BLOOD OF MONTENEGRO
Bajram Angelo Koljenovic
James Nathan Post
The history of my people is written in blood. Yes, I know the history of the world is written in blood, but in the land of my people, the pen of history has scrawled an epic tragedy in the tongues of Babel, a story even today plunging forward on bloody new pages.
Who are my people, then? That has been the question, and the problem, for centuries. I am Montenegrin by my family homeplace, Yugoslavian by birth, American now by citizenship, and a Muslim by the grace of God. Some who share my homeland are Catholic, some Orthodox, and some Jewish. Some who live near where my family come from call themselves Albanian, some Bosnian, Kosovor, Serbs, or Croats. Some trace their root lines to Istanbul, to Greece, or to the northlands of the Danube. Some have been in this place as long as records and legends go back. We have changed our borders like a web repaired by spiders again and again after storms and fires rend it apart. We have changed kings and empires, and changed languages, and changed religions, and changed loyalties a hundred times. With each change we have clung to the past, struggling to progress beyond what we struggle to preserve. Every change has aligned us against ourselves, and we have bathed in our blood this land that could be heaven, the heartland of the world, the rugged and fertile peninsula called the Balkans.
We have been bound to the Roman Empire on the west, the Ottoman Empire to the east, and the Habsburgs to the north. Likewise we are bound to the Vatican, to the Orthodox capital in Istanbul, and to Mecca, and Jerusalem. In trade and in war, we hold the crossroad between Asia and Europe. With the recent introduction of the strange new concept of political nationalism, we are moved or bound by communism, fascism, capitalism, and liberalism. Like the gearwheels of a clockwork universe, these global influences are hurled into motion by events in our hills and valleys, and we are then driven by the implacable power of their motions. In the center of it, like a tiny blood red ruby, the unyielding emptiness that bears the weight and holds the balance of it all, is Montenegro.
One ought to start a story at the beginning, to be most sensible. But where is such a point to be found? My story had begun long before I was born, and though of course it tells something of the story, my own youth is only a detail in the tangled warp of threads which make up the tapestry into which it is woven. For me, however, there is a time from which I have since measured all that has happened. It was the end of my youth.
It was early in the winter of 1962, and I was a schoolboy of eleven, living in the mountain village of Gusinje. I rose long before the sun, and two of my older sisters, Nadira and Nurka, helped me to dress and fixed me a breakfast so I could leave for school by seven o'clock. That morning I had milk and cornbread, which was a great pleasure to me. Most of the time we did not have that, but only a little bread with salt water, or a bit of Bulgarian cheese. To have a bowl of milk, and rich warm cornbread was a special treat.
My friends Bobo, Elas, and Saban were waiting for me when I finished eating, and we departed together for the walk to school five kilometers across town. It was misty that morning, I remember well, as tatters of fog lay along the hollow places, and a thin mist of rain settled, not really falling, upon us as we ran laughing past the cornfields and orchards. Even then I knew our little valley was an especially beautiful place, and we ran around the trees, racing and chasing each other like little goats. Some of the trees were huge and ancient, gnarled and spreading, and had such character that we gave them names, like The Old Wizard, The Apple Dragon, and the biggest and darkest of all, the mighty walnut tree Karadjordje, "Black George", named for the ancient patriarch we studied in history class. Each tree we knew by its fruit, and we praised the ones which provided to us the sweetest plump golden cherries, the juiciest apples, the most delicious pears, each in its season like all the other things in our lives. Likewise each had its own stark bare signature against the overhanging darkness of the winter sky.
By the time we got to school we were soaking wet, and though we hanged our coats and set our shoes in a warm dry place in the schoolhouse, they were only just drying out when we put them back on in the afternoon to run home. All of us had overshoes, but they were made of rubber, and most had holes. Cold feet were simply part of life, and when we were having fun, we didn't care.
Though we were Muslim, we knew the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox Serbs celebrated their holidays when the days of the year were shortest, and we hurried to be home before the early dusk. As communists, we understood that nobody was supposed to officially celebrate any religious holiday, but of course, everyone did anyway. The clouds hung dark over us that afternoon, dark like they were angry, and they shed a heavier mist, almost warm, almost a real rain, very unusual for that time of year. The cornfields had been picked, but people were still in the fields, gleaning the last of the stalks, taking the entire stalks and binding them into bundles with twisted branches and sticks. They would take them home, pick out every cob, and then cut the stalks up to feed the animals during the hard months. We always greeted the people working in the fields, who were after all our friends and relatives.
A kilometer from the school was a small bridge which crossed a narrow place in the stream called Vruja. We boys raced happily to it, hooting and cheering, my friends and I shoving and pulling each other to be first. I was smaller than the other boys, but faster, and as usual, I was the first to arrive at the bridge, and first to pick up a rock and try to hit the fish we could always see below us. We always had lots to talk about, and we always found our time filled with the games we created for ourselves to play. We had no special equipment, no manufactured toys, but we did not miss them as we made spears and bows and arrows of sticks and pieces of string we found, and endlessly enjoyed pretending to be the Indians we heard about in the faraway fantasy land of California.
