Kelley E. Shinn

Taking Heart

In the main lobby of the Hotel Tuzla, a painting hangs of nine, life-sized women standing side-by-side. The wall to the right of the painting is entirely glass so that the sun throws a spotlight on each woman, one by one from morning on, until they all bask in unison for an hour or so before nightfall. The women vary in their manifestations—four are whole and nubile, two are sporadically bare-boned, three expose both abstract and graphic organs—a red box for a heart, a fibrous lung, musculature that streaks like the lights of a Vegas night. All of the women are clear, delineated with rich, black lines and splashes of vivid color—jade, pomegranate. They hold different poses—one crouches, one ponders with a fingertip to her mouth, and another looks out to the sky with her arm stretched toward it. I stared at this painting every time I walked through the lobby—once for over an hour. Was the placement of the piece deliberate so that each muse could have her moment in the sun? I was enthralled, as if I saw my own metamorphosis in the painting, as if with each hour of sunlight came a new revelation. In three days time, I could barely hold a conversation that didn’t include that painting. Jane, my traveling companion, having heard all she ever cared to hear about the image, began to refer to it as “The Art of Suffering.”

Past the painting, through a set of double glass doors, there was a lounge. It was a cold lounge, industrial, a structure of steel beams and glass. On my third night in Tuzla, a small radio played low. It was shortly after nine o’clock, and Jane and I were sitting at the bar with two men. Jane hadn’t been feeling well all afternoon. Her graying hair was bound back by a thin bone. Earlier that afternoon, a butcher, a landmine survivor whom we had been introduced to, prepared us a meal of grilled chicken and ćevapi. I had told Jane that the chicken didn’t smell right and to stick with the ćevapi, but she felt as if she would be better off with chicken than minced lamb and beef rolls. Neither tasted great, and we washed down every bite but the first with beer. Then, in one of those moves that had endeared Jane to me more and more throughout the years, she extracted one of the bone ribs from the finished chicken, took it to the bathroom to clean it, and returned with her hair in a bun. But now that her stomach had been queasy since, I wondered if she oughtn’t to let the bone go, as if maybe the pain would pass with its release. She looked over at me, put her hand on mine, and said, “I think I need to go back to the room and lie down.”

“You’ve got to finish your drink,” I said, trying to stall her. I didn’t want her to leave me alone in the bar with these men, nor did I want to leave the men to accompany her to our hotel room. “Can you hold on five more minutes?” I asked, without giving her a chance to answer.

Salko, the man sitting next to me, stood at about 5’10”. He had round, amber-hued eyes that precipitated trust without a drop of foreknowledge. We had a language barrier. He knew about 30 words in English and I knew about five in Serbo-Croatian. I turned to him, and said. “Salko, your children? How old are they?”

Salko paused, and then held up four fingers, and then six. He pulled a photo from his wallet, and passed it to me and Jane. Three faces smiled out from the photo, all blonde and long-haired. The man had a beautiful wife.

Jane passed the photo back to Salko by reaching across my back. Salko turned to the man on his left. That man was quietly sipping his drink through a coffee stirrer. He knew no English, and he had no arms.

“Rasiĉ,” Salko spoke to his friend, and held up the picture for him to see. Rasiĉ nodded his head in stag-like approval.

As the men lapsed into the thick, chock-a-block fricatives of Serbo-Croatian, I turned to Jane. “Can you make it a little longer?

“I’ll try,” Jane replied, pressing her thumb into her side. She added, “God bless my Russian mother for giving me some language, but it isn’t really helping at all here.”

“Can you understand anything?” I asked.

“I’m afraid all that I’ve retained is the Cyrillic alphabet and the ability to read a few road signs. Whether I’m reading them correctly or not is a different matter. It’s too bad they don’t let you have Amira 24-7.”

Salko tapped my shoulder. “You? Children?”

“No. No children.”

“Mmm,” Salko intoned with an upward inflection in both voice and eyebrow.

Rasiĉ pushed forward his empty glass with the two-inch stump that balled at the end of his shoulder. Someone had carefully sewn the ends of the thermal he wore, so that it fit his stumps snugly. Someone had also rolled his flannel over-shirt neat and high. He ordered another drink.

Salko smiled at me, then Jane, and ordered another round for us all. “Hvala,” Jane thanked him. I knew both Salko and Rasiĉ were Muslim, but, I thought to myself, that like so many others during Sarajevo’s four-year siege, they must have turned to alcohol for relief, or escape, or both.

