A brave and unnerving debut collection about life in wartime
In 1991 a war began in Yugoslavia that would last four years and claim more than a quarter of a million lives. In her harrowing fiction debut, Courtney Angela Brkic puts a human face on the lost, the missing, the exiled, and the invisible. She brings to life perpetrators and victims, soldiers and civilians, diplomats and human rights workers: a man trapped in a cellar witnesses the erasure of his city—and of his identity—as it is shelled by unseen bombers; a sniper posted in a building overlooking a city street takes comfort in the arbitrary rules he creates to choose his targets; a husband and wife who have been brutalized in detention centers pick up the pieces of their marriage.
The characters in Stillness are caught up in forces not of their own making. Rather than being uniformly powerless, however, they create choices where none should logically exist, and by doing so they defy the challenge of war. Brkic, who was a researcher and translator in Croatia, and a forensic archeologist in Bosnia-Herzegovina after the war, has written a powerful work of the imagination that somehow illuminates unimaginable events.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
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About the Author
Courtney Angela Brkic has worked for the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague and for Physicians for Human Rights. She is a graduate of the NYU M.F.A. program and divides her time between Arlington, Virginia, and New York City.
Courtney Angela Brkic is the author of Stillness, for which she won the prestigious Whiting Award, and The Stone Fields. She has worked for the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague and for Physicians for Human Rights. She lives in Ohio.
Read an Excerpt
And Other Stories
By Courtney Angela Brkic
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2003 Courtney Angela Brkic
All rights reserved.
In the Jasmine Shade
ON THE LAST MORNING of that other life, the air had seemed sharp as she awoke, as if she were looking through a lens designed to bring everything into searing focus. There was none of the usual grogginess that accompanied waking, nor did she turn and huddle closer to her husband's warmth, hoping to regain the dream landscape from which she had just emerged. She could not remember dreaming at all and lay with her eyes open wide.
Listening, she realized that the shelling and gunfire which had torn the silence of the past several weeks had come to a halt. The morning was conspicuous in its quiet, lending painful clarity to details in the room which she would not ordinarily have noticed. Wall and ceiling met in a crease that caused an ache in her chest, and she lowered her gaze to the pictures on the opposite wall and the books stacked on the heavy wooden armoire. Despite the lowered blinds, which made shadows cling to the floor and corners like a low-slung fog, she was able to read their titles.
Marko stirred beside her and she turned onto her side, watching as he became still again, his eyelashes like dark wings against the paleness of his face. Marko, she mouthed, watching his chest rise and fall. She held a hand in front of his face, near enough to feel a faint exhalation. Careful not to wake him, she closed her fingers like the petals of a flower over the warmth of his breath. What's going to happen now?
His eyes had opened in the half-light, as if aware that his wife's hand hovered over his face. His expression as he watched her was so somber that for a moment she tasted something like burning paper as a slow, sad fire rose in her throat.
But then he smiled, rolling her gently onto her back, and lowered his face to her ear. The scent of burning receded and she could feel the brush of his lips against her neck, moving to form the letters of her name. Lejla.
Yesterday's decision to spend the last night in their bed had come after weeks of sleeping on an old mattress in the cellar. They somehow knew that it would be the last night. The shelling had stopped. A sharp-edged moon observed them in the darkness of their room until Lejla lowered the blind, watching the plastic fall past the reflection of her own stricken eyes.
She had not been able to tell Marko about the baby after she slid into bed beside him, nor any of the times that night when he had awakened only to find her feigning sleep, her face wet with tears that she let slip onto her pillow. Nor even the next morning, when she had come so suddenly awake.
Then there had been no time for her to tell him before being "evacuated" from the house. She packed only one bag for them both, mechanically filling it with clothing and food. Opening her jewelry box, she wrapped necklaces and rings in a cloth, placing the bundle at the bottom of the bag beneath some heels of bread. The deutsche marks that she kept in a tin over the refrigerator went into the waistband of her stockings. Before they left the house, she handed Marko his woolen hat. He took it and the bag without saying anything.
And there was little time to talk when they were ordered out onto the road, Marko walking beside her, linking his arm in hers. She had come close, though, before he unwittingly deflected her confession.
"You were right, mila. It wasn't the right time." His voice was flat and she became uncertain.
Trucks speeding past them spat gravel from beneath thick tires and they could see people standing in the beds, crammed against the sideboards. Each time a truck passed, Lejla scanned the faces for someone she knew, for her parents or for Marko's.
Several times she thought she heard a timid voice call out to her: Lejla! But each time she looked up, she was unable to find its source. Marko, walking silently beside her, seemed not to have noticed.
Nearing the middle of town, they could see people converging on the old mosque. It had been converted into a "collection center," the sterile phrase which men had been repeating through megaphones all along the road to town.
In the courtyard stood an old stone fountain where the faithful washed their feet. Years ago, an art historian had come from Sarajevo to take pictures of it. His article later appeared in a Western journal with glossy color photographs of the mosque's courtyard. There was one of the fountain, green climbing vines wreathing a stone canopy, which Lejla had clipped and kept in a notebook at home.