It was after five o'clock when I arrived home that day, and a heavy rain had begun to fall in earnest, with great crashes of thunder. I ran the last hundred meters to my house, and was surprised to see that all the lights on the broad front porch, and in our smaller guest house, and all through the main house were burning brightly. I rushed inside and found my father, and I was stopped short by his appearance.
My father Halim Koljenovic was a respected and influential man in the community, godfather to the zadruga, our extended family, and an officer in the communist government of Josip Tito, so I was accustomed to seeing the weight of his responsibilities reflected in his face. But I had never before seen such a look, such depth of pain, as on that day. My father was without question the most respected and influential person in my life. I was his oldest son, the first boy after four girls, and he and I were very close, not only as a father and son, but also as close friends. When I looked at him, I always had to lower my eyes, because I had such respect for him. If I had done something wrong, or if I thought I had done something wrong, I always wished he would just yell at me, or grab me, or beat me, just so it would be over with, and I could go do the things that children did. He was never like that, though. He never yelled, never lost himself in violence with me or my brothers and sisters, but was always thoughtful and understanding. He always sat down with us and talked to us, until the truth was bare, and we were honest and contrite. Sometimes that was much harder than a simple beating would ever have been. When I saw his face that day, my heart fell in my chest, and I approached him with trembling.
"What is it, Dad?" I asked him. "Have I done something wrong?"
"No, no, my son," he said to me, and he quickly embraced me. "I am sorry to frighten you, but I was thinking of something I need to talk to you about. Please come in and sit down with me."
I didn't see my mother or my sisters anywhere around, so I asked him, "Dad, is Mom all right?"
"Come," he said. "Come follow me. It is about your mother, Son." He reached to put his hand on my shoulder, and when he touched me, it was as though he had struck me. I knew the truth. I could not speak it, or even let myself admit that I knew. He turned his face to the storm and it seemed the sky and the earth had suddenly fallen together. The rain swept down upon us standing at the door, and thunder crashed without stopping.
I let him turn my shoulder, and we stepped into the small guest house, a single room with a packed earth floor. Without a word, I followed him. Though the sound of the rain, and the wind, and thunder could still be heard raging muted around us, there was a reverent calm there in that dim and simple quarter, like the center of the storm. Still the tattered fog had found its way into the room, and the air hung heavy and wet, like in a bathhouse.
"It's very hot," my father said.
"Yes," I replied, "if you keep the oven going, it will eat up the moisture, as you have always said." I took off my jacket, and I looked around the room. There were the four walls, and only a few nails in them for the purpose of hanging coats and umbrellas. "May I help you with your jacket?" I asked him.
He sighed wistfully, as another time perhaps he might smile in bittersweet nostalgia. "Your mother has always helped me with my jacket."
I hung his jacket beside mine on the nails, and I put another piece of wood into the stove. Then I stood before him and looked at him, waiting for him to tell me what I knew he had to tell me.
"When you lose the tree you have learned to lean upon to grow, you must then learn to rise up by yourself. You must become like the tree yourself, to replace what you have lost. No one can promise you anything, Bajram, not even one more day. All I can give you is to raise you the best I can, to give you everything I can, the best. Just remember, here in this place we don't even know what the best is. We don't have much, so we don't miss much."
We don't know what we're missing, so we don't miss it. That is what he told me, as though it were more merciful that way. I knew far less of the world than he, of course, but enough to recognize that the walls of his house were empty, and enough to see in his patient anguish that was a burden upon his heart. He had no modern appliances, there were few public services, and his wife's house had no stylish furniture or bright and comfortable rugs. As for medical care, guaranteed to all by the benevolent Communist state, well, we had seen the face of that gorgon all too well the last year.
"Your mother is going to die," he said to me. "Yes, it's done. You know what that means? When all this is over, when this... happens, I need you to be strong. You are going to have to take care of your sisters, and your brothers, and be the man. I must go away to work to pay the bills, your mother's hospital bills. You must..."
I went to him, to my father, and I hugged him. He picked me up with his arm, strong and tender even in his grief. "Remember that I told you we must always be strong to survive, but we are all here on the earth, and we all have to leave someday. I want you to go upstairs and see your mother. She was asking for you, and it's already been too long you haven't been up there. Now be strong, and don't let her see you cry."
