The Lleshis of Kosovo
Terrible things should never happen in springtime, and it was almost spring. March had arrived on the Plain of Dukagjin, and even though most days were still bitter with the raw dampness of late winter, they were getting longer. Today had been one of those rare, bright days promising that spring would eventually come. The afternoon sun fell warm on Meli’s hands as she took in the wash Mama had hung out this morning. In the light breeze the multicolored plastic clothespins danced like little people atop the line. She should remember that thought—put it into a poem, or at least tell Zana at school the next day. They shared silly thoughts, she and Zana. That’s why they were best friends—that and the fact that both their fathers had come from farm villages and so weren’t proper “citizens” in the eyes of their classmates whose families had long lived in town. They weren’t looked down on like Gypsies or hated like Serbs, but still, there was a difference, and she and Zana knew it and shared it.
Meli dropped Baba’s best shirt into the basket at her feet and took a deep breath. Was there a smell of spring in the air? She longed for spring, when the two cherry trees in the back corner of the garden would bloom and the storks would return from their winter vacation in Africa. She tried to imagine the great birds flying over that immense continent, across Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Or did they choose a more daring flight over the Mediterranean Sea to come home to Kosovo? She’d have to ask Mr. Uka. Their teacher liked to be asked unusual questions. It gave him a chance to show off a bit, tell them about his trip years ago to the shore of the Adriatic Sea.
Meli had never seen any sea. She had never been anywhere, really. But she had seen pictures on television of oceans larger than the Mediterranean. Mr. Uka had said that there were birds that crossed those oceans in their migrations—tiny birds, far smaller than the white storks. How brave that seemed. The thought of traveling as far as Prishtina made her stomach flutter.
Meli finished taking in the first line of clothes and started on the second. Beyond the bounds of the town she could see green patches of winter wheat and, in the distant west, the snowcapped Albanian Alps—the “Cursed Mountains,” people called them, but no one seemed to know quite why. To the south was the Sharr range, where, she had been told, wild horses ran free. She had seen them only in her imagination, but that didn’t make them less real, their manes streaming in the wind as they raced about joyfully, unseen, unheard, unthreatened by the petty hatreds of humankind.
It would be a long time before spring came to those heights, but the snow was already beginning to melt on the hillsides. The gold cross and red-tiled roof of an old Serbian Christian church stood out starkly against the grays and browns of late winter. Why do the Serbs hate us so? Though, to be honest, most Albanians hated the Serbs just as fiercely. Some of the girls at school could, and would, recite terrible poems against the Serbs. She could never understand hate like that. Baba had always taught them to respect, not to hate. But he was not like other people. Even now, just a few feet away, her two little brothers were playing war.Was that fun? It must be. They played it every day, although they knew Baba disapproved. She tried to think of spring and blossoms and the return of birdsong to the garden.
Adil’s yell broke her reverie. “Meli! Tell Isuf I’m the KLA man!”
“No,” Isuf said with the practiced authority of the older brother. “You’re a Serb. I’m the KLA soldier.”
“Meli!” Adil begged. “Isuf always makes me be a Serb policeman. Tell him to let me be the KLA man. It’s my turn.”
Meli sighed, keeping her eyes on Vlora’s frilly new dress as she took it off the line. She wouldn’t want to drop it; the ground was still muddy. “Stop fighting, boys. If you can’t take turns, find some other game to play.”
It was Mehmet’s fault. Their older brother was convinced that the Kosovo Liberation Army would soon save the Albanians. No matter what Baba said, Mehmet worshiped the KLA. Baba said they were more legend than fact, but Mehmet was convinced they were simply biding their time, waiting for a chance to free Kosovo from Serbian domination. Even Mr. Uka, pointing to the picture on their classroom wall of Skanderbeg, the Kosovars’ fifteenth-century hero, predicted that out of the KLA would arise a new Skanderbeg who would liberate Kosovo.
She must have heard the familiar rattle and roar without realizing it: Uncle Fadil’s ancient Lada Niva. Baba, as elder brother of the Lleshi family, had tried to convince him to sell it and buy a new tractor, but Uncle Fadil had refused. The Lada suited him. He had taken out the back seat so he could load the car for market. Ten years of carrying vegetables, chickens, and the occasional goat had not dealt kindly with the old Russian made vehicle. It was something of a family joke. “Well,”Mehmet would say, “you can always tell when Uncle Fadil is arriving— if not by the noise, then certainly by the smell.” But the truth was, Meli was distracted, and she wasn’t aware that the car had driven up until the brakes squawked and it pulled to a stop on the street in front of the store.
She dodged under the clothesline and ran around the edge of the building to see. Yes, it was Uncle Fadil’s car, but what was it doing here in the late afternoon? He should be home milking his cow and goats at this time of day.
“Isuf, Adil, run into the store and tell Baba that Uncle Fadil is here,” Meli said.
“I don’t want to go in. It’s my turn to be the KLA man.”
Just then the driver’s door opened. It took Uncle Fadil three tries to get it slammed shut again. Meanwhile, the passenger door opened, and his wife stepped out onto the curb. Why had Auntie Burbuqe come and left Granny alone on the farm? She never did that.
“Come on, Adil, let’s get Baba.” Isuf’s eyes were wide with fear. Even at eight he was old enough to realize that something was dreadfully wrong if both his aunt and uncle arrived unannounced.
A chill went through Meli. She called out to her uncle, “Is Granny all right?”
Uncle Fadil looked up, startled. “Granny? Yes, yes, of course.”
So it was something else. “I’ll—I’ll tell Mama you’re here,” Meli said, and raced around the building and up the outside stairs to the apartment above the store before slipping off her shoes at the door.
Before long, the whole family was assembled in the parlor: Uncle Fadil and Auntie Burbuqe took the two upholstered chairs, while Baba, Mama with Vlora on her lap, and Mehmet sat on the couch. Adil and Isuf propped themselves against their father’s knees. There was no place for Meli to sit except for the tiny stool in front of the television set, so she chose instead to lean against the frame of the kitchen door. Everyone was still, waiting. Even her long-dead grandfather and grandmother seemed to be staring out of their black-and-white photograph ...