“Salko Partizan” was selected by Adam Johnson as the fiction winner of the Beacon Street Prize.

SALKO PARTIZAN

by Edvin Subasic

Nobody remembered when exactly Salih Alihodžic Salko became commonly known as Salko Partizan. The kids in his neighborhood had always known him as such. Every Eid they waited in front of his house and scurried towards him, screaming, “Bajram Mubarek Olsun, Uncle Salko! Happy Eid! Happy Eid, comrade!” They could always count on him to bury his fist in the inside pocket of his coat and pull out cash for them. He was also recognized as a generous old man, barely walking, always leaning on his cane, but always smiling. He was all heart, his black beret crooked on his head, leaning heavily toward the side opposite his bad leg, as if keeping him balanced. In one hand he waved his bamboo cane. His muštikla, a wooden cigarette holder with an amber mouthpiece was in the other. Wedged inside it, his cigarette left a trail of smoke like a warped timeline that no one could trace.

Salko Partizan pulled out wads of red and green notes and equally distributed the money to every child, no matter what age, no matter what gender or religion, be they kids of Muslim, Christian, or atheist families. He gave out all the money he had saved the previous year for this occasion, and kids were well aware of it as they waited for him outside his house. They ran after him until the money was gone. After the last bill was snatched away—usually by the smallest child standing way back in line—he passed out candy. From the deep pockets of his light-blue, twill trousers and matching coat, he produced caramels and bonbons in shiny wrappers, of which he seemed to never run out.

Children never failed to add Partizan to Salko’s name whenever they talked about him, and always out of admiration, strictly out of admiration. They never forgot to greet him whenever they spotted him squatting under the thick shade of the aromatic linden tree in front of his shabby house that creaked on its weary, but still solid, ballasts. Kids stepped before him, stomped their feet, made their hands into fists and pressed them firmly against their temples. “Smrt fašizmu!” they shouted. “Death to Fascism!” “Sloboda narodu! Freedom to the people!” Salko replied and chuckled. Their sincerity, their innocence never failed to delight him.

The house was painted white, its layers of calk cracked like a secret map to a world of forgotten history. The roof which had been recently patched, its broken shingles replaced, kept the house together. Its skin was roughed up, its trim peeling, the windows and doors squeaky and barely movable, their glass panes all permanently fogged up with age.

When the kids greeted him, they truly felt the word partizan was synonymous with hero. Yes, he was a hero to them, no matter what their parents said. The adults would talk: “Salko Partizan said this, Salko Partizan said that,” and laugh.

“Remember that story Salko Partizan told last month in front of the bakery? Like he was there, in the middle of the action,” someone would start.

The next person would chuckle, waving it off. “Yeah, that one. He should be rewriting history books.”

“Salko won the war without firing a bullet. Can you imagine?” Another person would laugh and shake his head.

Sitting on the chipped doorstep of his house, his cane laid next to his stretched bad leg, muštikla between his thumb and index finger, Salko focused his eyes on the dark green hills where orange roofs peeked out between tall pines and maples. “There, kids,” he said. “Right there, between the Mitrić and Čestić houses.” He picked up his cane and pointed at the two brick houses, both two-storied, almost identical with clay shingles drooping down their steep roofs. “There, little ones, that’s where I was working the land, as always. Those houses were half their size back then. Most of them weren’t even there. It was March, a very warm early spring day. I was plowing the field when Ustaša, the Black Shirt Unit—the most vicious of all the Nazis— showed up, combing every house, every field and every shrub. They walked in a straight line sprawled all over. They surrounded our house here. Zinka was pregnant then, and only my mother was with her. I watched from the top of the hill.”

He shook his head, inhaled the cigarette, puffed the smoke out, then took a long swig from his čokanj, the miniature long-necked bottle filled with šljivovica, plum moonshine. His long, sunburned face warmed up with every sip of brandy; his lively black eyes bounced with every word he said. The four kids—two boys and two girls—squatted around him, all ears, their dirt-smudged faces still. Their eyes were wide, staring into the hills, as if they had tried hard enough they’d be able to see the soldiers with their guns sticking out in front of them—their bayonets mounted and ready to slice through the flesh of their grandparents.

“I knew what was going on, of course, but I continued working the soil, pretending I was clueless, an ignorant Bosnian peasant. I had this black dorat, like charcoal. A beautiful animal, no other horse in town could hold a candle to Gavro. Gavran was his name, called him Gavro. He was so calm and always there by me, through the whole war. My true comrade. He hauled and panted as I pushed and steered the plough. We paid no attention to our surroundings. I knew, of course, they were looking for Jamil. And I knew they wouldn’t find him.”

