Ordinarily, Marko Sakic walked the five blocks to work at his grocery store on the Street of Proletarian Brigades in Nizograd, Croatia, but these days he drove, because he didn’t want to face his neighbors in the streets. Croatia had recently declared its independence from Serb-ruled Yugoslavia, and, as a Serb, Marko didn’t know what this meant for him. He wanted to be inconspicuous. Leaving his house, however, he nearly backed over his next-door neighbor, the retired math teacher, who had hobbled into the street, fully expecting the right of way accorded to pedestrians by law — as though any law remained. When Marko suddenly spotted the man in his rearview mirror, he braked and came to a stop a couple of feet from his neighbor, who described his threats in the air with a knotty walking stick. The teacher had always been friendly before.
Despite the bad start to his day, when Marko walked into his shop, he immediately became cheerful. He enjoyed talking with his customers, and even flirted with the women — not just because it was good for business, but because he loved the mutual ego boost it gave. After a good flirtation, he felt handsome, and if there were no customers around, he’d comb his hair upward; it was still thick and black, with only a little gray above his ears.
Croats and Czechs and Hungarians kept coming to his shop even after the war began, but the Serbs who remained in town did not. They wanted to avoid the appearance of banding together, so they went to the large, ill-lit state-owned store in the center of the town.
This morning, Bruno, an old friend of Marko’s, came into his shop. “So,” said Bruno, smiling, “I hear you’re happy about the Serb invasion?” The smile emphasized the sharp creases that cut through Bruno’s cheek muscles and the spidery crow’s-feet around his dark, heavily lidded eyes.
“Oh, no. Where did you get that idea, my friend?”
“People overheard you gloating when Yugoslav jets flew over the town. But if the jets bombed, do you think the pilots would have worried whether you were here? They assume that most real Serbs have left anyway.”
Marko frowned. True, when a dozen MIG jets had flown over the town, he’d relished their mighty vibrations; the sonic booms had awed and reassured him. But he didn’t remember saying anything about it. Was his friend trying to provoke him? Bruno did have a point; Marko could have left. The Serb militiamen had urged him to join their ranks, or at least to move out of town. Marko had heard stories in a nearby village about Serb soldiers cutting off two fingers from the right hand of those who refused to leave, so that they’d permanently display the Serb three-finger victory salute. Villages where there were no Serbs left could be bombed and set on fire by the Serb army without fear of killing their own. But there were still so many Serbs in Nizograd that the idea of a bombing attack here struck Marko as far-fetched. “I don’t think there will be any bombing,” he said. “That’s just a show.”
“Nice to hear you say that,” Bruno said. “So, do you have any beer? I need lots, just in case you’re wrong.”
Marko piled five half-liter amber bottles onto the counter.
“How about another round?”
Marko added five more bottles. He noticed that Bruno’s hands shook slightly as he placed the bottles into a large plastic sack, where they clanked together perilously. Marko was strangely relieved by this sign of nerves; it showed that he wasn’t the only one on the defensive. He felt a camaraderie of the nervous between them. Unless Bruno was merely suffering from the dt’s.
“Why don’t you come over to drink a couple of these?” Bruno suggested. “Like in the good old days. We could get out our albums and compare our new stamps.”
“I’ll try,” said Marko, although he knew that he would not visit. Maybe there would be a trap waiting for him at Bruno’s place — a couple of Croat thugs to knock him out, perhaps. Sure, Bruno was a friend, but which was more important now: friendship or patriotism? The answer varied from person to person, and you never really knew.
Bruno laughed in good cheer — or simulated good cheer — and said, “There are so many new stamps now: Slovenian, Croatian. Soon, there’ll be Macedonian and Bosnian. Wonderful times for us philatelists, wouldn’t you say? Good days for joke collecting, too. Heard any new ones?”
“Can’t think of any.”
Bruno shook his head. “Jesus, then things must really be bad!”
On the way home, Marko drove slowly, trying not to see the Croatian police on the street corners or the red chessboard — the Croatian emblem — on the walls, beneath the slogan CROATIA FOR CROATS! and the picture of Franjo Tudjman, who instead of resembling the father of a nation looked like a vengeful law professor just out of jail.
