J. C. Sibara
We met on a corner in downtown Portland, where the electric train used to end. I could have pretended not to hear the old man. I usually ignored men who talked to me on the street. But this one spoke with a Slavic accent that sounded like my grandfather’s. Unlike it, too, though I couldn’t quite place how.
“What is happening to the library?” He asked, pausing between words.
I had the same question. It was my first trip to the library since I had come home from the Bay Area to take care of my Deda two months earlier. Yellow construction tape blocked the entrance. The roof was torn away, the building’s innards exposed to the sky. The stone carcass loomed, casting uneven shadows on the nearby shops and sidewalks. A sign announced a temporary library located on 4th and Columbia. The new and improved library would re-open in 1997, three years away. Internet, the poster promised. Outlets for laptop computers, central air conditioning, wall-to-wall carpeting, even an espresso bar. I didn’t care about these innovations. Having just lost Deda, this felt like another death.
The library had been my second home in high school. I passed my afternoons in the high-ceilinged reading room flipping through old newspapers on microfiche, listening to scratchy recordings of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, or hiding out in the fluorescent-lit stacks with my girlfriend. The only place we felt safe to touch each other was inside that maze of disintegrated scaffolding and bowing bookshelves, despite the heavy marble floors that threatened collapse. It seemed just the right place, now that Deda was gone and I needed to figure out what to do next with my life. That morning my roommate in Berkeley had called about the lease. Would I be returning for another year?
Or would I stay, and continue seeing Milena? Her family, like mine, lived in the Serbian community our grandparents formed in Southeast Portland after World War II. Milena had trailed three years behind me in school so I didn’t pay her much attention while we were growing up. As adults, the gap closed. One evening shortly after my arrival in Portland, our families gathered for a meal, and during our post-dinner hour in the kitchen, she grabbed my wrist as I reached past her for the Brillo. We soon slipped into a togetherness without naming it. But ever since Deda’s funeral, I’d been avoiding her, unsure what to say about our future.
“The library has moved,” I said to the man. “That way. A mile or so.” I pointed toward the river.
The man stared at the sign, his shoulders slumped. He wore several layers of brown and grey wool and his forehead only reached my chin.
“I do not understand the directions,” he said.
“Where are you from?” I stopped myself from asking. It would have sounded so American.
What are you? People used to ask my grandfather, and he would say, A dragon.
“Will you call the library for me?” the man asked. He nodded toward
the phone booth across the street. “I have a question and maybe it is too far to walk.”
I thought of Deda then, having to ask over and over in his precise but accented English, Can you please repeat that? or More slowly, please.
“Of course,” I said to the man. “What do you need to ask?”
“The address of the Pope,” he said. “I need to send him a message.”
I crossed my arms. He must be a Croat, I thought.
He wasn’t the first I’d met, but the others were younger, and generations removed—like the girl at my high school, a Croatian’s great-great granddaughter who cheerfully announced to me her heritage when she found out, during first-year orientation, that my family was also from Yugoslavia. We might have been enemies if we had grown up in the Balkans. But I couldn’t blame her. I knew little more than she did. Deda kept the details of the genocide just behind his teeth, only letting slip, under his breath, an occasional curse against the “Ustaše.” When I was twelve I asked my father who the Ooh-stah-shay were, and he said they were like the Nazis, only Croatian, and then made an excuse to leave the room. As soon as I learned how to use a card catalog, I began to teach myself the answers instead of pestering my family with questions.
“You could just write ‘Vatican City’?” I said to the man, who seemed old enough to have been one of Hitler’s cronies.
“I do not want the letter to get lost,” he said. “I will find a quarter.” He reached into a tattered Nordstrom shopping bag. When he let go of one of the handles, I thought his entire life’s possessions might spill out. But there was no Ustaša coat of arms, no Swastika, only an English-language Bible and a few other worn books and papers. He drew a quarter from the jumble, held it out to me, and nodded toward the phone booth again.