When Jamil’s name came up, the children craned their necks forward. Every child old enough to talk and walk already knew who Jamil was. Jamil was the youngest son of the affluent, Bey family, whom Salko had worked for since his early teens. When they were kids, Jamil had always treated him with love and respect. Though Salko was from a poor family and a servant, they were like brothers. Later, Jamil left town and went to the university in Zagreb while Salko stayed and became the Osman-Bey’s, Jamil’s father’s, head servant. In return, he got a piece of land and income. One night, at the beginning of the war, Jamil showed up on Salko’s doorstep with Ivan, a friend from college. They both needed a place to hide for three days before their comrades, a group of partisans, reached out and moved them into the mountains. Always under watch, Jamil’s parents’ house was out of the question. Ustaša and Švaba officers in command of the town and The Grove, the nearby death camp, were there almost every night. They ate, drank, and celebrated as Osman-bey’s guests of honor. Salko helped serve them and was in charge of all hosting arrangements. Since that night, Salko had become Jamil and Ivan’s eyes and ears. His house, an unassuming, tiny, and crummy two-room dwelling, caught no one’s eye.

“Huh,” Salko sighed and took another sip from his bottle. He inhaled one last wisp of smoke from his cigarette which had burnt all the way inside the cigarette holder. “I knew that they wouldn’t catch him because I had already smuggled Jamil out. He was at my house. I snuck him in. I snuck him in and out whenever I had to, buried under a load of manure. I was sly back then, quick. And I always did the job right. I knew no one would willingly rummage through the manure. I’d pile the fresh cow manure on top of the old, stale load so it smelled extra foul. I had done people, food, medicine, even a radio transmitter and a case full of guns.”

The kids sighed. Damir, a dark-skinned, shirtless boy with bat ears stood up, ribs
bobbing under his dark brown skin. “No way, Uncle Salko, no way. I wouldn’t sit under a pile of cow poop. I don’t think Jamil would either. Tell me, how was Jamil able to breathe? Huh? A man would smother in a wagon full of manure piled on top of him.”

“Eh, kiddo. Yes, of course. I took care of that too. Like I said before, I’d always stack the dry, porous dung first and then a layer of fresh. It wouldn’t seal the space in the middle of the wagon. Especially, because I first placed a layer of dry hay on top of him too. He laid face downward in the straw. He stuck his face between the wooden planks. If they squatted under the wagon and looked carefully, maybe—and only maybe—they would notice a person’s nose and mouth sticking out.”

“Yuck! I’d rather die,” squealed the black-haired girl with glasses and an unruly ponytail that bounced up and down every time she moved.

“Me too!” spat another boy, the tallest among them, his hay-brown curls long and stuck behind his ears, his legs two sticks in rubber boots.

“Okay, sure. If you say so,” Salko chuckled. “Don’t worry, my little Emina.” He winked at the little girl. “You’re my princess. I’d never put you in such a position. I’d cover you with candy and you’d eat it all up before we reached the mountains. And you, Deni?” Salko shook his cigarette at the tall boy. “You wouldn’t need to be smuggled at all. You could take on a battalion of Ustaša and Švaba soldiers, throw in a whole army of Italians, and you’d bail yourself out without so much as a scratch.”

The kids laughed wholeheartedly. Deni flexed his muscles proudly, his arms up in the air. Then he spun around, pretending to hold a gun and shooting everyone around him, his friends clapping and cheering.

“There, there…Well, let’s continue. Okay, where was I? Oh, yes…but first, hold on a second.” Salko pulled out another cigarette from the red Filter Yugoslavia box. It had no filter. He jammed it into his muštikla and lit it up. He inhaled another long puff of smoke and followed it with a sip of rakija. The patient children sat on the ground in suspense, afraid to move, never mind trying to hurry him up. They knew he’d somehow get back to the story, but at his own pace, on his own terms.

“Of course, with my heart in the right place I just continued working the field, plowing ahead. It rained that morning…not too much, though, just enough, just right. We were slicing through the dark brown soil like butter. When the soldiers came closer, they called out to me. ‘Hey, seljak—hey farmer—come here quick; come over here.’ I ran over. I put on my best ignorant face. I could have fooled anyone. Like this.” Salko opened his eyes wide, his mouth contracting, his brows hovering high.

“The officer in command measured me whole with one single look and said, ‘Stand still and talk to me,’” Salko hissed, raising his tone an octave. “He asked me if I’d seen anything… anything suspicious. He said that a bandit named Jamil was seen at his house the previous night. Their informant reported it. Jamil had met with some other people, leaders from other towns to plan something big.”

“I looked the officer in the eye; he was a young captain. I held my hat in my hands and gave him an innocent shake. I said, I am sorry general, but I have no idea. I’m just a simpleminded peasant, a seljak, doing my best to feed my family and share what I have with our great soldiers.