Marko had feared it would come to this, and, like most Serbs in the Krajina (the swath of Croatia with mixed Croatian and Serbian population), he had secretly voted for secession from Croatia. But the Croatian government wasn’t about to let one-third of its area go. Now the Serb army was trying to annex the Krajina to Serbia to protect its Serb minority. Marko thought it would be nice if Krajina became part of Serbia. He’d be right at home — more so than he’d be in Serbia, which he’d visited only a couple of times, and where he’d been insulted in a bakery for using the Croatian word for bread. To live there, he realized, he’d have to change his speech, perhaps more.
The following night, when the air-raid sirens came on, Marko remembered what Bruno had said about bombs not being able to distinguish nationality. He took his wife and two children to the basement, partly because it was required by martial law, and partly because he felt genuinely uneasy.
“Dad, will they drop bombs on the town?” asked five-year-old Danko.
“Then why are we going into the basement?”
“To pretend that we are being bombed.”
“Cool!” Danko said. “But I wish they’d drop at least one.”
“Shut up, both of you!” said Marko’s wife, Dara.
“Why do we all have to play stupid boy games now?” asked Mila, their six-year-old daughter.
“Good question,” said Dara. “It’s because some boys grow up to look like men but remain destructive boys.”
The kids insisted on keeping the light on to play checkers. Upstairs, the phone rang.
“Who could be calling now?” said Dara.
“I’ll go and see,” said Marko.
“No, don’t. It might not be safe.”
The phone rang for the fourth time, and the answering machine came on, then beeped.
“We know you are there,” said the voice at the other end. “Please turn off the light. . . . Or do you want us to turn it off for you?”
Marko turned off the light.
“Sons of whores, those damned cops. They probably think I was keeping the light on to signal the pilots!”
Just then, an explosion shook the foundation of the house, as though an earthquake had struck and different layers of the earth were struggling, quarreling, grinding over each other. Shards of brick shattered the basement windows, and a half brick flew in and smashed a ten-liter bottle of homemade wine from Marko’s little vineyard in the hills. The red liquid splashed them, but no one was hurt by flying glass. The scent of wine was quickly lost in the smell of fire and explosives and smoke. Before they could reorient themselves, another blast brought waves of hot air in through the broken windows.
“Damned bandits!” shouted Marko. “Damned Serb bandits!”
The children screamed. Dara’s teeth chattered.
“I’m not going to forgive Milosevic for this,” he said. “I take this personally.”
In the morning, exhausted and jittery, Marko surveyed the damage. His house had lost the tiles from one side of its roof, and all the windows had been shattered. Half the stucco on his brick walls was blown off, and the bricks underneath were cracked.
But at least his house was still there; the house next door no longer existed. Instead, there was a hole in the ground lined with red and charcoal bricks and shattered pipes. Smoke rose from the ashes. The explosion must have started a fire in the basement, where the math teacher had been hiding. Amid the smell of burnt plastic and rubber, Marko thought he discerned the odor of charred flesh; yes, no doubt flesh — perhaps human, perhaps animal, perhaps both. His neighbor, the retired math teacher, had lived with ten cats. Thirty-five years before, he’d taught Marko fifth-grade math. Marko had resented his reign of terror then, but now, in his business, he appreciated the ability to calculate quickly in his head. And as the old man had aged, Marko had grown to like him more and more. Occasionally, they had stood in front of their homes and chatted, looking across the street at the town market or the park, where steam rose in the distance from a hot spring.
The neighbor’s cats were a different matter. They raised hell with their mating and meowed at Marko’s doors and windows, usually at three in the morning. Once, an orange tabby had scratched Mila’s eyelid, causing it to swell shut. So Marko did not feel sorry for the cats. But for the neighbor, he did.
Fragments of the man’s scorched bones were found under the stones and bricks, mixed with the bones of his pets, such that it would have taken a forensic expert to sort man from cat. So Marko and the math teacher’s relatives gathered all the pieces and placed them in a little coffin, the size for an infant, and went to bury it. Since the cemetery on the hill was close to Serb positions, it took considerable courage to bury the box in the ground; Serbs in the hills might mistake them for Croat soldiers setting up a cannon. They dug a shallow hole, put the box in it, threw yellow soil and rocks on top, and left it there to await a more peaceful time, when it could be placed deeper in the ground, and when the mathematician’s picture could be set into a gilded oval frame and placed on a glazed tombstone over the bones of man and cat. But for now, nobody had his picture, and there was no time for glazing stones. Now was the time to blast stones, not glaze them.
