Last Stories and Other Stories

Overview

Supernaturally tinged stories from William T. Vollmann, author of the National Book Award winner Europe Central
 
In this magnificent new work of fiction, his first in nine years, celebrated author William T. Vollmann offers a collection of ghost stories linked by themes of love, death, and the erotic.
 
A Bohemian farmer’s dead wife returns to him, and their love ...

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Overview

Supernaturally tinged stories from William T. Vollmann, author of the National Book Award winner Europe Central
 
In this magnificent new work of fiction, his first in nine years, celebrated author William T. Vollmann offers a collection of ghost stories linked by themes of love, death, and the erotic.
 
A Bohemian farmer’s dead wife returns to him, and their love endures, but at a gruesome price. A geisha prolongs her life by turning into a cherry tree. A journalist, haunted by the half-forgotten killing of a Bosnian couple, watches their story, and his own wartime tragedy, slip away from him. A dying American romances the ghost of his high school sweetheart while a homeless salaryman in Tokyo animates paper cutouts of ancient heroes.
 
Are ghosts memories, fantasies, or monsters? Is there life in death? Vollmann has always operated in the shadowy borderland between categories, and these eerie tales, however far-flung their settings, all focus on the attempts of the living to avoid, control, or even seduce death. Vollmann’s stories will transport readers to a fantastical world where love and lust make anything possible.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Kate Bernheimer
These troubled, voluptuous narratives are deeply concerned with the bewildering effects of trauma and loss. Spanning continents and forms, Vollmann is a dreaming and lucid-eyed pilgrim, seeking "a place where one desired nothing, by virtue either of eternally shining joy or of nothingness itself." And these nightmarish, beautiful stories do find a place of joy and nothingness…The style is consistently inconsistent; the syntax has no singular rhythm. It changes often and suddenly…A paragraph, even one sentence, may include fast, slow, choppy and smooth phrases that drag you into the crush. The book took reading and rereading for me, just as an intensely odd, seductive long song asks to be heard again and again. But Vollmann is a great storyteller, and the weird aurality is a critical part of these tales.
Publishers Weekly
★ 05/19/2014
In the note to the reader that opens this huge collection, Vollmann (Europe Central) states, “This is my final book. Any subsequent productions bearing my name will have been composed by a ghost.” Vollmann’s fiction has always defied easy categorization. Here, he straddles, twists, and morphs action-adventure, horror, political thriller, fantasy, and literary fiction. What gives the book coherence is his singular style: elaborate and picaresque, with a rich vocabulary, an abundance of long and loopy sentences, and an irresistible energy. He’s a yarn spinner, in the tradition of Lovecraft and Dinesin, and his subplots and digressions are woven elegantly into the main narratives. The 32 stories are grouped geographically for the most part. The three set in Bosnia and Herzegovina depict the horrors and insanity of war. The novella, “The Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich,” set in Trieste, combines religion, myth, and romance into an 18th-century high seas adventure. Mainstays of horror and the supernatural figure prominently, and it’s especially exciting to read these pop-fiction conventions treated with Vollmann’s narrative richness. Related stories “The Faithful Wife” and “Doroteja,” both set in Bohemia, feature a ghost and a vampire, respectively. The longest piece in the book, “When We Were Seventeen,” is set in the U.S.; it’s a sweeping and sensuous tale of lust and longing, featuring a witch. Here’s hoping that Vollmann changes his mind about this being the end. (July)
Library Journal
02/01/2014
National Book Award winner for the magisterial Europe Central, Vollmann offers a story collection that still thinks big with a blend of love, sex, and death. For instance, a Bohemian farmer's dead wife rises from the dead, but their continued love has some unfortunate consequences, while a journalist can't quite hold onto his memory of the killing of a Bosnian couple.
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-06-16
Vollmann (The Book of Dolores, 2013, etc.) turns his considerable intelligence and skill to a broad genre that doesn’t get much respect—namely, the ghost story.Not all the pieces in this collection are ghost stories as such, mind you; not everything here goes bump in the night. But the very title is suggestive of Vollmann’s intent: These are not his last stories, or so we hope, but instead the last stories of men and women who are soon to become dust. Vollmann’s omniscient narrator instructs us, early on, in what to expect, intoning, “[t]o the extent that the dead live on, the living must resemble them,” and adding, to the list of axioms, the observation, “[c]onfessing such resemblance, we should not reject the possibility that we might at this very moment be dead.” In the first story, a blameless young couple, newly married, find themselves mowed down by sniper fire in a grassy lot in Sarajevo. Says that narrator, having darkly admired the skill of the gunner and raised a speculation or two about the events, “everyone agrees that the corpses of the two lovers lay rotting for days, because nobody dared to approach them.” The two hapless Bosnians needed La Llorona, the ghost of Mexican folklore, to warn them away from dangerous places; she turns up in another story, in which Vollmann ingeniously retells her legend, noting her bad habit of stealing away innocent children: “So La Llorona kept little Manuel, who was quite fetching except for the fact that his face resembled a death’s-head.” Small wonder thosecalaverasare so prevalent south of the border. After traveling the world, Vollmann brings us to an America in which death has definitely not taken a holiday: A dying man, having seen much of death before, finally gets to have a conversation with the love he’d lost track of ages before; that closing story is long, pensive and, like the others here, utterly haunting.Exquisite: beautifully, perfectly imagined and written. Weird, too. A little heavy for the beach, perhaps, but perfect reading for the Day of the Dead.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670015979
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • Publication date: 7/10/2014
  • Pages: 704
  • Sales rank: 86,995
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

William T. Vollmann

William T. Vollmann has written nine novels, three collections of stories, six works of nonfiction, and a memoir. He has won the PEN Center USA West Award for Fiction, a Whiting Writers Award, and the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Biography

Fearless, ambitious, and wildly original, William T. Vollmann has been lionized as one of the most significant and influential voices in contemporary postmodernist literature. His dauntingly voluminous books, a hodgepodge of fiction and journalism, are marked by bold, often beautiful language. They also spring from personal experience: Volmann is famous for total immersion in his subjects. His research has taken him to the ends of the earth – to the North Pole, to war zones around the globe, and (perhaps most famously) to San Francisco's notorious Tenderloin district to gain a better understanding of its notorious denizens..

Vollmann roared onto the literary scene in 1987 with You Bright and Risen Angels, a bold and quirky debut novel that chronicled in allegorical fashion the bitter battle between insects and the inventors of electricity. From that point on, his books became less surreal and more gritty. In 1992, he wrote his first "official" work of nonfiction, An Afghanistan Picture Show , an impressionistic chronicle of his experiences among the Afghan rebels in the early 1980s. Since then, the prolific author has produced an unstoppable juggernaut of prose, most notably installments in his towering fictional sequence Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes and a labyrinthine seven-volume treatise on violence called Rising Up, Rising Down. Published by the iconoclastic publishing house McSweeney's in 2003, this magnum opus was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Nonfiction.

In 1999, The New Yorker named Vollmann one of the 20 best American writers under the age of 40. In 2005, he was awarded the National Book Award for Fiction for Europe Central, a 750-page series of linked stories set in Germany and Russia during World War II. His journalism continues to appear in such magazines as Esquire, Spin, Gear, Outside, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, and The New Yorker. In addition, he has founded the Co-Tangent Press as a vehicle for publishing his own limited edition art books.

Good To Know

Vollmann wrote his first novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, while working as a computer programmer.

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    1. Also Known As:
      m the Blind, Captain Subzero
    2. Hometown:
      Sacramento, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 28, 1959
    2. Place of Birth:
      Santa Monica, California
    1. Education:
      Attended Deep Springs College and Cornell University

Read an Excerpt

LISTENING TO THE SHELLS
1

In the dimming living room they were drinking slivovitz and water out of fine crystal glasses, and everyone was laughing and smoking American cigarettes until a shell fell twenty-five meters away. The women jumped. Another shell fell slightly closer and the women screamed. Then the people sat silently smoking in the last light, their smoke nearly the same color as the drinking glasses, and presently began to laugh again, leaning over their hands or spreading their fingers; they stubbed out their cigarettes in crystal ashtrays, and the poet who loved Vesna even suspected that finally he had found life. But Enko the militiaman sat glaring. Now it was dark, with echoes of the last light fading from the bubbles of mineral water just within the glasses and from the women’s pale blouses, and they sat in silence, listening to the shells.

When a shell approaches closely, you may well hear a hiss before it strikes. Once it does, you will be deafened for a minute or two, during which time you are not good for much except to wait for another shell. Meanwhile you see what they call the big light. After that you can hear the screams of children.

Vesna’s best friend Mirjana had had two little boys, and a shell killed them both. A shell had sheared away the tree in front of Vesna’s apartment; the smash had been so loud that she was certain she must be wounded.

Mirjana said: Marinko has a car but no petrol. Do you know where he can get petrol?

Ask Enko, said Vesna.

Enko said nothing.

Smiling brightly, Mirjana tried to light another cigarette. The match-flame trembled between her fingers and went out. Vesna leaned toward her, so that they could touch their cigarettes together. People still had plenty of tobacco at that time. In a couple of years they would be smoking green tea.

Vesna said: It’s quiet now, thanks to God!

In the corner sat Enko with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and his police ID clinking on its neck-chain. He had pulled off his bulletproof vest, which was leaning against the wall in easy reach. Every now and then his hand touched the grip of his gun in the holster; then he swigged from the crystal glass and took another drag; finally he pulled off his now ridiculous sunglasses, his head turning rapidly as he listened to his comrade Amir, who leaned forward as if anticipating something, all the while touching his moustache with a ringed forefinger. No one else could hear their conversation. Enko’s cigarette burned steadily between two fingers as he raised it again, tapping his foot, and his face was young and hard.

2

Amir rose, gazed out the window into the greenish darkness, then went out.— He knows how to get American whiskey, Enko explained.

Vesna said: Enko, can you tell me where Marinko can buy some petrol?

Who’s Marinko?

Didn’t you meet him? I thought you did. He’s Mirjana’s cousin.

Enko locked his bleak eyes on Mirjana. He said: Where are you from anyway?

Look, I’m Sarajevan, just like you.

Great. Now what part of town are you from?

Her children are all killed, Vesna explained. From now she has none.

Who the fuck cares? said Enko. What do you need petrol for?

My cousin wants it. I don’t ask him his business.

Enko laughed.— Sure, he said. I can get him as much petrol as he wants.

He’ll be grateful to you.

Gratitude doesn’t do much for me, said Enko.

3

When Amir came back with the whiskey, he informed Enko that there was a lost American journalist at the Holiday Inn.

At the Holiday Inn, journalists were smoking quietly around marble tables in the dark. Across the river a machine gun chortled like a night bird. Enko found the lost American and quickly uncovered his particulars: He had no idea what he wanted, and he could pay a hundred fifty Deutschemarks per day—not nearly as much as any television reporter, let alone a sexy anchorwoman such as Christiane Amanpour, but whatever they could get out of him would be easy money, and his pockets might be deeper than he said. Amir, who had recently inherited an almost new Stojadin automobile, would be the driver, billing by the hour; while Enko would babysit the journalist at, for instance, a hundred fifty Deutschemarks a day. Amir and Enko knew that everything is negotiable, while the journalist knew that when one might be killed this very hour, all money is play money. So the three contracting parties quickly achieved agreement, Enko staring into the American’s face while Amir drummed fingers on the tabletop as if he knew of more lucrative projects elsewhere, which indeed he did.

A man in a flak jacket and helmet strutted by, with his tape recorder’s light glowing red. At another table, some functionary from Municipality Centar was assuring a French journalist: Everything will be solved by winter. Everything must be, or there will be hundreds and thousands dead.— The Frenchman nodded delightedly. Now he could file his story.

The American journalist was encumbered by a pair of binoculars for which he would never have any purpose. Enko told him: I sure could use your binoculars.

We’ll see, said the American vaguely. Maybe at the end . . .

Eight-o’-clock, said Amir to the American. Goodbye.

See you then, the American said. Well, Enko, can I buy you another drink?

Sure. By the way, I’m counting on those binoculars.

This building across the street, are there snipers in it? asked a very young British journalist in a worried voice.

Oh, no, they’ve cleaned it! his handler assured him.

