The following excerpt is taken from Mirjana Buljan’s historical novel Zmija u raju/The Serpent in Paradise (Matica Hrvatska, 2006). The novel takes place before World War II in a Southern Serbian town with a multicultural Balkan mixture of citizens. Told from the perspective of Jana, a girl from a middle class family of mixed ethnic origin (Croatian and Kosovo Albanian), the novel traces the family’s story from a relatively peaceful existence before the war to the German invasion and the flight. This excerpt begins with the family’s sudden departure from their home after German bombings at the beginning of the war.
Once we had driven out of the city, father took the reins from Hakija, who didn’t know the way. Hakija wanted to light the lamp that hung on the side, but father thought that was dangerous. If some German scout or spy plane happened to fly over it could catch sight of us. In the black, completely impenetrable gloom you could hardly distinguish the brownish, muddy road from the ploughed fields that bordered it. The freezing rain was changing into sleet. It soaked us to the bones, even though we were tucked in between cushions under the tarpaulin up to our shoulders. Djivo fell asleep. No one said anything. In the deep silence the rolling of our wagon’s ironbound wooden wheels and our horse’s muted gait in the softened mud echoed in a ghostly way. Black bushes appeared on the sides of the road. We could smell a pine forest from an indefinite, unrecognizable distance. Suddenly a decisive male voice came from the bushes:
“Halt! Give the password!”
Father stopped the wagon. “Death watch,” he whispered. “He’ll shoot if we answer and if we don’t answer, because we don’t know the password.”
Mother shrieked. “Don’t shoot! There are women and children here! We’re refugees! We’re running away from the bombing in the city.”
A soldier came out of the bushes. One hand aimed a rifle and the other pointed the beam of a flashlight at us.
“What bombing?” he asked.
“The Germans bombed the city,” Father answered.
The soldier lowered his rifle and came closer. He was extremely young, to all appearances a new recruit. He looked frozen and terrified. He clenched his fists to hide the trembling of his hands.
“I’ve been here on guard since noon yesterday, and I was wondering why no one came to relieve me,” he said. He looked off to the side in a pensive way, but then turned back towards my father and asked uncertainly, “Do you mean that seriously?”
“Would you like a little brandy to warm you up?” Mother asked. “You’re shaking from the cold.”
The soldier hesitated.
“I can’t… on guard. If they catch me tanked up… But maybe… maybe they’re not there any more. Maybe they were all killed. But I would have heard… I would’ve heard them firing. They aren’t far away. They can’t have… run away and forgotten about me? Left me… alone here… in the middle of nowhere…”
He spoke slowly, with interruptions, and the whole time he kept looking around with fear. Then he took a look at Father.
“What should I do?” he asked uncertainly.
“You can come with us, if you want, and you can ask in the village.”
“Are you dreaming? Can I leave my post? During a war?”
He nonetheless took the flask Mother held out and swallowed a good mouthful. He waved and, warmed by the brandy, ordered us with military arrogance and impatience, “All right, you may pass. Quick, now, on the double!”
He stood in the middle of the highway and watched as we drove away. We were all thinking the same thing, but only Lijeska said it out loud: “Perhaps our Petar is somewhere in some deserted place like this, frozen and all alone.”
As we moved away, it seemed to me that the soldier’s face was taking on Petar’s features, that he looked more and more like him. He brought his hands up to his mouth and tried to warm them with his breath. He was shaking all over, overcome again by cold and no doubt by fear. Even though he was in uniform and had a rifle, I knew that meant nothing, because he was abandoned and forgotten.
Now it was just rain falling, thick and in big, heavy drops. In the first still, dim light of dawn we watched it pour from the brim of Father’s hat onto the wet, already flattened pile of his fur collar. The wheels fell into potholes, and from time to time big puddles splashed the wagon as high as the upper edge. Fortunately, the village wasn’t so far away by now. We heard roosters and on the horizon we glimpsed the dark scalloped straw of the roofs against the pale background of a cold, overcast cold dawn.
In the light that had begun to beat through, everything around us took on the vaguely yellow color of the mud: the roads, the desolate soil, the bare trunks, brick houses, straw roofs, everything, absolutely everything was one big infinite puddle.
“Here, now you know what a village is. Mud as far as your eyes can see,” said Hakija.
Father stopped the wagon in the middle of the village at the crossroads in front of the an unplastered two-story building across from an inn with a barely legible inscription that spelled “SRPSKA SLOGA” (Serbian Concord ) on a rusty signboard pocked with bullet holes. On the other two corners, standing across the road from one another, were a dilapidated little church and a more orderly village school.
A dog ran out of the yard of the unplastered building. It barked furiously and flew at our horse and wagon with foam on its muzzle.
Toza’s wife, or Tozinica as Father and Mother called her, ran out of a one-story building that leaned against the new structure, wrapped in a great woolen shawl. She had probably just been washing up, she still had soap bubbles at the edges of her hair. Toza overtook her with big but slow steps. Their children, woken up unexpectedly, ran out too, in long linen nightshirts and thick woolen socks, with green snot dangling from their red noses. They all looked at us in shock. They obviously couldn’t even guess why we had appeared so suddenly, but they spread their arms wide, ready to hug us the moment we climbed down from the wagon. Mother didn’t wait for them to say anything but shouted to them at once, “We left the city to get away from the bombs!”