The following night, there were more air-raid sirens. “Let’s all huddle together,” Dara suggested in the dark basement, “to keep away fear.” Her voice came to Marko from beside the fluorescent hum and firefly luminosity of the electric clock.
“We’re not that desperate,” Marko said. “Hey, it’s almost midnight. Let’s listen to the news.”
But before the news came on, the sirens stopped, and they went back to bed; there had been no explosions. They both fell asleep and awoke to Danko’s screams. He crawled into bed with them and, although he’d been weaned a long time before, probed to find his mother’s breasts. At first, by mistake, he attempted to suck on Marko’s nipple.
“What did you dream, sweetie?” Dara asked, but Danko wouldn’t answer. He leaned his cheek on her breast, his ear over her nipple, and fell asleep with a smile on his face, perhaps listening to the murmur of her insides and imagining he heard the trickle of milk from his babyhood.
In the morning, they saw on TV that a truce had been worked out by the United Nations and Cyrus Vance and the British Lords, who talked in fine, lispy baritones about how unbecoming it was for small nations to wage wars, how tribal and primitive and savage — while those same Lords supported various air raids of their own in far-flung regions and enforced unity at home in ways that resulted in quite a bit of bombing.
For several days after the truce, people walked the streets unafraid of mortar fire. Marko took advantage of the lull, despite the cold November weather, to replace the tiles on his roof and the glass in his windows; he even patched up the stucco.
Passersby teased him: “Boy, are you an optimist? What’s wrong with you?”
“What did you say?” he replied. “An optometrist? A kind of visionary, you mean? Yes, maybe you’re right.”
One dusty morning, Marko drove to Hungary, where he could get groceries for his store much cheaper. He couldn’t travel straight north, the shortest route to Hungary, but had to detour west to Bjelovar, where the roads north were clear.
He drove into Pec and, after buying sausages, cheese, canned goulash, hot peppers, and other items for his store, he walked the streets awhile. He envied the Hungarians: all over the place were loud, bright ads for American and German products; the roads were freshly asphalted; and the women bravely wore miniskirts, despite the cold weather and the men’s feverish eyes. This could have been us, he thought, if we’d known how to get along. He was tempted to talk to a woman who seemed to smile at him, but the impulse struck him as inane.
It was dark when Marko crossed back into Croatia on the way home, and at one point he got lost and wondered whether he had entered Serb territory. Of course, he shouldn’t have feared; he was a Serb. But he had no papers to prove it. His ID stated only that he lived in Croatia. He came to a railroad crossing where the gate was down, and he wondered whether to wait. Perhaps it was an ambush. Then the train passed, brightly lit, but no passengers were visible. Were they lying on the floor, so snipers from the woods wouldn’t shoot them? Where were the engineers? Perhaps it was a ghost train, barreling across the Balkans unpiloted, like a smart bomb.
After the train had passed, the bell clanged and the red-and-white-striped gate lifted. Was anybody observing him? Marko looked around, but it was dark on all sides. When he was a child, his grandmother had told him stories about monsters that lurked under his bed. He’d become so terrified that, when his room was dark, he hadn’t dared set foot on the floor. He feared that the horned witch with only one tooth would snatch him and drag him into the underworld to boil him in a clay pot with snakes, spiders, and death-cap mushrooms, so that devils could slurp his melted and spiced eyeballs, tongue, and heart. Because of this fear, he didn’t go to the bathroom at night, and sometimes, after drinking too much tea with honey, he would wet his bed, or else wake up early and struggle till dawn not to do so. Now he felt a familiar, terrible urge to urinate, but he didn’t dare stop; everywhere in the dark he imagined snipers, mines, and toothless men with long knives.
When he got home, Marko slammed the car door and turned on his flashlight to illuminate his path. That’s when he saw the red graffiti on the pavement in front of his house: SERBS GO HOME. Next to that were new grenade markings, like a large flower: a bulbous hole with scars emanating straight out like petals — away from the hills from which the grenade had been lobbed. He rushed inside to find his wife and children playing dominoes by candlelight.