“Soldiers?” he said.

“Yes, I continued. Our brave soldiers. You and your men. Every army needs to be fed to wage the war. In the past, wars were lost because of famine. One can’t fight on an empty stomach, my lord.”

“I’m not a general. I’m a captain.” He replied abruptly. He was very serious, but calm, very calm.

“I saw right away that man was too smart to be played. I said, Pardon my ignorance, my dearest captain. I’m a simple man, a poor uneducated peasant and a servant to your highness.”

“He took a better look at me and said, ‘I think I recognize you. Aren’t you Osman-bey’s servant?”

“Yes, sir. I am both their and your servant.”

“then you must know Jamil. You would say something if you had seen him, wouldn’t you?” he asked me, his eyes two stones fixated on mine. The moment felt like centuries.

“Yes of course, my lord, I said. That young man is trouble, always has been. His own father, Osman-Bey—such a kind, such a noble man, from the great royal family of Hasanagić – wouldn’t recognize him.

“Okay then.’ The captain finished our conversation without as much as raising his voice. ‘I expect you’ll come down to the main station as soon as you see him or hear something about his whereabouts?”

“Yes, sir. I’m your eyes and ears. Za dom spremni! I replied and saluted, just like this.” Salko demonstrated the Ustaša’s salutation; his arm stretched out toward the sky and curled up to his heart. “I still have no idea what to make of it, why he didn’t just take me down to their station for questioning, maybe take me out to The Grove and cut me into pieces. I believe it was Allah’s will. I became sure of that on another encounter a month later.”

At that moment, Salko’s wife came out with another čokanj filled all the way up. She also brought an oval plate of meza containing sudžuk—the smoked, garlicky beef sausage— homemade cheese, and fresh pogača—the dense soda-bread. The plate was heaped up with food neatly arranged around the slices of fresh bread in the center, the sudžuk cut up into thin slices and the cheese into perfect cubes. “Meza for the kids and Stari, the elder. And the little ones get lemonade.” She brought out four glasses filled with thick, pulpy homemade lemonade. “Stari, of course, gets his rakija. What would this world look like for my old man, moj stari, without his rakija?” She chuckled. “It would be the end of it, of course.”

“What would have become of me without rakija and you, stara moja?” Salko said. “Remember the time we stood against the wall? You were pregnant with Sead, weren’t you?”

“Huh, stari. I should’ve known. You’re telling your stories again. Please, dear, stop that business. The whole dunjaluk talks about you. They’re laughing at us, can’t you see that? Let bygones be bygones.”

“The dunjlauk is just as dumb as ever. These kids know better than any adults. They know everything I say is true, don’t you, kids?” Salko looked each one of them in the eye. The girls smiled and nodded assuredly. The boys thought about it at first, both looking down, their eyebrows strained, but they looked up and nodded too.

“See, even my professor believes me.” He snickered and patted the skinny boy with bat ears on the arm. “At first, he didn’t believe me that I transported Partisans in loads of manure. I had to explain the details to him. He always wants proof, no matter what. He’s smart, that one.”

“Mashallah,” Zinka said and pinched the boy’s cheek. “Stari, I’m going inside. I have to cook dinner. And you, kids, keep him busy.” She winked at them. “Make sure he stays out of trouble. And remind him to get his ass up and feed the livestock before the sun sets.”

“Yes, Auntie Zinka, we will. Don’t worry,” the children cheered in chorus.

“She was there,” he whispered, sticking out his thumb and pointing towards his wife who had already disappeared behind the squeaky front door.

“Where?” The children bent forward, closer to his face.

“We were taken outside and lined up against the wall, that same wall right there.” He grabbed his cane and pointed with it to the side of the house and the pathway in front of it that lead to the barn in the back, as if the cane would project pictures at it and show the evidence. “They stood us in front of it and waited while other soldiers delved through the house and the barn. She was pregnant. Her belly was huge, up to her teeth. That was the moment when I lost my faith. For a moment there, I had doubts: Allah wasn’t watching over us after all. At least that’s what went through my mind at first.”

“What happened next? What happened, Uncle Salko? Tell us!” The Professor jumped up and cried out.

“Luckily, back then my mother was living with us. She had already gone through another war before this last one. She knew.”

“What did she know?” asked Sanya, the girl with the moist-green eyes, copper tan, and long raven hair. She was the oldest among them, her face stern, her eyes scanning for the answer on Salko’s tensed cheeks, the creases on his skin stretched thin.

