(Sarajevo, the winter of 1993-1994)
Regardless of how much flour we had, Mama always baked bread on the nights when Brat was returning from the shift in the trenches. She was easy to find–hips against the counter, swaying to a song in her head while she wiped her hands on the apron. On the counter, miniature salt and sugar boxes encircled her, and a hefty white pot in which the flour glistened under candlelight. When the flour was gone, she poured in mekinje, a chaff mix once used as food for cows.
Book burning days ended with the previous winter. Most neighborhoods in the city had since installed gas. Ours came with a hastily improvised system. A thick, orange pipe burgeoned through the building like a firehouse pole, while narrow plumbing pipes, as if they were some kind of inverse IVs, attached to it on each floor, and spread the gas to our homes.
Small gas explosions happened often around the neighborhood. Click–boom! Click–boom! The only one bouncing with happiness was the wood stove we called Little Monster. Since we capacitated it for gas it was lit almost always; its cheeks blossomed with orange.
A little cosmos of hoses distributed the gas all over our home. They bordered the divide between the ceiling and the wall, and rollercoaster’d down in sharp angles. Minute transfusion tubes ran under the remaining rugs like an organism’s digestive tract. Needles on ends of the tubes lit up into modern torches. Tens of these illuminated the kitchen, and charred the walls into wavy textures. Our forgotten rooms were open wide; they stood with whatever furniture was still left. Just above the human reach was the dust from the shelling; it teased, titillated, and brought out the coughs. But no matter how much Mama scrubbed it still remained, the invisible termite.
By then Brat had been in the trenches for more than a year. Two years? Manly angles straightened adolescent pudginess from his cheeks. He grew. A mature growth spurt snuck up and threatened to go on, regardless of whether flesh could afford to come along. He was a giant bag of bones in camouflage and heavy boots strangled with mud. By some standards he was the warrior he wanted to be before he joined the army. But that was another time. Another Brat.
Seeing Mama make the bread was like re-watching a favorite movie. I knew the scenes so well I shadowed her from behind. First, she took off her rings, letting the bands race themselves on the counter. With, now ring-less fingers, she tickled the yeast and sugar until they curled together in bubbles. She added them to the flour, and chased it all down with warm water. If I closed my eyes, I heard gummy snow boots of a boy crossing a puddle of mud.
I knew the twists her left hand took as she turned the pot like a steering wheel, around and around. Her right hand caressed, squeezed, pushed and punched, punched, punched it all into a thick, beige paste. At times she halted both hands, and slid in more water. She moved fallen bangs from her face with a wrist, and continued. Exaggerating the time needed to make the bread, Mama went on even after the dough was dry on touch. This was a cue for Sestra to place a kitchen towel over it, while Mama scraped the remaining dough off her fingers with a knife.
The draft picked up almost all the boys in Brat’s, and surrounding, generations. Lucky few paid hefty sums for diagnoses of non-existent illnesses. Other lucky ones joined the police. Luckiest ran away to other lands. But the majority of boys were the same as Brat: playing the guitar at home some days, and some days playing the guns at the front.
What he did in the trenches, he didn’t say. He didn’t say much overall, and knit his jokes with cynicism. I lowered the volume of my own humor. I recognized his soldier stares–deprived, furious stares of people who clawed onto the last morsels of time that disappeared, a look that is not good on anyone, but what to do when peace leaves without asking?
He always used to be open with me. Now, I knew he was my Brat only when we walked downstairs before a shift, and he squeezed the life out of me. The next moment he’d jump on the back of a green pickup, and I’d run after it until my legs gave out. On the truck were another thirty boys or so joking their way to the front. All shaven to the skull, all their skulls innocent, fragile, and alike, like eggs in a crate. On the days they stayed at the headquarters in town I knocked on the gate looking for him until the guards would shoo me away.
Sometimes he brought home a loose schedule indicating days he’d be at home, and the times he’d be off at war. We were so happy then. Mama chain-smoked and drank endless coffee, delighting in this documented affirmation, this handwritten life certificate, of when and that her son would return.
