CHAPTER FIVE: The Witness
When the children arrived at the top of the shallow hill that lead to the doorstep of the old woman’s cottage, the street was every bit as abandoned as the day before. There were no signs of her stirring about the yard, nor any evidence that she was even home. From where they stood, they could see where the Bosniak woman had spent the better part of the afternoon painfully arched over her trampled plants, digging up their remains, smoothing over the soil, and placing the survivors into fresh pots that she gathered along her porch. Indeed, aside from the absence of those lush pink and yellow lilies that had given the front of her house so much color before the incident with the soccer ball, the damage didn’t seem quite as bad and Violet sighed with relief.
Before Violet could think of something more to say to try to convince the unruly heathens not to carry out their plan, however, Goran had already begun to lead their march down the hill. They were hushed now and Goran took the lead with his mischievous troupe following suit. All was eerily quiet in the woman’s house and Violet prayed that the woman was not home. Perhaps she would be out buying groceries or visiting loved ones. Violet did not want to be present yet again to see the old woman weep for her garden and debated whether or not it would be best to abandon her friends.
The boys had lost their minds.
As they neared the house, Violet was further reminded of their crime by an old and ragged Bosnian flag hanging limply from the window sill of an adjacent building. Its white body hung like a bed sheet beneath the window’s ledge, gently flapping in the wind, and there were several harsh rips running across its emblem—a coat of arms depicting the blue and yellow colors of the republic alongside six Bosnian lilies, the national flower. The shredded tears running through the shield made the flag look as if it had been mauled by some ferocious beast, and there could be no mistake that they had entered into a predominantly-Bosniak neighborhood, for the Muslims venerated this flag above all others.
“We shouldn’t be here,” Violet whispered to herself.
“Shut up and go behind the house and knock on her door,” Goran instructed her, rolling his eyes. “If you see her, just distract her until we’re done. It’ll take us less than a minute, I promise. Then we can get out of here, you big baby.”
She had no plans to do what he asked but she did silently move to the side of the house, where the others couldn’t see her and she could hide in case the old woman emerged. She felt so filled with shame that she was queasy from it and she was so nervous that her skinny, wobbling knees were practically knocking against each other. Within moments, she heard the first pot rupture against the street followed by muffled giggles as the anarchy ensued. She could see their shadows stomping on the flowers to the right of the porch and every clay pot she heard burst against the pavement only added to her guilt.
Any moment now, she expected to hear the elderly woman’s creaky door swing open and for her to come out screaming—perhaps with a broomstick in hand this time like the witch they had envisioned—but there was only silence inside the house. Even the streets were empty and the city was deathly silent apart from the distant cheers of what sounded like a football rally. The crowd’s murmur appeared to be coming closer but it was difficult for her to tell, as the sound was drowned out by Goran and the others as they snickered and taunted the old woman to come outside and confront them.
Then Violet heard an abrupt noise stir from the rear of the home. It was a noise unlike anything she had ever heard before. It was not one that startled her or gave her any cause for alarm. It was simply a muffled thud, followed by a soft rattle, and it intrigued her enough to lead her to investigate. The noise was soon followed by a low rustling and what sounded like the voices of men. Who could it possibly be? Surely Goran and the others had not made their ways to the back of the house already.
Violeta followed along the outside of the cottage, where a tall wooden fence and a clothes line led to an enclosed space behind the home. She noted the presence of yet more flowers and vegetable plants in the backyard, including tomatoes, peppers, and ever kind of lily that the girl could possible imagine. Indeed, this was the largest garden that the girl had ever seen and it was brimming with immaculate specimens that were so far untouched by the reckless havoc of children.
No wonder the poor Bosniak woman had been so distraught over the destruction of her plants, Violet thought. They appeared to be all she had left in life.
She continued through a rusted metal gate along the side of the house and quietly observed a tiny scattering of glass that gently crunched beneath her feet as she snuck behind the cottage. In the grass ahead of her, she also spotted a faint glimmer catching the midday sunlight with a silver sheen that she thought she recognized instantly. Making her way over to it, Violet knelt down and was puzzled to find several dinar coins spread about the yard. She picked them up and counted them, convinced that the old woman must have dropped them, and thought they didn’t amount to much, she would leave them on the back step of the cottage for her to find.
However, before she could even finish counting them, a new noise prompted to look up and gasp with horror. A startled squeal squeaked past her lips and she cupped her hands across her mouth to stifle it, but it was too late. Less than twenty feet away from her was the Muslim woman, sprawled out motionlessly on the ground with her haggard face burrowed into the grass. Thick, dark clumps of dirt were mashed into her dress and caked her shriveled hands as the remnants of a broken flower pot dotted the grass around her. There were dark red stains matted into the fabric of her light orange scarf as well as the alabaster gown she wore draped across her squatty frame. The blood was even matted into her frizzy, white hair, glistening vividly in the midday light.
The sight of so much blood caused Violet’s stomach to churn and she thought for a moment that it was looking to escape. And it may have, had it not been for a paralyzing fear that suddenly swept over her—a fear that pooled insider her limbs as she realized she was not alone in the yard.
