THE WATER REPUBLIC
translated from Bosnian by Irena Žlof
Una and its river banks were my safe haven – an impregnable green fortress. This is where I hid from people, under the green branches. All alone in silence, surrounded by the greenery. All I could hear was my heart beating, a fly flapping its wings, a splash of water as a fish leapt out and fell back into the water. It is not that I hated people, I just felt infinitely better amongst plants and wild animals. The moment I step into the lush vegetation I know nothing bad can happen to me.
Unadžik, one of the river arms, ran by my grandmother's crooked house which was slowly sinking into the layers of sand and mud that the rain-swollen river had washed up with the mighty force of the April floods. The riverbed was made of limestone pebbles covered in moss and yellow sand, a home to shells with their nacre mirrors and wriggling eels. We used to catch bullheads in the parts where the bottom was covered in stones, using a fork tied to a stick. We would release our catch into a bucket so that we could observe them and admire their slippery bodies.
Here and there you would see a fire stove or a rusty washing machine anchored to the bottom, perforated pans once used for roasting chestnuts, a selection of corroded car parts. The water was so clear and transparent that you could spot a coin in water a few metres deep, as it reflected the shine of that other coin up in the skies.
Each house had its own sewage system which ended in a concrete pipe immersed in the river and in the summer, when the water level dropped, those casted gullets, bound to the ground by mortar, would resemble stationed crocodiles which periodically spit out faeces and soapy washing-up foam. Graylings, barbells and chubs would gather at those exits, feasting on the bits of food that humans had failed to digest. Standing on the crocodile corpses fishermen would throw led attached to hooks with worms and bread on them. They would use hand-made flies covered in grease (it prevents the feathery imitation from sinking) to get graylings hooked and they would pull out their catch along with the water ball and dump them on the riverbank covered in stingy nettle. The grayling would toss and turn in the nettle tangling up the 0.16mm line and all the other flies individually tied to the main line which passed through a set of porcelain rings on the rod, ending in a silky spool of a Shakespeare or D∙A∙M Quick reel.
River trout with their red and black spots would float ceremoniously just above the limestone rock, usually along the other bank, suddenly leaping out with a splash and gulping mayflies which dropped onto the surface as the dusk grew. Their leaps would create shivering rings which gradually dissipated over the water’s surface like smoke rings in the air of a lonely student room. As the night fell over Unadžik, dragonflies appeared, blue-black males and green females. Weightless river hussars surrounded by a cacophony of owls, coo-coos and nightingales. The river was singing its nocturno.
THE RIVER BANK IN WINTER
It is wintertime and the water has risen over the steps carved in the river bank and up to my grandmother's backyard. I dug out those steps to make it easier to get to our boat, because the river bank was quite steep. Wobbly pickets are sticking from the water which has flooded the grass under a quince tree and covered it in yellow sand. The surface of the river is rough, because its bed has become too tight. Waves are racing towards the bank, and into Gran's backyard. The water is so close, you feel you have to sink your hands in it. I had to walk all the way across the town to get to the water. Pass through lines of prying eyes – the eyes are skilfully camouflaged on tensed human bodies, pressed on like buttons, peering out from shops, windows, cafés. I am greeting the familiar faces with the cordial “Good afternoon, hello and how are you” – which, to be honest, is a small price to pay for what awaits me there. Who could love people-spools? How fortunate are moles, for they have no eyes to peer at everything. That is why I prefer moles to so many people I know.
I would feel restlessness overcoming me as I sat in our flat. I would quickly dress, angry at the never-ending winter, and embark on my pilgrimage. A ceremonious touching of the living creature river, observing bubbles of air rising from the bottom pulling along grains of sand; this whole underwater fuss of fluid storms always awakens the same desire in me: to become a fish with arms and legs.
Rain drops are draining from the roof, in the cellar the water feels at home, when it withdraws it will leave the cellar covered in sand, tree branches and leaves. And anything else that flows with the river. The house is like a lighthouse, and through a lit up window in the living room I can still see my Gran's face covered in fine lines and the inside of the room which had refused to conform to the laws of the air bubble trapped inside a levelling instrument, and insisted on leaning sideways, whilst slowly sinking into the soft river bank.
Everything is different in wintertime, the water is different and so are the fish. The water is translucent; pale green, and yellowish, you can just about make out contours of creatures, objects and events through its thin membrane. During those times the water switches to a standby mode, and the fish do the same; you can rarely see them. And when you do, they seem washed out and tired from the cold which reaches all the way down to the river bottom. The sedges lay at the bottom gradually losing their chlorophyll.
