By Jim Woessner
There was a loud, sharp crack from outside. The elderly woman sat up, sucked in her breath, and turned to the boy who was heating water on the one-burner stove.
“What was that, Unuk?” she asked, using the Serbian word for “grandson.”
“Not to worry, Baba,” the boy said. “Just a car. I don’t know the right word, but it’s a sound that cars make.”
“What do you mean,” she said, putting down her knitting, “the sounds that cars make?”
“It’s what happens when cars have those little booms out the back,” he said. “A backfire. That’s what it was, a backfire.”
“Because it fires back?” she asked with a smile.
“Yes,” he said, laughing at his grandmother’s joke. “Because it fires back. It’s nothing to worry about.”
He poured hot water into cups with teabags.
“Wasn’t that too loud for one of those, what did you call them?”
“Backfires, Baba. Trucks make loud ones. That must have been a truck.”
“There seem to be a lot of those backfires,” she said. “I heard them last night. Are there so many trucks on the road?”
“I saw a lot of them this morning, one after the other.”
“How did you come? You didn’t come by the road, did you? It’s too dangerous. You shouldn’t go near the road.”
“No, Baba, I came by the creek. No one saw me. I can walk all the way from the village in the creek.” He handed her a cup of tea. “Here you go. Be careful, it’s hot.”
The woman took the cup, smiled, and self-consciously covered her mouth with a hand. She seemed pleased with his answer and sat back, deeper into the sagging and worn sofa. The woman was of an indeterminate age, her hands arthritic and misshaped, her skin the color of yellowed newsprint, her gray hair pulled back into a tight bun. She wore a cotton print dress that had once been indigo with white dots, but was now faded to a bluish gray, the dots barely visible. The only color in the room came from the green woolen socks she wore with sandals.
She sipped her tea and looked at the wall behind the sofa covered with framed photographs of relatives. The patterned wallpaper was discolored from leaking rainwater, and one corner was peeling away from the wall. Lath and plaster could be seen underneath.
The boy followed her eyes. “What are you looking at, Baba?
“The wall,” she said. “The wall of our family, of your family.
The woman and the boy studied the photos for several minutes. The boy then took his cup of tea and sat in one of the chairs at the table. In contrast with the gray of his grandmother, the ten-year-old was dressed in a colorful, striped t-shirt, new jeans, and new running shoes.
“We could take some glue and fix the wallpaper,” he said.
“That would be nice,” she said, “but I don’t have any glue.”
“I could make some. It’s easy.”
“How do you make glue, Unuk?”
“Flour and water. I make it at home in America.”
“I would like that.”
The boy picked up a small vase from the table with a single wilted flower the color of rust.
“What kind of flower is this?” the boy asked.
“The kind that grows behind the house.”
“Did it have a name?”
“I’m sure it did,” she said, laughing at the question, “but I don’t know the language of flowers.”
The boy fingered the inlaid design on the vase. “This looks like the eggs mother and I paint at Easter, but more beautiful. Where did it come from?”
“Kad sam bila devojka, Unuk…” she began in Serbian.
“I don’t understand, Baba,” he interrupted. “I’ve forgotten my words. Could you talk more slowly?”
“Shame on you, Unuk. I will try in your English.” She took a drink of tea. “When I was a little girl, young like you, my parents took me to Sarajevo. It was in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, not like today. We went to visit my aunt, may she rest in peace, and there in her house I saw the vase. At the time I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. When my aunt saw how much I admired it, she gave it to me. ‘Here,’ she said, ‘it’s yours.’ My mother didn’t want me to accept such a present, but my aunt insisted. And here it is, after so many years.”
“But it’s empty.”
The boy put the vase back on the table. He and his grandmother sat in silence, drank tea, and looked at the vase.
“Your English is good, Baba. You should speak it more.”
“No, it isn’t. And I have no intention of speaking it more. But if you won’t speak the language you were born to, what choice do I have?… I need to talk to your mother about you. She should be teaching you your own language.”
“But who would I talk to when I go back home?”
“It is not about talking, Unuk. It is about not forgetting. You should never forget where you come from.”
There was an explosion in the distance. They looked at each other. The woman was startled.
“What was that? That didn’t sound like a backfire.”
“It’s from the quarry,” the boy said, sounding confident. “They’re blasting rocks to use for road repairs. I saw men this morning working on the road.”
“Does the road need so much work?”
“Traffic, Baba. The road has been damaged by all the trucks.” He paused, then added, “You know that Mama wants you to move to the village.”
“I know. She told me when she was here yesterday.”
“Mama’s right. It would be better for you there.”
“But I prefer to stay here.”
