In the modest back den of Irma’s north Chicago house, sunlight hurdles the windowsills and sets the remaining white walls aglow with an orange fire that comes out only upon sunset.
Snowflakes as big as quarters fall silently past the window and inside, where it is warm with flame from the ivory-painted brick fireplace, it is also silent.
I have come here to visit my Bosnian friend on a special occasion: Her first baby is due within the week. The baby’s name will be Hena. Momentarily, Irma has slipped out of the room’s white folding doors to retrieve hot bread from the oven. The sweetness of which I can already smell, warm, thick and honeyed.
Her husband, Mirsad, is still at work. And in the dimming light of the den, only Mirsad’s mother and I remain.
The silence is an intrusion upon an otherwise beautiful evening, an awkward glass wall in the midst of an otherwise comfortable space. This is my first time meeting the woman, who is tall and big boned and sturdy. Her hair is a nest of gray twine, her eyes puddles of gray rain. She sits at the edge of the beige couch opposite me. Her large, bony, pale hands folded on her brown-skirted lap, and she smiles at me.
I return her smile—it’s all I can do. I am a foreigner to the only language she speaks and she to mine, so we can only smile. Her eyes tell me that if she only could, she would say so many things to me. She would tell me the story of her recent trip from northern Bosnia, how she watched the leafy countryside of her homeland disappear into blue swirls of vast ocean, how the ocean gave way to a wide grid of cities, how the cities finally led to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
She would tell me, perhaps, how this is her very first time in America, how she is afraid now in this new world she does not understand—a world in which she will now live out the days of her life in this unfamiliar house.
She might tell me these things, if she could and in turn I might tell her that I understand in some small way what it’s like to live on foreign soil because I’ve done it, albeit as a child. I’ll tell her it gets easier as time passes, that it eventually becomes almost like home.
But we cannot say these things.
We can only smile and she can only gesture with a small, shy wave of her hard fingers in the direction of the bowl of pistachios on the coffee table between us, and I can only humbly accept them and take them into my mouth although I hate the taste of them against my tongue, but I do it all the same. I crack each one open between fingertips made raw from winter’s fury, and swallow them down one by one and smile back because after all, she has managed to communicate with me, to offer me this small gift, and I cannot answer no.
Outside, the glowing half-orb that remains of the sun sinks lazily into the horizon. Trees limbs bow with the weight of fresh snow. Cars hum past, tires sloshing against the sludge in the road. I can hear Irma curse from the kitchen as her finger likely brushes against the hot bread pan.
I crack open a pistachio. Slide it between my lips. Swallow. Smile.
The woman glances around the room that is still foreign to her. She has only been here three days. Her eyes spot something on the wall: something that pulls like gravity at her mouth corners, sending a small trembling through her lips like tiny aftershocks. She gazes sadly over my shoulder, regains her countenance, returns her eyes to me.
Come, she gestures, standing. She smooths the fabric of her skirt against her rough palms. There is something she wants to share with me.
I stand, and she hooks my elbow and leads me to the far corner of the room near the doors. There are a montage of framed photos on the wall, black and white replicas of another life, a far away place and time.
Reaching out her first and second fingers, she points toward one of the photographs. Three young men smile back from the framed glass.
“Mirsad. Jusuf. Kresimir,” she says, pointing to each of her sons, curling her lips in tight against her teeth. She then lets go of my arm, tapping forefingers against her clothed chest, linking her arms together like she’s cradling a baby, and then slowly hugs her arms to her chest as if trying to hold in her heart.
Tears come to her eyes, rippling like pools of storm water, a reflection of all she has witnessed in her life.
She again takes hold of my arm, presses her other hand to a photo of her sons leaned against a splintered old farm fence, presses her palm against the glass until it fogs with the moist heat of her skin. She stands there, palm across the image of her three boys when they were strong, when they were young men, and moans softly with wet eyes.
I am at a loss; I have no words for this woman who has known such unspeakable sorrow. Irma has shared with me the stories of life in war—stricken Bosnia. I know how she and her family fought to live, running, hiding in safety. I know that Mirsad is now this old woman’s only living son, that his elder brothers were murdered before his own wounded eyes.
Before his mother’s eyes, these eyes now before me.
I have been told about that day.
Their house, burned to the ground, engulfed in hot flame. The grass scorched away into black ash, the cows wailing in the distance. Their lives torn from them as an axe through delicate fabric. I know these things, and yet I cannot tell her. And although I know it would be utterly helpless, I cannot even say, “I’m sorry.”
She squeezes my arm and her body heaves in continuous rhythm as she loses herself in the photograph. Her tears tell her story. After a moment, I take her hands in mine. Feeling the thick skin against my palms, I bring them to my chest. To the place where my own heart is, clutching them there, the heat and sweat of her palms against my own. She turns to me, her eyes so full of pain, begging me to recognize this moment, to recognize her loss. She is telling me what could not be told even if she knew my language—even if I knew hers. She is telling me what cannot ever be spoken.
I press my hands tight around hers and I look into those gray-puddled eyes, and my own tears come. They are my reply; they tell her what I cannot possibly express.
After a few silent moments, once we have dried our eyes and have settled back onto opposite sofas, Irma waddles into the room with a basket of fresh bread slices and a tray of tea glasses. She places them on the table and studies the two of us, noticing immediately the absence of our smiles and that something is different.
Something has changed.
“What’s happening here?” she asks, wrinkling her eyebrows. She rests her slender hands along the upper curve of her swollen belly. I imagine the old woman young and pregnant with each of her unborn sons. Mirsad. Jusuf. Kresimir.
Resting her hands along the upper curve of a life to come, unaware of the sorrow ahead. I look back at Irma, to the slender hands resting on her unborn daughter, and I pray silently that she will never know this old mother’s pain.
She slowly lifts her shoulders into a shrug, awaiting an answer. She again asks, “What have you two been up to in here? Why so solemn?”
I glance to the woman across the table from me, across the mounds of pistachio shells that have collected in a glass ashtray in front of me.
I look at her— the deep canyons of her face, the cloud-covered eyes, the thin, pale lips curved ever so gently once again into a gracious smile—I return her gesture.
It is all I can do and yet, it is enough.
And I tell my friend, “We’ve been talking.”
Heather Dowdy has been a freelance and creative writer for nearly two decades, and is the founder and publisher of Nashville Paw magazine, a pet publication supporting animal rescue and welfare since 2006. Her work has been published in a variety of magazines, literary journals and books. She is grateful to share her heart with her husband, Chris, and their three rescued dogs, who bring many lessons and much love into their lives. Heather hopes that through her writing, her heart can connect with the hearts of others, ever binding the human spirit as one.
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Assist Ed: Julie Garcia/Ed: Bryonie Wise
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