Today, Goran is to put the tunnel to the test.
The load is heavy. More than his own weight. It’s full of cigarettes and meat. Meat! The first taste of flesh his family would have in almost a year. Goran puts out his cigarette, readjusts the straps around his shoulders and steps onto the first rung. He hears the words, “Good luck!” behind him. It’s the cigarette-scarred voice of Rufad, his digging buddy. It’s impossible to turn round, but he doesn’t need to. He’s spent the last four months with this man. He knows what he looks like, every inch of that face. Each line grained with the earth of Sarajevo. For four months they scraped and shovelled together, back-breaking, slavish work. And now the tunnel is ready. 800 metres in total.
They’d drawn matches to see who would go first. To see who would make the journey from Butmir to occupied Dobrinja. Every man outwardly wanting to be the first. Goran secretly hoping it would be someone else. When Goran drew the short match, Rufad held him in his strong arms like a baby. He could feel Rufad’s body tremble against his. He could smell the mixture of sweat, smoke and dirt on their bodies. To Goran, they’d become earth, wind, fire and water. Rufad was the first to pull away. He kissed Goran on both cheeks and said, “You’ve been chosen.” It sounded like a death sentence.
Goran raises his right hand in salute. He will need luck and God’s protection, if he’s to survive.
The wooden steps groan under the sheer bulk of the pack on his back. Before him, there’s light, but it’s weak. A dirty wind washes over his face. The fragile bulbs swing, creating ghostly patterns on the walls. Goran thinks he sees a demon ready to pounce. He closes his eyes in silent prayer, steps off the final stair and feels the soft, muddy ground beneath his feet.
He’s on his way.
Goran starts to count his steps. He thinks it will help the journey if he can measure it. Each step brings him closer to home. Each step brings him closer to danger. What if he’s discovered? When the tunnel began its life, Goran was screened and made to swear allegiance with the utmost secrecy. They gave it the codename: Objekt BD. Butmir to Dobrinja. He looks up at the packed earth. Under the sickly light, it’s hard to know a man’s heart surrounded by so much dirt. It’s been four months since the digging began, four months without proper food or shelter or safety. With a gun at his head, would Goran talk to protect his loved ones?
Goran thinks of his wife, Sonya. Her once plump cheeks now pinched, the piano fingers bony and aged. He thinks of Rufad. Who does he love more? He would rather die than have to make that choice.
Above Goran’s head is the runway. The ground shakes as a plane lands on the tarmac. Earth falls into his face. He is blinded for a moment. He bumps against the wall and rubs his eyes until the tears wash away the dirt. Water drips down on him. Will the ceiling stand the weight of the planes landing above his head?
He loses count of his steps.
The tunnel narrows. Goran feels his chest tighten as though the walls are pressing him in. He gulps at the air like a dying goldfish. He pictures his heart being squeezed dry. It hammers inside him. The army instructors warned him of this. He knows he’s panicking, he knows it will pass, but he can’t stop himself. He leans against the wall and takes a deep breath. He takes another. He counts to ten and his heartbeat slows down.
“Jebe ga,” Goran curses. Fuck it. The load on his back is too bulky to fit through. His chest pounds again. He doesn’t want to lose a single piece of his cargo. The weight of expectation is heavier than anything he can carry. Each item has been promised a home.
Goran starts to rearrange the goods. He pulls and tugs, pressing the packed meat even closer together. With a final wrench the bag is freed. There’s a casualty. The bag is caught on a piece of splintered wood, tearing some of the fabric. “JEBE GA!” Goran shouts again and immediately puts his hand over his mouth. He’s broken one of the golden rules: don’t make a sound.
He must patch up the bag or the goods will fall into the mud. Untying his shoe laces, he pierces the edges of the torn fabric. He notices his hands as he sews the pieces together. His nails are broken, the fingers calloused, the lifeline on his palm engrained with filth. It does not look long. These scarred hands which only ever used to hold a piece of chalk have now become workers’ hands. The schools are all closed now, too easy a target for the snipers and mortar shells. Instead of teaching, he’s now a packhorse.
He pats his handiwork. What would Sonya think? She’d probably take the lace in her own hands and create a tapestry out of it. She’d never really cared about needlework before, but it’s amazing how resourceful she’s become throughout the siege. Clothes that would have been thrown away in happier days she now restitches and restyles. She’d probably make an evening dress fit for the theatre out of the cloth on his back.
There’s a performance of Waiting for Godot due to show in one of the basements in his neighbourhood. Sonya’s helping out with the props. Anything to keep her busy. She’s been making a tree out of broken car parts for the past five weeks. He’d never really got that play before. Now it seems to make perfect sense. Waiting for something that might never come.
Goran gives the bag a second pat. It will have to do until he gets to the other side.
The tunnel deepens. Water, which has been steadily creeping over his shoes, is now at knee height. He must keep the load dry or the cigarettes will be ruined. It makes for slow, careful walking.
