Melvin Sterne

Queen’s Gambit

I moved to Bosnia in the fall of 2000, taking an Associate Professorship at a modest university and fulfilling a lifelong personal commitment to serve as a non-combatant in a war zone. It wasn’t especially dangerous coming here five years after the conflict. There are a few landmines east of town, but the shooting was over, the Dayton Accord signed, and the rebuilding well underway. Still, it felt good to step in and help rebuild a country and an educational system in shambles from years of civil war and decades of neglect under the old Yugoslav government.

For the first two years I lived in Tuzla, a quiet little industrial town with nothing to distinguish it except, maybe, bad air pollution in winter brought on by all the people burning low-grade Eastern European coal for heat. But other than this it was pleasant, with good bakeries and a bustling little farmers market in the town ‘centar.’ I had a cheery little two-room flat on the seventh floor of an old building within walking distance of everything, and my life was happy, if quiet and uneventful. I loved teaching. I loved my students. I got a great deal of writing done. Life was good. And then, in the third year, I stumbled across a little village back in the hills south of town, and I was suddenly taken by the urge to move there.

I blundered into Konjanik Konač on a hot afternoon in the spring when I had gone for a long walk. When I say ‘a long walk,’ I mean just that— Konjanik Konač is fifteen kilometers down an unmarked dirt road leading nowhere that I could tell. But it was not unusual for me, in those days, to walk thirty or forty kilometers on a Saturday. Four hours in. Four hours out. Not a bad way to spend a day.

I had been following this road—dirt, but surprisingly well-maintained—for nearly four hours when I topped a hill and saw the little valley and the town laid out before me. The village, I would later learn, had been abandoned by the locals and occupied by Serbian forces during the war. All but one of the inhabitants fled to Tuzla, moving in with friends or relatives while Tuzla was encircled. After the war, when the Serbs withdrew, they burned most of the houses. But the residents, stubborn as hill people anywhere, rebuilt. I can’t imagine that Konjanik Konač amounted to much before the war, and it certainly didn’t look the better for wear. What wasn’t crumbling to dust among weeds and brambles had been patched with local bricks molded from red clay. Often there was not even mortar cementing the walls, much less plaster to seal them. The roofs, I presumed, had been repaired with tiles from the collapsed roofs of abandoned homes. One thing about clay tiles: they don’t burn in a fire.

Catching my breath, I could sense why people might hold on to this place. The valley spread out in a diamond shape over several kilometers, wide enough that the morning sun could break through the hills fairly early, and the setting sun would tarry in the evening. And the north-south axis invited sunshine even on the darkest winter days (which can be pretty dark in Bosnia). Looking at a map one might imagine the Bosnian climate as Mediterranean and warm when, in fact, it is more Northern European and cold. The road wound down from the hill and straightened only briefly as it passed a few ramshackle stone or brick buildings on one side, and a little Mosque on the other.  The mosque was plastered and painted white, the only building in town in good repair, and its roof was topped with green tile and the minaret with shiny new tin, which also made it distinctive. There was a small cemetery wrapping around the far side of the mosque, and on the near side a courtyard with a grape arbor and a well where passers-by might find shelter and a cool drink of water.

At the end of this single block the road sprang lightly in a picturesque stone arch (a little bridge that might have been a hundred, or a thousand years old) over a sparkling little creek that ran from east to west until it disappeared into a line of timber shading a small river at the far west edge of the valley. After crossing the creek, the road wound along among a checkerboard of small gardens and pastures until it, too, vanished into the woods. Here and there were solitary shade trees and stone fences and small orchards and fields, a landscape dotted with little red-roofed cottages. In the middle of the valley, right by the bridge and the river and the bend in the road, there rose a steep grassy hill planted with what looked like plum trees, and on top stood a small stone cottage—a lonely, abandoned, forlorn little place that once, I thought, must have been filled with love and light and laughter. As I watched, a farmer rounded the distant bend in the road riding in an empty wooden wagon drawn by a perfectly matched pair of stately white draught horses. The picture was something straight out of Currier-and-Ives.

The day had been hot and I had not brought along as much water as I should have. I had been munching on almonds and dried apricots to keep my strength up, and that, too, made me thirsty. I shouldered my pack and trudged down the hill, arriving at the fountain in the Mosque’s courtyard at the same time as the man with the wagon. He left the horses untethered, standing in the road. I would later learn his name was Damir Tobakovic, but at the time I only nodded and filled my canteen while he eyed me curiously—a tall, gaunt, gray-haired, unremarkable man in worn blue work pants, black rubber boots, and a weathered blue windbreaker.

Damir crossed the street and sat down under a green Tuzlanski Pilsner awning shading a small wrought iron table in front of a café. He stretched out his legs like he meant to stay a while. An old woman emerged a moment later bearing a tray with a brass carafe of Turkish coffee and a small cup. The woman wore a comical ankle-length blue-and-black cotton dress with a white blouse under a green sweater-vest, heavy black work boots, and a faded red scarf covering her hair. She looked straight out of another century. They exchanged greetings.

