Jewels of Mostar
under submission 7,185 words, 10/20/19
Jewels of Mostar
Brian RB Wilcox
On a cold Bosnian morning, Zlatan Krpić eased himself off his mold ridden pallet near the make-shift stove. It was dark in the small apartment across from the mosque on the alley Adema Buća in Mostar.
He cried out in pain, tears coming unbidden, mostly from the severe, crippling headache he had struggled with since before his grievous leg wound. He managed to drag himself the two meters to the stove and fed it some scraps of broken chair, recoiling at the acrid smell of the plastic they had burned earlier.
Old Deda, his grandfather still slept as he did most of the time when not being disturbed by the shelling and being hustled into the tunnel networks broken through the bricks of the housing blocks in the neighborhood. There was no privacy anymore, or real ownership of any space. All the citizens and fighters were at liberty to enter any safe space at any time to avoid shelling and sniper fire. The worst was just the random shooting from the troops coming in off M17, the Boulevard, to harry the citizens.
Zlatan had just elbowed his way back to his pallet and covered himself with the rug he used as a quilt when his brother Aleksandar came in from the broken section of wall.
"It's bad out there, do you hear the small arms fire?"
"I can't hear anything but the pounding in my head" the younger man said.
"How is your leg?"
Zlatan rolled over onto his back and said, "It's killing me all the time, and it feels burning hot. It's getting red streaks going up, and the stump is smelling terrible. None of that is as bad as this headache."
He did not include his feeling that he would put a bullet into his head if it were not that it would waste a round his brother might need to protect himself or Deda.
Aleksandar dipped a rag into the water bucket, rang it out, folded it and put it on his brother's forehead. Any relief was better than none, and he could see that Zlatan was in worse shape today than he had seen since the 20mm cannon round had taken his leg in January. They had done what they could for him then and it had been enough to keep him alive. Aleksander had cut away the shreds of flesh and tendon while Zlatan was unconscious. The crude belt tourniquet stopped the hemorrhage long enough to cauterize the stump with some gun powder ignited by a small steel tray heated to a deep glowing red. It was good the young man was unconscious.
So far, on the first of November,1993 had been the worst year any of them had ever seen. Worse than any of them could ever have imagined; the depravations and losses were beyond the scope of human endurance it seemed, yet life in Mostar persisted and continued to strive for some semblance of normalcy. The people still cooked when they had any food, they went for water every day either to the river or to the UN aid trucks that sometimes came. When the bread man came to the water stations they grabbed what they could and shared with those unable to come. They all shared what they could, especially hope and fortitude.
Zlatan, now 25 was past the usual age of marriage. Understandable considering that his fiancé Ilhana was killed by a sniper's bullet coming shrill, splitting the wind and her head while she crossed the Stari Most, the famous stone bridge of Mostar.
The old bridge of course, now loomed even larger than it ever had for Zlatan. It was a symbol of what took everything from him; Ilhan, his leg, friends, and his parents. The snipers were efficient though to Zlatan they were misguided by hate and rage. They shot at anything they felt like. Cars, wagons, people, just ordinary people trying to get water, bread, news of loved ones. The dangers came off the boulevard with random sorties by the soldiers coming and shooting promiscuously, and from the roof tops with the deadly snipers. The snipers took his parents, Ilhan, and his leg, but worst of all for Zlatan with his leg they took his ability to fight, to take revenge, to survive like a man, not a rat in a trap. They would not even be around here if it were not for the bridge, he thought.
In his rumination about the war and its poignant non-purpose in his opinion, he viewed it as a tormented man. One who cannot stand himself to the degree that he is compelled to destroy himself. In the images that came to him in his pre-sleep, before the horrible dreams came and accelerated his headaches, he saw a man bent on his own destruction, rending at himself with teeth and fingernails, breaking his own bones with fists over and over until there was nothing left of the man but teeth, fists and hate.
