By ELVIS BEGO
In Copenhagen there is a street that on certain days looks, feels even, like Sarajevo. Kingosgade, or Kingo Street. The same sootiness, the frayed composure. Kingo was some white-ruffed Danish giant of piety and poetry centuries ago. Like everybody else’s in those days, his neckpiece looked like someone had smashed a platter over his head and he never got around to getting it off, and in his portrait he seems all the more sullen for it—angry with himself for going to the painter’s studio with the ridiculous crockery still around his neck. He wrote psalms and sermons, that kind of thing. But Sarajevo never was pious. It is a city of mischief and raillery, of street wisdom. At least that’s what it was before it became the city of siege and bombardment.
It was on Kingo Street I found a building with an elevator that sounds exactly like the one in my building in Sarajevo. The same sequence of oily creaks, stops, and geriatric lurches. But each time unique. It even smells the same. An ancient odor—earthy patchouli, palm, and mothballs. I’d go there sometimes and press the button. I’d close my eyes. It was music to me. Marianne lived
a few doors down the street.
She said to me, “Darling, let’s go together to Verona.”
“Verona of all places?”
“Well, I saw some pictures. I want to see those rooftops, the balcony. Kiss you freely in the street for a week. My mom can take the kid.”
“No, we should do it. Give me some time to think it through.”
But I couldn’t. I evaded the invitation till it almost faded out of memory. Mine. A pair of star-crossed lovers.
My mother always suffered for my bohemianism. Dear child, she’d say, you can’t live like this, moving every year to a new place, renting one person’s apartment till you have to find another. Isn’t it time to live like a human being? Buy a place. Have a bed of your own. Find a girl. What’s wrong with that? But if she knew about Marianne, I wonder if she’d be so eager. I’ve heard her say things about guys who were seduced by single mothers.
“What are you afraid of?” Marianne once asked me.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Do you see how I see you?”
“I do see that.”
“And how do you see me? Look at me!”
“I care about you deeply.”
“And what does that mean exactly? Tell me, what are we? What are you and I?”
“We are what we are.”
“Jesus. You don’t trust yourself. Or anyone else.”
“What does that even mean?”
“You’re just buying time.”
“Why would you say that?”
“Every goddamn answer is a question! You’re so afraid! Your precious little space. It’s all yours, all yours. You can have it. All I want is to love you. But you’re a little boy. A little boy who wants his toys for himself.”
“I’ve never said different.”
“Let me tell you something: At some point we all have to become something else. Something better. It’s not a tragedy.”
She stood there, astonished by my clumsy obfuscations.
“You’re thirty years old,” she said.
“Thirty years old. You know?”
“That war of yours really fucked you up.”
She knew things. I didn’t know anything about anything and least of all myself, and what I wanted to know—well, there was no way of getting to the beginning of that knowledge without getting to the end of myself. Where do I begin, and where do I end? My mind was always chaos.
She left angry, and I sat down to read about a dwarf with a giant nose.
That year I’d suddenly started to read children’s books. I was idling in the city’s main public library when I saw this folio edition of Wilhelm Hauff’s Caliph Stork on display down in the big hall. Fifty pages or so, large antique typeface, illustrated. At the time I mostly read heavy stuff—Foucault, Bernhard, Sebald—but something about the cover image drew me in. It was deviant in the right way. The pictures inside were even better, so I took it home. The tale is about a caliph in a Baghdad of some indeterminate epoch long ago who learns of a magic spell that can turn him into any creature of his choice and back again. He would get to know otherness by becoming other. He decides he’d like to be a stork, have flight, know bird language. So he turns into a stork, but he forgets the secret Latin word that would get him back into human shape, and the spell becomes a curse. That’s all in the first pages, and the story curves thereafter. The illustrations, by someone named Jindra Čapek, gave me something very near the deepest delight of my life. His figures were slightly grotesque, their limbs warped or elongated just that extra joint or vertebra. A colorful fabulist. What I wouldn’t do for some abracadabra and an hour in the warm tints of his interiors, to wade in a desert citadel of a thousand minarets, wander among those luminous emeralds, indigos, and vermilions. I’d slumber the hot winter away under an orange tree. As I read, it was as if synapses long withered were being aerated and galvanized. Certain tangles stirred and grew, my mind freshened, mildew bulging upon it. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it was here my year of childish thinking began, although one should be suspicious as soon as someone says he is not exaggerating because he is most likely doing just that, especially when he then points out how suspicious it is, for this is usually yet another distracting ploy. But not in this case. I wanted to inhabit this world so badly that the hours I spent staring at the pictures—transfixed by this antique land—started to change the way I thought.
