shrieking at me to go to my room at once. I scrambled upstairs on all fours and hid in the wardrobe. With my fingers in my ears, in the darkness I murmured poetry we had been taught by rote in school. Briefly, there was further shouting, until the house went impossibly quiet. A tap was turned on. Someone was washing up. Then my mother crept into the room, guessed I was in the wardrobe, and our flight from the house began.
I prayed to see my father again every evening, until two and a half years later we heard that he had died. All I know was that he was shot dead near Foca. I’ve pressed my mother for more details, but she tells me that it’s in the past, and you can’t go back there. We were living in a flat in Krapina, a concrete suburb of Zagreb in Croatia, where my mother had been born. At the time, getting news was difficult. For months after we arrived, my mother would listen to Serb radio at night, waiting for the casualty lists, her fingers working a rosary as the names fell. Yet eventually she gave up. As far as I know, my father never wrote or called; the news of his death came from my aunt. I haven’t seen her since that night, either.
Now on a grey November afternoon I trudge along a rough path, trying to approach the village from the same angle at which I left it, as though I could conjure a door in time. In the distance – yes – I can see the small chapel, where my Catholic mother used to come sometimes. I would be told to sit outside on the wall while she prayed, as I was being raised an Orthodox Serb. I’ve grown to believe that dogma is a pile of steaming shit. There are too many distinctions in this part of the world, too many flag-wavers, splitters and haters. The chapel looks like it’s been shut for years, though outside an old man with a stick sits more or less where I perched, my dangling heels knocking the stones. When I say hello, he grunts. He’s probably a bit older than my father would have been, but not much. If he were alive now, I don’t even know whether I would recognise him. Sorry Dad, I split the family. I precipitated something awful. At least, that’s what I thought until my late teens. Then for a while I stopped caring.
As I come over the crest of a hill, I know I will have the first proper view of where I grew up. Heimat, the Germans call it. My homeland, my roots, the resting place of my spirit. Whatever. Yes, I can see it now. Kopaci, and beyond it the town of Gorazde. Our house is, should be – well, what’s left of it is there. The roof and most of one wall have gone. Coming closer I can see parts of it are blackened with ash. It’s a strange feeling. Fucking Bosniaks. Stupid Muslim fire setters, I mean what a waste. No one’s even living there now. It’s not on the route to my aunt’s, but I feel bound to take a detour, stand in front of it and stare.
Overhead, a buzzard mews. A stray dog yaps. I walk a few streets to my aunt’s house, struggling to bridge the twenty year gap between then and now. If this is the house, it seems alright, though a few splodges of mortar on one wall hint at shrapnel or bullet holes. I knock repeatedly on the door, with an urgency I hadn’t expected.
“Hello?” A rotund, saggy-cheeked old woman squints at me.
“Ivana? It’s me, Stojan.” I raise my arms, but there is no immediate reaction, and they fall flat.
“Stojan? Oh good god, Stojan!” She gives me a brief hug. “But why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” Her empty hands query my arrival.
“I, er, it’s hard you know, when it’s been so long!” I brush my hair back and smile. Because your letters were short and evasive, because we have no phone number for you now, because somehow if I had tried to plan this, I couldn’t have done it. Because I know that on that fateful evening you grabbed my arm and pushed me, and for a long time, I hated you.
“Well it’s too cold to stand outside, you’d better come in!”
“Cool. Yeah.” I find it hard to meet her gaze.
Inside, I sit down at the kitchen table, and reach into my coat pocket for the bottle of rakia I brought with me. My aunt spots it immediately. She hesitates, and says, “Let’s have some coffee first.” She busies herself with the cups and saucers while I look around. The place is stuffed with ornaments and bric-a-brac: plates with paintings of cats on them, a drinking tankard with a pewter top, a vase of dried flowers heavy with dust and cobwebs, a fake mosaic of Christ on the wall, and other, more abstruse items. Is that an old cigar cutter? I spot only one photo, of her and my uncle, probably soon after they got married. The room is ripe with the aura of the past. She puts the coffee down, black, without asking.
“I saw our old house,” I say, feeling cagey.
“Oh. Are you thinking of coming back?”
“No! But I mean, it’s burnt out, there’s not much left of it.”
“Ah yes, yes. I saw it burning, you know. I see there’s no ring on your finger. You’re not married yet, Stojan?”
“Doesn’t it make you angry, Ivana?”
“Young man, there is so much to be angry about. My advice to you: best not to bother. But I’m sorry, it must have been a shock for you. This is the first time that you have returned?”
“Yes, it is. Back in Zagreb, me and my friends, we say we are not racist. We hate the war, we are European. But when I saw the house I wanted to spit in the face of the first Bosniak I saw.”
“If you do not have malice inside, it will not come from outside.” She reaches for the rakia, already. Her fingers look swollen and shake slightly; arthritis I suppose. She unscrews the cap, sniffs the contents and chuckles. “Don’t worry, I will take it easy. Your auntie isn’t an alky yet!”
“So what happened to Dad? To my father?”
“I’m not sure I have much to tell you, if that’s why you’ve come.”
“But he was your husband’s brother. And, well you were around.”
“He died in fighting near Foca. I think you know that much.”
“So he was with a militia?”
Her eyes twitch, crows’ feet creasing.