I stared at the quarter, wondering if there was some way I could get out of this. Perhaps I could just tell him I was Serbian. But since the wars had broken out in ‘92, and each day brought new stories of atrocities by those who might be third or fourth cousins (“Propaganda,” Deda insisted), it had become a habit not to mention my origins. Besides, hadn’t I given him my word? I plucked the coin from his fingers and strode across the street, the man following a few steps behind.
I did not expect him to join me in the glass booth, but holding the door open wide with his elbow, he entered, turning to press against my side. Blood burned in my ears. I could smell pipe tobacco on his breath, mothballs on his coat. Deda sometimes stood closer to people in public than they did to one another, but this man’s hovering felt extreme. I re-assured myself that I’d had Self Defense in college. Figured I could break his birdlike nose if I had to. But as his fingers fluttered against my back, a memory came to me, of how, when I was a girl, my grandfather would sit with me by the fire and shake my waist-long black hair dry with his hands.
During this ritual Deda would keep me still with stories, like the one about the ferocious she-dragon disguised as a damsel. She looked into a mirror, and thinking the reflection someone else, fell in love with her own image. While the damsel was distracted, a poor man stole the single red strand from her headful of raven hair. He sold it to the emperor for a thousand gold sequins. The emperor split the hair open and discovered written upon it the most remarkable stories from olden times.
I felt my companion reach into his bag. He handed me a pen and paper napkin. It seemed an invitation to write down one of Deda’s stories, but I looked up the number for the main library and dialed, my call forwarded automatically to the temporary branch. I asked for a reference librarian.
“How can I help you?”
“Oh, um, do you know—my friend would like the Pope’s address. Can you look that up… for him?”
“It’s right here in the World Almanac,” the librarian responded brightly, as if she heard this question every day. I felt my ears heat up again, this time in shame rather than fear, as I transcribed “His Holiness” and “Apostolic Palace” onto the napkin.
Done, I thought, returning the receiver to its cradle. I turned halfway toward the man and shoved the pen and napkin toward him. The napkin fluttered to the floor before he could catch it. We both stared down. He had to back out of the phone booth so I could lean over to pick up the napkin. He accepted it with both hands, which were white from the cold, his fingers long and thin, his nails smooth and yellow. Our hands touched, and in that moment I felt myself commit to him for as long as he needed my help. I held out the pen, too, but he put up his hand. “You keep it.”
“No, I couldn’t possibly,” I said. It was a fountain pen of the expensive mail-order variety.
“I insist,” he said, and then: “Come with me to the copy shop. I need to make a copy for the Pope. It is only a few blocks.” I slid the pen into my pocket.
As we walked along the abandoned train tracks, he told me he had recently come from Bosnia. I gulped a fast, full breath, grateful that I hadn’t given myself away. He was probably a refugee. Many were applying for asylum—the immigration officers played darts on the map and this was where he landed. But I knew from the relief group my parents helped organize that most of the refugees were going to St. Louis or Chicago, Toronto or Montreal. I asked how he got to Oregon. He said his daughter immigrated in the 1980s. When the war broke out, she pleaded with him to come over. But she worked long hours at a hospital, he explained, so he spent a lot of time exploring the city on his own.
“I like Portland very much,” he said.
“You don’t mind the rain?”
I was thinking of the black-and-white photograph on my grandfather’s bedside table. My grandmother, in a modest bathing suit, splashed in the Adriatic, miles of white pebbles glistening in the background. Deda took the photo a few years before she was killed and he and my father escaped to America.
Deda looked at that photo often in his final days, while my parents and I took turns sitting with him, adjusting his pillows and blankets—ostensibly to make sure he was comfortable, but really to distract ourselves from his swift-approaching end. A week before he died, as I sat at his bedside, Deda told me how he lost her.
At first he seemed in a reverie, gazing at the photo, until his eyes snapped toward mine, alert. From the binding of his Bible he drew a small golden key emblazoned with Cyrillic script, and handed it to me.
