Why Does Rumpelstiltskin Hide in Sarajevo?
People called it Sniper Alley, but really, there was no alley. There were only concaves, and the domes in the skyline. It seemed flat, the champagne skyline colored with evening—deep grey domes and spires pressed against it, a watercolor painting still dripping.
There was the lighter grey of the buildings, the yellow of the evening light piercing and making those concaves seem empty, the walls holeless, for a moment. As the sun slanted, they slid back into place and lengthened, lengthened, into black hollows.
The green and brown-grey of spoiled cabbage, tumbled out of a bag onto the street, heavy as a head hitting the ground.
There was a lesson to be learned in everything, she told us, mother told us. She would sit and spin, black thread pooling through her fingers. In everything there is a lesson.
In stealing bread?
In the water fountain?
In the lines in your hands?
In stealing bread.
In the water fountain.
In the lines in your hands.
She didn’t tell us the lessons, always. You shouldn’t steal bread, unless the baby is very hungry. And the lesson is avoiding the baker, and in leaving the coin later when you have it. In being glad for the days that the water is running, and not to spill—and if you do, to avoid the wooden-board-hard hands of the grandmothers waiting for the water next.
We hadn’t learned the lesson about the lines in our hands. Maybe it would come with the dirt creasing the lines. Maybe there was no lesson.
The soldiers came into town and shot the crescents off the mosques, so that the spires stuck straight into the sky like domes of sand with sticks thrust through. The crescents flew, fell. We found one in the stream where Franz Ferdinand was shot. Half of the moon, at least.
There was still fresh bread, for a while, and cevapčići, the bullets of spiced beef and the grease that stuck to your face. Lick it clean. Warm meat, dry flour stuck to the bread and fingertips. The vegetables went fast. Cut the mold off the bread, or ignore the mold and eat it anyway. Extra protein, brother said. He said that for flies, too, we don’t know what is true.
There were uniforms, and then hijabs ripped off of women’s heads. Shrieking. Hair, blood. Red in black. And slammed doors. Pop-pop-pop. Firing in the distance, in the hills.
Sarajevo is in a valley. The mountains around are beautiful, dark, green and deep. Baba, grandmother, told us the lesson of those forests: the trees swallow your voices, you can’t be found. Don’t wander, children. The trees will take your voices. The soldiers took our voices.
It happened quickly, and because it happened so quickly, we learned quickly. Run through the alleyways. Leave the others behind, except the little ones. Get home safely. When the soldiers ask for anything, give it to them, or run. Or give it to them, and run.
Hardest to bear is how boring it is. Waiting in line for everything. Posters. Bread. Toilet paper. Line after line after line. People spoke like that, too. Staccato sentences. Where’s the lesson in that?
Except one day, there was a bomb. The people waiting for bread. Gone. We saw them: hanging over railings. Looking like they were just reaching for a coin on the ground.
And then even the boring waiting became unbearable.
When the black thread ran through mother’s fingers, when it creased her palms, she told us: the lesson is to always be thankful. Alhamdillulah, we are alive. We are still alive.
In the bricks on the ground?
In the crust of the dusty bread?
In the city of Sarajevo?
In the bricks on the ground.
In the crust of the dusty bread.
In the city of Sarajevo.
People are dying everywhere, they tell us. We ask them: In Split? In Mostar? Even in Belgrade? In Split. In Mostar. They spit. Yes, in Belgrade. They die of disease there. Needles and disease. They choke on their own tongues.
They spit again.
The lesson is to be glad that if we are dying, that the people in Belgrade are dying, too.
Mother makes women’s clothing. She bribes the sellers, trades the baby’s extra milk—the baby is so small, he doesn’t take much while mother gorges, bursts—for wool. The black wool she spins is too hot for the summertime but she makes the clothing and sells it.
When she sells it, we have the coin to leave for the bread. The bottles she fills with milk, they’re warm when we take them to the sellers for the raw wool. One day we were curious so we tasted it, the milk, and it was too sweet, so sweet, no wonder the baby doesn’t like it. And the wool is scratchy.
The buildings’ broken windows are all black, and sometimes people meet there. We’re not invited, but we look up into the buildings. The windows are like missing teeth, black holes in the champagne skyline.
The neighbors lost their son. He was handsome, he was an apprentice with the blacksmith. He didn’t do anything, he flirted mostly. His head was like a split cabbage.
The others, down the way, lost their grandmother. I don’t think it was the war or the soldiers, it was just her time. That’s what mother said.
The lesson is: watch the time.
There are no fathers here anymore, only men. There are ethnic groups, and there is nothing to show even for that anymore. There isn’t even school. There are cigarettes to trade for flour, which you can trade for beer, and if you have enough bottles you can trade for a radio. We don’t have anything. Mother has black wool, and the baby, and we have the lines in our hands. And we hope lots of time.
Sometimes the soldiers come into people’s homes and take things. Sometimes it’s just pens, or bread, or they search for guns. Other times they make holes of your windows, and they kick you out. You can come back later, though. But things will be gone and you can’t have them back. No lightbulbs, no water, no sausage left. Uncle’s rakija, his home-made brandy, gone, too, that’s usually the first thing to go.
There are too many moons. All the crescents stick to the sky.
