Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Alija was the only man I’ve ever met who knew exactly where his home was. Perhaps there are many such men, but not in the American West, where I come from. In the West almost everyone is from somewhere else, and half the people are “just passing through.”
Alija was a Bosnian Muslim. I met him on a bus, traveling south from Sarajevo toward the town of Mostar. This was before the war. He was sitting across from me with his five-year-old son, Rasim, who was cross-eyed and shy. Alija, however, was a friendly, outgoing man, and just a few minutes into the trip he asked me, in broken English, if I was American. When I answered yes, he said, “I can always tell Americans, always with those pants. . . . What do you say? Levi’s.” (He pronounced it “levees.”) “And so clean. Your hands, so clean.”
At first I was taken aback by his forwardness, and by the way his brown eyes bulged from their sockets as he talked. But he seemed kind to his son, and when he offered me some of his cheese and bread, I could see that he meant no harm. He was an odd-looking man, short and stocky, his head too small for his body. The tip of his aquiline nose nearly touched his swollen upper lip, and his teeth were either brown or missing. He wore a patchy beard, and combed his thin black hair neatly over his bald spot. His hands were extraordinarily large, his fingers thick as sausages, his palms worn smooth from work. He looked to be at least fifty, but would later tell me that he was only thirty-five. “I don’t look so good,” he would say, smiling. “Farming, it is fine work, but hard . . . how you say? On the bones.”
I asked him what he had been doing in Sarajevo, and he told me that Rasim was sick with leukemia, and that every two weeks he had to take him to a doctor in the city. I said I was sorry, and Alija closed his eyes for a long moment and nodded his head. “Hvala,” he said. “Thank you. He is good boy. Allah watches over him.” Rasim could tell we were talking about him, and he stood up on the seat to whisper in Alija’s ear. Alija patted him on the head and turned to me. “He wants to know if you live at California.” I lied and said I did, and it seemed to please the boy, who kept staring at me. It was hard to return his gaze, because of his eyes; not only were they crossed, but they were extremely dark, like black holes in his face. I wondered if he was dying, but the person I was back then reasoned simply, silently, We’re all dying.
It doesn’t matter why I was there. I had no reason to speak of. I’d quit my job, broken up with my girlfriend, and spent every penny I had on a one-way ticket from Denver to Belgrade, remembering my grandfather’s stories about emigrating from Serbia. I remembered spittle flying from his mouth as he’d yell about the “Narod” — the Nation. To his dying day, he remained all fired up about Serbian nationalism. He’d drool as he ranted about Tito’s treacherous rise to power during World War II, how the Communist leader had all but destroyed any hope for Serbian independence. My father would just laugh at him. When I left for the former Yugoslavia, I didn’t tell my family — especially my father — where I was going.
I spent a month in Belgrade, and when my money was nearly gone, I headed south to Bosnia: Because it was cheap. Because there were mountains there. Because I had no place else to go.
Alija asked me where I was going, and I shrugged and said Mostar. I had seen a postcard of the famous stone bridge there, arching over the Neretva River, and I wanted to see it in person. I’d always liked bridges, even as a kid.
“I live near Mostar,” Alija said. “If you like, you come stay at my family. Very pretty, very good cook. We make wine — good, good wine.”
The bus rumbled and lurched down the narrow, twisting highway. Out the window, I saw country people working in their fields, old women with colorful scarves and men in sweat-stained shirts. Some of them waved, hailing the passing bus as if everyone on it were a friend, as if the Narod were a thing of the past.
I took a bite of an apple, chewed it with a hunk of Alija’s cheese. I didn’t know how to respond to his invitation. I wanted to say yes, that I would stay at his farm, but I didn’t know this man. And so I just nodded, staring out the window. Then I felt Alija slap me on the back. “Good,” he said. “Rasim will be happy. You will like. I show you.”
Later, well into the afternoon, the bus stopped to allow a herd of sheep to cross the road. I glanced over at Alija and saw that he was praying, his fat eyes flickering beneath their lids, his prayer beads sliding between his enormous fingers. Rasim’s head lay in Alija’s lap, a thin film of sweat covering his brow.
I can’t even remember their names, there were so many of them. Alija had seven children — four girls and three boys. His wife, Misha, was stout but pretty, and quiet like Rasim. She spoke in whispers, yet somehow everybody heard her. When we first met she looked me in the eye, unusual for a Muslim woman. I liked her from the start.
They lived in a small, well-kept, four-room stone house a half mile off the highway and three miles from the nearest village. Alija had somehow befriended the bus driver — an old, decidedly unfriendly Serb — and persuaded him to let us off at Alija’s road. I shouldered my pack and followed Alija out the door. As the bus pulled away, the calm of the country settled in around us. Alija hoisted Rasim onto his shoulders and breathed deeply. “This is good,” he said. “My home.” And he grinned at me as if there were no way I could fail to recognize the beauty before me.
