As the wind blew through my long, soft hair and caressed my shoulders, I felt it. I held myself together at the corner of the gate, like that gate was my hero. I pushed myself against it like I wanted so badly to be a part of it. The big, bloody gate was oblivious to my own imagination, it was there but not there to protect me. I looked at her for the last time, and then I put my head down. I took all the breath that I could possibly take, and I smiled. From the other side of the door a big soldier dressed in black grabbed her and threw her to the ground…. I couldn't believe my own eyes. There she was, lying on the ground, breathless. She was not trying to survive this time. The only person that remained to survive was me. I looked at her from a distance for the last time, and I started running without a direction. There was nobody in the world who could stop me from reaching the unknown destination.
It was cold, very cold, I remember. As usual I was playing outside, right by the main gate of the house. I still remember that gate. It had this rusty burgundy color. The bottom of the gate was missing a big square piece. I would usually put my left foot in there and push myself with the right foot, and like that I would swing for a good fifteen minutes. The rust of the gate would stain my clothes, but I didn't mind that. Once in awhile I would find myself sitting by the gate and waiting for people to pass by but there was nobody. I would stay there talking to myself for hours, talking to the world that could not hear my silent screams. Ahhhh, if you could only know how much I longed for a human being to stop and talk to me.
When I was done with my amusing adventures at the gate I would slowly make my way to the house. I always felt like I was in some sort of fairy tale, except that I was not. I was just a part of a tragic reality. I was stuck in time where change didn’t happen, where people killed their friends, their neighbors, and sometimes their family. Every day seemed so normal, and every day meant the same thing to me. I was a child living in a reality that I thought was the norm. Completely ignored, yet very present in this life that I experienced from my naive perspective.
When She Hit Me
I always loved her, and I loved her so much. I wanted to be just like her. When she would fix my hair I would ask her to make it like hers. I wanted my face to look like her face, and despite the many times she would get frustrated and tell me that I would never look like her, that thought did eat me alive. She was so beautiful, her skin was white like snow, and shiny like crystal. At times she had a bad temper but nothing discouraged me , I wanted to be whatever she was. When someone said that I looked like my father it made me cringe within, and that must have been the first time I hated myself and him.
It was a regular day. I had just made my way from the front gate to the backyard. We had this huge backyard, surrounded with fences that reminded me of Christ’s Crown of Thorns. Every year we would plant different vegetables , and this year she was doing the same, like every other year, except this year the joy and fun was missing. Instead, silence was present, and surviving must have been the only thought in her head. She was planting something, I think it was onions, carrots, and peppers. I looked at my left and there were houses burning, the black smoke was softly engaging with the sky, and I could barely see the sky. I looked at my right and there was Zara, my neighbor, talking in a language that I used to understand. Her Slavic accent came across like an arrow as she assured us that there was no escape. I ignored her because I was sure we were not going to die, not that day at least. I ignored the black smoke that was passing the roof of our house now. I looked at her planting the carrots, and then I told her, “Why are you planting those goods, you know we are not going to eat them.” She took her shoe off and threw it at me, and hit me on the head. I didn’t cry. I knew that the near future would make me cry more than that shoe.
Coping With The Present
It was nice weather but who in the hell could possibly enjoy it. She wouldn't let me leave the house today. I just wanted so badly to go to the gate, swing around for a bit, and then come back, but I guess I can only enjoy this day by looking from my window. The window was facing directly the kitchen of my neighbors’ house. I always admired them for everything. In their house everything was in order. Even the meals were eaten at a certain time. I always wondered why my family never had a meal together, and why sometimes there was nothing to eat. My family was decomposed, separated; each individual had to make it on his or her own somehow. As always she was doing her motherly things around the house. She wasn’t feeling any better, just like any other damn day. She dreamed last night, she said. She said she saw water and she was dressed in black. She sat on the sofa, with her arms crossed and said, “ I hope everybody is all right.” Then she looked directly at the cross hanging in the wall, kneeled, and started praying. She grabbed me and made me kneel too. I started praying as if I knew what I was praying for, but quite frankly all I wanted was to go to the gate.
It was around six o’clock. We were both sitting outside under the grapevines that shadowed the pathway to the gate. The moon was sealing the sky in anguish, and silence pervaded the town. Usually the place would be teeming with life but this was not that life. This was the life that brought death to many others. This is the life that ironically carried the weapons that ended many people's lives. The shadows of the night withdrew and hid when he approached and gave her the news. She froze for a second, and then she sat down, held my hand, and started crying. Her sister had been killed along with her two little kids. What could she possibly do but cry, it's not like she could run and save them.
