Photo: © Depositphotos.com/konradbak
Written by Edvin Subašić
Sara presses her face against the wall and takes a deep breath. She sees the swirling colors permeating the cool blue and meeting her at the tip of her nose. “Who are you?” she whispers. “Why can I see you so clearly? And where do you come from?”
The muffled clamor comes first. Next, the concoction of colors masked with layers of paint wells up to the surface. And the colors? She loves them. Every day, as soon as she enters their apartment on the third floor, she tosses her backpack by the bed and climbs on it. She knows her mother will leave her alone. Mama is busy getting the supper ready. It’s dinner for two, Mama and the nine-year-old Sara, but Mama cooks for a large family. She always does, so Sara takes the leftovers to school, where children mutter in passing, “What’s that you’re eating? Yuck.” That is if the children talk to her at all. For the past six months, she has been learning English and her only friend is Elena. Elena is from Colombia and she is in her ESL class. One foggy morning, they both showed up at school with their moms and stayed together with the teacher, Ms. April, the tall scrawny woman who looks more like some high-schooler than a teacher. Ms. April spoke Spanish, but not Serbo-Croatian. In fact, no one speaks Serbo-Croatian in school but Sara.
Sara’s father is in the hospital. Mama told her a week ago. She was sobbing and squeezing Sara in her lap. There’s a whole ocean between them, and she and Mama have already crossed it. Mama had pointed to the Atlantic and Boston on the computer screen above their heads as they were leaving Frankfurt Airport. Boston is nice, Mama said. It has Cheers and the ocean and Grampa’s younger sister who has lived there alone ever since Mama was a little child. She had met Aunt Selma only once, when she’d visited them in Yugoslavia. Aunt Selma had taken Mama and Uncle Damir to Dubrovnik that summer. She also brought them gifts from America: Levis 501 and an NBA basketball. On their way to America, Mama was hopeful and thankful that she’d gotten Sara out of the war. She was enthusiastic about their future life in Boston, about the day they’d welcome Tata to their new home. But every now and then she’d stare out the plane’s window for a long time, into the clouds. When Sara asked her something she’d respond quickly and turn only half-way towards her, trying to hide her swollen eyes.
Sara remembers the morning Tata took her in his arms, kissed her forehead, and smelled her hair. Yes, that’s what he was doing the whole time before he put her in Mama’s lap and got out of the bus. He joined the others who’d brought their families to the station. They were standing there and waving. He tried to smile at her but his cheeks looked heavy and tensed. He couldn’t leave the town. He was in a stinky uniform, a brand-new outfit, but it reeked of moth balls; at least that was what Mama said to him, as if that was the only thing that mattered. She cried. She heard her sniffing and muttering “You’re a Math teacher, can’t even shoot. They must let you go. You won’t last more than a week.” Tata whispered something in Mama’s ear and kept kissing Sara and sniffing her hair. She thought he’d inhale her. Now she wishes he had. But wouldn’t that mean that one of the shrapnel fragments would have hit her too when it pierced his lungs?
“Colors? Inside the wall? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mama replies when Sara tells her that she saw and heard colors in the wall. “The wall is blue, faded blue, cool and quiet, Sara. In fact, it’s more gray than blue, my child. At one point in time, in the past, it might’ve been blue like the sky,” she adds. “The neighbor, Ms. Parker told me that the building once burned in the riots. The whites in the neighborhood wouldn’t let the blacks move in. They started a fire a week after the first three families moved in. The families including their kids barely made out. Ms. Parker was one of the children. Can you imagine?”
Sara recalls the first days of the war and the apartment building across from the canal, burning whole, massive clouds of smoke rising to the sky. She could only see a dark stain against the sunrise. She had asked her father what color the fire burned. She wanted to know. She always asked him. Tata and Mama would take the time to describe the colors for her at great lengths. She’d try to remember and repeat it back to them, quiz them again days later. It was their game. This time Tata bent over her, gave her a lingering kiss on the forehead and said, “I don’t know dear. This color you shouldn’t remember. No one should.”
Sara’s achromatopsia is getting better here. The doctors say they’ll find a way to help her. They gave her glasses with red lenses to wear. Mama blessed them and blessed America when Sara tried the glasses on for the first time and could distinguish between the red and dusky-brown leaves outside of the doctor’s window. She cried tears of happiness.
Mama is crying again tonight. She waits for Sara to go to her room. She goes to the kitchen and cooks sarma. Another refugee family who’d come to Boston a year earlier had given them a head of sauerkraut, they’d made it themselves. Mama says it’s the onions. It’s always the onions.
“Sara.” She hears the familiar voice, raspy and deep like from a tunnel. “You there, girl?”
“Tata?” She murmurs and presses harder against the thick skin of the wall. “Tata, is that you? For real?”
“Sara, my child, tell Mama everything’s going to be alright. You hear me, miško?”
“How do you like it there?”
“I don’t know. I go to school, on my own. There’s a school bus that picks me up in front of the apartments. Mama waits for me outside after work. She works at the Sheraton, downtown. It’s big.”
“Do you like school?’
“Yes, Elena. She’s forty days older than me, and she speaks Spanish. She wants to take me with her family on vacation to Colombia. She says that every house is a different color in her hometown.”
“Oh, mali miš, I miss you so much.”
“When are you coming to live with us?”
“What colors are those homes in Colombia?”
“They’re red, yellow, green, and blue, and pink, and purple, and—”
“What color is the sky in Boston?”
“It’s blue, I guess, although it’s been so cloudy, rain every day.”
“Yes, honey, it’s always blue, everywhere we go, even when it’s cloudy. Remember, love, always blue.”
Edvin Subašić was born and raised in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Yugoslavia. He left Bosnia in 1993, lived in a refugee camp in Croatia, and later in Germany. He immigrated to the US in 1997 at the age of 21 and learned English. He lives in Boise, Idaho with his wife and daughter. He teaches ESL classes for Intensive English Program at Boise State University.
His work was published in The Cabin Idaho’s Anthologies. One of his stories earned an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train. This year he was shortlisted for the 2017 Disquiet Literature Prize for Fiction. More fiction is forthcoming in B O D Y.