by Marija Stajic
As Svetomir laced up his military boots, Ruza hovered over him, a bucket of water wobbly in her hands.
He felt a few drops on his neck. The bucket must have been full and heavy on his young wife. She probably couldn’t hold it steady.
“Let me do it,” he said, getting up from his chair, a scuffed green backpack by his feet.
“No!” she almost yelled. “In order for it to keep you safe, I have to do it! Alone!” Some water overflowed the bucket and landed on their mud floor. Svetomir immediately wiped it off with his boot.
He then brushed her cheek gently, hoping it was wet not from tears but that when she ferociously pumped water from the yard water pump into the bucket, some had splashed up onto her face. He wanted to ask her if she really needed to spill gallons behind him, as he was leaving their house to go back to his platoon after a leave, or wouldn’t a few drops do the same trick? But he didn’t. He never mocked her love and fear which she displayed through her only way of protecting her family. Through Serbian voodoo rituals, passed on from generation to generation.
When she sewed a button back onto the shirt he was wearing, he happily bit on the wooden part of a matchstick she stuck into his mouth. And if he even mentioned someone dying or getting sick, he knew that he immediately had to move from the spot he stood in, spit three times into his chest, and bite his tongue, to avoid Ruza’s scolding gaze.
“I’ll write,” he said, staring into her blue eyes. “Take care of yourself, and our baby in your belly. Go to my parents if you need anything. Anything.” He leaned over, kissed her on her baby-soft lips, and wondered if some of the bucket water had found its way into his eyes as well.
As he headed for the door, she followed him like a shadow, struggling to hold the bucket steady, spilling water left and right.
Before Svetomir opened the door and exited, he wiped his eyes with his olive-green wool sleeve that smelled of lavender. He knew that she washed his uniform in the creek by their house, then sprinkled dry lavender flowers over it days before his deployment to protect it from moths and to remind Svetomir of the two of them, waiting for him at home. So he wouldn’t play a hero, he knew.
He turned and smiled one last time at his wife who, at 19, still looked like a little girl. Her features were gentle, doll-like, her hair red, her skin freckled, her eyes blue with green pebbles just like in the creek behind the house.
When he saw Ruza dancing in front of Zadruga a year ago, Svetomir thought she was a living doll. He had never seen a woman that fragile-looking before. Her lips were naturally pink and shiny, her cheeks red. She looked like someone who needed a wing to sleep under, and he wanted to be it. This overwhelming urge to protect her possessed him, and when he found out that she was actually a full-blooded Southern Serb who just looked like some aunt twice removed, he proposed immediately. And now he had to leave her again, with his baby in her belly. A son, he hoped. A son he had always yearned for. The first one of many. He wanted five at least, to extend the Petrovic lineage into infinity, the lineage he was so proud of, pure Southern Serbian.
As he slowly walked away from their home, he felt water drops on his back, his head, his legs. He smiled.
* * *
As Svetomir signed and sealed his first letter to Ruza in his tent, his platoon refilled their rifles to take on a mission the Captain had just ordered, to scout out the Krauts in the village of Gorchintzi, which was strategically placed on the hill overlooking the city of Pirot. Svetomir should stay in the camp, having just earned his Colonelship for bravery, the Captain said. He wasn’t just any soldier anymore. He was in a leadership position, and as such, worth more to Partisans than a regular foot soldier.
He observed his platoon, lacing their boots, putting on their military caps with red stars, holding bullets as if they were toy soldiers. Boys, aged from 16 to 19. He wasn’t that much older actually, but he was married, with a child on its way. He already felt as if he could be their father.
“Why don’t I join you guys on this mission?” he said. “I should be in the field with my boys. It doesn’t seem right that I stay in my tent like some housewife while you boys do all the real work.”
The soldiers looked at each other. He wasn’t sure if what he saw on their faces was anxiety or excitement.
“Pardon me, Colonel, may I speak frankly?” sixteen-year-old Joca said, looking at Svetomir’s boots.
