As I ran through the wood, the pine needles underfoot softened my footfalls. It was eerily quiet, the snow muffling the air, blocking sounds from human ears, as it camouflaged the world from view. I was panting, with sharp clouds bursting out of my mouth. The back of my throat rasped on the icy air. My nose ran and I sniffed, wiping it on my sleeve as I went. I sweated, feverish.
I burst clear of the trees and hit a scene so completely changed since I’d seen it thirty minutes before that it brought me skidding to a stop. I’d never known snow to fall so fast. Already it was ankle deep on the fields, and the shacks and houses had white rooftops instead of brown or red or grey.
I loped into a cumbersome run leaving tracks in the virgin snow and feeling as though my nightmares had come true and I had suddenly forgotten how to put one foot in front of the other. I heard the small crunch-squeak of compressed crystals under my boots.
Jan Creusel’s house had light streaming out of the windows. I ran to it, ignoring Buruk, and hammered on the door.
There were hurried steps, and the door was pulled open sharply. Jan stood in the doorway, surprise covering his face.
“What’s the matter?”
“Jilla – where’s Jilla?”
“She’s not here. I’ve not seen her today.”
I backed away, looking in his strange eyes, and turned and ran again, up the hill, past my home. I was almost sobbing.
Conrad, thick-set in his bulky red coat, was coming down the slope and stopped as I belted past him, my eyes wide with frozen tears. My lungs stretched for more oxygen and I forced myself to keep going. Still snow fell, and I started to wade through it. My fleece jacket turned white, and I felt snowflakes hit my mouth and land on my tongue as I sucked in, feeling like cobwebs. My leg muscles screamed at me to stop, to give up and lie down in the snow.
I was at the top of the hill and I was crying now, gasping with the pressure of all the time I’d wasted. There was no-one around, my feet crunched on the snow with no-one to hear them. Suddenly I was at Jilla’s place, and I dived for the doorknob.
I fell into the kitchen, a swirl of snow and white footprints behind me. No light. My eyes adjusted, slowly, to the gloom. I became aware of a shape on the floor and dropped onto my knees next to it, sobbing and gasping like a woman seeing the body of her husband. It was Jilla.
She had fallen at an unnatural angle, dark eyes looking upward, unfocused. A tin mug lay on its side where it had rolled under the table, sloshing its brackish contents in a small ragged pool, flecks of what looked like grated twigs floating on its surface. As I took hold of her hand I was howling in pain, and then Conrad was there, pulling me gently away, taking off his red coat, and covering Jilla’s face with it.
I remember very little of the next thirty minutes of my life. I imagine that Conrad had followed me as I ran blindly past him on the hill, and it must have been him that went for the doctor, who seemed to arrive too quickly, in a few short seconds. I had been put in a wooden chair at the kitchen table, where I shook and cried, seeing and hearing nothing, my mouth wide and screaming. Leni could not be found for a long time, but I remember Jan Creusel was the one who wrapped a blanket round me and carried me to a neighbour’s house, where a hot fire was burning.
As Jan backed out of Jilla’s kitchen, with me now silent in his arms, I glimpsed something I recognised. There was a girl covered in a red coat, and silent snow drifting onto a rug through an open door. I knew that this was death.
Now, thinking of my youth, it seems I can never put my finger on the point where my childhood stopped. It could have ended when the fighting started, when my friends and neighbours began dying around me, when my home and theirs’ were obliterated. Perhaps I had it still, until I woke up to what was gone forever in Brena’s kitchen. I believe that nothing really took it away from me until Jilla’s death, by her own hand, in her own home.
Her mug had contained fir bark tea: not the bark of a Douglas fir, the tree which grew everywhere around us. This tea was made with the inner bark of a rare, slow-growing fir that no-one had set eyes on for over twenty years. Jilla had found it, with unerring precision, in the forest, further in than anyone else dared to go.
Peacekeepers, who seemed unable to fit their actions to their job-titles, held a public inquest, demanded strenuously by Conrad, his voice strong, and his blue eyes full of anger. The inquest led to an autopsy, which revealed high levels of an opium-like substance in Jilla’s bloodstream. Made from Clemandis, a flower which had been forgotten and which used to be the object of worship for its ability to bloom without sunlight, this substance produced hallucinogenic reveries, feelings of floating and drowsiness, while colours and noises were transposed.
If Jilla hadn’t drunk the tea, the quantities of Clemandis she had ingested would have killed her.
Of course it all came out, revealed like familiar ground when snow melts. The chain of polyglot command made arrests, searches and court martials – things that I barely registered at the time. I knew no-one and nothing, my mind was a blank, and when I think of this time of my life, I remember a numbness, more bitter than the ice wind, that held me in a steel fist and through which even bullets could not penetrate.
When I finally raised my head and looked into the sunshine once more, the village was half-empty and I knew that it was no longer a place I could ever call home again.
I left, down the road to Srenja, where peacekeepers needed boys in tiny cafes to bring them coffee. I may not be clear on a lot of things now, but I do know that I was no longer a child at this point. I never saw my brother Mani again, and I don’t know what became of him. Of Granma, I had no word. And I never asked.
Perhaps a year had passed when I looked up from wiping a table, to see Conrad filling the doorway. This time his coat was blue.
I hadn’t heard anyone call me that name for a long, long time. My father had called me Sascha after his Russian Granpa, of whom I had been told many stories, doubtless untrue.
He stepped into the café and took a stool at the small counter. I gave him coffee, black and strong.
“You’re working hard and it suits you.”
We looked at each other. His eyes were kind, and I remembered now that this was how they had always been. He looked at his coffee, and took a sip.
“How are you, Conrad? What are you doing?”
“I’m on my way to the city. Training to be a doctor.”
I stared at him in surprise. Then, slowly, I nodded.
“I wanted to give you this,” he pulled a small pad of paper from his coat pocket, one that was identical to those we had used in the church school. It was empty, except for a scrawled note in pencil on the last page. “We found it under Jilla’s bed.”
I took the pad of paper, and read the note.
All the world’s swirling and drowning to a close. Perhaps the only thing to miss is Sascha. It seems a shame that I probably won’t see him again.
I shut the notepad and looked dry-eyed at Conrad. I hadn’t known Jilla could write. Conrad drank his coffee in three scalding gulps, and stood up, the wooden stool legs scraping over the linoleum floor.
“When I have money, when I’m a doctor, I’ll come back for you. Mani was a bully and a fool. None of it was your fault. I’ll be back for you Sascha – look out for me. Don’t forget.”
Six years later, almost to the day, Conrad found me serving beer to veterans in a small bar in Srenja. He marched me silently out of the door, although at age eighteen I was as big as he was, and he kept his promise.