Taking Liberties

Can love survive death? On its fading to the quiet and the still. Stubborn loneliness becomes its only possession; its will wounded, but not broken. A silent lake, surface dull, no rushing of wind or agitation of flocks, no echo or reflection. Yet it holds ground.

Taciturn by nature, Nazer Marić had gone silent after the deaths of his parents and sister. At least to those around him. He had never spoken to me much, and I felt he blamed me more than Richard or Louis for what had happened. Evil could just not pass through carelessly like that, wrecking utter devastation, destroying his life, without accountability. He used his biases to throw off a fraction of his bottomless rage at the horrible fate he couldn’t escape onto me—foreign, female, bent on corrupting Enesa. For my part, I had as much insight into his humanity as I had knowledge of the spiritual makeup of the fir trees outside, and no interest in acquiring any, stung as I was by his contempt, and made cautious by the possibility of provoking a latent violence.

This was many weeks before the operation into Novi Sad, where the horses were now stabled. Nazer would not, could not accompany us, obviously; a mere ghost without asylum outside his rubble prison, but he was essential in the planning. He hunched over maps of the area surrounding Novi Sad, speaking into a hand-held tape recorder. I later learned he was telling his story, then walking the talk—pacing the village streets, leaving fully recorded microcassettes to be found long after the tourists and dabblers had left town, and long after his death; some wedged in the crevices of balustrades arching over the village stream, others jammed between the cover and stitched binding of library books, a story within a story; not to be discovered by the sweeping forces of destruction, but by future forensic scavengers or through the serendipity of survivors.

Three others had joined our little band at this point: two German girls under cover as translators, who were, indeed, multilingual—and Olympic-level dressagers. The third person was an older man, a local, who was always about, it seemed; who talked mainly to Louis and who stared at me constantly until it was all I could do not to yell “What? What?” To myself, I called him “One-eyed Jack”—not because both of his eyes didn’t function simultaneously, but because I thought of him as a periscope, silently rising out of the floor boards, swiveling left and right, an entity always spying, identity concealed. Taking everything in and giving nothing out. He watched me watch Nazer. And I did study Nazer. I could see nothing of his sister in him. Nazer remained aloof, although he often spoke directly to the two equestrians, which surprised me because, based on my experience, I did not believe Nazer trusted women. “Jack” sensed my puzzlement, and jerking his head in the women’s direction and tapping his forehead, said simply, “Die Pferde,” gesturing toward the girls, “they speak to them,” indicating their possession of a cognizance and a skill level that negated to a sufficient extent, evidently, the anomaly of their gender.

Our cover was set up thusly: I was not told explicitly how the others would arrive, but Richard, Louis, and I would travel to nearby Vitez, where UN operations were based, and where a portion of the Cheshire Regiment of the British Army was deployed. Then we would return with a convoy back to Split, Croatia, where, serendipitously, the British maintained a headquarters and logistics base, and lastly, join a C-141 transport flight to London, location of the home office of Medicine Nonsectarian and our little offshoot operation as well. Our traveling with the troops was not officially approved, of course, but rather carried out without request, as there was a great love of horses among the command. A few days were to be spent in London, then we would fly back into Belgrade on a commercial flight with clean passports.

The grandfather of a doctor in Medicine Nonsectarian had recently died leaving a house situated not too far from Novi Sad, and Richard was returning as his grandson to close the estate. I was his fiancée, a position which allowed me to speak only English and a little German without suspicion. The others, when they arrived or appeared, assumed their role in a motley cast of characters: ne’er-do-well cousin (Louis), new-found acquaintances, and snow bunnies who had lingered past the season. Once settled, the word discreetly went out from the old Jovanović house that let it be known there were those in the grandson’s party who would not turn their nose up at the prospect of buying a few show horses on the black market—the rumor being the Lipik Lipizzaners were somewhere close by—one cousin acting as agent for some unnamed businessman. All of us kept a low profile, except Louis who made a show as a gambler, and in the service of veracity, once allowed himself to be rolled.