Enko knew the handler, who was a sonofabitch and had once stolen away from him a very pretty Swedish correspondent. He therefore leaned across his enemy and explained to the British journalist, as if out of helpfulness: But there’s a sniper shooting at the other entrance. You don’t use that.

Now the lost American was looking even more lost, just as Enko had intended. He needed to be reminded that Enko could ditch him at any time. As a matter of fact, Enko was a man of his word. He would never do less than he had contracted to do, and often he would do more. But it was bad business to reveal that at the beginning.

The light continued to fail. Looking out the front windows, which happened to be lacking a few ovals and triangles, the journalists stared at blue sky, and at that silent building across the street.

Another drink? said the American.

Enko began to feel sorry for him.— There’s a party if you want to come.

What time?

Now.

How will I get back?

No one expects you to go out by yourself, said Enko contemptuously. He rose, pulled his bulletproof vest down over his head and strapped it tight across his sides.

4

In the windows those shards of bluish twilight sky were already colder, and now the clouds swam in.

The lights had come on in the parking garage. All was noiseless. They emerged into the grey light, which was dulling down with dust and a little rain, Enko already half flooring the accelerator as they screeched around the protected corner and into the sniper’s reach. Across the street, the journalist glimpsed a building with four rows of windows visible, grey and black like ice against the pale tan façade. Metal was chattering, but not here. Almost biting his lip, his shoulders hunched as if that could somehow diminish his vulnerability, Enko wrenched the car around another corner; now they were rushing past yellow walls into the Stari Grad; there was dust, chalk and broken glass on the sidewalk.— That’s from right now, explained Enko, perhaps enjoying himself.— Just then, more glass departed windows, smashing on the street. The journalist sat quietly in the passenger seat. He excelled at being calm when he was powerless.

Enko demanded: What do you think about those fucking Chetniks?

Murderers, said the journalist.

Temporarily satisfied, Enko said: A few days ago a man was killed in front of the President’s palace. We tried to help him, but he was already bloody. The trail of blood went more than a thousand meters. Here’s where she lives.

Who?

Vesna. When you get out you don’t need to run, but I’m telling you, pay attention and move your ass.

All right.

Wait a second. Inbound. Shut up. Shut up. No, we’re fine.

As they trotted away from the car, they heard the shell explode.

In the dark landing between the first two flights of steps, Enko said: How about a cash advance?

Sure, said the journalist. How much?

Give me fifty.

Just a minute. Here it is.

Fine. Now, Vesna, she’s open-minded. She won’t care that I brought you. And there’s chicks galore, hot chicks. Not that they’d be especially interested in a guy like you, but maybe you’ll get lucky.

Okay.

Another thing. Anybody asks what you’re paying me or if you’re paying me, that’s only my business.

I won’t say a word.

I wish you’d have brought those binoculars. I wanted to show them off.

Vesna’s door was open. As they entered the apartment, which was foggy with cigarette smoke, they heard many people, and far away a machine gun fired three bursts. A woman laughed very loudly.

Look! cried Mirjana. I was wondering when you’d get here. Who’s that?

Just some American, said Enko.

And this is from my cousin, for the petrol. You’d better count it.

I don’t need to count it. If he shorted me, that’s his problem.

Thanks for helping him.

Well, he owes me. Who’s that girl over there?

5

At that party Enko met a woman named Jasmina, and in the morning he brought her home with her blouse buttoned up wrong and her lipstick smeared all over his neck. Enko’s mother knew enough not to say anything. He was her only help. As for the American, he had to sleep in Vesna’s living room because nobody felt like driving him back, especially after curfew. He didn’t mind a bit. Until half-past three he sat up with the poet, discussing the novels of Ivo Andric, whom the poet detested, Danilo Kiš, whose Garden, Ashes the poet liked better than he did, and, while Vesna sat smiling, smoking and yawning, the ideal form of Slavic feminine beauty, which, since they were young men, occupied their intellects. The other guests had departed. By now the snipers must likewise have gone to sleep, and the jewel-like silence which accordingly illuminated them both, not to mention their obsessive natures, rendered the conversation yet more interesting, if that were possible, than the topic warranted, so that they nearly could have been outside beneath the stars investigating essential things. Vesna had gone to share a cigarette with the new widow upstairs. The poet asserted that there was a certain kind of look, embodied in the bygone actress Olga Ilic, which had to do with dark eyes, dark hair (preferably curly), round silver earrings, large breasts, a long throat and plump lips. I am sorry to inform you that the American had never heard of Olga Ilic. The poet explained that she had played both Desdemona and Hamlet—what a free spirit!—and that on the wall of his room he treasured a newspaper photograph of her in the lead role of “Bad Blood.” If it weren’t for the Chetniks, he’d take the American by the arm and show him that picture right now, because these were the most important topics to human beings: true art, romance, expression—all present in Olga Ilic’s eyes.— And you know, my friend, when she died, she was practically a beggar! One of our greatest Yugoslav actresses! If I could go back in time, I’d attend one of her performances at the National Theater. She used to wear a rose on her breast, and then she’d give it away. What a poem I could write about that!— In the American, who cheerfully admitted to knowing less about Balkan womanhood than he should, or intended to, the poet found a refreshingly respectful audience; and in the poet the American found a guide to the names and charms of most of the women who had been there tonight, listening to the shells. It accordingly became evident that the poet was infatuated with Vesna, who now returned, smiling at them with seeming love even though there were dark rings under her eyes. The American allowed himself to be likewise infatuated, but without denying himself permission to remember Mirjana, Ivica and Dragica. Vesna poured them all a nightcap. To himself the American pretended that he had rescued her; now they would go to bed together for the first time. She gave him a blanket, and he lay down as far from the window as he could, with his bulletproof vest for a pillow. When the fabric got too wet, for instance from perspiration, it became dangerously permeable. That was why one shouldn’t sleep in it. The poet sat up, writing a poem for Vesna. Like many egoists, he had a very kind heart, and so just before dawn, while it was still safe, he woke up the journalist and walked him over to Enko’s.

At a quarter of nine that morning the noises began again, deep sullen thumpings and almost happy strings of popping like firecrackers. The poet had wisely departed long since. Enko and Jasmina were sleeping, or something. The journalist had brought a pound of American coffee for Vesna or some other ideal Slavic beauty, but, missing the opportunity to deploy it, he now gave it to Enko’s mother instead. That tired, hungry old woman accepted the gift with neither surprise nor thanks. Whatever came to her came not from this foreigner, who was nothing, but from Enko.

Make yourself at home; take a shower, she said, slipping the coffee into her coat pocket.— I have some business downstairs.

It was the first chilly day. The American took a cold shower in the pitch-dark bathroom and came out wondering how people would manage when the snow fell.

Now there were no shells, and the sun peered mirthlessly down on broken glass. Enko and Jasmina did not appear; nor yet did Enko’s mother. Enko and Amir were on the payroll today, but the American, who did not know so very many things, did know that this would come right sooner or later, or not, and that in the meantime the best thing he could do was nothing. Tired, hungover, self-bemused by Vesna, who smiled on every guest; instructed by the poet in the ways of Slavic women, and of course altered by the various evil potentialities of the shells, he considered that he was making progress, and sat at the dining table cheerfully enough, writing up his observations, with his vest leaning against his knees. He thought it his duty to express something of these people’s sufferings. If he were here for any reason, it must be that. If he could not do anything for them, then his journey had no purpose. As sincere in his way as Vesna, he wished for peace even if it made his story less dramatic. Like the poet, not to mention the snipers, he gave due credit to his feelings.

In front of the apartment the asphalt had been eaten away in blotches by shells, and beyond that was a littered sort of green over which wandered two dogs whose owners, Enko’s mother had said, couldn’t feed them anymore, and then a row of cars, some perfect, some rusted and windowless, some bullet-holed. The American listened. The smashing roar of a howitzer was startling, to be sure, but what did it accomplish? Did the besiegers possess only one shell? At nine it was quiet again aside from certain boomings in the background, and people passed leisurely, most of them walking, a few driving or bicycling, all of them crossing the two-lane highway at the intersection where the streetcar had been abandoned, then vanishing behind a tall construction crane. Shots sounded, but a man walked reading the newspaper. No one was running. Pigeons picked at the litter.

At nine-thirty came bursts of echoing poppers that blurred the hills behind dust or smoke, and an elderly man carrying a shopping bag grimaced, ducked and began to run. The pigeons flew in a frightened rabble. Then it fell quiet again; everyone walked slowly or stood chatting unconcerned. A one-legged man swung himself steadily along on his crutches. He kept turning his eyes in the direction of the booming sounds. Then he was gone. The journalist wrote it all down.

The door opened. Enko’s mother came in sighing. The American offered her a pull from his hip flask, at which she finally liked him. She took a gulp, licked her lips, and slapped him hard on the shoulder. Then she made them both some weak tea.

Where’s Enko?

Asleep, he said.

Ah. With her.

They sat there, listening for the shells, and after awhile the old woman lit a cigarette and remarked: They say it is better not to go out now. Very dangerous. Sometimes it is true, and sometimes the other way. Anyhow, one cannot stay inside forever.

6

Just before ten the door of Enko’s bedroom opened. Enko, shirtless but already wearing his gun, strode into the bathroom and shut the door. Then he returned to the bedroom, rubbing his forehead and yawning. After another quarter-hour the girl came out, fully dressed, and darted shyly into the bathroom.

Listen, said Enko. I need another advance.

Why not?

Give me a hundred.

How about fifty?

I said give me a hundred.

If I give you a hundred, then after that fifty I gave you last night, we’re square for today, which is fine by me. The only thing is, I don’t have much cash on me in case we need to eat.

Don’t worry about that, said Enko.

All right, said the American. He took up his bulletproof vest. Jasmina had just left the bathroom, so he locked himself in there, dropped his pants and removed another hundred Deutschemarks from the money belt. Of course he had lied to Enko, who probably knew it; there was no safe place to leave cash, so he carried it all. Like the others, this was a good new banknote, the kind that the people here preferred. He folded it three times and dropped it into his pocket. Then he lifted the heavy vest over his head, lowered it into place and snugged the two tabs across the torso panels. Over this he zipped up the light windbreaker, to make him less conspicuous to snipers. It had always seemed to him elementary logic that the wearer of a bulletproof vest would be in and of himself a target.

Jasmina stood at the dining room table, with her purse in her hand. Enko’s mother ignored her.

Enko was staring at him. No doubt he wanted his advance. The American said: Do you have a second?— Enko rose and followed him down the hall. The American gave him the money.

What’s all this secret bullshit? said Enko.

I keep my finances private, said the American. That’s how I like to do things.

Fine, said Enko. Amir’s downstairs.

Where are we going?

The frontline, if you promise not to shit your pants.

I’ll do my best.

We need petrol. That’s what the money’s for. On the way we’ll drop Jasmina at her cousin’s. Let’s go.

The American shook Enko’s mother’s hand.— Come back, she said. I’ll pray for you.

Enko was whispering something in Jasmina’s ear. She giggled.

7

Here everyone runs, said Amir. This corner is very dangerous. Serbian snipers shoot from the hills. We must speed up here.

Okay, said the American. Enko was in the back seat with his pistol on his lap.

The car turned onto the sidewalk, then rushed across a pedestrian bridge.— This place is very dangerous, said Amir.

I think I can see that.

Amir’s ancient M48 rifle jiggled between the seats, the barrel pointing ahead.

Now they were on a straightaway, and a single bullet struck the car somewhere low on the left side of the chassis, harming nothing so far as they could tell. Nobody said anything. Amir slammed the gas pedal to the floor. No more bullets came. The American felt that slight sickness which always visited him on such occasions: in part mere adrenaline, which was intrinsically nauseating, that higher form of fear in which his mind floated ice cold, and a measure of disgust at himself for having voluntarily increased his danger of death. Over the years, the incomprehensible estrangement between his destiny as a risk-taking free agent and the destinies of the people whose stories he sometimes lived on, which is simply to say the people who were unfree, and accordingly had terrible things done to them, would damage him. Being free, however, he would never become as damaged as many of them. And, like Enko, he did get paid for his trouble. Mostly he broke even or better. On this day, of course, he was simply considering how to live out the day while writing the best notes he could. His mind subdivided checklists into sub-lists, in hopes of preparing him for anything: If Amir gets shot, I’ll take the wheel, but he’ll be in the way, so I’ll hold the wheel steady with my left hand and crook my right arm around his neck, and then if Enko helps me . . .

