Short stories

The River Prophet

(Full version originally published in Borderlands)

By

Azra Alagic

 

I sit under the mussel-shell sky, a private amphitheatre in which my story has been performed in its many and varied seasons. On the banks of the muddy Brisbane River my audience has grown, spreading its branches in wide, purple applause. They weren’t always there, not before the great flood. But then I didn’t need them then.

The river flows on an endless journey, knowing not where it goes, nor when to stop, only knowing that it must maintain its fluidity; as human as those who forage her channel with hard, diesel-coated vessels. I can remember when her waters were so clear that as her mouth kissed the lips of the sea they blended into one clear horizon. Now, her waters are cracked from too much love.

As I write this on the back of printed paper, which I have carefully salvaged from a detailed shopping expedition of the city’s bins, the slightly damp prick of grass blades impress their protest against the pimpled skin of my butt. I fart softly hoping to kill their demands. After all, I am not obese. Years of skimming a life on the streets have ensured that. Where once my derriere had been plump and round, it is now gaunt. I have given up trying to wash the grime from my formerly manicured hands. No longer are they white and soft. To compensate I wear white—always. It provides the illusion of dignity despite my circumstance, representing my evangelical state. For that is what the homeless are.

Bum? I hear you say? Tramp? Hermit? Maybe, but hush a moment and let me finish my story so that you can make an informed judgement. I did not choose to be homeless. Mine was a circumcised life. It is easy for you to judge sitting there on your plush lounge with your cup of hot, freshly brewed tea. Ah! When was the last time I savoured such a luxury? Oh, that’s right. Before the waters came.

In 1892 Brisbane was different. A mere country town, but I recognised her potential. I had arrived several years earlier and envisaged a great port along the river through which I could transport the timber harvested from pine and cedar forests that clustered densely inland. Till then, the ships had been forced to anchor in Moreton Bay. It seemed logical to me that a more convenient location could be developed, so I set about walking along the shoulders of that great, wide passage. The river was beautiful. She whispered, lisping softly, guiding me to Lytton. I peered into her watery depths for an eternity until I was mesmerised. I wanted to harness her wild spirit and touch her many colours.

I courted her there as her moods swung back and forth deep into the night. One moment she was calm and serene, her liquid skin like clear glass. When the milky lunar plate rose high in the sky, the river swept her tidal skirt, churning it angrily as she attempted to defy my request, until she was spent by my persistence and empty promises. She curtseyed deeply in acquiescence, or so I thought.

I had won my betrothed and set about moulding her. The dredging began — to pave the way for the new port. The river’s rocky protector was blasted from her banks so new walls of concrete could be poured to ensure she remained locked away, where only I could speak to her.

The port grew and ships were able to come closer to shore and dock in the river. Unloading their cargo—bags of wheat, salt, flour and sugar. Our exports thrived with the demand of timber and coal increasing rapidly.

The relationship with my betrothed became the root of speculation among my peers who feared my connection with her. How, they asked, could a mortal man make love to a river? They have no comprehension of how spiritual an experience it is. When the distant city lights flicker across her surface, I go to her through the quagmire in the shadows. She parts her welcoming waters, covering me with her moist lips. I can feel her filter through my pores as she buffs me gently against her sandy bottom. My head spins and I lie sated in her arms. Sometimes we frolic, bouncing against each other as the wind tosses her hair in my eyes. When I leave, she becomes still and melts into the black night.

It is during those times that she whispers her plans for the future. Her words guide my actions at work. “The tide will be too swift today to trial the new barges; we don’t need costly complications. We’ll postpone until tomorrow,” I say.

“The weather is fine. You pay too much attention to the river’s quibbles,” complains my foreman.

“A river has her missions like any of us.”

Sure enough, a storm surges through in the afternoon. The boats are tossed together, puncturing wounds in their sides. Only mine remain undamaged.

My river prophecies soon built me a reputation in Brisbane equalled by no other. My face was on the front page of the paper with the headline — RIVER PROPHET. Everyone wanted to lick my ego with their words, to form a lucrative business relationship that according to them would be mutually beneficial. I trod carefully, picking my transactions. My fortune amassed beyond expectations. As the city grew, the lure of riches consumed me.

Brisbane was alive.

Until then, the region had been a destination for those with less dignified occupations — thieves, murderers and petty criminals. I could see the city’s reputation as a penal colony was holding back its progression. I wanted to live in a city that I could be proud of.

“Let the rats from their cells so they can help us to fashion a city like no other in Australia,” I advised the Governor. We were at a state dinner in the newly built Customs House.

“Yes, our city has come of age. We need to move the convict occupation beyond her sight.”

It was agreed, and Brisbane’s Soddy past faded.

During all this, I had spent less and less time with my betrothed. For days she brewed petulantly, hoping her temper would draw me near. I sought a more physical connection that my loins could no longer ignore. Now that the city had been opened to free settlers, they poured in building a thriving economy. The feminine charms of young pretty things were thrust in front of me; their scented bodies floated past, tiptoeing delicately over rain-filled potholes.