Towering over the Muslim woman’s bludgeoned body was a young man who could not have been older than twenty. His face was long, but also chubby, and the girl could not tell if he was actually tall or if he simply looked that way looming over his kill. His dark eyes lifted and glared at Violet for several seconds, with apparent disinterest, and then returned to the poor Bosniak’s body. He lowered the makeshift club in his hand, as if only just remembering its presence in his twinging fingers, and gently smeared it against the grass beside his boot.
The muscles in his neck were still twitching from every violent blow. His face still winced from the impact. A bead of sweat trickled down his throat. Finally, his labored breathing slowed to normal and he padded the sweat from his dark brow with several quick dabs from the collar of his shirt.
There was commotion now on the street outside. The distant shouts that she had heard earlier had finally arrived. But Violet did not dare turn her head to investigate them, nor did the killer across from her seem fazed by their arrival. As chants for Serbia echoed through the alleys along with cries of “Turks go home! Turks go home!” they continued to watch each other, but only one of them was afraid.
The young man approached the girl, stepping squarely in the middle of the old woman’s back and dragging the club behind him. He smiled at Violet and noted her trembling hands in which the silver coins were now gently rattling. He took a knee in front of her and rested his weapon on the ground, insisting that he would not use it again. He then reached out and took her by her shivering fingers to inspect what she was holding. Upon noticing the coins, he quietly grasped a knife tucked into his belt and removed it but never took his remorseless eyes off of Violet’s.
A second tiny squeak of terror darted past her lips. As the sunlight caught his knife and made it seem to glow the brightest white, she felt a single tear retreat down her cheek. As the blood abandoned her face and left it cold and numb, the wet trail beneath her eye felt almost warm against her skin.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered to her. “I am not interested in your money. They’re Bosnian dinar. Muslim coins. They’ll soon have no value. You can keep them as souvenirs once they’re all gone.”
He spotted one of the coins that she had missed at her feet. He inspected it briefly and tossed it into the next yard like a worthless stone.
“What’s your name?” He asked her in a soft and tender voice.
She could not answer. Her gaze was fixed upon the glistening knife in his grip and every breath escaped as an excruciating shudder.
“I asked you what your name is,” he repeated, more insistently.
The girl started to speak but nearly choked on the word as if it were clinging to the back of her throat for protection from him.
His calm and caring smile frightened her more than anything else. As he reached out his hand and patted the side of her head, she nearly fainted from fear of his touch. He insisted once more that he would not hurt her but she knew in her heart that he was lying. She just knew it.
“What is your family name, Violeta?”
Whimpering and stuttering, she finally managed to squeak out “Petrovic” and he returned the knife to his belt. Behind her, the commotion in the street had become even louder. She heard the voices of men shouting at the Bosniak homes, and demanding them to reveal themselves. She could smell something burning—possibly a flag—and a gunshot rang through the alley behind her, causing her to nearly jump out of her shoes.
The man reached out a hand to calm her but stopped just shy of her shoulder. He did not touch her, though, and for several moments they waited for the crowd outside to disperse. Despite his unthinkable attack on the old woman, he was not about to send the young girl out into the streets while gunshots were ringing across the neighborhood. He blocked her exit until the violent commotion had retreated and become a distant hum and then finally stepped aside with a cold grin.
“Run home Violeta Petrovic,” he told her before gesturing to the motionless remains. “It’s not safe to dwell around Muslim houses. Old women like this one are dangerous.”
The man reached beside his hip and retrieved his club from the grass, gripping it by the handle. Without another word, he slung it over his shoulder and climbed to his feet. As he walked past Violet, he patted her on the head. She was shivering now and her vacant eyes remained fixed upon the spot where he had been kneeling. Soon, he had exited the yard and vanished, leaving her alone with the old woman’s corpse.
Immediately, she fell to the ground and began to cry. Her heart was about to thump its way out of her chest now that she was alone and the blood came rushing back to her limbs, leaving her cold and lightheaded. She wondered if she would ever stop shaking and as her gaze slowly traced the contours of the Bosniak woman’s lifeless frame, it became fixed upon her limp, shriveled wrist, where the most stunning yellow Bosnian Lily was gently tucked within her white, knobby fingers.
Wiping away her tears, Violeta shot to her feet and quickly ran from the yard and darted through the rusted gate as she made her way up the hill in the direction of her apartment building. All the other kids had scattered when the nationalists appeared. They had completely forgotten about her. Only Goran had returned to investigate what had become of his friend, jogging towards her as she pawed at her red eyes with the backs of her hands. She could already tell by the look on his face that he had been far more exhilarated than terrified by the mob’s brief rampage through the neighborhood and she ran straight past him, leaving him stuttering and confused. He called after her from behind, demanding to know where she had been and where she was going, but she never spoke a word of it to him.
This was the last time she was going to be foolish enough to follow him into trouble.
That evening, Mina Petrovic returned home from work and found her daughter in such a state as she had never seen. The girl refused to tell her what had happened, even as she began to cry again later that night. Before bedtime, Violet’s mother held her until she fell asleep and their home was quieter than it had been since her father left them. For the next three days, she did not once make an appearance outside of her building to have fun with her friends. She would hear them going about their usual routine just outside her window in the courtyard, and every now and then she would hear Ivo or Goran call up to her bedroom. She ignored them. For three whole days, she spoke to no one but her mother and stayed inside her tiny room.
There, the monsters that had invaded her town were certain not to find her.