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Requiem for Vukovar Chapter 1

Chapter One

 

Through the taverna’s open door, Kelly Corcoran could see fishing boats bobbing alongside the wooden pier, a view drawn in extremes of light and shadow by the Adriatic sun. A steady breeze that Jeri called a maestral, welcome on this hot June afternoon, drifted into the long, narrow room, carrying a pungent sea smell along with the odor of things cooking in olive oil and garlic. Kelly lifted a thimble-sized cup of dark liquid to her lips, took a cautious sip, then closed her eyes to better savor the bitter taste of the sweet, thick, almost chewable coffee.

 

Kelly was the only customer in the taverna. Three men were drinking at a rear table, but one was the owner and the other two were his friends. Kelly assumed they were friends because the intense argument they were engaged in would bring anyone else to blows. Not that she understood Yugoslavian, but people speaking loudly and interrupting one another were usually arguing.

 

Not Yugoslavian. Jeri said the language was Serbo-Croatian.

 

Jeri had promised to be gone about an hour, but the hour was up. Not long enough to worry, perhaps. Jeri still had not explained why they were in the Yugoslavian city of Dubrovnik, but Kelly hoped they might stay a while. That morning she had jogged from their hotel near the docks to a road that took her past a fish market into hills overlooking the city. The view of the sea and city below had been as refreshing as the exercise.

 

After the florid confusions of India, Kelly was finding the familiarity of Europe as comfortable as a well-worn flannel shirt. She had been plotting a route from Delhi to the Taj Mahal when Jeri announced they were going to Dubrovnik at the request of her friend and occasional colleague, Rafi Gregoric.

 

“Is that a country, state, or city?”

 

“City. On the Adriatic Sea. That’s the one between Italy and Yugoslavia. Dubrovnik is in Yugoslavia.” 

 

Between India and Yugoslavia, Kelly’s usually keen sense of distance and direction had been completely confounded by a combination of old trains, buses, boats, and far too many hot, jolting, canvas-covered trucks. Still, whatever the transportation lacked in comfort, it made up for in its ability to avoid officialdom. Not once during the entire journey from India had they been asked for their fake passports.

 

After the last boat dropped them off at a small port, Jeri had acquired a battered yellow Yugo, probably from the same source that provided messages and fake passports. The small car felt downright airy after the boat where they had been kept below decks with a load of wooden crates. Unfamiliar place names continued to accumulate as they drove. Jeri explained that they were north of Dubrovnik, in Dalmatia, the seacoast of Croatia that was a republic in Yugoslavia. Hearing only Dalmatia, Kelly started looking for spotted dogs.

 

As the sun rose over the mountains, the road south along the Dalmatian coast revealed an unending panorama of blue seascapes and green inland ranges. The narrow highway led through several small villages but Kelly saw not one spotted dog.

 

“There!”  Kelly pointed to a fruit vendor at the side of the road.

 

“What?” Jeri was startled into braking the car, narrowly missing the first truck in a military convoy going in the opposite direction.

 

“That’s the hundred and first Dalmatian I’ve seen!”

 

Kelly really didn’t understand why Jeri was upset. She was sure her count of the population was accurate. Maybe Jeri had been away from the U.S. for so long that she had never heard of the movie. Kelly tried to explain but Jeri didn’t seem to care.

 

Late in the day, Jeri steered the Yugo off the road and onto a hilltop overlook. At first, all Kelly saw was a gilded sea that looked as if the sun had set it ablaze. Then she noticed the city below and, even exhausted past the point of giddiness, she gasped aloud.

 

“Dubrovnik.” Jeri sounded as satisfied as if she were a magician who had pulled the city from a hat.

 

Red-tiled roofs clustered along the shoreline and a growing number of lights flickered in the deepening twilight. A circular section, called Old City, lay out in the water surrounded by pale marble walls glowing creamy rose in the fading day.

 

“Dubrovnik used to be called Ragosa, and she once rivaled Venice as a center of trade and power in the Mediterranean. Venice is farther up the coast we just drove down,” Jeri said.

 

She took Kelly’s hand and they watched the timeless drama of sunset until the sea became a strip of darkness dividing the stars from the city lights.

 

The argument in the rear of the taverna jolted Kelly back to the present. Someone had hit the table hard enough to make bottles rattle. Jeri had introduced Kelly to the owner when they arrived, but Kelly couldn’t remember his name. Even if a night of decent sleep in a hotel bed had done wonders for her mental state, the man’s name was not something easy to remember, like Luke or John.