Hey, Enko, said the American.

Shut up, said Enko.

Enko, I hope your finger’s on the trigger guard.

Fuck you.

Just don’t shoot me in the back when we drive over a bump. Unless you do it on purpose.

Enko laughed.

Amir rounded a corner on three wheels, and they sped into a tunnel lined with sandbags, already braking now, and parked in the garage of some partially ruined building.

Listen, said Enko. We’re going through that hole in the wall. The Chetniks can see us there, so we’re going to run up the hill about two hundred meters.

Okay.

So that was what they did, the American journalist stumbling once, topheavy under the weight of his vest, and nobody shot at them. After that it was still only mid-morning there behind the wall of sandbags where half a dozen men, some in the uniform of the old National Army, stood smoking cigarettes while another half dozen loaded munitions into the military police truck not far from last night’s shards of broken glass which were something like new-fallen snow. Enko clashed his fist against several of theirs in turn, while Amir stood expressionless, perhaps smiling behind his sunglasses. A grey and ghastly look was in their faces as they listened for the shells.

They were friendly to the American, because in those days his government considered Bosnian Muslims immaculate victims, hence allies to rescue; in later years it would consider all Muslims to be potential terrorists. So they gave him colorful interviews while he wrote diligently in his notebook.

A militiaman showed him a paddle studded with nails and said: You know what we call this? We call this Chetnik teacher.

The American knew enough to laugh heartily, and after that they liked him even better.

8

You know, you missed a big story, said an eyes-alight French reporter to the very young British journalist whose handler was Enko’s enemy. Four French was wounded last night, and one Egyptian!

Buy you two a drink? the American offered.

Very funny. Find your own story.

I will, said the American, excited because he and Amir were about to go to Vesna’s. Enko would come later; he was with Jasmina.

Amir accepted one whiskey and no more. He liked to drive carefully. He said: I think you like Vesna.

Sure. Do you?

A real Bosnian woman.

Bosnian women are very pretty.

Good.

Last night Marko was telling me his theories about Slavic beauty. He’s fond of an actress named Olga Ilic—

Who?

Olga Ilic. He said she died in 1945.

Forget what Marko told you. That’s just some dead Serbian bitch. Are you ready?

Sure. By the way, do you think Vesna minds when I stay over there?

She understands. You are a guest, and a friend.

Thank you. You’re all my friends—

He paid the waiter, and they went to the car. It was another point of difference between him and them that so many of them lacked bulletproof vests, and his was more invulnerable than most of theirs, although that made it proportionately heavier. The best model he had ever seen was manufactured for members of the Warsaw Pact. It had a collar to protect the carotid and subclavian arteries. His own went only as far as it went. Amir sat in the driver’s seat, very slowly smoking a cigarette, staring straight ahead. An automatic rifle chortled far away. The American understood that Amir was listening to the night and forming the best plan that he could. He waited quietly. Presently Amir started the car.

They rounded the corner rapidly and then Amir stamped on the gas as they traversed the sniper’s field of fire, and the American looked up into the four window-rows of the building across the street but they were black and grey without any revelations, and the car whipped safely round the next corner, and Amir, slowing, said: Someday we’ll get that sonofabitch.— They came into the Stari Grad more sedately than when Enko had driven the other night, but Amir kept gripping the steering wheel hard, with the fat barrel of the M48 pointing greyly forward between them. The American liked him better than Enko. He never asked for advances.

They climbed the stairs. Vesna’s apartment was very crowded that night. A tall man was shouting: How can we stop them with fifty rounds? Fifty rounds, just fifty rounds!

Vesna rushed up to him and touched his hand very gently.— Don’t worry about it now, brother, she said.

The man stared at her. Vesna led him to a chair.

Something almost gentle came into Amir’s face as he gazed at Vesna. He leaned his rifle inside the closet.

As soon as Vesna moved to another guest, the drunk stood up, muttering: Fifty fucking rounds—

Shut up and give me a cigarette.

Where’s Enko?

With Bald Man, and you should be, too. Hey, you, Mr. Fifty Rounds! What’s your name?

Kambor. Who are you?

Don’t you know who Bald Man is?

Of course.

Then you’d better learn who I am. I’m Muhamed. I’m in Bald Man’s squad. If you need ammunition, go to Bald Man. He’s got so many more rifle grenades—

Not for me, for everyone! The men on the frontline with fifty rounds—

Why aren’t you on the frontline, asshole? Amir, brother, what do you have for me?

Amir gave the man a hundred Deutschemarks. The American went to greet Vesna, who smiled at him with a brilliance in whose meaning he could almost believe. Awkwardly he asked how she was, and she replied that a neighbor had been killed, not a close friend, but as it turned out someone whom she missed more than she would have guessed.

How did it happen?

She was queuing for water at the brewery, when a shell . . .

I’m sorry.

And the funny thing is that she was Serbian! Well, at least we’re all equals here.

Vesna, have you met Bald Man?

Oh, yes! He’s always smiling. He’s good for his neighbors and friends. He’s good with the people that he’s good with.

Such as Amir and Enko?

Yes, reliable men like them.

The American sat drinking and listening, sometimes recognizing that someone had said something very important which out of respect for them all he would not write down in their presence but do his best to remember exactly (the night silently torn open by a faraway shell-flash which could not keep the night’s flesh from cohering again); he assumed that none of them knew why what they said could matter to other people and times; after all, how could it be of more than temporary value to them themselves who already understood the shells? Perhaps after ten or twenty years, should they survive so long, they might grow sufficiently fortunate as to forget the significance of what people said in such a situation, and then, if he had written it down and they discovered and read it, it might mean something new to them, and even lend them something like fulfillment.

Presently the poet found him, and with relief those two shy men sat down together to enumerate the beauties of the Slavic woman. The American thought that his friend seemed sad, perhaps even by nature. They drank together.

And how was the frontline? asked the poet.

Not bad. And how was it at home?

How can I complain? When the Nazis were here, my grandparents used to eat beech bark.

9

Now, Olga Ilic, the poet began to explain, when they accused her of collaboration with Bulgaria, she was imprisoned and then she experienced a nervous crisis, because she was a very sensitive woman. So sensitive and so beautiful! Vesna resembles her in both these qualities, I believe.

Would you say that Olga Ilic was kind?

You know, I feel as if she could have been my wife, or maybe my sister. During the Hitler war she lived in a suburb of Belgrade, bombed out of her house and terrified that an American or British shell would get her. Don’t you think she was one of us?

When the next shell exploded, not so far away, a young woman went rigid as if she were playing the violin, because this type of life was still new; and the poet gazed on her with pity in his beautiful eyes.

That afternoon Amir had chauffeured the American to the morgue, where he had set about first seeing and then knowing that those children were dead—thank God he’d never known them, so he wasn’t compelled to feel much, at least not immediately; he could write about their openmouthed yellow-green faces without being hindered in his work by personal considerations. The details, being precious in and of themselves, since they were the manifestation of the real, would array themselves, and express the sad horror they represented, without his needing to be tortured by it. A photojournalist may look at his negatives ten years later and only then be infected with the anguish they record; for word-workers it is the same only different. He knew enough not to expound on this subject at Vesna’s, even to the poet, who continued praising Vesna in the guise of describing Olga Ilic, while the lost American sat listening to other conversations around him, trying to remember them forever, so that something, anything, could be made of this:

We still have ten crates of tracers from the Viktor Bubanj Barracks.

Why won’t we harden that checkpoint?

Bald Man says they’re shelling Konjic worse than ever.

Was he there?

Of course he was, shitface. Bald Man goes where the brigades can’t.

Then why doesn’t he liberate Konjic for us? Armchair hero—

. . . Killed them both on the Vrbanja Most, after giving their guarantee. And ever since then my sister’s not right in the head. She and Zlata were classmates—

Don’t worry, brother. We’ll get our revenge. Those Serbian girls are going to learn how to make Bosnian babies.

A shell came hissing, and everyone fell silent. The experienced soldiers relaxed first, shrugging their shoulders as they listened for the explosion, which sounded far away when it finally came.

Mirjana’s fingers were shaking. She saw the American look.— Nerves, she said with a smile.

He said: I envy the people who can understand what they hear. It must give them a few extra seconds of peace—

The brunette nodded, her ringed fingers flashing as she raised the glass of slivovitz to her lips, and then she said: At the beginning it was funny for us, and we didn’t even know what a grenade was, so we would be on the balcony trying to look. So we learned that this kind made a buzzing sound, and one made a hissing sound, and on the ninth floor of our building there was this one Serb who would always cheer anytime there was a bombing; he would shout, oh, they got it! I remember how he would cheer—

What happened to him?

Oh, he’s still there, but he doesn’t cheer, at least not so loudly, because we got fed up—

Now Amir approached him and said: Enko’s waiting for you on the landing.

The American went out.

Give me an advance, said Enko.

How much?

All of it.

Sure. I’ll be back in five minutes.

Make it two hundred.

It’ll have to be dollars.

How much?

A hundred.

That’s not right.

Well, it’s what’s on me just now.

When are you going to give me those binoculars?

At the end. I’ll be right back.

Rather than disturbing the fighters who were smoking cigarettes just outside Vesna’s bathroom, he ascended two more dark and silent flights of stairs—far enough to give him time to hide his moneybelt from Enko or anyone. Without incident he removed and flashlight-verified the banknote. The American walked back into Vesna’s. Enko was glaring and smiling at a blonde in a cheap print dress. The blonde was giggling. Jasmina, weeping openly, rushed into the bathroom. Mirjana rolled her eyes. Vesna was laying out crackers on a little plate. Amir met the American’s eyes, saying nothing.

Enko, I have something for you, said the American.

Shut the fuck up.

I’ll give it to Amir.

I said shut up.

The party fell nearly silent, so that the American could hear a fighter say: Fifty men armed with rifle grenades—

Turning away from his good friend, the American clasped Amir’s hand, transferring the money that way. Then he went to seek out the poet.

10

Every day they worked for him, Enko and Amir earned their money. He interviewed fighters in a concrete building with wadded-up shutters in the smashed black-stained windows, met the mothers of murdered children and imagined that he would “make a difference.” All the while they were running Enko’s errands, the most common of which was to carry ammunition to comrades at the frontline. Once they took a bag of onions and potatoes to Jasmina’s mother. What Amir could have used and even where he lived the American never knew. In the shade, a longhaired boy was hosing down his sidewalk, walking on broken glass. Sometimes Enko said: Tomorrow I’m with the squad, and then the American went out with Amir alone, who of course could interpret perfectly well. Often no interpreter was needed, as when he and Amir sat on a terrace near the head of some steep high street, drinking slivovitz with a blonde named Sandi (twenty-two years old, he wrote in his notebook); for them she had arranged fresh flowers in a big jar on the table. Her boyfriend lived down in Centar; she could not reach him even by letter. Beyond the fence began a view of other red-tiled roofs, then trees, then more red roofs, then the zigzag mined path. Sandi said: The fear is the most difficult, don’t you think? It’s so awful. My sister is in Germany and I don’t know what I can explain to her. She just doesn’t understand that every minute you’re in the street you feel it, and then when you go inside . . .— He wrote this down, thinking that he must make others comprehend what the sister could not, while Amir gazed into his eyes.

Enko demanded an advance on three days’ salary. Smiling, the American paid. Every night that he could get a ride, he went to Vesna’s. On other nights he sat in the lounge of the Holiday Inn, where there were occasionally off-duty soldiers and always both kinds of journalists, the suit-and-tie species with the press card on the lapel, and the devil-may-care ones in the photo vests, making extravagant plans or exchanging boasts. It was scarcely comme il faut to sit alone, as the callow American did. This branded him as the impoverished freelancer that he was—a parasite, in fact. When he first arrived, some television journalists had taken pity on him and given him a ride from the airport to the Holiday Inn (the speeding auto receiving a token bullet from the heights of Gavrica). That day there had been no means of getting into the city but with that group. He was grateful, and hoped not to require any other favors. He had not yet learned that one can always pay one’s own way, whether or not the currency is acceptable to others. Indeed, there was an exchange of sorts: To the extent that they noticed him at all, they dismissed him as a denizen of that backwater called “features,” while he for his part pitied them for being the merest producers of spectacle. He was going to get to the why.— Mostly, of course, all parties ignored each other. They schemed out their stories and listened for the shells.