“She knew how to calm the soldiers. She started talking to them. I was frozen dead. In front of my eyes I saw my first child, my unborn son, Sead. Zinka was crying and caressing her stomach. I remember that moment as if it happened yesterday. My rahmetli mother, God rest her soul, knew exactly how to talk to them, what to say to them. She calmed down the excited officer who was pacing nervously up and down. I can recall everything, the whole drama unfolding right there by that well.” Salko squinted and aimed with his cigarette at the old well in the middle of the yard built of gray river rocks, moss hanging out of its cracks in fat ribbons, its roof covered with mismatched, fractured shingles. “The lieutenant was a very young man, still a boy if you ask me. We might’ve been his first. Well, she ran to him and embraced him in a motherly way. She asked him about his parents, offered a loaf of bread and cheese. When it was all over, I handed out cheese, bread, and a bottle of rakija to the soldiers. They left.”

“Wow, unbelievable,” the girls cried.

“Yes, unbelievable. It was especially hard to believe that we stayed alive because we knew that the radio I was going to pass onto Jamil’s sister was still in the oven. They’d searched through the house but hadn’t thought to open the oven door. I shoved the radio transmitter inside the cold oven when I saw their truck approaching from down the street.”

“Wow, that’s awesome,” the kids shouted in unison. “Amazing!”

“You see, my children, that was the day I lost my religion, then got it back again, all within an hour. I knew something was watching over us, be it Allah or something else. Whatever it was, it was great—greater than us.”

“Uncle Salko, I thought you were a communist,” The Green Eyes asked. “You’re a partizan.”

“Well, I may be a partizan or a communist, for that matter. Above everything, I have always been myself and have always fought for good. Unlike today, back then we fought for our lives, to survive, but also for our children, for their future. Remember kids, being a partizan means you’re everything. You may be a Muslim, or a Christian, you may be an atheist, a communist, or just a simple farmer. A partizan is everything he must be. He is an insan, a man or a woman. And being an insan is the hardest accomplishment of all, especially in war.”

“What happened later, Uncle Salko?” The Professor prodded Salko impatiently.

“Eh, son, a lot happened later. You see, about a year or so before the war ended, things started changing. A lot happened. It was sort of quiet before that, at least down here. But up in the mountains, battle after battle. The Germans and the Ustaša pushed hard. Četniks had joined them. Tito and his partisans continued their fight all over the country, never calmed for a second. This area saw some of the fiercest battles as the war neared its end. That was when we lost Jamil. We all know how that happened, don’t we?”

The Professor pitched in. “Yes, they killed him. They hung him downtown. My teacher said Jamil didn’t so much as blink. He smiled in the Ustaša’s faces and shouted, “Smrt Fašiszmu!”

“Yes, son, yes. I remember that day like it was yesterday. I remember his mother’s sobs,” Salko continued, his narrative unwavering, rehearsed. “She didn’t stop crying until the night she died, in her sleep. Osman-bey knew what was coming. We all knew. The night before, I smuggled his sister out of town into the mountains.”

“In a pile of cow poop?” Emina, The Princess, cried. “Yuck!”

“Yes. If our cows, Šarenka and Milenka, only knew that their poop saved lives. If people really knew what they had done for our freedom, they’d give them veteran pensions. But no one knew, nor wanted to know, and that’s why my cows and myself never got any of the government money, no veteran benefits. So many of them do now, even the ones who never thought of helping. All because, after the war, I wouldn’t swear allegiance to the party. But that’s another story, a boring one, not for you. It’s all politics, my children…politics. They’re all just crooks anyway. One day, you’ll understand my words.”

“Did you see the execution?”

“Yes, kids, I was there, in person. They required everyone to attend, to witness the defeat and learn a lesson from it. Jamil saw me and smiled. I nodded and smiled back. He knew his sister was safe. He had no regrets. He didn’t even flinch when they dropped him and the rope promptly tightened around his neck, like a furious snake.”

“Terrible, so terrible. Hate them fascists,” murmured The Green Eyes.

“Yes, but what happened to his sister? How did she die?” asked The Professor.

“She died in a fight, right outside the town, up at the Mraković Village. She was almost home. Četnik soldiers slit her throat.” Salko motioned with his thumb against his neck. “They knew who she was, couldn’t wait to get their hands on her. Their father died in a prison cell. You know that stone house behind the barber? The old storage building used to be their military jail. He was questioned and beaten to death only a week after Jamil was hanged. Their mother, poor Esma-Bey, went mad and died seven years later. I was the only one left to serve her; Zinka and I took care of her. During the war, no one dared to get close to their house, not even her siblings. After the war, they couldn’t deal with her. She died crying, as I said, always sitting by the window upstairs, leaning over its sill, looking out at the street and muttering her children’s names.”

“It’s so sad,” The Princess sobbed, tears welling up in her big brown eyes and rolling down her round cheeks one by one.