I looked into his eyes, and we knew we shared the same sad conviction. "Yes, Father. Of course I will go," I said. I started to go upstairs, then paused halfway, and turned around. He picked up his tobacco and began to roll a cigarette, taking deep controlled breaths. I could feel the weight and pressure of those breaths like some thick fluid moving in the room, and I could feel the emotion they struggled to contain as he focused his will upon the task of rolling that tiny piece of paper without tearing it apart or spilling a shred. I understood. He wanted me to know how hard it was for him to tell me, and not let me see him cry. "Is Auntie Zuma here too, and Grandma Bahta and Grandpa Ebrahim?" I asked him.
"Yes, they are all upstairs," he said, and he gave me a nod. It was just a nod, but it meant a lot shared between us. If I had been a child, he might have taken my hand, and walked with me.
I climbed the stairs and opened the door to a room filled with smoke. The room was full of people, and all of them were smoking fat cigarettes. That was not unusual, as everybody smoked all the time in those days, but even then it was the thing that struck me first as I looked around the room. It seemed the clutching and holding, the little gestures, and the punctuation of their speech with each draw and puff were the substance of an unspoken reassurance they shared, like cavemen passing a glowing stick around to keep the fire through a dark cold night. There were many people in the house, but all looked lost to me. Everybody was talking, but nobody was listening. They turned to look at me when I came in, and for an instant they all stopped talking, as though each had been just marking time, making conversation, waiting for the moment each dreaded to face.
"Good afternoon, everybody," I said, and then everybody wanted to be the first to greet and console me. Everybody wanted to touch me, to put an arm around my shoulders, to give me a hug. Each one wanted to tell me how sorry she was, to help me, to reassure me, but I felt that I was the one who had to reassure each of them, to make sure that none of them was left out.
I was an active boy, and always involved in what my family was doing, but I was personally very shy, and not outgoing in conversation. Though I enjoyed family things, and the games we boys played, I almost never talked about things with anyone. If there was no particular reason for me to do so, I almost never talked at all. I had my own thoughts, my own ideas, but if no one asked me about something, I would never speak about it. I had my own way of playing, and of feeling happy, or sorry, or sad. Maybe more important, I knew I had that private place inside, and I guarded it. I even wondered if other people had such a place where they were hiding behind their schoolbooks and their moustaches, but I never went looking for them, or asked about them.
My sister Nadira greeted me cheerfully. She always knew how to find me, no matter how deep I was hiding behind my eyes. I noticed as she came toward me how blue her eyes were, and how much her long golden hair looked like my mother's. She kissed me hard on both cheeks, mmm-smack, mmm-smack, and then mussed up my wet hair. "Bajram, you silly boy, you're all wet. If you don't stop running in the rain, you're going to catch cold. Then what's going to happen to you?"
I had to laugh, forgetting myself for just a moment. "I got home out of the rain first," I pointed out.
"You are always the fastest," she agreed.
I crossed the room as bravely as I could, and stepped up the staircase - a ladder, actually - from the front room up to the master room where my mother was lying. To my right I saw her bed, strangely lighted by the lantern which had been set up on the shelf behind, like a grotto in an ancient church. To the left were four deep Ottoman-style windows. The walls of our house were almost one meter thick, so if you wanted to look out of a window, you would have to lean half your length into the space. All I could see through the windows was darkness in motion, and slashes of rain against the glass. The sound of it, the droning drumroll on the tile roof, the howling of wind in the bare tree branches, and the rumble of it up under the eaves was muted, but enclosing, like the prayer of tormented souls in a deep vaulted temple.
"Bajram," she said. "It's you." I saw she was very alert, and she looked at me and shook her head. "Where have you been? Didn't you know your poor mother is sick today? Didn't you know you should have been home early? And now look at you. You're all wet, and just filthy. You go get your sister to clean you up, and then you come back up here."
I was a little taken back by that, and I started to turn around, and to look to my sister. Then I stopped, and I went over to her bed and I kissed her on both of her cheeks like it was any day. She put her arms around me, and swung me down to the bed, and rocked me back and forth. "Come lie here with me for a minute, will you? That's good." Then after a minute or so, she asked, "How is your school, Bajram? Are you still getting into fights?"
"No, Mama, nobody got into any fights at school today. There was nobody to fight."
"What do you mean, there was nobody to fight?"
"Do you remember our teacher, Momo Papovic? He was our teacher today, and when he is the teacher, nobody fights. There is no way anybody is going to start a fight, because he is going to be the one to finish it."
"God bless him," she said with a little laugh. "He can put you guys all straight."
She was like that too. She had a tone in her voice that was not demanding, not commanding, but let everyone know she was someone to be respected. When she had something to say, it wasn't just me, but all the children, every cousin, and all of the older men and women who set aside whatever they were doing, to listen to her. She had been a teacher, and had tutored most of the children in the village in mathematics. I learned enough arithmetic to take care of business and do the things I wanted to, but she knew how to use all the rules of mathematics and physics, or so it seemed to me. How she learned all those things had always been beyond my imagination and understanding, as I knew she never went even one day to school.
