A fat peasant woman, a rarity for wartime, kicked her bloated leg against the cage stuffed with white chickens, yelling shoo, shoo to prevent the birds from huddling together and keeping whatever breeze there was from cooling them off. Each time she hit the cage her colossal pink and purple cleavage bobbled from side to side, almost swallowing the thick gold chain between her breasts. The petrified birds clustered closer, cocking their crimson-crested heads and their long white necks away from the attacking limb. By the next sundown, the townsfolk would finish picking out which of the offered birds were juicy and plump enough to adorn their break-of-the-Ramadan-fast feasts. The chosen heads and necks would be separated by the chakija’s curved blades.
Rough red skin circled the empty yellow blankness of the birds’ pupils. Somewhere Halid had read about the direct link between chickens and dinosaurs. Like him, they were descendants of magnificent warriors, and like him they hadn’t an inkling of courage left.
It was too hot for early October, and he had sweated through his wool turtleneck during the three-hour bus ride from the train station in Split, where he had arrived from Sarajevo. He had spent the night crunched up on a wooden bench in the waiting room, using his suitcase as a pillow. Not having showered in over two weeks, he was embarrassed to take off his sweater. On top of the smell, he had no undershirt, and the fresh skin of his scar might make the other passengers uneasy. Well, he thought, evaluating the traveling conditions of his caged companions, at least I’m not covered with feathers.
“I heard you tell the driver that you’re just back from the war,” the young man sitting next to him commented. “What’s it like, Sarajevo?”
“It used to be big,” Halid said, hoping that his answer would shut the young man up. “Now it’s just burnt.”
“I’m going to go there. The trade schools are reopening next month. In two years I’ll be a licensed electrician.”
Halid’s village was approaching. Soon he would be getting off. All he had to do was ignore the intruder a little longer, so he pretended to be more interested in the sights outside the bus window.
The familiar turns on the narrow two-lane road pushed through the Dinara. The thick mountain forest separated the harsh rakija-brandy-guzzling highlanders from the docile coastal dwellers. To Halid’s left lay an empty water channel, one of the many failed Communist ventures. It was designed in the late seventies to bring water after the ten-year drought had destroyed several harvests. The leading local Communist politician, a self-proclaimed “loyal son of the dry land,” concocted a plan to blast through the fields that bordered the road and carve out a water channel. Almost everyone in the area lived off the land and had been reduced to total poverty by the drought. The young men, including Halid, volunteered to work on the channel, which got them out of high school classes and paid their keep for two months.
The project resulted in several blunders. The worst was the government’s decision to confiscate the land around the channel for “security purposes.” When the fresh water finally arrived and took care of the drought, most people had little land left to farm and no real access to the water.
Halid wondered to whom the cornfields and empty pastures belonged now that the war was over. The Communists were no longer in power, and the new land distribution was in effect. He wondered if any of his family’s cattle had survived the war. Five years later, with all the heavy stable work falling on his mother’s ailing back, he couldn’t hope for much.
Mother. He hadn’t called in months. They had never been able to afford a phone, and he was too embarrassed to call the neighbors and wait while somebody fetched her. Sweet Mother: she wrote every month. At first he opened her letters eagerly, but there was nothing in them except news of someone’s death. She never complained of her own sorry state—and not for lack of suffering, which was obvious in the scribbles and corrections. Her hand shook in deep sadness. After five months, he stopped reading. The rest of the forty-eight letters remained neatly folded at the bottom of his suitcase, tied with a ribbon he washed each time a new one arrived.
The bus driver was under pressure to get to his last stop before nightfall. He barely slowed down to let Halid jump off. There were still Serbian rebel snipers everywhere, especially on the desolate mountain roads that were not patrolled by the Bosnian Army. Their infamous “check-points” were often the sites of robberies.
The driver shouted, “Good luck to you, hero,” as he accelerated, leaving Halid in a cloud of dust.
He kicked his heels together to shake off his boots and dropped his suitcase. He opened and closed his fist a few times, pumping the blood back into his fingers. The platoon doctor swore it was the best therapy. Three months after the bullet had been removed from his shoulder, the pain could get almost as intense as the day he was shot.
