Sarajevo Roses

When a mortar explodes it leaves a unique pattern on the ground.  The concrete scars look like pressed flowers.  We call them Sarajevo Roses.

A fresh bouquet was left for us this morning.  I stepped around them when came back from the Holiday Inn, where we go to make a few phone calls, or pick up and send FAXs to various people we know around the world.  It’s our only form of communication these days.

In the relative protection of our underground café, I share a letter faxed to us from our friends on the enemy side, those who maintain B92, Radio Free Beograd.  They write that the snipers in the hills surrounding our beautiful city of collapse and ruin are paid per target.  Extra for children.  One sniper who was interviewed on the air–rebroadcast on B92–told of how he relished watching the expression on a mother’s face when her daughter, standing next to her, is shot.

It’s important to be proud of one’s work–to hold to one’s convictions–even in the face of disputes to the contrary.  And even in these troubling and difficult times, it is reassuring to know there is job security in Sarajevean Snipering.  So many of us still remain here to be the intended targets in these circus games.  We stay, continuing with our daily rounds of Bosnian Roulette in our attempts to get water from the only remaining spigot in the city.  Occasionally, due to boredom steeped in repetition, we set up other contests to pass the time competing with the snipers in the hills.

One street corner in particular is a favorite arcade for the sharp-shooters.

Anyone crossing the river and coming into town on a trek for water–or trying to sneak out of the city before this tournament is over–has to pass through this crossroad.  Quite a rewarding site for the proud snipers who are paid per head; extra for kids.

It was Plamen’s idea really, though he’d never admit to it.  The haggard ld grump likes to claim that he doesn’t care about anyone or anything anymore. 

Plamen’s much older than the rest of us, like a grandfather who’s wise and sharp and funny.  Born in Beograd, he’s lived in Sarajevo since he was four or five.  He’s over 70 now.  A landscape of creased flesh and dark eyes, he smiles, yellowed teeth between the missing gaps.  He’s lost almost everything he’s ever held dear; children, wife, friends, city.  Yet he has never ceased counsel with the better angels of his nature.

He’d been collecting linens for more than a week.  To some, it may have appeared cold and peculiar for this old man to sort through the rubble of someone’s bombed-out home and walk away with their bed-sheets.  But since, from most vantage points, Plamen is a crazy old man, no one said anything to the contrary.  In an insane situation, it is perfectly natural to display behavior that would at other times be considered utterly deranged.  Besides that, said those who knew him from that distant Utopian time of "Before the Siege", Plamen had been to the United States.  As if that alone explained something fundamental.

Twenty-five and some years ago, Plamen went on holiday in the U.S.  He traveled to that fabled land called California, returning with fantastic tales of music, girls, and drugs.  Certainly, he brought back evidence of the incredible music–miscellaneous LP records–and, to some, his behavior gave credence to the stories of wild drugs, but his exotic telling of seductive girls had to be taken completely on faith as no proof was evident.  Plamen, you see, wanted to be a beatnik, and in Communist Jugoslavia, he was about as close as anyone had ever come to a poetic bohemian.

He collected the bed-sheets for a singular purpose, and encouraged others to do the same.  "Bring them down to the Cabaret," he told everyone.  Then, from the former candle shop next door, he scavenged an assortment of dyes.  The buckets he needed for his surreptitious plan were plentiful, empty containers lay everywhere.  The difficulty was in finding those without bullet holes.

When the predetermined evening had come, we were a little surprised at how many people showed up at our Cabaret.  Each hauling an armload of linens, a hesitant smile, and a headful of curiosity.  In the darkness of this urban war-zone, that old self-declared hippie graced everyone with a night of joyful diversion.  The seemingly innocuous project of tie-dying bed-sheets.

In the last hours before dawn, we’d dyed dozens of sheets in an incredible array of colors, and what people remaining at the Cabaret tied them together in two expansive tattered quilts.  Plamen pulled a few of us aside and told us that we had to take the tapestries to the top floor of the building on the corner of Kuloviceva street.

Climbing the stairs, we gasped for breath under such exertion (none of us are as fit as we used to be back when when could eat everyday), and I almost wanted to curse Plamen having us make this climb.  But when we arrived at the top floor and looked out the window openings, we saw what he had intended all along.