"Did your father tell you that two important men came to see me today?" she asked me.
"No," I told her. "What kind of men, Mom?"
"Ah. He hasn't told you then. Well, you see, there were two fine gentlemen here this morning, very early this morning, just after you left for school. They told your father to tell everyone that they will be back for me, and so they should clean me up so I can look good when they come back. They should clean me up, and brush my hair, and cut my nails and everything, because I am going on a trip."
I was surprised to hear make up a story for me, but I saw in her eyes a simple compassion, so I asked innocently, "Mom, what are you talking about?"
"Don't you understand, my baby? The two gentlemen are from Heaven. They are the ones who come to tell people like me to go where I am supposed to go, where I belong. You know what I mean, don't you?"
Frightened by the reality of it, I nodded wordlessly.
"I am no use here any more," she said with straightforward practicality. "I am very sick, and there is nothing I can do for anyone. I can't comb your hair, do your homework, or slap your ears when you do stupid things, nothing. But you will be all right, I know. So you go downstairs now, and be a good boy, and let your sisters take care of everything today, do you hear me?"
I nodded, and squeezed her hand, and I kissed her forehead, and I let my sister take my hand and lead me away from the bed. That was the first time I noticed my grandparents sitting in the shadows in the room.
"Bajram, come here," my Grandpa said. He was a large and strong man, very warm and affectionate with those dear to him, and brutally stern with those who offended him. He picked me up and sat me on his knee, which was strange as I was almost as tall as he. He kissed me on the cheek, and he said, "You're a good one, Bajram. You're going to come and live with us."
"Come on, Grandpa Ebrahim, I'm over at your house every day already," I protested. "I'm always coming over to stay there. I love your big beautiful house. But I've got a lot to do here, you know."
For some reason that made my Grandma Bahta break into tears, and my Grandpa put his arm around her shoulders. "Come now, what's this?" he asked softly. "What is there to cry about?"
"It's nothing," she said. "It's nothing, really."
My aunt Zuma came to get me, to take me downstairs to clean me up in the guest house. I changed my clothes, brushed my hair, and resigned myself to the evening. All night long people came to visit, and then left into the bitter storm. The rain quit after a while, and then snow began to fall, and the faces I saw passing through the room grew more and more grim. The house became deadly quiet, except for the softly mumbled greetings, and condolences, and perhaps private eulogy. The lights were kept low, low enough that faces took on a glow with each puff on the ever-present cigarettes. The rooms were filled with a dark haze of smoke, as the hours were passed cigarette by cigarette. Someone opened a window to the silent snowfall, but still the room was filled with the reassuring smoke, dark and muddy gray like a Humphrey Bogart movie.
Then, "Bajram, Bajram," my Grandma Bahta called out, "you have to come to see your mother now."
I heard the urgency in her voice, and I knew what she meant, but I did not want to go. I understood of course what dying meant, and that my mother was leaving, and I would never see her again. I understood that, but until then I had always understood that like it was just another word, like, well, your cousin died, or your friend's uncle died, and you were sad, of course, because you were not going to see them again. I also understood that I still had my father, and my family, and myself, and that meant I was not alone, and life was going to go on. I understood that, but at that moment I knew an aloneness I had never before experienced. I was my father's son, would always be my father's son, but I was my own man then.
Everyone kept telling me to do this, do that, come here, go there, bring that, take this, and go see your mother because you are not going to see her again. I wanted to do what I felt like doing, as my own emotions led me. I climbed down the ladder and went to the stove, and stood beside it a moment. Then I opened it and started putting in one piece of wood after another, punching it in with the iron poker. Fire has a special magic to the angry. If you stare into it long enough, you can see things, and they can hypnotize you, and make you wish for what you should hope you never get.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, and turned to see my Uncle Ramo. He had always been my idol, the man I looked up to most besides my father, a tall handsome man with dark golden-brown hair, two hundred pounds of muscle, like Steve Reeves, our favorite matinee hero. "What are you doing?" he asked me. "You crazy mad or something? You're not going to give me a hug?"
That was good to hear. I turned from the flames and hugged him warmly. "Hey, don't you worry, everything is going to be all right," he said, "not easy, but all right. I'll always be here for you, OK." He smacked me on the butt and picked up his jacket to leave. "I'll be back," he said.
I crept behind the ladder which led up to my mother's room, and I made myself very small there. It was a place where I could slip in, being small and skinny, and find a certain sanctuary, a place from which I could peer through the treads of the ladder, and see what was going on without the vulnerability of being seen. Above me, I could just see my mother's bed, and the legs of the people close around it. Higher above was the opening into the attic space beneath the high steeply pitched roof. The smoke from the cigarettes and the cold moistness of the night air made a fog in the shadows there. Someone near the bed kept saying, "Bajram, come here, come here," but I did not move. I would not go in.
