Though it was still late autumn, the rain had long ago turned to snow, all the windows in the village became crusted with ice and the streets covered in sleet. It was Friday when we heard the war had started. We didn’t know why, or where, or who was fighting. Some packed their things and left in a hurry, to fight or to flee, but those who stayed were left nervous with anticipation. My mother had, for the entire morning, barely let go of my older brother, who had just turned 18, telling him that she wouldn’t let anyone take him away, and to hell, with them, if they try! — she said. My father, always the man who knew how to make everyone feel better, told me that I didn’t have to go to school and that it would be a good idea if we all had some breakfast. Everyone looked at him with confusion. He smiled at us and went down into the cellar, where we kept the food. Usually, breakfast was a piece of bread, some butter, and a glass of milk, so we were all surprised when he came back with half a dozen eggs and two whole loaves of bread. He set them on the table, smiled, and went back down. Three, four, then five times he went, bringing back cheese, pieces of ham, tomatoes, and onions. Every time, my mother growled at him, what the hell was he doing, we needed that food! but each time, my father just smiled, kissed her, and went back into the cellar. The last time he came back, he carried what surprised me the most, even my mother said nothing. In each hand, he had a jar wrapped in paper, one filled with a thick golden liquid and the other shining with crimson — we’ve only ever been allowed to have honey and jam for Christmas. My mother burst out laughing, finally agreeing that this may not have been such a bad idea.
The four of us sat down, next to the ice-crusted windows, and started eating the many delicious things my father brought. It was perfect, a celebration for its own sake, a holiday of our own. And as we ate, for a second, we forgot the war was happening.
That is when they came. Out of nothing, I heard footsteps, it was the only thing that announced their arrival, footsteps in the snow. I didn’t see them, it is only from what I saw later that I know they descended on our village with soundless brutality, going from house to house, breaking down doors. Within moments, we realized what was happening, the food rotted away before our eyes and our holiday vanished, as quickly as it came. Another, more imminent fear, gripped Mother, and my brother, with the food still in his mouth, sat there paralyzed by it. He was almost a man, but he had the look of a scared little boy. The footsteps became louder.
Now, voices were echoing in the streets and we didn’t move, there were questions quickly silenced and answers never given, the cracking of wood and snow. I saw my father motioning Mother to us, and she seemed to understand. She hurried to one of the cupboards in the kitchen and removed all the panes from inside. With violent care, she grabbed my brother and pushed him inside, kissing him. Then she did the same with me, in another cupboard.
“Do not open this door. Not for anyone. Understand?” I just nodded, and she closed the cupboard.
The doors of our house came crashing down and the outside cold seeped in like a flood. The men entered and grabbed my parents, one of them went down into the cellar and the other asked Father if there was anyone else inside the house. Father said there wasn’t.
The four of them disappeared in the blizzard outside, and the smell of honey and jam disappeared with them. I sat there, in the small dark cupboard, separated from my brother only by a thin piece of wood, but I couldn’t talk to him, worrying whether someone might hear us.
It started slowly afterward. All the voices in the streets sparked up at once, and their screams twisted with the laughter of our visitors, in a tone that seemed to melt the snow. Then came the slicing, gushing and slashing, piercing and cutting. Not a single gunshot. It was a storm of pain, a tempest of violence.
I don’t know exactly when I fainted, but when I did, everything fell silent. And our holiday was over.
The cupboard doors opened with a faint creak and I woke up. I didn’t know how much time had passed, but the sun was setting, giving the snow, which now covered everything inside the house, a pinkish glow. I almost didn’t see the man standing in our kitchen, he wasn’t Father. Wearing black boots that rose from the floor up to his knees, and strapping a rifle over his back, he could never be Father. Was he one of them? Is he about to kill me?” — I thought. To my surprise, he didn’t move, and in his eyes was not an expression of violence, but sympathy, almost kindness. He knelt so our eyes matched in level and extended his hand.
“You poor thing”, he said, with a silk-like voice. I couldn’t say a word.
“Don’t worry, you’re safe. They’re all gone.” My eyes fell down to his extended hand. I didn’t trust his boots or his rifle, but his voice assured me, and I took his hand. My legs were stiff and I barely had the strength to stand, but I did and looked around. The kitchen was unrecognizable — I saw snowflakes as winged creatures, dancing among the ruin and rubble, broken cups and dishes, before descending on the floor, where thousands of them had already fallen. It was almost beautiful.
My brother! it came to me.
I looked at the cupboard next to one where I was and became flushed with fear.
“Where is my brother?”, I said, pointing to the empty cupboard.
“I don’t know, little one.”
“Where are my parents?”, I asked, louder.
He opened his mouth to speak but said nothing. “We should leave this place. They could come back.” I wanted to ask who they were but didn’t. I knew he was right, this wasn’t my home anymore, not without my brother, not without Mother and Father. I was appalled by how quickly I realized that.
We reached the battered and splintered doors of the house, and the soldier stopped me. “Wait, “he said,” it’s best if you don’t see what’s out there.” From his satchel, he took out a cloth and wrapped it around my head, so my eyes were covered. Then he leads me out of the house.
As we walked through what was once my home, even with the warmth of his hand, I felt alone. The air was thick with the smell of blood, and the gruesome story it told happened only moments ago. I wanted to puke. The screaming had stopped, and the men who laughed had left, but it was all still there. With my eyes wide shut, I felt all of it. As I tripped over the bodies, I learned how they died, what had happened to them. They were my friends, they were my family. They were men who had beaten, the men who had prayed. The women who had hated and the women who had loved. And they were all dead. From over two hundred people in my village, I was the last one, and with every step, I too was leaving it behind.
