Muna

Muna clung to her tiny brother, Akmad, seeking, with all the power in her weakened arms to protect the tiny child from the horrors of their once-dear home country. She silently cursed her Albanian ancestry and the Serbs that sought to take everything from her people. Already, Muna had lost so much. Her mother, her father, her home, and worst of all, her pride. The Serbs had stripped her of everything but life itself, leaving her only eyes with which to weep. The baby, Akmad, flinched in her arms as a troop of Serbs flew past, arms raised and screaming their frightful battle cry.

The one short year since his birth had not hardened Akmad toward the terrible truths of the world. The child’s dark eyes harbored none of the haunting fear that his sister’s carried. He was a jovial toddler, a bouncing boy shielded by the blessing of ignorance. Muna wrapped her frail, depleted arms even tighter around the boy and willed the world to be at peace. In all her eleven years, she had yet to experience even one week without clashes and conflicts between the government, Serbs, or Muslims. Her dark, solemn eyes held a sober maturity that never failed to startle even the most lighthearted onlooker.

She rearranged the thin quilt around Akmad and gazed pensively from within the cramped alley. Muna grimly set her jaw and pushed down her loathing of her own country. She cradled the child as a mother would, and sidled cautiously down the filthy street in the heart of Kosovo, bracing herself against the icy wind. Now it was deathly silent; the raiders had moved on with the goods they had stolen from defenseless people and abandoned buildings.

Muna recoiled vaguely when her mysteriously dark eyes fell on a woman sprawled on the street. The woman’s hair was matted with fresh blood. It seemed on the exterior that Muna had merely glanced at the body and looked away, as her slight reaction was perceptible only in her tightened grip around her wriggling brother. Her face gave away none of the emotion she felt inside, but inwardly the sight of the red liquid brought memories catapulting from the past into her mind.

She was only ten years old when it happened.

Her mother had just put Muna and Akmad – who was but a tiny newborn – into their makeshift beds and sang them a song. The lullaby was both haltingly lovely and mournful. Muna’s mother had been an exquisite Albanian woman with dark, serious eyes, and her possessing smile radiated such peace that Muna knew her mother was the most beautiful woman in Yugoslavia.

A sudden knock shook the door. Muna’s mother ushered them out of bed and swiftly into the moldy attic, hastily imploring her two children to remain still and silently hidden until she returned for them. Her mother hurried to the door, knowing that it was not her husband on the other side.

He had been missing for two days, and the family had wordlessly understood that they would never see him again. Suddenly a pair of government officials burst into the room, demanding money and threatening death. When they saw that Muna’s mother had nothing to give, they assaulted her verbally, then physically. She had withstood the attack in firm silence, but Muna could sense her mother’s noiseless, tortured screams. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut and prayed to every god whose name she could recall. At last, two gunshots ripped through the bitter air and suddenly the faceless, nameless soldiers were gone.

Long moments had passed, and a stifling hot silence permeated the tiny apartment. Muna waited, terrified. She cradled her whimpering brother and straining to hear sounds of her mother’s footsteps. She silently counted to the highest number she knew, and when that was done, she repeated every verse of the Koran that she had ever been forced to memorize. At last, when the silence was too much to bear, she ventured out with Akmad in her arms.

It was then that she had found her mother. The body was naked and bleeding from two bullet wounds in the torso.

That had been a year ago.

Muna, scarred by the image of her mother’s lifeless face, had been driven to the streets a month later when she had no way to pay rent for the tiny apartment. No amount of begging or pleading could have persuaded the rigid landlord to allow them to stay, not even when she had beseeched him in shame from her knees. No money, no Albanians.

On the streets, Muna was subjected to the harsh conditions. Hunger, cold, abuse. As a result of her traumatic existence, she withdrew into the recesses of her mind, rarely speaking, and even rarer still, smiling.

Weeks and months passed. Muna grew less like her vivacious self, and more like the thousands of hopeless, lifeless beggars on the streets of Kosovo. She could not remember the last time she had eaten, for she always gave Akmad the scraps of food she was able to gather. As a result, her own body and health dwindled.

With a worried glance at the sky, she noted that the sun would die within the hour. A pale expression of fear flitted across gaunt features as she pondered the thought that confronted her daily. Where will we sleep tonight?

Muna hoisted her brother onto a thin hip and began the slow trek. She grimaced at the prospect of yet another night on a cold doorstep or between battered buildings. Muna rummaged aimlessly through a pile of rubbish, and came away with a half-eaten chipolata. One sniff of the cold sausage renewed her sharp pangs of hunger. She wiped it and placed it gingerly in Akmad’s little, grasping fingers.

She rubbed his heavily blanketed back as he wolfed it down noisily. A wave of guilt struck her as the child looked up expectantly, his tiny hand outstretched for more. She shook her head sadly and gave his ruddy cheek an affectionate kiss. Akmad squirmed in frustration, but accepted her maternal embrace. He wrapped his short arms around her neck.