Theold bridge that crossed the Neretva River was finished by the Ottomans in 1566. It was a feat of engineering that was unrivaled in its time and there was no wider arch ever built in the world. Not a particularly long bridge at thirty meters, nor very wide at four meters, it was nonetheless integral to the growth and prosperity of Mostar, connecting the two banks of the river on which the city lay for daily commerce. It was built with a fortified tower at each end of it that were know as The Bridge Keepers.
At twenty-four meters above the river at the peak of the arch, it dominated the river and captivated the eyes and imaginations of visitors to the city.
For Zlatan, it had been a constant in his life. It figured dominantly in his coming-of -age when he, like other young men of sixteen years, was obliged to jump from the peak of the arch into the clear frigid water of the Neretva. Tradition dictated that unless a boy jump from the bridge by age sixteen, his life would be an utter failure, he would never marry, never have any success in business or labor, never father children. They all jumped either through pressure of tradition and peers or from family demands. Zlatan embraced the process and his first jump was flawless.
He surfaced and looked up at the bridge shining in the sunlight, the river swirling clear and teal around him. He floated in the current for a moment, then turned and swam toward the flat stone beach where Ilhana waited for him. He came from the water and she ran to him and hugged him.
"Just wait until later" she whispered in his ear and kissed his cheek.
He went with the other boys who jumped that day and drank some tepid beer someone had pilfered and some rakja that was passed around. Aleksandar came, and had a beer with them, and clapping his brother on the back he said, "Well, you're a man now. What will you do brother?"
Without hesitation Zlatan answered, "I'm a jumper now, I will jump and take the dinars the tourists offer."
They all knew the first person known to have jumped from the bridge was in 1664. Since that time thousands of boys becoming men had jumped, but not so many jumped for a career as did a few in the 1980s.
Aleksandar did not want to dampen his brothers momentous leap into manhood and so did not try to discourage his aims to jump for money. He knew that the men who did ran a sort of ad hoc union and would not be receptive to a teen moving into their livelihood. It was not an esprit de corps that Zlatan sought. It was just the dinars, just the means to marry Ilhan and start a family of his own.
On the day of his first jump he was filled with hope and it was with the exuberance of a newly confirmed man that he left his mother's table that evening and rushed back to the bridge where he knew Ilhan would be waiting.
The sun was setting when he got to the bridge. He did not see her by the Tara Tower where she usually waited for him. But coming under the entrance arch he saw her sitting on the rail at the apex of the bridge. It was unusual. The light was illuminating the colors of the water as it eddied and purled on itself. We could drift all the way to the sea from here,he mused as he walked softly up the cobbles toward Ilhan. She sat on the rail just kicking her feet, watching the river and the setting sun.
"I'm here" he said, hugging her from behind.
She lolled her head back against him and the smell of her clean and shining hair filled him.
"It's so beautiful out this evening, isn't it?"
"You are what's beautiful."
"No, Zlatan, your jump today! That was beauty."
"It was nothing, just a little jump into the water."
"I could never do it" she said and turned a kissed his lips before he could say anything more.
He climbed up onto the bridge rail and sat beside her, neither saying anything until the sun was down and the lights of the city took the night.
"Todaywas a very special day for you" she murmured.
It sounded new to Zlatan, he had not heard use a tone like this before, soft, sweet but serious, not like hear usual laughter and verve.
"I thought it was fun, but I don't know why everyone thinks it's such a big deal. Just like flying, only down is the only direction," he laughed.
"It is a big thing, you are a man now. You have shown that to everyone. It is a very special day when a boy becomes a man, you know it."
"Ha ha, yes of course, but even a donkey could jump off the bridge and survive I think."
"Shhhh...you know it, and I know it."
She turned and got down from the bridge rail, and took his hand.
"Come with me."
"Don't talk, just come."
She kept his hand in hers and the left the bridge. She lead him off the Northeast end of the bridge and down past the old tower dungeon. The trail went down river through a verdant undergrowth and she found her way with the flashlight she had brought.