Now she climbed the steps in her shoes, her face rigid as she stepped over the threshold. She had not been in the mosque since childhood. But, in stepping onto the richly colored rugs, she swayed suddenly, stabbed through by a memory of her grandmother, who had prayed five times a day until her death. Even when arthritis had buckled her legs and she was unable to pray comfortably on the floor, she would place her prayer rug on the kitchen table and, seated, bend to rest her forehead against it. Playing under the table, Lejla would grow quiet for this ceremony.
I prayed with you then, she remembered. Crouched at her grandmother's feet, eyelids shut tight, she would flutter her lips in imitation of the old woman. She had not known the words to the prayers, had not even known that the faint whispers from above represented language in any regular sense. But she had been earnest in her emulation, returning to her conversations with dolls only once she heard the chair being pushed back from the table.
Inside the mosque, she and Marko were ushered to a table where a humorless woman sat, a thick stack of computer printouts before her. She found their names on the list and slid a piece of paper across the table to them.
"Sign here." She indicated a line on the paper. "And then you'll be processed and sent to Germany on the next convoy."
Lejla lowered her head and read aloud. "We the undersigned surrender all our property ..."
She trailed off, looking at Marko as the woman tapped her pen against the table impatiently. The document was illegal, Lejla knew. But the city would be under occupation now, anyway. If it was ever freed, the paper would mean nothing. If it was not, they would be unable to live there.
Lejla signed after Marko. She made the L big, so that her sloping script joined her name to the blocky letters of his.
They began pushing men to one side of the mosque and women to the other.
She clung to Marko's hand until the last possible minute. "Marko ..."
"It will be all right," he told her, but she could see that he was far from sure.
A woman started to cry behind them.
He touched the dark braid that hung across her shoulder. She wore her hair in one plait when she was at home, cooking or reading the newspaper with him on their bed. He liked to hold the braid in his hand, unraveling it as he kissed her.
"Zamirisa kosa, ko zumbuli plavi," he sang under his breath in the middle of the crowded mosque. "The smell of her hair, like blue hyacinth."
A roar like a forest fire rose through her chest. "There's something ..." she started wildly.
But a new group of men, dressed in camouflage, had entered the mosque. They flowed through the bewildered people like a river, running between them and around them and stranding them like human islands. She herself was carried away, twisting to look over her shoulder to where Marko had been standing. But a soldier directly behind her pushed her so that she almost fell, and Marko was gone.
She could hear snatches from the low conversations of the newly arrived men. Some of the men in camouflage she recognized from town. Others were old classmates from high school. She saw her math teacher, and when they made eye contact, she thought that he was about to call out to her. Instead he turned his back and started talking quietly with the men next to him. A moment later they burst into laughter.
There were men who owned businesses in town and even neighbors. But they looked through her as if she had been away for years and had returned with another's face.
"This is the way you usually do it," she heard one slurred voice say as the separation continued. And as she joined the group of women, she realized that some of the uniformed men were drunk. She could smell the rakija, the odor so sweet and sickening that it yellowed the air in front of her.
Lejla looked at the swirling room around her, detached enough to feel as if she stood in the eye of the storm. She tried to find the familiar shape of Marko's lowered head, the shirt he was wearing which she had ironed only days before. But she was surrounded by a crowd of bewildered faces, a kaleidoscope of gray skin and unhappy eyes.
"Lejla!" A voice called out to her, and she turned to see Marko's sister, Mira, pushing through the crowd.
"Where's Marko?" her sister-in-law asked. Lejla noticed that the woman's wide black pupils were static. She wondered if her own eyes had that center of frightened black.
"He's over there with the other men. Where's your father? Have you seen mine?"
Mira shook her head. "I don't know. We were separated before we ever got into the trucks." Her eyes filled with tears, and she was carried in one direction by the shoving of the crowd, pressed hard against the wall.
Lejla was about to grab her sleeve to prevent their separation when another commotion started beside her. An older woman had a desperate hold on her son's hand. "He's only a child!" she wailed. "He should stay with me!"
The uniformed men closed in around her, dragging the startledlooking youth away into the crowd. The woman's sobs hovered over the heads in the mosque.
"For the love of God," another woman pleaded. "Be quiet. You're going to make it worse for him. For all of us."
A man had climbed onto a chair near the doorway, and began to speak through a megaphone. "Listen to me. You will all be reunited once we take down some information. We are only separating you because we hope to exchange some of your men for our prisoners ..."
The people in the mosque looked at one another.
The man with the megaphone went on, "We need to draw up lists of men for the exchange, and women will be sent in trucks directly to your people on the other side of the lines. We will not harm any of you, but you must cooperate."
And then, suddenly, they were being herded toward the mosque doors.
"Lejla!" It was her sister, Emina, pushing her way through the surging crowd. Their mother was behind her, hanging on to the belt loop of Emina's jeans.
Lejla began to cry, and the three of them held on to each other, all the while being pushed outside, toward several trucks that were lined up on the street.
When it was their turn to clamber into one of the trucks, they pushed their mother up from behind. Lejla was about to give her sister a hand up when a man stepped out of the line of soldiers overseeing the loading.
"Not you two," he said curtly.