Joca was his favorite, he wasn’t even sure why. He probably reminded Svetomir of a sixteen-year-old version of himself, with his strong, dark hair falling over his wide forehead, eyes so dark and piercing you would think an animal was looking at you, not a boy. But Joca looked at Svetomir also with a mild, gullible, boyish look, almost the look of a child expecting to be protected by you. And Svetomir felt he needed, wanted to be his protector. He wanted a son just like Joca one day, a son who looked like him, was brave like him, and whose eyes showed that he had a soul.
“Sure you may,” Svetomir said, and smiled reassuringly.
“Sir, don’t you need to clear this with…the Captain? He ordered only us to go.”
“Nah, we’ll be back in a jiffy. He won’t even know I was gone. Come on, guys, let’s not waste time. Those poor people in Gorchintzi can’t defend themselves. You won’t even know I’m here. I’ll be as silent as a ghost.” He smiled and patted Joca’s shoulder.
“Yes, sir,” the soldiers all said in unison, and let Svetomir climb into the truck first.
“I won’t get in your way, I promise,” Svetomir repeated, wanting to reassure them, holding on firmly to the metal bench, inhaling the smell of a new truck: a mix of freshly sculpted metal and young, male sweat.
The last thing he remembered was joking with his soldiers about intoxicatingly beautiful Southern Serbian girls to the point that the men felt possessed by them, as if they were nymphs, mythical creatures, not of this world. He also remembered feeling a lightness he hadn’t felt since the war began, as if some of the war-weight had lifted in that truck, and he was once again just a village man going to a soccer game with his buddies.
“I shouldn’t be participating in this conversation, boys. I’m married,” he said, smiling. “I’m out of the game. I shouldn’t even look…or should I,” he said, winking.
The boys laughed loudly. It felt good to hear them laugh, their soft chins, still bare, shaking, their eyes stretched out to slits.
That boyish laughter turned into a head-blasting sound just seconds later, and their laughs, below their childishly soft noses and budding moustaches, turned into eyeballs flying in the air, detached arms and legs like broken doll-parts, boots with only knees attached to them, rifles exploding like firecrackers.
A fire began to eat at Svetomir’s eyes, scorching heat at his body, pain like enemy soldiers invading him from everywhere, taking over every nerve he had.
Then quietness, nothingness, curtain-down.
When he woke up, he tried to control his pain, the enormous pain that hijacked his brain and made him want to scream as if he were a boy, as if his life were not in danger, as if he knew for sure he was on friendly territory.
But he just bit his lip until it bled. His legs looked as if drawn by a child, joints in all the wrong places, rents soaked in sticky, warm blood. His arms had holes in them, holes bleeding like faucets, filled with torn, blackened pieces of his uniform. He wasn’t sure if what he saw in one of them was a bone or his white shirt. He drifted in and out of consciousness, trying hard to hold onto this world, looking for Joca’s head in the rubble, or his long boots his fellow soldiers used to tease him about, joking they looked like a clown’s. He couldn’t see them, not his head, nor his boots. As if Joca had evaporated, as if he were only a figment of Svetomir’s imagination.
Svetomir tried to drag himself with his arms to the truck to turn every man over, put his ear on their chests, make sure they were really dead, not just unconscious. But it was as if his legs were made out of lead.
What he saw reminded him of pig-killing seasons he had tried to hide from growing up. There were pools of blood on fire, long guts on top of faces, legs where arms should be, burned tongues, blind skulls. His stomach convulsed. The smell was also much like the smell of pig roasts on spits. He vomited, feeling he was throwing up even the stuffed cabbage his wife had made the week before. Swore off meat forever.
If he survived.
Could he really be the only one to survive? Could it be his wife Ruza’s spilling-water, good-luck spell? He had smiled at her as she was crying and whispering, he remembered. He laughed at other people believing in voodoo, madjije. But he only smiled at his wife.
Then he felt fear again, looked around like a fox caught in a trap, listened to every little sound, birds’ wings fluttering, chirping crickets. He wasn’t sure where he was, in Gorchintzi or in Babusnica, a friendly, Partisan village. That invisible border could mean the difference between life and death for him. And Ruza would be mortally wounded, he knew, by his death, and who knew if his son under her broken heart would survive.
