A low rumble invaded Meta’s dream. Leaning her ear against the safe wall of her father’s chest, she could feel the vibrations through his sweater. The dream fireplace cast orange flickering lights in the nightmare room. Her face felt the fire’s dry heat. Her dream father was reciting his story of angels rolling potatoes around heaven to make thunder. Suddenly awake, she scrambled out of bed. The racket outside reached a crescendo of grinding steel, slamming doors, and raised voices. As she opened her bedroom door, her father stepped into the hall, too.
Trucks, he whispered, as if to avoid waking her mother.
Downstairs the two of them grabbed coats off the front hall rack and stepped outside into the glow of an orange sunrise. Soldiers were unloading trucks, taking large crates into the library across the street from their front door. For a moment, the still sleepy Meta hoped the boxes were a shipment of new books. Instead, the crates showed gleaming shells between the slats. A folded crane sat on a flat bed truck. Dark silhouettes of men were busy attaching the crane to the round barrel of a huge gun. Finally, with half the troops waiting on the roof, the anti-aircraft cannon was swung high into the peach-rose sky and placed on the white domed roof of the library.
Meta felt her mother’s hand on her shoulder, Meta, Raike, come inside, she ordered. The soldiers are watching – and you, Meta, you’re not properly dressed.
Proper? her father’s voice rose in anger. Why should we be proper? Meta shut the front door on the spectacle. Her father continued to rant, Civilization just expired. A gun perched on our library?
We’ll be safer, won’t we? Her mother asked, busy with breakfast.
No, we won’t be! Her father pulled at his white hair. Now the library will be a target.
But the gun will protect us, Raike, her mother argued. Eat. You’ll see. Why would they put a gun on the library if they thought it would cause damage?
Her father choked on his toast. Meta handed him her glass of milk. He gasped, The library will be destroyed in a week with every book in it. Meta, go over and check out all you can carry. Put them in the basement. If they ask, say they’re for Professor Heinrich. Hema, don’t you go over there. We do not need you lecturing those soldiers about their duty to Moslem’s. And, Meta, I’m serious, get the books – don’t go to school.
School was closed three weeks ago, Father. Meta tried not to see the fresh lines of pain on her mother’s face. Do you think the soldiers will let me take the books?
Just don’t preach to them. Start with the classics: Plato, Steinbeck, Shakespeare, Chekhov. Oh God, it’s no use. They’ll all be destroyed! He stood up, distracted. Hema, we have to leave.
We’re leaving, her mother said. Sit down and finish your breakfast. Listen to your favorite Roman Emperor: leave off your love of books or you will die murmuring.
Hema put more toast on her husband’s plate, and patted his hand. Your mother wrote that the Consulate in Paris is working on our visa. I don’t have everything packed yet.
Just a suitcase. We can only take a suitcase. Put the photos with the books in the basement. I need to go to the dean’s office for the letter of recommendation to that Chicago university. I should be back by three. Please, Meta, tell me you’ll work all day bringing over books.
Meta walked him to the door, I will, Father, I will. There’s space under the basement steps. He tugged at her chin as he turned away.
Back in the kitchen, her mother laid their clean plates between dishtowels in the cupboard. She grinned during the task, telling Meta her Croatian neighbor complained about plates cracking during the last Serbian shelling. Meta shook her head to dislodge her bleak thoughts. Her father hoped to save books stacked in the basement while her mother saved the china. The shells would fall where they would.
Upstairs in her bedroom, she glimpsed her face in the taped mirror. On her dresser stood a framed picture of her mother at sixteen. Hema, the girl in the picture, held a bouquet of fresh violets to her hair. Streamers of ivy and lace tied to the flowers surrounded the confident happy face. Meta sighed. Downstairs only 34 years old, her mother’s hooded dark eyelids now hid faded eyes. Her nose seemed longer, certainly thinner than in the wedding picture. And her mother’s brow now showed deep lines of worry. The incline of her cheeks were webbed with tiny lines, and her bony neck revealed deep furrows. ‘Maps of hatred,’ Meta thought, as she tucked the framed photograph into her open suitcase.
Moslem’s hated by the Serbs, Moslem’s tolerated but mistrusted by the Croats. Her mother was despised in the town where her grandparents and the grandparents before them had been born. Without warning, people were targets of open hostility. Meta’s grandparents had dissolved like broken vases. Heart attacks and cancer were diagnosed for both within a year. The last month of their lives they both shook. The doctor said the shaking was caused by the painkillers. But Meta knew better, they were terrified out of life. She went back to her mirror to examine the fear creeping around the corners of her own eyes.
You can’t scare me to death, she said, brushing her hair back from her forehead.
All day long, Meta hurried back and forth across the street to the library in Sarajevo, which was housed in a cathedral finished in 1540. In the library, stained-glass windows of Archbishop Stepinac and assorted apostles seemed to roll their emptied eyes heavenward. In the past, Meta loved to scan the books from the second floor balcony that circled the interior – going from the dark shadows of the shelves into the bright light of the stained glass windows.
During the first few trips to the library, Meta remained unnoticed by the young soldiers. The dusty old librarian helped her make decisions. He even carried a load of art books across the street, setting them just inside the door before hurrying back to his besieged library. On the steps of the library, the loose handle of the old picnic basket Meta used to cart the books came off and the books tumbled out. She gave a little cry and two of the soldiers came over to help. One slim shy boy, not a soldier really, pulled on her coat sleeve as she started back across the street.