Gran's house is a fortress surrounded by water. During the flood season, the water rises so high that you can lean out from the kitchen window and wash your hands in the river. There is a hazelnut tree just beneath the window; we use it to secure our boats. Further down is a sandy beach and a few sewage pipes covered in moss. The asphalt road above the house leads to a river island with two football fields on it. Further up the road are lines of houses, pressed against each other like grey crows in misty treetops. And there are the concrete walls whose purpose was long unknown. Now they are covered in thorny bramble bush, the spiky plants pouring down the walls like foam. It is on those mysterious walls that the moss displayed all its lushness, it was as if the North itself resided in those concrete reservoirs, where people once disposed of manure and other rubbish. Next to the reservoir is a rock, it is displaying its muscles, peering out from the flat grounds along with black locusts, sketching out an imaginary water level and the river's autograph of times far behind us.
Gran's house is situated underneath the rocks and the area of Sjeverovi stanovi. The garden is parallel to the house. Its centrepiece is a rose bush although it is not central at all, it is leaning against the fence of my Gran's neighbour Ramo who is a gunsmith. The rose bush becomes the centre of the continental world the moment it blossoms. Una is just twenty steps away. Gran is in her kitchen with the sloping floor, kneeling on a prayer mat. When she prays, the house is in perfect silence. In this house every object smells of river. When you lay your head on a pillow you can hear Una's waves and you can smell the sand, fish, shells. I can sense my diving into the river at some point in the future and it makes my palms sweat.
Gran's house is in total harmony with the water. Moreover, it is the harmony itself where Arabic prayers mix with pagan voices of river shamans. And my Gran is a fragile conductor of her God, lost in the water town on a river bank in winter. Her intimate God is the only God I ever believed existed. I can see her walking away from the bank as her house begins to float, with wings made of grape vine and windows like human eyes. The other bank is disappearing in the distance and Unadžik is now as wide as a sea. I let the house continue its journey, as sorry as I am, for I know what it will turn into at the end of its journey.
Gran's house is in total harmony with the water.
MY LOVE FOR THE RUINS
We pretended all those ruins were not there, and they were everywhere. You could not miss them. Our town had turned into a festival of ruins and we charged foreigners hefty fees for sightseeing and photo tours of our own burnt down houses, of entire residential blocks levelled to the ground. Our suffering was famous, we ourselves were stripped down more thoroughly than actors in a porn flick of the weirdest category. Our town ranked third on the list of most devastated towns in BiH. Not exactly the kind of statistics to be proud of, but we had no option but to brag about our being so crumbled down.
We could not expect all those houses, factories, and bridges to just rise overnight. Streets could not grow new skin. We moved amongst the ruins as if they were intimate testaments of our lives before the war. Now and then, rummaging through the Serb houses, someone would dig out a photo from school, a school trip or a party near the river Una. Someone would spot the face of an ex-girlfriend who stayed on the side of our enemies, the teen love turning into smoke faster than the cigarette of a soldier caught in the line of artillery fire, with no shelter anywhere in sight. Believe me, two or three puffs and you are already smoking the cigarette filter. It is the fear which burns your cigarette.
The metal bridge had collapsed on our side and they poured gravel over it so that people could still cross the Una which runs through the centre of the town. Imagine a town where the street of Marshal Tito is covered in weeds. Some say that chetniks kept pigs in the town's central café which cannot really be true because the town's centre was very close to the front line, and keeping pigs would simply not be practical. Some thirty metres further down was the town's mosque, now blown up. Its stone blocks were scattered around as a result of the final blast. The minaret was lying on top of a pile of stone debris, like a telescope the faithful once used to search for and call up to the Absolute. An orthodox church, strangely intact, overlooked the mosque which was in line with the split of military power between us and them just before we took back our town by force. As I was passing by the mosque I found a piece of stained glass, blue and yellow, from the mosque window. I put it in my pocket.