How old were your sons? he asked Mirjana.

Five and three.

What were their names?

I don’t want to talk about it.

But in time (by which I mean half a week, for where there is much death, friendships mature quickly) Mirjana and the others came to know (or at least such was his impression) that he cherished them for their suffering, which he hoped to preserve for others because it tormented him. (He could not decide whether to admire Enko, not for his bravery and his knowledge but for his pain, which armored him like a bulletproof vest.) The poet of course had been the first to trust him. Around Vesna the poet resembled one of those silent, spindly-legged, deer-eyed little dogs which sit beneath the table, rarely looking into anyone’s eyes but never being the first to look away. Because the American also admired Vesna, but without designs, much less possessiveness, the two men’s understanding ran deep; moreover, the American believed in the poet’s kindness. As for Amir, he perhaps had liked the American from the beginning, although with Amir one could never tell. Vesna of course would have smiled at anyone but the ones who shelled them from the hills. The other women seemed to take their cue from her. He supposed himself beginning to understand the first and second meanings of the shells but not yet the hundredth; perhaps not even the frontline fighters were capable of that.

Enko was there. Enko said: Mirjana doesn’t talk about it because her family is mixed.

That’s not true! the woman cried. Silently Vesna slipped an arm around her shoulders.

Glaring into their eyes, Enko said: I think it’s a problem not to talk about it.

That was when the American realized that Enko sought to help him.

But do we need to talk about it? said Mirjana.

My personal opinion, said Enko, and the American was astonished to discover that for Enko there was any such thing, is that the only way to prevent war is to shame people.

Do you really think that you can do that to Serbian people?

No, I’m talking about Germans, replied Enko with a sarcastic laugh. Germans are different.— Then he strode over to Amir and muttered in his ear.

Stroking Mirjana’s hair, the redhaired girl Dragica said: Enko is right. Nowadays I’m always asking myself, What is the story? What is the truth? When you go to Catholic school, like I did, you hear only Croatian history, and you won’t hear what bad things Croats did under Hitler. If I live to have children, someday they’ll go to school and they won’t hear what bad things Croats did today. But I’m going to tell them: We too had bad people during the war. And I think the best thing would be to write their names, and say, they killed.

Isn’t that why you’re here? Vesna asked the American.

Yes, he said, and after that more told him their stories.

11

Clenching her lips, her cigarette smoke streaming away, Mirjana took him aside and said: Write.— Then she told him how her children had died.

He wrote. She was gazing into his face as if he could help her. He was thinking: Nothing is more important than this. I came here for this; perhaps I was born for it. If someone reads her story and then refrains from taking a life . . .

Bitterly laughing, the poet was relating how in preparation for the siege their Serbian neighbors used to come by night to the Orthodox graveyard overlooking Bucá-Potok, in order to inter crates of shells, machine guns and sniper rifles.— Write that down, he said, and the American wrote.

What must be concluded about that? the poet demanded. How can anyone claim there was no premeditation?

Yes, they’ve been very intelligent in their way—

Vesna, who heard everything, paused in her passing and said: I don’t think they are intelligent. Intelligence for me I think is that you have to be human. Intelligence, so we learn in school, is simply the ability to find a solution for unknown problems. But for me, there must be some kind of genetic memory; we must be born with certain values from previous generations. Otherwise there’s nothing. I’ve met people without any soul. They have decent homes, they have children, they have everything, but they have nothing to share. And those Chetniks up there . . .

I want you to hand over those fucking binoculars right now, said Enko.

You can have them at the end, I promise.

Look. Do you want to interview Bald Man? Is that what you want?

Sure. I’ll interview him.

A shell hissed overhead, rather close, and suddenly Mirjana’s white top went dark at the armpits. Enko laughed at her.

The American journalist went to get stories from Dragica.

12

Dizzy with cigarette smoke, their hearts racing faster and faster, they flirted, did deals and listened for the shells. Sometimes one or two of them withdrew from the window, as if doing that could save them. More and more he admired Vesna, who gave them this place and comforted those who could not distract themselves. In her presence the glare often departed from Enko’s eyes, in much the same way that the offices at the television station slowly darkened whenever the electricity failed.

She touched the poet lightly on the shoulder; he smiled in hope.

13

The next day after interviewing blue-faced Gypsy women who lived alongside their excrement in a cellar insulated with garbage, they sped again down Sniper Alley and into the garage of the Holiday Inn to meet a statistician of deaths, then back nearly to the frontline, where nobody shot at them, probably because it was lunchtime.— I don’t want you hanging around here more than a minute! Enko shouted. This place makes me nervous.— Sweating, the American took in sunlight, weedy grass, three men talking on the sidewalk in front of a building of black-scorched punched-out windows ringed by concertina wire. One of the men agreed to be interviewed. No one in his family had yet been killed. He couldn’t understand the Chetniks, he said. And his former neighbors, them he couldn’t understand.— All right, said Enko, now let’s get the fuck out of here.

The American was in the back seat today, to take notes better. Enko was driving. He kept whipping his uncanny eyes left and right. Amir sat beside him, loosely gripping the leather strap of his sky-aimed M48, which appeared useless as far as the American could tell. As they rushed across a pedestrian bridge at a hundred and twenty kilometers per hour, a blue police car nearly slammed into them, screechingly stopped literally three inches away, and sped back the way it had come. Cursing, Enko reaccelerated, past a scorched building into a very dangerous open place where the street was spattered with blackish glass.

Now the American began to imagine that he would die today; a shell or a bullet would find him; in the mountains all around them, snipers were waiting for someone, which is to say anyone, so today he would serve. He felt certain of this but knew his certainty to be meaningless, so he kept it to himself. This lost journalist, hoping only to learn what was true—for as you know, he believed without being able to say why that if this truth, whatever it was, could be communicated by him with sufficient eloquence (and not cut too much by his editor and the advertising director), then he would have accomplished something against war or at least for people (however wanly shone this something)—felt very afraid at times, but not afraid of his fear; for when that went away it went away; he had not yet understood that it was hollowing him out almost like an amphetamine addiction; he was not addicted to war and never came to like it, but the procedure of maintaining his calm in regard, for example, to the shrapnel-shard which had entered the wall two inches above his head just before he was about to sit up from his sleeping-place on the floor of the radio-television station resembled swallowing a pill; he could do it today, tomorrow and for however many unknown days or weeks he might now remain in Sarajevo (on the day after his arrival, the Serbs had shot down the UN plane, so the airport was closed, and he did not know when or by which method he would leave); needless to say, if he lived he would remain in the city for a finite, even relatively minute number of days, while Vesna, Enko and the others would be pinned down here until the end; he could calm himself for each and all of those days—but all the time, unaware, he was getting hollowed out within his skin, and there was no calculating how thick his skin was; meanwhile he retained the capacity to witness for awhile longer, and even to act moderately brave while listening for the shells. And Enko was slowing down.

Far down the almost empty street, almost at the corner, a black-uniformed man named Wolf, member of the special unit, stood deep in the doorway of an apartment building. He was Enko’s comrade, of course. They all went up the dark stairs to the landing by whose wall someone had written FPS, the initials of a softball club.— Sometimes I walk here, said Wolf. I never run.— He’s a fighter for freedom, said Enko. You write that down.— They had weak ersatz tea in his flat, and the American had his interview, paying as agreed and a trifle more. Then Enko squealed the tires round a certain perilous corner, and after passing another red tram parked on the weedy tracks, a quarter of its windows shot out, they arrived at their appointment with the clean-faced, greyhaired, grey-bearded old rabbi, whose moustache was still mostly brown. He said: You see, that’s the place where the massacres were. That’s where it hit.

You see that hill over there? said Enko. That’s where the Bosnian Dragons got killed.

Crowds were walking in the shadow of apartment towers, fairly leisurely, the American thought. But the rare cars went screeching and skidding. They drove partway up a hill of red-roofed white houses to the apartment porch where the little girl had been killed yesterday; then for the frontline irregulars the American bought a pack of cigars for twenty Deutschemarks and Enko was pleased. Now Amir was driving. Across from the police station, a blonde sat on a railing while a brunette stood smoking beside a reddish-blond boy; as they drove by, the American took notes on that woman in the shawl who held a pail, on those people carrying water and the people crowding around the bullet-measled car; there must be a main there; they were filling up with water. At the next intersection a man with a shopping bag walked slowly; people were lounging and standing, even if inside a sheltered porch; but when Amir stopped to ask directions, Enko yelled: Shit, keep moving!

Everywhere they stopped, the American felt something in the center of the back of his skull, a sweaty nakedness and tenderness.

Between apartment buildings, two ladies, one in black, stood beside a car which wore a dusty shroud; a little child sat in another car; children were playing ball; a girl in a yellow dress crept to cast one look over the edge of the balcony, and there was a smell of greasy garbage. The American wrote about people with bloody faces, brown faces, dark faces; he described children in worn clothes. One child, dirty in his worn jacket, led them across the courtyard to his mother, who was scraping away excrement. The American opened his notebook. She said: Before the war we lived like other people.

How about that advance? said Enko.

14

Enko parked outside a leather store and went in to buy a new holster. The establishment was small, without much merchandise, but perhaps it had always been that way.— He works from old stockpiles, Enko explained, paying in dollars—today’s advance, it seemed.

He stopped at home. Amir sat smoking at the kitchen table. Enko’s mother was in a queue to buy bread.

Enko’s room was still untouched, a shockingly ordinary room, with two televisions that didn’t count for much now that the electricity was gone, bookshelves adorned with statuettes, trophies, the Opca Enciklopedia and other sets of books from his student days, stacks of cassettes which he lacked the batteries to listen to, snapshots of girlfriends, a clock stopped at 9:04 and one of his pistols, a heavy old French Bendaye BP, solid black steel, flat, with a scaly black grip.

Enko was airing out his bulletproof vest. Men who couldn’t afford to buy their own, and had to share them in shifts, increased their risk of traumatic death; because, as I have already told you, when a vest is damp, for instance with sweat, it stops bullets more poorly.

Enko asked Amir: Does he deserve to meet Bald Man?

Amir shrugged.

Well, Mr. Journalist, do you or don’t you?

Sure.

The thing is, guy, Bald Man’s got style. Someone like you, there’s nothing you can give Bald Man. But Bald Man, he can give you everything.

Oh. Well, maybe I’d better not waste his time.

That’s a fact.

By the way, what neighborhood has the most trouble getting water? I’d like to interview some—

Let’s go. Amir, swing by Anesa’s.

In the safe shade of an office building, couples walked calmly. They reached the intersection, looked down into the openness nervously, and quickened their steps until they’d crossed. The President sped by in a grey Audi. Now Amir floored the gas pedal, and the American felt that same meaningless bitter flood of fear behind his breastbone. They rounded the corner successfully, completed a sickeningly exposed straightaway on which nothing moved, made a hard right on three wheels, and then another car careened toward them, struck the curb, screeched and whirled out of control, wrecked. The driver and passengers got out slowly. Soldiers gathered. It didn’t appear that anyone was injured. Perceiving this, Amir drove on, toward a sign which had been shot through half a dozen times, and then they pulled up at the portico of the almost unscorched apartment tower where Anesa lived; she was part of Vesna’s circle. Enko leaped out. The journalist sat in the back seat taking notes while Amir smoked a cigarette.

Enko returned.— That goddamned little cunt, he said. In case you were wondering, she’s got plenty of water.

The American said nothing, since Enko looked to be in a rage. Amir started the engine and put the car in gear.

Now where we’re going, said Enko, the Serbs cut off that well on July eighteenth. This place here, this is a low area, like the Holiday Inn, so these people can still get water from the reservoir. Why the fuck don’t you say something?

That well that the Serbs use—

I already explained that. Who do you want to interview?

Anybody who has trouble with water.

All right. I know a fighter over there, and his mother, she’s a sick old lady. That’d be just about perfect for you, wouldn’t it? Maybe if you’re lucky you can watch her get killed by some Chetnik. That would be a scoop, wouldn’t it?

15

I need a drink, said Enko. You got your story, right?

Right.

The bar lay behind a courtyard five floors high, and hence protected from snipers. Jasmina had told him that it was organized by Bald Man to keep it safe—evidently a relative term, since he saw a few shrapnel-pocks and windowpanes nibbled away by explosions; one windowpane was blasted into a hole the shape of a flayed animal. Someone with a machine gun was standing in the half-silhouetted stairway.

