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That Winter

Translated by Tom Priestly

Published in Ecotone Magazine. Story won Pushcart Prize 2012.

The prisoners released before me had flown home from The Hague in airplanes sent for them by their states. I was the first one who wasn’t a national hero. The guard just handed me a train ticket to Sarajevo and some pocket money for travel expenses. I greeted him with “Tot ziens” and he answered with “Tot nooit, hopelijk!”—an unsubtle indication he didn’t want to see me again.

In the train I couldn’t take my eyes off the window: moving, everything was moving. Houses, cities, gliding by, going away, a constant flow of change after eleven years of immobility.

Waiting for another train in Düsseldorf, I felt like a ghost returning to the world for the first time. I moved out of the way of a person talking to himself, a sure sign of madness at the time of my imprisonment, whereas now everybody had headphones and their mouths were empty of cigarettes.

After Munich the landscape got more and more orderly. Austrians took symmetry and tidiness for beauty, their windows vomiting carnations from houses built to last forever. The train entered the tunnel and came out in Slovenia. I expected to see the big steel factory, once the pride of Yugoslavia, but only one chimney still stood, covered with ads for supermarkets and foreign brands.

Nobody entered my compartment—Slovenia was now part of the EU and there were no more border policemen or customs officers in Europe. But at the Croatian border I was asked for my papers. A pair of Slovenian officers browsed my documents: “Den Haag—The International War Crimes Tribunal for crimes committed on the territory of the former Yugoslavia.” They looked momentarily bewildered, until the policeman, still a kid, filled like a balloon, soaking his words in venom. I looked into his eyes and the air left him. His partner, the customs officer, elbowed him out the door. The Croat officers didn’t know how to react and quickly went away; they had their own war with the Muslims and some of their heroes had been my prison buddies.

When the train stopped in Zagreb, I bought myself some newspapers. The Croats had buried one of their fascist commandants from the Second World War. In his camp they had killed at least seventy thousand people. Though he fled to Argentina after the war, escaping hanging, he had been in prison, unrepentant, for the past decade, after having finally been extradited. At the funeral the priest said the prisoner had slept peacefully throughout his life, since he knew that God had forgiven him everything. 

The train entered Bosnia on the Serbian side of the country and when I offered my papers to the officers, they stood at the attention, saluting me like windup toys, while they retreated backward. The staff of the small border station started walking up and down the platform, pretending to be running errands, stealing glances through my window.

I dug into the corner and shame covered me like an icy blanket.

The Sarajevo train station looked forlorn, as though no one had used it since the war began, sixteen years ago. Cigarette smoke drifted from the cafés in front of it. I waited on the abandoned platform until my bus arrived and I almost ran for it, my head lowered.

I had not called anybody in my native village to let them know I was coming. The last time I had seen my former wife was in court, on the witness stand. She was talking about how she had begged me to dissolve the factory but I had beaten her into silence. I stopped listening to her. The knowledge that this must be the same lie my daughters were hearing from her dripped from my heart through my body like acid, leaving just burnt hollowness inside. For her testimony she got a change of identity and money for them to start over. I received the divorce papers in prison, signed them, and put a letter on top asking her not to ever mention me to my girls. She didn’t answer.

In socialist Yugoslavia, those in power wanted to change even the hill farmers into workmen and they built factories everywhere. Every politician who had grown up in some dirt shack wanted to give his native village a factory and the people expected it; the size of the new industrial building was the measurement of the politician’s status in the party. Our benefactor was a lower official in Sarajevo, so the factory was small. Like every other one, it produced something simple, so the former farmers could adapt quickly. Then capitalism discovered a work force in China adapting even faster and cheaper and the political factories fell into ruins.

I was the only person who got off the bus at the stop in my village. The walls of the factory were in ruins, the barbed wire rusty and sagging. I didn’t want to look at it, but I couldn’t stop. I expected memories to attack my eyes and ears, but only the wind was whispering, exhausted. A summer storm had just passed by, the wet hair of clouds still hung over a neighboring hill. Veins of tiny streams furrowed the sand on the road, and I had not yet gotten my feet wet when I was surrounded by the men who came running from the village. 