One of my neighbors at the time was Farjad, an Iranian exile, a deadly chess player and oracular wise guy. He’d never let you call him Iranian, though. Persian, he’d say, like goddamn Xerxes. White hair, pointy grizzled beard, dark moons under his eyes, about sixty-five. He drank too much, always quoted poets. He had the air of a philosopher, at least according to my own idea of a philosopher’s air. He’d taken harrowing journeys with mind and body, traversed brambled pathways barefoot, a whole bestiary ogling him. That’s what I meant. He looked the part.
He saw me in the street and said, “There’s something different about you. What is it?” He lowered his voice and tapped my chest. “Love? It must be love.”
I’d felt as though a light had been kindled in me, and maybe that light really was a kind of love. “I don’t know,” I said. “It might be something I am reading now.”
“Ah. You know, the great Hafiz of Shiraz says that religions are like ships, while poets are the—what do you call them?—the little lifeboats. The poets! The sane people, he says, jump overboard to be saved. That’s where true wisdom is to be found. It is good, this. Read. By all means, read.”
There’s a saying where I come from that goes something like this: He doesn’t have a hair on his tongue. It has nothing to do with cunnilingus. It means he doesn’t give a shit, he will say it like it is to your face, deliver you the devil’s news. My mom is like that. My mom is a grownup. I wouldn’t mind having some of that. That platinum backbone that seems to come out of an honest day’s labor and paralyzing migraines and toothaches and unexpected bills and kids’ injuries and betrayals of friends and sudden deaths in the family and all that stuff that whitens your hair and bends something inside you, and yet unbinds you as well. Most of the time I pretend I’m a grownup. There are faces, expressions, props you can use. And you feel you sell yourself short, but you can’t do a thing about it. It’s the hair on your tongue.
Just as I was falling under the caliph’s spell, I had a part-time job and a girlfriend. Or mistress, really. That was about as much as I could do. Marianne was a real woman, thirty-five, a mother—she’d squeezed into the world a whole new living thing out of her own body. God forbid something like that should happen to me. I happen to others. Maybe you need to be a child before you can be an adult. A completed childhood was sometimes hard to come by where I came from. Marianne reads to her kid. My parents were too busy for that back in Yugoslavia, and I definitely didn’t read by myself. Most of those ten years before the war I spent with Carp, Yellow, Einstein, and Filip, haunting streets and meadows, construction sites, and other people’s gardens. We stole fruit, built slingshots, participated in neighborhood wars. Then real war came, stole our fruit, and sent us across the world into other streets, other meadows.
Vladimir got his nickname early. Whenever he went fishing with his grandfather he’d come back saying he’d caught a big fish.
How big? Big like a carp. But not a carp? No. So he became Carp.
Emil’s hair was the color of rye in August. It hurt your eyes when the sun hit it at a certain angle. First thing you thought about when you saw him was Yellow.
Armin had a talent for science. He was blowing things up all the time. Wrote harebrained theories into a little exercise book and had them tested. Also, he “investigated” animals. By seven or eight he was known as Einstein.
Filip, on the other hand, didn’t have much of a talent. He remained Filip. He was good at that.
My own nickname I wouldn’t dare tell.
None of us read back then. Not even Einstein through his glasses. You’d think we all came from broken homes, but no. I can’t believe such civilized people produced such brazen delinquents. Our parents didn’t deserve it. All we ever thought about was getting some dubious stratagem off the ground. We were like a pack of hyenas, on the prowl, scavenging. We built things, destroyed things. Snow wars in winter. In summer we’d go to abandoned sites and have savage combat face to face, dying a hundred deaths a day. We’d filch discarded syringes from hospital dumps and fight water wars. Who knows what diseases we caught. We pinched plump tomatoes from the market and riddled facades with their blood. Other times we’d hide in trees and shoot slingshots at the thighs of older girls, amused by the startled twinge, hand flying to wound. The bullets were made of bent pieces of colored wire. Finding a stash of good wire was better than a holiday. We rolled in mud. We set things on fire. We stole cherries and plums from little orchards. Played marbles. I want to remember.
Einstein would look for tadpoles in brackish puddles, a jar at his side. When he caught a toad or a lizard, he’d pin its limbs to a board and investigate. That is: dissect. We’d stare at the mess. He’d push back his glasses with his wrist, his eyes dilating with dream, and murmur things like, “Aha,” or “There you are!,” or “I see, I see.” I don’t think he knew what the fuck he was talking about. “Life is mysterious,” he’d say, life seeping out of his patient.
Yellow was the leader on our worst expeditions. A few years older, he had the intrepid face of a street urchin, the deadpan stare, the lethal quip. His mouth always stained, rimmed by traces of meals. Whenever we were to steal something or break into some site, it was his idea.
