There are many ways to tell this story.
All of them are true.
Verses of the House
- I have seven ravens for brothers.
- My brothers went to war and came back black-feathered, bead-eyed; they fell on our battened door, demanding entrance. Father knew it was them as soon as they barged in and took their familiar places in our room: Zoran by the east-facing window, now shattered and taped shut with newspapers; Aleksandar by the door, standing guard; Mihailo on the table, tucking his broken wing behind him; Goran on the cupboard which used to be our fridge; Đorđe on Father’s shoulder, pecking at his grayed hair; Vukašin, the youngest, at the gutted armchair, by Father’s feet; and Slobodan kept flying in circles near the ceiling, breathing the night air from the hole in the roof.
- This city is made of rubble and rust. I rummage through the debris for edibles. Sometimes I find tin cans. Or just things to burn. These are good too.
- Nothing grows here any more. My brothers fly out at dawn and come back when the sun plunges again behind the broken skyline of the city. Their mouths smell of death. They stand on one leg and watch over us all night long. Dark plumage covers my eyes and suffocates my dreams.
- Senka, Father said to me one day. I can no longer live like this. I want my boys back, he said. I want to hug their bodies, run my fingers through their hair. Kiss their wounds. I’d rather lay them in the ground as men than have them here as birds until the day I die.
- Can a raven change back into a man? Can a man become a raven and then again a man, or will he always be a bird, deep down? Were my brothers men when they went to war? Had they always had the hearts of birds?
- Change them back, Father said. Find a way. Change them back, Senka.
- And so I walked through the city and peeked through the bullet holes in the walls, not knowing what I was looking for. I walked from morning till noon, when the sun blazed hot on my skin. I walked on the black asphalt until it burnt the soles of my shoes and the air trembled, boiling where it stood. And then the luminous man appeared at the crossroads between the north side, where death reigned, and the south side, where death reigned too. And the man said, what do you seek, girl? And I said, my brothers are men no more. I want my brothers back. And the man said, I know what you have to do. Come closer. And I asked, who are you? Come closer, he said. He kept still, emanating heat. Come closer. And I did, I walked towards him and I felt all the water in my body evaporate through my skin. You are too hot, I said. And he said, as hot as the Sun, am I? Let me hold you, girl, he said, and I’ll tell you how to get your brothers back. I walked closer. But if you hold me, you will burn me, I said, and I will die. And the Sun said, then you won’t care about your brothers any more, will you? Let me hold you, stupid girl.
- I ran away. The Sun stood motionless, blazing away like a man in eruption, turning the heart of the city to ash.
- I walked through the city from noon till dusk. I walked along its highways and I passed through its alleys. I heard music coming from a bombed building in the wasteland that used to be the west sector. I followed it. I climbed the storeys, with rubble giving way under my feet and plaster dust falling on my head, turning my hair white. Like an old woman, I arrived at the roof, and I saw the ghosts dance.
- They were not all ghosts. There was a girl in a nightgown and a boy in torn jeans, wrapped around one another and swaying like seaweeds in the current. There were men who used to be soldiers, but not any more, and women who used to be soldiers, but not any more, and they were dancing to badly broadcast jazz and folk songs with lots of static and Red Cross reports and the sound of exploding hand grenades making human fireworks against the night sky. And in the middle of the crowd was the dazzling man, in a white petticoat and top hat, in silver hair and confetti and a trumpet in one hand. He spotted me right away. Come here, girl, he said, what’s your name, girl, tell us your name. Senka, I said. Means shadow, he said. You smell good for a shadow. Come closer, Senka, don’t stand in the shadows, let us get a good look at you. I went closer and said I’m looking for a way to turn my raven brothers into men, can you tell me how? And the dazzling man smiled and his teeth glinted with a light of their own, like gems, like little cold fires, like stars. Like stars. Come closer, little Senka, the star-toothed man said, let me take a bite, just a little tiny bite, and I’ll tell you where to go. Will it hurt, I asked, will you hurt me? Of course I will, he said. I walked closer and let him put his fingers on my face. I’ll just take a nibble out of your shadow, little Senka, he said; you won’t even know it’s missing.
- He licked his fingers afterwards. The Glass Mountain, he said, that’s what you’re looking for. Go east. You’ll know it when you see it. He smiled wide. His teeth shone brighter now, washing the city in starlight.
