A Christmas past, I slipped through the bony black alders of the river, up to the mountain pines covered in snow, willing to fight for what I loved, not for what the politicians shouted for. It was soon clear to me that killing kills you as well, only slower, and perhaps with more pain. You shoot and a distant scarecrow falls and then you reload and move on pretending to be a movie action hero. Yet movies don't show what burning houses, ones the scarecrows had built brick by brick, really means. Once a fire gets hold, and the screams start you get the smell of beef in a frying pan, and fatty pork on the grill. When the screams stop being human you get the coppery, metallic odour of blood boiling. When it goes silent, except for crackling flames and falling walls, you get a musky, sweet perfume wafting over in the smoke from the burning brain and spine juices.
You can laugh and kill again, or cry and run. I ran.
My parents knew. It showed in the stiff face and lack of questions as my mother stood to shake her black dress smooth before going into the kitchen to cook a lamb burek. My father, in his faded jeans and shirts from America, just kissed my forehead, and put his finger to my lips shaking his head. Of course they hid me in the attic. It's not just a dump for forgotten keepsakes. We had put up tourists, gangly men with haversacks or girls in pairs wearing trousers and head-scarves, when times were good. So I had a shelf for a kettle and stove but the bed at night smelt like a refugee's suitcase.
We are at the end of the village, 20 houses, many of them farmhouses like our. Besides the houses and barns, the village only offered two more buildings: a small school that also acted as a courthouse, and a mosque. Behind our house are vegetable gardens and pools for fish. At the end by a stone wall gleamed from the fields, there is a dirt path that I watch for hours, staring past sheep and cemeteries down to broken houses that once were neighbours you talked with about the weather, and sons disappointing in distant places when daughters gave you grandchildren. I could even see the witch hat shingled roof of Divac's place. As a boy I had watched his brown and black Barak dog, that was often more asleep then waking, no longer pulling on his chain - too old to hunt, too friendly to guard. As a man I had watched Divac shot.
No questions were asked in what remained of the village. I was the brave hero-son...resting to return. Only if I could. Sleep is flames and sweet smoke. Each dawn, brought the sounds of distant gun shots. And I shake under pillows and blankets, fearing they were the real heroes, the ones who hadn't ran,
This morning as the sun rose, I looked up into a blue cloudless sky through the broken glass. My father was already up walking down to check on the sheep, he goes via the yellow field and the deeply-saturated sweet, green floral scent of crushed everlasting comes in on a breeze. Then as an engine coughs and rattles below in the centre of the village , I hear my mother call up to stay quiet and then she rushes out to my father. They can hide by 'working ' in the fields. Men I had played football with, men who had mended my car had come for the young women and shot any one stupid enough to protest. It's why we went to war, why men fought.
Once, on Market day, I had pointed out to everyone the woman I would marry. Lajla was short with dark eyes that made you alive. She had laughed and threw her flowers at me. The first time they came, they killed any man under 30 and took any woman they could find. Her last act of love was not to call through the small windows of the old German grey, square boxed livestock truck as it pulled away. It's why I had killed and burned. As the truck spluttered away again, I crept out by the back door, I knew where they had to stop to cross the river and real death was better then this lifeless existence.
They had stopped at the river, having a smoke and a laugh. I knew the driver. We had played in the street as kids. The other two were from local villages, I had seen them on market days. From the cover of the pine, I raised my hunting rifle and became a hero. A spray of bullets killed them and me. It was just a zombie that let the women out, who cried and hugged first themselves and then me before running to hide.
Now sitting here in the woods, looking at the gun, I have to decide which killer has the next bullet.