Of What Remains

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

In the end, we vote to keep the body in the living room. It is a matter of logistics: we cannot bury him because the soldiers are outside and they are digging up graves for sport; he cannot be cremated because Sharia forbids us to take fire to Allah’s creation. The second bedroom was blown off the house six months ago—a clean break—so we boarded off the place where it had been attached and went on sleeping, all of us together, in the only remaining bed. There’s never been any space in the bathroom, and the washtub has been converted into a storage tank of drinking water for days when the sinks don’t run. The kitchen is out—we don’t want to risk contamination, don’t want the stench of decay mixing with any hint of a good smell my mother might be able to conjure up from our rations of flour and boiled roots. 

        So it has to be the living room. We cover the sofa with two sheets before laying him there.

        “It’s a waste,” my grandmother says. “To use two sheets like that.”

        “It’s better than having to throw the whole couch out afterward,” says my mother.

        “You can’t catch anything from him.”

        “But,” says my mother. “The stains.”


        The day they killed him we mourned, of course, languished and cried in the regular ways. We alternated between shaky silences and those sobs that sound more like moaning, as much noise as we could make with the soldiers out in the road. And then, when we were really tired and some thin wire inside us snapped, we laughed. It wasn’t nice laughter. It was the hysterical kind, a bodily malfunction—the sort that comes out when you are being tickled against your will and it hurts and tears would be much more indicative of the thing you mean. So it is with us, that a woman can lose the one closest to her and still discuss the inconvenience of his post-mortem discharge, and that her child will stand by her, saying nothing.

        But now we’re not crying or laughing, or even moving much at all, and I notice his presence lingering. His body is still here; where else would he go? In the darkened living room I can still talk to him. 

        What do you want to be when you grow up?

        I want to be famous, to get away from this village.

        ‘Famous’ is not an occupation, Alsana.

        ‘Occupied’ is not what I want to be, Tata.

        It’s been a year since the first mortars, and normal does not mean what it used to. In the living room, besides the body, the plywood replacement wall in the back of the room lets in the wind and the sound. Our supply of potatoes is stacked in crates in the corner. The clothesline runs between the curtain rods of our front windows. A Kalashnikov leans against the dusty case of my grandfather’s accordion.

        At noon I make the sprint down to the village center in search of clean water. I run inside the rutted paths carved out by tank treads—they’re probably clear of mines. The languid tempo of village life—walks to the center, long chats with friends, shopping and schooling and working hours governed by the seasons and the sunset—has been replaced with furtiveness and speed. I go outside only to the water pump and the post office, where, if we’re lucky, we can get the remains of UN food aid the soldiers haven’t stolen. I run without thinking. I do not make eye contact. Everyone here is suspicious—this used to be a mixed village, and I cannot take chances deciphering mixed families’ allegiances between Bosniaks or Četniks.

        There are friends with whom I can no longer speak. And I can’t judge—if I had the choice of sides, the side with the army or the side that stays locked in the house with a corpse—who’s to say I would be honorable? We weren’t even religious, until we needed to be.

        I return with two cans of water, and my grandmother opens the front door, just enough, then locks it behind me with the chain and bolt.

        I light the stove. My mother has a knack for wartime cooking. She can turn the contents of a one-pot boil into three separate meals. We stand around the table and eat strained carrots from big wooden bowls.

        After dinner I sit on the arm of the sofa the way I always did, watching the latest reports. The glow of the television bathes the scene in an ethereal blue, making the grayed flesh on the sofa bluer, making the medieval nature of our predicament more incomprehensible. The peculiar privilege of watching one’s own destruction on a screen inside one’s house.

