When we start to wonder how did we become who we are, our whole world starts to shake. We search available memories for all the moments in our lives that could have affected decisions we have made later. What are the little things that determine us and our actions? If different actions took place in our childhood, would we become someone else? Would a young boy decide to go to school and become a banker if his mother did not force him against his will to come into the house that afternoon, when his best friend was showing him a new board game he had just got from his father? That is what mothers do. They take care of their kids nutrition, and it was time for this boy to have his lunch. A vegetable soup for vitamins and a chicken thighs and mashed potato for iron and carbs. She gave him a kiss on a head while he was entering thru the door, inhaling the sweet smell of motherhood, and touched his hands to make sure he was not too cold outside. He could go out and continue to play with his friend after lunch, but father came home early that day. It was New Years Eve and supermarket where he worked decided to close early. He was also carrying a gift for a young boy. It was a tool box toy filled with kid size plastic tools. Three different types of screwdrivers, wrench, saw, hammer, pliers and some nails, nuts and bolts, all designed to help the boy develop his motor skills while he's helping his parents around the house. The boy immediately forgets about his friend and his board game with a funny name - monopoly. After his father finishes lunch they go to the garage and try on new tools he has just got. Later, the boys grandparents will come over carrying more gifts. They will all have New Years Eve dinner, and watch a holiday program on TV. At midnight, after he kisses everyone, the boy will go to sleep, happy and content in his innocence. He will not hear his father complaining about the staff reduction coming up next month, and his grandfather cursing government decisions. Nor will he see the worried look in his mother's eyes every time a possibility of war was mentioned in conversation.
The sun is not out yet. Dino is searching for a sight of a van approaching from down the street. He lifted his jacket collar high to cover his ears. His hands were inside jacket's sleeves and he was lightly hopping in place to keep warm. A black sports bag lay on the sidewalk, next to his right foot. Finally, the sound of an engine cuts thru the silence of the street still in sleep. And then a white van shows up. At first it seemed as if the van will drive pass Dino, but it suddenly stopped along the curb. Tires stopped but the van body attempted to continue the movement, only to be stopped by a sudden yank. Driver's body also lurched to the front. Dino picked up the bag, went around to the passenger's side and opened the door.
"Man, we said five o'clock," Dino said.
"So what? Have you noticed how damn cold it is outside," the driver said. "It took me twenty minutes to start the van. Got your tools?"
Dino lifted the bag he was holding so that driver could see it. "You better step up on the gas. We must be there by seven if I want to do anything."
"Come on, hop in," said the driver. "Throw the bag in the back."
Dino opened the van's sliding door and put the bag inside the van. Then he climbed onto the passenger's seat and closed the door. Inside of the van was nothing warmer than outside. Dino lifted his shoulders and drew his hands back into the jacket sleeves.
"So, what's on the schedule?"
"A small village, two hours of drive from here. There is a house in a pretty good condition with an old lady living in it by herself. Old people like that usually have some treasures stuffed in their socks or under their mattresses."
"Shit! Couldn't you find some house with people in a family visit in another town? You know my rule - no physical conflicts."
"Don't worry, Elvis. I did my homework. This woman goes to a graveyard every Sunday at seven and comes back an hour later. It seems as she has no family, at least not the one that is living close. No one ever visits her. I will be in and out before she comes back to the house."
"I hope that you are right, because I am not taking chances with this. If something goes wrong, you can forget about me. This thing is not worth of it."
Dino looks at Elvis' hands on the steering wheel. His knuckles are white. Back of his right hand has a small tattoo of a cross. He knew from the start that Elvis will not stay in this job with him for a long. Although they are from the same town, Elvis moved to Croatia during the war. To avoid military draft and be safe among his own people, he said. At that time that's all that mattered. He started working at a green market in Zagreb, selling fresh vegetables for one of the local farmers. But that did not work well for him.
"Don't buy from him," customers would say. "He speaks Serbian."
In 1993, any Slavic language but Croatian no matter how similar or different, spoken on Croatian ground, was considered Serbian and unwelcome. Elvis's Bosnian was not an exception. Later he made ends meet living off a welfare and occasionally doing some transactions on the black market. As soon as the roads opened again, he was back in Bosnia. He first went to Sarajevo and applied for a position of a driver for a local TV station.
"Write your full name and where have you been in the last four years, please," asked him the human resource assistant, without even glancing at his high school diploma. "Were you here in Sarajevo?"
Finally, he came back to his home town. In a search of his old friends, he found out that most of them either ran away to western countries that accepted war refuges or were dead. He found Dino, and started working with him out of despair.
