A note from the author
I miss my father. I am an adult with a family of my own, and he has been gone for 23 years, but still I miss him.
It was December 12, 1992 when he was killed by a shell during the siege of Sarajevo. I was 19, my sister was 11. Our mother was 43, just like our father.
He was a special education teacher. Next to the school where he worked, there was a residential centre for children with special needs.
I remember, as though it were yesterday, the day he entered our apartment and told my mother: “You know, there is this kid, a good kid.”
My mother looked at him attentively and he continued: “He has no boots and he comes to school in the snow, wet-footed.”
She took out the well-worn wallet they shared and kept in a cupboard in the living room without saying a word. Together they counted the money for the boots.
On others days one of the children needed a jacket, or at least a birthday cake.
I was proud to have him as my father. And he was proud of me – when I started writing for a newspaper while still in school, and when I began working on my first, never-published novel.
I later published two.
The last one, award-winning in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is called One Day I’ll Come, Father. It tells a story shared by so many here; a story of children forced to grow up without their fathers, fathers killed in one of the Balkan wars.
But the story below, A Star-Filled Spoon, is one I wrote about Srebrenica. Also award-winning, it is a tale of love, learning and loss between a father and a child.
I simply cannot stop writing about the love I felt for my father and now try to pass on to my children, as is the case with Srebrenica’s children, now adults, and their children.
When I write about them, I write about myself.
A Star-Filled Spoon
Mother was always worried.
“Ismar, you have to, it’s for your own good!”
It was in vain.
Father was silent.
Then she would raise her voice:
“Ismar, don’t make me angry, I’m tired!”
It was in vain.
Father was silent.
Then she would yell, picking up the kitchen towel as if she was about to hit him.
“Ismar, I’ll spank you, I swear!”
It was in vain.
Father was silent.
The scene was always the same: The child’s frowning face, almost buried in the plates on the sparkling white tablecloth in a kitchen that smelt of pies and cakes, mother hovering in a threatening manner and father reading newspapers or grading his students’ papers brought home with him from school that day.
Finally, she would say:
“Enes, you see he’s not listening to a word I say, by God can you leave that so we can eat in peace? Make him eat!”
Father would speak.
“I will, wife, whatever you say.”
He would calmly put the papers away, draw his chair closer to his son’s and slowly pick up the spoon. And the boy would suddenly liven up, sit up straight and touch his father’s face, the way he used to do when he was a baby. It was something he was never able to explain. Nor will he ever be able to.
The kid’s eyes would stare at the father and wait.
“You know what we’re going to do now?” father would ask.
The game at the kitchen table was the same every day.
“Let me hear it,” father would say.
“We’ll take the stars down from the sky and put them into the spoon,” the boy would reply enraptured.
“And then…” father would continue.
“Then we’ll eat the stars.”
“Well done! And why is that?”
“Because I’ll grow if I eat the starry soup. So I can be as big as you are.”
“Even bigger, all the way to the stars,” father would say, lifting the spoon to the boy’s mouth, so finally he would start eating.
Mother would sigh with relief and smile, but the boy wouldn’t take notice of her.
“There are a lot of stars, we’ll never be able to eat them all,” he would say before eating another spoonful.
“When we eat some of them, others are born,” father would explain.
“And they will never stop being born?”
“Never,” father would say and take another spoonful. He would gently dab the boy’s chin with a napkin if some of the soup spilled.
The boy was probably not yet four years old at the time. And he was growing. Father would always go to the shop to buy a new box of tiny star-shaped soup pasta, because otherwise his Ismar wouldn’t eat soup. It was a long time ago.
But not a day goes by that Ismar doesn’t remember his father, the soup, the stars, his carefree childhood cut short when he was nine years old and his father, carrying a small backpack, a 1.5 litre water-filled Coca Cola bottle sticking out of it, left in a column of people that, like a river, snaked up winding hills which might otherwise look like those out of a fairytale, surrounded by thick forest and rare wildflowers whose scent gets into your nostrils and lingers, sending you into a sweet sleep.
At least once every year, usually in summer around the time when his father left, Ismar Hukara stands in front of these hills and looks at them for a long time, often from dawn until dusk.
He doesn’t speak. He sighs. He sighs again. He doesn’t feel the breeze on his skin, or the hot rays of sun, or the smell of the forest and the wildflowers.
His nose is filled with his father’s smell, the smell he’s been trying to invoke one more time for years. Before his eyes he sees his father’s hand gently stroking his hair and hears his determined words.
“Be good, listen to your mother.”
He was a just kid. He cries silently because crying was the one thing his father hated. It was the only thing that would make his father scold him.
Ever since he was a baby, Ismar would hold back his tears in such moments, to the point where he would feel pain in his stomach and lungs, trying not to cry because he had to eat vegetables or because he couldn’t go out to play although all other children were already in the schoolyard, or because…
Only to appease his father, the father he looked so much like. Like two peas in a pod, as neighbour Rada used to say every time she came around to have coffee with his mother, which was every afternoon.
Ismar used to cry over small things that seemed as big as a mountain to a kid.
For example, when he was younger, he never cried when he was bathed like most other children, but he cried if somebody else opened the bathroom door.
“No, no…I want to open it!”
Or if somebody else turned on the water tap when they put him into the bathtub to wash off the mud after he played football in the field and managed to find a puddle even in the middle of the drought period and stick his head in it.