She brought him along the ledges on the east side of the river. Places they had played as children, not so very long ago. Places they had thought of as their special caves, places all their own. They came to the big overhang with the grotto that was nearly big enough to stand in. Ilhana had come there earlier and laid Turkish rugs and blankets down. She had placed beeswax candles around, and the grotto smelled of the sandalwood incense she had burned earlier.
She lit the candles and turned off the flashlight.
"Tonight, you will get what a man gets" she grinned and pulled off her shirt. She wore no bra. "Do you like what you see?"
He said nothing, kissed her and held her close, his warm hands on her, her breath coming soft in his ear, their senses reeling with the scent of each other, the incense and the river.
It was a night neither would ever forget.
Although Muslim, neither family was devout. The changing social mores of the 1960s had come to Hercegovina as well as the rest of the world, MTV had come with the advent of cable and by the 1980s, no swords were drawn, no honor killings were thought of if a daughter did not come home when she was expected. Or a son. They knew and behind stifled grins they approved.
Life was good for the young couple. Each family accepted the relationship and on Sundays they would alternate between the afternoon meal and music with her family, then with his.
She found work in one of the many restaurants and her bubbly personality was an asset as a hostess.
As he said he would.
And every weekend with the advent of the growing tourist industry, he jumped. Sometimes if the other more seasoned jumpers were taking a break or had not arrived yet, he would bribe a young boy to pass the basket for dinars, give him candy and prop the lads up with tall tales of his jumping prowess.
After a jump gone bad from not checking upriver to scan for any floating debris, his face grew terribly swollen from hitting a solid oak burl that floated just below the surface. His four shattered teeth on his upper jaw were later repaired with gold caps done for him as a courtesy by a dentist whose son was also a jumper.
Old Deda had given him a Tisbih, Moslem prayer beads made from Baltic amber that he had been given as a boy. Deda admonished Zlatan to recite the Allah Akbar, the Subhan Allah, and the Al-Ahmadulila for strength and safety each day. "I don't need them anymore" he said, "Allah knows I am nearly with Him."
He grew a small fan base of the local street boys and began to make some money from his three or four jumps a day. After a year he was jumping daily and had been accepted into the fraternity of jumpers on the Start Most.
Ilhan and Zlatan were most definitely in love. They could not get enough of each other, both physically and emotionally. But their relationship was not dimensionless. They talked. Often and in depth. Each knew everything about the other. Each envisioned the same future together. When they talked, they kept their eyes filled with each other and in time, they knew true intimacy, the like of which neither of their parents had ever known. They were a couple of a new generation and they had upwardly mobile plans. That would soon be shattered. Shattered in a way that was so much worse than a broken face, in a way that could not be capped with gold or anything else.
By1990 things had changed. They had changed in the way that profound changes happen. Those that happen in a way that assures that things will never be the same. Most of the older generation remembered rule under Tito. Most of them remembered the Nazi threat of the late thirties and early forties. Some of them had been in the camps in Serbia. Most had family members killed in the campaigns of that war.
Though many of those campaigns had been lesser considering the bigger conflict between the Axis and the Allies, those were split hairs that mattered little in the Balkans. What mattered was the shattering of families, the pervasive grief. And by 1990 that remembered grief was of little consequence to the mounting horrors of this new war, this new war of selves upon selves.
At twenty-two, Ilhan and Zlatan were getting by in any way they could as were their families and all of the families in Mostar. The threat the tanks brought from their unchallenged roosts on the surrounding hillsides was one that no-one could see any way out of. Those tanks could come down on the city like thunderbolts from Zeus, like the anger and curse of Allah. But why? Why? They all asked this unanswerable question. The only answer offered by the older generation was that it was inshallah, God wills it.
The younger generations questioned it, though with guilt and trepidation in possibly being sacrilegious. Question the will of Allah?