Then in a moment I heard a cry from my grandmother, and from my sister Nurka, who came quickly from the room with her hands over her face. There before me I saw my aunt, my uncles, my sisters, and my father crying and lamenting. I stayed behind the ladder, watching them. I did not cry. I was somewhere beyond crying, adrift in a world of numbness. All of those people, my people, my family, seemed somehow distant and unreal to me as I watched them in the horror of my solitude. I watched them light new cigarettes, and listened to them pass their reassurances back and forth.
"Yes, she has died, and did you see her? She looked just like an angel when she passed away."
"Oh, yes, and what a blessing that she died on the day of Abraham's sacrifice, when God sent the ram to feed the hungry instead of killing his son. What a special day to die."
"Yes, it is sure she will go to Heaven. This is the day that people will go to Heaven."
I could not cry, but I wanted very much to have the attention of my father. I needed his attention to bring me back to the reality of my life, to stop me from drifting into unreality. I wanted the attention of my uncles, my aunt, and my sisters. I wanted to cry out to the world, to catch the attention of anybody, but my cry was kept inside, and nobody heard me.
As the sun came up, people stepped outside, puffing great plumes of cigarette smoke and misted breath into the cold, clear morning. Up the valley to the east, toward Pec, in Kosovo, a few clouds still clung to the high tops of the hills, and the light of the sun coming up behind them was the most brilliant gold and red, and the sky above the sharpest blue.
"Look what a day! After last night, look at this," I heard my aunt call out with a laugh. "I told you this was a special day. This is for her, her special day, God rest her good and beautiful soul."
Still no one had said a personal word to me, for which I was both resentful and thankful. Everyone in the family came to pay their respects. I watched them come and go, and I said nothing to them. My uncles, Omar and Zumber, and their sons, handsome cheerful boys in their twenties, hugged my shoulders, and then went on with their joking, enjoying the bright sunlit beauty of the light new snow. Each had gone up to see her, had come back, and was ready to go on with the events of the day.
Our house was separated into two parts, and in the second lower room I found solitude, except for my uncle's hunting dog, which came up and licked my hands and face. I sat down on the floor and put my arms around the dog, and I started to cry. Nobody saw me. Nobody heard me. I sat on the floor without a rug and looked at the bare walls of the room, empty but for the stove in the middle, and I tried to let myself have whatever was to be gained by submitting to my grief. The dog looked very sympathetic, and he whined and licked my face, and it was clear to me there was no relief to be found in maudlin self-indulgence. So I patted his head to reassure him, and I stood up and went to the stove and made myself a cup of hot chamomile tea. It was a move that surprised me, as I had never done it before. I had always been served tea by my mother, or by one of my sisters.
My Great-grandmother Lela came in from the cold, and smiled to see what I was doing. "Oh, how nice of you, Bajram," she said with a smile. "May I come in and share some tea with you?" She was almost one hundred years old, or perhaps older than one hundred, a tiny little woman with only one tooth left, one tooth that seemed an inch long in her empty mouth. Her skin was wrinkled into a million tiny crevices, their contours changing deeply with every change of her expression, as though she wore a succession of sculpted theater masks.
"Of course, Grandma Lela," I said, and added dumbly, "I made it myself."
"I see you did," she said. "I see you are grown up now. Oh, I know you have always been grown up, always the quiet serious one, but now you are made grown up by the world too."
She tried to smile, as though to be the strong one for me, but she was the one who began to cry, and I held her in my arms.
"A man does not cry," my mother had always told me. "Only weak men cry. The strong man cries on the inside, because his heart must be very big to be strong, but he does not shed a tear. A man who sheds tears in front of a woman, in front of children, or in front of people, cannot be a leader. It means he is too passionate, too emotional, and he cannot see clearly enough to be a leader. You must never let me see you cry."
So I shed no tears for my mother. I sat with my great-grandmother, and we drank tea together, and I shed no tears.
"What shall we talk about then, young Bajram?" she asked me, when she could smile again. "Do you want me to tell you again about the old witch who lost her thumbs?"
I had to laugh. What a wise old woman. Grandma Lela often had been scolded by my mother for telling us children the most horrifying stories, terrifying folk tales and legends, about the most gruesome deaths. The most dark and grisly of them had always been my favorites. "Grandma, you can't scare me any more," I declared. "Just as you said, I have grown up."
As I said, even as a boy I was a person with a very solitary viewpoint, especially for one from a large family in a communist country. Though I knew little of what made communism different from other government, I had already come to dislike the implacable and impersonal mindlessness of the bureaucratic authoritarian way of doing things. As a student of the public school, I was prepared to behave as a patriotic Yugoslavian, yet still there was a part of me watching from inside that understood such things are like games, a kind of grand lets-pretend. The funeral of my mother, and the events leading up to it, did much to confirm my distrust of social institutions, and my suspicion that civil customs and traditions do not by themselves make people civil.
