HOMAGE TO BOSNIA

From Divine Play, pp. 245-249

 Šalica, his mother, was slight and somber, dressed in a cotton layering of underdress, plum-purple dress, vest, and apron. Her long black hair was tucked beneath a yellow shawl. How long had it been? Over fifty years.

Moj sine! Kako mnogo ja sam te čeznula za!

Something about her son and longing for him. He was out of practice in Serbo-Croatian―but it was miraculous that he retained any of it. Grief and disbelief swarmed in him. She can’t be alive,he told himself. She can’t be in her early twenties.

“I was told you were . . . ah . . . što ti si umrla. You’ve been dead for fifty years.”

She smiled. “Znala sam što.” She knew that. She knew she was dead?  Or she knew he’d been told she was dead? He couldn’t summon enough Serbo-Croatian for that.

No clumsy simulation applied to her. He searched in vain for a polymeric feature or servo-controlled movement in the pale pyriform face, satiny black eyes, downy contrapositive slants of eyebrows and gently rounded cheekbones. She was smiling at him, the slim fingers of her left hand persistently rubbing those of the right. The hands . . . the hands . . .raw, marred with the myriad cracks and clefts and tiny defiant grids of dirt.  He remembered how her joints, her knuckles, had incessantly ached . . .

Mist and morning in a muddy terraced valley, his family in jackets and boots, moving among green hedges, cutting pink flowers from thorny tangles. Following his mother, who wore a long blue glove to guard her left arm from the thorns. Gavio, his father, had determined that they would grow damask roses for perfume. Friends told him he was glupav, foolish.  The prime source of attar of roses was Bulgaria; Bulgarian rose oil was the standard for the industry. But Gavio had his own process. Naravno! It would make Bosnian rose oil the new ideal. He was too young, then, to ascertain these facts, but his aunt, Emina, had recounted them. She’d died in a nursing home in Calcium City, Flama Georgida, in 2024. She was only fifty-two then, but tabetic, spectral, her brittle hair the color of iron. In her last year of life, she studied time, or distance, or nothingness perpetually, and needed to be fed and bathed and urged to the bathroom. Ten years before that, she had been the embodiment of history to him―and so like her older sister that he felt nearer to his mother in her presence.

That was how he remembered the language. How could he have forgotten? Though Emina was astoundingly fluent in English, she had insisted that they converse in the maternji jezik. At forty-two, her oval eyes were exquisite, chestnut brown, their gaze penetrant, omnipercipient.  The photogag she had shown him of herself at twenty showed a stunning, shapely, long-legged woman with black curls and roseate lips and prominent alluring eyes. Yes, she answered when he praised her beauty, a pretty rag doll for the Chetniks. Emina would tell stories that jumbled together scraps gleaned from refugees and statistics from books. Once she had parted her blouse and skirt to reveal a row of puckered wounds along her hips. There’s more, much more, she’d said, but I’m not a whore. I wouldn’t be a whore. They had to beat me to get their pleasure, and I refused to moan and scream as they demanded

One night, when the stimulants and tranquilizers zealously supplied by her doctors had balanced out, she related how she and her seven-year-old daughter, Sadeta, had been taken to “the hotel.” She’d been raped by seven or eight of them and then asked if she wanted her baby. Behind a curtain, Sadeta lay—her skin blue, foam around her lips. They had torn her dress and underpants, and blood streamed down her legs.

Gradually, time and thought and Emina’s prompting led him from imagining the scenes she described to discovering persistent sensations and emotions joined to images, through an arising validating certitude, to complete recognition of what he had seen, smelled, and touched. He soon regretted the revival . . .

Skittering fickle flashlight beams, smells of urine and sweat, squeak and scrape of people in the dark. They’d crowded all the women and children into a gymnasium. No, Emina corrected, it had been the movie theater. Yet he could recollect only indistinctive blackness, without the reprieve of a bright swarming screen.

Behind white wands of light were men with sour breath and grinding voices, who cursed and laughed and struck out with truncheons or kicked with muddy boots, abruptly stopping to illumine and scrutinize faces.  Nearer and nearer they came, and his mother gripped his right forearm and something pressed sharply against his legs—the seat perhaps, or the knees of the person beside him. When he started to whimper, she whispered urgently: “Ne govori! Molim!”