At first, I felt this was a different kind of danger than what we experienced in Travnik, much more Secret Agent Man, but this wore off after a few days, and it settled into the familiar bleak wariness. Of everything and everybody. ‘Who are you?’ was the question constantly asked before in Bosnia—former compatriot or newfound enemy? How do I know? Blue berets and white armored vehicles notwithstanding, in the absence of international political will, even humanitarian aid was suspect, and we were chimeras within a chimera. It made for uncertain footing. It was almost impossible not to end up at some point on the wrong side, in the wrong place; here everyone was a combatant, as Louis would say. After a while, it didn’t even matter, as the human chain kept splitting into smaller and smaller links until you trusted only yourself, and even then, your most secret thoughts were not invariably reliable. Smaller and smaller links that would no longer mesh together for any semblance of strength. Anyone with a grievance, anyone who believes righteousness is solely on his side, her side; anyone who lives in certainty is a danger, again according to Louis. Pick your team; have your team picked for you. I hated this arrogance and certitude; even as I had voluntarily placed myself in the middle of a stewing mass of it; it always ended up like this; it made everything a living hell.

* * *

So, sure enough, Louis was eventually taken around to where the horses were stabled. With this knowledge in hand, Richard and I took an evening spin a few days later and found ourselves near the identified farmstead. We parked our rental car on the side of the road and got out to look at the stars, as the affianced do. Or was it to calculate the distance from farmhouse to paddock, from paddock to stable, from stable to road? As twilight settled down over us, cloaking the landscape in deep blue and soft violet, a momentary sense of peace was offered, but any hope of Richard opening up and saying something off-message was snatched away by the sight of a dark shape bobbing on the road, headed our way. Slowly the mass defined itself as some guy slowly approaching, rifle slung casually over his back. It never was just some guy, though, was it? Although we could not name the exact nature of it, both of us could sense the menace. A guard? The police, some militia irregular? A common thug? Surely someone looking for payback for his grievances. Why didn’t anyone wear uniforms in this goddamn forsaken place?

“Don’t fight me,” Richard said, scaring me even more, if possible. He put a hand on each side of my shirt (my favorite shirt) and ripped off the top button. He took a flask out of his back pocket and poured a good bit of its contents down my throat, some of it spilling out of my mouth, running down over my exposed skin. He took several slugs himself, then crushed himself against me, pushing my back into the backseat door handle. It was as if I had been sucked up into the center of a tornado, and I tried to focus over Richard’s shoulder at the trees plastered against the night as he whispered in my ear, “Don’t look him in the eyes; don’t talk.” His mouth covered mine and he only released me as the unknown approached.

The man walked up to us, swung around his assault rifle, and grasping it in both hands, cocked it at Richard’s head. Somehow Richard appeared unfazed. He was cognizant enough to have grabbed his passport and wallet and now waved them in front of the man. “Hey, hey, American! American!” he chided our assailant, seemingly confident through a haze of liquor that this was a simple misunderstanding. The guard (or whoever) looked at his passport, threw it back to him, squatted down to pick up his wallet that had fallen to the ground, pulled out the wad of cash, and tossed it back empty.

“Wha . . . wha . . .”

Ignoring Richard’s protests, he pushed Richard away, then a look came over his face when he realized that was not all that was on free offer. “Your sister, yeah?” He pulled me toward him and my mind went blank with terror.

My constant fear back in Travnik, or wherever we travelled in central Bosnia, was that I would be caught in a shelling attack or felled from afar by some unseen, unknown agent. These thoughts were so present in my mind that I had accepted it as my fate and was merely operating stoically until that time; it was somewhat comforting in that it gave a sheen of imagined nobleness to my faffing about and provided some faux sense of progression amidst the chaos. To be presented with a violence so close in my face in the form of this man—a violence of such a corporal, sexual nature no less—was such an unconsidered way of going that it brought the liquor that had gone down my stomach so fast back up just as quickly, and I threw up on the ground, a good bit splashing onto the boots of my accoster, seemingly squelching his rank ardor. Deciding to cut his losses, he grabbed the slopped brandy flask, thought better of it, threw it through the open window of the car, ruining the backseat, then put Richard’s cash in the inner pocket of his jacket.