My father was a man of some station in Gusinje, and in Podgorica, the capital city of Montenegro, and in Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia. I knew little about that at the time, but enough to know that as a military and political leader during World War II, a friend from the old Partisan days of Marshal Tito, and a local officer in his Communist Party government, Halim Koljenovic was among the best known Montenegrins in Yugoslavia. No one who could make the trip would fail to attend my mother's funeral, so my aunt and my sisters and the others prepared her body in the traditional way, and placed her on a blanket on the floor in the center of the main room of the house, and they all made ready to receive a large number of people.
In the front yard of the house was a great apple tree, old and twisted, with a thick trunk supporting three wide spreading branches, pruned to allow tables and chairs to be set up in its shade. We set up benches along the side of the shed where the wood for the stoves was stacked, but by midday there were many more people than we could possibly provide seats. Our house had a very large and open yard, as it sat on a hillside a little way from the center of the village. From the yard I could see the tall minaret of the Vezir's Mosque, the red tile rooftops of the houses, and the road leading up the hill from the river bridge to our house. All along the way I could see people coming, walking in small groups up the hill.
Though men and women were hardly segregated in our culture then, there were still certain matters in which their roles were very clearly defined, usually matters of tradition and ceremony. The women of the family, and others who could find space in the room, gathered on the floor around her body, sitting or kneeling together. Each was dressed in her best, and each wore a white shawl around her head and shoulders. Before them my mother lay covered with a beautiful white cloth, embroidered by hand with bright flowers and designs. It was just a simple room, with white plastered walls, and hand-hewn beams above the doorways, but on that day it was a very sacred place. The women had come to grieve, and to lament, and to tell stories of the life of the one who lay before them, whom they respected and loved.
I sat on the stairs outside the door to that room, in a place where I might join the men in greeting those coming up the path, and where I could listen to the women tell about how much she suffered during her long illness, how she suffered to raise her children, and how she suffered the injustices of wars and tragedy. I heard them lament that she was leaving behind her elderly parents, her husband, her children, nieces, and cousins, left them presumably as though to fend for ourselves.
"Life is suffering. God is great. May her soul rest in peace."
My father, my grandfather Ebrahim, and the other men of the family stood in the front yard and greeted each of those who came walking up the long path. Some of them I knew from the village, and others I did not recognize. Though most were dressed in the denims, khakis, and quilted jackets of the working class, a few wore suits like the one my father wore, and I observed that a few of them were treated with great respect and deference by all of the others. I knew very little about my family's political influence in the country, other than that my grandfather had been the friend of King Nicola, and had hidden him in his home after the revolution, and my father had been the friend of Tito, and had helped him to bring communism to Yugoslavia. I also knew that he had resigned from the Communist Party over a disagreement with some powerful people, and had consequently fallen out of favor. The nature of the disagreement I did not know, nor did I consider it important. The result of his falling out of favor with the powerful in the Party was on that day more and more clear to me.
That day all those people came to be seen paying their respect to my mother, and in doing so, to my father also. These were the people of the town, whom my father had served with all his heart in war and in peace, and my mother as well. These were the men in Italian suits, who came from the cities, who sat behind large desks and signed papers shaping others lives. I stood with the men, with my uncles, and my grandfathers, and I shook the hands of those who came, the President of Montenegro, the Chief of Police, the minister of something, a cousin of second knee, that is, twice removed, from Plav. I wanted to simply and politely tell all of them to just go away. I wanted to throw dirt and scream at all of them to just go away. I wanted to blow a siren in their faces and make them all just go away.
I remembered the siren from the same day one year before. That was the day the ambulance came from town to take her to the hospital. She had become terribly ill, and had collapsed. My father called people he had known when he was in office, and he said he was trusting her medical care to the government he had helped to create. "Free of capitalist profiteering, the people's state can easily pay doctors a working wage to provide good medical care to everyone." That was the theory, the hope, and the promise of communism, and theoretically it ought to be true. In practice, of course, that is not how I remember it.
The ambulance had to come twelve kilometers to our house from the clinic in town, in order to take her some sixty kilometers to the little country hospital at Ivangrad. For some reason known only to the driver, he turned on his siren as soon as he began. Hearing a siren was not an everyday thing in Gusinje then, and it could be heard all over the valley, wailing away in the distance. Even having so alerted other drivers, he did not make any attempt to drive faster than normal. There was little traffic to impede him, and he might have been pictured as careening through the muddy streets to arrive in the nick of time. No, he just drove slowly past long blocks of shops built shoulder to shoulder, shuttered and tiled, and past houses with yards and old stone fences, then up the hill, with his siren wailing all the way.
