Two Stories from Shoes for Oscar Night

The Daughter of the Last Mohican

by Melina Kamerić
translated from the Bosnian by Jennifer Zoble

Her mother made candles. And that’s why Davorka always smelled like a strange blend of wax and the powdered sugar her grandma sprinkled on šapice, the little round cookies we lovingly called paws.

Davorka’s grandma made the best šapice in the world.

Every day when the two of us came home from school with our bookbags on our backs, her grandma would give us each a šapica wrapped in a little cloth napkin. It seemed then that all her grandma did was embroider little cloth napkins and bake šapice.

I met Davorka soon after we moved into a new apartment. When I was a little girl, the worst thing that could happen to you in the park was to get the wind knocked out of you. Broken legs and arms, cuts and scraped knees couldn’t compete with the horror of losing your breath. But this is exactly what happened to me the first time I went down to the park behind our building. An accurately pitched ball hit me right in the chest.

I’m lying on my back, holding my hand to my chest and feeling like I now understand what it was like for my goldfish Minka when I plucked her from the aquarium with a spoon. There isn’t a sound around me. I see children standing, I see them laughing. But I don’t hear anything. And I know I’m the same as Minka. I kick a little and open my mouth. Hoping the air will get in.

No one to help me. Lying on the asphalt. And I know that nothing more will come of my career in the park. I rise very slowly and try to hide my tear-filled eyes. And then someone gives me a hand. Sound becomes real again, and I can hear that the laughter has stopped. Now I stand up, and next to me is someone bigger. Hair in braids, narrow black eyes, and tanned skin. At first I think I must be in shock. But I behold then in front of me the daughter of the last Mohican. Angry and proud. She pushes a couple of boys, flicks a girl on the head, and somehow in the span of a second she’s standing next to me. Behind her stands her dog Gara, barking at the children as they fled.

I never asked why she got involved. But from that day Davorka became my very own private Mohican. My hero.

Davorka didn’t have a father. But for Davorka, a father was not necessary. She waged her tiny wars alone. A head taller than all the other children, and with Gara, she was the holy terror of school and park.

In a photo album with a pink cover, where even today little silver stars twinkle, there is a picture from her birthday. Davorka, my sister, and I. Three little Lepa Brenas. We have gold ribbons tied around our heads and skirts that Davorka’s grandmother sewed for us. Davorka and I are laughing. Davorka is happy because with the two of us there, she can have her wish to dance all night to the songs of Lepa Brena. My sister is crying in the picture. She didn’t want to be Lepa Brena.

I can’t remember what we talked about. About everything, I guess, about seven-year-old things, tongues blue from “Gringo” instant juice powder.

It was with Davorka that I went out at night for the first time. The main street ran by our house. Davorka and I stepped together into the dark and pushed through the crowd of people that stood along the road, so I could see Sandro Pertini. While I madly waved an Italian flag, she firmly clasped my hand. So as not to lose me. She brought me home, alive and well, and when we said goodbye she said again that she couldn’t understand why I so desperately wanted to see this geezer with the enormous glasses. I tried in vain to explain to her that the geezer was president of Italy, and my father brought me gummy bears from Italy.

Life flowed on peacefully in the park behind our building. Gara and Davorka governed with a strict and just hand. Anyone with a complaint had to take it up with them. And this was a dangerous sport. Davorka would coax a supply of colored chalk from the soldiers who lived in the barracks bordering the park. Then there would be days of ferocious scribbling, to the point of unconsciousness. We drew giant flowers. And colorful cars. Butterflies and big, too-big red stars of which Davorka was especially proud. And even today, when I close my eyes, I see the park, every millimeter of wall and asphalt covered with vivid illustrations, and there at the end of the park, leaning against the building where we’d drawn the biggest star, stands Davorka. And beside her, Gara. They gaze westward. Right into the setting sun.

I guess it’s our last escapade that I remember most. This was the first day of vacation, when the dogcatchers came for Gara. Maybe it stands out as the first time in my life when I did something brave. While the dogcatchers dragged a tied-up Gara from the other end of the park, and the entire neighborhood peeped through its windows to see what was happening, Davorka and I lay under the wheels of the dogcatchers’ van. Determined to keep Gara with us. I don’t know how long it all lasted, Gara tied to a tree and the neighbors yelling, and the two dogcatchers trying to pry us from under the van by tugging on our skinny legs. I know I saw my father’s shoes and Davorka’s grandmother’s slippers. Davorka screamed for Gara, and I did the same. My father offered money, and Davorka’s grandmother insisted that Gara belonged to Davorka. The final thing I remember was the dogcatchers leaving, and just before that, the first and last time in my life when I was given a thrashing by my father, as Davorka hugging Gara closed the door of their candle- and cookie-scented apartment.

That summer Davorka moved away while I cheerfully collected shells on the beach at Mala Duba. She moved somewhere, but no one knew where, with her mother and grandmother and Gara. And the aroma of candles and cookies.

There are people who settle deep in your memory and you’re reminded of them when you do something crazy, and maybe in an old album you glimpse a photo and for the rest of the day you smile at the thought of three little Lepa Brenas, one of them crying inconsolably.

I’m gripped by little obsessions. I’ve had them for as long as I can remember. We drive fifty kilometers out of the way because I want to take a picture of the sign that reads Mrčajevci. I wish there were an even larger sign above the one there now, with an American-style message: Welcome to the Birthplace of the Nightingale of Mrčajevci, Miroslav Ilić.

The man who’s driving wants to get back to Sarajevo by half past ten, in time for the scrumptious ćevapi at Željo’s. But I want a souvenir. A picture of myself making faces next to the sign. In the end it doesn’t matter whose fault it is that we take a wrong turn after the photo shoot. We end up on a forgettable little main street. I ask for directions. I have no idea why I go into a store selling candles and funeral provisions. Maybe because the dog who leaps over the threshold seems familiar to me.

And the girl sitting behind the counter is just like someone with whom I sprawled under the dogcatchers’ van nearly twenty-five years ago. I think I laughed too loudly back then, and now she’s getting revenge. I say, “Is your mother here?” And she says, “No. But Grandma is.” She fetches her grandmother. And around me wafts a familiar scent of candles and cookies as Davorka’s mother emerges from a small workshop at the back of the store. She sees me and says, “Look at you. God, how you’ve grown.” And: “This is Sanja. Davorka’s daughter.”

I’m petrified now. Afraid I’ll lose it.

Her mother says, “Davorka is at sea, working. She’s the head of housekeeping on a cruise ship. Right now she’s somewhere in the Caribbean. She rarely comes home.”

I stand and stare at Davorka’s mother and daughter. And the dog I passed at the entrance gets up, stands next to the two of them, and eyes me suspiciously. From outside, the sound of a car horn, the anxious insistence of my driver. Davorka’s mother says, “This is Garo. Gara’s grandson.”

Sanja looks at me, and I think, “Wow, the granddaughter of the last Mohican.”
I ask, “How do I get to Sarajevo?” because it seems to me that if I ask anything else, everything around me will vanish.

“Second left, then straight,” says Davorka’s mother.

I say, “Please tell her hello from me.” She nods and says, “I will. She’ll be glad you dropped by. She always says you drew the best red star in the park.”

As I get into the car, I say, “Second left, then straight, and that’ll take us right to the ćevapi.”

One Wish

by Melina Kamerić
translated from the Bosnian by Jennifer Zoble

I dream we’re all sitting in a classroom. I have no idea who we are to each other, but I feel we’re connected. On the desk sits a dwarf. Very serious of face. In a deep voice, inappropriate for a dwarf, he asks, in English: “If you had only one wish, what would it be?”

Everyone ponders this. Tossing around their heads an imaginary wish list. But only I know the answer. I raise my hand high. The dwarf ignores me. He looks at everyone except me. I’m stretching like an animal on its hind legs and reaching my hand up. I want to answer him…and then the alarm wakes me. Six a.m. exactly. I have to go to work.

