A Blossom From Bosnia
by Nick Sweeney
It was a gentle early morning, Mirsa realised with a start. For a lingering moment, she had the odd feeling that she was in a place of saints. She remembered a white-clad child captured in the frame of a courtyard doorway, pictured other features of her route remarkable only because of the way they hung before her eyes, broke up, and were immediately forgotten.
She shook the dust from her hair, saw that she was on the Place de Clichy, sensed that she must have made her way up the hill from Poissonière following Faubourg Montmartre, but she didn’t really know. She laughed nervously at that, then felt an encroaching nausea and rubbed her stomach with a child’s gesture, pretended to be contemplating her scuffed brown shoes.
Her jacket felt heavy, and she took it off and, not knowing what else to do with it, let it fall to the ground. She walked on, the wind puffing out the wide sleeves of a red and white blouse she couldn’t remember buying. A waiter, out hosing down the approach to his terrace, sent her a spike of a look that went through her.
The sandy island that bisected the Boulevard des Batignolles was crowded with frumpy women walking haughty dogs. They disappeared behind trees as if hiding from Mirsa in a game whose rules only they knew. The trees revealed others in assertive sunlight; the patient-eyed woman, her clothes made from old curtains, who looked after the toilets; bleary-eyed young men in dark wool suits that ate the light; dissipated taxi drivers in a silent group near their chariots, all talked-out from the long city night.
The scent of bread cut through petrol fumes, and Mirsa felt hungry until the idea of food produced a violent reaction deep inside her. Her mother had said there was no bread. “What’s that smell, then?” Mirsa demanded, and a Pekinese looked up at her with interest, though its owner offered the back of her hat to those who spoke out loud to themselves in the street.
A handsome woman in timeless clothes stepped by, Mirsa’s teacher, Madame Vujovič, who said, “What did I tell you, Mirsa? Didn’t I say you’d speak the most beautiful French and stroll along the boulevards of this eternal city and break the hearts of men and drink vintage wine over candle-lit dinners?”
Mirsa nodded, pleased, but doubtful that she had indeed done all those things. She saw herself holding a glass up to a candle in a cellar, wine in it of a rich red colour like that of the thin stream of blood that chose that moment to leak out of her mouth. She felt it tickle her chin, then reached up and put a hand to it, embarrassed, searched in her skirt pocket for a handkerchief, found only grit.
“Parlez-moi d’amour,” she wanted Madame Vujovič to say to her. “Do you remember that song, Mirsa?”
She would have said, “Yes, I will never forget it,” but when she looked up from her labour, Madame Vujovič wasn’t there anymore. She’s gone. Mirsa felt sad, but resigned. Of course.
She saw her dusty classroom, a little bust of Tito sitting high on a shelf, ignored. They had an empire here, she reminded herself, and let herself frown, knowing that empires ended foolishly, with rooms full of empire junk in cities under siege. She knew too that no city was eternal; men in the hills, disfigured by their pride, had shown her that, with their elementary science and their ballistics.
The traffic stopped for seconds, and Mirsa sensed birds striking poses in the trees, heard them sing. Chattering children, a riot of bright jackets and bags, came out of an apartment block, and a green twinge cut up into Mirsa at the thought of the school day ahead of them. She grimaced, made a face that wasn’t really hers, saw it mosaic, her features held tightly in a cracked window. A car backfired, and then another, and the birds scattered, their song turned to shrieks.
She turned in to the quiet Rue des Batignolles and hovered by a brasserie, dark but inviting. Coffee would be good, she decided, with three spoonfuls of sugar. “There’s no coffee,” her mother had told her, but then again, what was that smell? Mirsa came to a halt and sniffed deeply, to the chagrin of another dog-walking dame, then nodded, satisfied.
She looked up into the window, saw cloudy bottles arrayed upside down. “And no sugar,” she remembered, and then her teeth began to ache, and she was sucking air in and puffing it out as if having taken on the tiny form of the birds that wheeled urgently in the narrow strip of sky above her. She would have to see the dentist. “There’s no anaesthetic,” she was reminded then, and the words wanted to trouble her, for she could think of no rejoinder to that for her mother. She forgot coffee, wanted only to get to the end of the street, where it faded out and became a park.
A few paces brought her to the junk shop she liked, its window full of past ages. She looked in and saw the broken hills around her city, saw its minarets and the domes of its bazaars, the big Catholic church and the Jewish museum, the Orthodox church of Saint Michael, the Moorish town hall, the footprints near the bridge over the Miljacka where an archduke met his end.
She saw past the Holiday Inn and down Sniper Alley to the airport, the barricades and the smashed windows of trams, the burnt, twisted metal of cars, the ruined Olympic village and its stadium full of graves, then remembered that good Madame Vujovič lay there, had come with her Latin tongue to that Oriental city to love and be married, die and be buried. There were things going on in the centre, people in front of the parliament building, there was thunder from the hills. “And my friends have all gone,” Mirsa said out loud, and tried to put broken things back together in her head.
The sun sought her out and lit her up, the air a faceful of ozone, and she found herself caught by something in her bones, the urge to kick her shoes off and do a mad dance. In a room somewhere above her, she heard a piano, and was calmed. Chopin, she thought, the thing her friend Anja had dismissed as simple, but still fluffed at the last concert at the Skenderija Hall, but she didn’t really know. It had a tinny, metallic sound, but the playing was confident, a waltz that stopped and started but went on and on.
That’s the beauty of music, she thought, the way it’s there now and was there in the past and will be there in the future too, like the seasons of the year. “Only in Paris,” she said to a passing man, “the sun bright as diamonds, the air like ether, can you have such thoughts.”
In early April in the Parc des Batignolles the old men come out to play their boules, and nannies bring children and sit with them, not saying anything. Concierges from nearby blocks bring their breakfasts and pull absently at their stockings, gather together to make the guarded conversation planned for them by tradition.
Female students bring their books and appear to study them while pleasurably repeating for themselves dialogues with lovers. Philosophers destined for taxi-driving or dish-washing make the world perfect in their heads as they bare teeth that show like the stork-haunted Corinthian columns of ruins. None of them seemed to notice Mirsa, and yet a crowd was gathered around her, light shining in her face.
“Well, let’s have a go,” a man said, the man who had passed Mirsa at the junk shop. He looked haggard and tired, and Mirsa wanted to tell him to cheer up. Hands unwound a turban from her head, white with red flowers, the one her great grandma had worn at her wedding, back in the time of the archduke.
“Do it, then,” the man said to somebody off to Mirsa’s right, and she tried to turn but was arrested by a white-edged pain in her middle, which spread to her chest and, most alarmingly, made her legs want to curl up beneath her. She saw a cylinder, a needle seeking numbers on a dial, wavering crazily, then making a lazy arc down to the left.
The man tutted and swore, and Mirsa wanted to tell him not to be so impatient. Only the curse remained, the man’s interest grabbed by something else nearby. Mirsa opened her mouth to say something, but she could see that nobody was listening.
“She’s gone,” another man said.
Mirsa again tried to turn her head, to say, “Who’s gone?”
She saw the concierges with their preoccupied crows’ heads, and the girl students with their gamine faces touched by love, the creased brows of the doomed thinkers and the starched nannies, children who wondered at the mysteries of flowers, all shaded green by the trees, then knew she couldn’t bother them with such a question.
Cars stopped backfiring, and Mirsa heard the trains moving sluggishly up the road at the Gare Saint-Lazare. They held no interest for her, for she didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world at that moment, would stay there under the trees of Paris, her head kissed by white blossoms, for as long as she could.
Copyright © 2019 by Nick Sweeney