I drank some water, filled my canteen, wet my bandana, wiped my face, and then I smelled fresh-baked bread and deduced (smoke drifting from a chimney on a warm day) that it must have wafted across the road from a little storefront beside the café. I crossed the street and sure enough found a bakery; a small, dark, rustic little place with a roughhewn wooden table in front and a homemade wooden rack on the wall behind. A jolly-looking, red-faced, fat little blonde in a white apron (aren’t all bakers fat?) sold me a still-steaming loaf of bread for half a KM (about thirty-five cents). Her name, I would later learn, was Edina. I took the bread, investigated further down the block, found a second-hand clothing store (where I bought nothing) and a little grocery where I bought a wedge of cheese. I returned to the cafe.

Not one building on the block had a sign. Why would they? In a village this size everybody knew everybody, and all their business, besides. I went inside the café and found another bare little room with two rickety wooden tables on a cracked tile floor. This was no Starbucks. There were four high backed wooden chairs at each table (none matched) and, in a corner by itself, a battered, tilted, tottering table with an inlaid marble chessboard on top. One of the white pawns was missing and had been replaced with a spool (minus the thread). There was a game in progress, the pieces locked in combat, but no players around.

The old woman came out from a room in the back. She was short, like the baker, but not so fat. She wore a severe expression that did not convey welcome but fell short of outright hostility. She said something I didn’t understand but took to mean, “What do you want?

“Kafa,” I said, nodding in the direction of her stove and gesturing with my fingers that I wanted a coffee. Velica. Large. I studied the chessboard while she made a cup Bosnian style, which is say, a miniscule cup half-full of black espresso, grounds and all, with some sugar on the side, no milk.

The game was the Queen’s Gambit Declined, and white had further pushed his Queen’s Bishop’s Pawn to clog up the Queen’s side of the board. Black had more or less conceded the center but had skillfully countered with his King’s side development. It is generally considered that Black is at the disadvantage in this game—that the best he can do is play a delaying game and stall the inevitable while hoping that White blunders. But in this game Black had crept into a strong position. Certainly the matter was in contention. I studied the array and was about to move White’s King’s Knight when the woman appeared as from nowhere and slapped the piece out of my hand. She picked it up and set it back on the board exactly where it was (How did she know? Did she play?) and glowered at me until I stammered an apology. After that she went into the back room and I heard her rampaging among some pots and pans. I didn’t think she would come back with a frying pan and brain me, but I went outside anyway. There was only the one table but I was used to Bosnia by now, so I sat down uninvited and Damir, whom I had not yet met, glared at me. I had the feeling that he had seen the old woman slap my hand.

I wondered what the game meant to her (or him, for that matter). I pictured in my mind a husband putting aside his move while he went to run some errand, a five minute’s journey from which he never returned. It didn’t sound likely, but in a place like Bosnia, who knows? It happens like that sometimes. A game left like a memorial, unfinished and unfinishable, on a table in a café in a valley on a dead-end unpaved road in the middle of nowhere made about as much sense as anything else in this world.

I am aware that Europeans can be brusque, but the look given me by the man I had not yet met was icy at best. In general, I’ve found Bosnians quite friendly; opportunistic at least, if not optimistic. When they’re not butchering one another. My clothes, while not expensive by American standards, mark me here as rich. A watch, a ring, a hat—these signify something elitist, and with that usually comes (deserved or undeserved) a measure of respect. Even in my hiking shorts, my boots and backpack and canteen would identify me as foreign, and probably well-off, because what kind of foreigners come to Bosnia except those who are well-off (though most of them—in my observations—only want to profit from the misery of the locals and become even more well-off). There’s a lot of people exploiting cheap labor in Bosnia these days. Even the Chinese invest here. I added sugar to my coffee, stirred it, and took a sip. It was still very hot, and bitter. I wished I’d asked for milk to cut it. The man said something that I took for German and I replied, “Ne Deutch, ne Bosniak, English only.”

He stood up, and I realized as he did that another man had come up silently behind me. Damir might not have been talking to me at all. I turned in my chair and they went muttering into the café. The new arrival looked down at the chessboard, then made his move. Damir lingered by the door, eyeing me. At length he said, “People here leave things alone that don’t belong to them.”

Game, set, match.

 

I didn’t get back to Konjanik Konač that spring. Summer came. I traveled back to the states to see my children and grandchildren. I returned in the late summer for another semester and was strangely dissatisfied with my life. No real reason, I suppose. Same classrooms, students different in name and latest fashion only. This year the boys all wore nylon sweatsuits and sauntered around like they imagined NBA players must in their spare time. They gelled their hair into something bristly that they comb into peaks on top. The girls decked out in particularly slutty English riding outfits—short, tight blouses with frilly ties at the collar over black spandex pants with knee-high faux riding boots. Everything but the whip and the little red hat. Silly, if you think about it.