Plamen had been there previously, stringing cable across from one building to the other.  It turned out that in the bygone days long before the Siege he worked for the television station as an antenna installer.  He still had tools and metal cables.  Plamen rigged a pulley in one building and an anchor in the one across the street.  A double-line of cable ran between them.  Tying the bed-sheets to the cable, we pulled them out the window (the glass long ago shot out), and they hung there, bright-colored sails thirty meters high, blinding the view from the hills of the pedestrian walkway below; the sniper’s profit margin reduced to nothing.

The centerpiece of the quilt blinder was an old souvenir from Plamen’s journey in the mythic ’60s, to that fairy-tale land known as San Francisco.  A tie-dyed tapestry of a skull with a lightning bolt across its cranium; an emblem of the Grateful Dead.  He told us the icon is called "Steal Your Face".

We laughed ourselves to tears.

I do not know if the dead in Sarajevo are grateful or not.  But at least they no longer suffer through the redundant funerary games of snipers and land-mines.  As for the living, we walked across Kuloviceva street under the calming shade and temporary protection of the bed-sheet tapestry, at a leisurely pace and timid mirth, evidence of our living gratitude.

Plamen was no longer around to see us.  He lingered too long while getting water that morning.  We joke that since he was an old man, the sniper didn’t get paid much.

Every Spring, in years past, Plamen liked planting flowers in his tiny backyard garden.

Roses were always his favorite.

YOU COULD BE NEXT

Enter your bold, brilliant and brief fiction in the 9th-Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. Send us your best in 1,500 words or fewer. The deadline is Dec. 1, 2008, and the entry fee is $12 a story. Mail your entry to: Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition, 700 East State St., Iola, WI 54990. For more information on the contest or to enter online, visit writersdigest.com/competitions.

THE SHORT LIST

The 8th-Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition attracted 6,805 entries. Judges Gina Ochsner, Debby Mayne and J.A. Konrath helped narrow the field. Finalists were judged and ranked by Writer’s Digest editors. Click below to read the top five stories (coming soon).

    1     Robert Brandt, Saginaw, Mich., "The Procedure"
    2     Marsha Brantley, Cleveland, Tenn., “Dirty Little Secrets”
    3     Kirk Barrett, Evanston, Ill., “Sarajevo Roses”
    4     Kara Graham, Lethbridge, AB, Canada, “The Last Dance”
    5     Rekha Rao, Pisa, Italy, “Kite Maker”
    6    Richard Holeton, Montara, Calif., “Year of the Pig”
    7    Carl L. Williams, Houston, Texas, “One Last Taste Of Home”
    8    Holly Current, Cincinnati, Ohio, “Burnt Offering”
    9    Marsha Brubaker, Warren, Mich., “Jerry”
    10    Ryan Edel, Raleigh, N.C., “My Brother the Hero”
    11    Quirino Valdez Garza, Jr., Pearland, Texas, “Coyote: A Family’s Journey”
    12    Hannah Rogers, Milford, Ohio, “Batman Band-Aids”
    13    Alicia Stankay, Ambridge, Pa., “Reflections”
    14    Grant Flint, Richmond, Calif., “Aunt Effie and the Great Depression”
    15    Stephen Woodfin, Kilgore, Texas, “He Ain’t Leaving; He’s Gone”
    16    Richard Goyette, Jasper, Ga., “The Dragon Hunter”
    17    Rebecca LuElla Miller, Whittier, Calif., “Haj”
    18    Johnny Skrabala, Richmond, Va., “Typecasting”
    19    Samantha Johnson, Mililani, Hawaii, “The Child”
    20    Lisa Eisenbrey, Austin, Texas, “Bob”
    21    Robert Norton, Portland, Ore., “Marie’s Lovely Picture”
    22    Kate Simonsen, Richmond, Va., “Employee Benefits”
    23    Rebecca Benston, Springfield, Ohio, “The End”
    24    Robert Couture, Boston, Mass., “To Swing”
    25    William Long, State College, Pa., “On The Night That John James Shot The Dog”

NOTE: To receive a book containing the full manuscripts of the top 25 winners, send a check or money order for $6 to the 8th-Annual WD Short Short Story Collection, 700 East State St., Iola, WI 54990.

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