A young couple walked up to the bar to pay their tab. They were less than a foot from Rasiĉ. The woman was smartly dressed, wearing a brown hat with a brim, her dark hair hanging in loose curls, her red lips the only facial feature in view. While waiting for his change, her partner stroked her cheek with the backside of his fingers. They didn’t even notice Rasiĉ sitting next to them, stretching his stumps into the air and yawning.

“What time do we get started in the morning?” Jane asked.

“Amira is meeting us in the lobby at nine.”

“Maybe she should meet us outside of the lobby, so that she doesn’t have to endure a diatribe about the painting.”

“I won’t talk about the painting. I promise.” And then, I thought of it—this time, the woman whose flesh stopped at the waist and became skeletal, posed like an ouvert ballerina. “Let me tell you what I think I like most about it,” Jane interrupted me with a groan, but I went on. “I like how raw it is, how it makes no apology for the easiness of removing flesh.”

“Look, Nora, I’m glad it compels you. I am. Investigate the piece, fine. Write a paper on it. I don’t care. But leave people alone. Last night, you were approaching strangers in the lobby about it—in your pajamas.”

“They weren’t pajamas!” I protested.

“Okay, bedclothes then—clothes not suitable for the lobby of the Hotel Tuzla. People are going to think you’ve lost it, if you ever had it to begin with. You asked the woman who turned our beds down if she had seen the painting. The woman works here for god’s sake. She didn’t even speak English. All I am saying is that it’s great that you are so enamored with the muse orgy on the wall, but let’s focus on the task at hand. What’s on the agenda with Amira tomorrow?”

“Overnighter, Banja Luka. Dinner with three survivors and their families.”

Salko tapped my arm and motioned toward my cigarettes. I pushed the pack toward him.

“How are you holding up in this world, Nora?” Jane asked.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re not so special here, are you? You’re in a world made up of amputees.”

“I hadn’t even thought of it that way. But now that you mention it, it’s rather amusing to think that between the four of us here, there are only three legs and six arms.”

“That sounds like a bad bar joke.”

“It is, kind of like the amputee who walks into a bar and says ‘I’d give my left leg for a stiff one…’”.

Jane grimaced. “You know, maybe we should excuse ourselves. We’re going to need some rest.”

“You know Jane, I’m not feeling one hundred percent either, but I’m sitting here in Tuzla, Bosnia and I’m going to ride it out. I don’t want to miss anything.”

“I hear you,” Jane said, squeezing my thigh. Jane knew me better than anyone in the world at that point in my life. “As with all things, my dear, whenever you’re ready.”

I finished off my drink and sat back against the stool. Salko slid the cigarettes back toward me and Jane. We both took one, and Salko lit them. Then he smoked one of the Sante cigarettes that I had bought at the duty-free store on the Greek border. He didn’t speak a word or make a gesture as long as a drag was left on it. Then he lit another, and held it while Rasiĉ smoked it, pulling it in and out of the man’s mouth between smoke clouds.

“Do you like America?” I asked Salko.

He slowly turned his head toward me, raised his thick eyebrows, and said, “I like rock and roll.”

“Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young?” I asked. Salko didn’t seem to know of them.

“The Beatles?” Jane piped in.

Da!” Salko sat up with a smile on his face. Then he cocked his head. “Engleska!”

“Yeah, they’re British,” Jane said. We all shook our heads until silence took over. “Let it Be” drifted through my mind until suddenly, Salko put his hand on mine. His touch alarmed me. His hands were large and warm. He traced the heart-shaped scar on the back of my left hand, grabbed the whole of my hand again, and then placed it back on the bar, cold and alone like it had been. Jane hadn’t noticed at all.

* * *

Earlier that morning, Jane and I had sat in a conference room with a group of counselors to landmine survivors, who were all survivors themselves. Before the meeting came to a head, I turned to speak with Amira, my assigned translator, and my gut began to unravel. I was scared. At the same moment that I decided I preferred to be alone in the bathroom, or anywhere for that matter, Plamenko Petroviĉ, the director of the group, beckoned Amira to begin. “Thank you all for coming,” she started, and the men in the room quieted down. “We have a guest today. This is Nora Noleff. She comes to Bosnia-Herzegovina from America. She is bilateral, below-knee amputee from—,” she paused, as if she had to think of how to translate meningococcemia, “—childhood illness. Nora says thank you for allowing her to be here.”