Alija’s vineyard looked much like those I’d seen in northern California, except that it was nestled against a long, jagged ridge, and in the background great pillars of limestone angled steeply skyward. It was October, and the fields shone golden in the late-afternoon light. Big gray boulders lay scattered around much of the first field, which was inhabited by a small herd of sheep and two decrepit horses, and hemmed in by a low stone fence. The vineyard covered the foothills behind the house, the last row of vines cluttered with fragments of rock that had fallen from the limestone pillars. The grapes had long since been harvested, and the fields had a lonely, almost eerie look to them. The rocks seemed to shimmer and change shape, and I found myself hypnotized by the soft, wavering light slipping from the contours of the land.
Misha had food waiting, and as soon as we arrived she whispered the family in for supper. Children scampered up from every direction. Alija’s parents emerged from the smaller house next door. Though barely sixty, they were hunched over and wrinkled beyond a grape’s worst nightmare. We sat, all twelve of us, on pillows surrounding a low, round table. First there was prayer, then lots of talk and laughter. We ate some sort of meat — sheep? — thick with grease and mixed with peas, carrots, and potatoes. Alija was easy and jovial with his children, and I could see that they adored him. Rasim sat next to Misha, leaning into her. He ate very little, and Misha watched him with concern. Halfway through supper, he fell asleep, and his grandmother stroked his cheek. I couldn’t help staring at the thick tuft of hair growing from a mole on the old woman’s chin, like a goatee; with every bite of food, more crumbs and gristle accumulated in this nest. Thankfully, I was distracted by questions from Alija and his older children, who were mostly curious about California and Hollywood, and had I ever met Sylvester Stallone.
Midway through the meal, Alija placed a sturdy ceramic cup on the table in front of me. With great ceremony he uncorked a plain brown bottle and poured out a rich burgundy liquid. “This, my friend,” he said, “is blood of my ancestors. Only one hundred years, but good. Drink, and you see.” I drank, and was glad to taste bittersweet wine instead of warm blood. The cup was passed around until everyone, even Rasim, had taken a sip. For a moment I wondered how Alija reconciled wine with his Muslim faith — but then again, I had met other Muslims who swayed from abstinence. The grandmother was the last to drink, and when she was finished, a translucent drop of wine dangled from the hair on her chin, glowing in the lamplight.
I stayed with Alija for a week, maybe ten days. In the mornings, the seven children would gather in the kitchen for hot porridge that smelled of vanilla and honey. Then the elder six would walk down the road to the highway, where the school bus met them. On the first morning, Alija and I stood on the stairs and watched them go, drinking muddy Turkish coffee and listening to the sick grumble of the beat-up school bus, which looked as if it had rolled over once or twice. Rasim stayed home, too young for school and too sick to go anyway. He slept well into the day.
Each morning, I helped Alija with the chores, which were few that time of year. We milked the two cows, and he laughed as I clumsily tried to follow his example. We cleaned the chicken coop and swept out the barn, which housed the huge clay tubs used for crushing grapes. The barn floor was stained crimson, and in places the imprints of bare feet were hardened into the earth. I imagined Alija and his seven children dancing knee-deep in grapes, their feet stained purple by summer’s end.
“My grandfathers build many centuries ago,” Alija said, gesturing toward the tubs. “Six hundred years since build. Many feet, yes? Many feet, my family. Much wine. I show you.”
I followed him to the back of the house, where he lifted a heavy wooden cellar door and ushered me down a spiral staircase built of boulders like those in the fields. There was no electricity, no bulb, but sunlight filtered through four small, high windows so that, as soon as my eyes adjusted, I could see rows of wine bottles stacked neatly on racks against every wall. Alija put his huge hand on my shoulder, and for a moment I felt vaguely uncomfortable. His hand was warm, and I thought I could feel his heartbeat surging through his great thumb.
“Let me show you,” he said. “Here.” And from low on a rack he pulled a dusty bottle of wine. It clinked against another as it slid free. He held the bottle up to a thin ray of light, blew on it, and squinted at the handwritten label, illegible to me.
“This is 1448,” Alija said. “My very-great-grandfather Radmila. He was Serb, I think. His grandfather plant first seeds. This wine is ten years before Ottomans come, ten years before Islam. Some things I know from school, others from Islam. But I learn most from wine, and stones.”
I started to ask how he might learn anything from stones, but he had bent over to replace the bottle and was frozen in a moment of prayer at my feet. His prayer beads clicked. His bald crown gleamed in the dusty light. I thought to pray with him, but didn’t know how. Above us, tiny feet padded across the floor.
One morning, Rasim woke with a high fever and his hair falling out in little clumps. I left Alija and Misha praying by his bed and took the bus thirty kilometers to Mostar, where I got lost trying to find the famous bridge. This was before the war, so the bridge was still there, and so were the vineyards, and the hospital in Sarajevo for Rasim. I bought bread in the marketplace, baked fresh in a brick oven tended by an old, broken-toothed woman in a shawl. She counted out my change, and for an extra twenty dinars pointed me in the direction of the river.