“I have some photos of you all when you were younger. Would you like to see them?” She gets up before I can answer and waddles out of the room. The place is a burrow, really; spare cardigans are draped over chairs, there’s a cat basket in the corner and a rug on the floor by the wood stove. A few seconds later Ivana wheezes in, carrying a beaten-up album.
“Here you go,” she says, dropping it in my lap, “take a look.” I leaf through photographs of old family holidays on the Dalmatian coast, birthdays and municipal celebrations. The low quality colour prints reek of age and the last years of communism: obsolete people in an obsolete world. When I was young my father had a ponytail and a toothbrush moustache, and that’s how I remember him. As I come to the end of the album I see a portrait of him and my uncle, now also deceased, the two brothers standing together, arms around each other’s shoulders, looking serious. Dad’s hair is shaved and there’s no moustache anymore. He is wearing camouflage clothing.
“That’s the last photo I have of him. It’s one of the last of my Simo, too.” She reaches across and snaps the album shut. “The holiday photos are lovely, aren’t they? And your mother was so beautiful. I bet she can still fit into her swimsuit! Not so with me!”
“Why was Dad wearing camouflage?”
“He often did, back then. Come on, let’s have some rakia, I’ll get the glasses.”
“Who was he fighting for?”
“Look Stojan, it’s all in the past now. It’s best left. We are so full of grievances, our people. Don’t be full of bitterness.” She rises and walks to a small wooden cabinet.
“Why did you push me, the night that I smashed the virgin and child? I know it was you!”
“Don’t fuss over that. It was so long ago. I had quite forgotten…”
“For years I thought it was my fault that Mum and I left. Dad was so angry.”
“Look… I’m tired – ” She puts the glasses down and pours two large drinks.
“Why did you do it? I have a right to know! It was my life.”
“Stojan – your father, he was fighting for a militia, when he died.”
“So he was a hero, then?” The man who used to lift me up to pick chestnuts in the woods, who built me an igloo in winter and a tree-house in summer, who whistled eastern-bloc pop with a swagger, he was a hero, yes? But there’s no answer. “Ivana?”
“Yes, he was – a glorious hero.”
“Then why wasn’t I told, if he was a hero, if he died fighting for, for the Fatherland?” The word feels foreign on my tongue.
“You’ll have to ask your Mum that.”
“Who exactly, what unit, what group was Dad with?” Ivana takes a large sip of rakia and begins to sing a folk tune.
” So come home to the hills and the forests,
And don’t pine for the sun, my dear,
If the weather does not get cloudy…
It will not get clear.”
I drain my rakia and throw the glass over my shoulder. Ivana recoils like a startled cat, then draws a tissue from her sleeve and dabs the tears that well up in her eyes.
“Stojan, I only wanted to protect you. Simo and I, we could not have children, and, well…” I had better not upset her anymore; if she really starts to cry, I might not be able to get anything out of her.
“I’m an adult now. For a long time I pretended my past didn’t matter, but there are too many gaps. It is hard to live like that, you know?”
She sighs heavily. “Your father was with the White Eagles. I think he met some guys at the nitrogen factory, and that was how it started. He was convinced early on that there would be a war. When all the nationalist parties were forming.”
The White Eagles. Such a heavy weight to such a soaring image.
“But he wasn’t really like them, was he?”
“Not when you were young, no, he wasn’t.”
“You think that’s who he became? You know what they are accused of, what they did?”
“Stojan, you mustn’t believe that your father was involved in any of that. We don’t know.”
There is a long silence.
“How did you survive? Our old house is burnt out but this place, well it’s full of crap but it’s fine.”
“You watch your manners, young man.” She sniffs and finishes her rakia before reaching for more.
“Well? This ground changed hands, right?”
“I was still teaching before the war. You remember Samir Murat? Very sweet boy, I was friendly with his parents. I met them in the street one day, they had been burnt out of their house, by our side. His father was lucky not to be taken away. So I offered them shelter. When the SDA people came, the Murats pretended that the house was theirs. I hid in the roof, in the old water tank. Can you imagine!?” She smiles as though it were a fond reminiscence.
“You took in a Muslim family, when their fighters had just burnt out our house? Some filthy Muslims!”
“Stojan, don’t be like your father. You said that you weren’t racist, and I was glad.”
“Yeah well the Muslims I know in Zagreb are not like the ones here. Okay, okay, you’re right… So, Dad went that way? Well how do you know the stories about Foca are true?” I raise my hands like an insulted footballer, a caricature of denial.
“Oh, I talk to Muslim families. Sometimes I read their newspapers. I hear the international radio. All of old Gorazde is in the Federation, now. Did you have any trouble at the checkpoint on the road?”
“I came over the hills.”
She nods slowly. “You see, your father wanted you all to move to Foca, which would have been no safer than here. And he was beating your mother up. We made the decision, your mother and I, that you should flee, get out of Bosnia for good. I’m so glad we did.”
“I lost my father.”
“It was for the best.” She twists a ring on her finger.
“With the White Eagles, do you think he… would he have, I mean they killed a lot of people, because of who they were, because they were Muslim, right?”
“I don’t know Stojan. It’s best not to think. Your Dad became full of anger. I think he saw some terrible things. He was getting more and more violent at home, and he was determined that you would come with him, no matter what. As though Foca would be a new Serb Jerusalem.” She leans forward. “I went there, in my younger days. It was a bit of a dump, really.” I grin, feeling unaccountably light-headed.
“You needed a diversion. And so that evening, I smashed the icon.”
“Yes, little Stojan, you did.”