The graffiti haunted Marko even more than the grenade scars. The following day, he didn’t go to work, but stayed in bed, drank tea, and went to the bathroom often. For each cup of tea he drank, he urinated several times, as if all the icy anxiety in him could be dissolved and drained out, down into the subterranean tunnel of filth and offal, to flow far away. There was no bombing that day, and Marko got several calls from his customers, mostly Croats, wondering whether he would keep his store open. They begged him to stay in business; most stores were closed, they said, and it was hard to buy food. And yet he wasn’t sure whether they were really begging him or only drawing him into a trap, one that might cause him to lose his nerve and flee, so there would be one less Serb in town.
Still, people needed groceries, and the starving would not worry about his ethnicity. And so, the next day, Marko opened his shop. He had record sales. Although most people frowned and bought their goods without saying a word, some expressed appreciation to him for staying open. And some even told him jokes. Bruno, his old friend — so old that Marko remembered how in fifth grade they’d measured their penises together with a ruler — told him this one:
“A Serb, a Croat, and a Bosnian are the only survivors of a shipwreck. They are floating in the water, holding on to a wooden plank and freezing. A goldfish swims up to them, and the Bosnian catches it, but it slips out of his hands. Then, if you can believe it, the Croat and the Serb catch it together. The goldfish says, ‘Fine and gentle people, please let me go, and I will grant you each one wish.’ The Serb says, ‘OK, put me in the middle of a tavern, dancing kolo, with accordion music and a gravel-voiced pevaljka.’ ‘Done,’ says the fish, and the Serb vanishes into the air. The Croat says, ‘Put me on an Adriatic beach with a jug of bevanda, and make the winds blow from the south.’ The fish says, ‘Done.’ And the Croat disappears. Then the Bosnian says, ‘I’m so lonely. I wish those two would come back.’ And the fish says, ‘Done.’ ”
The rest of the day passed in good cheer, as though a war were not taking place.
The next morning, Marko walked to his shop, whistling lightheartedly. He passed an old stuccoed house that had lost some of the sandy layers of its siding in the rains, revealing a peeling but insistent red sign: COMRADE STALIN, GREAT FRIEND AND PROTECTOR OF SMALL AND OPPRESSED NATIONS. Marko had never noticed the sign before; the building had been painted to hide the slogan, but now the unwashable history jeered. Marko smiled. Next to the crooked graffiti that read, LONG LIVE PRESIDENT DR. TUDJMAN, and, CROATIA FOR CROATS, the old sign seemed humorous.
But Marko did not smile for long. In front of his shop lay heaps of broken glass. Perhaps a bomb had hit the pavement and shattered the windows? But, coming closer, Marko realized that this was not the case. Inside the shop, all the shelves were empty, the merchandise gone. Jars of plum jam were broken open on the floor, their dark red gluey contents spilling out like brains. The cash register was missing. He’d taken the money with him the night before, but the register was worth a lot. The door to the storage room was smashed, its splinters scattered on the floor.
Marko knelt, his knee landing on a small shard, but he ignored the pain. He wept. This is the end, he thought. What’s the point? It would have been better if they’d killed me. At least then I wouldn’t have suffered.
Still, he wondered, Who did it? Or, rather, who didn’t do it? Serbs destroyed the town from the outside; Croats demolished it from within.
He walked home slowly. On the way, he noticed another shop, also Serb-owned, totally demolished.
At home, Marko told his wife what had happened.
“Jesus, even the Croats are insane,” she said.
“What do you mean, ‘even’?”
“This is it. We’ve got to leave!”
“Where would we go? Travel requires money. Who could I sell my shop to now?” The house was dark. All he could see was the limy clock-light, and he spoke to it, as if to a single ray of reason in the dark of history.
“Let’s run to safety,” Dara pleaded. “This is horrible.”
“Where? We can’t afford to go to America.”
“How about Hungary?”
“You don’t speak the language. You want to live in a place where you don’t understand anybody?”
“Yes, that would be wonderful! Look where all this understanding here has gotten us. You men have been bragging for decades about your big Slavic souls, drinking until you black out to prove how chummy you are. Where are your chums now? Knifing each other. So, yes, Hungary sounds great to me.”
“You can’t look at it objectively. We’ve had a lot of good times, no matter what, in this damned federation. Turn on the radio; let’s see what the world says.”
