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Dream Quest One First Writing Prize Winner
Winter 2007-2008
Sylvie Nickels
Deddington, Banbury, England




The steep narrow lane was strewn with debris: bricks, shards of glass, a table with three legs, a tee shirt abandoned in the gutter. Mike Hennessey bent to retrieve it. There was a jagged tear across the front of it; severing the slogan I love Sarajevo in English across a blood-red heart. Dear God, there was even symbolism in the gutters of this benighted city. He dropped the tee-shirt thinking well, at least the children ‘s home is in the right area: the area least vulnerable to the barrage of death pounding out from the encircling Serb artillery.

As if anywhere could be invulnerable in this God-forsaken place.

“I heard you were here,” Mira had said a few hours earlier. A month in the besieged city had deadened most reactions, but the sound of her voice after so many years, amazingly recognizable over the ragged phone line, had come as a physical shock: Mira whom he had tried in vain to trace and finally accepted he would never see again. She was ringing from a children’s home. “Will you help me? To get some children out of this hell hole?”

It was quite beyond his powers of course. But “I’ll come tomorrow,” be said.

A shell exploded; not close but instinctively he drew into the relative shelter of a doorway, then saw it opened into the shell of a house. But the view was magnificent over the city, late autumn sun slanting on to minarets and spires and towers too distant to show their scars, the steep slopes beyond too densely forested to hint at what they concealed.


It’s unreal!” he had said quietly, those ten years ago when it had still been Yugoslavia and the world mostly knew Sarajevo as the venue for the forthcoming Winter Olympics. Though wasn't it also where that chap shot someone and started World War One?

Mike had been there masterminding an Olympics Preview special for his paper. It was autumn then, too, and the view similar but more immediate so that the sounds of the city drifted up to them, along with spicy smells from the scores of cevapéiéi and burek stalls in the bazaar.

“Not bazaar, bascarsija”, Mira had laughed. Pronounced ‘bashcharshiya’. You can say it. Try.”

“Not until after at least a couple of slivovice, “he said firmly.

He still could hardly credit his luck that out of all the tourist guides that might have been allocated to him, Mira had been the one. She was waiting for him that morning at the appointed hour in the foyer of his hotel: grey trouser suit with a sunset burst of chiffon at her throat, her dark hair caught back accentuating smooth high cheekbones and eyes as green as a mountain torrent. She was stunning. In his ignorance he had imagined Balkan women to be dark and dumpy with one foot still in the soil.

Over thick Turkish coffee, he learned that when she wasn't guiding foreign journalists she was in the last year of English language studies. “But now we must plan your time here for this special feature. Not just the Olympic preparations but my beautiful city.” No mention of hell holes then.


Blood Feelings -2


In retrospect Mike was not sure how much of the beauty he saw in Sarajevo was through Mira ‘s eyes rather than his own. History had placed the city in a lush green bowl cupped by wooded mountains. The only approach was along the narrow head of a valley, now packed with a considerable and unbeautiful acreage of high-rise suburbs. Beyond these Habsburg rule had left its solid architectural mark in sturdy public buildings and residential areas.

But the Ottoman Turks had ruled here for over 400 years and Sarajevo ‘s true heart was the bazaar area of little shops threaded by narrow streets, each with its specialty copper, silver, leather, pottery converging on the main marketplace and punctuated by the slender minarets of a score or so of mosques. Nowadays there were almost as many discos and coffee bars as craft shops, and pop music occasionally clashed with the call of the Muslim faithful to prayer. But in this multi-cultural city, there were Croat Catholic and Serb Orthodox towers too, and a synagogue and a Jewish museum testified to the city’s openness in earlier centuries.

“Sarajevo has always welcomed persecuted people, “Mira said “People with different blood feelings from ours.” She meant blood ties, but Mike thought her expression got it about right.

God help them!


He had been in Sarajevo a month now, sent to replace a colleague showing marked signs of siege fatigue. “You’ve been there before haven’t you?” the News Editor said. “Perhaps you’ll be able to explain the whole stinking mess.”

Mira had stopped answering his letters quite soon after his return to England. He had unexpectedly been offered a more lucrative job around then and never did get back to report on the Olympics. Perhaps he had stopped writing first? Well, they had been very young, he told himself, and it’s what happened when distance got in the way of love ... lust ... whatever; distance and new pre-occupations like ambition and being upwardly mobile, and, fairly soon, new more immediate relationships, and finally one in particular. He had also come to see that the whole episode had been too brief, too intense, too self-absorbed and absorbing, to survive the realities of their normal lives. Yet later affairs had never completely displaced that quiet corner of his subconscious where, from time to time, he revisited that magical week. He hoped she had found a good man: steadier than he was ever likely to be.

As soon as the conflict began to escalate, he had tried to get news of her. Nothing. Probably she had married, changed her name, and moved away. Or simply become one more statistic in the totality of Balkan bloodbath statistics. He slammed his mind shut against the thought. For despite the media coverage of devastation, of bewildered children and grieving women, of ever lengthening lines of new graves, he simply could not make the connection with the place that still lived in his head.