“You take your fuckin’ somewhere else from now on. I see you here again, you dead, and your sister be passed around like krofne.” Again pushing Richard in the back with the butt of his Zastava, he shoved us out of his way and left with his currency. Thank god for his fastidiousness; it seemed almost preposterous that he hadn’t killed us. What idiots we were.

When I came to after passing out in the stinking car on our drive back, it was two in the afternoon, and I had to sit in the living room back at the grandfather’s house amidst the packing crates and try to sip down coffee that tasted like weeds and thank Richard for mauling me, for taking liberties and saving my life, and I had to thank chance and serendipity for not being served up to satisfy unchecked perversion, and I never had a lower sense of self-worth that I could remember.

After washing up in the old bathroom, the water so hard and polluted, it left an iron stench that cut through every sensation; after squeezing out the last of the old antiseptic in its rolled-up tube to smear on the scratches that covered my neck and arms like lace; I went out to the back garden of shrubbery, the flowering white mounds silently emanating their scent under the lowering sky, and pushing my hands deep into their innards, through the many twigs and thorns, producing new self-inflicted wounds to mingle with the others, I grabbed hold of the branches, holding onto as if to a life-preserver, holding on for dear life, trying to steady myself, save myself, staring at the beauty of the blooms, straight into them, willing myself to feel nothing else but the sensation each individual petal projected until, finally, I could regain my bearings. And I stood there shaking until it became dark, just one lost soul and these branches of beauty in an atrocious world.

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Heaven Song

heaven song (2)

We’d had no contact with Nazer for over two weeks. Still under cover of UNHCR, we were heading back to an area near Travnik, so we decided to visit the Marićs once more to try to garner information from them. This would most likely be our last visit. We should have started the haggling process to get them out a long time ago, I kept thinking, but we had no chits on our side. I had arranged to have Dorenberg’s new album and a CD player sent to me from the States and was amazed that neither were lost or stolen in transit. Now I could give them to Enesa in person; she just had a bunch of cassettes and listened to the radio when possible. This would be pure gold to her (along with the AA batteries). Just before leaving, we were told the village had come under shelling, and we were stalled for a day and a half.

When supposedly safe, Louis, Richard, and I drove in a Landrover with UN insignia through the frozen countryside and across the river to the edge of the village, Louis doing his strange driving dance that he had mastered (or so he liked to think), driving straight down the middle, zigzagging around any imperfection in the road. But Nazer and Enesa’s village was no longer there. The village had disappeared, like Brigadoon. But instead of a dreamscape expanse of moors and mist, it was all smoke and rubble and an overwhelming sense of things gone horribly wrong. Lou slowed down the car as we passed a body on the side of the road. “Shouldn’t we stop?” I said, picking distractedly at my ballistic vest, well after we had gone by.

“And do what?” Lou asked. “Get blown up?” I had never seen a dead body before and inanities looped through my mind—how a dead person was very different from a living person; how the ignominy of being dumped along the road seemed the worst thing to me, as if there was a more seemly way of being butchered; many other thoughts beyond the pale. When we drove up to the Marić’s house, my mind stopped. Getting out of the sanctuary of the car, I could not speak to Louis or Richard, or explain to myself what had happened here. I could only hear and smell and be aware of things small and near: the buzzing of flies even in this frigid air, our breath swirling out into a red-brown fog of fear, the scuttling and scurrying of vermin more imagined than seen, and the cold and the stench and the smoke of fires left burning unattended.

Louis and Richard went into the house ahead of me. They headed to the back where there used to be a small shed attached to the kitchen. The back of the Marić’s house was charred and crumbled, still smoldering, while the front remained intact. Every room was ransacked. I found Enesa’s mother lying facedown on the living room floor. I felt it my duty to cover her with something, but I was too afraid to look around or focus on anything too closely. I stood in the middle of their house determinedly not seeing anything, wanting to be anywhere but here. Anywhere on earth but here. I made a move toward the kitchen when Richard appeared in front of me. He put his hands on my arms and stopped me from going further.

Don’t go in.” Richard said. “Find Enesa.”

