BETWEEN THE LINES

Christine M. Calson


My dear brother,

The snow came again last night, and with it the news that Biljan is dead.

People are sleeping in the streets, and their fires burn all night. From my bedroom window, I watch the flames make crimson shadows on the snow. I don't sleep anymore.

Everyone thought that when the U.N. soldiers came, there would be better times for us. Hanifa was so full of hope; she used up the last of our sugar baking a cake to celebrate. But what good can more guns do, what good can foreign men do, when they do not starve like our people starve, when they do not see their families fall apart this way? We hear stories, nightmares, from relatives and strangers fleeing other villages. The U.N. soldiers have done nothing to stop the massacres; their clothing is heavy with weaponry, and yet they tell us to be still, to trust that peace will come through their presence. My mind has grown numb to the daily horrors. I get up, walk my children to school, go to work, come home, kiss my wife, eat our ration of bread, and go to bed, day after day, moment after moment, year after year. When I sleep, the nightmares make me smell the killing, and so I do not sleep.

You must be thinking, "How much Milan has changed, to talk of killing so freely." Alija, there is little else to talk of these days. The world has been reduced to red and white. Still, I must feed my children, and so each day I open the store and wait for someone hungry enough to spend his few small coins on my goods. Little food is left on my counters to sell, and I have stolen from myself to feed the girls. Yesterday, a young neighbor boy tried to run out of the store with a loaf of bread stashed in his jacket. I caught him by the arm, and in his eyes, when he looked up at me, there was not shame, but hollow hatred. I pulled off a piece of the loaf and handed it to him. He snatched it like an animal, was gone without a word. I kept the rest of the bread for my own family.

They did not tell us how Biljan died. There was a knock on the door last night, and when I opened it, Senija stood on the doorstep, the three little ones clinging to her skirts. We have no room for them, no food, no money, but what can I do. They are our brother's family. All they told her, said Senija, was that there had been some fighting near Gorazde, that Biljan had been involved, that he would not be coming back.

My candle is almost out, and I am keeping Hanifa awake with my scribbling. Electricity is sporadic lately; tonight, we are without, as we have been all week. I do not know if you will keep getting my letters, for they say the fighting is moving closer to Srebrenica, but I will keep writing.

You would not recognize the girls these days. Senada is almost ten now, and her hair has turned blonde like her mother's. She will be quite a beauty. At school, the girls are learning to read; Tanja can write the first fifteen letters of the alphabet. She hates to make mistakes, and the fire in her eyes flashes when I correct her. She reminds me of myself, and so I bear her anger and correct her despite the warnings in her face; I know, in the end, she'd rather have it right.

I could talk of the girls all night, but Hanifa has glared one too many times, so I will close. I think of you often and send you my love, as does the rest of the family.

Your brother,
Milan



Dear Milan,

I got your letter yesterday. I was sick to hear of Biljan, and of your hard times. Please give my love and sympathy to Senija.

I cannot imagine the life you are living right now. These last four years have blurred my memory so much that I have almost forgotten what Srebrenica looks like, the sound of your voice, how the morning smells after a snow. I have not spoken our language in over two years, and I am starting to forget; as I write you, I have to think too hard.

Last month, I found a new job at a local hospital. Now I no longer have to commute to the city every morning. It is such a relief to be out of that rush hour mess on the freeway. The work is better, too; the emergency room in the city was like a war zone, every night full of horrible people and problems. In Berkeley, it is comparatively quiet, far less chaotic. And I only have the night shift three nights a week now, which makes life much easier.

Now listen, Milan: I have met a woman. Not just any woman, but a wonderful, beautiful woman. Her name is Jennifer, and she is one of the nurses at the hospital. She grew up in Santa Clara, and she lives in Berkeley, not far from my place. We see each other quite often; we go to the movies, or out to dinner, or for walks in the park. She has long red hair and wears sandals all the time, even in the winter. But, then, it doesn't snow here like it does back in Srebrenica. I have told her all about you, about growing up in Bosnia, and she is quite angry about what is happening over there right now. Jennifer is such a sensitive person; she is always saying how something should be done about the war, how it is not right, all of those women being raped. It is so hard to get things done in this country. The government never listens to us, but we are arguing for you, brother. Jennifer would like to meet you; I told her perhaps soon I can send you some money, and you can bring Hanifa and the girls over for a visit.