He had to live. For the two of them.
Any moment now, Krauts or Partisans would see the fire and Svetomir would either be transported on a stretcher to a hospital or crucified or hanged from one of those plum trees which surrounded him. Unless he figured out where he was. He knew he was right on the border. If he would just crawl under the right tree, he would live!
Was it a bomb, or a mine, he wondered? That could tell him if Krauts were just inches away or not. He didn’t hear anything before the blast, he didn’t hear enemy soldiers speaking German or heavy-accented, broken Serbian, or the bomb flying in the air, nor were they warned by the driver. So it was probably a landmine. But the damn Partisan intelligence said the chance of that was practically the same as being destroyed by a sling. They vouched they had combed Southern Serbia for landmines with a fine-toothed comb, three times over. And he trusted them. A gullible fool. He should have done it himself. He sent his soldiers into more danger than was necessary. He sent boys to their deaths. He sent Joca. What kind of father was he going to be?
He couldn’t protect anyone after all, what was he thinking, who did he think he was?
He knew his wife would say, “God’s will.” But Svetomir didn’t believe in God.
This was the only Partisan truck since the war began that was utterly blown up. They were good, they were careful, his soldiers. Brave. But not reckless. And Svetomir had to be in that doomed truck, riding in the back, with his rifle by his side. So much for his wife’s voodoo blessing. Or was it a curse? Curse of surviving the war, but losing his soldiers. Living like a cripple. No five children. Curse.
He knew he had to make a decision. Left or right. Away from the truck or toward it. He didn’t have much time. Seconds whizzed by his head, like bullets.
Then he heard something. He thought he heard something. The voice was young, Serbian, familiar! Could it be Joca?
“Help,” he thought he heard. Then silence. Coughing. Moaning.
It could be Joca, or it could be a Kraut pretending to be a Partisan to get him to come over there, to their territory. Wouldn’t they just love capturing a Colonel! Would make their day. Would make their war.
“Colonel,” he thought he heard again. But not his name, Svetomir. Wouldn’t Joca call him by his name, to prove it was really someone who knew him? Could Svetomir even trust his ears? There was a loud buzzing in them still, and pain, and blood dripping down. Maybe he was just hallucinating all of this. Maybe it wasn’t Joca after all.
But what if he were wrong? And let the boy die, or worse, become a prisoner?
If Svetomir crawled toward the voice, if he could even manage to drag his broken limbs so far behind the truck, he would almost certainly either be captured or die of exhaustion, bleed out. The safest thing for him would be this tree closest to him, this plum tree providing him both shelter and food if he needed to stay longer, if he needed energy, sugar, water, from plums rotting by its roots.
He crawled away from the truck, to a thick-bodied plum tree in full ripe. Its smell reminded him of the homemade Serbian plum brandy his father gave him about a year ago, in an attempt to get him drunk and unfit for his service exam. It didn’t work; Svetomir wasn’t that easy to manipulate, even though his father came with the most beautiful girl Svetomir had ever seen, Ruza, who handed him the bottle with her long lean arm, smelling of fresh cut roses and honey. The golden liquid tasted like nothing he had ever drunk before, stronger than any rakija he had ever tasted. And he had tasted plenty, growing up surrounded by plum trees. What else was there to do? The taste of decomposing plums had lingered inside his chest for days. He could still recall the warmth in his chest.
That’s when he saw movement in the black canvas in front of him, left and right, flashlights, torches; he heard shouts, male voices, an indistinct, cacophonous language. His head hurt as if it were falling off.
The men closed in, looking like wild animals, starving. His eyes closed as well. The last words he heard were Serbian, “ours, ours.” Then, on the other side of the truck, he heard German.
Marija Stajic is the 2013 Undiscovered Voices Fellow of The Writer’s Center. She wrote a blog, fact-checked and translated for the New Yorker magazine. Her fiction has been published in the Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Epiphany, Lunch Ticket, Inertia, Gargoyle and another dozen literary journals, and in Defying Gravity, a collection of short stories. She has just finished her first novel, Refugee and her book of secrets, and is currently looking for an agent for it.