Theft

In our garden there was an apple tree whose mouth-watering fruits could be seen from the upstairs window of the house next door. Our neighbors, Rade and Jela, used to go to the market to buy apples for their two young daughters--but it was no use. However delicious, other apples were never as tempting as the ones that were visible from the family's window. Each morning, as soon as Rade and Jela left for work, the girls would jump over the garden fence in order to pick the overripe fruit. Usually I chased them away by throwing mud or stones at them. In other words, I defended my property, but as a matter of principle and not because I was particularly tempted by these or indeed by any other apples. Seeking revenge, the younger girl told my mother that I had got an "F" in math. As a result, my mother paid an unexpected visit to my school and was able to confirm the truth of my enemy's allegation. She spent the next few days torturing me with quadratic equations. All those xs and ys made life intolerable, so I decided to get back at our next-door neighbors in any way I could. Here's what I did: I found myself a hiding place and spent the whole day waiting for the thieves. Eventually they turned up, as I knew they would, and that's when I jumped out of the bushes and grabbed my enemy by the hair and began to drag her toward our house. I planned to lock her in the pantry until my mother returned home from work in order to punish her. But the little girl resisted fiercely, screaming and struggling. In the end she escaped, leaving only a handful of hair and a tiny piece of scalp in my hand. I was furious and ran inside, locking the door behind me. A short while later, I heard Rade screaming under the window that he was going to kill me. He must have repeated the threat to my mother, because she responded in kind. Predictably, they spent three or four hours trading insults at the window. My mother called Rade a gangster from Kalinovik. He called her a shameless hussy.

Over the next twenty years or so, the two of them never even said hello to each other, though I have to say neither of the sisters ever came to steal again. Each year, August and September would come and go, and the apples were no less beautiful and tantalizing, but the two families continued to live side by side without exchanging so much as a glance. Our parents grew old without forgetting the insults. In time the two girls got married and moved away, but otherwise everything remained the same.

A few days after the war began the police searched Rade and Jela's flat and found two hunting guns and an automatic rifle. The neighbors were understandably frightened. Indeed, they began to speculate about whom Rade was planning to kill, and how. For many years he had stopped coming out of his house. Was he hoping to lure his victim into a trap? Jela continued to go to the market in order to fetch the humanitarian aid and water until one day a shell exploded ten yards away from her, blowing her arm off. The tragedy had the unfortunate effect of driving Rade into the open, so to speak. For the first time in ages, the neighbors got to see Rade in the flesh, although he seemed to have aged preternaturally in the last few months and looked a hundred years old when he finally emerged from his house with a little saucepan of soup and three shriveled lemons. He visited the hospital once a day, keeping his eyes fixed to the ground, apparently terrified by the prospect of catching somebody's eye.

During that war-torn September our apple tree produced riper and tastier fruit than ever before. My mother joked that the last time such delicious apples had been seen was in the Garden of Eden. I climbed the tree, from whose uppermost branch I had a good view of the Chetnik positions on Trebevic. Hanging in the sky, I picked dozens of apples with the enthusiasm of Scrooge McDuck when he's in his vault throwing money in the air. As I reached out for one particularly juicy apple that was growing only half a yard from Rade's window, I couldn't help spotting him in the back of the room. I froze on the branch but eventually Rade shrank back a few inches. I don't know why but I didn't want him to go.

"How are you, Uncle Rade?"

"Be careful, son, it's high--don't fall . . ."

"How's Auntie Jela?"

"Well, she's hanging on, with her one hand, to what remains of life. The doctors say that she'll be coming out of the hospital soon."

We talked like this for two long minutes. I held on to the branch with one hand, and gripped my bag full of apples with the other. I was overwhelmed by a sudden feeling of nausea that was infinitely worse than anything caused by exploding shells and by guns that have or have not been found in people's houses. It was as though, hanging from the top of the apple tree in front of Rade's window, everything I knew about myself and other people had become meaningless.

Rade continued, "You know, son, when you lose an arm you continue to feel it for a long time. It's something psychological, as though you deceive yourself into thinking you still possess the missing limb. Every day I cook a little something to take to my wife, but there is no life in it. I look at the beans or the thin soup, and then I look at her and I say, 'Jela!,' but she doesn't respond. Then she says, 'Rade!,' and I don't respond. D'you understand, son? We're alive just enough to see each other and to conclude that we're not alive any more. That's all. Sometimes I look at these apples and marvel at the life in them. They don't care about all this. They don't know. I daren't even mention them . . ."

I stretched over to the window and passed him the bag. He looked at me, rather surprised, and then began to shake his head. Suddenly my throat became tight and it was as much as I could do to move my lips. I was paralyzed for half a minute; if the Chetniks had been looking at me they would have been very confused. Rade was trembling like a man who had nothing left. He was reduced to shivering like an unhappy, frightened animal. At last he raised his arm but he still couldn't say anything.

The following day Rade knocked on our door with a hundred apologies for disturbing us. He gave us something wrapped in newspaper and then left in a hurry, so I didn't get a chance to speak to him. The parcel contained a small jar of apple jam.

Soon afterwards Jela came out of hospital. The husband and wife continued to live behind their closed window, and Rade only ventured out to collect the humanitarian aid. One day, standing next to my mother in line, he whispered "Thank you" to her. She turned around just in time to hear him say, once again, that the apples were full of life.

In the next few months a handful of men in uniform came for Rade twice, took him away somewhere and later brought him back again. The neighbors watched these mysterious comings and goings, twitching at lace curtains, sometimes peeking through their keyholes. Feeling guilty perhaps, they couldn't help reminding one another of the hidden guns. Half a dozen gossips went back to the idea that Rade must have wanted to kill somebody. Others remained silent, as if the mere act of talking about their neighbor was enough to cause pain. The obvious solution would have been to hate Rade, but somehow it wasn't possible.

Nobody knows who killed Rade and Jela. They just disappeared one day without fuss or explanation. Perhaps it's wrong to say what I am going to say, but I only remember two things about poor Rade--his apple jam and the remarkable fact that he never once, not even in the dead of night, reached out of his window to steal an apple.

From Sarajevo Marlboro, published 2004 by Archipelago Press. By arrangement with the publisher.