Little Bird

She was standing by the gate, watching the planes. F-16, she said. Fast.

When we came back, six weeks later, she was sitting by the gate. Someone had brought her a plastic chair so now she would sit and wait and watch the planes. She would wrap her black robes around her, clutch a hunk of dark bread in her curled fingers, nibble at it from time to time as she listened to engines in the sky and the muffled thud of shells.

The house had burned two years ago, when the Serbs came through, drunk on early victories and bad schnapps. She offered them food: bread, cheese, bottles of rakia her husband used to make that she couldn’t bear to destroy. They took it, thanked her, sang their songs, slept in the shadow of the barn. In the morning, as they left, they set fire to the house. One of them put his arm around her shoulders. I’m sorry, he said. It’s what we have to do.

The first time, she saw us before we saw her. The house was sharp against the bright sky, scorched. Mala ptica, everyone called her, Little Bird.  She told us about the ebb and flow of the war: first the Serbs heading north, then the same Serbs heading south. The Croats going in circles. The Bosnians themselves, crying in the snow. It made her think of birds, she said, this way for summer, that way for winter. She liked birds, fed them breadcrumbs from beneath her shawl. She liked the planes too, especially the F-16s. American, we told her. She already knew.

When someone passed, they would always pause. The house on its hill looked grand and sad. Most times, like us, they wouldn’t see her until she had seen them. She would offer bread. Cheese if she had it. Sometimes potatoes scraped from the ground. The rakia was running low, so she saved that for the smallest groups and the people she liked best. She gave us bread and cheese.

The first time, we followed the road north, looking for a war. She told us our blue helmets matched the sky. We smiled, tried to hide our guns behind our backs. We’re here to keep the peace, we said. She shrugged and waved us on our way.

The second time, six weeks later, someone had brought her a chair. The road in front of her had been busy, she said, but she was starting to forget who was who. She wondered if she would remember her sons when they came home from the war.

The third time, someone had painted the door, fixed the roof. She called out to us from beside the gate. The Americans have a new airplane. The war will be over soon. She gave us bread, hard as stone. Your helmets match the sky.

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Lizzie Boyle

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