“Surely, we’re not having a good time now.”
“There’s no point in going anywhere.”
“It’s not like this in Germany and Austria.”
“With our luck, as soon as we got there, it would become like this. They’re sick of exiles. If I had a shop there, they’d firebomb it. Or they’d send us to some exile camp, a concentration camp more or less, on the outskirts of Vienna, and keep us alive for years on cheap sausages and water.”
“You’re a pessimist,” Dara told him.
“I’m a realist. A realist resembles a pessimist because life unavoidably ends in the worst-case scenario — disease and death.”
“At least we have each other, and we’re all still healthy.”
“You call this healthy?” Marko said. “I’m sure I have an ulcer, and if I don’t have cancer this very minute, it’ll grow in me. This cancer all around us can’t stay outside forever. It will creep in, has crept in, and it’s eating me. Don’t talk to me about health.”
They didn’t tell the children about the store.
That night, there were more sirens, and they went back to the basement and sat on crates of sugar and salt.
Danko said, “I hope they drop a bomb on my school.”
Marko slapped him across his mouth. The boy wailed.
“What did you do that for?” asked Dara.
“I’m sorry,” Marko said. “I couldn’t help it.”
“He’s just a kid.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“OK, enough.” He picked Danko up and tried to cuddle him, but Danko bit him and wouldn’t let go until Marko pinched his leg. Blood welled up in the bite mark on Marko’s forearm. “See,” he said. “Evil has crept into all of us.”
“Oh, so now the devil is responsible for your bad temper,” Dara said.
“I’m hungry,” said Danko.
At least feeding him wasn’t a problem. Marko had stored many supplies in the basement. He didn’t have a can opener handy, though. As he climbed the steps to get one, he thought vaguely that he shouldn’t be taking this risk. What if there was an explosion? Well, he’d welcome it. God, he thought, please, let there be one!
He brought back spoons as well, and the whole family feasted on refried beans and pickled peppers. They stayed in the basement until dawn. There had been no more bombs, from aircraft or from the hills. Everybody was asleep: the attackers, the attacked, perhaps even God.
Marko and Dara carried their sleeping children upstairs.
“Time for bed,” Dara said.
“Yeah,” Marko said. “I have a day off — maybe a life off. Plenty of time.” He had a morning erection; perhaps fear had translated somehow into sexual arousal. Why not? “How about sex?” he said.
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah. Hell, the survival of the species is in question. Besides, the kids are asleep.”
“Let me think about it.” She yawned.
“What’s there to think about? It’s not an intellectual quandary. Besides, you’ll fall asleep.”
“At least let me take a bath. I haven’t had one in days.”
“I haven’t either. How could it bother us now?”
“Well, it bothers me. You’d better take a bath, too.”
Later, during sex, Marko quickly ran out of breath. Gasping, he rolled over, thinking he was having a heart attack. Damn! He couldn’t even do that anymore.
Once he’d regained his breath, Dara touched his abdominal muscles with her nails, and his erection returned. He renewed his efforts, trying to recall a Hungarian woman in a windblown miniskirt, but he couldn’t. Dara’s wild, frizzy hair tickled his neck and ears. No more than several heartbeats passed before he rolled over again, panting. He was tempted to be embarrassed, but what was the point? In this heightened state of alert, his body didn’t wait for anything: digestion, sex, breathing. He measured his pulse, and it was over a hundred, as though he were an astronaut just landed on the moon. In a sense, he was on a moon — on a moon of blossoming craters, on the dark side, the side that the earth did not see.
Dara moaned, and he wasn’t sure whether she was having a nightmare, or had stealthily continued to stimulate herself to make up for his failure.
Marko fell asleep and dreamed of colorful dancing forms, falling leaves becoming schools of yellow fish, swimming deeper and deeper, and this sinking sensation was comforting and pleasant. . . . But his dreams ambushed him with a kaleidoscope of blood and jam. He tried to swim through it, to extricate himself, to rise toward the light, but the light turned into shards that cut his eyes, and he woke up sweating and shivering. Nothing was cutting into his eyes except the light from the window. But waking up didn’t help, for the more awake he was, the more he realized that the actual threats were worse than the dream. Maybe the Croats would start shooting civilian Serbs. Who was to say they wouldn’t take them into the woods to shoot, massacre, burn, bury? What if he stepped out in the street and a grenade fell at his feet, lobbed from the mountain by his compatriots? To his mind now, the question was not so much if, but when.