The sun passed dejectedly over the horizon, sinking into the distant land of Bosnia. Muna settled awkwardly against a tree stump with Akmad nestled in her lap. She sat still and unmoving, waiting for the child to drift off to sleep. Her heart, though a mere shadow of what it once was, still longed with the same fervor for a better life. She stared after the sun’s bleeding rays and wished for the land beyond the horizon, where she could live free.

She knew that somewhere beyond the blazing orb lay a land called Montenegro, where Albanians were left at peace. Muna’s numbed mind stirred at the thought of liberation. Her frozen consciousness groped desperately for it. As the relief of sleep flooded her senses, Muna’s last thought was of Montenegro, where she would one day flee – one arm clutching Akmad, the other grasping freedom.

Whispers in the wind

Her knees creaked as she stood. Gripping the door, she gingerly maneuvered inch by inch from the wheelchair, assisted by a strong pair of tanned hands, belonging to Martin the orderly.

“A little lower,” Helen joked.

“Oh Miss Helen, you rascal!” Martin laughed, shaking his head. He was tall and good natured, and Helen teased him endlessly about his looks. It was no secret that she had been trying to arrange interest between Martin and her granddaughter Lilly.

He lifted her frail body onto the bed and arranged her pink slippers neatly next to the side-table.

“How about some tea?” Martin asked, as he tucked the blanket around her.

“Only if you don’t screw it up this time,” Helen said smartly.

Martin chuckled. “I’ll do my best,” he promised. “Back in a moment,” he said, and he stepped from the room.

Alone, Helen sighed. When did she become an old woman? It seemed like just yesterday she was at the pub with her friends while young men jockeyed to buy them drinks. The years, they vanish like whispers in the wind.

Easy conversing over food and wine

Benjamin ate with unreserved relish. It was something she appreciated about him, particularly as she had spent a good portion of the afternoon preparing the meal for the date.

“So good,” he mumbled, with sincere admiration.

Meredith hid her blush with a quick sip from her glass of wine.

“Thank you, I’m glad you like it,” she smiled.

His ease made her feel comfortable. It was as though he accepted her exactly as she was, and had no expectations for anything else. She found it refreshing and appealing.

“So,” he said, swallowing a mouthful and leaning back, “How was the game?”

“Oh,” she said, surprised that he remembered. That morning, she had sung that national anthem at the local baseball game. She had mentioned it to him in passing, not thinking much of it. “It went well,” she said. “They thought it might rain, but it ended up being a perfect day.”

“That’s great,” he said, with a swig of wine. With a tilt of his head, he asked “How did Merry fare with setting up the system?”

“Ah,” Meredith said, again pleasantly surprised at his attentiveness. Merry Jamison, an eager lad, had been tasked with setting up the game’s sound system when his father, the town’s technical expert, had come down with the flu. “Merry did a fine job, Preston’s got quite the young apprentice,” she said, referring to Merry’s dad.

“Good.” Benjamin responded, with a satisfied nod. “I’m glad it went well.”

Benjamin’s genuine care warmed her. It was a new feeling, one that she tentatively enjoyed.

A cottage dinner for two

Singing was something Meredith did for fun, and had become so good at it, that being a singer had somewhat become part of her identity. Members of the small town in which she lived regaled her as the town’s best singer, and took liberties to volunteer her for any and every opportunity to serenade groups and audiences across the town.

One summer’s day, a day that was far too hot to do anything other than sit perfectly still and spritz oneself with a cool mist, Meredith pulled a perfectly baked cake from the heat of her oven. Her secret family recipe was sure to be the hit of tonight’s dinner date. Of course it would, right?

Benjamin, the town’s most eligible bachelor, had first shown interest in Meredith earlier that summer, after seeing her sing the national anthem at the local auction. Their first date took place in the field next to his farmhouse, where he had set up a midday picnic near the bubbling creek. Their second date had been at the movie theater, where the popcorn was too buttery and slightly stale.

Tonight was their third date, and Meredith had offered to host it in her little cottage at the end of the lane. She had never cooked a full dinner for anyone other than her parents when they came to visit, and even then, her mother usually brought one or two side dishes to accompany the meal. Meredith silently chided herself for not suggesting something more manageable, like tea and biscuits.

She hummed to herself, her lilting voice somersaulting with ease. The sauce and chicken stood warming on the stove top, and freshly chopped vegetables sat ever so pristinely on the counter. Together with her sweet voice, the lovely fragrances mixed and filled every inch of the little kitchen. She set the table for two, moving with quick efficiency.

A knock sounded on the door. Internally, she congratulated herself on having completed everything in perfect time. She checked her image in the mirror and bustled to the door.

He smiled when the door opened, not bothering to hide his appreciation of her rosy cheeks and pretty eyes.

“You’re beautiful,” he breathed, as he gave her a sweet kiss.

She beamed in response, pleased beyond measure at his sincerity.

“Smells fantastic,” he said, hanging his coat on the rack. He moved with ease.

