M is for Mostar
High on a rounded hill overlooking the glittering Aegean we laid Jacques to rest. The olive grove by the cemetery looked onto two of the sturdy stone wind mills . It had been one of the artist’s favorite spots. He was a long way from his native France and there was not a single family member at his funeral. It was how he would have liked it. I knew my time in Greece was coming to a close so I breathed in the citrus infused air. I smelled the pine from the big somber trees behind me and the salt of the sea. I heard the distant bells from the goats on the hills blending with the mournful singing as we laid him in the ground.
I hugged the old men and walked away from the roughly hewn cross that marked the artist’s final resting place. I laid his easel on his grave. As I walked away on the meandering path by the shimmering sea I felt more alone than I had ever done before. Jacques was the closest thing I had to a father. I was 19-year-old and all alone in the world. I had my paints and easel and very little money to make it home. But I had a piece of paper with an address of a lawyer who Jacques had told me to meet in Budapest. Now I had to get there somehow.
I went to the harbor and was told a trawler was leaving for Patras in a couple of hours. The skipper was a friend of Jacques and he gave me a free passage to the Greek port. Patras was an ugly mass of ships and all of the foulest aspects of the sea were congregated in its oil soaked water. The skipper from Koss had given me the name of the captain of a cargo ship who was looking for crew members who would help with loading and unloading. I soon found myself in a stifling office that reeked of cheap cigarettes as the vastly overweight captain looked over his heaving bosom at me.
“You don’t look like you have had a lot of experience at sea,” he said staring at his boots that were up on a chair.
“Not a lot.”
“Well right now I don’t care. You get free passage to Trieste and we part after that. No papers. No payment, right? If you disappear overboard you never existed.”
“I’ll try not to.”
The captain just stared at me. “Well what are you waiting for? Get on board.”
Once on board the cargo ship I hauled crates around the deck in the teeth of a biting wind. Fortunately, when the ship has left port there was little more to do, so I sat around in the cold sleeping quarters reading a book under a bare light bulb. The rest of the crew comprised of swarthy Slavic types who paid me little attention but get into animated conversations that sometimes resulted in fist fights. As we crept up the coast of Yugoslavia as it fractured, I thought of Italy and the train journey to Budapest. I was wishing away the time on board the bulk carrier.
Then, one evening something strange happened. The other crew members had been on edge all day, talking more loudly than usual and drinking spirits. Now they were all gathered on deck as the ship slowed its speed. I made out a few twinkling lights and realized suddenly we were heading for land. The notion agitated me because we were not due in Trieste for a few days. However, the ship kept moving toward the dark land. I also noticed the lights on the side of the vessel were turned off. We slid into a port and suddenly people were prodding and pushing me and getting me to pick up heavy boxes that were hoisted over the side of the ship. When I looked again most of the crew members had big, sinister looking guns slung over their arms.
I was pulled into the back of a truck in which the other crew members sat on a wooden bench, fiddling with their guns. The man who appeared to be the leader threw one at me. “You’re going to need it,” he muttered.
For two hours we drove up steep paths over mountains in darkness. At times we heard the far off boom of explosions in the night and the rattle of small arms fire. Later I recalled the presence of ancient, gaunt buildings. I looked up and saw ugly holes in the side of masonry where windows should have been and jagged edges. The sound of gunfire was alarmingly close now. A ghastly face like a jack lantern looked into mine. I smelled stale whisky and saw the dark nubs of his teeth. “Welcome to Mostar friend.”
Chapters from my novella Transitions are entirely fictitious and no resemblance is intended to real people or events.