Directly below him, at the bottom of the mountain, a road cut through fields covered with feathery rows of green sprouts. Further on, a bridge with blue-painted steel girders crossed the river at a sharp angle and led into the city. As he studied the road more carefully, one unpaved shoulder of the road seemed alive, as if a long caterpillar, colorful and composed of many uncoordinated dots, was snaking along its edge.
Jusuf worked his way down the slope, grasping bushes and occasional tree branches for support, but where there were stretches of sheer rock he felt safest sliding on his rump and braking with his boot heels. About halfway down the slope he saw small trucks piled high with what looked like quickly gathered bundles of household belongings and pieces of furniture lashed through car windows. Several tractors pulled hay wagons loaded with children and old people, and there were oxen dragging smaller carts. Most of the people in the line were on foot. A few were on horseback.
Pausing for a moment to sit on a large flat stone to catch his breath, Jusuf wondered whether he was drawing closer to friend or foe. If the town were in fact Bihac, those below him would probably be people like himself escaping from, or driven out of, Muslim hamlets and heading for the safety of one of Bosnia’s largest Muslim enclaves. Reasonably confident now that this was the case, he rose and moved further down the slope.
Young women with infants at their breasts trudged along the rain-slick roadway, dogs trotting at the heel. A man hobbling with a cane and wearing a faded red fez held a befuddled chicken under his right arm. Bundles of clothing, sagging from the drizzle, sat precariously balanced on the heads of those on foot. Large books with gold lettering, framed photos, and mirrors too heavy to lug any further littered the shoulder between the road and the river. A lovely carved table lay legs up in a puddle of mud. Most of the refugees wore white armbands and carried white flags. The older women had maramas tied around their heads and wore the traditional baggy-legged dimije rather than slacks or a dress.
Jusuf worked his way down the rock-strewn slope toward what he now recognized as Put Avnoj-A, the two-lane road leading into Bihac. Though the terrain was still treacherous in places, he let gravity and his growing excitement pull him into a slow run. His oversized boots caused him to fall once but with the quick response and agility he so frequently demonstrated in a soccer game, he preserved his momentum by turning the fall into an impromptu somersault. His heart beat wildly and his lungs pumped with a throbbing sense of anticipation as if a homecoming of some miraculous making was about to embrace him.
Closer to the road, Jusuf’s eyes, which over the last several weeks had narrowed into cautious slits, began to relax. Because his eyeballs jounced in their sockets, the line of refugees appeared to worm about in an intoxicating blur of color. At the edge of the first planted field, his tears turned to threads that flowed sideways around his face and into the creases at the corner of his eyes. A surge of sweet saliva welled up under his tongue as he hopped across sprouting rows of peas, radishes, and lettuce. Unable to restrain his eagerness, he started running as fast as he could, his arms outstretched in joy and relief, humming to himself then singing in a voice grown harshly coarse. A bullet suddenly sliced through the drizzle and whizzed past his ear. He fell to his knees then dropped flat to the ground, the side of his face sinking into the soft plowed earth. When he raised his head to see who had a gun, another shot was fired.
He couldn’t believe that after such a treacherous odyssey and now so slow close to safety that his life would be taken because he was mistaken for he knew not what. After a few minutes, he reached into his plastic pouch and felt for the strip of white cloth he had put away for the wound that had never occurred. Still prone in the plowed field, he raised his arm and waved the cloth until he could see that the stalled knot of refugees had resumed their march. In a cautious progression of movements, he drew himself up to a kneeling position, then stood. He waved the cloth above his head then brought his palms together in front of his chest as if in prayer then slowly bowed. When he felt that he was no longer seen as a threat, he walked toward the road, all the while scanning the queue for anyone else who thought a warning shot needed to be fired his way.
Jusuf blinked in disbelief when he saw his mother in a pool of sunlight walking arm-in-arm with what looked like one of her friends from Kljuc. His heart raced. He was relieved and excited and was about to call to her when the woman turned to watch a deer dart into a stand of trees. The woman’s nose was small and upturned. His smile withered. Closer to the bridge, when he thought he saw Suljo walking along arm in arm with his sons, he was more guarded and realized he was seeing only what he wished to see. Further on, a heavy-set man with a rifle momentarily reminded Jusuf of his father.
Jusuf sloshed happily through an irrigation channel that bordered the road. Those walking closest to him drew back with concern as if some prehistoric scavenger had just stepped out of the ice age and was approaching them. Jusuf tried to imagine what they were seeing: filthy face and hands, tangle of long hair, a jumble of rags roped to his scarecrow-thin body, his plastic pouch with its collection of jingling oddments. He was hoping for a welcoming nod, an indication that he was seen as one of them; that they understood he was escaping a plight like their own. But those nearby either stared in amazement or looked away and quickened their pace. He kept a distance for a while and continued walking on his side of the road rather than cross over and try to work his way into the line.
Two small boys turned to look back at the stranger who had come up somewhat near them. Their eyes were wide with fear and curiosity as they stole glances at his dark face, filthy beard, and tattered clothing. When one of Jusuf’s boots twisted on a stone lurching him forward unexpectedly, the boys scampered off and tunneled under the arms of their parents. But twenty meters down the road they turned and looked back. They giggled and hugged each other then slowed their pace to get closer to Jusuf, even crossing the road and quickly running back with a squeal. The braver of the two finally waved to him.
Jusuf looked around to the adults nearby for a clue as to how to respond—hoping he’d see if any kind of response would be welcomed. Although he could not get his troubled eyes to fully soften, he worked the muscles around his lips with his fingers and got his lips to part but was unable to bring forth any understandable utterance from vocal cords nearly immobilized from days upon days of disuse. But then one of Jusuf’s irresistible smiles materialized to decorate his face, his glowing white teeth still had a remarkable if surrealistic shine, and the irrepressible dancer in him tapped something of a jig on the macadam. The older child laughed with surprise and said Ciao. Moments later Jusuf noticed an opening that had formed in the line beside him.