Plamenko welcomed me warmly, his whole body, aside from the glass eye, shook in a sort of auspicious motion. He added that they were intrigued by my visit and looked forward to learning more about why I was there. Amira circled the room introducing each of the men as they introduced themselves in turn. Some of them gave themselves titles—Muslim, Croatian, or soldier—some provided details of their loss, many just gave their names and a wave of their calloused hands.

When Amira had come to Salko, he stood up eagerly and greeted me. “Hello, American woman!” The men laughed. He was obviously the clown of the group, a man who openly embraced the humor of his tragedy. But not even his warmth and wit could take the chill out of the room completely. Amira translated the rest of his story, how on the front line he’d stepped on a bouncing betty, how he’d heard it bobbing up and down almost like a water sprinkler, how he fell backwards to avoid it, and how it blew both of his legs, just below the knees, clean off. Bouncing Betty was one of the worst landmines I had learned about, perhaps it was the personification of the name, but its function seemed just as personal. Her job was to spew shrapnel near the waistline of a man, to maim him where it would hurt him the most without killing him. In fact, the original intent of the landmine, dating back to the Romans, was to maim rather than to kill, so that when other soldiers came to their comrade’s aid, the final count of the fallen would be more significant.

Amira started to introduce the next man in line when Salko interrupted her. After Salko spoke rapidly to Amira, she said, “Salko wants me to tell you also that his wife and two daughters escaped before war gets very bad, and returned from Austria, safe after war.” Salko nodded his head, satisfied with that last addition to his story, and sat down. The spontaneity and substance of that moment rang inside of me. That man had coped through the remedy of love.

Plamenko turned his head hard to the right in order to see me with his good eye. He addressed Amira, who in turn spoke to me, and said, “I ask you to now share reason for your visit.” The men around the long table grew quiet. Some of them leaned forward, as if intent on what my purpose really was. If I hadn’t felt ridiculous and small when I first laid eyes upon the destruction of Bosnia, I certainly did at that moment. The marks of gunfire and mortar shelling were copious on nearly all architectural structures, those that were still left standing, anyway. The blood had been washed away long before I arrived—and could I not think of my arrival?—the hi-tech gadgets in my truck, the SAT phone just for starters—and here, in Tuzla, the windows of many homes were still covered in plastic because they could not afford glass. Skeletal buildings were left unrepaired because nails and wood were too expensive. It was far from easy not to feel like an asshole.

I spoke. Amira translated my partially perfunctory answer—that I was attempting to drive around the world to visit various landmine networks for research purposes—that as a fellow amputee, I hoped to bring the plight of those injured by landmines to a public light.

Some of the men sat back, as if to ponder that response. Instantly, I thought of all the false promises that they had been given in their time. I felt like a bigger asshole yet. And suddenly from my gut, I had this unanticipated urge, and I grabbed Amira by the arm and whispered into her ear. She looked at me with empathy, and translated my words. “And I wanted to know that I wasn’t alone,” which didn’t mean that I expected, in Bosnia, to find a bunch of young people who had been wrongly amputated and therefore financially compensated by the American machine—no, it was less complex than that. What Jane thought might be difficult for me was exactly what I wanted—to be just another amputee in a room full of them.

Salko shook his head; a tender smile erupted on his face. Plamenko looked at him, and shook his head, too, and said, “Then, again, welcome to Bosnia-Herzegovina.”

I spoke to Amira once more. “You gentlemen must think it is crazy for a woman with no legs to try to drive around the world.”

Salko was unable to conceal his mirth. He burst with laughter. The whole room started laughing, even Jane smiled and patted me on the back. Salko stood up again, and said, “We like crazy American women. Show us your legs.”

Right there, in that conference room, I stood up and hoisted my right leg up onto the table in front of all those brave and cowardly men. I started humming a burlesque-like tune, hoisting my pant leg up as if I were about to reveal a well-defined calf and a garter belt on my thigh. I knew that the same prosthetic technology I had available to me back in America was not available here, and so I was glad for my old carbon fiber pins, their lack of cosmesis, banged-up sockets complete with duct tape. My prosthetics were only three-years-old, but they had almost lived out their lives in the quarries and mud of my off-road days, and were barely hanging on, just as I was.