The younger people said yes, without a doubt. Question our deaths for no apparent reason, from people who are the same as us, the same language, the same customs the same heritage? Of course we question that they said. But they all knew they could not question a mortar shell, or a bullet, or a tank or the damned gangsters who were the puppeteers who built this crazy war.
They soon stopped questioning and started plotting how daily survival would be managed. And the only answer they could come up with was that it would be managed in any way they could.
The next two years were not pleasant, or bearable, but they did bear it and they bore it with a spirit that would not be eradicated.
It was true, impressing and poignant that spirit would not be eradicated. Likewise, for love and remembrance. But lives could be, families could be, and were at an alarming rate in 1992. For Zlatan, he and his brother practiced acceptance, as best they could, each in his own way. Aleksander became the self-appointed protector of the remnants of his family after their parents were killed and old Deda became more and more ill. He did it with his compatriots in vicious street fighting, desperately trying to wear down the enemy, keep them at bay in any way possible.
Zlatan had become the procurer of whatever supplies he could obtain, he kept the apartment reasonably warm for old Deda in his bed and fed him what he could make for soup, kept the house in stale bread to dip in the watery soups he was able to make. He did the same for Ilhan's parents and they both ran the significant risk of moving back and forth across the old bridge to each bank of the Neretva to care for each of their families.
When it came, Zlatan was at first unbelieving. A simple bridge crossing at dawn. They had done it a hundred times. They both knew to stay low and not to linger, but then it came. At first it was a staccato popping of small automatic rounds with some shrapnel from the bridge rail raining back on them. Zlatan and Ilhan went down on their bellies along the rail, but then Ilhan jumped up and ran for the other side of the bridge. As soon as she started down the sloping ramp of the bridge the bullet caught her and she staggered against the wall of the old dungeon, then went still in the street.
Zlatan watched in what seemed to him an eternity of unreality as her body, now totally exposed twitched twice more with the sniper's bullets. He leapt up and ran toward her, and a 20mm round blasted the stone on the bridge rail and shattered the bones in his left hand. Still he ran to Ilhan and stooped, sobbing, imploring her to get up though he could see it was hopeless. When the sniper's second 20mm round took him on the left leg he did not register pain, just the shock of the high velocity blow, then fell forward unconscious.
Two Spanish UN workers who had hidden behind a water truck waited for shelling to chastise the snipers, then came out and dragged Zlatan back into safety and tied off his leg above the knee. Ilhan was left in the street. The edict was to tend to the living, the dead were in other, greater hands.
He was later brought back to the apartment in a wheel barrow, in shock, suffering, only semi-conscious and there his brother and a friend tended his wound as best he could. The loss of the leg and the headaches still pained him grievously toward the end of 1993, but, as he fingered his prayer beads and prayed for Ilhan's lasting peace as had every day since the shooting, he knew that he was forever maimed, rent beyond repair in his soul and the ruination of his body was nothing compared to it.
Inthe very small hours after midnight on the 9th of November Aleksander came into the squalid apartment exhausted. He and his compatriots were sorely low or out of ammunition, outgunned and felt generally unable to do anything but throw heavy items off the rooftops and then run and duck for cover. They thought the Spanish UN troops might come with ammunition and parts for the rifles that were in disrepair after so much fighting.
Zlatan was awake. He, despite his pain stayed awake to feed the fire with the paltry scraps. Just to keep Deda warm, he told himself. But he knew from the smell of shit and necrotic flesh that there was death in the room. One death complete and one in the making.
"I'm going to die."
Aleksander looked at him with some latent tears escaping sight. In a trembling voice he said, "We're all going to die I think, it's bad. No more bullets, half the rifles won't work, we are starving. There is no help for the injured."
"Can you smell what I'm smelling in here?"
"Yes, I don't want to, but yes."
"Deda has left us. My leg is rotting and the red streaks are blazing up my thigh."
"Let me see."