Whatever we were doing, Carp would mine his nose for boogers. He had no compunction about touching you afterward. You’d whack him on his nape, but the next day he’d do it again. He never learned a thing.
Plump Filip trailed along, never said much, followed us everywhere without a question. He’s a shadow in the background of my memory. I no longer remember his face. Not a picture of him in my album.
I remember Einstein saying once, “I will be a great alchemist one day.”
“It’s this science of turning one thing into another.”
“Say you want to take your grandfather’s accordion and turn it into a guitar.”
“Aha. I’d like that.”
“Or like this chicken egg.”
He took an egg out of a hempen purse with great care.
“What about it?”
“I’ve discovered a recipe how to turn it into a rat. I just have to wait twenty-one days, and a rat will hatch out of it.”
“How will you do that?”
“Can’t tell you. It’s a secret. This very old guy told me about it.”
“What’s in the purse?”
“I can’t tell you.”
Then war arrived. I don’t know what it is about war, how it does what it does. It both ages you and stunts you. Crystalizes whatever came before and the old self that lived there. I think it’s kind of funny that we stopped stealing fruit and other things the instant the war came. Just as it became more or less acceptable, we grew innocent. For one thing, nobody wanted to bleed for a plum. But maybe the outrageous language of war hushed our own rage for disorder. Chaos nudges you toward order, sometimes. And trees started disappearing. Saws went sawing away, axes axing. Parks became fields and graveyards. Everything became kindling. Stacks of my beloved comics started disappearing. The family books too. Bonfires fed by stories. Now we had stories to inhabit. Nobody said a thing about it, but I had my suspicions. I wasn’t stupid: the disappearances coincided with colder days.
Never run in a straight line, they said. The straight line takes you straight to the grave. Those were some lessons at ten or eleven. You have to zigzag through life. Learn this and you’ll live.
Still, we’d play in the street, till the sirens yowled. Yellow was always the last to come down into the shelter. He’d delay the retreat, tempt the gods. I could tell you things about the smell of humans after some days without running water. And yet, sometimes I remember those damp basements and feel the pinch of nostalgia. We played games on those mattresses. Got to know people. The communal eating. You exchanged looks with girls who’d otherwise never give you the time of day. Maybe pressure made something visible in you. We fell in love. Life mattered like it never does in peacetime. During bombardments you squat there, exhilarated, eyes on your friends, heart pulsing in your throat louder than the detonations. Afterward, we’d come out of our holes like dazed vampires. We’d kneel and touch the scars left by mortar shells, the impact crack and the waning spread of shrapnel marks on the concrete. Every day like that. But life mattered. You clung to it like the drunk to his last bottle.
When the rains came in Copenhagen, I looked from my window with a perverted desire. I wanted to skip and gambol in the puddles. I chewed the collar of my shirt till it looked like a rag. I jumped on my bike to buy a raincoat and rubber boots. Oh, I got in there. Made these amazing arcs of splash with my plummets. Up I’d go and hover there a breath or two, feeling like a jellyfish, or a hot air balloon, suspended, slow. And then the percussive music of each crash: Sludd! Flumm! Swumm! Ploooam!
Some sniveling kid, huddled and shivering in his windbreaker, came by and said, “Damn, you’re sick in the head.”
I kept hopping all over the suite of pools.
“You lost your mind?”
“Or found it?” I said, in tremulous voice, midair.
“Man, you’re a kid.”
“No, you are,” I said after the final plunge.
I went to Kingo Street to listen to the elevator. Sitting down there under the button with eyes closed and the box going down with its unrepeatable music, who comes out but Marianne, holding hands with some bearded creep. I was yanked from Sarajevo to Copenhagen, flying twenty years and two thousand miles in an instant. I’d seen him before in the neighborhood, a giant insect of a man. I stood up.
“What the hell are you doing here?” she said. The grasshopper smiled. I think he was high. She sent him away.
“Nothing,” I said.
“This is not like you.”
“How did you find out?”
“I didn’t until now.”
“So what are you doing here? This is very weird.”
“I’m sure it is.”
She just stood there a moment, puzzled by me.
“You know, you can’t blame me,” she said.
“I don’t. I hope you’re happy. Hope you’ll see Verona.”
“We’ll go soon, yes,” she said, stabbing me with the plural. “Listen,” she then said, interring me with the laconic imperative—but she had nothing to say or had thought better of whatever it had been.
Not long after that, I bought a toy train, pried stamps off my old letters, collected comics again. Toy soldiers besieged a castle on my pillow. When the snows came, an itch developed in the pit of my soul. I fought it for a while, I did, but the itch had to be scratched by something like a pitchfork. I went to the parks where there were little mounds and slopes. I joined children in frenzied headlong rides. I borrowed sleighs. The parents watched me with alarm but were too polite to interfere as I organized battles, had tunnels built, camps, catapults. Made an enormous snowman with a nose the size of a carp. But not a carp. It was an orange traffic cone.