That afternoon the phone rang. Dara walked toward it, but Marko grabbed her and said, “Don’t answer.”
“You don’t know who is calling.”
“That’s the point of answering it.”
“I don’t want to know.”
The phone rang again, and Marko guarded it, lest anyone pick up the receiver. He was glad the blast that had obliterated the neighbor’s house had sent a surge of electricity into the answering machine and ruined it. At least that treacherous apparatus couldn’t allow just anybody to speak right into the middle of his home, whether he welcomed it or not. They are attacking me whichever way they can, Marko thought. With light, with darkness, with sound, with silence, from without and from within.
“Go get yourself a beer,” said Dara. “Relax.”
“That’s not a bad idea. Except I think it would make me vomit; just the thought of it turns my stomach.” And he burped as though he’d downed a case of beer.
“So you plan to sit here and grow crazier and crazier? Why don’t we leave? At this point, even Serbia would be better. At least nobody is bombing there.”
“True, but you’re a Croat.”
“They needn’t know.”
“Everybody knows everything.”
“There you go again. Let’s just pack up and leave.” Dara looked at him with contempt, her eyes almost closed, as though she were refracting his image through her eyelashes to analyze the insubstantial rays that made up her husband. He wondered whether her contempt was due to his poor sexual performance. She looked pretty with the light shining through her hair creating an aura tinged with greens and blues. This made the contempt all the more irritating. She thinks I can’t do anything, that I’m scared to go anywhere. Am I? No, it takes more courage to stay than to run. I know: she’s sure that I can’t go, and now she’s just taunting me, out of habit, sadism, hatred. Maybe she even hates me for being a Serb. Maybe she doesn’t want to go; she just wants to blame me.
“All right, by God, let’s do it!” he shouted.
She recoiled in surprise. Perhaps she had been counting on his saying no. He enjoyed her shocked expression. Indeed, he thought, a change of any kind might be better than staying cooped up, waiting for something to happen — as it already has.
Silently, hands trembling, Marko and Dara loaded up family documents, pictures, the children’s favorite toys and first drawings, shoes, silverware, and a few heirlooms — her cuckoo clock and his grandfather’s saber with the fancy silver work. The phone continued to ring, but neither of them answered it.
“Where are we going?” asked Mila.
“We’re going skiing in the Slovenian Alps, just like last year,” said Marko.
“Did you pack my boots?” she said, looking at the loaded car mistrustfully.
“Don’t lie to the child,” Dara said.
“How do you know that we won’t end up there, hah?” Marko said.
Danko agreed to go someplace cold only if he got a bar of chocolate. Marko gave him one, and the boy chewed and sucked on it, drawing brown lines on his cheeks and pants as he tried to clean his fingers.
“Impossible child,” said Marko.
“Let him be. You’ve got worse problems,” said Dara. “Wonderful, sweet boy,” she said, smoothing Danko’s hair. The boy smacked his lips and glowed from motherly love and chocolate.
Driving west out of town, they would pass by Marko’s shattered shop. He considered taking the side streets to avoid it, but when he looked down a few of them, they appeared too desolate. On the street corners stood many soldiers. In the beginning, there had been only the Croatian police, but now there was some kind of Croatian army, assembled from God-knows-where. Marko could tell a few of them were foreign mercenaries: Dutch and British soccer hooligans with tattoos on their forearms and cheeks. And there were Croats from the Hercegovina Mountains, taller and bonier than the local peasants. They were total strangers, here in the name of defense. Maybe some of them plundered, maybe all of them did.
Marko certainly wouldn’t miss these men, or his shop, for that matter. He was afraid to look at the shop. He felt as though he were fleeing Sodom just before the fire and brimstone. But as they grew near, he had to slow down for several people crossing the street, and red light from the setting sun flashed from his shop front. When he passed out of the glare, he saw that his shop had new windows and a clean wooden door. He stopped the car and got out.
“Oh, there you are!” Bruno said to him through pursed lips that held large nails instead of a cigarette.
“What’s going on?” asked Marko. “Who’s taking over my shop?”
“I’ve been trying to call you all day, but you don’t pick up the damn phone!”