Now a month later, it was hard to believe that other place had ever existed.

“Get a story about how the kids are coping,” was the latest instruction from Canary Wharf. How the hell did they think they were coping Mike snarled, but only to himself. And then had come Mira’s call out of the crackling ether.

The city was out of sight now. The air smelt of pinewoods and wood smoke and the mountains were clean etched against the sky. You could almost forget the hate and the misery if it weren’t for the ruined farmhouse just ahead. Beyond it a short drive led to the children’s home, a solid lumpish relic of brief Habsburg rule. He pressed the doorbell, heard its persistent summons fade, and soon the sound of approaching footsteps.


They stood on a Street corner across from the Miljacka River looking down at the two footprints sunk into the pavement. It was said Gavrilo Princip had stood precisely there on June 28th, 1914, when he shot the heir to the Habsburg Empire, thus triggering a series of events that culminated five weeks later in the outbreak of the Great War.


Blood Feelings -3


“Did you know, “Mira said, “that if the chauffeur hadn‘t made a mistake and stopped just at this corner, so close that it was almost impossible to miss, those shots might never have been fired This Princip, he was only a boy, you know. Nineteen. And sick with tuberculosis.”

“He was an assassin, “Mike said “And indirectly started a war. And millions died. Horribly.”

“You English are so black and white. It is not a problem when you live on an island and no one can move your country about like a pawn in a big game of chess. And what about those huge armies looking for a war to fight? All those Big and Little Ententes promising each other bits of this or that part of the Balkans if they co-operated? Anyway if Princip hadn‘t killed him, someone else probably would. And whoever it was, Serbia would have got the blame.”

Mike suspected her history was probably rather less woolly than his own. “Presumably you’re a Serb?”

“I am a Bosnian, and a Serb. Like you are both British and English.”

Half Irish actually. Did that make him less or more ‘black and white? But Mike didn‘t pursue the argument, partly because he recognized some truth in what she said, and partly because he was already totally besotted. It was their second day. All he wanted was to watch her every movement and expression. Correction, he also wanted to sleep with her. But it was much more than a physical attraction. He was fascinated by her intelligence, her perception, and the swift changes of expression. Especially that: the way an eyebrow could curve into a whole silent shout of amused disbelief And beyond that, underlying all her moods, a gravitas that was the legacy of centuries. Mira, without even being aware of it, knew exactly who she was.


The footsteps stopped and the door opened. She had aged more than the ten-year interval warranted, but was still beautiful. She held out her hand and smiled. “So you did come? I could hear the shelling was bad last night.”

Her hand was cool and firm. “I’ve been trying for months to get news of you,” Mike said.

“The mail is a bit unreliable these days,” she quipped, but looked pleased.

She led him down a long corridor that was very cold and smelt Institution. “We have no heating,” she said. “Little food or water, and light for only two hours. Some evenings. Soon we will have no candles.” They were not complaints, but statements of fact. She led him into a small room with a desk strewn with papers, a table, a few plastic chairs.

Mike emptied the contents of his rucksack on the table. “I should have thought of candles. This is just some chocolate for the children, some coffee for you.

Mira’s said. “That’s worth about a year’s salary. Assuming you could find such things, and that you had a salary. Thank you Michael.”

“I’ll come back with the candles.”

“I will take you to meet the children in a moment. First I want to hear something about a world that I almost have forgotten exists. What are they saying about us in England?”

Yet another bloody Balkan mess.... Why should we be involved, our boys get killed? Why not leave ‘em to kill each other… Worse than the sodding Irish. No, that really would not cheer her day. Aloud he said, “Mostly people are totally baffled. They see terrible pictures of frightened children and weeping women and burning houses, and they can’t imagine this is the country where they came for their holidays and had such a good time.”

“But it’s not that country any more is it? That country was Yugoslavia, now it is divided into those little pieces that once belonged to other people and has brought back all the old hatreds and fears....” Mira suddenly put her head in her hands. “And most of us are so tired, so tired deep into our bones. And afraid.” She looked up and saw he had noted the thin gold band on her finger. “My Ismet was a Bosniak, a Muslim,” she said.


“He had gone to scold Nada, our daughter, for playing out in the sunshine. It is dangerous in Sarajevo to play out in the sunshine. He died at her feet. A Serb sniper.” She looked away. “And God help me, Michael, I was one of those who said it can’t happen here. Not in Sarajevo,


Blood Feelings -4


not here where we learned to survive nearly 500 years of the Ottomans, then the Habsburgs, then two Balkan and two World Wars. We could survive anything . . ..”

“Yes I remember,” he said.

“Ismet was a good man. In those days we didn’t think about Bosniaks or Serbs or Croats. We were people of Sarajevo, like all our generation, and one or two before that. We didn’t need the old people to tell us about the importance of blood feelings — they’d had their chance and look where it got us! Only we found we hadn’t stopped listening after all. We hadn’t guess how deep the blood feelings go...”

Hesitantly he asked “And your mother, how is she?”

Mira shook her head. “She died two years ago, and I thank God she did not live to see this.”