Well, Jennifer will be here soon; we are going to see a movie tonight. Are they still showing American films in Srebrenica?

I read in the newspaper today that the president has agreed to parachute supplies to warring areas of Bosnia; I hope that some will land near you. This president has a good heart, I think, but he isn't doing enough for our people. If only we had known what was going to happen four years ago, I would have made you come to America with me, would have gotten you out somehow. Of course, you would have fought me like the stubborn ox that you are. Remember how hard I once tried to talk you into going to the university? Biljan and I could never figure out why you refused. You were always a better student than I — you had such a way with words. And look how we ended up, me spending all those years studying, then coming over here to learn more, and you never leaving the town where we grew up. If I had not talked you into buying the store, your children would still be in the fields. And now see what has happened. You were so angry at me for leaving, but wouldn't it have been better if you had come, too?

But how many times can we go round on this, eh?

And Biljan. My heart darkens to think of him. Whatever happened to that ragged black cap he wore? How Mama despised that cap, so old, so filthy, he looked like a gypsy, she said. The more she pestered, the more he fell in love with the thing, I swear. No doubt he clutched it in his sleep, till he met Senija and had to grow up.

We had some good times, Milan, the three of us. We must think of those times now.

Please take care.

Your brother,
Alija



Dear Alija,

It is raining outside, a thick, freezing sludge of a rain that promises snow by morning. No doubt the soldiers are growling tonight; my own knee throbs. The girls have been in bed for an hour now, and Hanifa sits in Mama's old rocking chair by the heater we haven't used in a month. She is rocking and reading and twirling a string of hair around an index finger. Her hands are so thin and pale it frightens me. Senija must be in the kitchen, perhaps hunting for a tea bag, for I can hear the cabinet doors opening and closing gently, as though she doesn't want us to know she is searching.

Senija and Hanifa argued today. The taste of it tainted the evening meal and still clings to the roof of my mouth. Angry words, thoughtless words, shouting as I came in from work. Something about using Hanifa's apron to wipe up a spill Nijaz made, and staining the cloth, and no laundry detergent to be had for weeks. Then Senija started crying and said we didn't want her here, that family meant nothing to us, that we would turn Biljan's own children from our doorstep, and if the blood of our hearts was so selfish, she could not spend another night under our roof. I rushed into the kitchen to find little Nijaz wailing, food falling from his mouth, Senija trembling and covering her face with a towel, fury on the lips of my wife.

Now it is quiet again, and they have forgiven one another with silence. Senija is in the kitchen, Hanifa nursing her pride, more out of stubbornness than anger, and her shoulders are hunched against the light. In awhile, when I am finished with your letter, I will go to her and rub her neck, and smooth the new gray in her hair, and there will be peace.

I paused for just a moment to check on the children. Senada and Tanja have made space in their room for Melvina and Rada; they share the two twin beds, which is just as well, for warmth is hard to find these days. Biljan's girls are quiet and wide-eyed and didn't laugh at all for the first two weeks they were here. Nijaz sleeps with Senija on the pull-out couch, and sometimes he wakes us all in the night with his crying. He is at the toddling age, roaming and tumbling around the house, and we laugh to watch him gurgle in surprise when he falls on his bottom, which happens quite often. The girls treat him like their own little doll; yesterday, they dressed him up in some of my old shirts and paraded him around the house. As soon as he starts crying, though, they are quick to deposit him in his mother's arms.

All is right in the bedroom. The girls are soft bundles of slow breathing, heads buried under blankets, bodies folding in one upon the next. It is hard to tell which arm belongs to which child, whose foot is peeking out from beneath the covers. It will freeze tonight, and I tugged at the blanket to cover the foot; no one stirred.