The Department Chair, Vivian, assigned me to teach literature while she hoarded the creative writing workshops. She guards workshops with a diligence old Cerberus would envy, laboring under the delusion that she’s a writer even though I’ve published ten times as much. I don’t hate teaching literature, it’s just that there’s nothing to it. You read it, you talk about it, you write your papers. I try to get my students to enjoy it. As Billy Collins says, “To skate across the surface of a poem.” I’m not a very hard teacher, I suppose. And I imagine Vivian’s workshops are just as flaccid. You write, sit in a circle, read your stuff, get an A. I mean, what else is there?

As if that wasn’t enough, a rumor went around that the university President used the word “nigger” in conversation with some students. Nobody actually heard this, but the rumor flamed and certain faculty members who enjoy working themselves into frothy tizzies worked themselves into frothy tizzies, with one Law Professor self-righteously quitting just a few days before the semester began. The whole thing galled me and I got the idea into my head that I would take another long walk out to Konjanik Konač. Why that particular village? Who knows? Maybe it was the simple inaccessibility of the place.

I had a devil of a time finding it. It took me three successive weekends because no matter I hard I tried, the roads into the woods all looked pretty much the same. You’d think somebody knew where it was, but when I asked, people furrowed their eyebrows and pretended not to understand. They waved their arms this direction or that, but eventually I found it and bought another loaf of bread and some fresh apples (I suspect the old woman in the bakery remembered me) and had another cup of bad coffee (the old woman in the café most certainly remembered, and glared at me to make sure I knew it). The chess table stood in the same corner. There was a different game in progress, very late into the endgame, and I could not tell what opening began it. I did not see Damir and I was careful not to touch the pieces.

I walked to the bridge at the end of town and stood in the middle looking down into the water (it was an emerald green and free-flowing, babbling along over smooth, bowling-ball sized boulders) and I took in the sight and smell of the valley while I munched on an apple. It was delicious. I love the produce we get in Bosnia. Farm fresh and field-ripened. And while I was standing there, it occurred to me that with all these abandoned houses around, I could buy one (surely it would not cost much), fix it up, and use it as a summer cottage or a weekend retreat.

I crossed the bridge and climbed over a crumbling stone fence and climbed the hill to the ruined cottage I had seen the first time I came. There was a fine, 360 degree view of the valley, and I sat on a weathered, hand-hewn plank bench on what was left of the front porch and took it all in. The fruit trees were, in fact, Italian prune (my favorite), and even in their neglected state they bore prodigiously, the branches bent to the ground under the weight of the fruit. Several magpies flitted among the branches taking only the best of the little purple plums. I collected a handful from the lower branches and savored them slowly. There was a well by the front porch—a real, hand-pump cast iron affair, and it worked. I circled the property. An outhouse on the opposite side.

The cottage was not in as bad a shape as I first thought. The windows were only broken out on the north side, but the frames had been boarded shut to keep out the weather. I peered in from the porch. The inside wasn’t too bad. A bit of dust, but that could be swept up. The roof sagged but it might go on like that for another hundred years, certainly longer than I would be around to care. I tried the front door and, to my surprise, it was unlocked, though why that should surprise me in a place like this I don’t know. Habit I suppose. Inside stood a table and two chairs, weathered gray, a rusting iron bed frame with springs bare of all fabric and padding, a stone hearth with a black iron kettle on the floor in front of it, and a stately little roll-top writing desk and chair, also gray with age. I tried the desk for no particular reason. It was locked. There was only the single room, though there was a shed on the northwest side of the house—placed, I noted, in such a way as to block some of the summer sun. Much of the north side was covered over by a sprawling chestnut tree under whose branches a large accumulation of moldering leaves lay. It would take some fixing up, but it could be done. Remembering the admonition to leave things that didn’t belong to me alone, I did not stay long. I walked back to Tuzla and the following Monday stopped by to see Senada, the university Faculty Welfare Officer. “Where?” she asked.

“Konjanik Konač.”

“Never heard of it.”

“Well, it’s there,” I said. “I’ve been there twice. It’s really quite nice.”

“I’ve lived here my whole life and…”

I looked at her.

Senada ran her hand through her short, blonde hair, a nervous gesture I have seen a thousand times but only when she deals with annoying government bureaucrats or whiney professors. It was the first time I had ever seen her do that around me. She’s really quite nice, Senada is, and extraordinarily competent at her job. “Couldn’t you look for some place closer?” she asked. “I mean, what will you do when the weather is bad? You don’t even have a car.”

“I can buy a car if I have to,” I said, “though I’m sure I could find a ride. It doesn’t seem like the sort of place that would let a man walk unless he wanted to.”