It was midafternoon, the canned music (Bosnian rock and roll) loud but not deafening. The singer’s voice reminded him of the golden shimmers in Anesa’s purple sweater. At the next table, crew-cut men in bulletproof vests and camouflage sat smoking. Across the room, a dozen men and women in civilian clothes were getting drunk. A beautiful woman in camouflage from head to toe, her outfit completed by an impractically thin black bulletproof vest with a Bosnian army insignia on it, sat smoking, sipping juice and tapping the toe of her combat boot to the music. A man with a pistol at his hip, likewise smoking, gazed at her urgently; his hand gripped her knee. No one appeared to be listening for the shells.

Enko and the American ordered American whiskey. Amir had a Turkish coffee.

The song ended.— No, said one of the civilians, she was killed by a sixty-millimeter shell, just after her children had left the table.— The next song began.

A soldier said something to Enko, who laughed and told the American: He found a Serbian flag at his neighbor’s house; he’s gonna use it for target practice.

The American smiled, because Enko and Amir were both watching him.

This guy is an amazing fighter, said Enko, evidently deciding to trust the American for a few more minutes.— I’ll tell you what he did. He killed a Chetnik who was wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest. Got him right in the forehead!

Ask him if he wants a drink, said the American wearily. And if he cares to tell his story . . .

If he accepts a drink from you, you’re lucky.

Well, let’s hope for the best.

He says he’ll take the drink.

And a drink for everyone at his table. Tell them I wish them all the best.

They want to know when the Americans will finally show some guts and intervene.

Tell them I’m also wondering that. Amir, are you sure you don’t want anything else?

No. Because I am driving.

Amir, said Enko, you babysit him. I’ve got some business.

The American took out his notebook and began to write. Although the music did not entirely obscure the echoing chitter of machine guns elsewhere, he felt safe here, like a child who pulls the blanket over his head.

He wished that one of these women would sleep with him, although he would rather sleep with Vesna, whose front window was newly cracked and taped. The men at the other table bought him another whiskey and Amir another coffee. He was happy then. When he was older and had forgotten most of his interviews, it was such meaningless kindnesses that he remembered.

We’re going right now, said Enko, so Amir and the American followed him to the car, where a fighter stood watching a crate, which they loaded into the back seat, and without explanations Amir slipped in beside it and lit a cigarette, so the American rode up front as Enko, who took more chances in his driving than Amir, brought them down a main street, past a windowfront crazily taped and shattered, a Serbian machine gun barking like a dog, and many people running as beautifully as a flight of dark birds, although no explosion had sounded by the time they rolled past a queue for something unknown around the corner from another apartment block with a shell-hole punched right through both ends. More slowly they rolled down a quiet narrow street of people walking calmly past bullet-holes, sitting under trees. Enko’s jaw tightened as he turned the next corner, already accelerating; so the car screeched into another lifeless place, then through a scorched place without any glass in any windows, the roof of one house still on but jagged like a kinked bicycle chain, and the American’s chest ached with useless fear. After another corner they went sedately down a sheltered straightaway, stopping to hand over the crate to three military police who sat playing cards in what used to be a photocopier repair station. They slapped Enko on the back and poured everyone a shot of loža. A policeman lit Amir’s cigarette with his own. Laughing, Enko wrote Sieg Heil and Wehrmacht on the wall. They returned to the car.

Could you drop me at Marko’s? asked the American.

What, now you have business with him? returned Enko, possessive and suspicious.

Sure, and then he’ll take me to Vesna’s.

Well, you’re on your own.

Are you free tomorrow?

What’s the plan?

We could maybe interview some police—

Why the fuck didn’t you say so when we were in there?

I didn’t want to interrupt your business.

You hear that, Amir? He didn’t want to interrupt our business.

That’s right. I like his style.

Enko said nothing. Pleased and proud that Amir approved of him, the American continued as if he had not heard: They must have some pretty good stories.

Sure. There’s this one guy, Senad, who . . .— Anyway, fuck it. We’ll pick you up at Marko’s tomorrow at ten. And I need an advance.

You’re advanced for four days now.

That’s my fucking business.

I can advance you half, but I might need some tonight if Marko and I go out.

You’re not going anywhere.

I can advance you half.

Then give me those binoculars.

At the end. By the way, how’s your mother?

Look. I want those binoculars.

I understand. And I’ll see you tomorrow at ten.

16

Now that Enko was accustomed to him, and also craved the binoculars, the journalist had come into possession of what Americans callleverage, if he only cared to use it; but in fact everything already served his purpose, so why disturb the system and the self-complacency of Enko, who, besides, had introduced him to Vesna? As the night reddened from a faraway shell, fire rising up, sparks buzzing beautifully down, he scanned through his notebook for today’s aphorisms from frontline heroes: It is our personal opinion, not authorized, and: It is impossible to control all the people under arms. Our general statement is against any bad thing. But it is war; it is a dirty war. He was in one of the black places whose burned smell would not leave his nostrils. Regarding Bald Man he felt indifferent, believing, as would a great writer or lazy journalist, that the situation of any native of this place who was enduring the siege (for instance, Vesna) should be capable of moving his readers. Like Enko, he imagined that he really knew something about others, and possibly he did. It never occurred to him to ask his superior colleagues at the Holiday Inn how famous or important Bald Man might be. No wonder he had never gotten ahead! In other words, he lacked the resources to visit the Pale Serbs in an armored car, and no one invited him to videotape the liberation of Hill 849.

So why was he being offered an interview with the prince of princes? Possibly Enko had grown fond of him; more likely, Amir put in a good word; most plausible of all, Enko, being proud of his service with Bald Man, and needing to accomplish some business or other related to that demigod, found it convenient to bring the dependent American along.

Speeding down the steep red-roofed street, which reminded the American of a scene in some Italian hill town, Amir rounded the corner, while Enko issued admonishments as to how to behave in the presence of Bald Man. The machine guns had been speaking all morning. The American gripped the back of Enko’s seat. They screeched into the courtyard. The square, ugly building, thoroughly bullet-pocked, was charred beneath one window, and the other windows were smashed in. A crowd of men in and out of uniform, evidently comrades, were standing outside. On the frontline he had met their like: wealthy in wounds, burns, nightmares and greenish-gold 7.62-millimeter casings. Enko raised his right arm in a cheerful salute; an old fighter slapped his shoulder. Leaning against the car, Amir lit a cigarette, narrowing his eyes; for an instant the American wondered who he really was. Unlike Enko, who remained mostly rigid in something resembling the loneliness of the frontline, Amir tended to be quite simply muted, watchful rather than aggressive; of course his apparent mildness was nothing more than opacity. Civilian men and women passed in and came out, and a little boy admired the palms of his hands. A window exploded far away. Enko entered the headquarters, the American following at a slight distance. Men in camo stood smoking. Enko approached a man who towered over him and in an extremely lordly way presented him with one of the American’s hundred-dollar bills. Then they toasted each other with coffee mugs of brandy spirit, while the American waited awkwardly. A man in camo put his arm around a woman and then those two went down the hall slowly, smoking, tapping ash into a plant’s pot which was already covered with cigarette butts.

Remember what I told you, said Enko. Keep your mouth shut unless he asks you something.

Sure, said the American, wondering how this would turn out.

A man in cammies and a black leather jacket, with his arm in a cast, strode slowly down the hall, his free hand on his gun. They followed him.

At a card table beside the city police commander, Bald Man sat reading some letters, playing with the trigger of a silver Sig Sauer which looked to be a new toy. The pistol was on safe. Whether it was loaded was not, of course, the American’s business. Bald Man, handsome and huge, with long hair like a Chetnik and bloodshot eyes like a heavy marijuana smoker, appeared to have woken up late. Gazing at Enko, the American saw in him the glowing face of a little boy who adored his father. A queue of sad women, shabby businessmen and old men with shaking hands stood in the attitudes of petitioners. The city police commander was watching Bald Man.

Bald Man raised his head. He saw Enko. Then he smiled.

17

Vesna lit another cigarette while he asked how she was, and she smiled at him; he feared she might be tired of him. But then Marina, another of the young Serbian women, said to him, her blonde hair tucked back, her teeth as white as the cigarette between them: Last night you were asking for my first memory of this situation, and the first memory is that I was in the club and I was coming back home really really late in the taxi, because my home is up in the hill by Mojmilo, not that I can go there anymore. The driver said: I don’t know why we are stuck here, because the light didn’t change.— So I paid him and got out, and then I recognized some of my neighbors, waving their arms, and I was embarrassed that they would see me, and I said to myself, why did I dress in this ugly yellow jacket like a life jacket? And my parents were watching some movie on the television, and I said to them, laughing and crying: There is a war in Sarajevo! There is the first barricade . . .— We were all expecting that this madness would stop. We could walk in and out. And then when the first grenade came in . . .

And the telephone lines were cut from this side, said the poet.

Let her finish, please, said Vesna.

No, said Marina. That’s all.

They waited for her to speak, but that was truly all. So the American, knowing this exchange between Marina and the poet to be significant but not on that account prepared to stop, for his mind’s predisposition to keep stories was as ready and partitioned as the narrow golden-buttoned side-leg pockets of Amir’s trousers, in which that person kept his wallet and a loaded magazine wrapped in paper, turned to Anesa, who almost tonelessly told how the siege had begun for her; and he wished he could listen to their stories forever, because it now seemed that he almost had what he wanted, which was to say the jewel of horrible meaning whose coruscations might dazzle some would-be murderer into holding his fire, or even help some fugitive from a rape camp to remember why she was damaged; his aspirations were ready to flow through Sarajevo and away, like the rippling, shallow Miljacka. Amir, who’d sent his children to Austria, drummed his fingers in time with the cassette player. The girls were black-eyed and smiling, turning their heads drunkenly, leaning chins on hands.

And on the following afternoon some of them and a few others were in a basement apartment with a Jim Morrison poster and sandbags halfway up the windows, the clock ticking, the pendulum swaying, a certain blonde lost in her own hair as if there might be a place where women rode slowly on bicycles along the summery riverbank, thrushes sang unsilenced, and people in cafés never needed to look away from each other’s eyes, straining to gauge where the shell might land; and Anesa was singing, with her cigarette aimed at the sky like a gun; maybe tomorrow she’d be dead. A balding fighter grinned, stubbed out his cigarette and said: Za dom spremni!—the old slogan of the rightwing Croatian irregulars—and a friend of the poet, nearly drunk, swayingly said to the American: We came down drunk and singing to have a picnic, and guns shot down the hill at us, louder and louder!—to which Enko, as usual, said: Who the fuck cares?

Then it was evening at the hillside orchard, the guns faint and cozy far away like target practice while the couples got drunker and drunker. The American and the poet entertained each other by speaking of Vesna, who was not there. Enko grinned at Anesa’s sluttish face. After they slit the chicken’s throat, the girls bent over it and plucked it. Now the barbecue pit was smoking and white smoke came from cigarettes as a machine gun chittered while a shell sounded close but not perilous. The former mechanical engineer, darkhaired, slightly rotund, lit his cigarette while the blonde cut fresh parsley with the knife that had killed the chicken, singing gently to herself, and Enko pulled his pistol from the holster and showed it off to her and she smiled. The poet tried to flirt with Anesa. The American, a little drunk, having just learned how to recognize a KPV HMG antiaircraft gun, and not judging himself any better for the experience, wondered whether he were ready to die now, right now, if a shell came; and he forgot that he had asked himself this before. Lighting a piece of wood, a man scalded the mostly plucked chicken so that the girls could more easily remove the last pinfeathers. Smiling, Anesa said to the American: Ten dollars for a chicken; this is wartime!— And what he thought was that they had accepted him, and even his purpose; for he was not yet old, and so he did not understand that what often passes for toleration and even friendship is merely the easy indifference of people toward each other—although that understanding, if it is even accurate, may still somehow be less to the point than the illusion that we are all brothers and sisters. Just then, perhaps sensing that the American now judged himself nearly qualified to write about them all, the poet said, not without hostility: You can’t imagine how it was when they started shelling us from Mojmilo.

18

The next day only Enko drove the American around, because Amir had gone, so Enko stridently announced, to Bjelave on an errand for Bald Man.— I’ll be hoping for his safety, the American said, to which Enko replied, and he was right: What the fuck do you know about it?