- I left the carnivorous Moon of the Balkans playing his trumpet behind me while my shadow limped ahead.
- I walked east until I could no longer hear the music from the building and the starlight grew dimmer and dimmer, dissipating into daybreak. And then I was there, and I could walk no more.
- This city is encrusted in glass. There is a wall at the edge of the city, made of glass, as tall as a mountain, as wide as the earth.
- I stood by the glass wall at the edge of the city, pressed my fingers against its surface and left no fingerprints. I walked along the wall, heard the silence, tasted the lifelessness. I walked under the dead trees and on the gray grass, I trod on the shards from the shattered windows of the world. Hello? I asked. Is anyone here?
- Hello, a voice said. Look up, Senka.
- The naked boy was perched on a branch. His pale skin glowed under the first light of day. Who are you, I asked, how do you know my name? Don’t you recognize me, Senka? the boy asked. You’ve seen me so many times before. You used to talk to me often, when you were younger. You used to say: Morning Star, why don’t you come down and play with me, for my brothers are big and mean and don’t want their little sister around. But you never came down before, I said. Why now? The Morning Star shrugged. The world’s different now, he said. Can you help me into the Glass Mountain? I asked. I could, he said. See that keyhole there? It needs flesh. If this were the world as it was before, I would give you a rabbit’s foot to open it, but there are no rabbits around any more. All I can give you now is a butcher knife to do what you have to do. These are the times we live in, dear Senka. I wish I had played with you when you were young and happy.
- And with that, the Morning Star handed me the knife. Then, he climbed to the top of his tree and fell upwards to the sky.
- I chopped off my left index finger and slipped it through the keyhole. It fit perfectly. The wall parted and I went through. I found nothing on the other side; only a hole in the ground. What is this? I asked. You’ve made a sacrifice to enter, the hole said. What is it you desire? I want my raven brothers to be as they used to, I said. Can you do that? It is done, the hole said. Go home, little Senka.
- And so I walked back home, not caring about my bleeding finger and my limping shadow, for I was to see my brothers again after all this time.
- I found Father kneeling in front of our home, his pants all dusty, his head in his hands. He was crying onto the ground. What did you do Senka? he asked. They are there, but I can’t see them any more, he said. I hear them flutter about, I feel them breeze past me, but I can’t see them. What did you do?
- I walked in. I heard their wings, felt their feathers on my face. The dust swirled in their passage, as if touched by a wind.
- I used to have seven brothers. They were soldiers. My brothers have the souls of ravens.
- Father and I sleep on the floor every night. My brothers watch over us. Ghost plumage fills the air. I leave messages for them on the floor, write the words in the dust with my missing finger. In the morning, they are gone.
Verses of the City
- I have seven brothers. They went to war and came back heroes.
- The first brother is Slobodan, the free man. He died in the war. My brothers brought back his body wrapped in a soiled sheet. Father kept him in his arms all night long, his eldest son; he rocked him like a baby, even though Slobodan was twice his size. Then he buried him in the hard ground by the door using only his hands. He bled on my brother’s grave, but didn’t let anyone help.
- The second brother is Đorđe, the farmer, always by Father’s side, working the land with him. There is nothing left for him to do now: the earth has been sown with salt and gunpowder. Nothing will ever grow here again. Đorđe sits on the ground outside our home sometimes. He puts his ear to the ground and whispers love songs to the soil.
- The third brother is Mihailo, he who is like God. He came back missing an arm. He sits at the table all day, sleeps sitting in his wooden chair at night. Sometimes he wakes up muffling a scream. Then he fingers his empty sleeve, as if expecting to find something there. As if he hopes the war had been a dream.
- The fourth brother is Zoran, the daybreak. Before the war, he used to sit at the east-facing window, watching the sunrise every morning. The window is now shattered and papered over with old newspapers and pages from books of obsolete wisdom. Zoran sits there in the morning, looking through the papers as if he can still see the sun.
- The fifth brother is Goran, the tall one. Goran came back from the war, kissed our father three times on the cheeks, and then turned around and left. He didn’t even look back once. We never saw him again.
- The sixth brother is Aleksandar, the protector of men. He used to be the guardian of the family, standing by the door day and night, trying to keep us safe. He no longer knows what to do with himself. Every now and then, he takes long walks in the city with me, pretending safe is still a word.
- The seventh brother is Vukašin, the little wolf. He is the youngest. By the end of this story, Vukašin will have killed himself.