She sighed and said that she knew a few real estate agents and she would ask around.

Now, I know how things work in Eastern Europe. Senada will ask among all her relations and if one of them is not a real estate agent, even among the in-laws, then someone will know of one, and on a gentleman’s handshake a line of ever-decreasing percentages will be agreed upon should a deal eventually be struck between me and a seller. That brokering among one’s acquaintances will then be re-enacted in reverse until the agent finds a suitable parcel of land (which might also be among Senada’s friends and relations) and when the deal is settled upon, a foreigner is likely to pay twice the price charged a local. And that doesn’t count the stage where we’d seek local government approval and a whole new line of permits would have to be obtained—almost always involving some kind of bribe.

The following weekend Senada drove me to see several potential sites, none of which were even south of town, much less close to Konjanik Konač. They were all nice properties and they came in all shapes and sizes, but none was what I wanted. By the time we reached the last one Senada was brushing back her hair every minute or so. “Actually,” she explained, “there doesn’t seem to be any property there for sale.”

“Why don’t we drive out and ask?” I said.

 

It was nearly noon the following Sunday when we finally found the right road. The bakery was closed but the café was open, and Senada and I had coffee under the watchful eye of the proprietor. Senada explained to her that I was interested in purchasing a piece of property but the woman, Vanja, folded her arms across her ample breasts and did not show much enthusiasm about having me for a neighbor. Senada pressed with questions about the vacant houses and cottages, and I could tell Vanja’s answers became more evasive, and shorter, until at length she broke off the conversation and headed for the back room.

“Ask her about the cottage on the hill just past the bridge,” I said.

Senada called to her and Vanja turned. And then she said, as Senada translated it, “Ah, you mean old Daod’s place.” She grunted. “Him. He’s been gone five years now. You know about him? Let me tell you about old Daod. A real head case, you know? Take a good look at his place. See anything missing?” She paused. “No power lines. Said if Allah had meant for people to have electricity, he would have made us like eels. Wouldn’t let the lines cross his property. Said he’d cut down any pole they set up, and he meant it. The power company was steamed about that. Said they’d get an order from the council condemning his property. He was real eccentric, you know? But he was our eccentric, dammit, and we weren’t going to let some city power company push him around. We all went down to the council meeting en masse and protested. You go by there, look at the poles. They come right up to his fence, then go around the boundary. He must have been the meanest man ever to grace this valley, may Allah bless him in the next life. You want to know how mean he was? He was the only man who stayed when the Serbs came.”

Behind us I heard a voice, “He wasn’t mean. He just didn’t like people. All my uncle ever wanted was to be left alone.” It was Damir.

“That’s what you say,” Vanja said. “You didn’t know him like I knew him.”

“You’re just mad that he wouldn’t marry you!” Damir said, slapping his knee and laughing.

Vanja scowled.

“And after all those afternoons you pretended you had nothing to do so you could walk up the hill and bring him bread.”

“What happened to your uncle?” I asked.

Vanja turned to make coffee. Damir walked across the room to the chessboard and puzzled over the game. In English he said, “We were sure the soldiers would kill him. The officers used to come down from the mountains and stay the winter in the houses here, but they left Daod alone until the very end.”

“He was too mean for them,” Vanja called from the back.

“Oh, he was just a harmless old man,” Damir said. “He didn’t care if he lived or died. They probably didn’t know what to make of him. He wouldn’t have called himself Muslim and he wouldn’t have said two words to them. They probably figured he wasn’t worth the price of a bullet.”

“But he survived?” Senada asked. “He survived the siege?”

“They shot his dog,” Vanja said. She was shaking coffee grounds from a jar into the water.

“They shot his dog,” Damir said, “and then they burned everything and left.”

“They shot his dog,” I said. There probably wasn’t anything more they could have done to hurt an old man.

“So he survived the war, but he never really got over losing old Sakat. He died a couple of years ago. He’s buried across the road.”

“Old Sakat,” Vanja said, coming around the counter with the coffee. “He was a good dog.” She set the coffee on the table.

“Do you play?” Damir asked.

“A little,” I said.

Damir nodded. “Old Daod used to play some. Oh, he hated losing.”

“How would you know?” Vanja said. “You never beat him.”

Now it was Damir who scowled.

“Where did you learn English?” I asked. “You speak very well.”

“In Canada,” Damir said. “I took my family to Ottawa during the war. My name is Damir Mulaosmanovic. And why are you asking about my uncle?”

“I’d like to buy his property,” I said.

“Buy it? Why? It’s in ruins.”

“It’s not so bad,” I said. “It can be fixed up. And I like it.”

“It doesn’t have a garage.”

“I don’t have a car.”

“There’s no phones here. Not even land lines.”

I shrugged. “I can live without a phone.”

“There’s no plumbing.”

“There’s a well, and the water is good.”

“It doesn’t have electricity.”