Farjad saw me howling tactical directions at a platoon of child soldiers. Night had fallen, though it was merely afternoon. It was a long winter war in the north. We were in an open space between buildings, a common green now turned common white. There were bunkers, tunnels, trenches. We were under attack, and things were precarious. Some of the soldiers had frozen snot hanging from their nasal septa, but I was proud. Farjad waved to me. I scurried to him, bent over, straightening only when out of range of grenades. He didn’t even flinch, made no questions. He squinted at the incisive flakes. His hair seemed lighter now, his coat blacker, wrinkles deeper. He had a bottle of wine in one hand, and he hoisted it and said, “Love.” He said something about the sun and the grapes, about Zoroaster, about the gnostics, too.
“You contain multitudes,” he told me. He said Bosnians are notorious dualists. I had no idea.
“Aren’t we all?” I said. He sighed, stared at the streetlight to get a better look at the snow.
“You know, there are no straight lines in nature. Look. Snowflakes fall in spirals, because even the air is curved.”
“Ah, yes,” I said, “the air is sexy. And promiscuous. Gives herself to everyone.”
“She even feeds wine. Comes in, infuses, besouls it, you could say.”
“That’s very good.”
“There are no straight lines.”
“No straight lines. You’re right.”
“It is a strange, strange world,” he said.
“It is a world of wonders,” I said.
By now it felt as though I’d found a map of myself, or at least a good fragment of it. The hair on my tongue had shrunk. I seemed to stand firmer on the ground. It’s exhilarating to be constantly surprised by your own desires. I read the Grimm Brothers, Andersen, Arabian Nights, Calvino’s Italian Folktales. I still read that stuff. These days, I read the stories out loud into the empty room, and the room remains unmoved. It is for my ears. But I think I also do it for Einstein, Yellow, Carp, and Filip. I live for them too, in a small way.
I was confounded when I heard that Einstein had hanged himself in St. Louis in 2007. I’d seen him in Sarajevo the year before, and he’d seemed all right, funny as ever, mind as crisp as a Siberian winter. He was doing a doctorate in neuroscience in Boston. He had a girlfriend, a lovely, demure American who marveled at his stories, at his sinuous life. To have that kind of story in our time, she said, the infinitive sufficing. I wonder if he’s now alchemized, turned into something else.
Yellow’s life in Canada is one cosmic swerve. He runs a software company, has two daughters, their golden hair a welter of spirals. He prays five times a day. Goes to the mosque every Friday. Gives to charity. Has this curly little beard dangling from his ramus and mandible. It looks glued on. He’d be dead if he hadn’t found God, he said. Oh, you’ll be dead anyway, I wanted to say, but couldn’t then.
Carp’s in Sarajevo still. Tries his best, takes his kid fishing. But he wants to get out. Nothing is the same, he said. He didn’t know what to do, how to move forward. Somebody was getting him papers for America. Maybe it will work out.
Filip was killed by a sniper, and I saw it happen. I’d already crossed to the other side and waited at a high fence. He was so afraid before his turn came, and some guy in a tattered white shirt, crouching by his jerrycans, kept telling him he’d be fine. Finally, Filip took off, but in his singular terror he didn’t zigzag. His prone body comes to me at night, faceless. The mind- less sun falling at a slant, making his shadow as cheap as the hydrant’s, as banal as the trash container’s. No sound, not a tiniest breeze. The blood moves quickly to double, to ghost his shadow. The thing that always chills my viscera in that short but endless loop of memory is that nothing numinous is revealed between the moment he is on his feet and the instant he is face-down on the ground. You want enlightenment here. Nothing—life, impact, death, silence. Even witnessed, death is inscrutable. No wisdom emanates from the greatest of all metamorphoses. No knowledge gained, no mystery resolved. So what do I know? Life is all I know on earth and all I need to know. Even in peacetime, it matters. Of bodies changed to other shapes, I sing. I must.
When I went to see Einstein’s grave not long ago, something occurred to me, some words of Hafiz or Rumi that Farjad once told me, or that I’d perhaps seen on my own and that I only now began to truly understand. I wrote them down from memory and wedged them among the wilted flowers, and when I think about it now, I don’t think I was only addressing Einstein. The words were for Filip too, and my parents, and Farjad, and Marianne, and others yet, alive and dead: I wish I could have shown you, when you were in the darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.
Elvis Bego‘s writing can be found now or soon in AGNI, The Coffin Factory, The Massachusetts Review, The Threepenny Review, Witness, and elsewhere.