Do you remember the night Senada was born? So different from tonight, so many years ago — only ten? Ten and another lifetime. It was June, and the irises and posies were just beginning to shower the hills with their brilliant colors. I remember Hanifa's laugh that evening, when it had finally stopped raining, and the sun broke through the clouds and made the world a dazzle of green and blue and purple and gold. Anticipation hovered like mist over the grass. We went for a walk in the foothills, and even the cold wind couldn't keep the smile from her lips when I handed Hanifa a lilac branch fresh-broken from the rain. The scent of lilac still makes me think of that night.

The pain began soon after we returned. We made it to the hospital before dark, but our doctor was out of town, and the young intern on duty worried Hanifa more than her crippling pains. She wanted you, she insisted, she wanted family, she would wait. Waiting was impossible, even I knew, but she set her jaw and closed her eyes and clenched my hand in hers. Biljan had to drive hours through the night to find you, and when he pounded on your door in the dark, he said you took an eternity to answer. Hiding a woman most likely, he joked later, when the danger had passed, and Senada was a wailing blur of purple in my arms. I don't know what happened in that room once you arrived; the hours of night were miserable and torturous, and all I could think about was how helpless I was, how little I understood. I cursed myself, Biljan, the car, the wind, our doctor, you and Sarajevo and the hospital that took you away. Finally, the crying calmed to a whimper, and I sat in the hall and trembled till I felt your hands solid and warm on my shoulders.

"Come meet your daughter," you said. "You are the luckiest man in the world, two beautiful women waiting for you in bed."

And you were right.

Well, brother, Hanifa has tired of her novel and her silence, and with her stirring she is hinting that bedtime is upon us. In these moments, when the house is quiet and her fingers brush my cheek in passing, I can almost forget the cold and the fighting outside, as writing you also allows me some brief respite from the worries of daily life.

But enough for one night. You ask in your letter if we have gotten any supplies; I have heard of drops being made, but we have received nothing yet. I am hopeful, though, for they say the drops are going to come in this direction.

Pray for us, as we will pray for you.

Your brother,
Milan



Dear Milan,

My little brother, who used to blush at the thought of menstruation and pale at the sight of blood, now talks of killing and birth with the same calm breath. You are right, this war changes people. Or perhaps it is living in a house full of women that makes you more secure in your manhood, eh?

I miss joking with you, Milan; it has been too many years, and though I hear your laugh like a shadow in my dreams, I cannot force the sound of it in my waking memory. When I first heard it, Jennifer's laugh took me completely by surprise. Her body is graceful and thin like a cat's, but her laugh roars from her mouth in great bursts, so much sound from such a small frame. I think you could count all her teeth when she laughs hard — beautiful teeth, mind you, and her easy joy fills me with pleasure.

Am I like a schoolboy? I can't help myself. I have never met anyone as fascinating, as enthralling as Jennifer. The days when I don't see her are limp and grey, and just the sound of her voice on the phone sends my pulse racing. All my years of education, my cynical love affairs, my common sense are mocking me now, brother.

Last weekend, Jennifer and I took a trip together. It had been so long since I had seen snow, and one day I mentioned my longing to her. Her eyes lit up like sunbeams at my words, and before I knew it, we were on our way to Lake Tahoe. A friend of Jennifer's has a cabin up there, and we spent a weekend in this beautiful home. Driving up the mountain, I felt excitement tighten the muscles in my legs at the first glimpse of snow. Different than Bosnian snow, of course — this first glimpse of snow was packed hard and dirty against the roadside, full of stones — but snow, all the same.

And then we reached the cabin, and I stepped out of the car, and do you know what I realized, Milan? I don't like the snow. All my cravings for winter, and as soon as that first chill wind cut against my face, as soon as the snow soaked freezing fingers of wetness through my shoes, I realized how much I don't like snow.