“But there was something else; something happened right before the liberation.” Salko said. “Late one evening, somebody knocked on the door. We were scared to death. Nothing good could have come from a late visit during the war. Guess who it was?” The children stared at him in silence, their lips tight.

“It was the young Ustaša captain. I recognized him right away. He was still calm, his face completely cool. He’d been shot. He was wounded badly. An hour or two before he showed up, drenched in blood, we’d heard shots, Ustaša’s and Švabas’ cars had been speeding around town. It turned out that the captain named Marko knew Jamil well. They were close friends. The whole time, Marko had been spying for the partisans. He knew about me. He knew about the radio that day. He sent out a messenger after the patrol at our house and called off the search. He stopped the execution while my mother was talking to the officer in charge. He diverted their mission and sent them to an empty house on the outskirts, the opposite side of town. The family had already been taken to The Grove a couple of days earlier.”

“Did he die?” cried The Princess.

“No, huh, not that man. He was too big for life—and for death, as it turned out. We were able to help him. He had an exit wound through his upper right thigh and another bullet badly grazed his right shoulder. An exit wound happens when a bullet has already passed through, and heals easier as long as one doesn’t bleed out. Zinka used to be a midwife and often helped nurse sick people down at the ward hospital before the war. As an imam’s daughter herself, she had always been into healing, magic, and so on. I never understood that part. Zinka can tell you more.”

“Magic?”

“Yes, dear. Sihir, dark magic, hocus-pocus, whatever you call it nowadays. Only a few imams in the entire region had the great powers to counter Sihir and heal the enchanted. Her father was one of them. Before he got married, he’d spent years as a dervish in a tekke outside Banja Luka. It’s gone now, closed. He was among the last followers standing. The man was wise and saw past this world.” Salko gave the children a stern look. “Huh, Sihir. Believe me kids, when a man is under its spell, he is as good as dead.”

“And Zinka’s father, Efendi-Serdar, knew dark magic?” asked The Green Eyes.

“The great imam could talk to the dead. He raised corpses from the underworld. Sometimes he would punish people. His daughter learned it from him; she was the youngest child and the closest to her father. Zinka learned a lot from her father before he died, and even now she talks to him at night, during the ghost hour.”

“Really? What can she do?” The Princess asked. “Can she turn stones into diamonds?”

“Maybe. Not sure. But I’m sure she could turn you into any animal she wants. And she’ll turn you into a mouse if you ever try to betray her.”

“No way!” Both girls shrieked. The boys looked sheepishly at Salko, their mouths wide open.

“Yes, children. Then she’ll turn into an owl and hunt you down.”

“No, no way. You’re lying,” The Green Eyes cried.

“Yes, I am lying. Sorry, kids. Maybe she’ll turn me into a mouse if she hears me.”

“What happened to Marko, the spy?” croaked Deni.

“Marko left our house as soon as he could walk on his own. Ustaša soldiers ransacked the town and the surrounding villages, but they never came to our house again for some reason. He had been hiding in our barn the whole time, sleeping with Gavro and our two peaceful cows, Šarenka and Milenka. I took him up into the mountains to join his comrades. People told me later he was a high-ranking comrade. He planned the resistance and led partisans in the Fourth Offensive. Later, he orchestrated the battles in the Seventh Offensive—the final one. He was one of the smartest people I have ever talked to in my life, one of Tito’s best men. He fooled the enemy, both Ustaša and Švaba, and it’s really hard to fool a Švaba. Germans are canny.”

“Have you seen him since then?” asked Deni, the tall boy.

“Yes, once, the day they chased the Ustaša out of town. He saved my head again.”

“How? Tell us how he did it?” Deni pressed ahead.

“A few days after the liberation, partisan soldiers banged on our door. They came to take the livestock. They wanted to kill my livelihood and eat it. And they took Gavro. They said they needed the horse to pull the load as they advanced up into the mountains to the north and east. I said no. I was firm. Absolutely not. Those animals saved lives and gave everything for the cause. Now they wanted to eat them. One of the partisans, a skinny, red-haired boy with freckles…as soon as I saw his face, I got suspicious. I thought he was a Švaba when I saw him coming. He cocked his rifle and aimed it at my chest. He pushed me against that wall—again, the same wall the Ustaša had me against about a year before. He said, ‘If you’re not with us, then you’re against us, damn traitor.’ I remember that his accent was from Serbia. He spoke Ekavian dialect.