“Why did you turn it on, I want to do it…”
The tears would start rolling, and father would be furious.
“My dearest, I’ll give you everything, just don’t cry. I can’t stand that at all.”
Still, father would give in, close the bathroom door or turn off the water tap so Ismar could do it, and the tears would stop, and the smiles, tickling and water splashing would begin.
Mother used to say that their son, although he was an only child, was too spoiled, that her husband was too soft, but Ismar still calls this pure love. Or father’s feeling that everything would not last long.
Even after many years, whenever Ismar opens a door or turns on the water tap, he remembers his father and he smiles, feeling that pure love.
But the next second he feels like crying as he misses his father. He fights back the tears, like he used to when he was a kid, because he doesn’t want to make his father angry.
There was only one time when his father didn’t get angry over his tears – the day when he left with the small backpack on his back, a water-filled Coca-Cola bottle sticking out of it. Ismar cried without holding back, suffocating in his moans, so loud that the hills would shake. But nobody could hear him in the mass of similar destinies.
Ismar always cries again in that same place, many years later. He looks around to make sure that nobody is watching, not even the butterfly swirling around his head, confused or even disturbed by the cries resonating all around.
Then, in the mass, he first spots his mother, then other people too, a bit older every year, but they can’t see him in the moment of never-ending sorrow, their eyes blurred by tears, lost in the past that took away large pieces of their hearts.
Then Ismar stops crying.
Father would be angry. And mother would suffer even more if she came closer and saw him crying, at the same time every year, in the summer heat underneath a forested hill, where the feet of thousands of people trampled down the grass which rose up again, unlike the people who were left lying there forever.
In the beginning he used to dream about his father often, and later the dreams became rarer, the images in them paler. Mother told him that this happens with time, because the face, gentle and dear, disappears deep in the consciousness and emerges only sometimes. Probably when the longing becomes too strong.
But, it’s easy for mother to say that. She still dreams about him every night. And Ismar envies her. His father loved him. He loved his father. More than anything else in the world.
He was a teacher. People say he was a good one. Not just as a teacher, but also as a human being. He remembers, he was a just kid when his father would come home from the afternoon shift and immediately, before he would forget or get distracted by something else, would say:
“Listen, wife, there is a kid, a good kid…”
Mother would look at him attentively.
“He comes to school in this cold wearing only a sweater, he doesn’t have a jacket, his parents can’t afford to buy him one.”
Mother would take out their joint worn-out wallet from the cupboard in the living room without saying a word and count the money for the jacket. Tomorrow, father would make the boy happy. He would make himself even happier.
A few days later, there would be another kid coming to school in the rain wearing sandals. And Ismar’s parents would buy the kid new shoes. A few days later…
War broke out! While they still had coffee and firewood, mother would put the coffee pot on the stove, and they would sit together and sip coffee, sharing their concerns for Ismar.
First they ran out of coffee. Then they ran out of firewood. Then they ran out of food.
Father volunteered for the army. He was rarely at home. And when he came back, he would soon go out again, gathering children in a classroom and teaching them to read, write, calculate…It didn’t matter that there was shelling outside. Or that people were getting killed.
“School… to learn… to know… to remember…”
Ismar didn’t mind the explosions outside, or the fact that he had to study. Because he was with his father. He watched him write on the blackboard with tiny pieces of chalk.
And then walk around the classroom and stroke the hair of some kids every now and then. Much later, he would realise that these were mostly kids who had already lost their mothers and fathers.
Children loved his father. Everybody loved him…
Summer was in full swing. So was hunger. And death. Ismar was standing next to his mother, crying, in a crowd of similar people. Father kneeled down with that backpack on his back, the bottle of Coca-Cola they had drunk a long time ago filled with water sticking out of it. He drew his son closer. And gave him a big hug.
Ismar could swear that he saw tears in those eyes full of love, sparkling for a moment like the stars he used to eat with a spoon when he was younger.
He would still eat them, but there had been no stars for years, the shop where they used to buy them was gone, and gone was the shop assistant whose son’s hair Enes used to stroke every time he saw him in the classroom or on the street.
On the day when a piece of Ismar’s heart was torn away, his father kissed him more urgently than ever before. Or maybe it only seemed that way. And he stroked his hair. Like he used to stroke the hair of those fatherless and motherless children.
And he turned away, the backpack with the bottle of Coca-Cola they had drunk a long time ago now filled with water sticking out of it. He only managed to say:
“If…”, he remained silent for a moment, “I don’t come… don’t cry, it will be more difficult for me…”
Then he disappeared in the mass of identical destinies.
Mother now takes care of her son by herself, although he’s grown up. And the son, he doesn’t know how to comfort her. Only once, a long time ago, did he sit with her to keep her company over coffee. They didn’t speak a word. After the last sip, mother said:
“Go out with your friends, live on.”
Ismar listened to her. He got a child of his own. And he named him Enes.
“Where is my grandfather whom I was named after?”
Ismar doesn’t know how to answer his son’s question. He’s too young. How can he explain to him that they haven’t found the body yet. In the mass of bodies.
That’s why he points his finger to the sky and says: “Up, among the stars, they always keep being born.”
And then he lifts the star-filled spoon to his mouth…
This story was first published by Al Jazeera Balkans and has been translated from Bosnian.
Photograph by skyseeker (Flickr: Starry sky at Mount Rinjani, Lombok island) [CC BY 2.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons