The truncated hospital was leaning its roof over the foundation and looked stopped in time. No one was waiting for salvation in it anymore. Weak spotlights bounced off the broken glasses, creating the illusion of ice on a warm, strangely calm, July night. Apart from the sporadic shaking of the ground, nothing disturbed the fatigue we all felt. The core of the sky stretched out its arms towards us, and we knew that it was our only security in the sudden chaos. And as soon as, after a couple of weeks, I was a little away from the horror of the explosion, I was faced with a devastating earthquake and a new unpredictability. I stared into the darkness, unable to hold my breath, which was separating from me. The doctors said that everything would be fine and that the wound had begun to heal. I believed. Did I have a choice? Everything was better than the rubble and cracks that crept up to our beds; even that infusion of faint hope into an almost-rotten bone. The first time I tried to fall asleep under the constellations, I met another world. I found myself on unfamiliar ground along with the trouble and fear that I might get hurt again. I drowned them in uncertain endlessness with thoughts of people who claim that the Earth is a flat plate, of a strict teacher of strong fangs, of a sister who connects life in the tobacco fields in the early morning hours and of her sweat dripping on dry leaves, of a brother who talks to wolves on the way to work and about a city whose long buildings and their lights were gone in less than half a minute. Many have left their lives in those lights. I was not old enough to understand the disappearances, but I felt growing up in myself and some weight descending on my dream. Although I believed that everything would come back again—like our big dog, whose departures and arrivals we were used to—some first suspicion began to suffocate me. The bandages were getting tight, and I missed my mother. She always said that everything should be thrown down the mountain—pain, fear and sadness, and I had to embrace mine with the strength of a nine-year-old child.
We, the witnesses, were silent and waiting for the voice. However, we were together, and she was alone on the shaky ground. We could only send her modesty and prayer. God decided that night. Some nervous wind was blowing loudly into our thin windows. Everything we collected between them was ruined by misfortune. I wondered if she was standing in line for the roll call or had already sunk into a deep sleep. And we did not foresee anything; we didn’t even dare. We were just, like faithful dogs, waiting for her to return in some form. We didn’t put out the candles, we let them burn to the end and play on the walls. I knew she would survive everything if she survived that summer.
That big stone by the road looked like a mushroom and stood in the same place for years after the war; probably because rare passersby would have something to orient them to. No one but us wanted to move it. Even today, I wonder how we became so curious so early. If someone had told us that maybe something dangerous was hiding under it, we would certainly have done it again because nothing interesting had happened in the village for days except a few forced weddings and the occasional arrival of young piglets and calves to the world. The three of us—I, Zvezdan and Gorica—were looking for a way out of that world. We never parted, and if anything firmly connected us it was that stone, heavy and strange. We surrounded it, excited that we would finally break the monotony. The damp ground beneath it, and the round red toy, waited patiently for our curiosity. We opened a fairy tale in which we were permanently trapped and confused. We ran, happy together for the last time, to the walnut tree, to scatter the moment of delight in the ashes under it. A cold wave, knocked us all down. Zvezdan’s hand just disappeared. I saw a burnt bone crying out for the sky. All those irons sank into me in an instant and I started floating in an unknown space. Gorica remained lying, painted red. She didn’t even get to play with the toy. There was no time to remember her last smile. I just sometimes pull her out of my heart when I think about where life would have taken us if that damn day hadn’t dawned. Zvezdan was left in the local hospital so as not to bleed. He thought they would find his hand and sew it to him. He waited his whole life.
We gathered the bodies in sheets; I took the sister, and a father, Zvezdan. Gorica remained in the wounded grass. I didn’t remember her face - probably because it was no more, but I remembered her hands and outstretched fingers wanting to reach for something. I ran towards the road and the big furrowed field became even bigger. A random good man with fast horses took us to the rescue. I remember almost nothing from that rush, except the dust that intercepted our eyes. I knew we had reached the ambulance by the smell. With trembling hands, I tried to lower sister’s wrapped body to the nearest bed. The paramedics rushed towards me. Almost breathless, they took her on a stretcher and ten minutes later drove her miles away for surgery. I didn’t know what to expect; they said nothing. We could not return a part of her, but we fought not to be subdued by sorrow, and we tried to make her feel our presence, love and understanding. She grew up fast, but her gaze to the walnut tree did not change. Every morning it visited its living grave without wanting to approach it, but not to move away from it. And here, that tear has been in my eye for days. It doesn’t want to slip or dry out. I still have a feeling that it will be the last to see me off.
According to some unwritten law, the victims eventually become the biggest culprits. This is, on the one hand, justifiably true but on the other hand bitter, the victory of the tragedy. I wonder, sometimes, what a gentle Gorica would have looked like if she had grown up. Zvezdan and I went to her grave yesterday. It faded. There has been no one but us to visit her for a long time. She was trapped in that solitude for almost six decades. Only the two of us sometimes hang out with her in our minds and go back to the stone from which we slipped into oblivion. If we weren’t too curious, we might be drinking coffee together now and talking about good times, and maybe each of us would go our own way, somewhere far away. This quiet grave of hers still keeps us together in some way. As he gets older, a man remembers his early childhood and first friends more and more, because in that period he did not see the world as it really is, but as he and his friends imagined it to be. We, in our small village, were in many ways far from the tumult of the city, which was rushing forward. Maybe that’s why our curiosity was greater and the danger closer. Nothing, under the firmament, is promised. We have all been on the most dangerous landslides for thousands of years, the inner ones. The slightest tremors are enough to set them in motion and turn them into an avalanche of madness, wandering and ice. Everyone carries their winter inside them. We left all our enthusiasm and imagination in it. Building a soul from the beginning is not easy; too much weight and too little time. Every life is, ultimately, reduced to demolition and masonry. Perhaps the greatest mistake of man is to build it only once. That security and stability somehow weakens him and makes him stand up in them. He wraps himself, like a bear, in thick fur and sleeps for years; not only in winter but also under cross rays.
I persistently push towards that thick walnut, but its broken root does not want to hide in the grass and constantly invites glances to start the story of death again. I don’t know why we didn’t cut it after so many years; I guess because we don’t forget how unpredictable toys are, or maybe because it bears good fruit? Who knows? It still rolls up its sleeves today, but we somehow avoid it. We rarely gather its fruits. We leave them to the squirrels to feed. They don’t know its story. They are happy, and under it, I drew all the nonsense of this world into myself. I held injustice in my hands, and I didn’t know where to go with it. And yet, something tragic, and at the same time sacred, draws me to that place after more than half a century. We all buried a part of ourselves under a tall treetop. I was born in the war, but I saw it for the first time under that walnut tree. It was so close to us, and we thought it was all over. Now, I know that some wars never end.
How many desires have disappeared in the insanity? Gorica, Zvezdan and I did not even reach ours. A red toy intercepted them. They said the explosion echoed hundreds of meters away. We did not hear it; we were in it. It captured our future strength and light. We have been crippled of many insights. Since then, I have been crying only in one eye, in the right one, as if I don’t have another. One side of me was extinguished in that defeat of reason. For years, I stood between two hills—the one I came down from and the one I wanted to climb. In the end, I took the path between them. I had to grow and mature with clots in my heart and all those spots on my face and body. I ran through school and half my life just to get to the top surgeons as soon as possible, and they managed to brighten my hopes to some extent, but nothing could fill my hollow hand. It still looks like dried wood. In winter, everything is somehow easier, darker. I cover myself with a coat and wait for the holidays. Until spring, both I and the people forget about it, but when the sun rises, that sweat from my soul starts again, which I can’t wipe off.
Then she came into my shade, and we drank coffee for a long time, looking at the shadows. She knows that there was nothing more I could do for her under the damn walnut, and I know that she is still happy to be alive and to have healthy children and me, the only brother with whom she can be silent for half a day. Our sister went to God this winter. She didn’t have the strength to wait for spring.
Times will always be the same—hard and ongoing. Every man should plant his tree and watch it grow. On that way, he will know best what is really happening in nature and within himself: where the winds come from and where they are going. The tree will show him the way. My great-grandfather planted a walnut tree with the wish that it would last for a long time, but the accident under it somehow stopped its duration. I realized that death, unlike dying, is short. There is no need to be afraid of it. We should not be ashamed of dying, if it is imposed on us for some reason. These are the colors of nature—terrible, but inevitable. When we stop burdening ourselves with them, our lives will become more fulfilled. The scars will stay fresh as long as we allow them to draw our attention and remind us of their origin. Sometimes a man turns to them because he does not have the courage to look to the future, and sometimes because it is easier for him to hide his personal downfalls in them. We need to fight against all this gloominess. This world is trapped at a critical moment when it has to make a decision about its survival. I am still, fortunately, part of that world, but I try to leave the smell of gunpowder in the past.
We, who witnessed, always think about things that happen quickly for a long time. These thoughts can only be interrupted by some new, unexpected ones, and we realize mostly late that we have stretched our own life between them, and we haven’t even breathed in almost anything of its beauty.