“Miraculously, Marko showed up again, out of the blue—an angel sent by dear Allah himself to watch over me and my family. He appeared from nowhere. I swear, no one noticed when and where he’d come from. This time, he was wearing an eyepatch. He’d lost his left eye in a battle two months earlier. A sniper shot him right before he blew up the bridge between The Grove and Ustaša’s escape route. The bullet had pierced his eyeball and lodged in his skull. The surgeon had to pull it out without anesthetics. They had given him a whole bottle of rakija to drink before surgery. Two days later, he was the first man to walk inside The Grove, screaming like madman, “I want the scum alive! I want them to taste their own medicine!” My old neighbor, pokojni Mile, rest his soul, told me about it later. He’d served in Marko’s battalion.”

“Wow, what a man! What a hero!” cried Deni.

“Yes, he was a real hero, unlike the posers in our government nowadays who are destroying our country bit by bit, stealing our money and suddenly vanishing into thin air. Both Marko and Jamil were people to reckon with.”

“So, did the partisans shoot you?” Deni asked excitedly. Other children burst into a laugh.

“What do you think? Perhaps I should name you a professor too.” The kids followed with another wave of laughter. Professor number two cupped his hands into fists and held them in the air. He shook his head and squinted, his lips tight and furious.

“Anyway, Marko told the redhead and his comrade to leave right away. Both were maybe a little older than you…sixteen or seventeen perhaps.”

“Where is Marko now?” The Green Eyes asked.

“Did he die too? He sure did.” The Princess cried, her ponytail bouncing restlessly. “Did they hang him like Jamil, or even worse—taken him to The Grove?”

“I can’t tell you anything for sure. In this place you can never be sure, but I believe he’s alive. Several years ago, I was on the train to Sarajevo; I ran into this man, a retired general. He recognized me. It turned out the man had served under Jamil. He told me that Marko left the country right after the war. He had no idea where Marko went or why he had left. No one knows exactly where Marko wound up, not even his closest comrades. Perhaps I’m wrong, and he died long ago.”

“Uncle Salko, a lot of your comrades are already dead by now. How about you?” Deni asked.

“Me? You mean when am I going to die? Huh. Whenever dear Allah decides, whenever it’s vakat. Every time I thought I was on the way to ahiret, dear God saved me. I don’t know why. No idea.”

The day before Salko Partizan departed this world and it finally was his vakat to enter ahiret, he stopped by Imam Ibrahim’s pub. Imam was sitting in front of his business and smoking. There was nobody around except for his granddaughter, who was taking care of the bar and the kitchen inside. It was late afternoon, and Salko was on his way home from the piazza, the outdoor market. At the market he had sold eggs, cream, yogurt, milk, and cheese. Selling dairy and produce was his only cash income, but he still had two cows and a horse. In his old age, he spent most of his time with his livestock, sometimes talking to them, telling them stories when the kids weren’t around. Like children, they were always eager listeners and trusted friends.

Imam Ibrahim, a prominent citizen, the eldest clergy in town, an important Communist Party member, and small-business owner, always resented Salko back in the day. Salko was Zinka’s husband—Zinka, the only daughter of Efendi-Serdar. Efendi-Ibrahim was Effendi-Mustafa’s protégé. He had hoped to learn everything from Efendi-Serdar, even the magic spells and healing, especially the magic and healing—an endless source of cash, he imagined. But Efendi-Serdar always knew that and kept Ibrahim at arm’s length. He knew Ibrahim’s heart. The only person whom he trusted was his youngest daughter, still living with him, and Salko, his best friend’s only son. When Efendi-Serdar gave his daughter’s hand to a servant, Ibrahim was furious. He broke away from Efendi-Serdar’s order and vowed to practice on his own. What Efendi-Ibrahim never knew was that Efendi-Serdar never charged for his services. He found it a sin to take money from poor souls for their ignorance.

But since the end of the war, Efendi-Ibrahim was overly friendly with Salko, always polite and extremely hospitable. If the Imam noticed Salko walking by, there wasn’t an occasion when he didn’t offer him food and drinks on the house. But Salko would kindly reject the offer, wish the imam a great day, and continue towards home. He knew. He had always known. The only reason why Ibrahim ever paid Salko respect and was overly friendly went way back, to the days of Osman-bey and Jamil, to the demise of the great Bey’s family and the day when Jamil was caught by the Ustaša.

“My dear Salko, you look very pale today.” Efendi-Ibrahim’s face lit up when he saw him ambling along. “Why don’t you have something to eat and drink? I’ll have my daughter fire up the grill and prepare some ćevapi for you.”

“Thanks, Efendi-Ibrahim. I’m not hungry.” Salko waved his hand and padded towards Ibrahim’s table set in front of the pub by the sidewalk. “But I’ll take a little break, right here with you, if you don’t mind. I’m not feeling well…not in the best shape today. Like I’ve been beaten with a long horse whip that’s wrapped around my whole body.”