After the bread watching I walked in a triangle of solitude in the direction of door-phone-window-door. Mama waited with me. We told ourselves we were waiting for the bread to rise. Our conversation grew in absence.
During his days off, Brat was interested in everyday things: girls, coffee, and an occasional book. He liked poetry, and music. And he liked to reminisce about the time before.
He was not interested in what I wanted to hear the most – the war on the front. The siege, my war, became too predictable. But Brat, Brat didn’t want to talk about his war.
“What is it like out there?”
“It’s another planet,” Brat said.
“It can’t be another planet as it’s our backyard,” I protested. “What is it really like?”
“It’s cold. Wet. Dark. One day I’ll tell you.”
“Tell me now! Tell me first!”
“I’ll tell you first,” he promised.
“Tell me today!”
“You’re too young.”
“Nah huh! I’m eleven.”
“You’re too young. You’re not supposed to see it yet.”
“I am! I am!”
“When will I be old enough?”
“Hopefully, you won’t.”
Mama eventually always returned to the kitchen. There she massaged her arthritic hands so she could punch the risen bread some more before putting it in the pan.
Before, Mama always decorated her food. She made bread into more than bread. Now her hands could no longer tend the small details, so I painted the dough with a mix of oil and powdered eggs.
Sestra was sitting on a velvety chair. She shuffled a pack of cards, and spread them on the kitchen table, by a Nostradamus book. She read the cards, and then compared them to the sixteenth century babblings. Dissatisfied, she picked them up, one by one, and shuffled again. A better answer always came the third time around.
The bread was in the oven, baking to its own rhythm.
I rolled Sestra a cigarette. A small rolling machine cost me the last mortar end-point in my shrapnel collection. She smoked greedily, half a cigarette in one puff. She complained it was harsh without the filter. Mama caressed Sestra’s hair. Everyone smokes now… there are fewer filters than people. Besides a filter can’t save one from a mortar.
I believed then that I too would grow up to be a soldier, so Brat gave me little presents. Sometimes a camouflage bandana, sometimes a pocketknife. He taught me about guns, and zigzagging through the streets. He didn’t like it, but he gave in, as it was not a bad thing to know considering. Excited we had a language of our own now, I yearned for the day I could defend him.
When the scent of baked bread spread through the kitchen, I heard determined, staccato steps. Sestra quickly pushed the rest of the cigarette into Mama’s lips, and smiled as Tata opened the kitchen door. His schedule was as erratic as Brat’s. He was at the hospital for days sometimes. At home he held the dining room hostage to experiments. I was his involuntary assistant.
This is how you irrigate the eye … give me that instrument… no, not that one the other one… looks like scissors… good!… can you snap a picture?… Focus then snap… I know we don’t have a flash… take it, don’t be so stubborn! Have imagination… it will work, it must work! …Where are you going?…
An argument ensued. Mama came to Tata’s defense, Sestra to mine. We bickered to murder the time.
Brat came in just as we bickered about what time he’d arrive.
He put down his war things, a helmet he got after another soldier died, and a life vest he and a neighbor had sewn together. He nodded to each of us, and smiled. I rushed in for a hug.
The bread was finished. It was an invaluable amber brown small dome. Even though it was only a few inches from one side to the other through the center, Mama put it on a cake platter. We used our china daily. When life currency is as good as this moment only, every bread is a special occasion.
Sestra put the cards away. Tata smiled and picked up the knife. Brat drank a glass of water. I eyed the newborn.
Mama said to wait for the bread to cool off a little. It’s better that way.
Hungry, we couldn’t wait so Tata cut it open. He tried to divide it into five exact pieces. The smallest he held for himself.
Hotness raged out of the bread, and I hoped it wouldn’t evaporate.
Mama said to slow down; to save a little for tomorrow, we have no more flour. All three of us cried at once, cried loudly. Let us eat the whole bread tonight, Mama. Let us fill up tonight, who knows what happens tomorrow.
Hiding his eyes, Tata looked out the window.
Aida Ibisevic was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. She moved to Washington DC area in 1995.