Leaning over me to look out the airplane window, my mother pointed at the mountains surrounding Sarajevo. “Look! Look!” she said. Moments before, she had been a middle-aged woman leafing through a magazine with her glasses low on her nose. Now, she was like a child at a household doorway, excited at the arrival of a long-awaited family friend.
Nervousness rushed through me. I glanced out the window to satisfy her—at shades of green, at patches of pines tumbling down mountains—and then turned to the headrest of the woman in front of me. I breathed in, but the air went down shaky. It could not fill me. A year before, at sixteen, I had started doing breathing meditations in my bedroom in Florida. Connecting to the breath often steadied me, but the wavelets of anxiety that rose and fell in my torso now grew turbulent. We were about to begin our descent. All around us, people talked and laughed, languid at reaching their journey’s end. A small boy stood to his feet on his father’s lap—the father held his waist with big hands—and stretched his neck to look to the back of the plane.
Later, when we exited the airport, my mother hurried to the line of taxis waiting nearby. She spoke to a driver, struck a deal. She directed me and the bags. The afternoon was a glare of sun. Light shone off windshields, warmed the pavement. Across the road from the airport lay a parking lot and beyond it a neighborhood of buildings two or three stories high. Up above stretched a blue sky. I glanced at the beads of sweat on the driver’s bald skull, at his friendly eyes, at his shoo-shooing hand that waved me away when I tried to lift the bags myself into the trunk. All around, people walked and talked and gesticulated with their arms. Some were impatient and loud. Some cracked jokes and patted each other’s backs.
I felt like myself and not myself. My home language sprung from everyone’s lips, but the voices hit pitches and speeds I did not recognize. The eyes that met mine, however friendly and kind, were the eyes of strangers. Suddenly I did not know how to stand in place. I did not know what to trust. I slid into the back seat of the cab and slammed the door shut. I looked out the window with my chin up high. My jaw held the stiffness of a statue. And I wanted it to look like that. I wanted with everything inside to look like I knew what I was doing. Like I knew where I belonged.
We left Sarajevo when I was seven, due to the Bosnian War in the early 90s. We hopped around the Balkans, settled in Spain for several years, then moved to Florida. The move from Spain to Tampa Bay was a painful one. Spain had sparkled with restaurants, people, life. Florida was empty streets in glaring sun. Fronds on palm trees. A shirtless man on a bicycle, t-shirt hanging from shorts.
In letters to friends in Spain, I feigned cheerfulness. I spoke of tidy suburban neighborhoods, of mailboxes like the ones we had seen on shows dubbed into Spanish like Full House. In truth, I felt alone. I sat sad on my bed at night. In school, I struggled to pick out words from the currents of speech around me. I felt I could not measure up.
My friends in Spain wrote about visiting their families’ villages, about the ups and downs of school life. I softened at their letters and glossy pictures but felt acutely that the life I had known flowed on without me. Those familiar classrooms in afternoon light. Those faces—Irene, Esther, Tamara—whose expressions and eyes and wisps of hair I knew as well as I knew my own. I felt left out by distance and time.
A few years later, I closed down. I stopped writing back. And the letters from Spain also stopped. One friend wrote again and again, even though she was not receiving replies. In her last letter, as if into a void, she said that she was not sure this was my address anymore. I felt ashamed, but still I refused to write back. Spain was a closed room in the dark, and I could no longer bear to sit within those walls.
The emptiness that Spain left was filled with my parents’ Bosnian tongue. As they spoke in our Florida kitchen, in the yard. In the dark living room, watching TV at night. And the Sarajevo of my childhood floated up. Its mountains, its bridges, its trams. Its old men playing chess on the giant chessboard in the park. I thought of New Year’s celebrations. In Bosnia, Santa Claus visited us for New Year’s, and every year, we went to a party at my dad’s company. Santa called us kids up one by one and gave us cellophane-wrapped packages of toys and candies and colored pencils. I admired my toys through the transparent wrap. Then we walked the packages home down the banks of the River Miljacka—my mother, my father, my brother, and I—and I breathed out hard into the cold air and marveled that my body was making clouds.