The women stood talking in a circle; their bright-coloured dresses forming the shape of an abandoned flower tossed in the wind. Laura’s lilting laugh tumbled my way and as I gazed at the hue in her skin, her sparkling eyes caught mine… I was lost. I introduced myself, bending low over her hand. She smelt like honeysuckle. I envisaged sucking on her lips — a sweet candy that would never dissolve. She was not easily swayed. Laura was from a prominent grazier’s family and I spent months courting her; lavishing every possible gift on her that my deep money chests could buy: imported fashions from London, the finest scents from Paris and a medley of spices and silks from Morocco.

With Laura, there was no guesswork. We talked for hours, laughing at each other’s idiosyncrasies. She was warm, generous and witty. One day, she took me to an Aboriginal camp not far from her family’s property and I watched in amazement as she sat with the elders, offering food and clothing to help with the up-bringing of the children. She read the children stories as they circled around her, their ivory teeth gleaming like piano keys. Laura’s generosity and understanding of what most considered a primitive people humbled me. Her respect and belief in the rights of the indigenous was uncommon.

That day, as we sat around the campfire until the sun withdrew its fingered rays, I learned about Aboriginal customs, their spirituality — their depth. Flames caressed the elongated bodies of the elders, whose soft-padded feet danced in a circle around the fire, creating small puffs of dust each time they connected with the earth. Their chants echoed across the plains, drawing in the spirits of the night. Around me the sky turned a deep indigo, swirled and became heavy, dropping from the heavens until our heads were one with the ancestral spirits. They told us how they created the land, the water and the animals. As they passed over the great orange desert and neared the coast, they made mountains, lakes and plants. The places where they rested were now sacred, connecting the spirits with the people of the land.

I thought of the many missionaries who had been trying to convert these people to Christianity and I realised the elders were more spiritual than any white man could ever be.

The oldest of the elders, Jarrah, came to me. “You have experienced the dreaming. When you need help, call on the ancestors and they will come.”

That night I learned how to be human.

Red Shoes

By Azra Alagić

Bosnia

I pull the red shoes off Leila’s feet. The silver buckles shine under the fluorescent light, the cool satin covers sooth my throbbing hands. I run my fingers over the dried shadows soiling the fabric. “You should have been more careful,” I tell her. I place the shoes on the table and line them neatly together.

I had bought those shoes for Leila in another time, when such trivial things had mattered. She had slipped them on and danced around the house, her golden curls bouncing on her shoulders. I had watched Leila’s feet and wondered where her steps would take her in life.

Next I slip off the white cardigan, hand knitted by Leila’s grandmother who we’ll never see again. She’d sent one every year. The longed for reunion stolen by a mortar shell that had blown the old woman’s apartment into chunks of rubble, mixed with pieces of her wrinkled body. The cardigan had been safely mailed two weeks earlier so a grandmother could recognise a granddaughter when she stepped off the train. I lift the cardigan to my nose and breathe in the scent that lingers there. It is the same smell. The smell of a newborn baby, unpolluted, uncorrupted. Yesterday, Leila and I had snuggled together and I was surprised to find the smell still there. Nestled just behind her ear, hiding, undetected.

Innocence.

We didn’t catch the train. The Serbs had taken Kosovo.

Nationalism

I bend over and kiss my daughter’s ripe lips, smiling at her snow-white beauty.

It had caught the eyes of the soldiers when we had visited Baščaršija. The cobblestone streets had been lined with old men tinkering away at sheets of brass, moulding them into ibriks to boil sweet Turkish coffee in, and platters with intricate patterns on them or portraits of tourists keen to have their image embedded in something more novel other than an oil canvas. Jewellery shops sold gold chains by the centimetre and women flocked around old-fashioned haberdasheries housing antique lace, delicately embroidered napkins and hundreds of buttons stored in long clear plastic flutes. Buttons with flowers, buttons with tiny birds and buttons in the shapes of individual snowflakes. A mother was like a button, I’d thought, holding everything together.

The charm of the old village slowed visitors to its pace, it encouraged them to tarry and experience a precious way of life suspended on the breath of mountain air.

“I feel like I’m in a Hans Christian Anderson movie,” said Leila.

I’d laughed at the comparison and urged her along, watching the soldiers out of the corner of my eye. They circled like prowling lions salivating at the mouth, nudging each other, and joking – their newfound nationalism filling their breeches with arrogance and wet dreams of a Serbian Yugoslavia.

We caught the bus back home, passing the sports stadium. THE WORLD HAS NO CONSCIENCE was painted in big black letters on the concrete wall. Words that became the past as quickly as they had been written. No one cared. My people’s cries for help had failed to penetrate obdurate politicians. It was Bosnia’s lot. I looked up at the gaping holes in the apartment blocks on the hill and listened to the rumble of tanks echoing through the valley. It was rumoured more Serbs were heading for Sarajevo.