My only joy in those difficult moments was the pudding, the hospital one. It smelled like hazelnut, the factory one, with a lot of artificial colors and aromas in it, and yet I liked it. That smell, especially for us, the children from the village, was a rarity. Now, sometimes, I cook it for my grandchildren and accept the day whatever it is. I absorb the invaluableness of life, which is taken for granted by all of us, and yet, somewhere in the heaven sea, rare, and I smile. Somehow I managed to forgive all these human inconsistencies and not leave the burden of forgiveness to the children; who knows what hard days await them in the future. May they at least have peace with God and with themselves? I, together with them, at the end of my life, want to listen to its murmur and music a little more—and I listen to it with my heart, relieved of all guilt and remorse. My mother used to say: “To the one who summons it, dying always responds.” For many departures, coincidences are to blame and there is no need to look for a cause in everything. Maybe we just neglected that part of ourselves that was free from questioning. Suffering is a bewitched circle from which it is difficult to get out, and the gaps, although not completely, can always be filled with something. No one can take away our imagination of a better world. It is silent in the depths of every soul and one day, I am sure, it will take off. We are under one roof of both pain and happiness. When its foundation cracks, we will end up in the same abyss. There are things in life that are not passed over, but survival, in the end, always somehow wins.
The first light after a long darkness is always the strongest.
We need to absorb it and gather strength for some new fears. When the voices are silenced, the spasm towards all that is coming and meaningless comes to life; fingers clench, pupils dilate, and waiting takes control again. Some use this human condition to attack, but even the suppressed fear becomes a dangerous toy that should not be played with. Rebellion never gives up. When all the devastation falls on it, it becomes the strongest. In that collision, everyone burns down, and yet the man does not choose to be happy and stays standing on a shaky scale. I somehow tried to turn my back on all those misfortunes, and yet, after a few decades, I ran through another war. I experienced it differently; as something that preceded my tragedy. Many new sufferings have gathered around me. The fear of red was renewed, and all my giving importance to the external disappeared in the shadow of new destruction. I wonder how many more times we will brutally tear the Earth until we realize we have no other? Maybe now, on the threshold of a new war in which we will fight with ourselves, we will realize that we will have nowhere to run or hide. Everything wrong that came out of us will return to us in some form, still unclear and hidden.
The future man will not have time for explanations. We need to follow the rivers, but the small ones. They never change the flow. The big ones are noticeable to every trouble. Everything sinks in them once—the sounds, and evidences, and memories, and deaths. War always brings winter before its time.
War is not just something that starts and ends. Until it starts, everything seems far away, but we soon realize that this globe of ours is small and that we are all close, if not by miles, then by fear. No one can be completely happy if a child’s hands tremble somewhere, and if someone’s dream is just a glass of clean water and a warm snack. What is the human soul if it is not nourished by light? The man will always look for a sign of that light in everything that surrounds him. On my thorny path, I met many destinies, suffering and sorrow, but also courage and perseverance. In the tangle of different people and their life stories, I found one thread that connects them firmly, one word that they do not utter, but which strongly radiates from their views. I found hope. It stared at me from forgotten souls, from quiet hospital rooms, from the murmurs of the wrinkled ground. Now, as I recall the moments spent in treatment, I am no longer sure if I really saw it or just wanted to. Maybe it just seemed to me out of a strong desire to change everything. These people did not want to leave. They wanted to stay a little longer. Faced with harsh reality, they created a new world woven only from moments. Unburdened by everything earthly that had exhausted them for years, with a metal bowl in their hands under the bright night sky, they did not expect anything, they only hoped. After all these struggles, agony and grayness, I somehow began to look at time differently. It seems to me that it is interrupted, that it is dripping, and at the moment I am in a hurry to reach one of those drops, and I hope that all suffering will disappear completely one day. I infuse with what is left of me those drops of hope for those for whom I still have to live.
Decades of patience mixed with pain are behind us, and yet that restlessness is always present when I try to be happy. I held my sister’s life in my hands and I almost dropped it. What about those who have no one to save them? I entered the military days more prepared than others, and came out of them with the fear that we would never be able to get deep shrapnel out of ourselves.
I carry all my pain with me all my life. Many carry it, too, and they are silent. If you look deeper into their eyes, you will know that they could not get rid of it; not because it is bigger than others, but because it is sometimes their only memory of the moment they grew up. Overnight, I traveled from the village yard to the city with a lot of lights that opened the door to a new morning, and soon I somehow understood everything without much effort and explanation. That’s life; a high wall that is not easy to climb. We need to learn to follow the days.
"The story deals with the psychological consequences of the Second World War and is based on a true event about the suffering of three children who accidentally became victims and disabled by a residual bomb."
Suzana Stojanović, an artist and writer, studied literature at the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Niš in Serbia. She is the author of the book “The structure and meaning of the border stories of Ilija Vukićević” and many literary, artistic and philosophical texts, short stories, satires, essays and poems. She is also the recipient of the 7th September award of the city of Vranje, public recognition for exceptional achievements in the category of education, and for the numerous prizes won in the field of art, musical and literary creativity. Her prose has appeared in Cardinal Sins, Your Impossible Voice, Fiction International, and elsewhere. Also, her work has been nominated for the Best Small Fictions 2023 anthology.