BY TRAVIS INGLIS
I am in my hostel bed; it is morning, and I have not slept. Belgrade has turned sour. What the fuck happened? I am in grief and confusion. I got swept up in it, last night; I got swept up in the night. I needed answers; that’s how I justify it. I am not sure where my grief is aimed. I think it is aimed at a ruined friendship, but that’s not where it should be focused. That scares me. It would have happened without me, surely. But I have witnessed it, and now my only choice is to remember or forget.
Belgrade and the Nationalist.
Young and disenfranchised. He told us of his anger, his account of invasion and unemployment.
He hated the Americans; he hated the Germans. NATO forces had bombed his city. He had been a child.
There were scars visible in the city; there were scars within this young man.
Serbia was proof of generational memory, genetically inherited grudges. It was there and then, that I understood how war could be.
There, the Danube felt dangerous. James and I, we were exposed.
We listened to this young man; he explained delicately his human hatred as he bought us beer. We listened and felt threatened. And we tried to tread lightly on his fears. We needed to know how war kept occurring; I needed to know. I thought maybe knowing would bring us peace; bring me peace. But what I found were answers in violent speak, a passioned plea.
“The defenders of Europe” was his refrain.
And we drunk his generosity and beer. And we baked, unaccustomed as we were, to the late morning heat in an ancient town amongst ancient feuds. Me, naive in my perception of safety. Ignorant and blissful to the unfolding.
This young man was scarred. He threatened. Brought a knife to our sight. Our blissfulness was bittered by the blade.
He said he had stabbed a German Tourist with it. “The knife in the aggressor’s side.”
He said he had watched him bleed from it. We tried not to believe him, but maybe he was not lying.
It was possible that this young man could do us harm. We were compelled to stay; leaving would be far more difficult than we thought.
Naive and kind, we were idiots. My mind did not transport me away from the moment. I was trapped in the present, in his presence. I had no memory or thoughts of the future.
James stood to leave, and I followed. Our polite attempt at farewell met with unbalanced response. I watched him process rejection.
“In Serbia, if I buy you a drink, you stay and buy me a drink.” He threatened more than advised.
But he was right. We’d been rude.
“Sorry…” No excuse came to me. “What are we drinking?”
Beer was cheap. Pivo was the only Serbian word I knew. The bar was small, dark and adorned with disenfranchised young men. Words were being directed towards me; a string of syllables, rolled together in Slavic tangle. And from within this low rumble of sounds, I recognised only the words, “American faggot.” I wanted to stop and explain to those young men that I was not American. I wanted to run away. I didn’t. I walked to the bar and opened myself to the bartender. He was skin-headed and kind. I held his eye and shared a smile, extended three digits; thumb and two fingers. “Pivo.” I spoke.
The smallest amount of currency was exchanged for the beer. I forget which currency Serbia uses. I walked out. There were no longer any murmurs.
At the table James was talking and shaping the air with his hands. The Nationalist was laughing and leaning forwards.
Somewhere in there, normality returned. I forgot to feel threatened. I forgot to fear for my safety. The Earth turned, and we drank. The table time-travelled from morning sun to late afternoon shade. The continental heat never faded.
We had been woven into the city.
Surrounded by friends of the day in that manner that young travellers do. Embraced by locals and welcomed without conditions. I look back now and don’t remember a single face. I flash through incomplete images of tall men, tall like me. I see army surplus fatigues, shaved heads, and Christian crosses tattooed. But no faces.
“It is time to go. Come on…time to hunt.” The Nationalist’s words disintegrated my calm. “Come on!” He gave a glimpse of the knife. It was a thousand times more terrifying than the first time I had seen it. It was just bravado, right?
My body soaked in adrenaline; my mind soaked in beer. I was too drunk and dumb to act apart from the crowd. All I could manage was to follow.
Night had found us.
Eleven angry young men, armed with hate and fuelled with drink, moved down the sloping street. They moved silently, as silently as their intoxication allowed.