Afterward, in the lobby, there were photographs taken. Salko grabbed me and sat me sideways on his lap. He’d pulled his pant legs up to reveal his own prostheses, and started pulling mine up again. He put one arm around my waist and the other under my knees, and the flash of the cameras was nearly blinding, but not enough so that I couldn’t see those women hanging there on that canvas. Eighteen lovely legs.

Jane and I showed the men our truck, went for lunch with the butcher, and then rested in the hotel room all afternoon. At one point, doubled over with stomach cramps, Jane looked over at me and said, “You won them over when you threw your leg up on that table.”

“I’m an asshole.”

“No you’re not. You’re honest.”

“I thought I won them over when they came outside to check out our Land Rover and I passed out all those duty-free cigarettes.”

“That didn’t hurt either.”

* * *

Without Amira, and nearing two o’clock in the morning, Salko’s command of English was nearly exhausted. Jane was exhausted. She steadied herself, pushing back from the bar, and excused herself for the night. “Do videnja.”

Do videnja,” said both Rasiĉ and Salko.

“I’ll walk you to the elevator,” I said. On the other side of the double glass doors, I asked “Are you feeling all right? Do you need me to take you up to the room?”

“No, not unless you think you should go back to the room yourself.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nora, do you think it wise to sit up at a bar all night in Tuzla drinking with these men?”

“Jane, come on,” I said, my eyes veering toward the painting. The women were in the dark, not even the light in the lobby brought them to life.

“I don’t mean to sound motherly. Just be cautious. Take heart.”

“Jane, you know I don’t work that way. I’ll finish my drink and come back to the room. What kind of courage and caution does that require?”

“Nora, that wasn’t necessarily a comment about you. You don’t know these men, what they might think, what the war might have done to them.”

The door to the elevator opened. “Go on, Jane. I’ll see you in a bit.” Jane kissed me quickly on the cheek. I slipped back into the lounge before the elevator door shut.

The bartender’s cigarette smoke hovered in curves back inside the atrium. The smoke was stark against the backdrop of the early morning sky on the other side of the glass walls. Rasiĉ was sitting face down at the bar. The bartender crushed the butt in an ashtray and motioned to Salko, nodding his head toward a four-planked, wooden bench under the atrium glass. He covered the bench with a wool blanket that he’d had stored under the bar. Salko carried Rasiĉ to the bench and left him there in a muted snore. It was an act that had been rehearsed.

Salko was sweating. His thigh brushed my own as he sat back down at the bar. He stared at me, with a puzzled look on his face. He seemed to want to explain something to me, but could not. Perhaps, I thought, I was projecting my own frustration. Perhaps, I should have gone to the room with Jane.

Pivo?” Salko asked me.

“Yes, pivo. Hvala.” Why not have another beer, I thought? Maybe we could understand each other better then. And as late and delirious as the hour was, I began to speak my thoughts out loud. “Two out of three ain’t bad. Two out of the last three words of my response were in Serbo-Croatian. There’s hope for me yet.” The bartender smirked. Salko laughed at me. I blushed.

The cold beer was delicious. I felt a small, second wind. Halfway through that beer, the bartender, cheek on palm, started nodding off. Salko and I smiled at one another when his chin eventually slipped from his hand. Salko looked back at Rasiĉ, who like the bartender, was in an almost enviable state of sleep.

We simply sat, Salko and I, quietly in that bar for hours, sipping beer and smoking cigarettes. At some point, I glanced up at the ceiling. It was nearly 20 feet high. A metal-plated column ran the length. Ten feet up the column, a string of bullet holes ran horizontally, like a stream surface pocked with rain drops. I tried to focus in on the black center of the holes, found myself wishing I could climb inside one of them. Who did I think I was coming to this place? Why was I staying up until near dawn with this man with whom I could not even speak? The war was one thing, I rationalized, but amputation has a language of its own—need requires no translation.

“Bang! Bang!” Salko shouted close to my ear. I nearly fell off the bar stool. He was laughing at me again. I laughed, too, and pointing toward the bathroom, I excused myself.

The water couldn’t come out of the faucet quickly enough. I wrung my hands under the cold flow, and then parted them down the bridge of my nose. The small mirror over the sink held my reflection and the glazed window behind me. I didn’t recognize myself. In front of me stood a loose apparition of who I had once been.