There’s a story about a man who will come through town and he will bring you whatever you want if you give him what he wants. This is what makes him different from the soldiers—they take, the man trades. But the man is not a man, he is a monster. If you can guess his name he will give you everything without question. But if you don’t know it, he will take everything and you will get nothing.
We think of names, and we think of what we want. Bread, meat, a radio. Beer, even if it is haram. Music, or just a flute. A girl says peace, and we slap her. No room for sissy answers here. There cannot be peace. We are not at war. We are at siege.
If you guess the man’s name, after he gives you what you want, he tears himself asunder. Asunder. We pulled out a dictionary: apart; in two. Does that mean there will be two men? Blood? Or will there be two monsters?
If you don’t guess it, and if you don’t give him just what he wants, he will take something you cannot live without.
We laugh. What can he take? We have nothing.
Watch out, they told mother. Thread and threat are just one letter apart.
There are reporters. They say they’re ours, naši. They aren’t, they are from England and France. Once there was a woman with long blonde hair pulled back tight as a sack, she was from America. She asked us about the parties we aren’t invited to, about the buildings like teeth. She asked us about our sex lives, she asked us stupid questions. We didn’t have answers for her.
We wanted to tell her about the half-crescent we found in the river, in the place where Franz Ferdinand died. She wrote that down, maybe, but we don’t think she cared.
There was a man holding a dead child still warm in a pink coat, he was crying to the sky, to the sky where there used to be a crescent pressed against it. The crescent-shaped hole took up his cry, it absorbed his crying, and when she tried talking to him he hit her with the carcass of his dead child and screamed.
The lesson is: Don’t bother a man with a dead child. Especially when you’re not naši.
The older children found the underground tunnel between the streets. The older ones take the younger ones through. Sometimes there are groceries down there, sometimes there are men there waiting for women. They don’t care how old the woman is. But sometimes there is bread and some old vegetables, and once there was butter. We took turns licking it, and then the tinny package when it was all gone.
Sometimes there are packages dropped onto the city, they are filled with rice, and the rice is filled with maggots. Usually they are already dead, and we boil them in our pots with the rice. Mother says nothing is haram when we are hungry. The packages land above ground, and then we have to run for them.
The lesson is: Run for the food. Nothing is forbidden when we are hungry.
The men at the stores don’t want to take mother’s dresses anymore. They say, fine that she spent hours, fine that it was hot and she made them anyway, it is too hot now to sell black woolen dresses. Now people want black cotton dresses embroidered with gold.
But we are in siege. Why do they care if they are wearing wool or silk, embroidered or not?
No matter no matter. People want to feel beautiful, even when there is gunfire in the hills.
But how can mother get golden thread to embroider? Is there enough breast milk in her body to give for it?
Now we will really have nothing.
There are mortars that fall and make concaves in the sidewalk. They fill with sunlight, they fill with blood, we fill them with leaves and twigs. We imagine trees sprouting from them, that the trees will bear fruit filled with gold coins, they will burst like pomegranates and rain us with golden arils and blood. We imagine the concaves filled with champagne and crescents, we take turns licking them. We fill them with mother’s black black thread.
In cold breast milk?
In lines for water?
In used-up notebooks, margins filled with scribbles?
In cold breast milk.
In lines for water.
In used-up notebooks, margins filled with scribbles.
What will you accept from us for golden thread?
We can offer a spoiled cabbage.
We can offer prayers we said in a church.
Or in a mosque.
We can offer the licked-clean wrapper of butter.
We can offer the last lick.
We can offer half a moon.
What will you take?
The soldiers came, and they took the rakija, they took our pans. They took our scarves, and our chairs. They turned over our closet, they kicked the black wool and the dresses, and there was dirt everywhere, footprints, bootprints. They broke the table into bits, took the wood, took the baby from mother’s hands. They opened our oven, they put in the wood, they lit it. They took the baby, the crib a concave now too, they put the baby into the pan and onto the grill. Mother’s shrieks filled the open oven, the hot open oven, the shrieks came out of the closed oven. The baby’s cries and mother’s shrieks became one, and they were screaming and we were screaming, and then it was only mother crying. There was deep-voiced laughter. The baby was pink. He was like a ham. The baby became something haram, the soldiers took him out with our yellowed oven mitts. The mitts had flowers on them, and it was like the petals came off onto the baby’s skin. He was covered in flowers, a haram little ham. And he split open, and it was golden wool spilling onto the stovetop.
What to do with all that wool? All that steaming, golden thread? What is the lesson?
What is the lesson? What can we make of that golden thread? What can the baby become now?
Everything is dusty. There is dust in the lines in our hands.
The neighbors invited us over. They played their radio for us and we did not speak. The radio played English songs. We danced. Our movements were jerky, and we shot imaginary guns, and our faces were still. The other children shot with us, we shot into the buildings like teeth, we shot into the mortar holes, into the concaves, into the blank spaces where crescents used to be. We shot into the athan ringing out, into the sunset, into the night. We shot the radio, we shot our nonexistence sex lives, we shot Mostar, we shot Belgrade, we shot Sarajevo, we shot each other.
There are no more lessons. There are only holes and guns, and guns, and gold.