All I could think of was to run. I didn’t know what they were hunting. But if I’m honest with myself, I think I knew. But all I did was react. I was part of the pack, without words, without footsteps, we drained away from the city. James did too. He looked scared. I wanted not to flow. I wanted to swim upstream and run. I was trapped.
It was guerrilla warfare against shadows.
The time to leave had passed. It all felt inevitable.
The Nationalist placed his hand between my shoulder blades. He leant in and with breath toxic with alcohol and hate, turned me into a ghost. “Jakov has them… Americans.”
I dissolve into carbon and other minerals. I was returned to the earth. I no longer existed.
As my carbon reconstituted, I was not sure where I was, or how much time I had lost. But I seemed to be occupying high ground. I was a lookout in a guerrilla war.
Below was an alley.
From my vantage high, I could see the ambush.
“Watch.” It was the Nationalist; he had spoken.
This is what I watched: It was a young couple. They shone like a beacon of Americana. He looked tall and wide, but was dwarfed by the young Serbian men around him. She looked beautiful and nervous. I had no sympathy for him; that scared me. I feared for her. That scared me more.
I didn’t know whether to watch or hide. I’m not sure if I did either.
Disbelief. James approached the young men and their prey. I screamed silently at him to not do it; don’t be a hero. I watched, and also tried not to watch, as James entered into desperate negotiations. I could not make out what he was saying. But whatever it was, it didn’t work. He turned to the Americans and gave them a sympathetic look. I watched James walk away. Slowly and calmly. He was showered by bottles. They broke on the ground all around him. He did not look back. Did not flinch. He swam upstream to safety.
He had walked away. Fuck! I was alone.
I was drunk.
There was a scream. She was beautiful. She looked like an actress. This wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. It was just make-believe.
The American was on the ground; he was curled up inside his mother’s womb. He was being unborn. The pool of blood slowly grew. And in a brotherly bond the young men took turns stomping and spitting at their unborn prey.
She was beautiful. I thought they would rape her. She screamed loudly. The city didn’t seem to care.
It hit me all at once.
I felt that I was a part of this, that this was me; this was my fault. I was a voyeur, and those boots stomping on the American jaw were mine. She was to be raped, and it would be me. The guilt felt empty. It weighed nothing. Was this just the nature of things?
From the night, a sentry yelled a warning, and the guerrilla army retreated. Laughs and hoots echoed the city.
“Time to run.” The Nationalist relayed the retreat to me. I did not move. He said no other words. Just softly placed his hand between my shoulder blades before fading into the night.
Below me, she was holding her stomach. She was bleeding. It soaked her dress. She was beautiful. He was unborn; he was no longer human. She did not go to him. She only stood and bled.
Police arrived. There was movement and colour. It was an Oscar-winning scene. She was magnificent. She portrayed shock and loss, and deep human emotion as if she was really living it.
I couldn’t think what to do. So, I ran. Fuck did I run. Downhill. I was aiming for the centre of the world. Oblivion.
I found myself by the water. In the darkness if felt forgiving. Vast and timeless. I sat there, watching two rivers meet. I hid. I hid from the world. I hid from the police. I hid from the Nationalists. I hid from myself.
I wanted to drown; to float in the Danube until I was unborn. She had looked so beautiful.
As the sun rose, I returned through the sleeping city to my hostel. My memory of this is blank; I only know that it happened. If I felt something, it was hidden beyond my reach.
In the same moment I was arriving, James was leaving. We looked at each other and said nothing, and showed nothing, paused briefly. Then he disappeared. I am not sure I will ever see him again.
Upstairs and in my bunk-bed, I am safe. Hidden in my blanket fort. I have no answers. All I can see is her bleeding beautifully.
About the Author
Travis Inglis is a poet and a writer. Published in the art magazine Artascent, and the literary journal Toasted Cheese, Travis is finding an audience for his short stories among fans of honest fiction. Travis is currently working on his debut novel ‘The Magnificent’, which he promises will delve into the truth of sabotage and memory.
Travis is the winner of The Writers College 2020 Creative Writer of the Year Award.
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