“This is such a sad place,” said Ana.
She paused at the rubble-strewn steps of the National Library. The city was silent, lulled into a somber peace by a low shroud of funeral gray clouds. They made the archways and galleries of the bombed-out library as deep and mysterious as a cave. There was a stillness to the valley, a muddled quality that left the world distant and out of focus, like an old photograph.
There was a sentry at the corner with a Kalashnikov slung over one shoulder. He looked like a guy from the neighborhood. He watched us curiously for a moment before turning away from the dust thrown up by a passing tank. Ana climbed the steps slowly and went inside without a word. I found her in the shadowy rotunda. Her eyes were closed, face turned upwards to the lattice of the broken ceiling.
I paused beneath an archway, not wishing to disturb such an intimate moment. The air was heavy with the scent of burnt and rotting books. Their ashes lay in heaps among the oriental arches and terraces. Serb shells had shattered many of the massive marble columns and a great pile of rubble stood in the center of the rotunda. High above the thundering wing beats of pigeons disturbed the moment. Ana looked at me, her expression weighted by something.
“Will you tell me now?’ she pleaded. All morning I had teased her about a surprise.
“Let me take a picture of you first.”
“Then you will tell me?”
“Maybe,” I laughed.
“I hate you,” she pouted.
“Be that as it may,” I snapped a picture of her, “but I still won’t tell you.”
“Pease, Bill, don’t be so cruel!”
The more insistent she became the more obstinate I became. Not that the surprise was so great. Rather it was more a gift of hope, a way of making the distance between us a little less painful. Ana danced across the rotunda, framed like an angel in the lens of my camera.
“Did you come to this place before the war?” I asked.
“Oh, it was such a beautiful place. It was, it was like walking into someone’s soul, or the soul of humanity. Ideas, truth and history called from every corner, begging them to take their secrets into your heart. There was a huge painting over there, and books there and there and there. I would often sit in those galleries, sometimes reading, sometimes just looking out at the river and mountains.”
Ana turned suddenly and did her best to feigned anger. “Bill, I really must tell you that I hate surprises. Do you really wish for me to hate you?”
“Nice try.” I snapped another photo.
“Why do you torture me so? I swear I will never speak to you again.” She found it impossible to keep from smiling.
“You’re like a child!”
“Oh no, I can be much worse.”
I lowered the camera and went to her. “Ana, do you believe in Christmas miracles?”
“Bill,” she protested, “don’t play games.”
“I left some money with Nadja and Hasan. Not much, but it should be enough for something on Christmas.” Tears welled in her eyes. Ana held me tight.
“I love you so much,” she whispered.
“You have come to mean so much to me,” I said. “Leaving you behind, it will soothe my broken heart to know that I made you smile one last time. Just remember me, okay?”
“I will remember you, I promise.” She kissed my neck. Her tears were wet and cool.
We climbed down from the library into the gray blue cityscape. Gunfire echoed as we walked home along the river. A crowd waited for a tram near the Princip Bridge, spread out along the wall should a shell land among them. From Marin Dvor came the fevered wail of an ambulance. A convoy passed an argument in a window. Numbed and shell-shocked soldiers wandered empty streets, as bitter and aimless as the roaming dogs long ago abandoned by destitute owners. A young man missing a leg hobbled along an alley to an uncertain future. Children were being born blocks from the line where men were dying. Young boys and girls learned the thrill and pain of first love, while a Gypsy family lived out of a storefront and cooked over an open flame. A crazy man ran naked down the street. A parent learned of their son’s death, while a couple made love next door. All of this in a world barely one by three miles long. Ana hugged me close and said that she felt like Robinson Crusoe.
WC Turck is an author, artist, playwright and talk radio host in Chicago. He has been called the most dangerous voice on the Left. He is currently working on a new book “Shoot Down: An unflinching look at the events leading up to the shooting down of Malaysia Air Flight 17.” His first novel, “Broken” was recommended by NAMI for its treatment of PTSD. In 2006 he published “Everything for Love,” a memoir of his experiences during the siege of Sarajevo. He wrote and produced two critically acclaimed plays, “Occupy my Heart” and “The People’s Republic of Edward Snowden.” He works with the homeless and foreclosure victims in Chicago. He partners in a weekly radio show dedicated to issues, society and politics with cohost, activist and artist Brian Murray For more information, past shows, videos and articles, visit www.revolutioandbeer.com