I recognized them at once and at the same time was amazed that they, like me, had gotten old. Larger bellies, sagging belts, grayer hair on heads and bodies, more marks on their skin. Only the slightly soiled sleeveless T-shirts and the stubble on their faces were still the same (shaving occurred only before Sunday mass). We had received Bosnian papers in prison and the other prisoners had used their mobile phones as well, telling me the news that wasn’t printed, so I had heard that Jovo had hanged himself and Milojko had died. The remaining seven stood in front of me now, only Nikola was not there.

They looked at me. Behind their backs, from the village, I could feel the looks from their wives and children, and also from those who had not been a part of our group.

I realized that my next movement would decide the kind of reception I would have.

I smiled. It felt false, mechanical, just the lengthening of the corners of my lips, but they did not notice.

There was shouting, more like roaring, slaps on my shoulders and back. The smell of unwashed bodies, of farm animals, machine oil and gasoline. Somebody took my bag for me, we walked, I was hemmed in among them. They were offering me cigarettes, I kept on refusing, and they were shouting “Europe! Europe!” in wonder. We entered Cane’s Inn and the tall owner didn’t hit his forehead on the doorpost like he used to do; the years had curved his spine from a bow to a question mark. The interior hadn’t changed: the bar was in the corner, small and insignificant, tables occupying most of the room, for people to sit and talk. I don’t know why, but in prison I had loved to browse the glossy magazines about interior decoration and I noticed that bars outside the Balkans are different, big central monsters in the middle of the room, for lonely people to hang around them, looking at themselves in the mirror behind the bottles.

Cane brought brandy, fiery-strong, and we started drinking toasts. We were just lifting glasses in the air above us, nobody turned to the picture on the wall. It used to be Tito for decades, Miloševic afterward for few years, and now Saint Sava, his expiry date much more lasting.

They brought a serving of lamb, the meat cold and slimy. The noise and the pouring of drinks went on and on. I did not wish to get drunk, I just sipped the surface of what was in the glass. They must have noticed, but they did not want to stop making a ruckus. If they did there would be silence and they would have to talk.

I asked them how they were, what they did, and I had to repeat myself several times before they began to talk—about being farmers again, or Pavle being a mechanic. He rubbed his dark and oily hands at the sides of his paunch, leaving only the middle of his T-shirt white, like the center of the target. They talked about the way they smuggled Chinese goods and sold them again in the three-boundary region, between Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia, and how in this way they were getting by, slowly, getting by. They told me and then they told me again, and then once over. They kept shifting as if on the edge of a precipice. They were in danger and did not want to take the next step: asking me how I was, how it had been. And the crucial question: why had I turned myself in? They did not dare. Branimir, with his foxy face and sagging cheeks, was in a hurry to speak each time it appeared they would run out of breath. I could not recall him ever speaking so eagerly.

When there was really nothing left to say and when they had described every method of smuggling, when I had learned the contents of every market stall, they got up and accompanied me to my home. They told me they had kept watch to ensure that none of them had come even close. They handed me the key, I let myself in, and they did not follow me inside.

You go away for a couple of weeks and when you get back the apartment is dusty. After many years the dust has become fixed, it has stopped accumulating and just sits there, the years fly past, the particles hold their peace, only the smell which floats above them counts the days and knits them into a special stuffiness.

My wife had taken everything that could be driven away, including the washing machine where she had put my bloody clothes every morning that winter without saying anything. She did not even leave the objects that had belonged to them, the ones I had stolen. For a long time she made me seethe in prison, but some nights I understood that maybe she had made a good deal for my daughters, who were growing up somewhere out of these countries where history is a tool for revenge, not for learning. I felt happy for them but at the same time this was part of my punishment: what I had done I had done for them. How old had they been that winter? I thought back—three and four years old. Now they probably don’t even dream in my language anymore. I try not to think of them but they’re always there when my mind goes floating, in waking, before sleeping, looking out a window.