Richard pushed me toward Enesa’s bedroom. Halfway down the hall I stopped and could go no further. The sunset light streaming from her window through her open door into the murky hallway frightened me as I had never been frightened before, even more than when I was grabbed by the man across the street from the Port Authority. Then everything was permeated with a sense of super-reality; here this light was otherworldly. I knew what that man wanted; I didn’t know what I’d find beyond this door. I didn’t know what this would take from me. I stood still, swallowing the saliva flooding into my mouth, throat tightening, struggling to move for several minutes. I could hear Louis and Richard roaming around the burning ruble, hear Louis’s exclamations of disgust. I stood there in the hallway with the strange yellow light shining out through the doorway, and I knew that once I entered that room, I would relinquish something fundamental. I have no memory of walking in.

Enesa’s body was hunched over her desk, but her head was twisted, her eyes locked open looking sideways and up; by the strange position, I knew she was gone. I couldn’t believe it. My poor, poor Enesa. My darling Enesa. I started shaking and whimpering. I went over to her. Her hair was matted and bloody, her clothes torn and bloody as well; she had been beaten. Her diary with a piece of paper stuck in it was under her one hand. I pulled the paper out and unfolded it. ‘Dear Mr. Dorenberg . . .’ Enesa, Enesa, Enesa. This letter would have been sent to me to give to Evan, I was sure. She never did believe I didn’t have some sort of relationship with him, no matter what I said. I crumpled up the note and stuck it in my pocket. I stood staring out the broken window. More revulsion flooded through me and I bent down and looked under her skirt. The nausea came without resistance this time.

I straightened up and ran my hand over my face. I fumbled around for my bag and took out Evan’s CD and the disc player. My hands were shaking so badly I struggled to get the disc out of its jewel case and almost broke it. I could barely snap the disc in the player. I plugged in the earphones, the little foam cover things had already fallen off somewhere. I sat down on her bed and turned the player on; the disc spun round and round. I turned it off. I stood up and went over to Enesa, gently moved her hair away from her ears and put the earphones on her head. I put the CD on her chest as well as I could, close to her heart, and slid the tiny latch, my fingertips now stained a dark crimson, to the highest volume and turned the player on. The disc spun round and round. I stood there and became aware of her leave-taking. Leaving the wretchedness, the barbarism and stupidity, leaving the work of men who knew nothing of what it meant to be a man, what it meant to be human. Even though I could just hear hissing coming from the earphones, I could feel her departure, suffusing into the sunset glow, leaving on those soft notes and sweet voice. I became mesmerized by the revolving disc catching the light, throwing prisms toward the setting sun, and I stared into that light, gripping onto her.

Richard came into the room. The horror of what he had seen here and the guilt he felt for our part in bringing the attention, the visitation of evil upon the house of Marić was making this cautious, taciturn man wild. He turned his fear and anger outward at me, afraid of his own emotion, snatching the earphones off Enesa’s head and flinging them aside, trying to pry my one hand off Enesa’s arm and my other one off the disc player, ordering me out, “Let’s go. Go! Go!” I struggled with him, refusing to let go, and he smacked me hard across the face. The physical shock made me release my hold, and he pull/pushed me out of the room, down the hallway, out of the house and into the backseat of the waiting car. He got in next to me in the back and slammed the door. Louis drove off.

As I realized we were leaving Enesa there, exposed, alone like that, I lost it in the car, sobbing, grabbing at my face. The disc player fell on the floor and Richard, in his fury, stomped on it, smashing it again and again with his foot as if he wanted to wipe out anything beautiful, to wipe out anything that had any meaning. I screamed, “You son of a bitch!” and wrenched myself around in the ill-fitting vest, trying to lunge at him.

Barely able to contain his own emotions, my outburst just made him more abusive, and he caught and grabbed me by my elbow, pulling me toward him, continuing in his bullying, yelling in my face. “You didn’t sign up for this? You didn’t sign up for this? This ain’t no fuckin’ . . .‘

“Richard! Richard! Knock it off. Knock it off.” Lou shouted at Richard without turning his head around or taking his eyes off the road. He took a hard left. “Knock if off!” Again he turned the wheels hard to the left, sliding the two of us to the side of the backseat in a heap of rage and despair, and the Rover rumbled off into the distance, skirting Travnik, away from Enesa and Nazer’s village, heading east away from the setting sun, never to return.