Aleksander rolled the rug off of his brother and gently moved the cutoff pant leg up to see the leg. In the darkness of the apartment he had to bring the candle close. He didn't have to say anything to Zlatan. The revulsion and sorrow was said in his face.
"I'm going to die."
"I'm sorry, brother. I can't help, there is no one to help. We are all locked down here right now." The tears were coming despite his effort to hold them in.
"There is something you can do."
"No, there's nothing, nothing for any of us to do."
"The headaches are so bad. I can't take anymore. The poison in my leg is surely spreading and I know it will kill me. But the headaches..."
"What can I do?"
"I want you to take me to the bridge."
"Don't be a fool, they are shelling the bridge."
"Take me to the bridge. It's the last place I was happy, the last place I was whole. It is the last place Ilhan was...where Ilhan and I were together."
"You will die for sure. I can't do that."
"Aleksander, I want freedom from these ungodly headaches, freedom from this hell we are trapped in. I want to be with Ilhan. You must take me, let me die in a way that I choose."
Aleksander could see that his brother had thought this through. He was quiet as he watched Zlatan's face look into his, imploring him while he fingered the amber prayer beads over and over. He did not have to ask what his brother prayed for.
"When do you want to go?"
"Wrap Deda in something. We can go when you finish."
Aftersitting for a moment in silence, Aleksander shook his head, hard, trying to escape the realities he faced. With resolve he got up and rummaged in the old wardrobe of his parents until he found some old towels and two sheets.
He cleaned what he could from Deda's body and then wound him in the sheets. Together they said a tearful goodbye and farewell to him. Then Aleksander went outside the apartment and stood listening for a few moments. With exception of some intermittent tank rounds it was quiet. There was a lull in the street predations of the enemy. He saw the small red wagon of the neighbor's young child.
Coming back into the apartment, he said to Zlatan, "You want this? You really want this? Then who am I to keep you from it. Let's go."
The brothers made their way slowly out and onto the alley.
"Get in the wagon. Here, I will help you."
"We can't use that, it's red, the snipers will see it in a minute!"
"It's fucking dark, what are you talking about?"
For a short moment they were quiet and then Zlatan laughed. Aleksander saw a glimpse of his brother whose quick humor had amused him when they were...living.
"The joke is on you. Let's go now."
Aleksander pulled his brother in the wagon. When they got to the cobbled street of the Start Grad, old town, the bumping sent Zlatan's headache into overdrive and his leg throbbed like tympani beating a war cadence.
Halfway to the bridge he said, “Stop, stop the cobbles are too much. I can just crawl the rest of the way."
"Forget it," his brother said and took him from the wagon in a fireman's carry. When they got to the ramp of the bridge they stopped. They sat breathing, listening.
"You should go. Go and get Deda out of the room or you won't be able to even be in there soon."
"I'll stay with you."
"No, you can't, you have to stay and fight. One of has too, and I can't. Leave me now."
Aleksander put his hand on his brother's shoulder and looked into his eyes. "I won't forget," he said and turned to duck back down an alleyway back toward the apartment.
Zlatan crawled up the ramp onto the bridge and kept on until he reached the top of the arch. He sat for a a minute to catch his breath then pulled himself up onto his good leg and managed to swing himself into a sitting position on the stone rail facing upriver. His bad hand was not of much use but he was able to balance himself on his perch while he fished the amber Tisbih beads from his pocket. He sat fingering the beads, sometimes offering a prayer, but mostly just thinking about Ilhan and letting his love for her fill him and dispel any fears.
In the first gray light of the morning a shell came screaming just over his head to land on the riverbank well behind him. The concussion of the explosion nearly knocked him from the rail. A second one came soon after and hit the bridge where it joined the abutment on the western bank. Again, he nearly fell. His bad hand could not hold him by itself so he took the amber prayer beads in his teeth, clenched tightly between the gold caps and gripped the stone rail with both hands as best he could. Several more shells came in quick succession and as he raised his head in a bellow of defiance and pain the final shell came and brought down the bridge that had stood resolute for four hundred and twenty-seven years. It was the last of sixty-three shells it took to destroy it.