He sat down on his suitcase and tossed the sweater on the road before him. The night was descending quickly, and it brought a slight refreshing breeze. He lifted his arms to air out his armpits.
The middle of the road before him was torn up, probably by a military truck, or even a tank. But the scattered acorns were untouched—Halid figured it had to have been peaceful here for at least two weeks. With his good hand, he picked up a handful of pebbles. They had cracks from water freezing and expanding inside them. They had been on the road for a while, possibly a winter or two. Maybe he even stepped on one of them when he departed four years ago. That thought stirred him, and he let the stones roll out of his hand.
He wasn’t ready for this. He had not planned to come back. He had not planned to be here, not this soon. The doctor prescribed another three months of therapy before he was to go home. After the treatment, he intended to stay in Sarajevo with one of his Muslim war buddies whose Christian wife left him and took their children back to her father in Serbia. But the ambulances brought in more wounded than the hospital could handle, and he was asked to clear the space.
“So, you were shot?” the nurse asked when he objected. “So was everybody else.” She handed him his suitcase without looking up from a new admission sheet.
During the first few days he slept in an abandoned building, hiding from the military police who were rounding up the wandering soldiers and sending them home to their families. He rang his friend’s doorbell several times at night; there was no answer. He tried getting a job cleaning stores for the local merchants. They laughed at him in his uniform at first, but when they realized he was serious, asked for his ID: only locals could be hired. Then armed guards were placed in front of all abandoned buildings, leaving nowhere to hide. The only option left was home, the last place in the world he wanted to see.
Anxious, he lit a marlboro. smoking was a new habit he picked up in the infirmary. The wounded soldiers around him claimed that they gladly took bullets “ ’cause there are always plenty of Marlboros around the hospital.” So, he tried one and liked it.
Usually inhaling smoke helped release tension. No such luck this time. It wasn’t fear that troubled him. He had faced fear during the ceaseless shelling. No, this was different. The whole area seemed strangely distant.
He looked down at the road. Another dry season. The acorns were terribly brittle. As a child, whenever his soccer team lost, he’d crush a few or stump over dry patches of soil to calm himself. Now, there was only a single acorn close enough for his boot to reach. He went for it. The sudden burst under his sole broke his uneasiness. Even the tingling in his arm subsided. He stubbed out his cigarette on the ground and continued toward the house.
What was once his grandfather’s plum orchard, now the property of the Communist government’s jam factory, stretched on his left all the way to the house, almost half a mile farther down. Halid’s family never stopped referring to it as “our orchard.” Father called it “my fucking stolen plums,” which was almost always followed by a hardy spit. It was the only instance Father’s unshakable faith in the Communist confiscation practices faltered slightly.
As Father grew more attached to the bottle and less to anything else, Halid spent days in the orchard hiding from the troubles liquor bestows upon a family. When Father discovered his son’s passion for plums, he tried bribing Halid to sneak home a bag or two from time to time. “And why not?” he asked when Mother subtly suggested that stealing from the government might not be the wisest idea. “Those are my fucking plums.” And he spat, of course.
The plums had not been picked this year—no surprise, with all the men away—and Halid could see them, dark, overripe, and rotting on the ground. A waste of good brandy.
While he was stationed outside Sarajevo, he often worried his house might have been bombed or burned and that the orchard had been cut down to make room for the wheat fields. As the new Muslim volunteers from this area enlisted, they all brought along the good news: his village had been spared.
His house was one of five, three on the left, two on the right, separated by a cattle path that stretched all the way to the stream half a mile farther. From afar his house didn’t seem to have changed. The broad stone building with a terrace connecting all four windows of the top floor had lost its original splendor long before this last war. Once upon a time it was the proud residence of generations of Vejzagics. The distinguished Muslim family ruled over the local Serbian peasants in the name of the Ottoman Empire, and his highness the Sultan, with generosity and wisdom for almost three hundred years. One of the early family fathers who was awarded the title bey for distinguished war efforts in the early eighteenth century, planted seven poplars around the main house, symbolizing the seven sons he had with his first wife. Now the gigantic trees dwarfed the house, casting a perpetual shade. Some of their leaves had grown even larger than the windows.