My Only Glory

the power of dreams

The train was made to work. Henry jammed himself on, ran the diesel engine, and the train chugged round and round the field. Daniel, leaning over in Maggie’s lap, sunk his teeth into the boxcar’s wooden edge and, looking down, watched the tracks as the train jounced along. The three laughed a lot. Soon other kids stopped by, begging for a ride. Someone from the next town drove over and brought his little girl who rode around with her silent mouth wide open. The barn and field became something of a local gathering place. Kids were devoted to Leo and Tod, particularly a “horse-phase” gang, who ignored the makeshift railroad, each girl taking her turn standing on a stool to elaborately braid one of the great horse’s mane. Happiness woven iridescent by the summer damselflies filled Henry’s days. On weekends Maggie would bring Daniel over with Claude—momentarily stunning Henry, as if he had forgotten that her husband existed—but he used the sound of the brass train bell ringing, the sight of the tanned, lithe limbs of his charges all akimbo as they piled in behind the engine as blinders, and it was too easy during these times to not face facts, too easy to ignore that one particular fact that any misstep would land him deep in the abyss of envy and despair. He believed in the power of his dreams.

But those dreams were his high water mark. He never did kiss Maggie, although he might have on one or two occasions had he risked it. Come September, a month he always hated with its hard blue skies, the humidity lifted and most of his riders vanished back inside their schools. Then the weather turned; it rained for days and Henry did not see Maggie or Daniel for over a week. When the sun re-emerged and the sky became a still blue bowl once again, the pair did not reappear. Henry walked over to the Nelsons’ house and stood on the opposite side of the street, waiting for he wasn’t sure what, but there was no movement within that he could perceive. He got his answer at the post office a few days later when he overheard the Miller sisters talking about the Nelsons, Irene Miller saying with a knowing air that the boy was in Saint Luke’s for ‘God knows what,’ as if to say, for those like Daniel, suffering was his lot and the way of the world, and she understood that.

My uncle walked every day past the Nelsons’ house hoping to somehow discern some kind of reason, to distill information from the thin air if need be, until one day the answer came in the form of a For Sale sign planted startlingly upright in the Nelson’s lawn, like a flag staking territory for fear and pain. Daniel had died over Thanksgiving, and the Nelsons were fleeing their memories.

Henry retreated to his shed and stayed there a good part of the winter even though it had no heat; he most assuredly drank heavily. My father went several times to talk to him, Dad’s face on returning dark and troubled; he never spoke of these visits to us. When Uncle Henry emerged from his shed, he came out a different person. I liked to imagine people as colors and shapes, and my uncle—wiry and strong—had always seemed to me like a green vine, all loops and curvy tendrils, but his sorrow changed that. When I saw him next the only image conjured was one of ruble: rusty iron, crumbling concrete; no  grace or movement left.

The kids still wanted to ride the train, and sometimes he’d accommodate them, sometimes there’d be no answer to the small knock on the shed door. The barn became verboten territory for children of the more suspicious and anxious parents in town, though most snuck in there with their friends anyway. Leo was put down due to old age and was replaced with a smaller, dapple grey mare, Marisa. Sometimes I’d look at my uncle as he watched the kids in the barn with Marisa and Tod, and the look in his eyes made me advert my gaze as if I was spying on something sacred, and there’d be a catch in my throat and a sharp pain in my chest. He remained in limbo until the summer I graduated high school. Then he heard she had married someone else and he stopped running the train.

Maggie, Maggie, Maggie … my love, my train, my only glory, he would think over and over and over. When he died from holding on for far too long, the train was left standing in the field in the rain, then the snow, then the sun, the grass growing between the rails, the dark metal of the engine powdered with dirt, and rust, and bird droppings until it all stood desecrated, all love long gone, emanating a despair so solid and so steady that people would walk by that field quickly, never stopping, and kids would dare one another to run over and touch the engine, then run away again, because it was “spooked.”