In The Province


Alan Kaufman

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 120 in October, 2009.

      Goran made the short walk to Mejreme’s house, his gun muzzle trained on her back. In the mild breeze a torn strip of blue gingham, used to keep her hair tied, fluttered as she walked. 
      Goran noted bits of lint clinging to the back of her old sweater.  She had wide hips too, a feature he hated in women. 
      Behind lay her husband, dead on the ground.
      Cursing, his fingers probing the skin of his face, he kicked aside a little toy wagon belonging to the neighbor’s boy, partially tore a sheet from a clothesline that had floated to his eyes like a ghost in a school play, and announced aloud to neither his hostage nor anyone in particular that he was tired of the “Turk’s” filthy villages. 
      This Mejreme pretended not to hear. She walked before his gun barrel, head bowed.

      To enter their homes sickened him alright, especially at night when they stood in doorways, wincing in the spotlight, stupid, awaiting instructions as if they didn’t already know what he, what all decent Serbians, wanted him to do. 
      Sometimes, he’d even scream, just for the frustration:  ‘If you fucking so-called Bosnians had had any brains, you’d have already gotten out of here!’
      But anyway, there they’d stand, awaiting his orders.
      Anyway, he was sick of it.

      The house he followed Mejreme into was like all the others that he had entered: tidy, clean, well furnished.
      But Goran saw only a diseased and primitive nest, a heathen habitat. 
      “What is this”, he demanded in the stern, lecturing voice of an outraged social worker, and kicking over a dog’s bowl. “Do you feed your children on the floor from a dish, like animals?” Naturally, he failed to note the presence of the dog cringing in the corner or to see how the immaculate oilcloth disapproved of the food he’d just spilled.
      Nor did Mejreme dare to respond to Goran’s broad, flat humorless face, which he had painted soccer fan-style with the colors of the Serbian flag. She looked away as his stubby fingertips plucked at the skin beneath his chin, scratched a paint-evoked rash. 
      To him, she looked incredibly ugly, with skin like apricot leather and black, fathomless eyes. 
      She was dressed in a cheap, dirty shift covered by a torn sweater but it would have done no good to explain to him that these were only her work clothes.  Goran had caught her out with her husband, Fehmi, by the pump, where she was filling a bucket of water to mop the floor with while Fehmi stood fumbling with a transistor radio that he had found yesterday lying in the road  that ran past their house (it must have dropped on someone’s “cross-country tractor tour”, he had said laconically).  
      Without a word, the Serb Goran had shot her husband on the spot. Then he had demanded to know where the others were. 
      “Upstairs, sir, please.” She pleaded. “They’ll be coming right down!”
      She now ran up the stairs, his shouting at her back: “You have officially got four minutes to vacate this filthy dump after which you will all be shot. An hour to leave the area altogether! Take clothes, take food! Take your grandfather’s picture. Take your documents! Don’t forget a blanket!”
      She did not pause to acknowledge his order, but he knew that she had heard.  At this point, they always did. When still clinging to the slenderest of hopes, they could not be budged from their homes, but once it was clear what lay ahead, boy oh boy, did their little asses move! Cocksuckers.
      Anyway, he strode through the rooms, face screwed up in disdain, shaking his head in amazement. 
      “Look!” he  said disgustedly, pausing at a brightly colored throw pillow embroidered with the image of a mosque.  Scratching under his chin, he spoke aloud to no one, but in his mind he was  guiding his loved ones back home in Belgrade on a tour of this Bosnian freak show.  And in fact, it seemed to him that his familiars were all watching now with sly grins as he pulled a saw-toothed bayonet from a scabbard on his belt, split the pillow wide and shook its feathers over the room.
      “Look how they live” he crowed,  and in his mind saw Tatiana on her knees before him, unlacing his boots, tugging down his pants.  Her room above Zendek’s discotheque on Brinnola Street was stacked high with cartons of black market cigarettes. She was a good fuck. Pictures of soccer players adorned  her walls. A Jimi Hendrix style song squealed from the dance floor below as Tatiana unsnapped her Madonna-style bustier. 

      “Filth everywhere” he told Tatiana in his mind, while overturning a flowerpot and shaking its soil over a ratty sofa.
      “Are you coming down?” he shouted up at the  ceiling, knocking the uprooted plant from a cushion onto the floor with his boot.
      “Yes,”  Mejreme shouted back, “Yes, please wait!”

      She’d undo his belt buckle as he plucked the cigarette from her mouth, put it to his lips: “It would hurt you to see it,” he’d gravely tell Tatiana as she kissed his chest “I blame us for having let it go on for so long.”
      Mejreme appeared with the children Abdyl, aged 3,  Rexhep, aged 7, a backpack on her shoulders. The children wore hats against the sun, tied beneath their chins with string. They looked to him like rodents as they tramped down together awkwardly, their frightened eyes glued to him, Mejreme followed behind.
      “Go,” he barked, waving his muzzle at the door.  They weren’t worth the price of a bullet. ‘Follow the main road.  Along the way you’ll see your neighbors. Go with them.”
      Fed up, he turned back to the room, bladder pressed, the bathroom beckoning.

      Until now she had read his cues right. But to her own amazement Mejreme now did something “dumb”.
      She dared, quite despite herself, to pause at the door of the house which she and Fehmi had built from scratch, and in which she had borne her two children.  For she was thinking even now, in this terrible instant, of how she and Fehmi had once decided – oh, in a “moment”, you know, when the mild fluttering breeze in the green grove behind the house made even death seem both possible, and even pleasantly necessary -- that just over there behind the big floating tree is where they’d both had decided that they’d like someday to lie together, side by side and so she said, you know, turning to face Goran, who was unzipping his fly to urinate:  “Sir. I’m sorry to interrupt. I just want to know: Before we leave, may I bury my husband? ”
      He saw himself recounting this preposterous event to his team in Belgrade with Tatiana grinning on his lap. He played in an amateur league, just a notch below pro.  Some of the boys from the squad played in it too.  Kulek, the goalie, a good boy, had a ball in his kit which they had kicked around in the streets of several towns which they had emptied of its Turks. 
      This Turk, she was a singular woman, he’d tell the team, not another like her in all of Kosovo. The word dumb does her no justice. Dumb? She must have been a Mongolian Idiot! I told her ‘Bury?’ and taking out my crown jewels, I passed water on her rug.  That answer made some kind of impression on the little Turks and their mother! How those runts began to howl! You should have heard! 
      He could already feel the laughter rising, enjoyed the approval of their hard hands thumping his back and Tatiana stirring pleasantly in his lap.
      So what did I do, being the sort who wants, God willing, for every “Turk” a decent chance? I gave them what they wanted!
      And the “chance” that Goran gave them, wrapping her long black hair several times around his fist and tearing her from her brood, was to drag her out the door and down the road, over to where Fehmi lay, and threw her to her knees, stepped back, cocked his weapon and put a bullet through her dense skull. Her brains exploded every-which-way.
      Then with two neat shots he capped both  ‘pups’ who had toddled after. Then he made all of them into a pile heaped with straw from a nearby bale. The match nibbled his stubby fingers until he tossed it and the pile burst into flame.
      He stared hard for a moment at the pyre.  Their dead eyes popped in the heat. And the mild breeze fluttered his shirt. A nearby blackish mountain,  very vivid and partially covered with wild white-looking trees, seemed to balance a cloud on its nose, like a seal. 
      Anyway, there was a lot more work to do, he  couldn’t stand here forever. And so on he went, down the road, pleased to be in such a beautiful country.