- I am Senka. The name means shadow. I am the shadow with the missing finger, chopped off in a story to be told elsewhere, some other time.
- This city used to have two names and now has none.
- We won the war. What did we win? A pile of corpses. A potful of dust. A hole in the roof from which to see the stars.
- There are many like Mihailo in the city now, missing an arm, or a leg, or both. Like a new species, forfeiting the old limbs, showing humanity what’s indispensable and what’s not.
- We walk through the city and ash falls on our heads like snow. We walk past burning crosses and crescent moons. The hanged man stares down at us. A woman gives out wildflowers to the people on the street. Where did she get them? I haven’t seen flowers in a very long time.
- The dust on the ground is disturbed by slight gushes of air. Maybe a soul passed us by, Aleksandar says. Or an angel. Someone is firing gunshots at the jaundiced eye of the sky.
- I stay awake at night, writing in the dust with my missing finger while I listen to my brothers weep through their dreams.
- At dawn, I point at the morning star, making wishes that I know won’t come true. I hear the mournful croak of a raven through the roof, and make my peace.
Verses of the Heart
- I have seven brothers. The time came when they had to go to war, to defend our country from itself. One afternoon, long before the war ended, I went outside as if something had called me. I saw seven figures walking down the road to our home. My heart almost cracked, from joy and from fear, for the war was not yet over–what were they doing home? As soon as I made out their faces, as soon as they laid eyes on our house, I saw them turn into wide-winged birds one after the other. I ran towards them and managed to wrap my arms around Vukašin, only to find myself kissing black feathers and taloned feet.
- Word came the next day. My brothers had defected. Mihailo had lost an arm; it was a broken wing now. All the other men from their squad had been killed. My brothers were traitors. When Father heard the news, he took a handful of ash from the stove and smudged his face. Then he grabbed his rifle and tried to shoot my brothers dead.
- I left the house and walked through this city that used to be my own. I met the Sun at a crossroads and asked him how to turn my brothers back, but he was too hot for me to near. I watched him incinerate the ground, the trees, the sky, and then walked past him and left him behind. I met the cannibal Balkan Moon on the roof of a building where he partied with the ghosts that used to be my people. I let him take a bite out of my shadow in return for answers. I walked to the edge of the city and found the Glass Mountain. I cut off my finger with a butcher knife gifted to me by the Morning Star, and used it as a key. The open grave at the heart of the Mountain granted my wish, and my brothers were made men again.
- I went back home trailing blood behind me and found my family gathered around a tree. We used to climb it when we were small. Vukašin’s body was hanging from the lowest branch, like a ripe orange, ready to be picked.
- Đorđe helped Father cut Vukašin down. They left him on the ground while they dug a hole to put him in. He lay on the dust, staring at the lopsided sky above.
- Goran and Slobodan turned around and went back, gave themselves up. We heard they were executed the same day.
- Aleksandar bribed someone high in the military ranks. They left the rest of us alone after that. Zoran tried to repair our home. He started with the window by the stove, the one that faced east. Then he fixed the ceiling. We can no longer see the sky through our roof. We go on living.
- Mihailo never left the house again. The arm he’d lost, his broken wing, stayed the way it was when he became a man. It is still a wing now. He tucks it behind him as he sits in his chair and looks at me with dark, gleaming eyes. What am I, he asks me. Am I a man or a bird? At night, he sleeps leaning on the table, muffling his cries behind his wing.
- I go out at dawn and point my missing finger at the Morning Star. Can you hear me? I ask him. Can you keep me company? The naked boy climbs down the orange tree from which Vukašin hung himself. He holds out his hand for me. Come on, dear Senka, he says. I take his hand and climb up. I sit by him on the branch and write verses in the stardust on the sky.
Addendum: Lost verses, stray feathers, things left unsaid
- Vukašin walked to the back of the ruin he called home. He found the tree he used to climb as a child, once carrying sweet and juicy oranges, now dead as a soldier. He caressed the dry trunk. Old friend, he said. I’m back.
- Mihailo often dreamt he was a bird with a man’s arms. Sometimes he woke up screaming. Sometimes he wept.
- Đorđe still whispers love songs to the earth. The neighbors made fun of him for years, but then grew tired of it. Nobody ever knew the earth sang back.
- When Father saw his sons again, he knew that birds and soldiers are more alike than people think.
- Senka’s shadow tastes like oranges.