Dino, on the other hand, stayed in his town and lived thru all four years of the war. He was not old enough for the draft, but nevertheless he unsuccessfully attempted to enlist few times. The furthest he got was to spend two nights inside the soldiers' dorm before he was kicked out again for his age. His place was in school, not on the first line, he was told. But schools were closed until further notice and he was bored. So he and some friends of his started what they considered the second best patriotic thing to do - breaking inside of the houses of those families who ran out of the country at the first sign of the war. They would go in at night, take a TV set or a radio and sell it the next day. Selling this kind of merchandise was not difficult then. There was new market established in the town where people would come and trade their appliances and furniture for some food or detergent. Soldiers would come and sell stuff they had collected from the abandoned weekend houses on the first war line. Dino's father once recognized the kitchen cabinet from their cottage in the mountains among the stuff soldiers were selling. It had a distinct scratch on the outside from when he was mounting it on the wall and accidentally dropped it on the floor. There was nothing he could do about it. He did not even bother to tell this to the guy who was selling it. Dino and his gang would trade their stuff for cigarettes or alcohol.
As the war progressed, they were running out of abandoned houses, and the value of TVs and radios was dropping down. So did the quality of the available cigarettes and alcohol. The gang fell apart. Dino's father kept a small vegetable garden in front of their house. When he got drafted, Dino took care of it. His mother was constantly sick and spent the most of the four war years in a bed. No one ever found what was wrong with her, so they finally concluded that it was psychological and started hoping that she will get better when the war ends.
The war finally ended, but things did not get better. Food arrived in the country, but people did not have money to buy it. There was no work available to earn it unless one spoke English and was lucky to get a job at one of newly opened humanitarian organizations. Dino did not speak English. But he knew how to break into someone's house. He needed a driver and Elvis was looking for a job. They decided to operate outside of their town.
"Man, I read this article about criminals last night," Elvis said. He released one hand from the wheel and started rubbing it against his thigh. The color slowly returned to his knuckles. "It was in a newspaper wrapped around the trout I bought yesterday at fishmonger. It was full of economic terms and other sophisticated shit but I understood one thing it said. The longer one does crime, there is a bigger chance for him to be caught. I couldn't sleep. And now I have this nervous feeling in my guts."
It was quarter past seven when they arrived to the village. The street sides were studded by old oak trees. Fog rose from the surrounding fields giving it mystical guise. They arrived in front of the house. The street seemed quite and Dino jumped out of the van. It was still freezing cold although sun started showing up on the east. He opened the back door and grabbed his bag. "Turn around and wait for me down by the next house," he said. "It shouldn't take long."
He looked on both sides of the street and crossed over towards the house. The gate was unlocked. He opened it and proceeded to the front door. He knocked couple of times on the door and waited to see if anyone would open. Then he examined the lock. It was a pin tumbler lock, the most used kind for the front door. He reached into the side pocket of his bag and pulled out something that looked like a small metal file with saw tooth rake at one end, and a thin, flat piece of a metal that ended in L-shape. He kneeled in front of the door and inserted L-shaped piece into the bottom part of the keyhole. He gently picked inside until he heard a familiar click. Then he plugged the other piece above the first one and continued picking until he felt tensor rotate freely. The door opened and he stepped inside the house. It led directly into the living room with a small dining table against the right wall, beneath the window, and one chair in front of it. On the opposite wall there was door that led into a kitchen. Next to door there was a large cabinet with TV on the top. TV was covered with white, crocheted doily and there was wooden crucifix on the top of it. The whole room smelled of combination of menthol and camphor. He walked across the room and pulled open two cabinet drawers. One was full with doilies of different sizes, neatly placed one over each other. The other one had bunch of old papers, rosary, and a can of Tiger's Ointment. He felt beneath the doilies but did not find anything. He opened cabinet's door and found some old books, stacked on top of each other, an iron and a folded blanket. He looked around the room. There was another door, right from the entrance. He walked to it and opened the door. It led into the sleeping room with twin bed, a closet on the right side of it and what it seemed as another cabinet on the left side of the bed, beneath the window. He opened the closet and went thru bunch of the naphthalene-smelling cloths looking for a hidden box or a purse, but nothing. Then he went towards the cabinet. It was huge and it left little space between bed and itself. It was covered with densely crocheted doily that went all the way down to the floor and had four embroidered pieces of linen cloth neatly placed on the top side of the cabinet. An army of religious figurines was on top of it all. These were placed in some sort of glass vases turned upside down. "To reduce dusting time," he thought. He lifted the front side of the doily and to his astonishment found out that it was not another cabinet. It was a wooden coffin placed on a long table. It had a beautiful carving of a man and an ox pulling a plow. From there two roses were wining towards the ends of the coffin. Coffin had a high gloss and it would make a beautiful piece of decorative furniture if it was not for its purpose. It was definitely the most beautiful piece of furniture inside of this house.
