A Bosnian Winter Night by Jozefina Cutura
Uncle Spaso’s dog Sila waded through the snow ahead of us. She would disappear for a while, only to emerge again right in front of us, happily wagging her tail. Uncle Spaso said the dog liked to roam around the mountains freely and had crossed this route many times, but I was afraid she’d lose her way in the knee-high snow and would be forever gone.
It was the winter of 1992, and I was visiting relatives in the village during the school break. That night my uncle and I were climbing Dobro Mountain to attend a saint’s day feast at a relative’s house. The temperature had dropped to minus 30 degrees Celsius. The snow was falling, and all around us fir and oak trees were covered in white. I held my frozen nose and ears with my gloves to thaw them. My eager eyes were on Sila the whole time. When she disappeared once again, I stared hopefully at the whiteness ahead, looking for a black dot in the distance.
We arrived at the house dog-less, and though I was worried about Sila, I couldn’t wait to shake off the icicles that had formed on my clothes. The house, built before most of the family migrated to town or to the village on the bottom of the mountain, was warm and filled with relatives and neighbors in hand-knitted woolen sweaters. The dining table was so packed with roasted pig meat, stuffed peppers, cabbage salad, and pies that it seemed dangerously close to collapsing. After the prayers, the guests eagerly attacked the food, while the women circled around to refill the glasses.
I sat in the corner and stuffed myself with smoked ham. After a while, the toothless grandmothers and aunts with bad breath who kept pinching my cheeks and asking me about life in town were too much to bear. I fled to an empty bedroom, in which I found a book about the lives and deaths of Orthodox saints. I read for a while, but the stories of the saints’ suffering and martyrdom made me scared of being alone. I closed the dusty book and went out. A drunken relative intercepted me as I tried to make my way back to the table. He shoved a shot of rakija into my hand. “This will heat you up,” he said and shimmied away to the middle of the room where several men had formed a circle and were dancing the kolo. I downed the shot in one gulp. It was the first time I’d tasted alcohol, and I shakily ducked the dancing men to return to my chair.
Later that night, Uncle Spaso and I headed back to his village. We kept an eye out for the dog. “She knows how to get back. Don’t worry,” Uncle Spaso said. “Maybe she already got back home on her own.” As we climbed down the mountain, I slipped and fell a few times into the snow. I kept calling out Sila’s name, but the dog never appeared. When we arrived at Uncle Spaso’s house, the dog wasn’t there either. As soon as I woke up the next morning, I ran to the kitchen and asked the women if Sila was back. She wasn’t.
I looked out for the dog while sledding down the hill, and when I went out to the stables to milk the cows with the women. When I left the village a couple of days later, Sila was still missing. I was supposed to come back for a visit the following winter, but I never saw Sila or any of my relatives in the village again, for later that year the war started, and several of the aunts and uncles died and the rest of the family dispersed all around Bosnia. The house on the top of the mountain burned down, after being set on fire by a neighbor. I took comfort in the hope that the dog might have escaped the sad sight of all that.
As a native of Bosnia-Herzegovina who fled the country during the civil war, Jozefina Cutura has drawn on personal experiences and observations of Bosnian refugees in writing this story. The story is part of a collection that focuses on the lives of Bosnian immigrants. Her work has been published in Insolent Rudder, Inscribed, and is forthcoming in Paradigm. She holds degrees from Stanford and Harvard University and currently works with the World Bank.