AlajosSoltesz had come to Mostar to dive. Not the leaping that had been done and soon would be done again, but the restorative, scuba to remove debris from the old bridge from the river to aid in its reconstruction. In late May of 2004 he, as a Hungarian Army diver came with his team.
It had been difficult for Alajos to leave Szeged, his home. He and his wife had been distraught for several months after learning that their three-year-old daughter Vasia had been diagnosed with an inoperable cancer.
He needed to be a functional part of his dive team, but his mind was on Vasia. He suited up, mentally prepared as well as he could and got into the water. They had located several large dressed stones from the original bridge on the upriver side and this morning, in the bright sunlight of a beautiful spring day they went to work to cable them up with the crane.
Alajos and his dive partner had secured a cable around a several ton chunk of the white stone of the old bridge and his partner went up to signal the crane to lift while Alajos stayed under to see that the cable stayed secured. The crane lifted and as the stone came off the bottom, Alajos thought he saw a flash of something underneath where it had lain since 1993. He waited, on the bottom, staying still until the stone had cleared the river. He saw the flash again as the current swept away the silt and mud from the bottom.
Then he saw something more clearly. He brought his dive light to illuminate it although the current was clearing fast and the sun was shining bright and strong into the water. He saw what looked like gold. He reached his gloved hand down to pick it up and it did not come off the bottom easily. He pulled a bit harder and then it came. What he saw he could hardly believe. There, in his hand he held a piece of upper human jaw with four gold capped teeth. Stuck between two of the teeth were a loop of beads. He dropped the teeth and beads into the pocket of his buoyancy control vest and surfaced. He laid back and let the current carry him the forty meters down river to the haul out point for his team.
"What were you doing down there for so long?" His partner shot him a concerned look.
"I found something, look," he pulled the find from his pocket and held it out in the palm of his gloved hand.
"What the hell is it?"
"It looks like gold," one of the other divers said.
Alajos looked in amazement and said, "It is gold, gold teeth, and something else."
"Yes, a necklace," one said.
"No, I think it is a Tisbih, a string of prayer beads, clenched in the teeth."
"Yes, there are many people practicing Islam here, they have for centuries."
"Like you, right Alajos?" He didn't like to talk about his religion, it had been somewhat discouraged in Hungary, but with his team he shared everything. "Right" was all he said.
He spent the rest of the afternoon wondering about how what he found had come to be there on the bottom of the river under the massive weight of the old stone. The only conclusion he could come to was only partially right. It was from someone killed as the bridge went down. He could not know more, but he felt something from this, felt something profound.
InJuly when Alajos reached home at Szeged things were not good. The doctors had reached a point of exhaustion of treatment options for Vasia. His wife Amina was distraught, his extended family were very little help, only offering the slim platitudes of despair. Amina implored her husband to do something, anything.
The girl grew weaker, her body was taxed with fatigue and the neuroblastoma was metastasizing, the doctors told them. The cost of a chemo or radiation treatment offered some threadbare hope, but the cost was out of reach. The benefits from the army plan did not begin to cover something like this. Alajos took to walking around the town late at night, unable to bear the wounds of his wife's grief and his daughters moans of agony.
One night as he walked he was fingering the Tisbih beads, beseeching Allah, the teeth of gold still attached. And the solution came to him like a burst of light in a dark storm. He must find a Khatib, a Muslim traditional healer who used amulets to perform miraculous cures, often in hopeless cases. When he arrived home, he spoke with his wife. He had not spoken of the beads or the gold capped teeth to her since coming home. He didn't know why except that he did not want to seem like he was distracting her from her grief.