So Jennifer and I spent much of the weekend indoors, which was wonderful just the same. And this house was unbelievably huge. Bigger than three of your homes put together, and furnished with the finest. Dishes, linens, firewood, three televisions, two telephones, stocked cupboards — and it is only a second home. Most of the year, this place is empty. I think I have a few more years of work ahead of me to be able to afford such luxury, but Jennifer and I agreed that having a cabin of our own someday is certainly worth dreaming about.

Driving back from the mountains, Jennifer wanted to hear stories of Bosnia, and I was telling her of the time you fell in the well behind Grandmother's house. Do you remember? You were only five at the time, and no doubt you have tried to block out the memory after the lashing and teasing you received from the whole adventure. Mama was tearing her hair out, she was so distraught when you, her most responsible child, did not appear for dinner. If it had been me, no doubt they wouldn't have worried so much, eh? I was sent out to scour all the streets, the woods, your favorite hiding places, but of course you were nowhere to be found. It was dark when the knock finally came, and Grandmother almost started crying when she opened the door to find you held up by two men, your little shoulders drooping, your hair a muddy nest. I still don't understand how you did it, falling down that slimy old well, which thankfully was almost dry, and then following that tunnel all the way to the water plant down the road. Why you didn't break your neck in the first place is a miracle to me. You were sniffling and getting all kinds of kisses and treats, and all for a few bruises, and I was just beginning to feel jealous when Father spoke.

How could a son of his fall in a well, he wanted to know? How could Milan, his own son who had grown up on this land, who knew better, how could he be so foolish as to fall in a well, scaring us all to death and nearly killing himself, thank the Lord he hadn't?

You stared at the floor and snuffled, and everyone was quiet, waiting. Father's jaw pulsed.

"There was something shiny," you mumbled. "In the bottom." You wanted to see what it was.

Mama's hands moved to your shoulders, you turned white, and I headed for the door as Father's thunder voice began to rumble. "You endangered your life. You caused your mother and your grandmother hours of fear and worry and heartache. And all of this to look for 'something shiny'? That's all you have to say for yourself?"

That's when I cleared out of the room. I didn't want to be anywhere near when Father got angry. Pure, uncensored emotion — Father never felt things part way, did he? Of course you, being so like him, never seemed as afraid as I was.

It wasn't till later that night, in bed, that you told me the shiny thing turned out to be an old candy wrapper from a caramel. All those scrapes and bruises and facing Father for a candy wrapper. The next day, they locked up the well, and I never did have a chance to try that tunnel.

Ah, well, life is full of missed opportunities, eh? I can't decide if you or I got the better end of that adventure.

Brother, I am tired from our long weekend, and tomorrow will be an early morning after sleeping in these last few days. As soon as we get our film developed from this trip, I'll send you a picture of Jennifer and me, so you can see all my big words are more than air. My thoughts are with you, and I pray for a quick end to this ugly war and all the hurt it is causing. Give my love to all.

Alija



Dearest brother,

I had almost forgotten the taste of vodka. Last night, we visited with Haris and his family. It had been too long since we had a good game of cards, a good drink, a good laugh together. I couldn't believe there was a spot of liquor left in the whole city, but if anyone could salvage some, it would be Haris.

Do you remember the time, when we were boys, when we decided to go hunting together? None of us owned a gun, and you and I were too afraid to ask Father for his. He carried that gun with him always; I can still see him bending over the earth, breaking up clumps of dirt with the butt of that rifle. Every day at sunset, he stood on the edge of those fields, a cigarette in one hand, the other hand dirt-stained and heavy on the barrel of the gun. The farm was his world. If there was one thing I learned from Father, it was the price of land; nothing was more precious to him than feeding his family with his own two hands, as his father had done, as his mother had raised him to do.

His body would have been one of those lying in the farmlands, Alija. The fields are full of bodies now.

Haris had a way of always getting what he wanted. You and I were too timid to ask our own father for his gun, but what did Haris do? He asked his blind cousin, the one who was a soldier during the Second World War, if we might borrow his gun. Of course the cousin refused at first, but Haris kept begging until the poor man could stand it no longer. And didn't we have a glorious time with that rifle! Even with ammunition, we couldn't have had more fun. You were playing the doctor, even then; Haris was always the enemy, hunting us down as we hid behind trees, wriggled on our bellies through ditches, built forts out of branches and leaves. I had perfected so many ways of collapsing, trying to make it difficult for you to rescue me, but you would still rush to my aid. Sometimes we let Biljan play to give Haris another man to chase; I always thought Biljan was the best fighter among us, even though he was so little. Small but feisty.

