A dark hallway with stairs made of large blocks of stone worn down over the years by the quick tread of thousands of children’s feet, kids with heavy thoughts on their minds and with even heavier backpacks almost bigger than themselves. At that time, the school was named after the Croatian poet “Silvije Strahimir Kranjčević,” but that was a mouthful and everyone just called it SSK.
The schoolyard was cracked from the large tree roots that poked through the asphalt, spurning the urban prison in which people agreed to be chained. Later on, the school became famous for its high wall that surrounded the yard. The wall also featured as a backdrop in a famous sketch filmed by the comedy troupe “The Surrealists’ Top Chart” depicting a fight between two different clans of garbage collectors—one from East and the other from West Sarajevo—throwing rubbish at each other. To be sure, Sarajevo soon afterward became a divided city, but in a different, more serious, and more tragic way.
That school held many secrets, like the secret of my grandfather’s fall down the stairs as he hurried to attend a parent-teacher meeting, the surgeries that followed, the blood clot, my departure to Skopje, his telephone call from the hospital, his death, and his not having the chance to ask for my forgiveness . . . but all that happened later on.
In 1984, the song “Thriller” by Michael Jackson was a popular hit. I was alone at home with my grandmother. She was ironing and I was watching TV, while the neighbors invited one another over for coffee by tapping on the radiator pipes. The music video started out innocently enough, but then got increasingly scary. As a hint of what was to happen to him in the years to come, Michael Jackson’s face transformed into the face of a monster and I froze with fear. I hid my face in my grandmother’s lap. She was a strong woman who had endured war and deprivation, cold and rheumatism, diabetes, and years of waiting for her husband’s release from the notorious Goli Otok prison. And her appearance not only filled me with admiration, but with a sense of security too.
“What’s wrong?” she asked worriedly, not waiting for my reply because she must have seen what was on the TV. “Now, now, don’t be scared. It’s just a film,” she said, ruffling my hair.
I closed my eyes and turned my head away. The glow from the chandelier produced a bright yellow light behind my eyelids. I saw the sun quite clearly above me, big and warm. I heard the sound of the sea waves, and the quiet, gentle breeze blowing through my hair . . .
When I opened my eyes, she was no longer there. She had gone, leaving behind two men and a young boy with unresolved mutual problems, torn apart by divorce, disputes, courts, and even child abduction. I lived in fear, and not because of “Thriller” or Nightmare on Elm Street, a popular horror film at the time. They of course did scare me, but what I was even more afraid of was the image of my mother imposed on me by the people I lived with and who I loved dearly. In my mind and in my dreams, she was the evil witch who chased me, while I foolishly and desperately tried to get away, only to end up falling into a bottomless well—every night. I would wake up screaming beside my grandfather, who slept so soundly that nothing ever woke him.
Then I started seeing apparitions, things that didn’t exist, and yet they were right there before me. Waking up always brought with it new and mysterious figures that I could almost touch until they would just vanish. I knew these figures wanted to tell me something, but I never worked out what it was because I didn’t really give it much thought. Yes, kids want to live, not to think, especially when right outside your door something magical and unforgettable is taking place—the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics.
One of the rare childhood photographs that I still possess, that didn’t get lost in the whirlwind of the war, is a picture of me with Vučko, the Olympic Games mascot, who was something much more than just that. Vučko was a friendly image of a wolf. The wolf found in the forests of Yugoslavia, a proud and courageous animal that lives in a pack to which it owes its survival. Without the pack, he’s just a lone wolf, doomed to living out his days in anticipation of the end, as we ourselves would soon come to do.
“Get up now, kid,” the photographer said to me. “Come on, let go of Vučko. There’re others waiting to have their photo taken with him.” My grip on Vučko remained firm. I didn’t want to let go of him. I wanted him to be mine because he felt like something stable, something reliable that I wanted to hold on to. He was something positive and cheerful, something I could be happy about. And not only that, he brightened everything up at the kindergarten. Because of him, the instant mashed potatoes that smelled like detergent, the macaroni cheese baked beyond recognition, the rice swimming in oil, the physical bullying by the bigger kids or the painful smacks of the teacher’s ruler over my small hand all seemed almost bearable.
My grandmother died. For the first time in my life, I saw my father cry. The second time would be six years later when he would be saying goodbye to me. The Winter Olympics finished. I became a first-grader. But none of that was important because all my thoughts were of just her—my first great love.
Excerpt from the book “3 Minutes and 53 Seconds” (Goten, 2015)
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015