I started cradling the memory of Bosnia through tough Florida high school nights. It glowed inside me like a primordial touchstone. Through loneliness, through fights with my parents, it was the one thing undeniably mine.
Then, as I was finishing my junior year in high school, my mother stood in my bedroom doorway and said that we were going back. On a visit to my grandmother, just the two of us. The winds left my lungs. I had, of course, dreamed of a someday-return—warm reconciliation, walks through cobbled streets and parks—but that someday was not now. Bosnia needed to stay buried inside, precious in the dark. Now it was coming at me at a speed I could not control. It would be around me all at once, on every side.
The night we arrived, we sat around the coffee table in my grandmother’s apartment in the Grbavica neighborhood. The curtains inflated and fell with evening breeze. The wallpaper—cream, with swirls of roses—generated memories of lamplit nights and running around as a child. Up above, a hole pierced the ceiling, from a bullet that had whizzed through the window years before.
My grandmother had had her hair done in preparation for our visit. Short, curled, red as always. She pressed it to her scalp with her palms to make sure it stayed in place. She sat close to me on the couch and gazed at my face. How big I had gotten. How pretty I was. She had not seen me in several years, not since she had been in Florida. I was her first-born grandchild. Was I hungry still? I had polished off two bowls of bosanski lonac—full of lamb, potatoes, cabbage, tomatoes—in the kitchen when we arrived. The trip must have left me famished, poor child.
Inside me, sadness, tenderness, and fear stirred, but my body became a container, holding everything tight. I averted my eyes from hers and from my mother’s. Fantasies of life back in Florida started running through my mind. My friends at lunchtime. The teacher on whom I had a crush. The narratives unfolded alongside the present moment, and I intoxicated myself with their storylines, only to come back to the living room for seconds at a time and then again retreat.
My mother kneeled on the elaborate rug and pulled gifts out—dresses, nightgowns—from her suitcase. Leaning forward, my grandmother said that it was all too much, that she shouldn’t have. But her eyes grew intent, curious. She hurried the garments to her bedroom and came out in each one and spun for us. She looked down at herself and pressed an excited hand to her mouth. Afterwards, she said she would save the pieces for a special occasion and she refolded them and slid them into plastic bags.
“What special occasion?” my mother asked. “I bought them for you to wear now.”
Later that night, I retired into the bedroom my grandmother had arranged for me and I turned off the lights. In the darkness, relief came. The outlines of the bed, the wardrobe, and the nightstand stood clear in the shadows, without the veil of fantasy. I could breathe full again. No one’s eyes studied my movements.
I snuggled into the scented pillowcase and closed my eyes. But sleep did not come. Moonlight glowed faint through the windows—my grandmother’s apartment perched on the seventh floor of a tall building—and softly, I rose and walked over barefoot and pulled the curtains open.
Outside, Sarajevo stretched wide. A geography of peaks and dips and lights. And the same landscape swelled up to meet it from deep within my past. Dark expanses, buildings, slow headlights, riverbanks. I stood a second in disbelief. I felt displaced in time. Moments before, if I had been asked to remember Sarajevo at night, I would have gone blank. But here it was. A landscape inside me that matched what lived outside. Tears warmed my eyes, and I wiped them with fingers and covered my face with my hands. I looked out the window again, and there it still was.
The first week we walked streets lined with trees. We bought kifle at the corner bakery and carried their warm softness to my grandmother’s place in bags. We sat with her in the kitchen in the mornings and sipped coffee from miniature cups.
In the afternoons, we shopped the city and sat at tables outside restaurants and watched people walk by. Passersby ran into friends with exclamations and hugs, and I withdrew a bit each time, aware that I could not walk these streets and run into anyone familiar. Around us, bullet holes still pockmarked some buildings. Here and there, blasts of darkness colored walls. My eyes turned from these remnants of the past and focused instead on cobblestones, on pigeons, on the men on the bench having a chat.
And then one afternoon, over coffee and Turkish delights, my mother suggested that we visit Vrelo Bosne. She said that I had liked it so much as a child. A resistance swelled inside me. It made my chest wall tight. In my memory, the park glowed with fresh green and water and sun. We had visited it on weekends when I was a child. A spring broke through the earth there, and creeks roamed the grass. White swans walked and opened their wings and swam.