“So what? If God had meant for us to have light at the flip of a switch, he wouldn’t have given us candles.”

 

What I didn’t know then, that I know now, is that if it hadn’t been for a shadow in an x-ray of Damir’s wife’s lung, he never would have sold me that cottage. And even then, he didn’t do it without calling the villagers together to ask their opinion. And it wasn’t a unanimous decision. But the property was Damir’s and it bordered the road, and there were no easements to obtain, so there was nothing anyone could do but gripe, really. Times change, they said, shaking their heads. Foreigners. What’s next? Cell phones? The internet? Tour busses? He’ll only be out here on weekends, Damir said. We’ll see about that, the villagers replied. We’ll see how he likes it here once he gets to know us. But Damir, if he had doubts, never said a word to me. I believe he loved his wife more than anything.

 

I know what it’s like to love, too, though I haven’t seen her in a long, long time. There was no shadow on Sally’s lung. Her heart maybe, or her soul, but her lungs were fine, no pun intended. We raised two great kids, had a wonderful life together, and then she threw it all away over a vice-president in marketing. Fucking marketing, of all things. In time, I came to know that there had been others, as well. Not many, perhaps, but a few here and there. Enough. Nothing serious, it seems, but maybe it all strings together. A slippery slope. Still, I know how she loved the moon and the stars, and I cannot sit out on that rough plank bench and not wonder what she would think, how she would feel, sitting in the little valley after dark, alone with the night sky. Sometimes, late at night, there is not even a single candle glowing. Not one in the whole valley. You can see the milky way.

 

It is true that at first I only meant to stay weekends and holidays. That first year, the place was in poor repair, and I couldn’t find a man in the valley who needed employment badly enough to come and work on it. I had to hire one of Senada’s cousins, and though he was a pretty good craftsman sober, I never saw him sober long enough to get any serious work done. But at least I got the cobwebs cleaned out and the broken windows replaced.

That summer I decided to rough it. I was working on a new novel, anyway, and the solitude suited me. No phone to ring, no email to check. And if the villagers were taciturn and avoided me, that was all right. I didn’t need them, either.

I arrived one spring afternoon to find that a mongrel sheepdog had a litter of pups in the shed. Though she worried herself back and forth when I was around, I could tell she wasn’t a mean dog, just scared. I left her some bread and cheese and milk, and she warmed up to me.

When I moved in to stay the summer the dog moved out, but left one of the pups behind, a little black and white fat thing with paws as big around as my coffee cup and one gimp hind leg. I took him to the vet who said the problem was in the pup’s hip and there was nothing to be done, unless I wanted him put to sleep. “Genetics,” he said.

I got the pup wormed and vaccinated, taught him to sit still in a tin tub while I scrubbed the straw and dirt out of his fur. And the first time he followed me to the cafe old Vanja came out to the road, spat, and said, “Sakat.” Then she went inside and made me some coffee.

When the snow came in November I toyed with the idea of buying a snowmobile, but somehow, that didn’t suit me. Instead I moved back to town. And there wasn’t a day that I grabbed my coat and muffler and hat and made for the door that poor Sakat didn’t rush after me with a look in his eyes that said, We’re going home now, aren’t we? I’m afraid Sakat never took to the city, never figured out traffic, and I couldn’t let him out of my sight lest he run in front of a car and come back a cripple in earnest. Some dogs just aren’t meant for apartments. And then in February, not long after the snow melted and I was thinking of moving back to the village, I got the letter. It did not come in the mail. Instead there was a knock at my door and a gray-haired, grim-faced Advokat in his middle 60’s, dressed all in black, handed me an envelope and said, with a thick, deep, rich, throaty accent, “Dr. Bridge? This is for you.”

 

There is, it seems, a German telecommunications company, HCS, expanding its services to Bosnia. They have a contract with the government and hold exclusive rights for the next ninety-nine years. They are bringing, they say, great things to the Balkans. Jobs. Infrastructure. Progress. Healing. A 3-G communication network uniting people, even in a place so long war-ravaged as Bosnia. They are, as their marketing describes them, Connecting the World, One Person at a Time. I have to admit, it sounds promising. They are engaged in an aggressive expansion program. An expensive expansion program, the letter advises—my critical reading skills alerting me to the subtle warning that they are neither to be taken lightly nor to be taken advantage of. The upshot is they want to place a cell phone tower on a piece of property I recently acquired.

“A piece of property,” the Advokat said, “that until a few weeks ago we thought we had locked up. His name was Sormaz. A real estate agent in Sarajevo, probably a relative, assured him that the property was abandoned and could be had for a reasonable price. My guess is that the relative pocketed the money and neglected to complete the sale. Or, given how difficult the little village was to locate, perhaps he bought a vacant cottage elsewhere. “Imagine our surprise,” Sormaz said, “when the survey crew…”

“The survey crew?”

“In advance of the ground crew…”

“The ground crew?”

