Every Friday, 1 creative, letting their work speak for itself.
Elizabeth Rose Murray
The Books, They Cry *
Sarajevo, 1993. No idea what date exactly – it’s not important any more. Food and cigarettes are the only currencies that matter.
Zoran pulls himself out of his bunk and into his hole-ridden combat jacket, rescued from a dead comrade last week. Bullet holes in a jacket bring you luck, they say. Bullets are proud like Serbs. Never hit the same spot twice. There’s no glory in that.
The scarf that Zoran tied carefully around his face has slipped in his sleep. The dusty air burns, dry and hot. Every breath suffers. He gulps like a suffocating fish, checking around nervously to make sure he hasn’t disturbed his comrades. As his gaze falls on his commander, Zoran stiffens, straightens as much as his tired body can manage. He wonders how the commander sleeps so well.
Before he turns sixteen, Zoran wants to be in charge of a unit. The Great Siege is all he has left. His mother, father, brothers and sister; they all died unremarkably. Zoran was outside sketching the last lime tree in his village when return fire blew their makeshift home apart. He found remnants of his mother, but the others evaporated like mist. Hiding in the apartment was a cowardly act. They should have been fighting for the cause.
Under his commander’s care, Zoran is no longer the snivelling boy found curled around his mother’s severed body. Tomorrow, he starts his first shift on the barricades on the Northern Bank of the Miljacka. The barricades offer the best contact fighting. They’re where you earn respect.
“Are you ready to join the men, Zoran?”
Zoran had not noticed the commander wake. He stares into his leader’s eyes. The others say the commander can see into a man’s heart. Zoran believes it, even though his own vision is clouded. He puffs himself up, sucks in his cheeks like he’s seen the others do.
“I am, sir.”
He hopes the thin croak in his voice doesn’t betray him. He’s been dreaming of this moment, can’t risk his excitement being mistaken for fear. The commander reaches out, grabs the boy by his shoulder and squeezes. Zoran accepts the pincer-sharp grip, fights the urge to pull away. Inside, his heart pumps like rapid-gun fire.
The Gazi Husrev Bey Library is so silent Ismet can hear his father’s breath from the other side of the room. Before the war started, before the bread queues and blockades, before the trees were cut down for firewood, the building would have been full. Nobody comes to read books any more. They’re too hungry or cold or afraid. The majestic glass dome is now a withered skeleton. There is no glass left in Sarajevo.
Ismet’s father used to say the library was the middle point between heaven and earth. He talked of how the books came alive at night; “Imagine, Ismet, while we sleep, philosophers and scholars from every country, every era, leap from the pages to debate the world’s most important ideas.” When war threatened, Ismet’s father didn’t panic. He smiled, cupping his hands around a decorative spine. “In times of war, books and prayers can be of great comfort to a man.”
Back then, Ismet would examine the treasured sixteenth century manuscripts, trying to make sense of the beautiful, handwritten script. Scarlet, viridian and indigo inks whispered to him, offering a glimpse of the nighttime chatter of ghosts. Ismet listened carefully, trying to decipher their incessant noise in languages he couldn’t understand.
Those days ended when the ‘men in the hills’ arrived. Now, Ismet’s father is silent. He holds the books close, smells their musky scent, strokes their covers. But there is no smile. He reads very little. Always, he worries. The books, they cry.
Once one of the most respected scholars in Sarajevo, Ismet’s father is reduced to stacking abandoned manuscripts into banana boxes. See the remnants of his past in the elegant angle of his neck as he concentrates? Ismet tries harder to see it every day as willow-thin and grey as the sky, his father methodically piles book upon book, then seals the box.
An act that could cost him his life. His son’s too.
Zoran secures an excellent view of the Latin Bridge: a necessary crossing for civilians in need of water. Day after day, war-worn men and grief-bruised women race across the bridge in the hope of reaching the Brewery. Here, they drain water from the pumps, then risk their lives again to get back home to their families.
A tall, wiry sniper stationed at the Northern Bank barricade grins at Zoran. He nods his head towards the bridge.
In return, Zoran widens his lips and shows his teeth. It isn’t what a smile used to look like.
“Easy pickings,” he repeats.
Holding the high-precision rifle makes Zoran feel taller. Excitement rages through his body. Unlike the defending soldiers, he has ammunition. Ignoring the rusted trigger, chipped handle and uncomfortable weight, Zoran imagines that his weapon gleams against his hip. He’s thankful that there are no mirrors. He doesn’t want to see the oversized, tattered gun against his slight frame.
Zoran was never athletic or academic. He only excelled at art. Looking back, he scorns that weak, sunburned boy who spent hours dabbing at canvas with a sable brush. Cerulean blue, lemon yellow, alizarin crimson: all distant memories buried under the dust and debris of constant shelling. What need is there of such wasteful occupations? The city’s freedom will be beauty enough.
The city’s main library is bombed. Ismet’s father grows increasingly restless. What will stop them from turning on the Gazi Husrev Bey next?
“It is time, Ismet,” he says.
A disused fire station near the tunnel that leads from the city to the airport is their only chance. No one attacks the tunnel. The fighters need their cigarettes. The black market needs its extortionately priced food. And those who can pay need their way out.
“How many books will we take, papa?”
“All of them.”
More than ten thousand tomes have made their home in the Gazi Husrev Bey. Ismet sighs. He wonders whether, with all their wisdom, those revered scholars saw The Great Siege coming? Pausing, gleaming manuscript in hand, he peers skyward, expecting to see apparitions. There is only the flat grey sky where the dome once glistened like dew.