Bald Man’s bar was full at two-thirty in the afternoon, the gold diamond-lines in the faded black marble nearly occluded by soldiers from the Special Forces with their black many-pocketed vests, and by militiamen and police with holstered Russian pistols, not to mention the many girls sitting and standing, all smoking cigarettes, the sunlight catching the bloody amber in their water glasses. Anesa was there, playing with her hair and tapping her foot to the loud music. Enko’s new blonde was of course also present; she crossed and uncrossed her legs. The American did not get introduced. He drank alone, quite peaceably. Beneath his windbreaker he kept on his bulletproof vest, which was heavy with sweat. None of the girls showed interest in him; he was not a handsome or prosperous American. He bought Anesa a drink, just to be kind. She blew him a kiss; she’d see him at Vesna’s. He bought a drink for a Special Forces man with a big boyish face who said: God help you with your story.— The waitress carried away the round steel tray, on which dirty glasses slammed like shells, and the music got louder, until he could scarcely distinguish the festive crackling of rifles in the distant sky. Gripping the blonde by her upper arm, Enko led her toward the stairs. She laid her head against his shoulder and then they disappeared. The American ordered another drink. For hard spirits the establishment offered only whiskey and cognac; the bartender used a shotglass for the measure, then poured into a water glass. Careful journalist that he was, the American wrote down this detail; and then he looked into all the faces, wondering how they differed from the faces of his interviewees who boiled tea on the landing where the snipers could not see, feeding the fire with cross-slats from a broken chair, their faces hard and dark.

Some men in camouflage stood outside exchanging Hitler salutes. They were drinking slivovitz or loža from the look of it, so they must have brought it with them; that lovely pure plum-fire taste nearly seemed to rise up in his nostrils as he watched. This made him crave another drink, so he had one.

At the next table, couples sat around a green bottle and a purple thermos, laughing, and at any instant a shell could come in and make them into what he had seen and smelled at the morgue that morning. He tried to smell loža again, but the smell of unrefrigerated corpses now lived in his nose. He wondered whether or not to write this down.

Enko, who had sensibly refused to enter the morgue, presently returned alone, militiaman to the heart of him, in his bandanna and sunglasses; he was more cold and harsh the longer the American knew him—the veriest personification of a gun—but now he stood on the stairs smiling.

Yes indeed, Bald Man had arrived, big and muscular, in camouflage pants, with the new Sig Sauer pistol in his web belt, and a walkie-talkie; his white T-shirt said: Armija Rep. BiH Policija. There was a blackhaired girl on either side of him, and out in the courtyard stood his fighters, as straight as the packs of American cigarettes on the glass shelf. He bought everybody in the bar a drink and then left.— He could tear your head off with his hands, said Enko admiringly.

I’d like to know more about him, said the American, opening his notebook.

I might be able to get you an interview, said Enko, as coyly as a high school girl at a dance.

What’s the bravest thing he ever did? asked the American, seeking to give pleasure with this question.

Getting out two wounded men by himself, under fire from two anti-machine guns at twenty to thirty yards, from No Man’s Land.

That’s very impressive.

He was one of the guys in the neighborhood sportsmen’s association before the war. People loved him. The only question people wondered was, when will he get elected as leader? He got us guns, machine guns. People came and said: I want to fight with you. Six hundred men would die for him.

You know him pretty well, I guess. What else do you want me to learn?

He loves the occasion when he has to catch snipers, but right now we’re not allowed to punish them, only exchange them. One time he was chasing a Serbian sniper for four hours. This Serb had killed ten of our guys. The SDS* paid him five hundred Deutschemarks per kill. Bald Man was alone; he had to climb a skyscraper, they wounded him, but the sniper surrendered.

Very heroic.

I told Bald Man how you said that all the Chetniks are murderers. That might help your case.

Thanks for thinking about me, Enko.

Some HOS* irregulars drove by and Enko gave them the Nazi salute.— Great fighters, he said.

19

Vesna had been drinking, as had he, so he said: Sweetheart, will you be my human shield?

If you don’t cut my throat afterward, darling! Oh, Enko, there you are—

The American turned. The poor poet was glaring at him, and he thought: Who am I, who have not suffered as he has, to threaten his one one-sided love?— And then he further thought, as if for the first time: I could be killed tomorrow as easily as he. More easily, in fact, since I’m at the frontline—

Accordingly, he wished to flirt with Vesna some more. Instead, he flirted with Dragica, who had no use for him (the night sky flushing with bursts of fire), after which he questioned the poet about Olga Ilic until the poet was mollified. A smiling fighter carefully wrote in the American’s notebook: MPs in BiH is the only MPs fronting the frontlines at all fronts.— Thank you, he said. Then Dragica and a girl named Aida were trying to educate him about the sounds of bullets, and Aida said, opening her pinkish-silver-painted fingernails (they still had cosmetics that autumn): Of course it’s different when a sniper shoots and when a pistol shoots, because when a sniper shoots it’s a longer hissing.— By then he had built up a certain opinion of himself, and had he stayed in Sarajevo for another two weeks, which his budget of course did not permit, it is possible that such aphorisms might have ceased to impress him, and he might even have thought: Woman, I wonder if you’ve ever been to the frontline, whereas I go almost every day and have learned how to watch Chetniks in an angled mirror so that both parties can see but the Chetniks cannot shoot.— I for my part hope that he never would have thought that way.— Through the taped window, following a shell-hiss, he saw the birth of a glow which nearly seemed comforting; it could have been the lamp of some student, perhaps Thea or Jasmina, who was preparing for her examinations before getting married; and the glow brightened; he could neither hear screams nor smell any smoke. Vesna’s guests fell silent, watching that fire, and then their talk sprang brightly up again. Dragica carried around the plate of emerald-fresh halvah. The American recorded the words of the haunted man who whispered what he had seen at night in Kovaci Graveyard; then Jasmina was confiding: I was afraid when a 120-millimeter grenade fell into my flat, but, thanks be to God, it went to the other side of the room; they fired it from the direction of the Studentski Dom . . .— And then Enko was informing the poet, practically shaking him: To hear them tell it, everything always went well for the Serbs, even in World War II. You know why? Because shame was never put into their fucking minds! God told their Prince Lazar: You have two options, either you will win today and be prosperous, or else you will die and go to heaven for a thousand years. Fuck their stinking Chetnik mothers! They never lose! Well, guess what?— The poet cringed away; then Vesna came, laid down her long fingers so gently on Enko’s hand, and said something which hushed him, and she turned him around and sat him down on the sofa between Aida and Jasmina, and the hatred had bled from his face, but his shoulders would not unlock. Then a Serbian girl named Branka was telling the American in a low and rapid voice: I think Slovenians were the big problem, at which her Croatian friend Olga said: I think we can blame the Croatians the most, because the Serbs did most of what they did out of fear of Croatians.— Vesna, sweating in her white top (with her pink mouth and short blonde hair, her narrow V-shaped dark eyebrows and blue-green eyes, she looked nothing like Olga Ilic), now said: The ones who decided to do this, it’s so sick, like pedophilism; someone was sitting in an office thinking about all the nasty things he could do to the people! The joke is that the Chetniks are copying old Yugoslav war movies. But these people who are shooting . . . well, as I’m growing older, I understand that religion is only manipulation and nothing else.— He thought he had never heard her so bitter. Meanwhile the poet stared down at her breasts. And then more people were telling the American their stories, each of which could have occupied his life in proper retelling. Perhaps in retrospect these nights at Vesna’s appeared more bright or even brilliant than they were; or it might have been that they were what they were by virtue of simple contrast (the darkness, the hissing of the shells). But he knew, he knew, that these people’s agony was not meaningless. And then came a shell, the women straining their faces at the window, then suddenly screaming, and after it exploded, very near, the building shaking, they screamed and screamed, and Vesna’s young throat was taut and sweaty.

20

In the middle of the following afternoon they were speeding back from the frontline (they had been running all morning, and, worse yet, through sunny places) when Enko said: Look. What are you going to give Bald Man?

How much does he want?

You don’t fucking get it. I told you: Bald Man doesn’t need shit from you. He has everything already.

All right.

Looking into the rearview mirror, he saw Amir’s sad eyes seeking him.

The only thing you can do is show him you’ve got heart. Don’t you fucking get it?

Sure.

There came a sound as if some monster were wading through an ocean, loudly, yet not without a certain mincing daintiness; he had never heard that before. A window shattered. He was going to pay Enko in dollars again.

Enko said: We caught us a sniper. A real bastard. A Serb. Now what I want you to do, and this’ll prove you to Bald Man, is go in there and do the job.

You mean kill him?

I’ll give you a gun. He’s in a room; he can’t hurt you. Go in there and take care of that Serb. You do that, you can ask Bald Man anything you want.

21

After that, of course, he couldn’t exactly go to Vesna’s anymore.

22

Many years later, when the journalist was fat and old, he returned to Sarajevo, in the company of his wife. Some of his younger colleagues had, as American businesspeople like to say, “adapted.” The grand old editors who had taught him were long since enjoying the sweetness of forced retirement. Most journalists of his own generation had simply been “terminated.” The war photographers kept lowering their prices in hopes of keeping “competitive” with the stock agencies whose images might be inferior but could be leased to production supervisors for sixty percent less. The rising cost of paper, and the increasing inclination of advertisers to buy wriggling, pulsing “windows” within digital publications, in order to better monitor the readers (I mean “content users”), left the quaint “hard copy” magazines feeble indeed. Perhaps our hero should have exerted himself for his dog food, pulling harder on a shorter, ever more capricious leash—but he was more washed up than he admitted. His eyesight had worsened, and that new forgetfulness might be getting dangerous, for instead of straightforward admissions of confusion it confidently asserted the erroneous. Well, hadn’t he always been lost? After a week in the Stari Grad, he kept mistaking the way back to the hotel in those narrow streets between Ferhadija and Zelenih Beretki.— Last time, I couldn’t really go out much, he explained to his wife. They were shooting from those hills up there, so I mostly had to stay indoors, or else get into a car and be driven somewhere at high speed. Whenever we left the Holiday Inn we had to—

No, we turn here, said his wife, holding his hand.

But isn’t the river that way? No, you’re right as usual! You know, I never got down to the Stari Grad. Or maybe I did once—

I know, his wife replied. Do you think a cesma is a fountain?

I used to know. Didn’t we just look that up?

You don’t remember either? I feel ashamed of myself; I just can’t make headway with this language.

Never mind, sweetheart, and he took her little paperback dictionary, in order to look up cesma yet again.

So that was our journalist, and why he had come his fellow Americans could scarcely imagine, for where lay the lucre for him? To be sure, he sometimes wondered what had become of the people he once met at Vesna’s; and perhaps he was interested in Vesna even now.

For him it was nearly an adventure. He convinced himself that a new country remained to be explored: the past.

In that season many of the young Muslim women wore matching lavender dresses and hijabs, and that was very nice, but most beautiful of all was a girl dressed all in black, with a black headscarf, brown eyes and red-painted lips; she held a red rose.

Strolling into a travel agency, he requested an interpreter. The woman put him in touch with a friend of hers, a policeman’s son less friendly than polite—but hadn’t they all been that way? The journalist could not recall. The policeman (now retired) had never heard of Enko, and the son knew nothing of Vesna (who, after all, must be too old for the boy), but the journalist remembered that she had lived in Novo Sarajevo; when Enko and Amir drove him to her place they had turned onto Kolodvorska and then, he thought, away from the river. The policeman’s son inquired her last name. She still lived in the same apartment.

She barely remembered him. After all, there had been so many journalists! When he mentioned Mirjana, Anesa, Ivica and Jasmina, she took three beers out of the refrigerator, and they sat down in the living room, yes, here where they had all listened to the shells; and there by the window, the most dangerous place, was where the poet liked to sit, his eyes enslaved by Vesna; the American could not quite remember his face anymore, so he seemed to see instead (since he and his wife had just visited the museum) a sad mosaic-face from Stolac gazing up out of a floral-framed white diamond, where it had been imprisoned ever since the third century.

He and Vesna sat smiling awkwardly at each other while the policeman’s son yawned.

Enko had been killed in one of the last battles for the strategic heights of Mojmilo. Vesna knew his son, who was sixteen.— Do you want me to call him? she asked. I don’t know if he’s working. Probably he wants to meet a foreigner who knew his father.