In the lamp light last night, it was as though no time had passed — like all those nights together, after Hanifa and I were first married, when you would come home from the city, and Haris would visit, and we would talk and drink away the night. I half expected Mama to walk from the kitchen with a plate of desserts — I'd die for some of her baklava! — and I could almost smell Father's pipe, hear you and Biljan laugh with the rest of us.

Haris has two sons now, and his house echoed with the games of children once my girls and Senija's little ones had overcome their shyness. Watching them play, I realized more fully than ever the gift of childhood, the resiliency of youth in the face of infinite tragedy. It could have been you and me running around, or Father and Mama, or Grandmother, or her parents before her. This is the way it's supposed to be. We do not spend evenings together as much as we should these days. Last night, my daughters had a pink to their cheeks, a flash to their eyes that I'd almost forgotten, and I could only protest weakly, then give in when they tugged me into their games.

Hanifa looked like a young girl again last night. I watched her from across the room as she smiled and talked to Senija and Karina, as she brushed a strand of hair from her forehead, sought my eyes, smiled.

I hope this woman you have found can give you such beauty, brother. There is no other life for me but this; all that I treasure is in Hanifa's smile.

Your brother,
Milan



Dear Milan,

Thank you for your letter. It has been years since I thought of Haris and our times growing up together. You made me laugh. And do I detect matchmaking in the tone of your words? Your daughters are still young, my brother, but no doubt Haris' two sons have not escaped your notice.

Or perhaps I'm the one who has matchmaking on his mind. Life is going well for me, Milan. Jennifer continues to share her hours and her affection with me. The other day, she brought me flowers. Imagine! A big bunch of tulips. Do you remember picking wildflowers in the fields behind the school? You were always so shy, and you would get furious when I gave a bouquet to some girl you had taken a fancy to. I only did it to tease you, of course, and the girls always knew when you had a crush on someone, anyway. You were certainly not the artful lover! I think even Biljan had kissed a girl before you worked up the nerve.

With Hanifa, though, you were different. I'll never forget coming home from the university that first year; I opened the door to find you blushing and proud, waiting to introduce me to the woman at your side. You had not written a word to me about it, and I was utterly surprised. You gushed something about a wedding, and Mama and Father were smiling and nodding, and Hanifa kept her eyes steady, but her cheeks were flushed. I can tell you now, brother, I was a little jealous. I had met so many women at the university, but she was something different. You watched me so carefully that weekend; there would be no teasing bouquets for Hanifa! I had never seen you so in love.

Anyway, after that first year, the studying became harder, and I was so busy that I couldn't come home much anymore. I missed you all; I couldn't sleep without dreaming of you. At least I had Biljan at the university with me, until he met Senija and quit school to work in the steel mill, and then I started to work in the hospital in Sarajevo. Mama was so proud that I had found a job in the city.

Of course, that ended soon enough when she found out I was taking an internship in the States. I thought she was going to pull my ears just like the old days when I told her. You should be glad you weren't there when I broke the news; it was worse than the time I snuck out to visit Eva and got lost in the forest. She didn't care how much money I'd be making, or what a great opportunity it would be for me to advance my knowledge, to bring all those ideas back to Yugoslavia and make something of myself. I knew she wouldn't understand, but I had hoped that she would at least give me her blessing.

But now, I am happy. This woman, Milan, is like music in my heart. She's like.... I can't even think of the words. Petrarch would write a sonnet about her. Don't laugh; I'm serious. I wish you could see her red hair; I could spend hours stroking that hair. It has a shine unlike anything I have ever seen. It must be the California sun; everything seems brighter over here. There are times when I can't imagine going back, really. I never did like the country, the winter, and there is so much life here.

