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After the rain, the snails come out. They push their slimy boneless bodies out of their shells as they move along. After the rain, the inhabitants of Sarajevo go foraging in the treeless fields amidst tangles of iron and fresh mounds of earth. They bend over furtively, excitedly, to pick up the shiny little creatures. It’s been months since they last ate meat. Then it rained, and today the women smile and unpack their treasure in their empty kitchens. The children smile at the sight of the snails climbing on and falling off the table. Like the others, Velida came home with a bag full of snails that she’d gathered secretly, in an isolated park, because she was ashamed for others to see her hunger.
We dip our bread in the pan. A slightly cloying odor fills the kitchen. Snails cooked in Turkish spices, Bosnian vinegar and broth from the humanitarian packages. A delicacy.
Later Velida will blame this too-good food for having restored a happiness they hadn’t felt for a long time, a misleading and harmful happiness.
Jovan’s eyes were shiny, and there was a bit of color in his cheeks after months of rough grey skin.
After he finished eating, he lit a cigarette from a package Diego had given him. Drinas that they wrap now in pages taken from books because there’s no more paper. Naturally, they started with books in Cyrillic. Jovan was sorry to see his culture going up in smoke, but how could he refrain from having a cigarette after a real luxury like a plate of snails?
Jovan went out when it was silent again, when Velida resumed chopping nettles and the good smell of the snails had disappeared forever.
He hadn’t been out for months. He dressed to the nines in his wool vest, a wide tie and his old kippah on his head. He picked up the bag he’d used as a professor and said he felt good and that he was going out for a walk.
Unreal words in that ghost city, in those houses without lights, without glass, the best furniture sold and the worst pieces chopped to bits for burning.
“Where are you going, Jovan?”
“I’m going to the university.”
Velida didn’t have the courage to stop him. She’d always respected her husband’s wishes, and it hardly seemed the time to treat him as if he were under house arrest. She simply tried to tell him that the university had been shelled like all the other important buildings. Jovan nodded.
“I’m going to go see if there’s anything to be done.”
He smiled and came out with an old Yiddish proverb. If a man is fated to drown, he may die in a teaspoon of water.
It was too late when Velida came to knock at my door, when it was already dark and past curfew and Jovan had been gone for hours. She wasn’t crying, but her head trembled more than usual.
She was worried but still courageous. She had done the right thing.
Today, on a mid-November day, after a meal of snails and two glasses of homemade brandy made with rice from the humanitarian aid packages, the elderly Jovan—a Serbian Jew from Sarajevo, a biologist whose field of expertise was freshwater species and who had spent his entire life studying the evolution of oligochaetes and of unicellular flagellate algae—went out to take a glance at the wreckage of his city, at the destruction of his species, the peaceful species comprised of the Muslims, Serbs, Croatians and Jews of Sarajevo.
The dark ate away at Velida’s memory lined face. She had no regrets. If Jovan had felt the need to go, it was right that he had gone.