Well, if it’s no trouble . . .

The boy’s name was Denis. He was taller than his father.— Who are you? he said.

I knew your father briefly, in ’92.

We don’t like to talk about those times, said Denis. What can I do for you?

How’s Amir? He was your father’s friend—

Uncle Amir? He works for the customs department.

His cell phone rang. The policeman’s son’s cell phone was already ringing.

Wearily, Vesna opened more beers.— You still look beautiful, the journalist told her.

Not anymore. But I don’t care. I’m studying Buddhism.

You never married?

Twice. Where’s your wife?

At the hotel. Cigarette smoke makes her sick.

But everyone here smokes! cried Vesna in amazement. This was the only interesting thing he had said, but it must have been quite interesting indeed; she could not imagine this wife who declined to smoke.

I know, he said. Have you kept in touch with Marko?

Which Marko?

The poet who was in love with you.

He was my second husband. Do you want his cell phone number?

Uncle Amir’s on his way, said Denis. He knows lots of stories. Isn’t that why you’re here? That’s what you journalists do, is make money from our stories.

I don’t know if I’m a journalist anymore.

Then this is a fucking waste of time, said Denis.

At least your uncle will get a beer out of it, said the journalist. Vesna, does the shop across the street sell beer?

I’ll come with you, she said. I need cigarettes.

Denis and the policeman’s son sat gazing out the window. They were sending text messages on their cell phones.

How’s Mirjana? he asked her as they entered the elevator.

She married, and they tried and tried, but never could have children. Now her health’s not good. Also, her husband is a real bastard, so maybe it’s better we don’t phone them.

I remember that she used to tell about a Serb in her building who would cheer whenever a shell came in—

Oh, that crazy Boris? He’s still there. Very elderly now.

He said: I’ve never forgotten sitting with you and your friends at this place, listening for the shells.

Her face seemed to tighten, although he could have imagined that. She said: And you didn’t come back after ’92?

No, I didn’t. Once I tried, but we had an accident—

Well. Near the end of the war, the Serbs didn’t have so much ammunition anymore, but they’d kept these airplane grenades. When they had no more surface-to-surface missiles, they modified the grenades. And these had a very specific sound. We called them pig grenades, because they made a grunting noise. If you were very good, you knew by the sound where it was fired and exactly where in the town it would fall. I remember when we would stop and listen to it for a minute, and then we would say: Oh, it won’t fall here.

I understand, said the journalist.

One of those pig grenades fell in front of the radio-television station. It took out four floors.

The journalist was silent.

Mortar shells made a hissing sound, said Vesna, hoping to help him feel as well as understand. They were almost like bullets in that respect. You remember?

Yes—

But pig grenades, they roared when they came close. You could see the birds fly. You could always know the Serbs were bombing the town when we would see the birds fly, and just after that we would hear the grenades. I remember it. You’d think that the sky was black. Pigeons, crows, just flying into the opposite side of the city . . . Oh, well. You didn’t see that.

No, I didn’t.

I remember in the beginning of the war people went down into the basement, but it wasn’t really a basement; half was aboveground; socialist skyscrapers weren’t designed for shelters. After two or three months, no one went to the basement anymore. You would have had to be nuts going down eleven flights of stairs to the basement, because the attacks never stopped. But when they developed those pig grenades, we started going down again into the basement. When they took those four floors out by the radio-television building, that was the first time I was afraid.

The journalist lowered his head. He remembered the fear on her face when the shells were coming in, long before pig grenades. But who could say that his memory was any better than hers?

He bought her a pack of cigarettes. For the party, such as it was, he took a case of canned beer, the one she recommended because it was cheap.

Was Enko a particular friend of yours? she asked.

Well, I liked you better.

Of course. I’m a woman. Such likings are not important.

You were important to me.

Smiling, she said: I’m sorry, but I still can’t remember you.

Why should you? It was only for a week or two. And is Enko’s mother alive?

No. It was after that second massacre in the market, but just now I don’t remember how long after. I must be getting old.

When Amir came in, the journalist would not have recognized him. Outside the shop of the beer and cigarettes there had been a newspaper kiosk, and beside that a café at the closest of whose tables sat two skinny old men whose hair had withered to grey moss on their skulls, leaning together, clutching tiny white cups of coffee in their claws, watching him and Vesna out of the corners of their eyes. He wondered what they must have seen and heard. Amir could have been their elder brother. He gazed steadily into the journalist’s eyes. Then, very slowly, he smiled.

You can come over and have a coffee, said Denis, who had been watching Amir’s face. My mother might talk about old times.

23

The old lady said: Sometimes they were looking like falling stars coming one after the other. They were actually yellow, like they had some fire following them. But we knew they were bullets and shells. There were four or five coming at once.

She showed him the hole in the bedroom door where a shell had come in and nearly killed Denis in his crib. On the knickknack shelf by the television sat the journalist’s old binoculars.

Those are heavy binoculars over there, said the journalist.

They belonged to a Chetnik, said Denis. He and my father were fighting hand to hand. You can see who won.

They’re not official JNA issue, are they?

Those Serbian bastards could get anything. They ran the army; they had the whole country sewed up.

24

The journalist had considered writing a followup article about that mixed-ethnic couple who were killed on the Vrbanja Most; he had read about it in the newspaper, probably in 1993. If he remembered correctly, she had been a Serb and he a Muslim.

Actually, that’s just an urban legend, explained the policeman’s son.

I remember them, of course, said the policeman’s wife. Very romantic. Every year they are on the television.

Indeed, the waiter at the sidewalk restaurant where the journalist’s wife liked to feed bread crumbs to the pigeons said that it must now be the anniversary of their deaths, because they had just been on television again. Their names slipped his mind, but one was definitely a Serb and the other a Croat.

The policeman’s son had a friend named Edina who recollected the unfortunate couple slightly. She said: Oh, yes. The Sarajevo Romeo and Juliet. Very popular with the older generation.

The journalist gave it up and went to lie down. He had stepped off a sidewalk wrongly and injured his back, or maybe his side. His sweet wife gave him her pain pills. Closing his eyes, he encouraged her to go out. He could tell that she was restless, while he wasn’t good for much.

Perhaps he should have written about Bald Man. No doubt Amir could have told him things, had he felt like asking. He had prepared himself to inquire into Enko’s death, but just then Denis had said: Bald Man saved the books from the library when nobody else had balls. The Chetniks were shelling, and he took two men . . .

What happened to him?

He was shot through the heart, maybe during the war. But he lived through that. So he had a heart condition. He died after the war.

No, he didn’t die of a heart attack, said Vesna. He shot himself. But he had a good time in the hospital ward with my grandmother; they used to sing songs together. When you saw him, you wouldn’t believe there was something wrong with him. Mirjana’s family, when they were finally evacuated they left a key with another woman, and Bald Man robbed them; he took even the boiler. So you remember him, too! How many times did you meet him? They say he was very good to his friends and very bad to his enemies.

What do you think about him?

I have nothing to think about him. He was a criminal.

Next morning the journalist and his wife took a stroll down to the Vrbanja Most. They passed the Holiday Inn, which surprised him; he said nothing, for fear of boring his wife. It was hot, and the air was grimy.— I hate this street, said the journalist’s wife. Her back was also aching.

The journalist took another of his wife’s pain pills. Presently his life began to be as pretty as a lemon-haired Serbian girl’s face in sunlight when she leans back and drags on her cigarette.

So she was twenty-five and he was twenty-four, he said, reading the inscription. They’d be forty-three and forty-two now.

But that happened after you were here.

You’re right, darling. How are you managing?

Oh, you know, she said.

So they hailed a taxi. Rolling easily through the Big Park, they passed the monument to the dead children of the war. Then they were on the double highway (directions: Tuzla, Zenica, Mostar, Mount Igman). The journalist knew that somewhere ahead lay the source-spring of the river Bosna where Tito’s bunkers used to be; many Partisans had died there when the temperature was thirty-seven below zero. He remembered that from something he had read years ago, but decided to keep it from his wife in case he had mixed up his facts again. His wife was biting her lip; probably her back hurt.

He remembered the tram tracks between the two lanes of the highway, but nothing else appeared correct. Now they had arrived at the former frontline. He told the driver to stop and wait. He stepped out. His wife took his hand. For the first time ever he was able to survey the enemy positions. Here was the old age home, called “Disneyland” for its multicolored façade, whose construction had been nearly completed when the Serbs occupied it. Considerable sniper fire had originated here. Now the drug addicts used it.

We’d better not go in, he told his wife. I don’t know if it’s still mined.

He photographed an arched window with a black tree growing through it, the wall-tiles pitted and pocked. (He still used a film camera, of course; why should he put away what had always worked for him?) Seeing the hateful place ruined and abandoned gave him pleasure. He said nothing about that to his wife. Weeds, rose hips, young walnut trees and blackberries strained up toward the blackened concrete cells, some of whose highest honeycombs were floored with grass. There was a tunnel like a grave-shaft which passed right through the gutted edifice and into the summer greenness by the highway.

I’m getting worried about how much the taxi will cost, he admitted. So they got back in and rolled toward Centar, passing a smashed apartment building, with Mojmilo on the right. Now they drew near the tall white skyscrapers of Centar, wondering whether it would rain, for clouds already pressed over them like crumpled bedsheets.

Up there, he said, that meadow there with the new houses, I think that’s where we had to run. I had my bulletproof vest on, and it was so heavy I fell down . . .

His wife took his hand.

Actually, he said, that might not have been the place.

Next morning they took a brisk walk from their hotel up into the hills. Once their backs began to ache as usual, they sat down against the ancient rock wall in the shade of the four walnut trees by the Yellow Bastion, with heavy, fragrant clusters of white elderflowers bowing the branches down below them, and then, far down through the greenness, a hoard of those other white flowers called tombstones, rising delicately and distinctly from the grass.

THE LEADER

There is no life on the earth without the dead in the earth.

Veljko Petrovic, 20th cent.

1

They had been friends of a sort, perhaps more so in his parents’ mind than in either of theirs. Had they never seen each other again, the insignificance of their accidental association would have been plainer, although as it turned out he rarely thought about his childhood; and when his acquaintances mentioned school reunions he produced his supposition of a smile, enduring the subject warily because his boredom resembled withered branches over a hole. He knew that others were different; sometimes he wondered whether they had made real friends when they were young, or even been happy; or whether (which would have rendered his own situation relatively enviable) they were simply in the market for false memories of joy. From what little he recalled, his high school classmates, even Ivan, had longed to get away and enter the shining world where they could dwell apart from the elders whom they were already becoming. He could barely recollect the place he had fled, so deeply had he despised it; therefore he felt unable to deduce how far, if at all, he had gone, which gratified him since it ought to be best to forget what one runs from: Amir watching silently while he interviewed fighters beneath the thudding and booming of shells along the frontline, and the morning when there were six new bullet-holes in Enko’s mother’s kitchen, and Enko’s contempt for him (the natural feeling of the crucified for the free man who climbs on and off the cross), those he remembered better than his two or three dull school years with Ivan, who had likewise, so he’d supposed at the time, looked down on him, or at best askance; Ivan’s mother’s opinion of him he never learned, although the last time he met her she must have been far from pleased; as for Ivan’s father, he had died long ago. The journalist (if we allow him to call himself such) could not recall the house where Ivan had lived with his mother, brother and sister, so perhaps Ivan had never invited him over; but, after all, we live so hemmed in by our memories that we scarcely realize how few they are. For instance, he could hardly bring to mind the beardless version of Ivan’s face. He had invited Ivan to his home once or twice. Ivan, two years older, possessed older friends; besides, Ivan had been born in that town, while his own family had moved so many times that he could not say where he was from, which might have been the real reason he felt lonely in those days, although he naturally never considered that, and therefore believed his presence to be distasteful to others, which rendered it so. His nature was impressionable—a fine quality in youth, when one stands a chance of adapting to one’s dreams; an excellent characteristic in a journalist; but a liability in those later years whose captive will manage best through stolid stupidity. Anyhow, he passed much of his childhood either by reading and dreaming alone or by watching others, wishing that they liked him. To him Ivan appeared to be laughing unfailingly, charming his true friends.— Ivan’s such a nice boy, said his mother. Not knowing how to make the world admire him the way it did Ivan, he withdrew into his room.