He pointed to the top drawer of his desk. “Open it,” he said. Inside lay a small pistol with a dark wood paneled handle, an antique. The weapon’s presence shocked me. My parents were avowed pacifists. But Deda said, “This will be yours. It is time you learned how to care for it.” He told me where to find the solvent and lubricant, brushes and cloths, stored in a deeper drawer. I laid them out on the desk, along with a velvet drawstring bag whose contents clinked when I set it down.
Deda pulled his blankets back. He drew his legs to the side of the bed and pushed himself up. He adjusted his pajamas, his breaths shallow and rasping. Setting his feet on the floor, he leaned from the bed and reached into the top drawer to retrieve the pistol. I noticed he was careful not to point the muzzle toward me or touch the trigger.
“Always check first,” he said, and showed me how to remove the magazine. “My cousin gave me this gun. He told me we needed protection. He lived much closer to town, so he knew before I did that danger was on its way.”
I watched as Deda disassembled the rest of the pistol.
“The day I heard trucks roll into the village, I knew it was them. The Ustaše.”
He and my father, then just a small boy, were inside the house, Deda said, but my grandmother was out in the garden. Deda caught her eye through the window and nodded toward the back of the house, signaling her to join them under the rear porch, behind the false wall in the cellar.
Now Deda was soaking a cloth with solvent. “Open the window,” he told me. “The fumes.” There came a sharp, sweet odor of alcohol tinged with bananas.
“She saw me,” Deda said, as he began wiping down each of the pistol’s parts. “She nodded.” So he’d turned away from the window, picked up my father, and taken him to the hideout.
“But she didn’t come,” he said. Over another cloth he drizzled linseed oil.
“I heard boots,” he said. He was rubbing the oiled cloth over each of the gun’s pieces now. The footfalls, he told me, were like thunder entering the house, my grandmother’s steps like rain behind them. Two men’s voices asked where her husband was. “Out,” she answered, “foraging for mushrooms.”
“The boy, too?” they said.
“Yes,” said my grandmother. “They’ll be gone for hours.”
Deda paused then. Because I am a woman, I understood what happened next. He didn’t have to say it.
I watched him reassemble the pistol. He placed it in my hand, held his own over mine as he showed me how, if it was loaded, I would cock and fire it.
“Show me you can do all this on your own,” he said.
I repeated each step of the gun’s use and care, guided by his steady words. The first time I tried to draw the hammer back, it did not engage, and slid forward again, the shlock of it resounding in the room.
“After that,” he said, resuming his story, “I heard a single shot. And felt it here.” He drew his finger to his chest.
We both looked at the photograph of my grandmother, who likely understood she was giving her body and her life for the possibility of mine.
“Again,” he commanded after a moment’s pause, and I went through the cycle of care once more. When I finished, I handed the pistol back to him, my hands steadier after the second try.
“This is good,” Deda said, checking my work. He set the gun down next to the picture frame. He pulled his legs back into the bed and drew the blankets up. He reached for the velvet bag.
“Hold these,” he said, pulling the string loose and shaking three rounds into my palm. The metal casings were cool to the touch. He drew each one from my hand and loaded it into the magazine as he told me his regrets: He hadn’t gotten his family out of Croatia sooner. He hadn’t shot those Ustaše men before they got to my grandmother. He hadn’t avenged her death before fleeing through groves and mountains to Partisan territory and then to America with his son.
“Your father was too young to remember,” Deda said. “I’ve never told him, and he’s never asked. But I’m telling you, because you need to know.” He handed me the loaded pistol and motioned for me to lock it in the drawer.
Paused at a stoplight with my Croatian companion, I closed my fingers around the fountain pen. I imagined Deda under the porch, one hand over my young father’s mouth, the other clutching that pistol. What if he had leapt out to save her?
“Why talk about rain on a day such as this?” The old man waved his arm at the cloudless sky.
At the copy shop, he asked me to duplicate Deuteronomy VI for him. He handed me his Bible but I handed it right back.
“You turn the pages,” I said. Just the day before I had taken Communion at a backyard service of the new Serbian Orthodox church my grandfather helped to found. It didn’t feel right to touch a Croatian’s Bible.