"Oh my God, who is inside of it?" But then he thought again. He was told that this woman was living by herself. Unless she is laying inside of it, it should be empty. But what sane, living soul would keep an empty coffin inside the house. He knocked couple of times along the coffin side. There was something in there. "As good hiding place as socks or mattress," he thought. "Maybe better." He took, one by one, all figurines and its glass covers and placed them on the bed. Then he rolled the doily up, opened the top for few inches, and peaked inside. He saw some funeral cloths and a rolled carpet. "This is too creepy for me", he thought, closed the coffin down and returned all to its place. There was still left to check underneath the bed, but Dino lost the will. "There is nothing here." He went back to the living room and proceeded to the entrance door. Then he walked out of the house backwards making sure the door is closed behind him. When he turned around to walk down the stairs, he noticed an old lady standing at the gate, watching at him. He glanced down the road towards the next house and saw a van going away around the corner. Then he looked back at the old lady. She was still standing in the same place, one hand leaning on a walking stick and another one holding the top bar of the iron gate. Although he was not able to see her eyes from this distance, her head was turned towards the stairs. He could easily ran by her making sure she doesn't see his face from up close. She might call for help but he will be out of the street before any of the neighbors show up. Elvis is probably waiting for him around the corner in the next street.
But he did not move. The old lady pulled the gate open and slowly entered the yard. Now he noticed the second walking stick. As she was inching her way over the yard she did not look in front of her feet. Her head was still lightly lifted up and turned towards Dino. Her face was dark and she had strong eyebrows that had lost its lines long ago. From her face one could hardly determine if it was a man or a woman. She had a pale blue, wool cap and a v-neck sweater in a matching color. A large black scarf was wrapped around her shoulders. An oversized golden cross was hanging down from her neck, almost reaching the belt of a long black skirt. She was half the way through the yard now and he was able to see her caved-in eyes. They were the same color as her sweater. Her face and hands were covered with large brown spots. The way she moved reminded Dino of his grandmother. She was at the bottom of the stairs now and had difficulty keeping her head up to look at him. He could see now that, apart from freckles, her skin was not dark at all. It was almost transparent. Her hands had the same light blue tone like her eyes.
He remembered holding hands like that long time ago. It was a New Year's Day, a year after he got the tool box toy from his father. That New Year was different. Dino did not receive any gifts. The war started last May. His father was out of the job. Grandmother became ill that year and had to move into their house to be taken care for. Dino's mother walked around the house like a ghost, hiding her face and crying. He was sitting on the edge of grandmother's bed holding her hand. She was talking slowly, listing the things that are important in the life.
"Health, family and school," she was saying.
Her hand was cold and almost weightless. He ran his palm over veins on her hand.
"Did you do your homework," she asked.
"But granny, school doesn't work," Dino said.
"What does it matter," she replied. "School or no school, you have to study. Don't let stupid decisions of other people affect your future. This will end one day, but there will always be some stupid people around you. You will need your education to fight them back. Your knowledge will be a valuable tool in that fight. Now you have time to store that knowledge in that tool box of your head, and use it later," she said caressing his hair.
For Dino, his grandmother was the only sense of the normality in their house that year. She died few months later.
"Ivan? Dear child is that you?" asked the old lady at the bottom of the stares. "Oh my God, I did not recognize you at first! My dear sweet child, when did you arrive?"
"An hour ago," Dino responded, not knowing where all this would lead.
"So why are you standing up there. Come give your grandmother a hug."
Dino walked down the stairs and still holding his bag in one hand, lightly hugged the old lady with another arm.
"I knew there was a reason why I forgot candles," the old lady said. "I always remember to bring candles to graveyard, but I forgot them this time. It's not that I never forget. Oh, I forget so many things lately, but never candles. When I realized I did not bring it with me I said to myself, there must be a good reason for that. So I returned. And here you are, waiting for me in front of the door. Last time I saw you, you were five."
Dino's thoughts were light-speeding through his head. Should he leave or pretend to be someone else. He glanced again towards the end of the street. He couldn't see the van but Elvis was probably waiting for him around the corner. Still, he could not just go away.