He came to her and silently held out the amber beads and the golden teeth. Since pulling the beads from the river mud he had cleaned them and saw the deep light that glowed within each amber bead. He polished them with olive oil, and the teeth and bone as well. He held them in his hand, and she looked, then looked again and took the jewels, for that is what they looked like to her, in her own hands and clutched them to her. He told her what he knew of the beads and where he found them. Then, slowly and gently he told her about his belief in this Tisbih as a powerful amulet that perhaps, just maybe with the help and love of Allah, a Khatib could cure Vasia.
"The doctors cannot they say, but Allah can and a Khatib can bring his power through this special amulet of amber and gold that a man's life left for us at the bottom of the river."
"Yes, can we hope?"
""Everything is possible with hope," he said to her and together they held the beads and each other.
"In the morning, I will find the Imam and see if he knows anything about this kind of thing," he told her and together they went to sit beside their daughter for the rest of the night.
Inthe morning Alajos went to the Makkha Mosque quite early for morning prayers. He was the only one there, and after performing his ablutions he took out the amber Tisbih and knelt on his prayer mat facing qibla and prayed in the style he had known all his life yet seldom used as an adult.
After prayers, he stayed around the mosque for some time, hoping to see the Imam. Finally he went around to the back of the mosque to the small house attached there. The Imam was sitting on a bench.
"I have prayed, and I have come to ask for advice."
"I will help inshallah."
"It is my young daughter, she has a cancer and the doctors cannot seem to help. I have recently come into possession of an object that I believe, with the help of a Khatib, can work toward healing her if God wills it."
"An object? What is the object and where did you get it."
Alajos told the Imam the story, as much as he knew of it. He described how he found it at the bottom of the Neretva, the destruction of the old bridge. But that was all he knew except that from the moment he saw the flash of sunlight upon the gold capped teeth he had felt a power in the Tisbih.
He handed it to the Imam and after a lengthy silence he looked up at Alajos and said, "It is very old. It has power, a great deal of it, but the kind of healing you are looking for is something I can't do. I know what a Khatib is, but I have never met one in my life, I would not know where to send you."
His disappointment was palpable. The Imam handed back the Tisbih and squeezed his hand, eyes filled with sympathy.
The Makkha Mosque was the only mosque in Szged, the Imam the only one. He thought about going to Budapest, or even Mecca, but he knew his commitment to the army would not permit leaving whenever he wanted to, especially for something they would regard as paganism.
He arrived home to find his wife still sitting by their daughter's bed weeping, the room dark.
"She is getting worse, she seems so weak."
Alajos told her about his visit to the mosque.
"I'm not surprised, he is the only Imam around and there is a lot of antimuslim sentiment around these days. He can't risk getting shutdown. And really, he does not think about anything outside his duties there. I made a call while you were gone."
" A call? Where, to who?"
"When you told me about a Khatib, what it is, what he does, it started me thinking. Maybe a mosque is not the place to look. I thought of another place."
"What, tell me."
"I called my cousin. The one who you would not allow at our wedding because of her husband."
Alajos felt the sting of her words. "The cigáni?"
"You know she is not, she married into a Romani family, it is her husband who is Roma. I told her about what you said, and I asked if she or anyone there around Golubac where she lives knew of such a person. She said she will ask around, but you have to make good with her husband Vano. Send him a gift. I don't know if she will come up with anything but send him a gift anyway."
Fuck it, he thought, and went out that afternoon and bought a bottle of Zwack Unicum herbal spirits and a very nice gray Fedora. At the post office, he stopped and sent them to the address his wife gave him.
It was a week and a half before his wife received a phone call from her cousin. That afternoon they bundled Vasia into the car and set out for Golubac on the Danube River in Serbia.
When they arrived they were met at the old fortress by Amina's cousin. She crowded into the car and just said, "We have to go meet him, he has come from across the river. He says he has to hold the thing and see if it has the power he needs to access."
Amina and Alajos just looked at each other. Vasia still slept in her mother's lap. They had been driving all night through Serbia and were bone weary but willing to press on until the miracle they prayed for would come.
