It was the first morning without cockerels. The sun fell into the kitchen and hit the geraniums above the sink. Their petals were almost dead, but Tasha had kept them. They brightened up the yellow walls. According to her mother, who had been in charge of buying the paint, the colour was meant to create warmth. Instead, it reminded Tasha of her Aunt Amina’s jaundice. She watched the dust drift into the pantry. It fell over the beetroot and settled on the skin of four, roughly plucked roosters. Their thin bodies might make a stew. She would tell Seb that a dog had eaten them. Tasha covered them with a newspaper and skimmed over the headlines. Nothing jumped out at her. Her mother refused to read them, refused even the radio. She smoked her pipe, trimmed the window boxes and spoke to her husband. He never had much to say on the matter.
A beetle clicked by the sink and Tasha watched it clamber into a bowl of grapes. It sat heavily within the bunch. She looked at her watch; Seb would be up soon. Her feet inched into a pair of worn leather sandals and she made her way into the garden. The hen house stood at the end of their property, and she noticed how the paint was peeling. She had only decorated it three months ago. The chickens were already outside and didn’t move when she entered the pen. Tasha felt as if she were interrupting a wake; after the incident with the cockerels, she didn’t blame them. They were young women, wondering where their men had gone. “You and me both,” she muttered as she closed the latch. Tasha recalled the date on the newspaper. It read April 7th 1996, but was a few days old. It was now the 10th. She noticed how the eggs were smaller. Her mother told her that during the war they had stopped laying altogether. She slipped them in her pocket and a warm nose brushed the backs of her legs. The culprit was Sergio, an elderly Tornjak who belonged to Mr Hadzic across the road. She had laughed when he told her that Sergio used to be a guard dog.
“Guard dogs are meant to be fierce” she had attested, stroking Sergio’s head.
“He was quite something in his youth.” Mr Hadzic smiled, as he walked back to his porch. “But then, we all were.”
As she brushed the white fur off her leg, she tried to imagine what Mr Hadzic had looked like as a younger man. Her mother told her that he was in his thirties, but he carried decades on his back. Brown hairs had become threaded with grey. He would have been a desirable man. She had learnt not to stare, but her son lacked that discretion.
“Where’s your eye?” Seb had asked him, when he came over to introduce himself. It was the day that they moved in with her mother.
Tasha turned away from the chickens, and remembered the answer her seven-year-old had received.
“The soldiers cut it out.”
Seb had nightmares for a week. She had slipped off her sandals at the kitchen door when she heard Mr Hadzic calling for Sergio. Tasha crossed the track barefoot and saw him in his garden. A bowl of gravy sat on the grass in front of him. In the light, she could see the gouges that stretched up his cheek. They were the colour of a fresh burn.
“He was watching the chickens again,” Tasha said when she reached him, keeping her feet away from the gravy. Sergio had a large splash zone.
Unsurprised, he nodded and patted the dog’s head. His face was pinched in the sun. “What was all that noise last night?” he asked. “It sounded like a goose being mugged.” He didn’t laugh, but raised his eye to hers. It was dark blue.
She moved closer, and avoided the gravy on the lawn. “Mum got pissed off with the cockerels. Apparently they were disturbing my father.” Tasha looked back at the house. Her mother’s curtains were still closed.
Mr Hadzic raised an eyebrow. “But your father—”
“I know,” Tasha interrupted. “But you’ve seen what she’s like.”
It was gone nine by the time she had cooked breakfast, and she scolded Seb for licking the plate. “Even Sergio has better manners than you,” she chastised, and ruffled his black hair. It was the same colour as hers, but that was all he had inherited. His round eyes were almond, and there was a gentle hook to his nose. He was the mirror image of his father.
“Some days, it is hard to look at him,” she had once told Mr Hadzic.
Tasha placed her mother’s breakfast in the fridge and looked at the kitchen. The wooden floor had been worn smooth by generations of children. She had moved in several months ago, after the siege ended. The air in the mountains was cleaner than in the city. Dull thuds came from the ceiling, and she knew her mother was straightening the bedsheets. Her father’s side was always pristine. Tasha had grabbed the car keys and put on a jacket by the time her mother came into the kitchen. Her hair had been scraped into a bun to hide the stained, yellow ends.
“Where are you off to?” her mother asked. Her white shirt was crisp, but her voice was darkened by tobacco. She sat at the table and put a hand on Tasha’s father. “And where’s breakfast?”
Tasha removed the plate from the fridge and carried it over. “We’re out of bread,” she replied, as she wiped a fork clean and handed it to her mother. The closest shop was three miles away, but the drive was pleasant. On a clear day, you could even make out the city. The sun had migrated further into the sky and cast shadows. She noticed the road sign. It was yellow and slightly bent, with thick, black letters. She knew what was on it without looking.
SARAJEVO – 60 Miles.
At the store, she paid for the loaf and bought an orange to eat in the car. She didn’t have enough change to buy her mother’s tobacco, but she bought a carnation for her father. Its pink head reminded Tasha of a clenched fist. Driving back, she didn’t stop to look at the view. There isn’t much left to look at anyway, she thought, remembering the bombardment. Her wedding ring caught the sun and threw cubes of light across the dashboard. It was on a chain around her neck. She reached for it and thumbed the plain, gold band. Tasha opened the window and could smell the fir trees which lined the track as she neared her house. She had always loved the mountains, but moved with Jakob to the city when they got married. One day she had asked him to get bread. He was swallowed by a bomb.
She pulled into her drive and saw Mr Hadzic cutting his hedge. Sergio was lying at his feet, covered in leaves. The kitchen door was unlocked and she walked inside, placing the bag on the worktop. Her mother was still at the table; a brown pipe twitched between her teeth. Half of her breakfast was untouched. With a grunt, she lifted herself from the chair.
“You and Mr Hadzic have spent a lot of time together recently,” her mother said, fixing her eyes upon her daughter. “You talked until gone eight the other night.” She paused. “Is there something going on between you two?”
Tasha’s hand tightened on the mug she had cleared off the table. “Jakob only died eight months ago.” She tried to control her voice. “How could you think I’m moving on?”
“I just thought—” her mother started, but her sentence was drowned out by the radio firing up, words spitting from its grill.
“Turn that off!” she shouted, and snatched at the radio in her daughter’s hands. Headlines flew distortedly through the house. Seb poked his head around the kitchen door.
“Hundreds of buildings have been destroyed in the capital…Refugee centres cannot cope with the demand for aid…The estimated death toll has risen to twenty thousand…”
The sound of broken china made Tasha turn off the news. Her mother went rigid and stared at the floor. A large pile of ash was clumped near the table. A small, black urn lay cracked upon its side. In the commotion, Seb had knocked over his grandfather’s ashes. He was too shocked to move. The silence felt heavier after the radio. It was a minute before anyone spoke.
“Everyone out,” her mother said quietly, her hand on her chest. “Now.”
Tasha walked out into the garden and sat on the old swing. She held her head in her hands. Her father had pushed her on it when she was a child. Before the war came. It had harvested everything, and she was left scratching for seeds.