The Bosnian

By  |  0 Comments


BY JAEL MONTELLANO

One November Sunday in 1997, when she’s thirteen, she and her mother go on a grocery trip. It’s an overcast day where light filters faintly through the gauze of clouds unto the colorless city below, and yet the forecast predicts no rain.

Her mother thinks they’ll walk, cut through the apartment complex across the street since the grocery store is so close, and only get the necessary things—milk, bread, lunch meat, and juice boxes for her lunches. She walks on her mother’s right side humming to herself because there is a song stuck in her head, Marilyn Manson’s “Tourniquet.”

Take your hatred out on me

Make your victim my head

You never ever believed in me

I am your tourniquet…

This last bit she sings aloud not being able to help herself, and her mother says, “I don’t want to hear that filth,” in her accented, broken English. Broken from supposed world travels, which the girl doubts.

“It’s not filth,” the girl says, but her mother shushes her. That’s a thing her mother does, the shushing. The girl turns to humming, snuggling deep into the fur-lined hood of her coat.

They are walking past the apartment complex across the street and are surrounded by dark brick the color of wet earth. An alley snakes between four-story buildings into a car park behind, and beyond, like a canyon wall that shuts out the setting sun, the cement block of the grocery store overwhelms the suburban horizon.

They see him then, the boy. When they pass into the rightmost corner of the vacant car park, they see him standing dead center in his denim jeans and hoodie. He wears the same expression she sees him wear at school, that sullen frown made pronounced by his thick caveman brow-bone that juts out like a cliff side. It always makes him look angry, and it occurs to her that maybe he always is. The only time she has ever seen him smile is when he rides his bike on the sidewalks and nearly clips pedestrians passing by. He has done it to her a number of times.

At school, it is rumored he is a Bosnian refugee who has barely escaped from the war. It is said his dad died and that it’s only him, his mother, and his brother, who is older and something of a bully. But the boy keeps to himself and no one has ever confirmed his story. He hasn’t made friends at Hamilton Middle School. She doesn’t even know his name.

She doesn’t know when she realizes what he is doing in the middle of the car park, but when she does she stops humming. Panicked wild birdsong reaches her ears, and it comes from this little baby bird in the center of the gray pavement inches from his sneakered feet. Its tiny pink neck stretches taut and releases as pinpricks of high shrieks weave their way up the featherless neck. Below that the bird doesn’t move. Half its acorn-sized body is smeared into the pavement and thin smudges of blood appear on the boy’s right sneaker.

She blinks and everything is moving fast. Somehow her mother has marched straight at the boy screaming in a foreign tongue, her anger-tongue, and she is confused, the girl, so Mother of God confused because she doesn’t know, hasn’t been taught this anger-tongue, only suffers it. In a decade when she is applying for college grants her mother will tell her that they emigrated from Yugoslavia, that they needn’t speak of it– they were lucky they’d avoided the war altogether, as if Yugoslavia could be shed like a winter coat. Yet now, those words her mother screams, spouts. What insults does she throw? But then it doesn’t matter because he is still standing by the baby bird by the time her mother reaches him and grabs him by the collar with her tense tentacled hands. Like a rag doll, her mother spins him through air and slams him back into the brick building, and there are sounds then, low sounds coming from the boy’s throat, something like bubbling and hissing because her mother’s fingers are around his neck and he can’t breathe. They release him and he crumbles, thin squeak of a boy, coughing and heaving to the ground on all fours. He draws himself in like a fetus, draws his knees up to his chest and braces his arms, and this time when her mother’s insults spout from her mouth, they are delivered with kicks aimed at his kneecaps and his shins, places where his jeans are wearing thin from playing too much soccer or falling from his bike.

The girl doesn’t know what to do. She wants it to stop, she wants all of it to stop, but she is so far away. Her distance is so far, so far it seems to her. But really if she runs it won’t be more than three heartbeats away. One, two, three, she can be there and save him his broken nose, his bleeding face, his pride. Instead she stands over by the grass and watches skin that has been smooth and white become ripped like lizard hide and pulpy red.

There are now two blood islands in the gray ocean of the car park. The smaller island that is the bird has long since grown quiet and the tubular neck has stilled.

She blinks again and her mother is back at her side like it never happened, her mother wiping her boots clean on the patch of grass breaking through the pavement cracks. The girl smells copper like pennies and dandelion weeds and cold. She cries. Her mother takes out a cigarette and lights it and tells her, “Sing your little song, munchkin,” but she does not feel like it. She can only look over at the nameless boy with shame as he breathes in and out on the ground and stares back at her with his eyes burning like heated coals.

Finally her mother shakes her and says, “Stop crying. Stop it. Or I slap you too.”

And so the girl starts to hum. She hums the way to the grocery store and the way back, and when they return with their plastic bags crinkling in their hands, the boy is not there but she can still see the bloodstains on the ground. They are dark and almost faded and with a bit of rain will wash away into the earth without anyone knowing.


Jael Montellano is a Mexican-born writer based in Chicago whose work has appeared in Camera Obscura Journal, Newcity Magazine, Red Lemonade, and The Rumpus. She is an avid photographer, traveler, and antique collector.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Leave a Reply