(Sarajevo, the winter of 1992-1993)
The winter came quietly, uncalled for, and alone. The UN plastic on our windows froze, while the barbed wire holding the remains of our crippled balcony rusted and hung. More of our friends left the besieged city every day, and even the pigeons, those old citizens, disappeared along with the cats.
The city was beautiful only on the first day of snow, when the crisp, white blanket camouflaged the dirt and holes. Every other day, its neighborhoods fell under the weight of manmade storms. Set on fire, the city flared up and glowed, but in our building the temperature stayed below zero.
The cold, bold and angry, crawled inside us.
There was a communal silence. When we talked, we talked quickly, sometimes just to say a word, and watch it freeze. To survive the war was important. But first, we had to survive the winter.
I spent the time reading in the corner of the dining room. Bookshelves hung around me like a protective kiosk. Wrapped in blankets from dawn till dusk, I read story after story, book after book. I paused only to get a new one, or to make a cresset after all the candles were gone. As long as there are books, the war can go on as long as it wants, I thought. Losing myself in words, I was free. I was Alice in the land of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I lived in Pearl Buck’s fishing village and then sailed the seas with The Old Man. I crossed The Bridge on the Drina on my way to meet The Egyptian and his pharaohs. I was everywhere, except where I really was.
Each night, Mama made the bed for us on the living room floor. She put it together with all kinds of ingredients from comforters to heavy coats. The five of us slept together for safety and warmth. Brat and Sestra slept on one side of me. Mama and Tata slept on the other. As I was the warmest, friendly bickering ensued each night to persuade me which way to lean.
To melt the frozen feeling and fall asleep, the five of us rubbed our limbs and rode imaginary air bicycles. We exercised, did aerobics, shook together, and spun around. But the cold was relentless.
One evening, Mama and Tata told us a big shipment of wood was coming to us, enough timber to keep us warm for the rest of the winter. But each morning it was to arrive, instead of the wood, more snow came.
Betrayed, the three of us spiraled into evil. I slammed doors and spoke only in yes and no. Brat shivered, sneezed, and caressed frosty fingers whenever one of them passed him by. Sestra feigned illness. By the end of the week we forgot about the wood. I returned to my book corner, to Kiš and Kafka, to Fitzgerald and Flaubert.
In bed, a line of separation was drawn. I had chosen my side.
The wood arrived weeks later when a small truck paused in front of our building and left behind almost a hundred bags filled to the brim. The five of us spent the day dragging them up floor-by-floor, like stubborn canines. That night, we proudly admired our rows of neatly stacked wood until Mama and Tata reminded us that we did not have a wood stove.
When at last they announced that the stove was on the way, Brat, Sestra, and I waited for it with the excitement reserved for the arrival of a new sibling. Our stove would be a locomotive that would cook four meals and bake two loaves of bread, while keeping all the rooms warm at the same time.
But from the moment the stove arrived to our doorstep, and Mama and Tata struggled to bring it in, we hated the thing.
This metal chest was a black box barely standing on four rheumatic legs that threatened to disintegrate at any moment. When moved, it squeaked like chains of a rusty swing and had to be raised on bricks just to reach the improvised chimney in the kitchen. It had a small oven, and below the oven was an even smaller opening for the wood to go in, and then there was a stovetop that could maybe hold a skillet or two. Even standing on a pedestal of tiles, this stove looked like it couldn’t keep a family of squirrels warm.
Brat, Sestra, and I laughed hysterically.
“Tata went to the surrealist market again.”
“Where is the gypsy that made off with our real stove?”
Mama and Tata tried to make the best out of the situation; the stove was all we could afford. They were set on setting up the fire. But after several hours, all they had to show for it were bloody hands and bruised spirits.
By the nighttime we admitted to ourselves that the winter had won. We now knew it was a matter of days until we would wake up too numb from the cold to call for help, just like Mr. Moustache, our warm-hearted neighbor who froze to death at the beginning of the winter.
We bundled up together again and fell asleep listening to the mortars work their way from one end of the city at Čaršija all the way to Ilidža at the other end.
Deep in the night, sharp flashes of light woke me up. I thought about getting the five of us ready to run to the shelter, but everyone was awake and staring at the ceiling.
I followed the collective gaze upward and froze. A fire engulfed the walls. It licked them with dizzying speed, encroaching on us. It was too late to go anywhere.
Terror shook us for several minutes as we waited for the end.
After a long while, we were somehow still alive. The flames were content dancing on the ceiling and the walls. There was no indication they would be coming down for us.
We finally realized that what we were watching was only a fire’s reflection originating from the stove. After we fell asleep the stove, which we named Little Monster that same night, worked itself into frenzy until it was orange. The entire night it churned, burned, and sweated until its color illuminated every surface from the kitchen through the hallway, until it finally reached the living room to wake us up.
For the first time that winter, we were warm enough to uncover, pull away from each other, and find our own space on the bed. Quietly, we waited for the morning to arrive. Brat smiled at me, and the smile leapt from one face to the next.
Shamans were not as happy as we were that morning.
The rheumatic beast quickly became the pet of the household and the topic of every conversation.
“Did you clean up the ashes? Does it have enough wood chunks? Did you sweep the chimney?”
Most of our neighbors acquired a Little Monster of their own. “Our stove cooks the soup in twenty minutes!” we’d hear them say in passing.
“Then you need to see ours! For soup, it only takes seventeen and a half!” we bragged.
Ugly Little Monster became the measure of beautiful. It thawed us. We started to play cards. We shared stories. Brat pulled out his guitar and we sang. Before, we had spent time together as strangers. Now, we introduced ourselves to each other once more.
