Excerpt from THE HONEY LOCUST

Prologue

The former Yugoslavia, June 1995.

She blows out her candle and peers through the broken slats down to where the street unfurls in beaded rolls of cobblestone. Empty. She’s waited long enough. She shoulders a knapsack that holds a few essentials — an extra sweater, three tins of kasha. Her Leica nestles at the bottom, near the rolls of film hidden inside socks. She checks her watch and heads downstairs.

A wedge opens in the blackness of the doorway. She slips out and darkness eclipses her solitary figure. Feet carry her softly across the broken earth and concrete uprooted by recent shelling. The road is pitted like the moon. In the morning the women sweep what they can, leaving the larger pieces for the men to remove. By afternoon, it’s business as usual — or at least as much as it can be in this hell. Every evening, the dark slips down again and the constellation of lights wink out before they can be targeted. It begins all over as bombs light up and pierce the sky. It’s impossible to imagine life amid the ruins, but it’s here.

For weeks, she’d resigned herself to the waiting. Finally the messenger arrived, a black-shawled crone tapping her cane through the destruction. She’d offered to read tea leaves for a small sum, but stopped at only one door. Who wanted her fortune read in times like these? They ushered the old woman in, past the brace of sandbags piled before the window. The visitor smiled, set her stick aside, and sat. The sitting room was comfortable: family portraits, knitted armchair covers, and lace curtains kept up a pleasant appearance, despite the boarded-over windows. The important work was done downstairs, hidden from casual view, though not surprisingly, word had got out: help was available to anyone seeking it.

The visitor nodded at the two women. Jasna set a teapot on the table. The old woman had known Jasna before the war. She was one of the God-given few who’d stayed behind when she could have left. So many doctors were gone and the hospitals had become difficult to reach. The other — the North American — she’d seen once or twice in the town square disguised as a villager. The North American arrived as a patient, but quickly became Jasna’s helper in the apoteka — one of the war’s many illegal pharmacies.

Tea was poured. They drank and turned over the cups on their saucers, as the old woman instructed. It was like a game, except lives depended on it. They waited as she peered into the cup. Her dark eyes looked up at the North American briefly before splintering away like mercury. She spoke quietly: Listen carefully, but write nothing down. You will take a trip to the coast. From there, a ferry will take you to Italy. I will tell you precisely where and when. You must be prepared to leave in two days. Cities and towns were mentioned, a contact name passed along. The Oracle dreamed her map among the leaves scattered on the cup bottom and stuck to its sides. Done, she pushed the porcelain back into anxious hands.

A palm curled around the head of her walking stick. She reached for the North American’s hand. One other thing — your ring finger is too long. She showed them, splaying the fingers and holding the hand beside her own for comparison. You see? You are too independent. You will never be happy with any man who tries to hold you. She shook her head. A timid smile. I really am a tea reader, you see.

The stick drew up. Coins exchanged hands. A brief smile concluded this matter of freedom, and she was gone.

 

It was all to have run smoothly from there — rivers forded, landscapes crossed, history poured over blank pages. But the dark streets are a no man’s land now, shapes shifting to become potential rapists, snipers looking for target practice. The scavengers and looters have retired for the night, but armed thugs and drunken soldiers can spell trouble for a woman on these streets. Anyone who spots her will know she’s up to something, because she isn’t in a safe place at 4 a.m. Where are the people who love her?

The alley opens onto a public square where she stopped for coffee once or twice. Tonight the cafés are deserted, the chairs upturned on tables. At the far end, a church casts a churlish eye over everything. The tea reader’s careful phrases come to mind as she skirts the open space, watching for shadows that might turn into men, enemies of her body.

She steps onto the square, reciting her escape route, a giant game of hopscotch: from Bihać to Drvar, past Strmica, and down the coast to Šibenik, where the boat will be waiting. Stepping stones across a sea of fire.

She’s halfway across the cobblestones when she hears the hiss of tires. She turns, looks quickly over her shoulder. Headlights twitch and scatter over a wall; the car lurches into view. Panic rushes in, lifting her heels. She’s a blur against dark walls. The first shot goes wide and tears into a tree as she scrabbles over stone. The second shot is closer, the car right behind her.

If she turns, she’ll see their faces.

I’m a fucking journalist! A Canadian!

It comes out an angry cry as she trips and lands hard on her cheekbone. The fall knocks the breath from her lungs, fear from her mind. Through the knapsack, the camera digs into her breast beside the rolls of film with their lost worlds, the tail end to many stories. She’s carried them with her all this way, like a dead foetus, these faces she never knew.

Another shot. Someone is firing wildly into the square.

She pushes herself up as the car closes in. At least let me face them, she thinks. Don’t let them come from behind!

She listens for the whine of brakes, doors to open, hurried footsteps. She’ll make them kill her before she gives up. The roar grows and then retreats with a trickle of drunken laughter. Tires slither across the square.

She looks up. Stars above. The firmament. Night.

 
 

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