“Yes, in advance of the erection crew. The survey crew was laying out the stakes when the locals came along and uprooted them, every one.”

Good for them, I thought.

“We had assumed that the sale was consummated some months ago, but it seems that some paperwork was neglected to be filed.”

“A pity,” I said, reaching down and rubbing Sakat between the ears. Already he was growing and I didn’t have to reach far. “Well I suppose you’ll just have…”

“I believe,” Mr. Sormaz said, “that you will find our offer generous, even though you paid five times what the property is actually worth.”

“I’ll think it over,” I said.

“I’ll be in touch,” Sormaz replied. “Please don’t be long.”

The offer, of course, was written in Bosnian.

 

“Ten thousand KM,” Senada said, pushing the letter across her desk to me. “It looks like you did well professor.”

“But I don’t want to sell,” I said.

“But you only paid 3500 for it.”

“That’s not the point,” I said. “And besides, I have several thousand more in repairs.” She avoided my eyes. “Even if it doesn’t look like it.”

“So I shall write them a letter and tell them you want how much for it?”

“I don’t want to sell,” I said. “Tell them to put their tower someplace else.”

“Where should I tell them to put it?”

I resisted the temptation to say. Instead, I went out and bought a small Volvo.

 

As soon as the weekend came I hurried back to Konjanik Konač, as ‘hurried’ as one can be driving in mud half-a-meter deep. I almost made it into town but buried the little Volvo to the axle about a kilometer shy of town. At least Sakat didn’t mind. He knew where we were. I gathered my things into a backpack for the walk. I stopped at the cafe first and Vanja could not be summoned from the back room. At the bakery, Edina greeted me with a stony scowl. I stumped through town and up the hill, noting with wry satisfaction the uprooted red-tipped stakes. I noticed with less satisfaction that two of my new windows were broken.

By this time I knew where Damir lived, and I set out down the road towards his place, but he was already coming from the opposite direction, riding slowly in his wagon behind the two beautiful draught horses. He stopped in the road in front of me without speaking.

“I want to talk,” I said.

“About what?” he growled. “How to make a fast buck?”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Right,” he said. He clucked twice and the horses started forward.

“I’m not selling,” I said.

He stopped alongside of me. “Of course.”

“I tell you, I’m not selling. And I’m not moving either. I don’t care how rude you are, or how many windows you break. I don’t need the money and I didn’t come here to make a fast buck. I like Daod’s cottage.” I had lived here a year already and people still called it Daod’s cottage. That hill would probably always be called ‘Daod’s cottage,’ even if some developer tore it down to put up a cell tower. “I’m not selling,” I said. “Let them put it someplace else.”

“You’ll sell,” Damir said, “because there is no place else.”

“What do you mean there is no place else?” I said, looking around at all the hills surrounding the valley. They can put it any place they damn well please.”

Damir looked west, then east. He pushed his hat back from his eyes. “Electricity,” he said. “You can’t run a transmitter without power.”

“There’s power all over.”

Damir shook his head. “The line comes along the road through town. Those who want power run stringers out to their houses. There is no power on the hills.”

“Then they’ll run it.”

“Easements,” Damir said. “Nobody around here’ll let ‘em put in a road or cross their fences.”

“And neither will I,” I said.

Damir looked south, over his shoulder, towards Sarajevo. “I heard the line’s already only a few kilometers away. Over there,” he nodded towards the east, “there’s minefields. Nobody’ll put a tower there. Costs too much to dig ‘em up.” He looked west. “Over there, that’s Islamovic’s timber. He thinks someday he’ll put in a ski resort. He doesn’t want a tower up there. That’s where he wants the lift. Besides, his father was a partisan—died fighting with Tito. He’ll never sell a pine cone to the Krauts. And even if he was tempted, none of the rest of us would give an easement, out of spite or envy, if nothing else. That leaves you, Mr. American, with your little hill on the road by the power line, smack in the middle of the valley. They’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse.”

“Watch me,” I said, but he was already riding on.

 

The letters came every two weeks until May. The offer went up every time, at first in small increments, then by factors of ten. In the village, I couldn’t even buy bread. I had to call a tow company from town to retrieve my car. And if I got caught walking in the rain, I knew that  nobody would give me a lift. I have to admit, I was tempted to sell. And then the letters stopped.

About that time, I hired Adnan, one of my students, who fancied himself a carpenter, to work on my place through the summer. There was to be a new porch, and some reinforcing of the roof. I wanted the floors sanded, and the windows that not yet been replaced to be replaced. And the chimney needed some new mortar. And the shed, the little shed on the northwest corner, I wanted that cleaned out. And I decided, at long last, to have the power run up to the house. If the locals weren’t going to sell me groceries or coffee, I would at least have to have a refrigerator. But no lights. I drew the line on lights.