On his last day in Sarajevo she had taken him to meet her mother. They had made love for the first time, Mira and he, the previous night and he still felt quite drunk with the wonder of it. Mira had said, looking at him very seriously, that she did not offer her body lightly. She had actually used that funny old-fashioned expression that would have caused hysteria in his Canary Wharf world, and Mike was surprised at how angry that thought made him. “I’ll be back in a few weeks to cover the Olympics, “he said. “Then we ‘11 fix your visit to England” And he had truly meant every word.

She was the youngest of six; her mother then in her mid-sixties and it was immediately clear where Mira ‘s beauty came from. When he had said so, and it was translated to her, Mira ‘s mother gave a smile that spread to every corner of her face. She had prepared a tray of Bosnian specialties for them: light pastry layers of burek, filled with cheese or spinach or potato, and sarma, vine leaves stuffed with meat and rice. There was a pale golden wine from Mostar to go with it, and then the finest Turkish coffee Mike had tasted, served in tiny cups from a long handled copper pot, with a dish of sweet, sticky Turkish delight.

Mira ‘s mother lived in the old town in a small house with a tiny walled garden. It was in this that they ate and that Mike had a sudden heightened awareness of a deep peace. Matching his mood, the call to prayer from a nearby minaret was taken up from mosque to mosque across the old city. He glanced across at the older woman; she was watching him, her head on one side, with a small smile.

He said "It’s hard to realize all the changes your mother has lived through: wars and kingdoms, fascism and communism. And she can still smile.”

After this had been translated, Mira ‘s mother gave a small shrug that spoke volumes of how little she could have done to change any of it. Only survive.

“And now peace, “Mike added.

“Pray God, “Mira ‘s mother said


Mira said. “And what about you Michael? You have a wife, children?”

“No children.” He hesitated. “A partner.”

She smiled a little “Is it so hard to commit yourself?”

“I don’t think we’re any less committed because we are not married,” he said defensively. “We’re both journalists, traveling a lot. Not ideal for parenthood.” He changed the subject. “And your daughter? Where is she now”

“She is here. I will take you to meet her and the other children.” But Mira did not move immediately. “I pray every day I might find a way to get her away from this terrible place. Give her back some childhood.”

“I wish I could help, with all my heart Mira. But now the UN are increasing the pressure the siege must end soon.”

“And then? Do you think, dear Michael, we will all live happily ever after, following all that has happened, as though we can be tidied into nice ethnically pure parcels and forget the last 1000 years...?”


Blood Feelings - 5


Unexpectedly Mike felt a small twinge of impatience. “So what’s the alternative?”

“I have not the smallest idea for the future; only the experience from the past — that you should not take bricks from the structure of a house and be surprised when the house collapses. They didn’t think of that in the West when they gave their blessing to Slovenia, and then Croatia, and then — such a surprise to find so many ethnic groups lived outside their old borders as they have for hundreds of years who didn’t at all like to find themselves living in a new country. You will see, after Bosnia it will be Kosovo and alter Kosovo it will be Macedonia   “ She stopped abruptly. “I have lived with this too long Michael, and lost too much. I will give my soul that Nada should not live through more of it.”

There were about 30 children. They had been collected into two large rooms to make the most of whatever warmth and light were available, and most of them were in bed. It was the silence of so many children in one place that was unnerving: a kind of resignation that would have seemed less out of place in a home for the elderly.

Mira spoke sharply in Serbo-Croat to a small girl standing in the middle of the room, her head down and clutching a book. Mira sighed. “I tell them to stay in bed where it is warm because it is dangerous to play outside. That is one who likes to think she knows better. It is her way of dealing with fear, guilt, whatever it is in her head that I can’t reach. Nada, my daughter.”

Mike went over to the child and crouched down beside her. To his surprise he saw the book she clutched was Winnie the Pooh.

He glanced back at Mira who was standing very still watching them. She said, “It was in a parcel from England.”

Instinctively Mike fished a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the child’s runny nose. She flinched but did not move away until he tried to look at the book; then, clutching it harder to her chest, she lifted her head and glared at him ferociously.

And, with a thunderbolt of shock, Mike found he was gazing back at a small, almost mirror image of himself.

He stared back at Mira, mouthing incoherently.

She said “Unmarried girls in Sarajevo, not nice girls...well didn’t ... get themselves pregnant. It was a... a very big shock for me.”

He found his voice. “Why on earth didn’t you tell me?”

“Michael my dear. We were young. I thought I was in love or I would never have spent that night with you ... But your letters were already telling me how you had moved on ...moved away. And I come from a proud people. Then there was Ismet who said that he had loved me for a long time, which he wanted to look after the child and me. And he did. He looked on Nada as his own...”

At the mention of her name, Nada looked from one to the other suspiciously.

But she wasn‘t his; she was ... is mine: the thought was shouting in Mike’s head, still far too big to grasp. “Mine! ... MINE!!” He felt the stir of something he had never experienced before, something new slowly filtering through his veins.

Blood feelings?

In the distance the shelling began again.


By Sylvie Nickels