The man opened the book and flipped through it. Several one and five dollar bills appeared, sandwiched like bookmarks between the pages.
“How many copies?” I asked, once he settled on a passage.
“Mmm, a lot,” he said. “Twenty-four.”
I showed him how to line the book up with the ruler on the glass. He covered one side with a loose piece of paper left behind by another customer, blank except for a handwritten sum: $14.00. This appeared on all our copies, next to verse 5: “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” I recognized this verse from a Jewish theology course I’d taken in college.
“I wish to remind the Pope of a special message,” he said. He pulled out one of his smooth five dollar bills and headed to the cashier.
I walked with him along the tracks to the post office. Leaning against the counter, he folded a few of the photocopied pages and tucked them into an envelope.
“Don’t you want to write a note?” I asked, picturing an attendant in Vatican City opening the envelope and leafing through the duplicate copies, looking for an appeal.
“He will understand.” He handed me one of the copied pages. “For you,” he said. While we stood in line to buy a stamp, I read some of the other verses on the page, in which Moses instructs the Israelites to tell their sons why they should honor the laws and decrees of God. He liberated their people from slavery in Egypt so that He could give them the land He had sworn to their fathers. Which land did my companion imagine God had sworn to his people, I wondered, and what would Deda have thought about that?
Letter on its way, we walked out into the chill air. I glanced down the street for an East Side bus. He put on a pair of sunglasses that swallowed his face and made him look like a fly.
“You are very beautiful,” he said. He began pulling my fingers. Ungloved, they were cold. “Please will you have a cup of coffee with me?” He said his favorite cafe was Nordstrom’s. “The coffee is cheap and the waitresses will let us sit as long as we like.”
I looked at my watch. A headache was spreading across my forehead from the sun’s glare.
“I have to go,” I said. “Thanks, anyway.” I smiled and began to turn away, but he took my hand and pressed it against his dry lips.
“Bless you, bless you,” he said.
His breath was hot on my skin. Something fierce leapt from my stomach to my hand and I slid my fingers around his wrist and dug them into the wool. He gasped. His frame was so light I could have lifted him. I imagined crushing him, stabbing him with the pen, his pen. Instead, I leaned over and, aiming for his right cheekbone, grazed the corner of his sunglasses, leaving a blurry lipstick smudge.
“Prijatelj,” I said, and kissed his left cheek.
I knew he would recognize the word—it meant the same thing in Croatian, too. But in case he didn’t hear my grandfather’s Serbian song in how I spoke the word, I gave him one final kiss on the right cheek and then released his arm. We stared at each other, his eyes gaping with fear and amazement. He must have recognized me in that instant as both a new friend and an old enemy.
That evening, my parents out at church, I invited Milena over. I opened one of Deda’s vintage wines and poured her a glass. I told her how I missed my grandfather singing when he worked in the garden, his stories.
“Do you remember the one about the dragon—”
Milena laughed and finished my sentence: “Who devoured a prince?”
I drew her close, pressed my lips to her ear and wondered if, in time, I could love her as my grandfather had loved my grandmother. Maybe I would love her more.
Later that evening, as she fastened the buttons of her blouse in the dim glow of my bedroom reading light, Milena confessed, “I was kind of relieved when my grandparents died. They were fanatical. The past is the past. I’m an American.”
“You knew them both,” I replied, my throat tight.
In a gentler tone, she asked, “What do you know about her?”
I led Milena into Deda’s room and showed her the photo of my grandmother. Milena studied it for a long moment, then looked at my face, traced my cheekbones and chin with the edge of her thumb. I pulled the key from Deda’s Bible and unlocked his top desk drawer. Earlier in the evening, before Milena arrived, I had opened the drawer and removed the pistol’s rounds, tucked them back into the velvet bag. No one needed a gun loaded against regrets in the house. I handed her the pistol now and watched as she ran her fingers over it. Her red nails and the barrel flashed in the light from Deda’s lamp as she turned it over to examine the other side.
“Do you think he ever used it?” she asked, handing the pistol back to me.
“I don’t know,” I said.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Four.