A siren always brings an eerie chill, even if it is just for some stranger across the way, but when you know it is for you, or your family, then that chill is deep in the core of your bones, and fills the heart with horror. The people came out of their houses to see where the ambulance was going, and they stood out on the streets as spectators, waiting for their chance to see it go by. As if it was a carnival truck, or a fire truck, they all came out to follow it up the hill to our house.
There had been lots of rain, and the road there was also the runoff creek, so when it rained, the road washed out. The best vehicle for the job would have been a horse and a big-wheeled buggy, so it was pretty exciting watching the old army truck work its way up the rutted hill. When the two men in the ambulance, an attendant and a driver, stepped out of the truck in front of the house, everybody began to applaud.
"You are the heroes," the people shouted, "heroes who drive to the mountain to save Nurija Koljenovic."
"You should receive a medal," declared one, "or at least a glass of yogurt."
"Yes, and so should we," proclaimed another, "in celebration of our sympathy."
They came trooping in, and they all clucked and chattered their concern, their faith, and their good wishes. Though we were on very restricted government rations then, and we had nothing in the house to feed the family, I remember my sister and my grandmothers bringing out trays with glasses of tea. The atmosphere seemed one of excitement, like a party, a carnival of condolences. Perhaps I look back with a veil of bitterness, and misjudge those whom I remember, but I do not recall that any of them came bringing something to leave with us.
What I saw then has stayed with me all of my life. It was one of those moments that reveal a great truth, and as I saw that truth, I watched my father see it also. I had no idea then how deeply that truth cut him at that moment, but I could see clearly that what happened meant far more to him than what he appeared to have lost.
They wrapped my mother in a blanket, and carried her to the ambulance and laid her in the back. My father went to the driver and shook his hand, and thanked him for his service. The driver shook his hand, and then he said, "You know you have to pay our fee in advance."
"Fee?" My father was taken by surprise. "I'll give you a tip, even though it is looked down upon, but thanks to me and the other veterans, this is a communist country, and my wife's medical care is guaranteed by Marshal Tito himself."
"Of course your wife's medical care is guaranteed by the government," the driver told him, "but we are not doctors. Transportation service is not medical care, and we are entitled to a fee."
"I see," my father said. "How much is the fee?"
Sixty dinars for the trip of sixty kilometers to the hospital at Ivangrad, at my father's rate of pay, would take four weeks to earn. "Does that bring her back home also?" he asked.
When I look back at that moment, I want to scream for everyone to go away, as I wanted to scream for everyone to go away then. He had to go back into the house, while everyone politely looked the other way, and ask his father-in-law for a few dinars, since he didn't have that much with him at the time. He had to walk back to the road while everyone looked the other way, and then give the money to the driver. Then he had to thank him for taking her away.
She was gone for three months. When they got her to the hospital she was almost unconscious. The family had seen her growing ill, but had done nothing to relieve her from family pressures. Her brother Ramo, the big golden Steve Reeves Ramo, got married the previous month, and Nurija was the one expected to carry the weight of the appropriate family celebration. Though she began to suffer a numbing cold, and penetrating headaches, she was there for Ramo every hour for three days and nights, treating him as a brother ought to be treated. Day and night, there was drinking, and eating, and dancing, as two hundred people came and went. She kept them drinking, and eating, and she cleaned up after them, organizing the efforts of the young girls, and enduring the advice of the old women. Ramo's wife was young and very beautiful, full of life and enthusiasm, and happy to have such a party. Ramo was proud to have a sister who would show such respect for the men of her family. My father too, I believe, was pleased that his wife would endure so much to help him to show his own respect for his brother-in-law. Everyone agreed she was the perfect example of the hard-working, self-sacrificing and respectful sister, wife, and mother, and no one failed to praise and thank her.
One minute she was working, cleaning up something, and the next minute she collapsed onto the floor, unable to get to her feet. One minute she was hot as with fever, and the next minute was damp, cold, and clammy. One minute she was dry, and thirsty, and the next minute she was vomiting, and unable to hold down water. If, as I think any sensible person looking back on that day might believe, she was simply suffering from exhaustion, and so had been given rest, and food, and time to sleep and heal, perhaps she might have pulled through on her own strength. Perhaps, on the other hand, she might have died that night, if she had not been taken to the doctors.
I remember a joke I have been told is a classic of Jewish humor. Two people are sitting in a restaurant, having just been served. "This food is inedible," says one. "Yes," the other replies, "and the portions are too small." Likewise I have mixed feelings about what happened to her, and I cannot say whether we got too little, or too much from the government's medical program.
Though the medical service was always free, there was always someone to whom a fee had to be paid for everything. Though the services were guaranteed to everyone, and my father was well known, it seemed every request for help he submitted was held up somewhere on the desk of someone who should have been expected to approve it on sight. I heard talk around the house, between my father and my uncles, that the party officials were taking revenge on him for resigning from the Communist Party, and for calling them unprofessional and ignorant. I don't know if by that he meant to say they were stupid, but uneducated they certainly were. During the 1940's, when Europe had its world war, and the Balkans had their own internal wars also, my father was almost the only person in the town who had an education, and so he was called upon to wear many different hats. Perhaps the Party members he had insulted were paying him back by sending her home still incapacitated after only three months.