I wasn’t born with a silver spoon. My sweet Athene, the expedition’s Land Rover, and the entire trip were being paid for by a malpractice settlement. Until that day in Tuzla, I had never realized the illusion of security that came with being an American. I had never been that close to a war and its inhabitants. And yet Salko, cut the same way I had been, though with what I perceived as multiplied sufferings, seemed to want me to be there as much as I wanted it. Humility hit me like a hangover, throbbing and thorough. I doused my face a few more times, used the handkerchief in my back pocket to dry off, and returned, swaggering—a combination of the alcohol and sore stumps—back to the lounge.

The bartender was fast asleep, but there were two fresh beers in front of Salko and me. I looked over at him. He winked. He nodded his head. Noticing the five o’clock shadow on his chin, I offered him another cigarette. He lit it, and smoked it with his eyes fixed on mine until halfway through that cigarette, I tore myself from his gaze.

I swigged the beer, and felt done in, worn out, but high. I leaned forward and rested chin to forearm, extended my other arm across the length of the bar and watched a smoke snake rise from the burning ash. I saw Salko gently clench the cigarette from my hand and set it in the ashtray without bothering to extinguish it.

* * *

When I woke, my face was in the crook of my elbow, and the sky was cinereous blue. Rasiĉ was snoring with a low whistle, and the bartender with a roar. I didn’t remember falling asleep. My neck pained me as I pulled upright. Salko was sitting perfectly straight on his stool, looking forward, quiet. He beamed when he noticed my movement. He gestured with his head toward the atrium doors. When I didn’t respond, he took me by the wrist and led me out of the lounge. We passed the painting. I pulled back and motioned toward it. “Do you like it?”

Salko looked intensely at the life-sized women hovering above us, then pulled his eyes away hurriedly. “I not ready,” he said, pulling me along, “for art.”

My mind was on coffee and all the possible meanings of Salko’s comment. Did he not like art? Was I giving in to gender stereotypes? Was asking about art akin to pillow talk? Or had his trauma lingered so close in that morning air that all he could do was behold something beautiful and not discuss it? After all, there were still bullet holes in the bar where we had just been sitting, and here, in the painting, were the innards of women exposed, and had it all been too literal? Were the shades of suffering still too loud in Salko’s ear to even be considered a thing of beauty made with a brush? He led me out of the hotel and around to the back of it, and when the wet, predawn air stung my face, I grew nervous. Where was he taking me? Furthermore, why was I going? Did I not remember the fragility of my own being in those early years after tragedy? How naïve could I have been to think that anything in that city was stable enough to hold trust. And yet, trust I must have had, because though his grasp was yielding, I did not let go.

Behind the Hotel Tuzla, was a small, sparsely wooded park dotted with young trees that lined the streets. Glossy with dew, stone tiles formed a patio with wrought-iron tables for two, and in the center, there was a statue of a six-foot metallic teardrop. Behind the teardrop, there was a knoll, where Salko stopped, sat on the damp ground and motioned me to sit beside him.

I lowered myself within inches of Salko, and when I landed without grace on my ass, our sockets knocked together at the knee. Salko pointed forward, toward the Tuzla skyline of struggling factories, salt baths and mines on the Eastern horizon. A few funnels smoked gray against the pale cobalt sky. Salko pressed his hands downward repeatedly into the air, as if to tell me to wait. I was waiting for something more than the prospect of a sunrise.

I wanted to take his hand in my own. My intentions were pure. I simply wanted to touch him, but I was afraid of his reaction. Would it be as natural and right as my own intention felt? Running my fingers through the wet blades of grass, I began to lift my arm toward him, and as it hovered near his knee, the sun cut the sky, salmon, in a pencil-thin line.

Salko took my hand in his and held it firmly for a moment, then set it tenderly on my knee. He lifted up his pant legs and removed his prosthetics. He rose up onto his knees, and Salko opened his mouth and began to pray the first salaah of the day. As that man sang that holy prayer, the sun persisted, and suddenly I felt as close to god and all things as I thought a human might. I wept. My fatigue was coupled with an ache that I would never be able to express with words, just with the salt caked upon my cheeks. I heard the tremble in Salko’s voice, and knew that I was not alone.

When Salko’s prayer floated away and pink had overwhelmed the sky and the flesh was illuminated in its mortal light, Salko put his legs back on and stood up, and then he helped me to my feet.

He grabbed my hands. “Goodbye,” he said. “God be with you.”

“Goodbye,” I said, aware of his pine scent in the breeze. I sank my head into his chest, threw my arms around him. He kissed me twice on the forehead, and I pulled away and walked back toward the hotel. He was out of sight by the time I reached the door.


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