        Hours earlier, a fresh batch of UN peacekeeping forces landed in the capital. The news flashes footage of the troops at city center, pale men with blond hair and blue helmets, standing at awkward attention under the weight of bulletproof vests. They wear low-slung guns they aren’t authorized to fire, their uniforms too large, like boys dressed in their fathers’ boots. A disembodied reporter’s voice speaks of the siege and the threat of air raids as the camera pans across the Blue Helmets, clustered on street corners, chain smoking, while the inhabitants of the city skulk in the background, eyeing the cameras warily. And though we’ve been categorized as victims of the same war, as I watch my mother wrestling the corpse into a clean pair of trousers, Sarajevo seems farther away than ever.

        Why do you insist on these fantasies of city life? What is it you think you are missing?

        How can I know what I’m missing if I stay here forever?

        What you have is not always worse than what you don’t, Alsana.

        Here I am missing excitement. I am missing the chance to find out.

        By the sixth day, the smell consumes all thought. My father and I begin the old fights.

        Other girls do not speak to their fathers this way, you know.

        If you want me quiet, you shouldn’t ask me questions.

        Quietness is not in your character.

        But what can I do, if even my character is disobedient?

        Allah knows best, Alsana.


        The house is humid, and there is no comfortable way to take in air. We breathe through our mouths, but the place has a taste. I feel the rottenness inside me, settling in the spaces between my teeth, seeping into the porous pockets of my lungs. My mother, grandmother, and I have all but stopped speaking, passing one another in wide arcs around the living room, communicating with shifty eyes—the smell the smell the smell.       

        “We have to do something,” my mother says.           

        I carry the crates of potatoes to the bedroom.           

        In the evening my mother refuses to cook, and I sit at the head of the table and watch her pace the length of the kitchen.            

        “We need to bury him,” I say.           

        “We need to get rid of him.”           

        “Don’t speak about your husband that way,” my grandmother says. “You’ll regret it when it’s over.”           

        “Over!” my mother says, and makes an eerie laugh.           

        “When things calm down. The Peacekeepers are bound to get here soon. We’ll have a proper burial, in accordance with Allah’s commands.”           

        “Allah! He’s the reason we’re like this! The whole country!”           

        My grandmother gasps, and my mother claps a hand over her mouth, surprised by her own irreverence.           

        “Alsana,” my grandmother says. She brings her fist down like a gavel onto the table. “Come to bed.” She turns on her heel and slams the bedroom door behind her.           

        I watch a sob rise in my mother’s throat, but she presses it down and switches on the radio. The room feels less claustrophobic with another person’s words in it. The news reporter’s voice fades in and out, punctuated by the static of bombs falling too close to the transmission tower. My mother changes the station. Classical music, patterned by the same crackle of interference. Decomposing, I think. The body, an orchestral swell performed in reverse.

        “We have to do something,” my mother says, and vanishes into the 


                There are rules, Alsana, that need to be followed, in case of an emergency.

                I already know about the siren, Tata, to pull the shutters in and the black fabric down.

                There is another thing. When the soldiers come through, you must go beneath the floorboards. Feel here? Slip your finger down and pull them up like this.

                Isn’t there something else I can do? I can shoot just as good as the boys        

                The best thing you can do is disappear. It’s a different kind of war now. You are their most desirable weapon.

        I wait, ensuring that my mother has actually gone to sleep. There is some opening and closing of drawers, then the room quiets, and the strip of light from beneath the bedroom door darkens. In the living room I take his cold hand. Clad only in beige pants, he looks almost translucent in the white slit of moonlight that parts the curtains. His stomach is distended, his skin already dissolving in spots that have been eaten away by sunlight. A black patch radiates outward from the place where the bullet entered, blue-black blood congealed around the wound and at the corners of his mouth.           

        My mother has closed his eyes. The right side of his face is bruised where he was beaten, but the left is remarkably unmarred. I run my hand along this side, the one that still looks like him, but his skin is cool and stiff, unrecognizable. I jerk away and upward, and slink back into the kitchen.

