Half A Breath

I MET A YOUNG BOSNIAN WOMAN in Sarajevo who told me there “was nothing like love in Sarajevo during the siege.” All the joy and sadness in the world enriched her eyes. They shone like two tears of blue obsidian.  Over a beer, she showed me a set of song lyrics she had written.  “This comes from my heart,” she said.  “The good ones usually do,” I responded.

She sang low, a cappella, there in the little café.  It was a sad tune and I turned my head away from her at the end and told her I needed another drink.

She had picked up the phone one day in Australia and answered a call from a Bosnian soldier fighting the Serbs. It was a wrong number, but he explained he was calling from Sarajevo. Over the days they talked on the phone and soon they fell in love with the sound of each other’s voice.

The young woman decided to leave her safe, good life behind. She made the long trip to Sarajevo to be with the soldier.  Standing atop Mt. Igman, she looked down at the broken city. Slowly she made her way along the slopes and entered the little house where the tunnel under the airstrip began. She stooped and crawled in the zigzagging passage way and finally made it through the front lines.

War became the view out her window. Her life was defined by the fight against the Serbs and her lover.  Instead of tending flower boxes, she watered sniper victims and kissed the man’s face.

When she found the ecstasy of love with the soldier, her life ended and was reborn all in the same moment.  One day while she walked to meet a friend for coffee and cigarettes, a mortar shell exploded on the sidewalk.  The Serbs had lobed it from a nearby hill.  She was wounded in the leg.  It was not a bad wound, but after a week it became infected.  She blamed herself for not taking care of it.  Her lover came to see her whenever he had a chance, but it was difficult because the Serbs were probing his sector regularly.

When she was alone in bed, feeling the infection twist in her body, she thought about her life after the war; how she and the soldier would marry and have a family.  From horror would come perfection.

Several days passed and he did not come to visit her.  She got stronger and was finally able to leave the apartment.  When she found him with his unit, he told her that he had met someone else and he was now in love with another woman.

How could you do that, she asked him.  I was wounded in bed and you run around on me?  I gave you true love.  He only stared blankly at her as she walked away crying.  Later that day she decided to visit Suicide Alley.  She was unafraid, happy almost, and she walked for several blocks exposed to Serb snipers.  She kept her head down, looking at her feet, taking one step after the other.  Not one shot came her way.  It’s a message, she thought to herself.  Something greater is planned for me and she went back to her apartment and wrote a song, the one she had sung for me over beers.

Two lines still haunt me: “Our lungs were once the same.  Oh pain, be delayed, as I take half a breath.”

It has always struck me as profound that love can go wrong even in a war zone.  Who was the other woman? Could her heart open so widely that the snipers of Suicide Alley looked the other way?

Whoever said love is the answer was right, but for reasons some of us will never totally understand.

This I know.

(From Turbo Dogs and it is for Jan.)

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