White Handkerchief

Over twenty years ago. Twenty years dedicated to forgetting. Balkanization. Ethnic cleansing. Milosevic. Kosovo. Sarajevo. The 44 months into the siege of Sarajevo.

Everyone wants to forget. Wants to forget the bullet-ridden walls, the crumbling, bombed out apartments. Time starving in basements listening for bombs. The bread lines. The water lines. The funerals. They even want to forget the men who fought. I have learned that much from you Americans. You know how to forget.

Now, instead of flags, we raise white canvas umbrellas, sweep clean our cafes and serve lunch. Now, we are open for business. Tourism. Come and stay here. Swim in the Adriatic, lie on the warm beaches, taste and enjoy the sky. Look at our stecci, our gravestones. No, the old gravestones, not the new ones. Remnants from the Roman Empire–tombstones engraved with their rosettes and entwined grapevines and one with a man waving his right hand. We don’t starve anymore. We just sell and forget.

You look angry. You think that I am one of those who fought on the wrong side. Who raped and killed. Well, you are wrong. Let me tell you a story. A story to wipe your mouth with. A story that will make you hungry. A true story.

Once, in the gray morning din of smoke and fire, a child emerged out of a basement stairwell carrying a small woven basket covered with a clean, white handkerchief. He appeared seemingly out of nowhere – this little brown-eyed boy standing there in the crossfire. I had been on watch that day and the night before, so I was exhausted. It was the seventh day of the siege. At first I thought it was an apparition – some ghost meant to taunt me. But as he started to run, I realized that he was indeed a child. And I beckoned to him amidst the gunfire, calling to him in a whisper because I was afraid that we might both get shot at by the snipers my company exchanged shots with daily.

The boy approached me in a daze of confusion. If he didn’t move, he would be shot so I pulled him behind the pile of sandbags with me. He clung to me, tearing at my shirt. Yet, he made no sound. When I could finally take a breath, I stood him in front of me.

“What are you trying to do, kid?” It was a silly question, but it was all I could think of. I wanted to tell him that he could get killed. But there was no point in telling him that or being angry.

The child looked stunned. “My mother told me to bring my father lunch and a fresh pair of socks for tonight.” He looked at my black muddied boots in great doubt as if trying to find the answer there under my feet.

“But where is your father?”
“He’s not here.”
“Do you know where he is?”

The boy only grew more confused. He gazed up and started looking around himself. It was cooler behind the barricades, breathless and cool. But I think he could also smell the decay here.

“He’s supposed to be here. My mother told me to go, but I can’t find him.” The boy’s lower lip was starting to emerge. I could see he was frightened.

“What is your father’s name?”

“Well, your father isn’t here.” As I spoke, I realized that perhaps he was the son of one of the snipers who had been pummeling us here on the outskirts of the city. I don’t know what drew me to this conclusion, but I pointed over the barricade towards the long string of buildings where I thought the snipers were hiding. “Your father must be over there.”

The boy became agitated and gripped the basket he was carrying even tighter. He looked like he had made a fatal mistake.

“Mother will be so upset! I was supposed to give him these things and now …” He looked on the verge of wailing – I could see it in his eyes – and I didn’t want the boy to cry.

It wasn’t just the noise he would make and the attention it would draw, it was that I didn’t want him suffering. He was clearly terrified by me and I think, as I watched him, we were both sensing the danger we were in. If he ran to his father without warning, he would be shot. Instead of kneeling down on the muddy ground behind the sandbags, I instructed him to sit on my pack. He did so quietly, perched there, expecting the worst. He wasn’t blubbering now, just coolly silent. He smelled of urine. I was sure he’d wet his pants. Annoyed, I waved him off my pack to sit on a stone farther down. I told him that whatever he did, he must not cry. And I pressed my finger to my lips.

I don’t know what possessed me, but I then found myself stepping out from behind the wall and calling out, like some neighbor in the late afternoons of our long dead city. I called out to this man casually, like it was nothing at all.

“Pavel, your son is here. Can you hear me?” Immediately, the snipers’ intermittent shooting ceased. My words were followed by a long silence, as if someone had stopped to think rather than reload.

Then a voice boomed out. “I don’t believe it!” There was another pause as if the man were taking a deep heavy breath. The stillness thickened and I waited. I felt like I could finally sense where the snipers were. I could see exactly where their positions were in that long stretch of blown-out buildings – what used to be hotels and apartments on the edge of our city.