We were uncommonly fond of ruins. Nearly every day I would walk over to Pazardžik to visit what remained of my grandmother's house. Only the river Unadžik remained largely unchanged. All the houses were burnt down. The newer ones, made of brick, were lucky enough to still have walls. I was rummaging through my Gran's house with my bare hands, assuming I was standing in what used to be the living room, because that is where, just a day before the war started, I left a golden chain in a box, some photos and letters and a Remington 223 with two handfuls of cartridges. All the rooms in the house were now just a single pile of sand, roof tiles, mortar and stone. Someone has yet to invent a compass to help us navigate in those conditions. The house was no longer three-dimensional, only the grape vine survived the fire, leaning against our newly built house which we never got to move into because, on 21 April 1992 at 17:00 hours and 50 minutes members of the paramilitary units of the Serbian Democratic Party – the chetniks – attacked our town from the direction of Lipik and the mount Grmeč plateau. During that time the Yugoslav National Army units were taking positions on the hills around the town, presumably to protect us from invisible "martians." The attack was claimed to be prompted by alleged gunfire started by a Muslim militia from the predominantly Muslim village Arapuša, which stood isolated and surrounded by the Serbian villages of the Grmeč area and the villages on the right bank of the Una river. This dreamed up gunfire resulted in injuries of innocent Serbian civilians and they had no choice but to respond with an artillery attack on the town using all available means. Only a blind man would fail to detect the similarity to the attack on Germans staged by the SS units posing as Polish soldiers, near a German town Gleiwitz, which resulted in the complete destruction of Poland. Arapuša was later on turned into a concentration point where civilians were kept prisoners in homes, before they were transported to real concentration camps or to the free territory.
I have only started noticing ruins now that they are gone. When there were tall bulwarks of debris rising on each side of the street the eye was used to such scenes. Gradually, the ruins disappeared. Newer, bigger, uglier houses were popping up on the ruins of the old ones, like plants sprouting out of radioactive compost.
The first time I entered the town I was coming from the direction of the town's hospital and walking through Varoš towards my building, I started choking on the bland realisation that the town I knew had somehow shrunk. My own body seemed tough and large. There were neither familiar nor unfamiliar faces in the windows of my building. No one was waving at me. The town was empty and almost dead, not a single person in sight. This is what the Earth will look like after the 3rd world war and the twilight of civilisation. Here and there a torn up net curtain would briefly shiver and then resume its numbness. Like the eyelid of a dying man.
Feeling very much unadjusted and Gulliver-like, I got to my building. It all seemed like a dream I had long been preparing myself for, but now when I was to face its realisation, I was utterly unprepared. The reality I saw was grossly surreal. Don't get me wrong: I loved surrealism in art and literature, but this particular film made me nauseous. My titan's body and this tiny town. I took no notice of the ruins. The town's park was running wild, and my building was the Gobi desert with floors and balconies whose metal fences were crumbling in rust.
Had I been the master of nature, for this particular scene I would have chosen a drizzle which would gradually gain strength and intensity as the scene progressed. A soldier wearing a BiH Army uniform would be standing in the rain in front of a building entrance above which there would be a blue metal plate with bullet holes in it which read: 89 Marshal Tito Street. He would then start vomiting.
I never joined the Communist party. I once put my name down on a list which was being circulated during a Marxism lesson, but then I changed my mind and crossed it off. I did not want to be a member of a party which anyone could join, without any background checks or tests of political beliefs. The books I read also contributed to my lack of blind faith in such a system of ideas. Seeing all those nationalists or, rather, wannabe nationalists from my high school joining the Communist party was the final blow to my dream of an elite party. So it is only very naïve people that could wonder how it is that so many communists would suddenly turn passionate nationalists. The answer is very simple: they were never communists to begin with.
I am now standing in front of my greyish-green building. A wild cat appears on a balcony but quickly disappears a second later, returning into a living room. In its place is a hologram of a gypsy Homer whose lips are moving: “Give generously, aunts, comrades, friends… Give generously, may God give you good heeee-ealth… May God save your child-reeeen...” His face resembles a hologram on a Schengen visa, a circle with slices missing at the south and the north poles, from whose edges rays of light are emitted in concentric circles. He has two golden lilies instead of eyes.
The rain would wash away the contents of my stomach, carrying it downhill towards the spot where the mosque and a Catholic church once stood, and where the Orthodox church still stands. We used to shoot at its cross made of brass with our rifles, out of boredom, as we kept guard near Kareli's house, on our side of the Una. We shot rifles because we had no weapons of greater calibre, we had no disintegrator of all matter, to disintegrate it to subatomic particles.
My secret peacetime weapon became the piece of stained glass. When I put it in front of my eyes I see things as they were, as they are and as they will be. Never again such beautiful ruins.