I carried everything left into a single room: an old couch, a squeaky chair, the table from the cellar that had before been good only as a workbench. I turned on the water at the mains and let it run for a long time before it was free of rust.

What now?

I went for a walk. The clouds were dragging their very last tails across the mountains. The sun that had been hot in the valley was no more than a caress up here. Behind me I heard a stifled cry of fear and when I turned I clearly saw a woman’s back and the movement of her elbow as she hurried behind a corner.

Had she crossed herself, seeing a ghost?

We had burned all of the Muslim houses—every single one—and I expected to see the same blackened stumps, decaying teeth biting at the sky, as when they had taken me away, but very few ruins were left. They had begun to rebuild most of them. Concrete supporting slabs stood among the debris, with a wall or two. As if somebody was indicating that he had not given up, he was still here.


I walked past our houses and people from my group loudly and hollowly greeted me. The rest retreated. In front of me doors closed and drapes fell, and as I walked on they opened up again and I felt the looks. A short way from the village had stood the factory. I could not go that far. I turned back to Nikola’s.

Bits of plaster and some tiles had fallen off his house and joined the trash in the yard. I knocked on the open door—no reply—and I stepped into the stench.

He was lying in a corner and snoring. I sat on a bench and placed my foot on one of the empty bottles. His potato-like nose had collected lots of veinlets in the intervening years, and his cheeks shook while his jaws pumped air inside, the lungs answering with a protracted whining, almost like a dying echo of the songs we used to sing at the factory.

Evening was coming on when Nikola awoke. He raised his head, it swung to and fro as though fighting more space for itself, his eyes narrowed a little and when he recognized me, he cried out.

“No! I’m not going on guard duty! NO!”

“Nikola, it’s over, nobody has to do guard duty anymore.”

His coughing stretched into puking until there was no more mucus left to fall to the floor.

“They let you out?”


We were silent.

He went on all fours into the next room and came back with a full bottle and swallowed almost a third in a single gulp.

“Did you meet them yet?” he asked, and waved toward the village. For the first time he looked me in the eye.

I nodded but my eyes escaped his and slipped toward the entrance.

“Why did you come back?”

I sighed and could not find any simple words. 

He answered in my place: “Because you want to see how they are . . . what about you?”

“I cannot sleep,” I said.

“Me too, I am never awake. Will you?” he said, offering me the bottle.

I shook my head. “If I’d had a lot of that in prison, the first year, then I would. Not now, no.”

“Did you hear about Jovo? Dead!” His limp and soft body made just one surprisingly quick and savage gesture, slashing his index finger across his neck. “Milojko died, too. He just”—Nikola stabbed the fingers of both hands into his stomach and they sank into a burrow of his gut—”withered,” he said, finally finding the right word. “Listen to me, boss, listen. Let me state it clear: the first option is to die. You can choose only the speed: fast or slow. The second option is to forget, like the others from our group did. But, boss, you said you can’t sleep, so you’re not like Cane and the others.” He gestured toward the inn, but in the wrong direction. “Why are you still alive? How will you kill yourself?”

I opened my mouth to speak but he didn’t let me.

“Boss, nobody wants you here. Nobody waited for you. You’re a ghost, a reminder. Please, do us a favor.”

Nikola seemed to want to burst out laughing, but just screeched. He bent over across the bed, I thought he was going to throw up again, but he dipped his head into a pile of trash and rummaged through it for a long while. Twitching, he turned around and flung a coil of rope in my direction, missing by a good yard.

“Did you enjoy posing as a model on your way to becoming an international star? How the fuck didn’t you spot that creep photographer and shoot him!” Again he screeched and between the stumps of his teeth gleamed traces of enamel. “Commandant!” he added, as if spitting.