Tozinica’s smile suddenly froze. She called the dog strictly and held it as it kept struggling to get away from her and kept on barking at us.
“What bombs? What are you talking about?” Toza asked us in confusion, not believing it.
“The Schwabe bombs,” said Djivo and looked Toza’s children over curiously.
Toza had just lifted him out of the wagon and was about to put him on the ground, but he kept him in his arms and threatened him strictly: “Little one, you’d better not be joking about that!”
“I’m afraid it’s true! They started to hit us without mercy the day before yesterday, from dawn to dusk! The sirens didn’t even come on when it started! The whole city is in ruins, and there wasn’t a single shell from the anti-aircraft guns,” Father said.
Toza fell silent. His face was stiff, his eyes flashed. He was fighting against an idea he didn’t want to accept for anything, even though he believed my father.
“Can you take us in for a few days?” asked Mother.
Although he was dazed and shaken by what he had heard, Toza spoke up. “How could I not take you in? What kind of question is that?”
Then, in distress and without any “excuse me,” he swore a blue streak at the mother of the Royal Yugoslav army.
“Shame, shame, that no one stopped the Schwabe bombs!”
Cold and stiff, we could barely stand up and make our way into the warm, smoky kitchen. Hakija wanted to go on his way once he unharnessed and watered the horse, but Tozinica wouldn’t let him go.
“Goodness knows you can’t go without breakfast! I’ll give you a mat for the Sabah prayer if you don’t have one of your own, and I’ll fry you some eggs in oil as you watch!”
Then she took him to the next room so he could bow in peace for the morning prayer.
It was already light, but Tozinica had lit a kerosene lamp, because the morning was gloomy and it was dark in the kitchen. We sat down on the benches at a big scrubbed table of hewn wood. The children crowded around us, only the oldest girl started to lay out tin plates and cups decorated with flowers. Toza brought in an armload of wood and dropped it beside the fireplace. Tozinica was breaking eggs over a big, blackened frying pan with bacon sizzling in it. The warmth quickly overcame Djivo and me, and besides some boiled milk fresh from the cow we didn’t manage to taste anything else before we fell asleep.
The desperate bleat of a baby goat woke me. It cut into my ears like a sharp, ruthless blade, then sobbed painfully once or twice more and suddenly fell silent. With my eyes wide open I tried to grasp where I was. I was lying in a bedroom in a brand new bed that still smelled of wood and glue and was covered by a new silk quilt with a while knitted cover. Mother lay in the bed next to mine. Djivo was asleep between us. Mother stroked my hair and said, “Toza gave us the bedroom in his new house that no one has slept in yet. So be careful that nothing gets damaged.”
All the windows were darkened by temporary shutters made of boards, so light came in only through the door of the balcony. I got up and went to open it, but it was locked, because the balcony hadn’t been built yet. There were just two beams sticking out. Between them the dark, gloomy space of the muddy courtyard opened, with the white of the newly slaughtered baby goat as Toza hung it up on a hook hammered into the wall under the stable eaves. Lijeska stood beside Toza, holding a bowl ready for cleaning the meat.
Mother came over to me. I said to her, “If we hadn’t come, the baby goat would still be alive.”
“They would still have slaughtered it. Probably for Easter.”
She looked at the clock and saw we had slept past noon. The tavern was open downstairs. Guests who had been drinking sang,
Get ready get ready Chetniks,
It will be a bloody battle!
And they shouted, “For king and fatherland, death to the traitors!”
I was horrified by the unclear threat I heard in their crude voices. I asked Mother worriedly where Father was.
“He went out to feed Zekan and Toza’s horses.”
Mother stood up and came over to me. She hugged me.
We both examined the melancholy landscape. Whitish fog was gathered at its edges, and the roads disappeared into it from our crossroads. Suddenly we saw a strange, almost ghostly company of tired soldiers surface out of the fog. They had no leader or commander. They walked slowly, almost creeping, in disorderly pairs. They were unshaven with sunken cheeks, dressed in a mix of uniforms and canvas peasant trousers, military shoes and overshoes, with fur caps and military caps. Some of them had rifles, but no cartridge belts with bullets. Behind that mournful platoon, at an uncertain distance, our guard from the death watch dragged along, lonely and completely exhausted. You could tell he didn’t belong with them but was only looking for refuge in the proximity of his unknown comrades. Although he had army boots on, his legs also sank into the soft liquid mud up to his calves.
The drunken guests had come out of the tavern. They observed the soldiers with disgust, and once the platoon passed by them they started to throw glasses and bottles, forks and knives, everything that came to hand. The soldiers were too tired to do anything about it, they didn’t even pick up their pace. Then the host came out of the tavern. He was carrying a rifle. He shouted, “What kind of rabble of an army are you anyway, your cowardly mother!”
He lifted the rifle to his shoulder, aimed and fired.
A small dark red spot appeared on the back of the guard from the death watch, and he staggered. He fell slowly, first to his knees, then to his side and onto his face into the puddle of the muddy road.
Toza turned around and shouted, “Why him, one of ours, for God’s sake man? Why?”
I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t see that meaningless death and so that way I could forget it, but it had already entered forever into my remembrance. I didn’t know then that our soldier from the death watch was only the first of many young men in my memory who would die that way, in unknown places, in unknown trenches, on unknown roads, at unknown crossroads of unknown villages, and no one would ever tell them what that was really going on.