I ride the subway. I read on the way to work. I don’t think. I work. I don’t think. I return home. On the wall, in the hallway, hangs a picture of my brother and his girlfriend. They’re both drunk. I drew moustaches on them with a black marker. Since I don’t have a dog to entertain me and make me feel glad to come home, I substitute this picture. And every time I look at it, I smile.

My shrink told me laughter is therapeutic. And so I laugh, every day when I unlock the door to my apartment and see this picture.

It’s not like I’ve never had a dog. I had a dog. And I laughed a lot more when I did. But then the dog died, and I felt even worse than before. My shrink told me I should learn to live with the idea of transience and recommended that I get another dog. I didn’t listen. How does he know what’s best for me?

My job is fine. My apartment is fine. And somehow everything is fine.
The woman who sometimes wakes up next to me dreams in a different language. It’s not a problem. But I don’t want to think about it.

My shrink asks me if I have a packed suitcase under my bed. I’m silent. When had I mentioned the suitcase to him? I’m silent, then I nod my head. He says that I need to unpack it. That I should start forming attachments to things. To people. To places. I tell him I have absolutely no intention of doing so. Then he’s silent. He says, “You should try.”

What does he know about trying? It’s useless. For years I’ve been trying to stop paying attention to beggars with dogs. And to stop giving them money. I always and only feel compassion for people who are homeless with dogs. To me it’s just tragic. Little homeless dogs begging in the streets of this enormous city. I try to look away and imagine it’s not sad. Nothing. Trying is useless.

My shrink tells me I should travel. Return to my trauma. Confront my past. I fly into a rage then, and he has to increase the dosage on my medication.

The next time we’re both calmer. He asks about my dreams. He asks if I still dream of the dwarf sitting on the desk. I stand up and say, “Sir, I don’t see the point in discussing this. In fact, I don’t see why your country pays you to speak to me at all.” And I leave.

I dream of the classroom again. We sit quietly and wait for the dwarf to ask us his question. He always asks the same one. And I’m always the only one who knows the answer. I hold my hand high in the air and hope he’ll call on me. Maybe this time he will. While the others compose their wish lists, maybe he’ll notice me and say, “You, colleague, in the back row.”

And I will stand up, and I will not feel confused. I will say:
“I wish it were 8:00 in the morning on August 18, 1992. And before my wife leaves our little apartment and goes to meet the shell that’s too big for the tank, let alone her fragile body, she would say, ‘I love you.’”

Because that is the only thing I could change. That is my wish.

Shoes for Oscar Night is characterized by fragment, repetition, syntactic simplicity, and sardonic wit. The book is divided into three sections, the first of which, entitled “Samoća i još ponešto” (“Solitude and Something Else”), contains stories that juxtapose states of ignorance and awareness—each one illustrates or anticipates a moment of truth. The stories in the book’s second section, entitled “Zašto toliko plačemo?” (“Why Do We Cry So Much?”), focus on the Bosnian War and its aftermath. Some of them are set in the midst of conflict or siege, while others depict post-traumatic memory and inertia. The third section, “Majka samoupravljačica” (“The Self-Managing Mother”), whose title plays on Socialist Yugoslavia’s system of worker self-management, shifts to postwar narratives that examine romantic experience and the changing dynamics of gender and sex in Bosnian society.

Melina Kamerić was born in 1972 in Sarajevo. She writes at night. Her short fiction collection Cipele za dodjelu Oskara (Shoes for Oscar Night) was published in 2009 by Buybook (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Rende (Serbia). A Ukrainian translation was published in 2012 by Folio Publishers Ltd.

Jennifer Zoble is a founding co-editor of InTranslation, a project of The Brooklyn Rail, and she recently joined the Liberal Studies faculty of NYU. She earned MFAs in literary translation and nonfiction writing from The University of Iowa and a master’s in teaching from The New School. Her translations from Melina Kamerić’s Cipele za dodjelu Oskara (Shoes for Oscar Night) have appeared or are forthcoming in Anomalous, Ozone Park, Washington Square, and The Iowa Review.