It was a beautiful night, swelling with stars and cricket songs, and I was on the front porch with a glass of red wine. B and I listened to the sounds of the party inside; the raucous music, the jumbled laughter.
That’s what I heard, anyway. He heard the lyrics of the song. When he broke the silence, it was my life plan that shattered.
“I remember the first time I held one,” he murmured.
I looked at him, confused, and then the song’s refrain came through the curtains, a chant of “Kalashnikov, Kalashnikov.”
B, hold a Kalashnikov? Dread stiffened me. B was urbane, intelligent, witty, unmilitary—not that a military person couldn’t be all those things too. He was just so obviously not military.
But what B was, was Bosnian.
I had spent years studying his region; it was my passion. I was studying his language. I hoped to travel to his fractured country one day and work. It was one of my life goals. And now he was on the verge of cracking my rose colored glasses.
I wanted to know and I didn’t—what his path to the US had been. Who he was. What it had been like, surrounded by the tanks and rifles of the Serbs.
I wanted to know and I didn’t; and he who always kept his silence, he who never, ever was inclined to talk, was cradling his glass of wine and being brought back into the memories by the music, and he was telling what I wanted to know and didn’t.
He told me then about getting the rifle. It was common lore already that the Serbs had guns but not enough men, and the Bosnian Muslims had men enough but not enough guns. It couldn’t have been easy to get a gun, then, in that city under siege.
But he got one, a Kalashnikov. And he crept to No Man’s Land. And through it. And he made it out, with men shooting at him from both sides.
His family was long since saved—he’d arranged it the moment he saw tanks in the streets of Sarajevo when the war was theoretically only being fought against Slovenia. That’s when he knew, the war was coming home.
He made it to Pale, the town known to me only as the base for Serbian military action in Bosnia. The place that in my mind was actually called “Beyond-the-Pale.” He made it there, and then, over time, he made it out.
My heart pounded the whole way through his few words. He spoke briefly, sketching only vaguely what must have been terrifying and unknown.
I was young then, and I tried to encourage him to have faith in the future. “Go back and rebuild,” basically.
He laughed silently and humorlessly. “My grandmother’s home was destroyed three times, and by whom? Not by the Germans. Not by the Russians. By our neighbors. No, I’m not going back.”
He sipped wine and returned to the Indiana summer, and I stood in the breeze, and I never returned back to the same moment I’d left when B opened his mouth and said, “I remember the first time I held one.” I’d learnt what I always wanted to know and didn’t.
I’ve learnt more since then—more that I’ve always wanted to know and didn’t. Funny how you never go back when you learn. Painful knowledge doesn’t destroy as much as push; at the end of the day, who are you, the person pushing back? That’s what you learn.
Well, that’s what I learn. For every lesson that my nature seems to seek, I leave carrying a glimpse, a shadow of the pains of other people’s lives, and that pain makes love and beauty and strength and hope all the more radiant, even if they’re all ultimately equally true, equally human.