I could feel the hate radiating from him in my belly. I did not react and so he lost interest. He tilted the bottle and allowed it to decant into him. He threw it at the wall then, it shattered and he lay down on the bed, rolled himself into a fetus, and showed me his back.


Socialism had wished to fertilize us, and sometimes, even into our hills, some theater troupe or other came on tour, usually an amateur one from a nearby town. Their exaggerated movements and gestures always repulsed me. But when you are locked up and cannot hope to sleep, then the day is long enough for you to remember everything, including theater performances. Do the men in our nation get drunk so often in order to show what they’re feeling? They behave in the overwrought fashion of bad actors. I remembered my own drinking sessions, friendships until death after the first round that change into angry hatreds after the second one and into miraculous reconciliations after the third, then the same cycle all over. And once you are no longer someone who drinks but a drunkard, true feelings have fled and what is left is just grotesque sentimentality and, finally, bathos.

I got up and the bench sighed below me.

The house stank. Twilight was slowly eating away Nikola’s body part by part, only his legs and one hand still visible. Like those bodies the earth had begun to return after that winter. Cane had mentioned them first. He said it was the same as when his Deepfreeze broke down. Except for the crows. I went to the field between the factory and the forest and We did this? crossed my mind for the first time. We hadn’t been able to bury the bodies deep enough in the frozen ground, and with the thaw, foxes and other animals had started digging them up. Remains protruded from the soil, a hand here, a leg there, torsos, heads, gnawed bones marking the way toward the trees. Crows jumped around, picking the meat off the bones, too full to fly, arrogantly moving just out of reach of my steps. I have always felt there was something aching in the vapors of plowed earth but this smell nauseated me. I closed my eyes and fought with my stomach.

I never saw the American photographer hidden in the forest. We later learned he’d been crossing the hills, trying to get to Sarajevo, bribing each border guard he came across and sharing a drink. When his stomach couldn’t stand it anymore he asked his guide to stop the Jeep and went behind the trees, noticing the crows and following them. 

The first picture he took was of me in my moment of nausea. I remember feeling disgust and horror, but in the photo, which appeared the following week in foreign newspapers, something about my face makes it look as if I’m enjoying myself.   

I returned to the factory that night and told the others we must dig again and rebury. We couldn’t prepare ourselves to do it until the following week, the same time the photos began to be published. Then how we dug! And we burned the bodies, taking the remains down to the valley and throwing them in the river. It wasn’t that we feared foreigners. The West was impotent and weak—they did not intervene even at Srebrenica, years later. But among the bodies of Muslims, there were some of our weekend warriors as well. People who left their jobs in Serbia on Friday afternoon, took guns and drove across the border to Bosnia, robbed a house or two, killed some Muslims, and returned to work on Monday morning. Occasionally these armed men came to our village and we told them that here were just our Muslims, that they and their stuff belonged to us. Most of the intruders went away, but some had been too drunk and too courageous, and we did not want their bodies to be discovered.

The darkness took Nikola’s body completely now.

I bent down to pick up the rope as I went.

The next day I went for another walk around the village as soon as I was awoken by hunger. I caught sight of Branimir bringing a heavy cardboard box around the corner of his house. When he saw me he backed away immediately, as though on a rewind button. I waited by the open trunk of his car, but he did not appear again.

In Pavle’s mechanic shop—not registered, unofficial—I met only his legs. He peeked from under a vehicle, apologized that he had essential work to, whatever I might say he would listen. I walked on.