The sniper finally answered. “You’re lying. You think I’m stupid?” His voice was defiant and troubled. This man clearly never thought anyone would ever know his name. I felt a surge of anger at this man’s distrust. I looked at the boy again.

Maybe it’s what happens when you’ve been sitting behind the barricades for too long. Everything looks a little ashen and even the sunlight streaming through the rubble seems gray. I could see the crown of the little boy’s head, his straight, brown hair, the silly bowl-shaped haircut. Someone, probably his mother, had clipped his hair. Someone would miss him and weep for him if he were gone, but it would not be me. I wondered if even now his father would look at things with a sharpshooter’s eye. Advantage. Disadvantage. And if I waited too long, perhaps I would think that way too? So I called out again.

“Look. No one has to come out. Just don’t shoot the boy. He’s going to walk across to give you your lunch.” I told the little boy not to be afraid and to go towards the sound of his father’s voice. He went cautiously forward as I gently nudged him. At first, stepping tentatively, then breaking into a stumbling run over the debris. As he ran towards his father’s voice, the white handkerchief covering his basket fluttered in the wind.

For at least two hours we heard nothing from that side. No snipers. No shooting. I had the curious feeling that somewhere along the line of sandbags surrounding those buildings, the little boy was crouched with his father, watching him as he ate his lunch.

It was very late in the afternoon – about four o’clock I’d guess – when I heard Pavel’s voice again.
“Don’t shoot! My boy wants to go back home that way!”

I cried back alright and the boy appeared again, carrying the basket. I assumed the boy was carrying the remains of his father’s lunch back home, but as he slipped back around the barricade, he handed the basket to me. In the basket was a bottle of red wine, corked with a nub of graying newspaper. There were some pieces of sweaty cheese and a few yellow apples all laid out on the white handkerchief.

“My father says these are for you. He wants cigarettes. Do you have any cigarettes? He says that he is dying for a light.” I suspect that the boy must have eyed the pack tucked in my front pocket. His father had not shot at me yet, even though I had given him ample opportunity. I greedily stuffed the cheese in my mouth and removed the newspaper to take a sip. Yes, I was hungry. I grew embarrassed as the boy watched me steadily. I stopped drinking, realizing that perhaps the cigarettes were some sort of secret code, although I couldn’t be sure.

“Did your father say anything else?”
The boy seemed pleased with himself and delivered the message with a curious lilt in his voice.

“Oh, he says that there will be no more shooting tonight, so you can get some sleep. Tomorrow someone is coming and they’ll shoot a lot.”

I did not know who “they” were. The commandos? Or was it just that tomorrow the snipers would finally begin their assault. I couldn’t ask the boy to explain. I put down the bottle of wine. In fact, I didn’t know what to say. I just chose to honor Pavel’s request. The cigarettes were a small price, although they were my last and I tied my pack of cigarettes to a piece of granite, part of the burned out building where I kept my watch.

I stepped out, took that shard and threw it as far as I could. And as I threw the rock, I cried out, louder than before, “Pavel, this is for you!” It landed somewhere with a thump and a roll. I thought if I listened hard enough, I could just make out Pavel’s surprised scuttling behind the barricades to get to the cigarettes. It was an odd sensation listening for this man and having his son standing there beside me while I waited with a gun hanging from my shoulder. Either Pavel was lying or he was telling the truth, there was no way to know. As I waited, there was a curious silence mixed with the drone of flies, before Pavel cried out.

“Thanks for the cigarettes and the boy!”

The boy scrambled out of the trenches carrying his basket and as he went, I called out to the men not to fire. That afternoon and that evening no shots were fired on either side and all of us did finally sleep. I could say that the stars stood still that night, but they didn’t. Those are the lines for a song, like the ones I used to hum in cafes, like the songs about beautiful women and wondrous cities and starlit nights. Instead, we were relieved and restless, wondering about the strange silence that befell us all that day. It wasn’t until the following afternoon that the sounds of gunfire returned, turning the earth and sky upside down.

About M.L. Lyons

M.L.Lyons studied English at New York University and was awarded a Klepser Fellowship at the University of Washington. She has since worked as a contributing Editor to the Seattle Review and most recently interned with Copper Canyon Press. She is currently co-editing Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workplace (Lost Horse Press, January 2015) Her work is forthcoming in Raven Chronicles, terrain.org among other publications.
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