 

Not-Luke-or-John saw her looking toward him and he started to rise but Kelly shook her head. She still had half a thimble of coffee. The owner turned back to his companions. Kelly had been hearing anxious and angry voices since arriving in Dubrovnik. From these men, hotel clerks, some people near the newspaper kiosk where she’d searched for an English headline after her morning run.

 

“What’s going on here?” Kelly had asked Jeri when she returned to the hotel that morning.

 

“I’m not sure yet. It’s complicated.”

 

Well, yeah, complicated, of course. Kelly had heard of the Balkans. She couldn’t name all the countries that referred to, but she knew that Yugoslavia was definitely one. The Balkans were a historical rumor with a bad reputation, less a location than an adjective for things fragmenting with unpleasant consequences. Somehow, they had even caused World War One. Complicated indeed.

 

 

The Peace and Brotherhood Bookstore was just inside the walls of Old City and catered to tourists. Jeri O’Donnell worked her way around a table of recent publications with titles in several languages as she scanned other customers. A stout bald man was perusing periodicals near the front of the store, while a young couple, local by their appearance, browsed in the paperback section. Only these three, and they had been inside when Jeri entered.

 

Troubled times were affecting the tourist trade. The situation in Croatia was much more disturbing than Jeri had anticipated. The military convoy she and Kelly had passed on the coast road was just one example of reports of deteriorating relations among Yugoslavia’s several republics. One of the republics, Slovenia, was going to make a break for independence any day now, and then Croatia would be dragged along. Not kicking and screaming with reluctance but nowhere near as well prepared for independence as Slovenia. That would be the end of peace and brotherhood.

 

Jeri looked about for someone in charge. She was uncomfortable with leaving Kelly alone for long. When she asked Zlatko, the taverna owner who had sent her to the bookstore, he had claimed the situation in Croatia was stable.

 

“Nothing will happen. It’s all just a bunch of loud people who want to hear themselves talk,” he’d said.  His tone had belied his words.

 

Jeri looked at the table in front of her. Some of the titles were English. Maybe Kelly would like a book called Jurassic Park. Or the one more amusingly titled Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

 

Jeri looked about again. There was just herself, the other three browsers and still no sign of a clerk in the store. If Rafi’s message was so damned important, then he should have picked some more reliable messengers. It wasn’t like him to leave so much to chance.

 

Jeri willed herself to composure. Rafi had asked a favor and she owed him anything he wanted. She owed him her life.

 

The jangling bell over the door announced the entry of two young women who looked very much like tourists. Both were in their early twenties, blonde and tanned, wearing khaki shorts. One of them had a maple leaf sewn on her backpack, but Jeri thought it could easily have been a rainbow flag. She carefully avoided eye contact and any possible recognition of sisterhood as they passed her on the way to the paperback section. Jeri had dressed in tan slacks with a white blouse in order to appear nothing more than a stylish local woman.

 

The bell finally brought a clerk from the rear of the shop, a gray-haired woman on the farther edge of middle age. Jeri walked over to the counter.

 

“Do you have a history of Romany?” she asked in Croatian.

 

“No. We have nothing like that.” The woman’s gaze sharpened and her features fell into an expression of distaste as she very obviously considered that Jeri herself might be Gypsy.

 

“Oh? Borisav called and said that such a book had arrived. I shall return when he is here.” Anger churned below the surface, but Jeri gave away nothing of her feelings. So good to be back in Europe where everybody hated somebody.

 

“Wait, please. Borisav is here.” The mention of her employer’s name bent the woman’s attitude toward courtesy.

 

While she waited, Jeri looked around. To the right of the counter was a section of used books. She leaned close to read the faded letters of a title that was almost like encountering an old friend. Perfect. This was the book for Kelly.

 

“May I help you?” Borisav seemed the same age as his clerk but with a decidedly more gracious manner.

 

“Yes. I was hoping to find a book on the history of Romany. I believe you called.”

 

“Of course. Come with me.” He led her through a heavy curtain to a back room containing the clutter and machinery of any office.

 

“You are—?”

 

“Estellija.” Jeri filled in the blank in the question.

 

“Good. Yes.” He moved behind his desk and lowered his voice. “Unfortunately, our friend is unable to be in the country just now. He asks that you to go to Vukovar and escort Alenka, his sister, to Sarajevo where she will be safer.”