With single buildings in the city, I thought, I could avert my eyes. They were faceless, part of a mass. I associated little with them individually. But this park. It played like a fairy tale in my mind. I would have been content to never face it again, to carry its memory, untouched, for all my life. But the thought of going had lit my mother up. Moreover, she was offering me a sweet in her mind, something she thought would delight me. Deflated, I thought I could not decline. I wanted to give her that. And so early one morning, we took the tram out.
Vrelo Bosne sits on the outskirts of Sarajevo. A walkway lined with trees leads to it, and visitors walk it or bike it or take a horse-drawn carriage down to the park. When we reached the start of the walkway, carriages stood to the side. The horses swung their tails and nodded up and down. Morning air drifted fresh with the scent of manure. Up above, the sky opened without a cloud.
My mother and I headed out on foot—she ahead, I behind. On the walkway, at the start, a sign warned visitors not to head into the field to the left due to still-active mines. My thoughts scattered. My step faltered, I almost stopped. I looked around, unsure of where to turn suddenly. Unsure of what to do now. My mother, unaffected, continued down the walkway. Had she seen the sign? Everyone, in fact, chatted or laughed or smoked cigarettes or looked out. As if the warning were just a traffic sign.
The morning chill, the carriages, the country smells all moved around me still, but the words had broken glass. I trembled—perhaps not visibly, perhaps only inside my skin, but all over, all over—and I could not tell if fear had overtaken me or if the chill in the air had simply gotten its cold fingers inside. I had been right, I thought, my childhood memories would be wiped out. My eyes fell to the ground, and dejected, I followed my mom.
We walked and walked, perhaps a few kilometers. My heart beat fast, my lungs worked hard. But the adrenaline did not lift my mood. To our right, though the line of trees, fields sloped up and down. Red-roofed country houses peppered them. I kept my head in duty down.
And then we reached the park, and I halted when I looked out. Greenness expanded in all directions. It was the freshness of young leaves, and they burst from every branch. With the foothills of Mount Igman lying nearby, waters broke the ground and ran through the grass. Quaint bridges covered the creeks, the water glistening beneath them. Water that moved like liquid glass. White swans drifted across the surface and dipped their beaks in. The sun that filled the space was the sun of memory. It was like no other sun. Figures glowed, children ran. The pressure in my chest—the pressure which had bound my entire being to that one spot—loosened and drifted apart. I opened to my whole body, to my eyes. My mother stood silent by my side. We remained there a while and then strolled and found a bench and sat.
I became myself, but myself in a humble, happy way. I thought: how was it still here, just as it had been once? Other things had gone. Buildings, people—even us, we had gone, too—but this dream still moved and played and unfolded its light. A light that filled everything, that grew lush trees and grass. It enveloped my face, the skin of my arms. The water—cold, fresh—still burst from the ground. And the people who strolled the paths were not the strangers of the streets of Sarajevo. They were part of this, like I was. We were all a part of this.
Hours later—tired, sated, warm—we decided to head back. My mother, spent from the sun, said that we should take a carriage. She spoke to an old driver in a cap, and we climbed up onto the red velvet seat in the back. The man rocked the carriage when he stepped to sit in front of us. Then he clicked his tongue, and the animal, muscles large, lurched forward and clip-clopped on.
We did not speak. People walked by, in the direction of the park, but the crowd dwindled now. Single people here and there, a couple in conversation, a slow bicyclist. I relaxed against the cushioned seat and gazed at the country houses to the side. They stood tall, solid, white. Lots of space between them. I imagined that I lived in one, inside one of those houses with its steep staircase to the second floor, inside the bedroom upstairs with its window imbedded in the thick wall. Looking out at fields and sky. And I became a young woman in old Bosnia. The afternoon opened, time slowed down. And it was not the time of future or past. The world settled into something present, ever present, something I trusted like the hands of a wise, old aunt. It moved at its pace, of its own accord. It carried me in its placid arms. And I did not have the urge to fight. I could allow. Then snippets of life sprung up. Bounding down the stairs in bare feet. Slipping into shoes at the entrance of the house. Pulling shut the wooden door and heading to the village gathering across the grass.
Rumpus original art by Susan Ito.