The Mostar bridge was like no other I’d seen. Spanning the narrow chasm of the Neretva River thirty meters below, the shining white structure arched so perfectly from the banks that it seemed a natural feature of the landscape. Tourists paid young Bosnian boys fifty dinars to jump from the bridge, then lined the railings to watch them swan-dive into the blue-green water. It was a long drop, as long as any I’d made myself. I peered nervously over the edge.
I’d been jumping from bridges ever since I was a child. At first, it was a game my older brother and I played, pretending we could fly as we dove like falcons from the rickety wooden bridge that spanned the muddy river near our house. Later, we barked dares at one another, and the bridges got higher and higher until my brother took one last punch from our father and walked away for good. I kept jumping, though — alone, usually at night — long after I, too, had walked away.
But I could never get far enough. I was always looking for my next destination. And now my wandering had brought me here.
The inscription on the bridge’s capstone said it had been constructed by the Turks in 1566, and I wondered how Alija’s ancestors had crossed the river before then. Perhaps there had been no need to travel so far from home; they’d had nothing to escape, and everything they could ever have wanted was right at their doorstep. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, my eyes filled with tears. It wasn’t like me to get emotional, but there I was, practically blubbering in broad daylight, strangers all around. All I wanted now was to plunge from that bridge.
I gave my bread to an old peasant, who thanked me. When I first started undressing, nobody noticed. Then a British woman saw me and asked “what on earth” I thought I was doing. “Jumping,” I said. “Leave me be.” The crowd parted as I approached the railing in my underwear, and I could see in their eyes they thought I was crazy — not crazy in a fun, what-a-crazy-guy kind of way, but a real, honest-to-God lunatic. They were probably right. But I didn’t care. I didn’t care at all.
When I jumped there was a brief moment of fear. Then I looked to the water rushing toward me and time seemed to freeze. The river opened, and I slipped into it like a drop of rain. Whispers filled my ears.
Rasim’s condition worsened quickly, and I decided it was time for me to leave the vineyard. Alija was tired, his eyes sunken and dark, though outwardly he was as mirthful as ever. Every night we drank wine and he told me more about his ancestors. He loved to slap me on the back with his leviathan hands and tell me, “You will see, you will see,” over and over again. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was he wanted me to see, but as long as he kept pouring the wine, I’d keep looking. He was right when he said the wine was good. It was very good. We drank wine that was three hundred years old. Just like that. He popped the cork and an hour later his ancestors’ blood was swishing around in my veins.
On the day before I left, we drank all afternoon. Misha carried Rasim next door to his grandparents’ house, giving Alija a wounded look as she left the room. He said he had something to show me, and I followed him up the hill through the vineyard, toward the pillars of stone. Until then, I had stayed away from the vineyard. It somehow reminded me of a graveyard, and I didn’t want to tramp on Alija’s ancestors — especially after I’d spent a whole week swilling their blood. Even half drunk, I felt the hair quivering on the back of my neck.
We reached the top of the hill, and Alija continued around a gigantic boulder, stopping in a clearing on the other side. “The stones,” he said, smiling sadly. “Now you see.”
I looked to where he pointed, and staring me in the face was a man made of stone, or, rather, a phantom-like human figure intricately carved into a boulder. The figure’s hands were massive, otherworldly, and seemed to reach out of the stone in a gesture of serene affection.
“Bogomils,” Alija said. “My ancestors. They live on this land. My long-time-ago grandfather Radmila, he is a Bogomil. You know?”
I had learned a little about the Bogomil heretics from a visit to one of their cemeteries, outside Sarajevo. In the thirteenth century, the Bogomils led an ascetic, puritanical revolt against the Christian Orthodox Church. They were dualists, and believed that the material world was the work of the devil, that Satan had created the human body and afterward tricked God into imbuing it with a soul.
Many Bosnian Muslims were said to be descendants of Bogomils, but the tombstones were incredibly rare, and I was stunned to find one in Alija’s back yard. I stared at the stone hands, vaguely aware of Alija touching my shoulder.
“For Bogomil, all of life is about making free the . . . how you say? The soul from the body. Light from dark. The wine, maybe, is help for that. Rasim is all light, and sometimes the world is dark. He works to be free. He is small Bogomil, my son.”
As Alija spoke, his hand worked my shoulder, rubbing it like no man had ever done before. I didn’t look at him, but stared straight ahead at the leaning slab. I felt I understood him then, a short, ugly man who’d fed me cheese on a stinky bus. He was weeping, and his hand begged me to weep with him.
I reached over, put my hand on his shoulder, and squeezed. I couldn’t cry, but I was there with him: two half-drunk men poised on the threshold of another world. It was many minutes before we heard the thunder, rolling like distant guns over the flaxen hills.