Adnan, proved a most capable carpenter, though he often brought along his fiancé, Dijana, to help. She was all thumbs with the tools, didn’t know a “hawk from handsaw” as they say, but she was easy on the eyes, and I suspected they had a few romps in my bed while I was away. A few blonde hairs in the sheets aside, I didn’t mind his bringing her around. And then one day, when I when came home, I found that while taking apart the porch Dijana had found a tiny brass key. “I thought you might want this,” she said.

I knew right away what it was. It fit the little roll top desk in the corner. I tried it straight away and the lock clicked open. I rolled up the top and there, resting on the desk under a layer of gray-brown silt, lay a bound manuscript, hand-written entirely in Italian. Italian, by coincidence, was the second of the two foreign languages I took to satisfy the requirements of my doctorate, Spanish being the other. I don’t speak Italian well, but I can still read it. I opened the book to the first page and read:

I have been one acquainted with the night.

I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.

I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.

I have passed by the watchman on his beat

And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet

When far away an interrupted cry

Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;

And further still at an unearthly height,

O luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.

I have been one acquainted with the night.    

This Terza Rima in Italian was not Dante, but rather, Robert Frost’s poem from 1928, translated from English into Italian by a taciturn Bosnian recluse waiting in 1995 to die in a cottage with no lights on a bare hill in a remote village occupied by a foreign army. But how? And why?

Dijana was peering over my shoulder, her golden hair tickling my ear. I shut the book and rolled the top down and snapped it shut. “Thank you,” I said. “I always wondered what was inside.” But I did not read more that day, for not long after a police car stopped at the bridge and two policemen, and Sormaz the Advokat, got out and climbed the hill to my front door. Sakat, usually friendly, barked no end, and lowered his head and growled, hackles raised, when the cops stepped onto the porch. I noticed with some satisfaction that Sormaz, out of breath and sweating from the climb, had soiled his fine, black leather shoes in one of Sakat’s, shall we say, doggie land mines?

Sormaz had no letter, but the policemen had a single sheet of paper which they nailed to the door even though I was standing there with my hand outstretched waiting for them to hand it to me. They had to borrow a hammer and a nail from Adnan to post it. They turned without speaking and trudged down the hill. Adnan started to read the letter but I snatched it from him, crushed it, and threw the paper after the policemen. Sakat fetched it and dropped it at my feet.

“Good dog,” I said.

“It says…”

“I know what it says,” I said. And then I kicked it through a hole in the porch where Adnan had not yet replaced some boards. I turned and went inside.

 

I wish you could see my little cottage. The walls are painted a soft white and the sun lights the rooms any time of year, except perhaps in January when the days are short and clouds dense with snow. I have a single electric plug, though I must admit I bought a little power strip with three plugs so I can power my laptop or make an espresso (if I want) without having to unplug my refrigerator. The old iron bed has a new mattress, firm as befits an old man’s back. The table still wobbles but it is at least refinished and covered with a fine blue cloth and a bit of lace I thought was a tablecloth but later on discovered was actually meant to be a lady’s shawl. I have real cloth curtains, no blinds, though there is nobody to come and peer in my windows.

 

Adnan and Dijana were whispering on the porch as they gathered Adnan’s tools and shut them in the steel box he keeps them in. I did not have to look to know they were walking hand-in-hand down the hill and that shortly they would follow the policemen down the winding road into Tuzla. I did look once, just long enough to see that they were standing by Adnan’s little Mazda and talking to Damir, who was driving his cart with the lovely pair of matching white horses heading back from town towards his own little farm. For a bribe far less than a purchase price, they can condemn your property.

Things, I thought to myself, change. It is the nature of things. And change doesn’t cause pain. Resistance to change causes pain. That was why I quit playing chess so long ago. Because once I discovered the Queen’s Gambit, the game stopped being fun. If the gambit is accepted it opens up into a wild free-for-all of space and movement. But if it is declined—as is usually the case—the play bottles up into a slow game of attrition in which black tries to avoid the inevitable slow strangulation and prays for a blunder. All of my games became sixty and seventy move, two-hour monstrosities, mostly draws, and it wasn’t fun anymore. One only won or lost by blunder.

I went back to Daod’s book and began to read. The Frost poem was the only one he had copied that I recognized. The rest seemed to be his own compositions. Not earthshaking, but not bad, either. Interspersed among the poems were pages of journal entries, and these told a story, too. Sarajevo, June, 1935: village boy wins chess tournament. Vienna, August, 1936: Bosnian boy wins Under-Fifteen Title. Berlin, August, 1939: Country Prodigy Bests European Juniors. August, 1939. The war. In Trieste Daod wrote love poems to a girl back home, poems that would not reach her for years. From Trieste he reached Sardinia where he dug in coal mines until the allied bombers shut them down. After the invasion at Anzio, he travelled behind Allied lines until he found a fishing boat working the Adriatic and made his way to Split and from there, he walked all the way to Tuzla, where he learned that the girl for whom all of this writing was intended had married his best friend.