“Thank you, it’s one of my favorites. Can I get you a glass of wine?” Meredith asked, retrieving two tumblers from the cupboard.

“Yes, please,” Benjamin said amiably. He eyed the contents of the pot on the stove. “Mer, this looks incredible,” he said.

She silently rolled over the way he had so effortlessly called her Mer. She liked it.

“My mom made it all the time growing up,” she said, as she spooned the chicken and the sauce into a serving bowl and transferred it to the table.

As they ate, Meredith tried not to stare at him. He was nice to look at. Not exactly handsome in the Hollywood way, but something close to it. Her favorite thing about him was how comfortable he was with himself and the world around him. His ease made her feel safe.

Gardening

One day, she looked outside her window and saw that the hibiscus had bloomed. An eruption of red petals splashed across the green, like strokes of paint. The bold color commanded attention, though the plant itself was relatively lean.

Out in the garden, she bent to retrieve a fallen flower from the base of the plant. It was slumped and miserably droopy in comparison to its proud counterparts standing to attention. Inspecting it carefully, she concluded that it likely got damaged by the wind storm.

She clipped it carefully with a small pair of gardening shears and laid it with a pile of twigs. Once the area was satisfactorily cleared, she gathered up all the clippings and dropped them in a trash bag.

Bittersweet goodbye

The wind whipped around her, stirring the dust around her feet and lifting long strands of red hair. Shawna hugged her sister tightly, wishing she didn’t have to let go. She stifled a sniffle into her sister’s shoulder.

“Jeez girl,” her sister joked, goodnaturedly. “You’d think I’m dying or something.”

“Oh stop,” Shawna chided, swiping at her tears.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” her sister winked.

“I’ll hold you to that,” Shawna quipped.

The two stood a moment longer, the car idling beside them, the wind tugging on clothes and hair.

“Love you little sis,” Shawna said.

“Love you too, big sis,” she responded. “Be good,” she said playfully, swatting at her sister’s elbow.

Shawna laughed easily, shaking her head at her younger sister.

One last quick embrace and then her sister disappeared through the glass doors. They slid closed behind her, obscuring her from view.

A morning exchange

Steam wafted from the mug in his hand. He slurped noisily, deliberately ignoring his daughter’s increasing exasperation.

“Dad, why can’t I go to Shelby’s house tonight?” Lacy asked.

“Honey, your mother and I do not want you going over there until you learn more responsibility.” Aaron responded.

“Why not?” She huffed.

“Because last time you went to Shelby’s, you didn’t get home until after your curfew.”

“But I won’t do that this time,” Lacy pleaded.

Aaron gave her a reprimanding glance over the frame of his glasses.

“The answer is no, honey.”

Frustrated, she rolled her eyes at him. He pretended not to see.

“You’re going to be late for school if you don’t get out of here,” he said.

Lacy glared at her father. Wordlessly, she turned, grabbed her backpack, and disappeared through the door.

“Love you too,” Aaron said, knowing she was long out of earshot.

To vanquish the path

Miles traversed. Milestones conquered. With each step, she mentally gathered up the vanquished path behind her and fed it inch by inch into her heart’s furnace, using it as fuel to grow stronger and propel herself ever forward.

The uneven path before her stretched endlessly onward. There was a long way yet to go in this never-ending journey.

Dust blew around her, tiny pebbles striking bare arms and legs. The horizon blurred, obscured by flying particles. Everything was brown.

Though fatigued, her feet still were sure. With her mind, she visualized the rocky, brittle path as a smooth, straight line, leading her directly to the finish.

A swig of water from a battered canteen, and a bite of something to keep up her strength.

As she chewed, she gritted her teeth against crunchy bits of sand that had found their way into her food. Swallowing and squaring her shoulders, she soldiered on.

One step, and then another

She surveyed the frayed map before her, slowly deciphering the mix of lines and scribbles. Her destination seemed impossibly far from where she stood right now. How would she manage the journey?

She hiked her bag higher, securing it tighter with straps across her shoulders and hips. The burden, though heavy, was one she had grown accustomed to carrying.

The road stretched evermore before her weary feet, cold and unyielding even in the heat of the midday sun. Somewhere along the way, determination had formed a protective barrier around her, insulating her from the icy prongs of fear.

One foot in front of the other. One step, and then another. One mile, then two, then three. Though slow, progress was being made.

She folded the map and tucked it safely inside her vest.

“Let’s go,” she said. And set off once again.

Rest stop

The man’s wiry beard baked in the sun as he lay in the field. A single ladybird pulled herself up the threads of his corduroy waistcoat. His fingers slightly, playing a silent tune on a piano made of grass and dirt.

After a long while, he lifted his head. His rounded belly shifted as he rolled to his side. Brushing off dirty trousers, he pushed himself up. Joints creaked and protested. Calloused, blackened toes peeked through sad holes in his shoes.

He lifted his knapsack, listening for the distinctive rattle coming from inside the bag. Satisfied that the child’s toy was still contained within the ragged knapsack, he heaved it over his shoulder and continued on his endless trek.