One would never guess it by its size, but Little Monster had an insatiable appetite. As if it were some prehistoric god, we sacrificed fifty, sixty wood chunks to it every single day. This problem overshadowed everything else, because January was not yet over but the wood dwindled to a few bags, and so did the fire. We now started it only once a day, to cook the food when all of us were at home.
“We need to burn other things,” I told Brat and Sestra one morning.
“Like what?” Brat asked.
“Let’s start with old shoes,” Sestra recommended.
The burning of unnecessary objects turned into a movement over the next few weeks as we scorched things with increased intensity.
At first we targeted old things no one would miss: old toys, shoes, clothes, and mismatched housewares.
But then we burned the objects that had no purpose for the times we lived in. These were the tennis rackets, skis, picnic furniture, and a Ping-Pong table.
We moved on to the wooden vases and wooden jewelry, vacation souvenirs, fruit baskets and pickling buckets, old fabrics and curtains. And some rugs Mama kept for the renovation after the war.
There was also an old fence we sacrificed, some broken-down shelving, plastic bottles and carts, and finally the picture frames.
Except for water, everything burned.
Then we figured to get rid of the ironing board, drawers from inside the dressers, smaller shelves, and the extra chairs.
Things burned too quickly, so we moved on to an old gramophone, hundreds of vinyl records, an old radio, and a computer keyboard.
Next, we burned the rugs from all rooms but the living room.
And while we were at it, we burned the tables, side tables, bedside tables, and coffee tables . . . even regular tables, plus one small couch.
In the end there was nothing else left to burn, but there was still plenty of winter left.
Delirious with the cold, one morning we gave in to the thought that abused us for days.
“The books . . . we can burn . . . the books.”
We paced ourselves at first. We burned only the tourist guides and How-To’s. Then we burned children’s stories, fables, and fairy tales. H. C. Andersen stuff.
We set all of our magazines on fire. Detective novels, comics, and love novellas were next on the list.
Fast reads burned fast. Pocket books provided enough fire for a coffee or tea.
The encyclopedias and dictionaries were enough for one meal. Thick tomes and school textbooks were our favorites. Due to the quantity and quality of their paper, these books sometimes cooked two meals each. Some books were so thick that we only needed a chapter or two, or from “A” to “C,” to prepare the dinner.
“I will write a novel on how to bake a bread with two chapters,” Mama used to say.
“Good. Then I’ll burn it to cook the rest of the dinner,” Sestra joked.
Our needs murdered the guilt. Stories in the books were not as important as our Little Monster and its wood habit.
During the night, as I was lying in bed between Brat and Sestra, I listened to the lively sound of fire. In those moments, I enjoyed life for the first time in a period of many gray days. Maybe there would be an end to the winter after all.
It’s night again. It’s frigid. The stove is lit, but the room is dark. I hear shuffling. Slow, sinister steps. I rise to check the front door. Before I reach it I see several unknown characters in the kitchen and a horde of strangers barging into our home.
They see me. I see that they see me, but they say nothing. I scream, but all that is coming out are gasps. Terrified, I run back to bed to wake everyone up. Mama and Tata will know what to do. But they are in a deep sleep.
The strangers follow me. They climb over our bodies as if we are a human staircase. They go for the shelves. With bare hands, they take out hundreds of books.
After emptying out the library, they float over to the stove. They shuffle the books and spread them open. Here and there they read a poem or a few paragraphs. Then they tear the pages out and flick them into the fire.
I crawl behind them and watch them from the floor. I’m growing weak. Every book that’s ripped apart, every page that meets the fire, weakens me more. Even I am surprised at this pain.
Book by book, story by story, the paper gets ripped up and set on fire. As Little Monster is warming up, I am bending over in agony. The word heat is vicious.
I finally recognize some of them.
It’s Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Zola, and Hesse. They are sitting around the kitchen table like gambling buddies, deciding which book to get rid of next.
Near the corner of the stove, leaning on a burning brick, The Count of Monte Cristo is shaking with fury. Next to him, Anna Karenina is holding two of Yesenin’s baby dogs.
Freud’s Ego and Super Ego are baking in the midst of two heavier bricks. Id dies laughing.
I hear Roman legends recited in the sandy rivers of Egypt. I hear a samurai sword clanging as a hero prepares to deal with a lost fight.
In the background, I see Dreiser and Huxley. Steven Zweig too. They chat indifferently. Sarajevo is no place for their stories anymore. Now, they form a line for the stove. Fearlessly, these three walk into the fire.
The others follow them. An endless line of characters, heroes, artists, and writers hold hands. One by one they walk into the licks of flame.
Everyone is burning. They are disappearing in the blaze that doesn’t have an end. As soon as one line ends in smoke, another line starts. All of them are in a hurry to leave our home through the chimney.
I try to pull them out, but they are smoke before I reach them. I drag my body to the water containers as quickly as I can, but they also vanish. I can’t save these people.
Little Monster is scarlet red. The intense heat is shaking its tiny legs, pushing them to angles they cannot sustain. They are threatening to take off.
I’ll never get to know these characters, these people, these artists, so I rush to at least touch them before they’re gone. I meet them. They meet death.
I am barely standing.
Suddenly everything stops the way it began. Everyone is gone now, and the fire is extinguished. Remaining is the ash-storm stronger than even the winter, more cruel than the war, and the five of us, we are choking.
AIDA IBISEVIC was born and raised in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. She lives and plays in the USA.