For thirty years Daod wandered, making his way first back to Italy, then to Canada, where he also worked in mines until a cave-in and a vested pension convinced him that it was time to return home. Home. His diamond. From the 1950s until the late 80’s, Daod had written, like Whitman, or Thoreau, of the land, work, mountains, and people he loved. God only knows how many hours he had wandered alone in the darkness and alienation of exile. And when all of the people he loved and feared were dead and buried, he returned. No wonder he wouldn’t leave when the Serbs invaded. He had come home, like the salmon, to die.

I have mentioned that to reach the cottage from the road it is necessary to climb over the stone fence. It is not a difficult climb, but annoying. There is a gate on the eastern side of the property, where a path that crosses the creek on a wooden plank and leads down to the village from behind the Mosque. Hearing the call of the muzzenin (which in Konjanik Konač is still sung, not played from a record), I was reminded that I had to drive into Tuzla for groceries. I did not feel like driving, but a little bread would do for dinner, I thought, along with some cheese and olives.

I walked down the path to the Mosque and crossed the road to the bakery, stopping to gaze at the tombstones. Vanya said Daod wouldn’t call himself Muslim, but they’d buried him at the mosque, anyway. I wondered which grave was his.

The door to the bakery was shut, as was that of the café next door and the grocery on the corner. In fact, there was not a soul in town that I could see, nor anyone moving in the valley at all. In the west the sun was settling over the hills in as fine a red ball as you could ever wish to see. There was not a cloud in the sky, nor a trace of smoke from a single chimney. Not a soul stirred. Where in the devil had they gone? It was as if the whole village had been taken up in the rapture. It was eerie. And then I understood. But of course, I thought. I called Senada. “Are you free?”

 

The meeting was packed to overflowing. One-by-one the villagers spoke; Damir, Vanja, Edina, men and women whose names I had not yet learned. The council members responded with firm resolution that there were national and regional priorities that trumped those of quaint villages, no matter how passionately the residents argued. The order had been given and it would stand. And then, just before the meeting adjourned, I asked from the back of the room whether I could speak.

The chair nodded.

Senada translated. “I know how to handle a blow torch,” I said. “And I’ll cut down any tower you put on my land. You can put me in jail but you can’t keep me there forever, and I do it again and again until these nitkovs understand that there are better—and cheaper—ways to progress than bulldozing cottages. There are roads and rail lines and cell towers east of Konjanik Konač, and I’m sure the people there won’t mind a few more. But you’ll not take advantage of me because I’m a foreigner. Konjanik Konač is my home. It’s all I have, really, and I’m as willing to die there as old Doud was. That’s all I have to say.”

 

I don’t think the town council cared one way or the other about the cell tower. They’d pocketed their money and what happened after that was not their problem. And I don’t think there were enough votes in the village to make much of a difference in an election, either. So I can’t tell you why, in the end, HCS bent their route around Konjanik Konač. Maybe they decided that the cottage wasn’t worth the cost of the bullet. Or maybe it was the interruption in services they feared. Who knows?

After I’d made my speech, I drove home to my little apartment and spent the night in Tuzla. There was a faculty meeting in the morning, and fall semester would begin in a few weeks. I loaded up on groceries for the trip home. When I arrived I found a loaf of bread hanging in a plastic bag from the doorknob.

Life goes on in Konjanik Konač. Damir and Vanja’s husband’s perpetual chess match is still in progress. There are no phones, no internet, no Starbucks. I have not yet walked to the end of the road, somewhere south of the valley, but I have walked a long way in that direction, passing Damir and his magnificent horses plowing his fields. And I’m getting a lot of writing done. When the snow comes this winter, I was thinking that a horse might be the way to make it into town. Edina leaves me bread at least twice a week, though I doubt I will ever marry her. But who knows? Perhaps one of those cold winter nights…

Besides Edina, I don’t think the locals care much about me personally. Every village needs an eccentric, and nobody, nobody, nobody, especially a corporate nobody is going to come in and move the pieces on their board. Oh, I suppose the end is inevitable, and the best we can do is play a delaying game. Someday old Islamovic (or his sons) will build their ski resort. The road will be paved and the tourist buses will come. There will be a gas station and a hotel. Maybe even a Starbucks. Until then, I’m just glad I found a home. Even if they still call it Daod’s.

 


Dr. Melvin Sterne earned his PhD in fiction writing from Florida State University. Since earning that degree, he has taught at universities in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Singapore, Dubai, Cambodia, and China. He currently leads the first-year English program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (Shenzhen, China, campus). “Queen’s Gambit” is his 32nd published short story. He is the author of two novels (Zara and The Shoeshine Boy) and two short story collections (The Number You Have Reached and Redemption). When he’s not teaching in China, he makes his home in Singapore.

 


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