Sometimes an accident returned them into propinquity, especially when Ivan was visiting someone else. The younger one might have been flattered when Ivan sat beside him—flattered, yes, but coolhearted; he needed no favors from Ivan. Each time, they liked each other more, but by then it was the shallower liking of grown men, for whom conviviality suffices. Men know what they think, at least; and anyone who pretends to think the same will do; some people can afford to be different, and tolerate what they fail to understand, but were that the rule, there might still be a Yugoslavia. As it happened, Ivan passed a year in Zagreb and even learned the language, which in those days was still called Serbo-Croatian. Why was he interested? Well, it turned out that he was Croatian, or Croatian-American as anxiously inclusive Americans would say; when they were boys together, Ivan’s shy half-friend had never heard of Croats; Ivan was simply the older one whom he should perhaps look up to. The idea that he could ever get away from the narrow darkness which so faithfully contained him hovered beyond him; therefore he could not even envy Ivan, who lived in sunlight.

Later they were journalists together—mere freelancers, of course, being dreamers who lacked the ability to do as they were told. Despite his superiority, Ivan was a less methodical dreamer than his friend. He had grown almost fat by then, while the journalist was only plump. Kinder, not so disciplined, loving to sit up all night talking history and smoking cigarettes with any Balkan type, more fluent than ever in Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, Slovenian, and all the other languages which used to be one, Ivan gloried rather than labored on these journeys. He had a paying job; Yugoslavia was his leave of absence. With shining eyes he spoke of Knin and Tuzla, Sanjak and Banja Luka, Vukovar, defiant Sarajevo. Very occasionally the other man still wished to be like Ivan, and sometimes he pitied him a little. When he could, he took Ivan as his interpreter.

Once between assignments when they met for dinner in their home city, the journalist happened to be lost and drunk. Ivan watched him make a rendezvous with a transient hotel’s hardest passion girl, then distracted and delayed him in a bar, until he missed his hour. Ivan was protecting him! The journalist insisted on searching for the girl, who was long gone. In the hallway, two men were fighting. The journalist wanted to look for his girl all the same. With that gentle, almost feminine laugh that he had, Ivan tried to jolly him. They went around the corner for another drink. Was Ivan sorry for him? He agreed to sleep on the sofa in Ivan’s messy apartment. He felt disappointed, irritated, amused and touched.

Years later, Ivan’s guest seemed to have discovered peace; perhaps it was fair to state the case more definitely; since no one gets full measure of anything but death, why expect more tranquillity than this? He kept his habits, not to mention his memories, which made him prouder as he corrected them; his health wasn’t bad; his wife loved him.

2

At the border there were many tour buses and a Tiško-Benz truck blowing diesel. Two policemen boarded and began to check documents, their manner less intimidating than merely formal; he worried because his wife on principle refused to pull out her passport before the last minute. DOBRO DOŠLI—WELCOME, he read within a grey rectangle. Past the lowered red signal bar at the stop signal lay a hill of bushes and trees, for all he knew still mined, although that would have been discouraging, and then those red-roofed two-storey houses with the windows shuttered—just like before, those silent houses. The beautiful blue and yellow flag with its white stars barely quivered.

The signal bar ascended; the bus entered the new country. At this moment Ivan used to get as excited as a child. On the righthand side of the road, a man stood behind his car, holding out his passport while two white-clad officials peered beneath his car, presumably for contraband or bombs.

His wife was tired. He stared at ivy on a ruined wall.

3

On the Rijecka Krupa road the Cyrillic had been blacked out by hand on the bilingual sign for Sarajevo-Mostar. He had seen that years ago, in Kosovo, where an old Serb had told him: We must live here. We have no choice!—and a pretty young Serbkina whose family had lived and died in that place for three centuries had said, smiling bitterly: I can’t walk across that bridge anymore.— Had they blacked her out yet?— Evidently some good Bosnian wished to assert that Rijecka Krupa likewise was not and had never been Serbian.

There were grapes fat on their arbors, figs and pomegranates. He wife took pleasure in the apricot and peach trees. Here came the tower of a mosque.

At the next road sign the hand on the spray can of paint must have trembled, for black mist wavered over Cyrillic and Roman alike. Here came the yellow sign for Karatok; the Cyrillic had been sprayed out again. For some reason he could not pay close attention to anything but the signs. Now swelled the sign for Medjugorje; he remembered that place all too well; his wife pointed out an onion field. The sign for Kelpci remained stencilled in both languages, but at the sign for Capljina the Cyrillic was blacked out as before. Knowing what that might again portend, he endured the clenching within his chest. On the trees by the bus station the peaches were already pinkening. They passed a troop of young soldiers brown-green in camouflage, who marched happily swinging their arms; he felt sick.

A soldier approached, with his duffel bag pressing him from shoulder to hip; he walked in small weary steps. Then the bus pulled away, past grubby white and tan apartments which had not been scorched full of holes; laundry hung over the balconies; but a moment later they passed a brick building with darkness punched through it. (This was his wife’s excursion; he had not expected to feel anything.) At least in this zone the local talent left the Cyrillic on the road signs undefaced. On the high point by the river rose an old wall and a stone tower. A pair of tour buses were parked below, on the edge of a poppy meadow. His nauseating dread increased. His wife saw white potato blossoms.

The semiarid hills ahead had an evil appearance to him, simply because he remembered expecting to be shot.

At Buna they drew up to a long narrow concrete bridge or dam, which resembled the place, but was not, he realized. He had thought to recognize it right away, but of course landscapes do alter in eighteen years, particularly in war zones.

He could not recall whether they had come into the city before it happened. It seemed so, because he remembered photographing Croatian soldiers on the west side. In a steel cabinet in his office he still kept the negative strips; on his return he might take them out and place them under the loupe, although it would be preferable never to see those images again. His wife closed her eyes; she hated the heat, and the seat hurt her back.

Three women stood at the side of the road, selling cherries, and he remembered the two pretty rose vendors with whom he, Ivan and Ted had flirted in the last minutes; the girls had given them each a flower, and he could not remember what he had done with his; probably he had affixed it to his bulletproof vest. The other two roses must certainly have remained in the car. There had been a Croatian checkpoint before they met the rose vendors. Then they had entered No Man’s Land.

4

Now they had arrived. His wife felt very tired. He changed money at the bus station, and then a taxi rolled them past a scorched building improved by time into a mellow ruin.

It was very humid, the roses practically wilting in their little planters. At the hotel, the waiter asked if it was their first time in this place. They ordered lunch. At the next table a young couple were holding hands. He had already quarreled with his wife, and felt bitter and furious that she could not understand him.

The muezzin’s call to prayer wavered beautifully over the river. He saw two birds in the sky. The green river descended the steps of its straight stonewalled channel.

The young couple gazed stupidly into each other’s eyes; they held hands; he could hardly endure it.

His wife stared down at her wineglass, while he remembered how after days of submissive waiting for Ivan’s family to claim the body and ask of him whatever questions they cared to—hence the inquisition from Ivan’s brother, who naturally sought to establish through circumstantial proofs the guilt of the hated survivor, followed by dinner with the well-mannered, exhausted old mother, in company, of course, with the brother, who, it was made clear, held him accountable not only for Ivan’s death, but also for declining to take the blame for it—he found himself home again, some weeks after which he came to be drinking with his friend Sam, whom he admired for being a more mature person, in possession of many adventures and sufferings; and Sam, whom he had first introduced to Ivan and who had not paid for any of the drinks, now rounded on him, shook his fist, and said: Don’t think I’m forgetting about Ivan; someday I’m going to revengemyself on you!— Since Sam was drunk, he contained himself. A month later—the next time they had met—he said: Sam, I’m going to ask you to apologize to me, which Sam readily did, at which point he forgave him. Now he unforgave him. He wished to punch Sam in the teeth. Then that too passed, and he waited for his wife to finish her wine. How he hated sitting here! But lying down in the room would be worse. Actually it was interesting here; he was glad for these people that tourists had begun to come.

High up on the far side of the river wall, the old foreigner in a silly hat was showing his old wife something. The foreigner stretched out his hand and pointed, as if he had been to the place he indicated, or somehow had something to do with it.

His wife ordered another glass of wine, probably out of loneliness, while he remembered how en route to the place where he would await Ivan’s mother and brother, he had returned to Zagreb, because he and Ivan had left their extra suitcases in Zrinko’s apartment, and Zrinko said: Tell me one thing. The radio said that you were in another car, and Ivan was following you. Is that true?

No. We were in the same car. Ivan was in the front seat, and Ted was driving—

He had never been able to fight for himself. His childhood had taught him to bear with the threats and aggressions of others, and this fatalistic patience, which many mistook for compliance, had served him equally well in his profession. He raised his hands to be searched by secret police of any stripe; the insults of uniformed killers he answered with mildness; even when someone touched a bayonet to his throat he held no grudge, because what good would that have done? The killers were what they were precisely because they overreacted. Whatever he did feel announced itself within him afterward, if at all. So Zrinko’s questions did not anger him then. For one thing, Zrinko was his friend; they had met through Ivan; Zrinko evidently needed to be told the sequence of events, in order, as Americans would say, to “bring closure” to his grief; hence it was the survivor’s duty to comply and explain, all the more so since he was fond of Zrinko.

You swear that you were in the same car?

I swear, he listlessly replied; his trousers were still clotted with Ivan’s blood.

All right. If you had been ahead in another car, leading Ivan to his death, I would have killed you.

Zrinko drove him to the bus station. When he thanked him, Zrinko said: I’m not doing it for you. I’m doing it for Ivan.

He never saw Zrinko again.

His wife signed the bill. He longed for her to say something loving, take him by the hand, “help” him; he knew quite well that there was no help in such matters. Just then he could hardly endure his grief and bitterness. Had he voiced it, perhaps she might have embraced him, as he clearly comprehended, but he lacked the power to take charge of himself. Anyway, if he waited, the feeling would depart. He blamed her for nothing. Wasn’t he a grown man? They rose and crossed the Stari Most, which had been beautifully reconstructed, evidently with United Nations funds. How had the joke run? When that Serbian commander destroyed this bridge, he consoled his staff that in due course, Serbs would remake it: wider, more beautiful and even older than before! It rose in an inverted V over the green river. Tenderly he helped his wife up the slanting stairs; her joints were weak. There came thunder, rain, the lovely green smell. To him the grass upreaching, the swallows and the rain on the roses all seemed new, but not the narrow evergreens rising up the steep arid mountain; that horizon was hideously familiar.

A Spanish woman with a seashell belt and a leather purse like a uterus touched the bright brass writing-pens made out of shell casings. The vendor offered her another and another. She gazed at each one with doe eyes.

5

On a streetwall it still said USTAŠE DUBROVNIK,* and on another, ULTRAS 1994. He could not remember which brand of cigarettes Ivan had most frequently smoked. Middle-aged women in checkered hijabs were photographing one another on the Stari Most.

These white butterflies flickering everywhere like ashes in an updraft, he lacked all recollection of them although it had been this time of year, that same sweaty light, with those arid yet forested mountains across the river. There were more roadside fruit stands than before, new shopping centers and gas stations, but plenty of the same old smashed houses. On the trees the figs hung green over the river. It seemed peculiar how much he had forgotten, especially after Ivan’s brother had hounded him so closely over what might as well have been every turn in the road, from the very starting-point where that United Nations pilot, smiling faintly, reached into his camouflage-flavored breast pocket, pulled out a manual the size of a combat Bible, and edified them with a diagram of some creepy wilderness of fortifications, remarking: That’s what those Serbian checkpoints look like. I prefer to fly myself.— He could fly, while they were only journalists. After waiting two days, the three of them made the decision together.— So you admit that you convinced my brother to take that road, said Ivan’s brother, smiling with triumphant hate.

6

Supposing that his duty must lie in submission to the brother’s cold hatred, ready to answer any questions if it would bring the man peace—in fact it appeared to inflame him—he complied, told and clarified. When the brother first began to interrogate him (he had awaited his coming for many days), he endured it calmly, even after it became apparent that rather than being, as he had foolishly imagined, “helpful,” he was simply accused; but when the brother demanded that he tell and retell each detail of Ivan’s death, which on his own account he absolutely could not bear to think about, he shivered for an instant. No doubt this bore out the brother’s already completed judgment.

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