You know, Milan — I am thinking I should marry this woman.

Work at the hospital is going well. They keep me busy, and I am tired tonight. I had to sew up a young man last night whose face was smashed in a drunk-driving accident. A gruesome job — I spent six hours in surgery. I always dread the emergency room at night. You never know what will walk in the door.

I hope that you are safe. They are having too much trouble on this side of the world making any decisions about the war. I get so angry sometimes, and not even Jennifer can make me feel better. In a magazine the other day, I saw a picture of a couple who had been shot by a sniper in Sarajevo as they tried to run across the street. The man was a Serb, the woman a Muslim. They were married, and in love, and they were not allowed to live because of hatred. They died in each others' arms. Thank God in America, people are free to marry whoever they choose.

Please take care. Give my best to Haris and Karina, to Hanifa, Senija, and the children. (Did I mention that I'm going to meet Jennifer's family in a few weeks? Her father is an English professor. I had better practice my accent!) You are all close in my heart, Milan. I hope the money I've sent can help.

Your brother,
Alija



Dear brother,

It has been several months since I have heard from you. I am worried that you do not hear what is happening, that you do not know what is being done to your people.

I have had to close the store. There is no surplus food to sell, and no one is buying, anyway. On Tuesdays, we get our weekly ration of bread from the U.N. soldiers. The girls like to go with me, so I wake them early Tuesday mornings, and we go together in the dark dawn. Their hands are like small warm potatoes in my palms, and it makes me think of when we were schoolboys, when Mama would heat potatoes for us to carry to school, and then we'd eat them for lunch. By the time we ate, they were always cold and pasty, the skin damp from our palms, but potatoes never tasted better.

Hanifa has become very skilled at stretching our bread ration throughout the week, but it has been hard since Senija joined us. The soldiers talk of more supplies being sent, but the Serbs fight too hard. They try to starve our hearts by killing our children.

Ah, I was just thinking of the smell of Grandmother's bread. My stomach is growling at the memory alone. That moist, doughy aroma would flood the whole house, seep into our hair, slip through the windows to flavor the garden air. I can picture the loaves being lifted from the oven, crust golden-hard, the first slice crumbling, almost burning my hand as I smooth soft butter over the steaming bread. The butter melts before my eyes and swirls into the heart of the slice, spilling over the crust, dribbling on my palms, the drops sweet-hot on my skin.

Alija, there are times when I want to go back. I want to be back with Father and Mama in Grandmother's kitchen, where just the smell of fresh-baked bread was enough to draw us all home from the fields.

Some days I go to the forest and cut firewood to sell on the streets. It is dangerous, though, because the Serb soldiers are all around in the dark, and even our streets are full of soldiers. Bosnian soldiers, Croat soldiers, U.N. soldiers. They say if you are captured, the first thing the soldiers ask is, "What religion are you?" Either way, the answer could be wrong. What would I say, Alija? I have never been a good liar, even the few times when I wanted to be, and I don't think this is one of those times. Children are playing war in abandoned buildings, in cars, in bomb shelters. I watch my daughters learn to sleep through gunfire. It must be three months since I have closed my eyes.

Today, I met a woman and her three younger brothers on the street. She is only twenty, yet she has the mouth of our grandmother. (I would like to send you pictures of Grandmother, Mama, and Father, to make sure they are safe, but I am afraid they will not reach you.) The young woman's name was Merima; her parents were killed at Vlasenica, and she and her brothers have been roaming the forests and villages for months. She says the old people who lived through the Second World War have taught her how to survive. They cook tree buds into a kind of bread; I asked her to show me how this is done, and tomorrow we will scour the new forest growth for buds. The old people, Merima said, are surprised by this war. They said the last war wasn't anything like this one. They said there is a lot more butchery in this one. Merima and her brothers have been sleeping on the streets for five nights; I asked them to stay with us tonight, but they refused. There is a parachute drop tonight, and they have to have some food. There have been snipers, devils, shooting at people who run for the food drops.

