Last Stories and Other Stories excerpt
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann
Penguin Group (USA) LLC
All rights reserved.
That green light and humid summer air, the cigarette scent of hotels, the way that as the women aged they widened and solidified and their voices deepened; and then the way that the weather so often altered so that the green light would go grey or white; the loud and prolonged clacking of the key in the lock across the corridor, followed by footsteps echoing smashingly down the stairs, the dogs’ barking in early morning, all these stigmata of peacetime faded just as the shell-holes and bullet-holes should have done a decade ago, and the story of the lovers began.
Many men have been conquered by the way a Sarajevo girl parts her lips when she is blowing smoke rings, holding the cigarette beside her ear. Because Zoran had grown up with Zlata, he could hardly have said how or when he lost his freedom; but on a certain evening of green light, he found himself sitting beside her in the park, and while the birds sang, his hands went helplessly around her just above the buttocks; he was bending her backward, his tongue in her mouth; and she was pushing him away, after which her arm somehow fell around his neck.
On the following evening they were on the same bench, which he straddled, cradling her back and bending forward to kiss her on the side of the neck while she reclined against him; and the air smelled like flowers and cigarettes.
His face was large and strong. His skin was smooth. He kept his hair short, and his eyes were brownish-green.
Sometimes Zlata needed to torture her sweethearts a trifle to feel alive, to know that she was stronger than they. Afterward she felt remorse. She used to say to her elder sister: Maybe I’m asking of them something that they’re not able to give me.— But from him she asked nothing except everything.
First of all, she informed him, she demanded that he believe in destiny. He promised that she was his fate. She slammed her tongue into his mouth. He gave her a copper ring. She gave him her photograph. Their emotions could scarcely be contained in the immense greenness of a Central European evening.
Her mother, who held a cigarette not quite vertically between two fingers, did not remind her that Zoran was a Serb, that being of but middling significance in those days; besides, she knew the boy and liked him.
If we live long enough, it may well be that our virtues turn into agonies; but the memory of first love sweetens with age. I know a former blonde now gratefully married to an adoring and understanding older husband, who smilingly steps away whenever she asks some past acquaintance for news of the boy, now a greyhaired father with a heart murmur, who slept with her no more than three times (she remembers each one), invited her to travel with him in a foreign country, then abandoned her there, returning to his other woman, with whom he presently lives on bad terms. He will always remain the former blonde’s true love. And the husband smiles. With patient craft he invites her back into his arms.
It was with another sort of indulgence that Zlata’s mother regarded her daughter’s romance. If, God willing, something came of it, that would be all right. If not, there were other boys, some of whom even went to mosque.
They took a walk along the river, and somewhere, I cannot say how far from the Vrbanja Most, he proposed. She replied that she must ask her mother.
She was wearing a low top, and her cleavage made him weak. He squeezed her round the waist until it hurt; she loved that. She was whispering into his face, and he was smiling. Seeing how they mooned over each other, her elder sister threw back her head in amused disgust and closed her dark eyes.
Sitting him down, Zlata’s mother said that it must be a long engagement since they were so young; everyone would wait and see. But he knew that she was not angry. His mother went to see Zlata’s mother and returned, saying nothing. His father put an arm around his shoulders.
Whenever Zlata had to go home to her parents, Zoran felt anguished, and gazed for half an hour at a time at her photograph, drinking in her long reddish hair and big round earrings, her brownish-green eyes beneath the heavy, sleepy lids, the almost cruel nostrils and lush mouth.
Her family lived in the Old Town near the library, so once the war started, the Serbs paid particular attention to that area, which did, however, offer proximity to the brewery where one could get drinking water. Less fortunately situated people, such as Zoran, had to bicycle there, risking their lives to fill a water jug.
By then everyone had balcony gardens with tomatoes, cabbages, onions; and Zlata’s mother was one of the first to learn how to cut a tomato into small pieces in order to plant them in dirt in a big black plastic bag. God willing, six or seven new tomatoes might be born. She taught Zoran the trick, and he showed his parents.
Zoran’s brother got some real coffee, God knows from where, and Zoran took some to Zlata’s family. Matters certainly could have gone otherwise. I remember being told about the man who killed two hundred people in Srebrenica; he was from a mixed marriage, but all the same they told him: You must do it or we kill you.— There were other Serbs like him, and various Muslims and Croats did the same. But Zlata and Zoran held fast to one another.
After Zlata’s teacher was killed by a sniper, the girl wept for many hours. Zoran sat beside her, holding her hand.
The Serbs had the leading position in our city, said her mother. We can’t understand what drove them to shoot us.
Drying her eyes, Zlata told her: Don’t say that in front of him. He’s never been against us!
Zoran smiled meaninglessly at the floor.
Zlata’s mother lit another half-cigarette. She wished to know if he were acquainted with any of these murderers.
Some of my old colleagues in the office are doing it, said Zlata, squeezing his hand.
Well, well! Your colleagues! Which ones? Do you mean Darko?
Zoran, let me just ask you this: What should be done with these snipers?
How can I know? I’m not a soldier.
The next day he cycled to the brewery, his mother in the doorway praying after him; and an antiaircraft gun stalked him lazily without shooting. He felt sweaty between his shoulderblades. Pale thunderheads cooled the humid greenish and bluish mountains where the snipers were. He threw down his bike, grabbed the jug, sprinted through the doorway because a gun was often trained on it, entered the friendly dimness and queued for water. Then he rode to Zlata’s.
The besiegers were shooting, Zlata’s mother licking her lips for fear. He had never seen her look so ugly. They all sat staring out the window. Zlata pressed her fists against her ears.
Suddenly the tendons arose on her elder sister’s smooth white neck, and she grasped for the wall. They bandaged up her calf; it was merely a grazing wound. Zlata could not stop screaming.
The next day when there was no shelling, Zoran set out for the brewery, where a yellow-faced old man lay dark-gaping and bloody, filled the jug, then rode to visit Zlata. Broken glass grinned newly in the stairwell. The elder sister lay sleeping, with her thin lips turned down like the dark slits of her clenched eyes. Her hair clung sweatily to her forehead and her face was pale. Zlata was scrubbing the dishes, using as little water as she could.
Such a beautiful, quiet morning, said her mother, it’s hard to believe. Perhaps they are preparing some surprise for us.
Zoran said: Even so, we will manage, with God’s help.
Zlata, make some coffee. So delicious, his coffee!
Thanks, but we have plenty at home. Please keep it for yourselves.
Zlata, is he lying? How can there be so much coffee?
Never mind! said the boy, smiling in embarrassment.
Excerpted from Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann. Copyright © 2014 William T. Vollmann. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press.
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