We were all sitting in the room. The darkness of the room had captured our souls, and the only lights on were the shiny stars. I looked around but I couldn't see clearly, I could only feel the tense breathing that was coming through my mother's chest. I could only see the scary eyes rolling left to right in the darkness, and desperately wanting not to hear anything unusual. I know we were five people in that room but I couldn’t tell because the silence was quieter than death itself. Every little noise was a warning, every little move was precisely measured. Nothing was to be done if not necessary, and sometimes holding the breath was necessary. The windows were open just in case we needed to escape, but who can escape a bullet? She had everything planned if something happened. Everything had fallen to silence when a bright shiny light passed across our window, and we all lied down on the ground, breathless. Her body had covered my little self entirely like a shield, and I could barely breath from her heavy weight. Now I know what her plan was. The morning arose, and luckily we were all alive this time. We hugged each other and wished that this new day would bring us something different.
There Was Nobody
When I woke up she was already preparing breakfast. She sautéed some onions and made homemade bread. A pitcher of water was carefully placed in the middle of the table like that was the only tasty thing in the midst of all, and you couldn’t possibly miss the forced smile on her face. She looked at me and said, “ This is it for today.”
I smiled, I know she was burning within for not being able to provide me with a decent breakfast, but I didn’t mind. I slowly sat down at the table and waited for a little while to see if my friend Genti would come, but he didn’t. It had been a while since I saw him. I missed him so damn much but there was nothing I could possibly do. I started picking at the oily onions, chewed them like they were a handful of sand. Onions were something I didn't like but to make her happy I ate everything on my plate. I took the water and refreshed myself. I asked her where Richard and Henry were. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “ Somewhere where they could find safety.” My father had left the house that morning to go to his village, to the place where he grew up. There we had some relatives who could possibly provide us with some more flour. However, he came back the same as he left, empty handed. His face was white like snow. He had lost so much weight recently, and he barely spoke to anybody. He was only trying to survive like everybody else. He sat on the sofa without saying a word, lit a cigarette, and every drag he took it felt like he wanted to be the last one. I felt alone most of the time. There was nobody in my neighborhood, there was nobody to talk to or to play with. The silence had captured the streets. I was the only person making noise while swinging on the rusty red gate.
One Night Under Ground
Tonight was hectic. There were soldiers walking up and down the streets. There were actually people hiding in their houses just like us. I can’t believe how silent they were. As I was following my mother I felt like I was in a movie. My mother was dressed all in black, walking towards the gate, taking one silent step at a time, and holding me tightly to herself. She stood looking for a while and then we came back home.
Right in the back of our house there was a garage. A few years before I was born, my brothers Henry and Richard had opened a little shop for repairing cars. They only used it for a few months. In the middle of the garage there was a hole six feet deep. It looked like a grave. My mother always had these brilliant ideas of how to hide. She commanded my father and my brothers to open all the doors and windows, to make it look like we had already left. My parents and I went in that garage, dragging ourselves slowly into the hole, hoping that we would get out alive. My brothers closed the metal door above us, and the darkness killed my spirit. Here I was isolated inside four walls of darkness. I couldn’t see my own hand. The smell of different oils and gasoline clogged my nostrils. I was sitting in my mother's lap, and her hand was next to my mouth to prevent me from screaming. Not being able to count, I heard footsteps of at least ten soldiers, if I can recall it now, searching our house. I heard one of them saying “nikoga ovde (nobody here).” The night lasted a hundreds years in my calculated hours but luckily we were still alive. My brothers came back, opened the metal door, and we went in the house again. What a relief to be with my family one more time.
Back to Where I Started
As always, my mother had a saying about everything. Not just about me, I mean everything. A few weeks ago I was forbidden to go to the gate because I crossed the limits. I left the door and went to my neighbor's house. She had everybody looking for me until they found me. She gave me two slaps and hugged me very tightly right after that. That must have been the first time I realized how much I meant to her. Lately it had been very difficult to convince her to let me out. The news was filled with announcement of missing people, and a missing child was not what she needed.
There was a need within me that day, a passionate need, the need to see other people, to see something different than four white walls. I begged her so much, and finally she gave in. Before I left she gave me a piece of bread and kissed my forehead. She looked at me for a whole minute, as if in that minute she confessed all the love that she had for me. It felt like that was the last time I was going to see her.
As she looked at me with her pitch black eyes, I felt like my heart was melting. It was not a feeling of pleasure nor of struggle, I guess it felt in between somewhere. My skin was cold like ice but warm blood was running through my veins. I was about to move but my legs would not take orders from me anymore, they were as numb as the rest of my body. I looked directly at her from a distance. I wished I was in her soft arms, smelling her aroma, and gazing at her beautiful face. I wished she was giving me that last kiss that she gave me before I left the house. I wished I was feeling the love that she never stopped giving me. I wished I was there. I wished today out of all days I had listened to her, but I didn’t.
"The Red Gate," by Helena Deda
This piece is a reflection of my childhood memories during the Kosovo War of 1999, then part of Serbian territory but now an independent country known as The Republic of Kosovo. I spent the majority of my childhood and teen years in Kosovo and the majority of my adulthood in New
York, where I continue to live and create.