"Oh, I guess I will not go to the graveyard this Sunday," the old lady said. There was a tear in her eye. But she was still smiling. "If I have to choose between spending time with my grandson and a couple of graves, I choose living person. It's only that I always go to the graveyard on Sunday."
"I can walk with you there," Dino said.
"You would do that, my dear child? That would be nice. When we come back, I could fix you something for breakfast. But let me go to the house first and take those candles." The old lady climbed the stairs and reached in the pocket of her skirt for a key. But when she tried to use it, the door slid open. "I must have forgotten to lock the door," the old lady said. "I tell you, I forget many things. My mind is old and tired. But I never forget candles." She went inside and after few minutes she came back out carrying candles wrapped in a plastic bag. "Let's go, then," she said and came down the stairs.
Dino helped her by holding her for one arm and they started walking towards the gate.
"Tell me, how is your mother? Did she come along with you? How is in Africa now? Is it cold like here?"
"No, she didn't," Dino said. "But she is good, and it is not that cold there".
"She probably has to work, that is why she couldn't come. My dear daughter works so hard. No wonder she has no time to come home. Neighbors say she doesn't come because of the coffin, but I know that is not the true."
"Coffin?" Dino got intrigued.
"Who would mind a piece of wood in the house. It's only an object, like any other," she said. "I know that my kids work hard to provide a good future for their families. I didn't want to be a financial burden to them once I die. Five years ago a local funeral company offered a payment plan for funeral equipment. I signed a contract and last year paid off the whole thing."
They were out of the street now and turning right. Dino looked in the back. There was no van in sight. Elvis had gone. He probably left the moment he saw the old lady coming back to the house. He said he would do so if something goes wrong.
"They were supposed to keep everything with them until my death, but the company collapsed and they called me for the coffin. I had no option but to take it." The old lady continued to talk all the way to the graveyard.
"Here they are," she said once they arrived and stopped in front of the two graves. "Your grandfather and your uncle you never met."
Dino lightly shifts his weight from one leg to another. In front of him is a trapeze shaped, brown marble gravestone pervaded by thin white veins. The bottom, narrower side of the marble has NOVAK engraved in capital letters. Wider part of the marble is hewed into three parts. The middle part shapes a cross. On the top of the cross, there is the same kind of religious figurine that Dino saw at the house. The base of the cross is embossed with two roses wining in opposite directions, each toward one of the names engraved on the two sides of the upper side. Under each name there was a date:
30. Nov. 1947
2. Apr. 1994
3. Feb. 1979
27. Mar. 1993
"When your uncle got killed in the war, your grandfather was not able to deal with it. He died a year later."
She started lighting candles and Dino helped her place them at the right place. Then they just stood there in silence.
"Do you believe in God, Ivan?" she asked.
"I don't know," Dino responded. "There are so many of them." He tried to smile.
"That doesn't matter, Ivan. Any religion is good as long as you strongly believe in it. There must be something in your life to lead your way. When times are hard, people are not strong enough to fight by themselves. They need help from above."
Dino thought about what she said. People need faith to be stronger. Or education. He had neither. Only his bag of tools.
"Let's go home now. What would you like for breakfast?"
"You decide," Dino said. "You go home and I will meet you there later. I have some business to take care of before breakfast."
All this time the old lady was looking at graves. But now she lifted her head and looked Dino in his eyes. "You do that. It's never late for breakfast." Her eyes were narrowed and there was certain glow in them.
The way she was looking him made him feel uncomfortable. He let her hand down.
" It's never late to do things," she said.
Dino left the graveyard. Sun was fully out now and fog disappeared. Some bird chirped high in the treetops but Dino could not see it. He walked further down the street and asked the first person he came across for a direction to the local open market. There he sold his tool bag to a man who was selling all sorts of second hand things. Among other things, Dino saw a box of thin, yellow candles. He bought one box and walked back to the house. When he got into the street where the house was he stopped in front of the kiosk that was just opening. There he bought a card with some religious detail on it. Inside he wrote that he is sorry for having to leave without good bye, but that he was glad to see her again and that he loves her a lot. Then he stopped a boy that came out of the neighbor's house and asked him if he would deliver the box to the old lady that lived next to his.
"What should I say who is it from?"
The boy frowned."But she has no grandchildren," the boy said. "Her son died long time ago. And he did not have any kids."
Dino stood there dizzy. "It's never late to do things," is the last thing she told to him.
"Sir, do you still want me to take this to her house?"
"Yes, please. And tell her it is from her grandson."
The boy shrugged his shoulders and took the box. Dino stood there watching the kid open the gate and walk towards the stairs. Then he turned around and walked away.