“Oh please, Salko, please. And here, here, let’s share a fildžan of coffee and a lokum. My daughter just brought it out fresh. And a sip of rakija. This one’s homemade, my brother’s plums. Not the kind we usually serve.”

“Well, Efendi-Ibrahim, if it comes from Suleiman’s plums, then I’ll have to drink one. He always knew how to make good rakija. He has the magic touch.”

“Magic touch…yes, magic touch.” The imam ran his fingers along his short, neatly cut beard. He let out a sigh and sluggishly crossed his legs looking out on the street. “Tell me, Salko, how’s Zinka? How are the kids and grandkids doing?”

“Zinka is doing well, bothered a little by arthritis. You know, there’s been a lot of rain since June. One day it rains, the next day it shines…rain and shine at the same time, and so on. You never know, a very unreliable summer this year. But mashallah, can’t complain.” Salko knocked twice on his cane.

“Mashallah, Salko, mashallah,” Efendi-Ibrahim followed.

“And the kids? Sead and Muhamed are always busy. They have important jobs now. The youngest, Alema, is pregnant again, and Fata got a job at the city hall. She’s a secretary now. They turned out good, they help us a lot.”

“Mashallah.”

“And the grandkids are doing well too, although I see less and less of them. The oldest, Sead’s son, Nermin, is about to return from military duty and go to Sarajevo to study medicine.”

“Mashallah. I’ll pray for them. As for praying…Salko, don’t get me wrong, but I never see you at the mosque. Sramota—it’s a shame.”

“Efendi-Ibrahim, we both know I haven’t been to the mosque since before the war.”

As Salko shrugged and lit up his cigarette, a small group of older teenagers came up and approached their table. One of them, a tall, bulky guy in a pair of knee-length shorts and a white t-shirt with a large Nike insignia, shouted, “Merhaba, gentlemen. Salam-alaikum, Efendi. Smrt Fašizmu, Uncle Salko! How’re the old folks doing? Hope Salko is telling you about that time, back in the day, when they were chasing Četnik Vojvoda.” The young man raised his forefinger. “The war was over, but up in the mountains battles were still on. Those old Četnik wouldn’t give up. He might throw in the Russians and Americans too; you never know when the allies will show up. And then he’ll tell you the day the Cossacks rode in over the border, but we stood our ground and sent those Russians packing, before they knew what happened to them.” The girls standing behind him giggled.

“No, son,” replied Efendi-Ibrahim, wrinkles on his forehead deepening. “Salko isn’t telling any stories. We’re just chatting here and enjoying our coffee.”

“And rakija, I see. By the time you get to the second shot, Salko will have cooked up another war story.” The little crowd of youngsters broke into laughter.

The imam shook his curved forefinger at him. “Ah, ah, Almir…mulac…hajduk jedan— you mule…you fool, don’t be rude to Salko. Your father will stop by for a drink later. Maybe it’s time for me to talk to him.”

“I apologize, Efendi-Ibrahim, and am terribly sorry, Uncle Salko. Gotta tell you, I do miss your stories, old comrade.”

“Well, son, stop by any time and I’ll tell you more. As I recall, the last time I told you a story, you were still wetting your bed and eating your boogers.” The young crowd burst into vicious laughter.

“You got me there, Uncle Salko,” Almir smiled sheepishly. “I’ll let you two continue.” The young man trotted ahead with his crowd and waved at Salko and Ibrahim. “Allah-a-manet, comrades.”

Scratching his neatly trimmed, white beard, Efendi-Ibrahim looked at Salko, puzzled. “Eh, Salko, young people these days. This dunjaluk is upside down again. They better learn to pay respect to their elders.”

“I’m sure they will, sooner or later,” Salko said. “They’re just kids in big bodies.”

“Well I hate to tell you, my friend, but you’re not helping.”

“How so?”

“Eh, my dear, maybe you could stop telling those stories. People talk, they make fun of you. It’s not right. Not just these kids, their parents too.”

“Huh, Efendi, don’t worry. I know.”

“Well, if you know, then…” The imam shook his head and tapped on his cigarette with his dry-skinned, gnarly forefinger.

“Don’t worry. Stories won’t kill, true or untrue. Insan is not insan without stories, and dunjalik wouldn’t be dunjaluk if they didn’t ridicule everything, or thought they knew better.”

“True. I agree. But still…” The imam winced.

“Don’t worry, Effendi-Ibrahim. There’s one story that I won’t ever tell.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes,” Salko nodded assuredly.

“I was young then, and stupid. I was told they’d leave us alone and that no one would die. It was all naivety, desire…and ignorance, pure ignorance. I thought I could help. When I became the imam after Efendi-Serdar died—.”