“Who has stolen my shop?”
“Nobody, man. We all agreed that it was a terrible thing that happened to you, so we are rebuilding your shop.”
“How’s that? First you tear it down, and then you rebuild it?”
“Listen,” said Bruno, “we’re all neighbors here. It’s the outsiders who got into this war to pillage and plunder who destroyed your shop. They’re hoping to plunder Serb villages, but for now, they’ll plunder here. You think it matters to them who is who? All they want is booty. It’s business. Your goods are already sold and the money is in some soldiers’ pockets.”
“Yes, that’s right,” said Ivan, another old schoolmate of Marko’s, who had flunked out of the Zagreb School of Engineering and now ran a junkyard west of town.
It’s easy for you to say, they can’t plunder your junkyard,” Marko said.
“No!” laughed Ivan, “I chose my profession wisely.”
“Well, why are you doing this? Who’s paying for this?” Marko asked, gesturing to the bright new glass.
“Come on. Nobody!” said Ivan. “We got spare materials here and there. When the war’s over, you can sell us beer at a discount — that’ll be fair.”
Marko shook his head, amazed.
Bruno said, “Wait, I have a good one: Jovan, a Serb from our parts, flies to Chicago to visit his best friend, Bobo. When they meet, Jovan kisses Bobo first on one cheek —”
“Oh, please, spare me,” said Marko.
“It’s the tenth time he’s told this one,” Ivan said.
“That’s the only way to remember jokes,” said Bruno. “Repeat them ten times.”
Marko admired the new pine door, cut of fresh wood and smelling of resin. It looked naked, white, virginal. Then he walked back to his Volkswagen and told his wife that his friends were rebuilding his shop.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” Dara said. “I’m not waiting around for more bombs to fall. Let’s keep going.”
He grudgingly turned the key in the ignition and continued driving. They passed several shops, a bakery, and a bar, most of them Croat-owned, all demolished. Some were being repaired, while others were left gaping and smoldering, the rancid smoke drifting dustily, barely rising above the ground. In a way, Marko found the sight reassuring: he had not been singled out. Now he believed what his friends had said and was even touched by it. He pulled over.
“What are you doing?” Dara asked. “Changing your mind?”
“Yeah,” Marko said. “Maybe it’s all going to be all right here. I have friends.”
“You find all this comforting? They’ll burn down your shop next time. They’re just waiting for you to fill it up with sausages and cheese first. Let’s keep going!”
Marko drove on slowly, trying to come up with a good argument for turning back before they got to Hungary.
An hour later, he rounded a curve and saw flames rising from two oil barrels. A checkpoint, but whose? Either way, he didn’t want to be interrogated. He stopped and turned off the lights. In the sudden darkness, the stars were sharp and wonderfully luminous. Too bad he couldn’t enjoy the beauty of the night sky. What if this turned out to be his last moment? In the cosmic sense, it made no difference.
“What are you stopping for?” asked Dara. “Don’t you see who it is? Don’t you listen to the radio?”
Marko peered ahead and saw that the four soldiers at the checkpoint wore blue helmets. The UN had set up roadblocks to separate the warring parties. He laughed with relief. No need to be cosmic yet. He drove on, and the Nepalese soldiers stopped him and asked if he was transporting explosives.
“Of course not,” Marko said.
As they searched the trunk, he looked to one side and found himself facing a machine-gun barrel poking over white sandbags. The looming eye of the gun gave him a start, and his heart skipped a beat.
After passing the checkpoint, Marko suddenly felt terribly sleepy, depressed, and defeated. Would there be a whole series of checkpoints, guns, borders — an infinity of obstacles?
“Watch how you drive!” said Dara. “You almost went off the road!”
“I know. I’m tired. Are you sure you want to keep going?”
“I don’t want to, but I suppose it’s the thing to do.”
“Do you think we’ll be able to find a hotel room in Hungary? It would be much simpler to go back and sleep at our house.”
“Well, maybe you’re right. Better there than in a ditch, which is where we’ll end up if you keep driving like this. All right, but we start out again early in the morning.”
And so they drove back through the UN checkpoint, where they were asked the same questions, as though in their ten minutes of absence they might have loaded up the trunk with grenades. But then, nothing was impossible anymore.