Ismet’s mother begs her son not to go. She says it is too risky for a boy of fifteen. She has not heard the books whispering, isn’t familiar with the sound of their important ideas. Ismet knows that if Sarajevo is to be rebuilt, it cannot be left to the criminals and thugs that have sprung up on both sides. Whoever wins, whatever the future, the books will preserve the city’s identity. They need to be heard.
Pacing the barricade, staring down into the city, Zoran feels sweat drip down his spine despite the wintery air. With every step, the sniper’s eyes sear into him, calculating his next move. Zoran knows his future relies on impressing this man. Otherwise, the commander will be disappointed.
Zoran takes one of his companion’s cigarettes, taps it against his palm before lighting it to buy time. After three days of watching, he must shoot. But the choice of target is critical.
As he sucks on the cigarette, Zoran tries to think like his commander. Could shooting a man earn him the most glory? Maybe killing a woman would show he’s cut all ties with childhood? Or would a toddler be best? He looks into the sniper’s eyes, trying to read him like a colour palette. But the sniper only sees in monochrome. Zoran has to make his choice alone.
As soon as his cigarette is finished, Zoran stubs it into the ground and perches his rifle on the barricade. Closing one eye, breath slowed, he waits. Instinct tells him to let the first few people cross. But when a man in an expensive blue suit and hat steps out, Zoran’s heart thumps. The world pales. The blue suit gleams as it sprints across the Latin Bridge. Zoran aims, fires.
Recovering from the thump of the gun against his shoulder, he sees the man make it safely to the other side. His hat lies crumpled and smoking in the middle of the road. As Zoran lowers his weapon, a fist strikes him in the mouth. He springs back, but doesn’t cower. The blood is bright against his palm as he wipes it away. The sniper fixes his stare on the boy, spits his cigarette to the floor.
“Idiot! There’s no room for failure, here. If you want to lose, join the other side.”
Ismet and his father are ready. The city library still burns, lighting up the sky as their stooped figures step out into the morning, each loaded with a banana box full of books. Their task has made them strong. In single file they run across streets, dodge down alleyways, duck behind boxcars. Last night’s mortar attacks leave the air extra thick with dust, cloaking their movements.
When they reach the Latin Bridge, their hearts throb with fear. The bridge is open and in full view of the Northern Bank barricades. No dust will save them now. Waiting with the stragglers and empty water cartons, tucked behind an upturned truck, they watch. Ismet scribes a prayer in the dirt. War involves too much waiting.
A woman runs out, plastic water bottles clanking by her hip. She kicks an abandoned hat adorned with a single bullet hole, stumbles, but makes it safely to the other side. As another woman crosses successfully, Ismet decides he will grab the hat as he passes. A gift for his father as protection; they say no Serb bullet strikes the same place twice.
“It is time,” says Ismet’s father. “I will go first.”
He believes a sniper will fire as soon as he sees the box. There won’t be enough time to reload and shoot at his son.
“See you on the other side.”
Taking a deep breath and heaving the box of books close to his chest, Ismet’s father races into the street.
Sucking on his wounded lip, Zoran peers out across the range. There’s been little movement since he missed his shot. Just a few women he’d let pass to lure better prey. The others cower like starving dogs, sheltering behind vehicles. Zoran has heard that some people count the seconds after a sniper shot, trying to guess the safest time to cross. When will they realise it will only be safe when they, the Serbs, have taken the city by force?
Avoiding his comrade’s gaze, Zoran squints into the distance. He knows this is his last chance. If he doesn’t hit his target this time, his commander will be informed. His dreams of leading a unit will crumple in cadmium flames like the city library.
Zoran wears his non-smile as the civilians relax and begin to cross. First: a bent, grey man with a proud face. He runs slowly, only just able to bear the box he carries. Zoran blinks. Did he see right? His eyes haven’t deceived him; the box is imprinted with bananas. Zoran stalls. He knows that the black market is thriving; cars, clothes, toys, water. Anything can be bought for the right price. He’s seen the men in tracksuits with their oily hair and oilier palms, slicking their way from tunnel to hill to valley. They didn’t bother him before – smugglers are always chameleons in war – but the bright yellow-gold of the bananas feels like an insult.
“We don’t even have bread, and they have bananas,” says Zoran quietly.
Anger creeps into his stomach. His heart shrivels. As his blood pumps faster, making his forehead throb, he knows he will shoot the next person to appear. Under the watchful eye of his fellow sniper, Zoran lifts his rifle. Prays he won’t fail this time.
* ‘The Books, They Cry’ was shortlisted for the RTE Francis MacManus Short Story competition (2013) – it was aired on national radio but this is the first time it has appeared in print.
Elizabeth Rose Murray lives in West Cork where she fishes, grows her own vegetables and lives for adventure and words. Book One of her Nine Lives trilogy for children (aged 10-12) will be published by Mercier Press in August 2015.
Elizabeth has poetry & fiction published in journals across Ireland and the UK, and she has been shortlisted in the following competitions: RTE3 Short Story (2014) Penguin/RTE Guide (2013), Powers/Irish Times (2013), Writers & Artists/Anam Cara (2013) and Aesthetica Creative Works (2011). In 2012, she performed in Ciudades Paralelas: Station – a live writing installation in Kent train station as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival.
Elizabeth will be returning to ArtiPeeps on Wednesday 25th February for her first FreeSpace. Do watch out for her.
If you would like a Weekend Showcase please do get in touch via the contact form on the What’s On Page or via the comment box.