        I push my shoulder against the side door, swollen in its frame from the August heat, the hinges stuck from disuse. I stand in the doorway and wait for my eyes to adjust to the darkness thickened by the absence of our blown-out streetlamps. The air is steamy even late, but it smells clean, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve been outside just standing still. I think of my father’s shovel in the tool shed by the vegetable patch, imagine breathing easy again. If I do it in the garden, under cover of darkness, the soldiers might not notice. They are usually trolling the main street for fresh bodies this time of night, waiting to test out new methods of befouling.

        But as I step out into the charred expanse between the house and shed, I notice the curve of something metallic tucked into taller grass, shimmering at the right angle. Then others—clinging to the rusted chicken wire around the garden, resting at the base of a tree trunk—those spheres that to the inexperienced eye look uncannily like jingle bells. I feel my blood coursing faster, my muscles readying to run. But the chances of survival are not in speed now, just the exactness of each footfall. Staring at the ground, I reverse my path back toward the house.

        He comes from nowhere, his thick hand a clamp on my upper arm.

        “What’s a pretty girl like you doing out so late?” I spin around, at eye level with a set of fetid teeth and breath that stinks of alcohol.

        Tata,” I call.

        “Nice try,” the soldier says. He lights a cigarette, and I glimpse his face in the flicker—requisite Četnik beard. Young, though, acne pockmarks still visible along his cheekbones. For a moment I glimpse his humanity. Then it passes. “I know he’s dead. I’ve been waiting for you.” He pulls me closer, a palm on the small of my back. “Even if he wasn’t, he couldn’t save you. I beat him easily. But you remember.” He puts his cigarette out on my shoulder and tucks it behind his ear, pulls an old Soviet military knife from his belt and holds it lightly across my gullet. “Now, don’t scream.”


        I am seven years old when we take a summer holiday to Croatia, to the coast. My father and I spend the day wading in the shallows, fishing from rock ledges and laughing, the salt drying tide lines on our skin. At night he takes out his knife, teaches me how to clean and gut and grill a fish. We cook it with oil and pine branches over charcoal. I tell him I want to be a fisherman and have a boat when I am grown. And he says the lie: Alsana, I will tell you a secret—you can do anything, because you are strong.


        He has me face down in the dirt, and I am glad that at least I don’t have to look at him. When he’s done, he stands, and I hear him adjusting his belt, but nothing else happens.

        “You aren’t going to kill me?” I say.

        “May you give birth to a little Serb soldier,” he says, and walks back out to the street.

        Inside I am safe and I am trapped. The smell surrounds me again and I vomit in the sink, the acid stinging the back of my throat. The thought of my body contained between the walls of the house is suddenly intolerable, and I punch the cheap laminate of a kitchen cabinet door, smashing my hand clear through before spiraling around the corner into the shadowed living room.

        “What am I supposed to do?” I try. But I can’t hear him anymore.

        I look at the bedroom door, but they do not wake up. My eyes blur as I find myself moving between kitchen and living room carrying the only idea left to have.

        Matches. Newsprint. The bottle of vodka good Muslims are not allowed to have. The machete that had once been a garden tool but became a household item when the war began hangs on the inner wall of the pantry. I pull it from its nail.


        In the fireplace the newspapers blaze orange and blue, the flames curling up around the wood I’ve arranged in a pattern of orderly crosshatch. I drenched the kindling in the vodka, and I like it when the fire flares as it discovers the more concentrated patches, the heat pressing out against my cheeks. I begin at his stomach, a place of least bones, sloughing off a thick mass of fat. The smoke thickens as the blaze coats the first layer of his skin, the singed hair with its unmistakable smell burns off like undergrowth in a forest fire. But along the way the sourness that has taken hold of our home begins to dissipate; the fat liquefies and drips, and the long-forgotten scent of oily meat permeates the living room. The house is bright and clean and smells like a feast. Somewhere far off I hear the bedroom door opening, worried voices in the corridor, a scream as I swing the knife over my head. Outside, the smoke rises past the window, twisting up from the village and into the mountains.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015