Goran takes a step forward and sinks up to his thigh. Quickly he pulls back onto higher ground. There’s nothing else for it. He must carry the load on his head. He thinks of his schooling, years ago, when he learnt of African women carrying bundles of kindling to their village. They often had to walk several miles, under the burning heat of the day, to reach their homes. He’s only travelling 800 metres. Less than a kilometre. He feels a sense of shame that a bit of water could impede his progress. He lifts the bag onto his head, readjusts it to make sure it is not likely to slip off and wades in.
It’s ice cold. He thanks God he is not making this journey in the winter when the river is frozen solid.
At its peak, the water reaches his waist. He cannot use his hands to grip onto the walls for fear of dropping the load. He pads the wet ground with the base of his boot until sure of a firm footing. Inch by inch he slides forward. He imagines his legs are made of metal. He’s a robot, immune to the freezing waters. Nothing can touch him. Not the cold, not gunshots, not bombs. His legs will carry him to the end.
Inch by inch the water levels start to recede.
The water is back round his ankles. Numb with cold, his legs start to shake. He gently lifts the load from his head and straps it round his shoulders once more. His hands are now free, but his fingers feel dead. He blows on them to bring them back to life. He sees his breath momentarily. It evaporates before him, quickly, snuffed out. He blows on his hands once more. He thinks of candles on a birthday cake. Five of them in a circle. It’s his son’s cake. Sonya made it. She stands behind Evsem with her hands on his shoulders, just in case he needs help. He doesn’t. He blows them out in one go. Their son, who doesn’t reach the age of six.
The tunnel twists and bends. He knows he is halfway now. The bend is a signal of the unexpected bunker that blocked their progress when the digging first began. It baffled everyone for days. Each end was supposed to meet in the middle but they’d come unstuck when they hit the intractable metal walls. There was no option but to dig round it. It added several metres to the tunnel and several more days of trenchwork. Rufad and Goran had volunteered to do extra shifts to keep Objekt BD on track.
The tunnel now rises. Goran must be getting close. The air is fresher on his face. He can almost smell freedom. The load is beginning to weigh heavily on him, when bam! His head hits a low metal beam and suddenly the pale lightbulb dims. All goes dark. He can feel his body falling, falling, falling. He puts his hands out just in time to cushion the landing. His face lies in several inches of water, enough to drown in. The water envelops him. He feels himself sinking, sinking, sinking. Into the mud where he is safe and warm and protected. If he could just lie here a while to rest...the goldfish swims across his eyes. Its mouth is open, ready to swallow him whole. Goran looks at the puckered mouth and laughs to himself. “Grandma, your teeth. They’ve all gone,” he says. The goldfish opens even wider and Goran sees right into its belly. Evsem is waving at him. Goran swims through the throat and the stomach walls close in.
There’s a gunshot from above. Goran lifts his head from the water. He thinks he’s being shot at. He starts to splutter. There are more gunshots. Goran turns on his side and spits out the gritty water from his mouth, water that was slowly choking him to death. He touches his forehead and looks down at his hands. They are covered in mud and blood. He kneels in the prayer position and offers up thanks that he didn’t end his days in a pool of wet earth. A couple of minutes longer and his own bones would have started to mingle with the clay of Sarajevo.
He gets to his feet, the blood rushing to his head. He steadies himself against the wall. Are the gunshots meant for him? Should he turn back to the safety of Butmir?
Goran thinks of Sonya. He pictures her mixing grass and rice with a little salt, for their daily meal. Can he come home empty handed? Can he face her disappointment? She would try to hide it, but it would be hard. They’ve both been dreaming of meat for weeks. “Goran,” she would say and hand him a plate. “This is for you.” He would take the steaming stew and sniff it. It would smell heavenly. As he took his first bite it would burn his tongue a little. It would taste delicious.
He cannot turn back.
It feels like a hundred buffaloes are pressing him into the earth. He lifts his legs as though the load he is carrying were attached to each foot. He turns to check the needlework. Wet, muddy, but still intact.
One step. Then another. There is a light. There is a face.
Something looms in front. A light points straight at him, right between the eyes. A cigarette. A hand strikes a match. He takes the cigarette in his blood-stained fingers, inhales deeply and breathes out.
Slowly, he mounts the stairs.
Kerry was born in Yorkshire, England, but has lived in London for over 20 years. She is an editor for an international academic publisher. In 2009 she was shortlisted for Wasafiri’s New Writer Prize, in 2014 she was longlisted for the Bath Short Story Award & in 2015 she was longlisted for the Fish Short Story prize & the London Short Story Award. Her work has appeared in Brand literary magazine, Notes From The Underground, Anthropology and Humanism, Spilling Ink Review, The Bicycle Review, the Momaya Annual Review 2012, To Hull and Back Short Story Anthology 2014 and most recently Red Savina Review in which she received honourable mention in the Albert Camus Short Story competition. In 2011 she co-founded The Short Story competition and now runs it solo: www.theshortstory.net. Loves bikes and dogs, hates mashed potato.