“All desire and not enough compassion and wit those days, Efendi-Ibrahim. The night before my father-in-law, rahmetli Efendi-Serdar, died—the same month the Švaba’s boot stepped on this ground—he’d said something to me that night that made me into the man I am now. It is the reason why I haven’t been afraid since, and why I’ve never cared.”

“What did he say, Salko?”

“He said this: In every generation, there comes time when to live is its own punishment enough. And for those who get to live, God leaves them to tell the stories. And for those who do not listen, their time will come and Allah will punish them for their ignorance.”

“Alaha mi dragog, it’s true, my Salko. Rahmetli Efendi-Serdar knew. He always knew.”

“And that, my dear Efendi, that was his power—the only power he had.”

Imam Ibrahim looked down the whole time, gyrating a fildzan in his hand, the coffee residue painting the tiny cup’s white ceramic walls black and revealing a golden star and crescent moon on its bottom.

“Besides, my dearest Efendi-Ibrahim, no one believes me…and no one will believe me anyway. See, Efendi, there is something about it, something good about all this.”

“And what is that, my dear Salko? What’s good about it?”

“I have to go, Efendi.” Salko stood up, grunting and leaning heavily on the table in front of him. “Thank you for the coffee. And your brother’s rakija is a wonder. It deserves a story of its own. Send my salam to your brother. I haven’t seen him in ages. And tell him he’s still got the magic.”

“Hvala dragom Alahu, Salko, thank dear Allah,” the Imam shrugged, “there’s nothing to thank me for, nothing at all. And I’m so glad we could chat a little. Hope to see you at the mosque soon.”

“You’ve seen me here today, Efendi-Ibrahim. Anyhow, most of your flock you see here at the bar and rarely at the mosque.”

“You’re certainly right, Salko. The mosque is always empty.”

“And you’ll see me soon anyway, on my way out. I’ll hear your prayer from the other side.”

“Dear Salko, we go only when it’s vakat.” Imam Ibrahim stood up following Salko’s lead.

“You’re right Efendi-Ibrahim. Everything comes and goes in its own vakat, on its own terms.” Salko shifted his weight onto his cane, fixed his beret, and started hobbling up the street towards home. All the while, Efendi-Ibrahim’s eyes rested on his back until he disappeared behind a large, crooked pine, hunching over the sidewalk. Salko Partizan picked up his pace, sure that a crowd of children was already gathering under the old linden, eagerly waiting for his return from the market.

On the fortieth day after Salko’s death, it was a clear September afternoon, when the days smelled of hay and fruit, when people prepared for the upcoming winter, when Zinka and Salko’s children and grandchildren held tehvid prayer at the mosque, and Salko’s stories still lingered in front of his house. That same afternoon, the four child silhouettes laid a bouquet of wildflowers. They stood in front of the grave marked by a green wooden plank with Salko’s name engraved, along with the dates: 1903-1986. The shadow of a grown man, slightly hunched, joined theirs from behind. They turned at the same time and met the left eye of the visitor. The other eye was covered by a patch of black leather. His face was parched and scarred. Although old and weary, it was still handsome and vibrant like an ancient oak. The man smiled and nodded. They kept staring at him, their eyes popping, their ears opening, too scared to move their lips as if they were going to talk to a ghost.

“I’ll be quick.” The man with the eyepatch broke the silence. He held a worn-out, green canvas rucksack. Out of the bag he produced a folded flag. He unfolded it ceremonially, halfway, and slowly laid it next to the flowers, the red star outlined yellow stretching over the stripes of red, white, and blue. He stepped back and looked at the kids, his gaze calm and firm. He stomped with his right foot, raised his constricted right fist, pressed it against his temple, and hissed, “Smrt Fašizmu!”

“Sloboda narodu!” The kids returned the greeting, their little fists resting on their
temples.

Before they realized what had just happened, the stranger disappeared behind the cemetery gate, his green army bag bouncing on his back rhythmically, his black leather jacket reflecting the last of the day’s sunshine. The flag, resting next to the flowers where, six feet under it Salko’s muštikla lay, was the only remnant of Salko and his comrades.

Edvin Subašić was born and raised in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He left Bosnia in 1993 and spent three years in Germany. He immigrated to the US in 1997 at the age of 21 and learned English. Edvin now lives with his wife and daughter in Idaho where he teaches English as a Second Language at Boise State University.

His work has appeared in McSweeney’s Issue 52, B O D Y Literature in Prague, Out-of-Stock.net, and The Cabin’s “Writers in the Attic” anthology twice. One of his stories earned an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train. He was also shortlisted for the 2017 Disquiet Literature Prize for Fiction. This fall he will join the MFA program at Boise State University.