“There are only a few people here. You would have friends if you lived in the village.”
“I have friends here.”
“You would have more friends there. And Mama says it would be safe for you.”
“Safe from what? At my age, I’m not worried about being safe.”
“Mama says you shouldn’t live on your own. She says you’re too old.”
“She’s right. I’m too old, but I’m not leaving my house. And I don’t want to talk about it.”
The two looked at each other for a long moment.
“Can I fix you an egg, Baba?”
The woman turned and looked at the wall. Without waiting for an answer, the boy got up, took two eggs from a cupboard, got a pan, cracked the eggs into the pan, and put the pan on the stove. The woman finished her tea.
“Unuk,” she said, “I heard shooting this morning. It sounded like guns.”
The boy answered without looking up from the frying pan, “Hunters. Men in the fields hunting rabbits.”
“Are there so many rabbits?” she asked.
“There are a lot of rabbits this time of year. We saw them in the butcher shop in the village.”
“You’re not telling me a story, are you?”
The boy looked at his grandmother. “I heard it from someone in the village,” he said, “the old man who sells vegetables. He said that all the men are out hunting rabbits.”
“Does your mother know you are here?”
“How do you want your eggs, Baba? Mama likes them hard.”
“Don’t change the subject, Unuk. Answer me.”
He looked at her. “I told her I was going to the square to buy some things. So I can’t stay long. You’re like Mama, you know. You worry too much.” He turned back to the eggs.
“I don’t want you to come every day. Not with all the trucks on the road and all the rabbit hunting. Not now. It’s too dangerous.”
“I’m too little, Baba. No one bothers me.”
“Could you boil some more water for tea, Unuk?… It’s my hands. I can knit a sweater, but I can’t do simple things like hold a pot of water.”
“As soon as the eggs are done.”
The boy turned away from the eggs, took two plates and utensils from the sink, and set them on the table. As he did, he bumped the vase, causing it to fall off the table and shatter on the floor. Both of them stared in silence at the broken pieces.
Finally, the boy spoke. “I don’t know what to say, Baba.”
“There is nothing to say.”
The next morning, the boy came through the door with two packages wrapped in newspaper. His grandmother was sitting at the table and wearing the same dress she had worn the day before. She was busy potting a small plant in a tin can.
“Good morning, Baba.”
“Good morning, Unuk.”
The woman put the potted plant to one side, got up, and washed her hands at the sink. The boy put his packages on the table.
“What do you have, Unuk?”
“A present, Baba.”
“Open it for me, will you?”
The boy opened the packages. From one he took out three sausages and two eggs. From the other, he took out a small vase, which he put on the table. The woman dried her hands, sat at the table, and picked up the vase.
“This is lovely, Unuk. Thank you. It is more beautiful than the first one.”
The boy reached into a back pocket.
“Look,” he said, “I brought you a flower for the vase.”
He put the fresh flower into the vase, filled the vase with water, and set it on the table. Then he, too, sat at the table.
“Thank you, Unuk. It’s a lovely flower.” Then she smiled. “Does it have a name?”
The boy smiled at their private joke. “I was thinking of calling it ‘Pepper,’” he said.
“I like ‘Pepper.’ That’s a good name.”
“I’m teasing, Baba. ‘Pepper’ is my dog’s name.”
“I like ‘Pepper.’ That’s a perfect name for a flower.”
“Can I make you some breakfast, Baba?”
The woman ignored his question. “There were explosions during the night, Unuk. The sky was on fire. I didn’t sleep. Did you hear them? Do you know what they were?”
“A celebration. The people in the village set off fireworks. Mama and I were there. We danced in the street. There were so many people. Everyone was dancing. No one slept.”
“Was it a holiday? I don’t remember it being a holiday.”
“Let me fix you an egg with sausage, Baba.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You need to eat and be strong,” the boy said. “Also, Mama is coming today. She found a place for you to live.”
“Dear one, you know that I am not leaving.”
“I know, but Mama will try. She means well.”
“She does, but she should know that I won’t leave the house where she was born. I’m afraid she’s lost her feeling for this place.”
“She’s worried about you, that’s all. And time is short.”
“What are you saying, Unuk? What makes time short?”
“We’re leaving tomorrow. Mama and I are going back to America.”
The woman turned and looked at the wall of photographs. She put her hand to her forehead. “Who will lie to me when you’re gone?”
Jim Woessner works as a visual artist and writer living on the water in Sausalito, California. He has an MFA from Bennington College and his poetry and fiction have appeared in numerous online and print magazines, including California Quarterly; Flash Frontier, Close to the Bone; and Potato Soup Journal.