 

“Safer? How dangerous is the situation?”

 

“No, no, no danger.” Borisav shook his head but it sounded like his automatic response to any tourist. He paused and then amended his answer. “I think he only wants his sister farther from Serbia. Vukovar is just across the Danube from Serbia.”

 

Borisav rummaged around on his desk and found a large envelope. “Here. German marks for expenses and an address in Zagreb.”

 

“How much for this?” She held out the used book she had found.

 

“Please. It is yours with my compliments. Now, Marta will be assured that I really did have business with such an attractive young woman.”

 

“Thank you.” Jeri turned to go.

 

“Estellija. Wait. I also have an address here in Dubrovnik where you are to pick up another car. We think that you have may have been followed, so a change will be good sense. Please, be cautious.”

 

 

Another fist hit the table where the argument in the taverna continued. Kelly might not know the reason for the journey to Dubrovnik, but she was beginning to think that the summer of nineteen ninety one was not the best of times to visit.

 

Kelly vaguely recalled Yugoslavia figuring in the news before she left Ohio. That was when she and Billy would watch the nightly news on successive channels, a ritual to take them from one day to the next. Not long before he died, Billy began watching game shows instead, as if he wanted no more tales of the world he had to leave. Kelly tried, but couldn’t recall any of the stories about Yugoslavia, only her dismay at seeing tanks rolling through a town that looked very much like the one where she had grown up.

 

She had been thinking of Billy at the kiosk that morning where she had looked for a newspaper. Even the papers that used an alphabet she recognized were in another language, and she found only postcards in English. One of them read: “The famous walls of Dubrovnik’s Old City with a view of Mt. Srd in the distance.” The postcard view of red-tiled roofs caught much of what she had seen while jogging. In that instant, she wanted so very much to be able to send the card to Billy. He would have loved this city. He had a tourist’s eagerness for foreign lands and it had been his stories that sent her to Nepal after his funeral. Where she’d met Jeri. Kelly had bought the postcard.

 

Jeri had raised an eyebrow when Kelly showed her, but she’d said nothing.

 

Now, waiting for Jeri, Kelly turned the postcard over, wishing again that she could mail it home to Ohio. A sudden sensation of vertigo threatened to overwhelm her as she became aware of the impossible distance between this ancient city on the Adriatic and her family’s farm in Ohio. Dizziness, along with a rapid heart rate, was so strong that Kelly gripped the edge of the table. The panic attacks didn’t occur often, not anymore, but when they came they were sudden and severe.

 

Kelly reached into a pocket for the plum-sized quartz crystal from Nepal. Almost oval, with an inner brightness as clear as the high Himalayan air, each of the crystal’s six sides gave a view of the interior where tiny rainbows played hide and seek. The stone had a name, a secret name: Keeper. She kept it and it kept her. Holding the crystal was like holding an anchor. Her heart began to slow and she took a deep breath.

 

Kaju, the young Sherpa she had met in Nepal, who intended to become a monk, had seen her with the crystal and how she often took it out to hold it. He had explained the meaning of terma, a tradition in Tibetan Buddhism that meant “hidden treasure.” Such treasures were said to be concealed messages waiting to be found. Kaju assured Kelly that even if she was not the one for whom the message was intended, just its physical presence would transmit grace and comfort.

 

You took life as you found it. Her brother, George, had never anticipated the existence of AIDS, but he never denied the life that took him to that illness. Kelly could only hope for equal courage to accept her own path as bravely and steadily as George, his lover Russell, and their friend Billy had managed to walk theirs.

 

You took life as it found you. If you were on leave from teaching college literature and composition in Ohio, and you met your life’s love on a mountainside in the high Himalayas and you wanted to stay with her forever, no matter her past, so be it.

 

Kelly’s panic finally ebbed. She was homesick, that was all. The European familiarity of Dubrovnik was making her homesick for the even more familiar land of childhood.

 

But Ohio wasn’t home anymore. From now on, home was wherever Jeri was.

 

A shadow broke the sunlit doorway and, as if responding to her thought, Jeri appeared, long dark hair wound in braids around her head, suggesting she might be older than the cusp of thirty.  Kelly’s reason for being in this unlikely region stood framed by light and darkness as Jeri paused to let her eyes adjust to the interior. Kelly’s joy at seeing her was like the tolling of a bell that dismissed all doubts about where she wanted to be.

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