Perhaps, on the other hand, they were doing her a favor. When she was returned to the house, she could only just barely walk with the help of two people. She could not take care of herself, could not even roll from one side to the other without help. It could not be said that she received no care in the hospital. The doctors might even have said she received much more than in a capitalist hospital. In addition to a program of injections and drugs which made her groggy, or sick, or delirious, she had endured surgery to her spine and lower brain. Because she had a severe cold, the doctors told my father, she had developed water on her lower brain, which debilitating fluid had to be removed by surgery. They declared her case a priority, and then having operated on her, declared her cured, and sent her home. Perhaps the Party members he had insulted were paying him back by providing such medical service to her, and were letting him off the hook most mercifully by sending her home, lest she be approved for even greater benefits.
She lay on that bed for the rest of the year. Her mattress was made from salvaged livestock feed sacks, on a bed of hard military springs. Even for a healthy person, it was an uncomfortable place to sleep, and there she lay for months, growing thinner and weaker as we turned her from one side to the other, and from front to back. Every week a doctor came to the house to clean the bedsores on her back, and to give her a shot, to give her the free medical care to which she was entitled, and to collect his fee for delivering it. Every week we greeted him happily, and with gratitude for whatever he might have been doing for her, even though he could not tell us what his treatment was intended to do, besides assuring us it was the prescribed medication, and she would suffer more without it.
Yet deep in our hearts, I knew my father and I shared a secret belief that it was nothing, served up on a fancy plate. He once reminded me of a story I had long known as a legend told in Bosnia for hundreds of years, about two brothers, Muyo and Halil, who were like Bosnia's Robin Hood. They went about in the forest robbing the rich and giving the money to the poor, so the poor protected and hid them. They gave money to the poor, but not all the money, so eventually they became the richest men of all. Steal from the rich and give it to the poor, but don't give all of it. I did not understand yet the extent to which my father's estate was being sacrificed, but I knew enough to see somebody was getting rich by taking what he had in the name of public service, and keeping it for themselves. There was a hillside with a forest left from grandfather Bajram's estate, that is my father's side, and that was sold. There was land on which we raised corn and wheat and beans, and those fields were sold for a fraction of their worth, to pay the endless fees and expenses that came with her free medical care. In one year, my father went from being the head of a family with property and livestock, able to sustain itself with what it could produce, to a householder only able to retain his house by taking a job in the town, working in a station far beneath his level of skill and knowledge. With all of those high-placed men in fine suits standing by, and all of those helpful relatives and neighbors who came in the winter to her funeral watching us, we had become poor.
"Life is suffering. God is great. May her soul rest in peace. Don't blame me, I was just doing my job. Don't blame me, I have my own problems."
My mother's death was the first great turning point for me. I walked with the men as we carried her body up the hill, up onto the wide and beautiful pasture cemetery which overlooks the town. I walked with my father, and I sat beside him, and I did not leave his side all of the time we were on the long walk to her grave, and while she was buried. "Do you want to see her?" he asked me one last time.
I shook my head. I preferred to remember her another way, and I did not wish to move the white linen cloth which covered her head in the traditional way of Slavic people. I made the motion to be the first one to cast a little earth onto her body, and I left her to those whose duty it was to finish the job.
I returned to the house feeling every hard emotion I had ever known all at once. I was brokenhearted to lose my mother, and angry at the people and the doctors and the government who had let her die so horribly. I was filled with sympathy for the suffering of my father, and at the same time I resented that he had supported the system that failed her. I had shaken every hand, kissed every cheek, and thanked every person I could endure, and I hoped to find a little privacy some place.
Just from habit, I looked to the little nook behind the stairs, the tiny private place I was fast outgrowing, and there I saw tucked into the shadow, and peering out from between the treads, my little brother Hilmo, who was a few years younger than I, and still a boy. Peering around from behind him was younger brother Pajo, and at his feet sat our baby brother Jusuf, hardly even a toddler then. I was shaken to see in my brothers' eyes the same feeling I knew from looking out between those boards myself. I went over to them immediately, and tucked myself into the space with them, sat down beside Joe.
"Hilmo, Pajo, and you too, little Joe, I will tell you something important," I said to them earnestly. "Our uncle is going to go away to a far land, the name I don't remember, but a wonderful place, and he has promised me that when I grow up I can go with him. But when he sends me a ticket, I promise I will not leave you behind. I will never leave you behind. I will find a way to take you with me wherever I go. I promise. Our mother has gone to Heaven, and our father's country has gone to hell, but I will always be your brother. Always."
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