Her mother was standing in the open door, hands on her hips. You’re exhausted. You need lunch. Your father can bring over what he wants. I will not allow you to be pawed by those ruffians.
He just pulled my sleeve, Meta defended the boy. He doesn’t look sixteen.
Old enough to know what he wants. Now eat. Her mother tried to sweeten the last edict, but it resembled a pitiful whine.
In the days that followed, her father, Raike, trudged back and forth from the library. As he predicted, the gun did not help anyone. They and the gun on the library were now Serbian targets. Incoming shells constantly terrorized them at night. They moved the couch, a bed, one chair, and a small table into the windowless coal room. During the day, the street filled with refugees lucky enough to have a place to go. Food was getting scarce. Out front, a huge shell hole replaced the street. Her father said they were lucky that the bomb hadn’t hit the sewer or water lines.
One late afternoon, Meta and her father returned from the library lugging pillowcases of books. Hema met them inside the entrance way. Enough already. We don’t have room to walk. Meta, go upstairs.
Meta obeyed, but not before she saw her father flinch. She tried not to listen but hastened down the steps when she heard dishes being broken. To her surprise, her father was the one pulling a towel out from under a stack of dishes in the cupboard. Ten plates went crashing into the corner.
Children! Meta shouted, Petulant children!
Her mother doubled-up with laughter and her father started to giggle. He knelt down beside her mother. Now they were eye to eye.
Hema, he started to weep. Let’s leave Bosnia to the rats in the city, and the rabbits in the country until all the hatred is killed off.
Her mother kissed his hair and held out her arm to include Meta. Soon. We’ll get the visa soon. I’m packed. We’ll be safe soon.
Meta crept away, leaving them still in an embrace. She opened the front door. The young soldier who had pulled on her sleeve was lounging in the library doorway. He brightened when he saw her and waved. She blew him a kiss. He caught it, and hugged it to his chest. Meta closed the door softly; and smiling, went up to bed.
At dawn, the gun on the roof of the library awakened them with the familiar sounds of danger. She joined her mother in the kitchen who was rehearsing her morning tasks over the din. No milk, coffee enough for two days, a month’s supply of soap from her Jewish mother-in-law in France. Nothing else. No visa.
Hema sent Meta to flush the toilet, which was working! She filled the tub. This much water was a bonus. True it was orange, but it would settle. Her mother would make her bleach the tub again. Meta couldn’t remember if they had any more bleach.
She knocked on her father’s door. The tub is for hair washing in the sink today. I’ll heat it later.
Thank you, Meta, but my hair is okay, her father said.
We still need to be beautiful, she said. Rest for a while.
The gun is still playing, he said as he stepped into the hall, as if the noise came from a violin. A shell landed nearby and rocked the house. They’re returning fire again. You make coffee in the basement; and I’ll go get the breakfast rolls.
Wait till the shelling stops, Meta pleaded.
That’s what everyone else is doing, he said. This way there might even be a loaf of bread with the rolls.
It wouldn’t do any good to argue. He never felt personally threatened. He had just gone out the back door, when her mother made her last trip to the basement. The coffee pot was in her left hand and she was on the bottom step when a huge shock shook the house. All was still. Then the earth seemed to heave in another explosion. As Meta pulled her mother into a corner, she noticed a water pipe had sprung a leak. When it grew quiet outside, her mother wrapped the pipe in metallic tape and dusted off the coffee pot.
They still had electricity. Meta crept out the back door with her mother close behind her.
Fire engines were just connecting their hoses across the street. Water gushed out. The library was on fire, the roof was gone. Meta wondered, which would be worse for the books: the water or the smoke? But the firemen were only wetting down her house and the one on the other side of the library. They ignored the library, which crackled away. Burning pages of books were floating down like colorful autumn leaves. Explosions continued. The shells stored in the library basement continued to explode, sending more books to the heavens. Where was her father? Meta looked around, her mother had started toward the bakery. Meta pulled her back down into the basement.
Gone. Her mother folded. He’s probably gone. She clasped her head and moaned.
Meta dragged her to the couch in the coal room.
Hema moaned on, He thinks he’s God’s chosen. Well, maybe today, he can ask. She beat her head with her fists.
Meta wrapped her mother’s distraught hands in a dishtowel, tucking them under the apron in her lap. The binding seemed to calm her. Meta went back outside to search. Raike stood on the sidewalk in front of the house watching the fireworks. He reached up and caught a burning page, blew it out, and started to read.
Meta tugged at his elbow, Father, come in, it’s not safe! Mother thinks you’re dead!
A page from Marcus Aurelius, Raike said. We will all die murmuring. Why did I think our house would be safe? It will burn to the ground with all the books for fodder.
The two of them returned to the basement. Her father sat down and began to eat a sweet roll. We have to leave now, he said to her mother. He seemed jubilant. There’s nothing left.
For the first time, her mother agreed. Meta’s father had found a UN truck driver at the bakery, who said he would take them out.
As they locked the door, her mother shouted to the hateful neighbors, We’ll be back!
Meta hoped they would never return. She pulled her hair close, not wanting her father to see her face. She felt lines beginning to marshal themselves across her brow. Her tears traced deep salt furrows down her cheeks. She was terrified that her face would be as lined as her mother’s before nightfall. This time the rumble of the UN vehicles held no dream of fatherly protection.
Hugging her suitcase to her chest, Meta looked out the back of the truck. Shells were still exploding from the library’s basement. Incoming shells were adding to the din on her street. Fires were spreading in her town, in her country.
Where was that boy soldier? Where was her kiss kept now?