Merima says there is supposed to be an evacuation from Srebrenica some time this week. If I can find out how to do it, I will send Hanifa, Senija, and the children away from this place, to Tuzla, to safety. Perhaps I will be allowed to go, too. My knee has been aching badly these last few days, and I would be of little use in a fight, for I have no gun or ammunition. The army is asking for volunteers. They need doctors, too, and nurses — anyone who can help. I keep thinking of Grandmother, and her stories of the Second War, and how she refused to leave her land, even as the footsteps of the soldiers shook the very earth beneath her.

But that war was not as brutal as this one. Alija, babies are shot in their mothers' arms.

I hope to hear from you soon, but I am doubtful as I watch the shadows of street fires break through my window, hear the report of guns in the distance.

Take care.

Your brother,
Milan



Dear Milan,

I have not heard from you since early March. Our news covers the fighting in Bosnia daily, though more and more I have to hunt for the articles on the back page of the paper. I don't think Srebrenica has been hit. We see pictures of refugees crowding trucks, running on foot. I look for your face and pray that you can get away. If only I could bring you to the States. Jennifer says that you could stay at her house; she has several extra bedrooms. They are nice rooms, carpeted, open and full of light. But I don't know where you are, and I don't have enough money to buy you all plane tickets, even if I found you. Do you have any money left? I feel like I'm caught behind a glass window, watching all of this misery happen to you. So completely helpless. If it weren't for Jennifer, I'd be depressed all the time.

I do have some big news, Milan. Jennifer has asked me to move in with her, and I'm going to do it. Now before you start scowling at me, let me explain. Remember when I wanted to come over to the States, and you gave me a big speech about how I was deserting my family, and how all I cared about was money, and how I was going to lose my Bosnian ties, and so on? You were wrong, Milan. Of course I have not betrayed you; of course, I have not forgotten where I come from. Instead, I have brought part of Bosnia here, to America. Jennifer and I will have a family, and I will raise my kids our way. I can tell them the stories of our people, teach them our beliefs, our customs. They will be Bosnians at heart, and they will be building our family, not tearing it apart. A family will help me hold on to you, to my country, but I must live in a place where we don't have to fear for our lives. Do you see? There is a future for my children here, a future I couldn't give them back home. Jennifer is an atheist, which almost makes things easier; she's open-minded enough to agree that we can let our children decide for themselves what they want to believe about religion. She has so much love and warmth and wisdom to pass on; she and I will teach our children well. You will be proud.

And Milan, Mama would have approved, in her own grumbling way. She always said she wanted a better life for her children, remember? She didn't want her grandchildren to live off the land, to go hungry, to grow old and withered working the earth, as she did. This is my chance, Milan, to give us all something better. And what is left for me in Bosnia now? What is left for your children, brother?

I know that you will say to live with her is wrong. But it is only for a short while, Milan; we are going to be married sometime this summer. She has promised me. I'm so lonely in my house, and the rent is steep. This way, I will be able to save more money to bring you over to the States.

I love this woman, Milan. What more can I say?

Whenever I see a patient with a gunshot wound at the hospital, I think of the war, and my thoughts are with you. Perhaps you will finally be able to make the trip over for our wedding this summer. I want it to be traditional, and I need you here to sing and dance with me. It's been so long since we have danced together. Not since Biljan and Senija were married. Perhaps Hanifa can help Jennifer make a wedding dress?

When we get married, I am thinking that I might change my name. It would be a good opportunity, with all the paperwork we have to fill out. It's so hard for people here to pronounce my old name. Jennifer doesn't want me to change and says I will always be "Alija" to her, but I like the sound of "Alex," or maybe even "Al"; of course, you must still call me "Alija," too. I also want to buy a new car, before we get married; the one I have now keeps breaking down, and I've been late to work twice in the last month. The new car will be my dowry, in a sense, for Jennifer. Tomorrow, I go to meet Jennifer's parents and her older sister, and I confess I am a bit nervous. Jennifer insists they will love me, that I have nothing to worry about.