On the way back, they saw flames leaping from the windows of many houses, and they realized that the burning houses belonged to Serbs who had joined the Serbian Army. Anxiously, they sped home, wondering whether the same thing had happened to their house. What were the UN soldiers doing about all of this? Observing?
Their house was intact, but cold; they had run out of heating oil. They all huddled together in one bed, covered with a thick down comforter. In the morning, they emerged like chicks from a nest, shivering in the cold. Marko called up Bruno, who brought over thirty liters of heating oil and a dozen new jokes, all of which seemed to lack punch lines.
Marko’s family stayed, and eventually the Serbian Army fled the hills under pressure of the Croatian Army’s first strong offensive. Now there were no more sirens, and people no longer spent nights in their basements, but left them to their rightful inhabitants: rats, cats, and sprouting onions. The townspeople could relax, but they seemed to have forgotten how. Many had grown thin from worry and malnutrition, but some, including Marko, had put on a lot of weight. He used to exercise more, walking in the town park and in the square, but the war had prevented that. The siege had changed everyone’s lifestyle. People now lived like Americans: they watched more television than before (there were more channels), and they ate bigger meals, as if the war had given them insatiable appetites. Bruno, too, had put on weight. One day, the two old friends got together for lunch in a basement cafe (Marko’s treat, of course).
When Bruno arrived, his hair combed back and shining with water, he kissed Marko first on his left cheek, then on the right, then on the left again, and so on until Marko said, “Wait a minute. I know we are close, but what’s going on?”
“Hush!” Bruno put his finger to his lips. “It’s better they think we are gays than Serbs.”
“That’s the joke you didn’t let me finish, so I thought I’d act it out.”
The two friends drank beer, ate an unsatisfying meal of grilled chevapi and onion, and reminisced about the old days, when they had eaten better and wilder. As they were finishing the spicy minced meat, they had little to say, and Marko was bored and tired. It was the season for King Bolete mushrooms, and Bruno suggested that they gather mushrooms in the park. Marko livened up. If nothing else, the walk would give him some fresh air and perhaps rid him of this clogged-up, groggy sensation.
The two men walked past the railroad tracks and the steaming hot springs, past the hospital wing that had been blown apart by a bomb the same night Marko’s neighbor had perished. Marko grew a little uneasy. “Let’s not go too far. There could be mines here.”
“Not here,” Bruno said. “The Serbs never had control of the park. Farther up, outside of town, yes, but not here.”
They searched the ground, trying to make out the round caps of cèpes amid the colorful leaves. They came to a place where a cross had been raised, with an inscription that read, TO THE VIRGIN MARY, WHO APPEARED TO ME ON THIS SPOT AND SPOKE TO ME WHEN I WANTED TO KILL MYSELF. A flower wreath was hung on the cross. Both men laughed at the sight; during the war, there had been a rash of Virgin Mary sightings. How could one virgin do so much work? The cross was made of old planks of wood, perhaps from a barn, and hammered together with rusty nails, some of which had bent because the wood was hard, probably oak, and no doubt the man nailing the wood had had an unsteady, hurried hand. A blue picture of the Virgin was nailed to the cross; its color had bled in the rains. She had a pursed mouth and beautifully full lips.
The two friends joked about the shrine as they walked farther up the hill. Marko was still laughing when he stepped on a piece of metal that squealed against his sole. He looked down and saw a round edge, the half-moon of a mine tilting under his shoe. “Run, my friend!” he shouted to Bruno. “I’m standing on a mine!”
“Mother!” yelled Bruno, and he hid behind a tree and looked at Marko’s feet.
“Don’t move!” he shouted. “I’ll get help!”
In his fright, Marko was unable to move anyhow, and he perhaps would have stayed like that until his friend returned. Or maybe he would have jumped off. Who knows? He would never make that decision. Pain shot up his neck like lightning and branched down his left arm. Something hit him in the chest, slammed across his ribs, knocking out his air and freezing his lungs. The force of the blood bursting in his heart jolted him forward, and he fell, his nose plunging into the carpet of yellow beech leaves, ear scraping the cap of a cloudy white mushroom. The wind blew, carrying to him the washed-out piece of paper with the blue-tinted image of the fleshy mouth, atop the fibrillating yellow leaves. It wasn’t the mine that had gone off, but his heart.