Their mother began to shriek, but another man stepped out to lift the gate of the truck. He struck the metal with the flat of his hand, making a hollow sound that seemed to vibrate in Lejla's rib cage like the ringing of a deep bell. The truck lurched forward, and Lejla could see her mother's frantic face over the side.
"Lejla! Emina!" she was shrieking.
The two younger women were dragged to another truck and pushed up roughly. Together they landed in the truck bed, where other women helped them sit up. When the truck was full, a tarp was lowered and they were sealed in complete darkness, filled with the sound of weeping. But even then Lejla could hear the timid inflections above the sobs of the other women. She covered her belly with her hands, listening to the little voice.
Will you tell our children how their father had to walk eight kilometers to see their mother every night? Marko had asked when they both finished university and began courting.
Lejla's father would not allow her to go into town to meet him. If he wants to see you, he can walk out here. And, doubting his intentions, had likewise doubted that his visits would occur with any regularity.
Young people are lazy, she overheard him telling her mother. He'll tire soon enough.
Lejla had protested. He doesn't have a car.
All the better, her father had retorted.
But each evening Marko had appeared in their yard, asking Lejla if she would like to take a walk.
A walk, her father would snort from behind his newspaper. Haven't you walked enough?
Their wedding lasted until morning. It was summertime and people crowded the town hall, singing, drinking, and spilling out onto the street. Her father toasted the couple, his voice growing gruff as he recounted Marko's persistence. "I said to myself, This boy ..." He lifted his glass with an impish expression. "This boy I want for a son."
And the wedding guests, many of whom had witnessed Marko trotting through snow, rain, and wind, dissolved into laughter.
Later, she watched Emina, who was then still in school, whirl past in a cloud with her sweetheart Suad. He was a tall, shy boy, but on that night his face was flushed and his eyes bright.
When they were all exhausted from dancing and a little drunk, one of Marko's cousins started teasing Lejla's younger sister, breaking into song about another Emina. The song, from a poem by Aleksa anti, tells the story of a man who passes a jasmine-filled garden where a young woman is filling a watering can. Awed by the girl's beauty and grace, he calls out to her. But she will have nothing to do with him and his love goes unrequited.
Emina had reddened at the words, and someone slapped Suad on the back. But a strange quiet soon descended on the crowd and Lejla became uneasy listening to the song ...Slalomljen je ibrik, uvelo je cvijece ... The watering can is broken, the garden overgrown ... The old poet is dead. Lejla's hand twitched violently, nearly overturning a wineglass. And Emino has died.
"This is a wedding, not a funeral!" someone shouted in protest, and the musicians roused themselves to start another song. People began to dance once again and Marko kissed away her frown, laughing as people started to whistle.
From the truck the women were led into a concrete building, down a corridor and into a windowless, unlit storage room. She and Emina sat on the cement floor, their backs against a wall.
Lejla leaned her head against the hard, rough surface, the conversations floating around her like birds in a children's cartoon. Every once in a while one would flutter near enough that a few words penetrated her fog.
"I didn't see him in the line ..."
"... they're dead ..."
"... cousins in Germany ..."
She and Marko had been trying to have a baby for a year, ever since the war had started in neighboring Croatia. Marko's was one of the few Croatian families in the town, and his older brother had left to join the fight. Things would be harder on Marko, wherever they had taken him.
"It's not the right time," she had told him at first. "Who knows what is going to happen. It's wrong to bring a baby into this."
But she had not convinced him. "Lejla," he had told her, "it's never the right time. Let's just let nature take its course."
Not getting pregnant had both disappointed and relieved her. But on the day that the Crisis Committee formed, staffed exclusively by Serbs who had uniformed themselves overnight, she realized that she had not menstruated in six weeks.
She had not told Marko in those first weeks. She had wanted to be sure. There was almost no morning sickness, and she did not want to raise his hopes. Later, she had not wanted to burden him more than he already was.
He doesn't even know, a voice wailed inside her head, but she quieted it immediately. She would tell him when they were reunited in Croatia or Germany, or wherever they were going. They had all been promised safe passage out of Bosnia.
That night they took three teenage girls out of the room. The girls, whose names had been called from a piece of paper, had risen uncertainly to their feet. Lejla recognized two of them as the imam's daughters. She could hear music and men's laughter from the other side of the door.
A stunned silence descended on the women when the door slammed shut and darkness again covered them.
"Maybe they're going to be freed in an exchange," one voice whispered tremulously, breaking the silence.
Someone from the other end of the room snorted loudly. "Don't be stupid."
When the door opened hours later, two of the girls were thrown back into the room. The music reached a dizzying pitch, making the air in front of Lejla's eyes vibrate as she blinked from the sudden light.
The sound of the two girls crying had gone on for a long time.
Lejla pulled her knees to her chest and leaned her forehead against them. When she felt Emina shivering beside her, she straightened, putting an arm around her sister's shoulders.
Excerpted from Stillness by Courtney Angela Brkic. Copyright © 2003 Courtney Angela Brkic. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
In the Jasmine Shade
The Angled City
The Fertile Ground
We Will Sleep in One Nest
Where None Is the Number