We reached the edge of the forest when he took the blindfold off, and I didn’t look back. Letting go of my hand and he walked on into the forest. I followed. He was a kind man, I soon learned. When he saw me shaking from the cold, he took off his coat and wrapped it around me. When I was hungry, he gave me some food from his satchel. When his face was turned away from me, I almost saw Father in his place, they even looked like — strong, bearded, and kind. I was disgusted by the thought, of someone else replacing Father, but it comforted me, if only for a moment.
“How old are you?”, he finally said, without turning.
“My God”, he whispered half to himself. “I am so sorry. For what happened to your parents. And to you.”
“They could still be alive, couldn’t they?”, I asked.
“They might be”, he said, not believing it. “But the safest thing for you is to leave. All the people are going to the same place. If your parents are alive, you’ll see them there. “
“In Zagreb. There is a center there. For people fleeing from the war.”
“Zagreb is far away.”
“I know. But not far from here, there is a bus.” He took out a piece of paper from the satchel. “I will take you there. It’s on the other side of the woods. Give this to the driver and he might have a seat for you. If he doesn’t…” From his pocket, he took out some money and gave it to me.
“Why are you helping me?”
He peered out into the trees, for a moment, unsure what to say.
“My team and I got attacked on our way to Vukovar. We were forced to split up. I went to look for them in your village. But….” Something passed over his face at that moment, I wasn’t sure what it was.
“To be honest, little one, I was just looking for some food in your house. Then I found you.”
Neither of us said anything for a while. I didn’t ask any more questions.
“It’s getting dark”, the soldier said,” it’s not safe to be out anymore. You see that?”, he pointed his hand behind the trees. There was a house. “We can light a fire inside. In the morning, I’ll take you to the bus. You’ll be in Zagreb in no time.”
He took off his satchel and dropped it on the ground. Then he pulled out his rifle and it gave a loud click.
“What are you doing?”, I asked.
“I’m gonna check if it’s safe. You stay here.”
“Will you come back?”
“Don’t worry, little one. I will.”
He made a few steps forwards, towards the house, and looked back at me. The sun was still on the horizon, and the rays crept through the dead branches of the forest, making shapes and shadows, before reaching his face. He really did look like Father. Then he turned and disappeared.
I sat down on a stone that poked out of the road, and rested for a second, while I was walking, I didn’t even realize how much my legs hurt. The soldier’s paper and money laid clutched and crumbled in my hand, and I examined them. Out of all the loss and horror that I felt that day, at the moment — that piece of paper outshined it all, glowing with hope. Your brother is alive. He escaped the village and is on his way to Zagreb. You’ll see him there. — the paper told me. Your parents are alive, too, you will see them as well, in Zagreb.
I began to cry, and for the first time, I’ve felt relief. Then I realized I never thanked the soldier, I didn’t even ask him his name. He would be back soon, I’ll ask him then — I thought. But still, the feeling persisted — it was strange to wait for a nameless man.
Then I remembered he left his back at my feet, and, knowing it was wrong, I opened it. I just had to know his name, there must be something here that says his name — I thought. My fingers slipped inside and searched. There was cloth, and bullets, bandages, and some food. Nothing special — until I reached the bottom of the bag.
There was metal, lots of it, not bullets. Gold and silver. Rings, necklaces, and earing, beyond counting. I grabbed a handful of them, and they shined in the disappearing sunlight like a lantern. Letting them drop back inside the bag, they clanged and jingled with the voices of others, voices I knew. Only one item remained in my hand — a silver ring with a black stone. My stomach turned as I recognized it. It was the ring my father gave to my mother when he proposed thirty-five years ago. It was the ring she wore this morning at breakfast.
The ring she wore when she died.
Everything seemed to darken around me. The trees took shape of violent angry men, ready to tear me apart, beasts and thieves. How could he?!, I wanted to scream. He would be back any second! Barely getting up, I ran into the violent trees, tearing through the snow. It was all too much. The entire day was behind me, chasing me, haunting me. From the moment my father made breakfast, it was all just a nightmare, too horrible to be true. As I ran through the forest, I almost expected to wake in my bed. But the snow didn’t go away, and the trees were still looking at me. It was all painfully real.
Was there really no one left? No one good?
As the sun sunk beneath a hill to the west, I reached the edge of the forest and the bare field in front of me turned silver with moonlight. In the distance, there was a glow, a dot of light — fire!
With a glance, I looked back into the forest, and everything behind it, before stepping into the barley field. I thought about my father, and the holiday he invented just for us. He was dead, and I would never see him again. My mother, who could have easily fit into one of the cupboards, saving herself, but choose to save us instead. She too was dead. My brave brother, who went out when I was too scared to even open my eyes, to look for our parents, just as they would look for him. He, too, is probably dead. I wouldn’t see them in Zagreb. — I realized, crumpling the piece of paper in my hand. And finally, I thought about him — the soldier, the monster who had saved me. I thought about the cruelty he had shown my mother, and the kindness he had shown me, and my head became dizzy for it. But in the haze, I remembered something, something my father tried so hard for me to forget. A simple yet brutal thought — we are at war.
I walked and walked on — to the firelight.