When they met they told the Khatib nothing more than how the amber prayer beads in the clench of the gold capped teeth were found, and that their little girl was gravely ill. What more could they tell him? Alajos merely handed the old man the beads, which he now thought of as an amulet.
The Roma Khatib went silent for several minutes and then said in a terse voice, "It wants another river. I must make preparations. Tomorrow night is the full of the moon. We will meet here at the old fortress at midnight." He turned and walked away.
The following night the three adults and the baby waited at the old fortress on the Danube. They waited, expecting the Khatib to arrive by the road as they did. They were surprised when he suddenly appeared behind them. "Come now." He said and turned to enter the deep tunnel that ran out into the river and under a water stationed turret many meters out into the current of the river.
It was dark, dank and they could hear the rattle and grind of sediments being born along the river above their heads. At last the sloping tunnel stopped and they were in a round chamber far under the river and at the base of the turret. They put their candles around on the floor of the chamber and the Khatib put some talismans and tools on what had been a Mithraic alter centuries past. He bade them to be silent and went to the alter. Taking some dried mushrooms mixed with other herbs he lit them in an ivory bowl and inhaled the smoke. He took the child in his arms and wafted some of the smoke over her, then began to twirl slowly and softly among the shadows in the chamber before laying her on the ancient Mithraic alter.
The Khatib took a clay vessel from the alter and drank from it. He then went to each adult and sprayed them with the rakja from his mouth. It burned in their eyes, but they remained enthralled with his process. He took up an earthenware bowl filled with a dark, nearly black paste made from myrrh. He again went to each adult and put a finger full of the paste under each of their tongues. They recoiled at the wretched taste and began to wonder at the old man's methods.
This done, he coated the child's entire body with the paste, taking great care to rub it into her scalp. He laid the girl on the floor and reaching out his arms, he again began to twirl in the Dervish style while holding the amber Tisbih with the gold capped teeth attached. He did this for an hour, directly over the sleeping child's body, never treading upon her, never leaving her proximity, never looking at her, his eyes rolled far back in his head.
"It has another river," he said. "Now it wants another life."
He left the girl there on the floor and went to the alter with the amber prayer beads. He took a crystal demitasse and with a small file he granulated much of the gold from Zlatan's teeth. This he mixed with rakja and some of the Myrrh paste. He sucked up the potion with a straw, went to the prostrate child, opened her mouth and blew the gold bearing liquid down her throat. She gagged and came awake.
To the surprise of everyone but the Khatib and the girl, she did not awaken crying, or listless as she had been for the days leading up to the healing. She sat up smiling and reaching toward her mother. Before she could take the girl, the old Khatib scraped every bit of the Myrrh paste from her body.
"She is cured."
"She is well now. The amulet wanted another river, another life and it is satisfied. She will be well from now on."
Alajos went to take the beads from the alter but the Khatib stopped him. "There is one more thing," he said.
He prayed the smallest gold cap from a tooth and with a little brass hammer pounded it into a lozenge shape. He took one of the amber beads from the Tisbih, then handed the rest to Alajos.
With a penknife he opened a small slit in the back of the child's neck and carefully worked the gold and amber into it. He rubbed some rakja on the wound and sealed it with some of the myrrh paste. Without another word he left the chamber and went back up the tunnel. Alojas and Amira were dumbstruck.
Six month later, the specialists were also dumbstruck when the child showed a complete, spontaneous remission of her cancer.
Twice a year, at the full of the moon, Alojas, Amira and Vasia went to Mostar and sat on the bridge at midnight thanking the unknown benefactor who came to them from the wreckage at the bottom of the Neretva.
As Vasia grew she often drew pictures of the person they had taken to calling The Good Soldier, what she imagined him to look like; sometimes on the bridge, sometimes not but always surrounded by jewels. Neither she nor her parents would ever know that they had an uncanny resemblance to a young forgotten Bosnian youth named Zlatan Krpić