Soldiers

Their presence reminded me of my old neighbour, Aleksander. We had lived next door to each other for ten years, sharing an occasional coffee and chat over the fence. The old Serbian enjoyed his pipe and often, I would slip Aleksander some tobacco when his wife wasn’t watching. His gap-toothed smile changed to stoic reproach after Milosević announced his plans for a ‘Greater Serbia’. The next time I’d offered Aleksander tobacco he’d refused.

“I don’t take gifts from Muslims.”

“I’m not Muslim, I’m Catholic.”

“Your husband was and so is your daughter.”

Muharem, killed. Not by Serbs but by a similar evil that festered inside him waiting to dominate his body until it had eliminated his essence. Cancer. Perhaps it had been for the best. Witnessing the ethnocentric eradication of his people would have caused more pain than the cancer ever had.

I gaze at my daughter. She has her father’s blue-diamond eyes. They have lost their sparkle.

Bombs

A graveyard of buildings smoulders in the dusk, skeletons that cut the skyline and haunt our city. Century-old mosques have been destroyed, icons of the Ottoman Empire reduced to unrecognisable rubble. The call to prayer, that once roused Muharem from his bed, no longer rings through the valley.

Snipers hide in the hills where the world’s skiers once won their gold medals. In our small village on the outskirts of Sarajevo, I shut the windows in a futile attempt to keep the war outside.

I slip off Leila’s skirt that is spotted with dark stains. “I’ll never get this out,” I tell her.

 The building shudders and then heaves. Outside, people begin to scream. Leila and I rush out to see what is happening.

“The Serbs are coming, the Serbs are coming,” shrieks an old woman standing in the middle of the street.

I run back inside and throw some clothes, family photos and our passports into an old bag. We run with everyone else, away from the village. Away from our lives to save our lives. Cumulus smoke pours from cottages, caustic anger. An amalgamated cry of mourning fills the air as we join the throng and become the displaced.

Bodies

We run for hours, leaving snapping Serbs behind, but the soldiers circle the valley. No village is left untouched. Leila and I slow to a walk as we near the next town. Horror unfolds in front of us.

But we don’t speak of such things, people don’t want to know the details, hear or see what has happened, even though my daughter and I and everyone else here, must. We have no choice. Others say they don’t need to be told; they can imagine how bad it is. No they can’t. They can never know, unless we tell them.

Leila clings to me sobbing and I wrap my arms around her, try to cover her face, her ears and her soul. But she pushes me away, wanting to see what is triggering the guttural moaning emanating from my body. Her eyes widen at what lays in front of her, the vision impregnates a permanent nightmare in her mind. Her mouth opens wide in a soundless scream and she turns and buries her face in my soft scented skirt. She grabs my arms urging me to cover her eyes once again and reclaim what was lost.

I pass my hands over those blue diamonds and close Leila’s eyes.

           

Genocide

Something glitters at Leila’s ears. It is the earrings that I had given her, and my mother had given to me. I go to remove them, thinking they will attract too much attention but then think again and decide to leave them on. “So you know who you are,” I tell her.

The tabloids lie to the world but the words passed on from one refugee to another do not. Like locusts the Serbs feed, leaving nothing but carcasses and swollen bellies in Muslim women. The Serbs force the Muslims to dig mass graves before they line them up on the crumbling pit edge and shoot them, laughing as one ‘infidel’ after another topples into the hole, some dead, some still alive. The Jews cower in their homes, not believing they are living the experience again.

Some of the Muslims go underground, collecting what firearms they can, enraged by America’s refusal to provide arms for our self-preservation. Desperately we fight back with what little we have, trying to save the future for our children. I will not let my daughter be taken, she is all I have left in the world, and she will not be extinguished by this fruitless war. A war destined to have no end.

Serbs killing Bosnians and Croatians. Bosnians killing Serbs and Croatians. Croatians killing both Serbs and Bosnians. And then there are the Slovenians and the Albanians. I mustn’t forget them. When did it all get so complicated?

Rape

Bomb. Blood. Bricks. Blood. Red Shoes. Blood.

I pull Leila’s crimson socks off. “I think we’re safe, now.” I pick up the rag, dip it into the dirty water and wipe her face, then her hands and her feet.

“Don’t worry, we’ll get you cleaned up.”

I finish stripping Leila, turn to the small brown suitcase and snap it open. I pull out a black velvet skirt and embroidered white cotton top. I tug them down over Leila’s head and fasten the buttons on the back. Next, I slip on her stockings, and then brush out her curls. I look down at the red shoes sitting on the table; I cannot tell which red is the red of the fabric from the red of Leila’s blood. I slip them back on to her feet, first one and then the other. They seem to be too big for her now. I fasten the silver buckles a hole tighter. Hope seems a distant concept. It has been muted from Leila’s memory.

“There you go, now you’re clean again.”

I had failed to hold it together. Days of walking, days of starving, days of subjecting myself to the lust of those dogs. Their penises, weapons of war. I was alive because I was not Muslim.

I pick up Leila, her thirteen-year-old body weighs heavily in my arms and I lay her in the narrow pine coffin and close the lid.

           

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