The house had been set on fire back in the twenties. A slighted relative felt cheated out of some corn, and thirsty for revenge, hid a dynamite stick inside a fire log. Thanks to a stroke of good fortune, no one was near the fire when the log blew up. The old stone hearth and the chimney were sturdy enough to withstand the explosion, but the flames spread throughout the rest of the house, destroying the entire first floor and most of the second. When the house was rebuilt, a separate kitchen was added to the barn across from the main house. The old hearth was sealed shut and the kindling kept inside the living room, far away from any vengeful hands. Just in case.
Mother probably used only one room now that she was alone. Even when the electricity was working, she couldn’t bear the expense of heating more than one. Now he would have to get a job and help. It was certainly his duty, and yet he couldn’t imagine entering the small damp rooms of his dilapidated family home.
Across the road from Halid’s home, above a badly piled haystack, the flat roof of another house was just visible: a grubby concrete building that once housed the dairy serfs and cheese and butter processing equipment. After the Austrians freed the serfs, they were allowed to stay and live in the houses. Then the Communists came and brought along the principles of the Red revolution: property for the poor. Now a Kaur, a Serbian family, great-grandchildren of the serfs—the Milosnics—owned it. Momir, the eldest of the Milosnic children, had fought for the other side and stepped on a mine during a night raid on Sarajevo, dying instantly.
Momir had also been Halid’s best and oldest friend. The kind of friend who would hold a secret encouraging grip on Halid’s eight-year-old hand when, during a schoolwide lice infestation, all the children were ordered to shave their heads. Halid squirmed in the barber’s chair, terrified that the nasty clippers would ravage his head instead of killing off the typhoid-carrying insects. If it weren’t for Momir, Halid would have been tied to the chair like a girl—the worst shame imaginable.
During the war he thought of Momir as a soldier and a grown man first. Standing on guard one freezing February night, he overheard two soldiers from his platoon report that some Serb “went break dancing” in the minefield. It wasn’t until two weeks later, during the POW exchange, that he learned from a captured Christian who served under Momir, that his major wandered onto the “Muslim wall-to-wall carpeting,” Serbian slang for mines, and “met the Maker.”
Death surrounded Halid then: young, old, cruel, quick, ugly, deserved, unexpected, hoped for, but the news of Momir uncovered a whole new category: the death of a best friend.
Only one window on Momir’s house faced the road, and Halid could not resist the temptation to peek in and see how the family had managed over the last four years. Through the grime, he saw a long water basin built more than a hundred years ago to water the dairy cattle that had shared the quarters with the serfs. Later that basin became a sink, and now pots, pans, and large cooking utensils hung on the hooks nailed into the windowpane above the sink. The mind is a funny thing as it gets older, he thought; he never would have noticed utensils before.
A woman with her back turned to Halid and her hair wrapped with a black scarf to show that she was widowed had just finished washing the dishes. She wiped her hands on a rag and reached over the basin’s edge on the tip of her toes to grab a baking pan. There was something recognizable in the way her elongated arms reached much higher than one would anticipate from someone rather short. When she turned around and placed the pan onto the huge wooden table, he discerned her face. It was Mira.
He had loved her once. But he had been too young to go against his family’s wishes. She was a penniless Christian girl, destined to poverty, with no chance of ever crossing his good Muslim family’s doorstep wearing wedding ornaments. Halid knew this long before she did. “It’s a good thing she is pretty and healthy and can haul all day long,” Mother commented on Mira’s strong constitution, totally oblivious to her son’s feelings for the lovely Kaur. “Her father’ll be able to dump her on someone.” And he did—after months of negotiating with Momir’s mother, Stana, Mira’s father finally managed to convince the proud Milosnic matriarch to accept the destitute beauty.
Excerpted from Homecoming by Natasha Radojcic. Copyright © 2005 by Natasha Radojcic. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.