I was the only customer at Cane’s Inn. He brought me some uncut bread and put a piece of roast meat in the microwave. My glance fled to the big roasting spit which used never to stop turning. Cane flourished his dishrag as if to say: once a week or once every two weeks is nowadays quite enough. Since the war the families don’t come to his inn on Sundays anymore, he said, and his eyes got big, like a hurt child’s. I remembered coming here with my ex-wife and daughters and I wondered again: three and four years old that winter, do they remember anything? Do they remember me just as a presence in their childhoods, have they forgotten my face? Do they fall for a boyfriend who reminds them of me without knowing the reason? They would still be sleeping in the morning when I returned from the factory and handed stolen stuff to my wife. Sometimes somebody helped me bring in a TV or a fridge or something big from one of the Muslim houses, some days I just went to the bathroom and threw my bloody clothing on the tiles. I slept most of the day and ate supper with my family, read the girls an evening story and went back to the factory. To work, as I told them. Usually I drank a coffee with my wife in the kitchen, and I remembered now with sudden and bitter anger how she would sometimes carefully mention that we needed a new car or a video player or hi-fi, something nice she had just seen at some Muslim family’s, her finger caressing the rim of the coffee cup, sending the smell into my nostrils. 

I looked at the shelf in the corner. Five vases full of plastic flowers were still standing there, though dust had taken the bright colors away. During the week this had been a place for men only, but on Sundays, Cane put a vase on each table, providing a nice family setting, as he explained it. He used to sit down with every customer and drink or snack on something, in this way obeying the law of the correct innkeeper. Now he stayed behind the bar and wiped glasses. When he brought me my warmed-up food he was on the point of sitting down. A reflex of his body swung his ass toward a chair, but he caught himself, moaned a little about work, and went back behind the bar.

“Do you ever remember that winter?” I asked him.

“What?” He looked wide-eyed. “Winter?”

I pointed my finger toward the factory, just a corner of its wall was visible through the window.

“Oh . . . oh . . .”—he flapped his hand—“that’s water under the bridge . . . sorry . . . you suffered . . . you are a hero . . . but for us ordinary people . . .” Droplets appeared on his forehead. He mumbled a bit more.

“Don’t you have dreams?” I asked.

“No.” Droplets also on his upper lip.

“No nightmares?”

“No. Please, Commandant, please! It’s gone, they were different times, strange times . . . something was in the air, this won’t happen again. It’s like when you get a flu or something. You’re not yourself . . . but then, a week, or . . . winter passes and you’re your old self, healthy. Commandant, you’ll destroy yourself if you won’t let it go.”

“Cane, don’t call me ‘Commandant.’ You know I was just your foreman. When we . . . started this, at the factory, we started it together.”

I didn’t need to tell him the rest: the generals had wanted somebody to be responsible for our small unit, and it was me who became commandant. 

Cane got his hurt-child eyes back: “But . . . you were the boss. I was so unimportant!” He searched for another word, then stopped abruptly. “You see! Don’t mention it anymore!”

I started eating. For a while he was so tense that I expected to hear a glass crack under his hands, but he slowly calmed down and the dishrag again slid over the glasses, which he was cleaning for the second time. I finished eating and wiped my mouth and fingers with a napkin. From time to time Cane stole a nervous glance in my direction, appearing afraid of further questions.

“And what about those new houses, the renovated ones?”

He burst out in relief: “Did you see them? It’s unbelievable! They could have stayed in our village, that’s how it was written down in the peace agreement, but they just went and now . . . Commandant, you won’t believe it. Those Muslims are like gypsies, they have settled in large numbers all over the world, but the men come here in the summers. They are here a week or two and they build walls. They sleep in the car, they bring materials from the valley up in the trunk and they build walls. That’s how they spend their vacations! Their food they buy in the valley, too. They do not come to me! We get nothing from them. You will see for yourself, the first of them will arrive any day now.”

He wanted to say something else, but his open mouth could not find the words.

“How much do I owe you?”

“Commandant, that’s okay! Actually, we talked yesterday, if you wish we’ll set up a collection campaign and help you start over. In the three-boundary district the work is great! We’ll arrange a market stall for you. Just let us know: are you most interested in technical things, music, clothing? Maybe helping to traffic Chinese or Africans into Europe?”