A HOUSE WITH A GABLE ROOF
Our house on the river Una has had its fair share of ups and downs. It burnt down for the first time in 1942 during the German air strike, and all that remained of it then was a pile of ashes over which its inhabitants gathered, as if to mourn their closest relative. In time its ashes got scattered over the river, and a new house was built of travertine and river sand and wood for the staircase, and reed for the ceiling, and oak beams placed diagonally to support the walls. That was the house I remembered, and it too was to face the same destiny, only this time it disappeared in a slightly different manner, ended by a filthy careless hand which brought a lighter to a piece of paper and tossed the burning paper onto a carpet soaked in petrol which lifted the house up to the skies. Hover like smoke in the air, without knowing it, Celan had written an epitaph for my grandmother's house. Those were its earthly falls, but its inner world was another story; the house lived on. Its inhabitants are still living inside the airy house. In summers, the divine aroma of roasted coffee beans spills from a tin apparatus onto the porch over which the roof extends, dropping steeply over the part of the garden overlooking the river. Grapevines are climbing up the pillars supporting the roof, and water is drawn from a pitcher pump, as it gushes forth it gurgles in peculiar voices. Like a creature from the darkest depths of the earth, at last free from its shackles, it emerges into the daylight. My Gran, her face framed by a scarf of tame colours, is watering the rose bush in the garden which sprang up from dense sandy grounds, the kind you can only find on the banks of Una. The scent of rose petals is intoxicating. Gran will use them to make a sweet, pale purple syrup which she will pour into two-litre jars. At first, petals remain on the surface but then gradually they sink towards the clear sugary bottom.
At the point where her garden ends and the backyard starts wild camomile and ribwort grow. There is a bench and a table underneath a quince tree, and three steps further is the river bank and a fiord where we tie our boats. The boats are heavy and their ribs, planks bent in the shape of a horseshoe, are pregnant with water from being in the river all their lives, used either for fishing or excavating sand. If you have a boat you also have a fiord, and every fiord bears the surname of the boat owner, just as each part of the river bank is named after the surname of the family living next to it.
Gran’s second house, the one that I remember, had been sinking into the river bank for years, the side of the house facing the river, and its kitchen floor was sloping, as if the house was trying to slip into the water. Gran did not like that and she had always dreamt of a strong and reliable embankment to prevent the inevitable, the unity of the river and time, just like in the Heraclitus metaphor.
A scant but perky hazelnut tree grew behind the house, right on the river bank. I used to sit in the tree and observe a kingfisher, the heavenly coloured feathers on its neck, its black silent beak pointed at the river, as if aiming at the back of a fish recklessly close to the surface, and yet the kingfisher would remain still for hours, just sitting on a bare autumn branch, until the rain came and disturbed the clarity of the river, transforming it into a fearsome unintelligible monster with wide murky muscles which assumed different sizes and shapes of fear and discomfort. When a kingfisher plunges into the water it turns into a bodkin; it pierces the water’s surface with a small splash and resurfaces with a fish in its beak, which it carries to a nearby willow branch whilst drops of water form on its greasy feathers, making the colours on its breast and neck even more intense. In the summer, the kingfisher is undetectable, hidden in the foliage of an alder, a willow or an ash tree, whose leaves turn in the wind, showing their white back-side, a sure sign of a storm coming.
The house in the winter is difficult to describe; it is covered in snow, with spiky icicles growing vertically from the edges of the roof towards the ground. This is when the fire rules in the kitchen stove, orange rinds or an aromatic root of heartleaf oxeye from Gran's cabinet quietly burning on top of it. Those who like to watch water easily give in to watching fire. Flames flicker behind the door, the stove is a space catapult which will launch us into distant warm lands where there is no snow or overflowing Una. Gran's prayer mat is the source of warmth – tanned sheep skin with white tufts which she uses five times a day to pray to her god. In her kitchen cabinet the glassware, documents with stamps of the Kingdom of Serbs Croats and Slovenes, gold jewellery and a bottle of herb brandy kept for medicinal purposes could not care less for our perception of time, nor does the locked drawer I never got a chance to take a peek into, except for when Gran would take out her gold opal ring which changed colours as I turned it towards the chandelier light. Winter on a river is no joy, the house becomes a sarcophagus in which we longingly await the spring and the divine summer, unless we are entertained by my uncle Šeta and his magician's tricks – he could make a coin disappear off the palm of your hand or swallow a necklace –tricks he picked up during his service in the Yugoslav navy.
Gran's house has a gable roof, it borders on two different worlds and it is leaning towards the river Una out of its own accord, that indescribable river. One of these days the house will sink into it and I will be able to see it as part of an underwater world full of nymphs and river fairies, along with the contours of my own face reflected against the deep green.
Una will still flow when my story ends.
It is this actual river that I now return to, I mix myself with its colours and its strength. The sun is already high up in the sky, reflecting the veins of willow leaves onto its smooth surface. From behind a curtain of a nearby window I hear a radio broadcast of a football match. White linen, as dry as gunpowder, is dancing on the western wind. Everything is possible and close and tangible. Over there, where the river takes a turn next to the abandoned slaughter-house, amidst the falls of bubbly water, I see a silhouette of a thirteen year old boy. Using his fishing rod he cuts through the tall grass and wild mint and he disappears in the ripples of the river.