Jennifer says I should not send money with my letters because the mail officials will only steal it, and then you will probably not get the letter at all. Common sense tells me that this is true, so this time I send you only my love. I hope all is well.

Your brother,
Alija



Dear Alija,

I had to give the officer all of my cash, but I was able to get Hanifa, Senija, and the children onto the U.N. convoy to Tuzla last night. People were packed on the truck like cattle, like beasts for auction; heaven forbid any of them suffocate. Senada has been sick for the last two weeks — some kind of virus, with a fever and chills, and she is so thin that she has no strength to fight. Getting them all onto the truck was chaos — children screaming, parents scrambling and climbing up, pushing each other down, straining to hold on to their families. I tried to shield Senada from the crushing with my body, but there were so many people, so many elbows and shoulders turning into us. She was scared, but she did not cry; even now, I can see her bottomless eyes holding my face as I handed her up to Hanifa. Hanifa did not want me to stay back.

In that moment when I let go of Senada, my stomach sickened. I did not want to stay, either, and I pushed forward against the crowd. Hanifa was crying, her face wet, but I could not understand her words — there was too much noise, I tried to shout, and the truck was pulling away as I reached up my hand to her, tried to touch her lips, her cheek, her fingers stretched — and then they were gone, two red tail lights in the black, shadows pulled across snow, the crunch of tires swallowed in the wind.

I promised that I would follow them as soon as I could, when there was more room, and as soon as I knew that our home would be safe.

The house is empty and too quiet now. There is a welt where my heart used to be, and I feel what Grandmother felt, waiting in the dark for the soldiers to come, her children hiding like rats in the basement. I pray God they do not find me, as they left Grandmother alone on that stony plot of earth fifty years ago. Why did they choose Haris' family, and not our own? Did you ever wonder this? Haris' grandfather had lit a small fire, this is true, and the soldiers swarmed toward it, senseless as insects, men past starving and cold. Grandmother kept the house stark black, a rock melting into the night, invisible. But I like to think they left her alone because they sensed her strength. She would have clawed the eyes of every last man before giving up her children, her home.

My children are gone, Alija. My wife is gone.

Over and over in my mind, I watch myself jumping on that truck, tucking the girls against my body, washing my face in Hanifa's tears. Who would have been left behind, if I had taken a space? I can wonder that now, in retrospect, but that's not the reason I let them go without me. Alija, I knew if I got on that truck, I would signal defeat — not to one side or the other, but to the whole idea of this horrid war. I would lose who I am.

Tomorrow, I go to join the army. I try not to blame Haris for climbing on to the truck, for running away. The army would have taken him, despite his bad back, as they shall take me, in spite of my knee and my age. I am not a soldier, but they will see that I have lived enough to fight. The Serbs are upon us, and the guns argue night and day. It is not safe to be outside, yet I cannot live like an animal holed up in this place any longer. I wish that there were something else for me, some other way to stay alive. But I ask myself, "Is such a life worth living, or is it not better to fight?" Hanifa and the girls are everything to me, this place is everything to me. I had to stay, you see this, don't you? Nothing is painless anymore, but choices have become dangerously simple. Alija, the man I used to be cannot survive here. I must change, or cease to exist.

So tomorrow I become a soldier. And tonight, I pray for Hanifa, for Senija and the children's safety, for your own happiness and prosperity. Your letters have been a blessing, and I miss them dearly. Please keep writing, though, and perhaps God and luck will be on our side.

Don't be alarmed if you do not hear from me for awhile, maybe months; I do not know when we will be together again. Till then, I am, as always,

Your brother,
Milan

 

Christine M. Calson is a part-time teacher and mother of two who lives in Northern California. Her work has previously appeared in such literary magazines as Karamu and Elixir. She has never been to Bosnia-Herzegovina; her story was inspired, in part, by news accounts of the war and by conversations with a young student from the former Yugoslavia.

Christine can be reached at: cecalcourseyATearthlink.net
(for anti-spam purposes replace AT with @)

Photo credits
Bosnia: Martin Belam • Berkeley: John L. Polos

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