On my way home I stopped in front of the bare concrete pad where once Sead’s house had stood. I placed my palms on the dusty surface and through the warm epidermis felt the interior cold of the building. Only a few of the Muslim inhabitants of our village had left immediately after the siege of Sarajevo started. Most of them believed, as I did, that our village would be something special, an exception, that our bonds would hold. I had gone to school with Sead, his father had taught me a trick with a coin and a dog, brotherhood and unity was the slogan of Tito’s Yugoslavia. But in the summer of ‘92 we were at Cane’s, watching the news. The Russian writer Limonov had come to visit our troops on the hills above Sarajevo and he started firing a machine gun on the city. Mother Russia was with us, the announcer said.

Cane’s palm slapped the table. “Right,” he said, “it’s for the mushrooms.” 

Everybody turned toward him, our heads traveling slowly through the alcohol.

“Do they come in the fall? Do they?” Cane lifted his finger almost to the ceiling. “Do they come to our village and park on your field?” he said, pointing at Branimir, who nodded. “Do they crumple your grass? Go into our forests and pick our mushrooms? Do they sometimes even have picnics here, on that grass, and bring everything with them? Leave us nothing but damage and expenses! City people! People of Sarajevo!”

“You’re right, you’re right,” we said, nodding.

He continued: “These city people . . . they look down on us! They think they’re something more. For them we’re all backwards idiots! They’re like Turkish invaders. For centuries they’ve robbed our lands, conquered us, taken our money, bled us with taxes—those Muslims! Now revenge is ours. Cities must burn!”

I can’t remember much more from that night, but soon, one by one, we became weekend warriors, occasionally for a few days on the hills above Sarajevo, until that winter when we brought the war home.

By then, half of the Muslim villagers had fled on bus convoys, begging their Serbian friends to watch over the possessions they left behind. Some of us really did look out for them. Others started slowly taking their things or even moving their houses. By that winter, the Muslims left in the village were stuck between the front lines. Some tried to go away: during the night, over the hills. We never heard from them. 

Sead’s father had stayed out of stubbornness. He said he had to guard the compressor in his garage. In December the compressor at Pavle’s mechanic shop broke down and we came for Sead’s father’s. We took him to the factory. He was our first prisoner. Others followed—in The Hague, after I turned myself in, they proved five killings and seven imprisonments had happened under my command during that winter, until in the spring a humanitarian convoy evacuated the village of all remaining Muslims. I think we could have gone on beating and torturing them, because we really believed they were spies for the Muslim army, and therefore traitors. But our belief was like a balloon, we had to pump it up all the time with shouts, with frenzy, with constant movement, never stopping, never thinking. Some of our neighbors confessed. Sead’s father didn’t. He died after three nights of interrogations.

I walked to my house now and made a noose. One’s hands never forget. The rope slid smoothly.

How many times had I pondered how the others could bear what we had done? I came to see it all from close-up; Cane had been the innkeeper, Pavle the mechanic, Branimir a farmer, and so on, then along came the idea of our great country and we did what we did. Now Cane is again the innkeeper, Pavle the mechanic, and Branimir is a salesman of Chinese goods, since it does not pay any longer to live off the land. And here I am. And was that all? Like a flu, as Cane had said, something came and infected us. 

There was something escaping me that I wanted to find out before I went. Nikola’s second option: to forget. Was it possible?

I had let Cane know that I would take him up on the offer of a market stall, and that we should meet that evening, all together, have something to drink and a snack, and talk about the jobs.

When I went in the inn and cheerfully said “Good evening,” they raised their arms and the air expanded with relief. “Boss! Boss!” they shouted, and Cane ran up with glasses in his arms like a row of newborns.

We embraced and someone shouted loudly for music.

Cane put on a CD and for a while we just drank. Branimir began to sing quietly along with the female vocalist, sometimes too early or too late. Tears spurted from his eyes and with the palm of his hand he splashed them onto his forehead.

We embraced.

They told me about some gimmicks for selling the Chinese goods more effectively, just to Europeans, as we called those belonging to the parts of the former East that had joined the Union. You had to keep T-shirts and the inscriptions separate, and imprint them according to demand. Pavle added that you had to do the same thing with auto parts. Some clients were so unpleasant that they wanted only original ones for their money.