Women had been yanked from their seats—or from the spaces between the seats—and dragged into the swarm. Perhaps his mother had been taken then, or later. He could never verify his father’s destiny. His father was a short, swarthy man with a head larger than his body, Emina had said, which accounted for ideas larger than his capacity to realize them. He’d certainly been killed in a Serb death camp. Emile preferred to imagine that Gavio had been shoved into a ditch and shot. But in his dreams, he beheld men stripped naked and forced to walk on hands and knees, bleating like sheep or bawling Serbian songs; a prisoner ordered to tear out another’s testicles with his teeth; a father compelled to lick the blood of his child, newly slaughtered, in its mother’s arms.

He had last looked upon Šalica, his mother, in the warehouse. The stone floor was covered in thin carpet or blankets—an amenity commonly furnished only when the camps were displayed to reporters. The Serbian soldier had grabbed him by the belt loop and carried him like an overstuffed garment bag; his breath was trapped inside his aching middle. The soldier called out to his compatriots: “Ŝta ĉinio bihs ovim kučke sinom?” What should I do with this son of a bitch?  “What should I do with this Bulim pacovom?” Muslim rat. “Should we send him out to play in hell right now?”

He was dropped in a bright-lit area, where his mother lay, naked, her rawboned body crosscut in bloody slashes. She was supine, her knees bent and her swollen feet on the floor, a childbirth posture, though she squeezed her legs together reflexively to protect her sex. Bearded men in fatigues stood around. One of them unzipped his pants and began pounding his pelvis against her. Sometimes her eyes would close, from shock or exhaustion, and they would slap her face, or slash her, or crush a burning cigarette on her skin. They would order her to moan, to call out the soldier’s name. One of them held a camera to record the scene for a television broadcast—though she’d be presented as a Serbian woman being violated by Muslims. Some of the soldiers would glance back at the camera and move their hips flamboyantly for a moment, clowning. 

For a moment, she seemed to inhabit a vaporous radiance; he could perceive only her love, her luminescent spirit. He cried out, “Mamica!” and tried to run to her. 

One of them collided with him. “Ne! Boravak nazad!” “Stay back!” The man clamped his filthy hand on Emo’s face and flung him down. He felt his neck bone crack. He heard his mother mournfully sob his name.  There was a bundled burning at the base of his skull.

Another man lifted him up, shook him and asked if he still loved his “Ustasha whore.” His mother covered her eyes with her hand and cried out, “¡Ne pustite ga gledajte!” They mocked her, covering their eyes and crying out, “Don’t let him watch! Don’t let him watch!”

All the rage and fear surged to the top of his head, clamoring, and he shuddered rigidly. He wanted to cover her and rise into the night. He promised he would hunt them down, though he never learned their names, never remembered their faces. He wished he could have returned to that moment with a vestful of dynamite and destroyed them all—his mother, himself, a cleansing abolition. He did turn away, to the scaffolding of storage bins arrayed in the dark. Muslims, Christians, and Jews taught that men were created in God’s image. But image was a representation—a copy without substance. Men were dupes of God. Would that he could have viewed them as they were in sixty years, clusters of dried excrement and cigarettes, clots of hair and fragments of bone. How do you like your blessed likenesses now, Old Man?

“He’s all right,” one of them said. “On je izdržljiva mala izmet.” A tough little shit, all right. Someone slammed a rifle butt against the side of his head.  They laughed as he stumbled, walking drunkenly along an inconstant path of fatigues and beards, sickened by pain and dizziness and the stench of cigarettes, of smells he identified only years afterward—petrol, bore solvent, gun oil, cordite, semen. They poked him in the ribs and prodded him with policemen’s clubs. At length he was shoved and fell forward, forehead, mouth, palms, and knees colliding with the adamant floor, tiny screws piercing his right palm and left knee; he tasted grit, soil, sand, and blood…

His mother shrieking; a gunshot. The darkness curlicued, engulfing him. Something more compassionate than God had allowed him to live.

Years later, sometimes, just as he’d start to fall asleep, there’d be a sudden sibilant whisper, as if she lay beside him: “¡Ne pustite ga gledajte!

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About Tom Ukinski

Tom Ukinski is an attorney in state government in the Midwest. He's been writing plays, novels, short stories, comedy sketches and screenplays for many years.
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