The Return

He scanned the adults huddled in the shadow of the Holiday Inn and remained alert for any indication—a tightening grip on a grocery bag, a clearing of the throat—that one of them was about to make the dash across the intersection. But the people continued standing in sullen patience, stamping their feet against the cold. Abruptly the woman beside him scooped up her toddler and ran across the openness. Instead of joining her, he simply watched her reach the gloom of a narrow street beyond. He decided he would cross alone, at the count of three. No, at the count of five because five was a luckier number.

But instead of counting he just stared—as he always did at this point on his walk home—at the words that had been written on the concrete barrier dividing the lanes of traffic. Not actually at the words themselves but at the fact that they had been written. Someone had dared walk out into the middle of the intersection, in full view of the mountain slopes rising above the city, and written in large block letters the warning Pazi snajper (Watch out: sniper). And on the white base of a streetlight: Opasna zona (Dangerous place). That act of audacity, he had long since decided, would have occurred two years earlier, at the beginning of the war—when the people of Sarajevo did not know that what was beginning was a war—when they regarded the Serbian extremists gathered high in the mountains as a few idiots who would soon get cold and come down to rejoin ordinary modern life. We need to tell those Chetniks the Winter Olympics are over—they missed their chance for a medal in bobsledding. The writing of the block-letter warnings belonged to a time when the sound of gunfire was still being mistaken for cars backfiring, when Sarajevo was still proudly a city of old cars and drivers who loved to rev their engines as they raced along the boulevards. But now, years under siege, Sarajevans needed no warnings about the dangers of leaving the dark, narrow streets and moving across a wide intersection. What his parents said, what all the parents said: “If you can see the mountains, the snipers can see you.”

His parents and everyone else he observed were engaged in the grim, almost dull business of maintaining appearances while lugging water back to unlit apartments and gathering fuel to warm up whatever rations the international relief workers happened to be handing out. Everyone had become skilled in the art of standing in a shallow metal tub and showering with a few cups’ worth of water that was then saved for rinsing clothes and filling toilets and, by God, not letting the houseplants die.

Each morning, as his mother prepared to set off for work at the hospital, she checked her lipstick and brushed her hair and swept dust from her coat while muttering some version of I refuse to let those brutes take away our dignity. Then she would share whatever rumors she had heard the day before from the other doctors or the ambulance drivers. That morning she had told him that the Jewish cemetery was newly laced with land mines. Then, as she so often did, she referred to a former neighbor who had joined the Serbian extremists in the mountains and whose identity had become, for her, the identity of every sniper. “Don’t give your old friend Goran a chance to see you in his rifle scope. I can’t believe that boy used to eat at our table.” That morning, as she tugged on her gloves and then her boots, he waited for her to remind him not to sit near the windows when he was studying. And to help his grandmother with the housework. After she had closed the door behind her and clomped down the concrete stairs of the apartment building, he stood by the geraniums at the windowsill and waited for her to enter the street. That morning she had been in luck: a white UN tank was just then making its slow way across the exposed intersection. He watched her crouch alongside it for cover. She looked to him like the bravest of hunters.

His father was in the habit of setting off very early to wherever it was that he went each day. Certainly not to his office at Sarajevo University. Somewhere else. Somewhere with a lot of dirt and dust. When his father returned home in the evening there was often, in the thick black fabric of his coat, the pungency of wild onion and sweetgrass—as if he’d been stretched out on the ground. A few weeks earlier, as his father hugged him coming in the door, he dared ask, “Are you a soldier, Papa? Did you join the forces defending the city?”

“Soldiers don’t come home each evening, Nermin.”

“Where do you go?”

“Don’t ever try to follow me.”

“I won’t. Just tell me. Are you digging graves?”

“Did you memorize the sonnet I assigned you? What does your violin teacher say?”

A few more people had left the safety of the Holiday Inn and dashed across the boulevard, inelegantly lugging rations of flour, cooking oil. He grew frustrated with his lack of nerve. He squinted into the distance of two years earlier and could almost see the person writing the warnings on the concrete barrier. For him the writer’s body never resolved into male or female, old or young. The writer was only someone in dark clothing, holding a can of spray paint, finger pressed on the nozzle. Someone who, with slow and deliberate, and defiant and reckless, and fatalistic, care formed the letters so that they were large enough to be noticed by people who thought they were living in 1992 in a beautiful European city. And while forming those letters, the writer was all the while ignoring the soldiers in the hills who were surely scanning all the sunlit crosswalks, scopes aligned, fingers on triggers.

He looked up at the daytime moon and decided he would recite five times, end to end, neither hurriedly nor slowly, Please, God, keep me safe, and then he would make his move. But instead, for some reason, he was already sprinting across without having recited anything.

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