Even more embraces, again a song, tears, fresh glasses.

“And what about those Muslim house builders?” I asked. “What do they buy?”

Grumbles, curses, they don’t do any buying, no sir!

Forgetting that he had complained to me already, Cane told me everything over, twice. There was nothing to be gotten from them.

“And is that right?” I shouted.

No, there is no justice, not anywhere on this earth!

“And is that what we fought for?”

Howls. Denials. A fresh round, down in one.

“And are we pussies to put up with the injustice they’re causing us?”

We are not, no!

“And will we suffer the way we’ve been suffering for so long?”

We shall not, no way! What they’re doing to us! Shame on us!

“Will we let them trample on our heroic thousand-year-old history?” 

We shall not! Lead the way! Let’s go!

I walked to the door and opened it wide. The men were breathing behind my back, sweaty, heated, shaking with excitement. With my arms I jammed myself against the doorposts, imprisoning them behind my back. They were stuck in that narrow room.

“What’s up? What’s up?” someone yelled behind me.

I turned and looked them in the eyes.

Cane was the first whose arms gave way, he began to scratch his waist. They quickly followed his example, scattering around the room, moving the tables about, straightening the tablecloths, picking their caps up off the floor—waiting for me to move away from the door.

I sat on the couch and rocked the noose between thumb and forefinger as if I was fishing. How many times before had I thought about what had happened to us, not to everybody but to enough of us in this village, in other villages, in towns? It looked like madness now and whenever I recalled the slogans that we used to shout I was always ashamed. Serbia is where Serbian graves are. Why graves, why not living people? But didn’t they once, in Spain, fight war shouting “Long live death!”? 

How can grown people change so that they become animals for a vain slogan? Empty words? We live one alongside one another until words connect our feelings and turn us into a crowd, an organism with its own animal needs and greed. And when the spell is broken, some people can step out of the organism with a clear conscience: it wasn’t me, I’m not guilty. Nikola was wrong: there is no forgetting. People who claim they’ve forgotten are always reusable for another crowd. 

I tossed the rope over a roof beam. I was totally at peace. I got up onto a chair and put the noose around my neck. With my left hand I checked to see whether the noose was sliding smoothly, and I was about to kick the chair.

Then a car coughed and through the window I caught sight of an old Vauxhall with British plates stopping at Sead’s house. The engine died, I thought the driver’s seat was empty, but the door on the right side opened and Sead emerged. He started inspecting the wall he had built the previous year. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from him. From the trunk he fetched a brick, took some mortar from a small red container, spread it on, and gently put the brick in place. Over and over. He did not look around. Almost completely bald, stooping slightly, he carried brick after brick. He fixed them, overlapping, in a corner, a first row, a second, a third . . .

He was going to build a house in which nobody would ever live. A husk, a ghost reminding the torturers that even if they forgot everything, somebody else would not. What did his family think about these vacations of his, about the long journey? Did they consider him an eccentric, did they understand him?

I forgot the noose, moving my head forward to see better, and the rope tightened.

I was merely the dead cell of an organism, an unused flake of dandruff that had fallen off and from which there would never come any benefit. I was insignificant, I could kill myself now or later, with a rope or with alcohol. However, something else . . . something else . . . There had to be something other than Nikola’s two options.  

I took the noose off and jumped to the floor. I walked to the door.

I cannot, I cannot, how can I manage it?

I began to tremble and sweat, to glance toward the noose. Was it really easier to kill again than to ask forgiveness?

As I walked toward Sead I wondered what I might say to him, how I could tell him that no hour passes without my remembering that winter, that I cannot sleep, that my memories are devouring me . . .

When I reached him I could not speak.

He did not turn around. He carried on rebuilding his wall.

I fell to my knees and burst out sobbing. I wept and knelt in front of him, but Sead carried on setting bricks on his wall until he had emptied his trunk, and then he collected his tools and drove away without looking at me.