September 18, 2000
To the victims of War:
Subject: Into myth
Sent: September 18, 1999
You once said it was insane. Maybe you were right. Today, tonight, all I know is that I failed; the last one is gone, and I failed. WE failed.
I never made the conscious decision NOT to write to you about this, for a number of reasons - partly because of the way you reacted when I first said I would go to the bridges, partly because . . . I don't know . . . an odd sense that I was 'protecting' you from something. So for weeks I have been carrying on this double life, not lying to you, exactly, but not telling you the whole truth either.
Why am I telling you about it now? Because . . . because I need you to know. Now, when it is too late. It's strange, but I feel as though right now you are the only person who will be able to completely understand, and that's because you are a step away from it. I know it is the height of arrogance to take this on as a personal guilt, but dammit, it was my crusade . . .
The first night we went out there, to the Zezelj Bridge, it was cool and quite cloudy; they said, oh, they won't come tonight. And they didn't. Viki and I went to the bridge at nightfall, at that instant when you JUST miss the streetlights coming on - one moment they are off and the next they are on and you blinked and missed the picosecond when it happened. (Think about it. When did you last catch the streetlights in the act of kindling, if ever? This is one of the great mystical moments of the human race, one of those 'you never quite see it happen but you have proof that it does' things . . . )
Here, in Novi Sad, the streetlights have assumed another near-mystical quality - the fact that they still exist, that they come on and off at appointed times, that they keep faith with a city at war. A new myth - what can I say? These are hit-and-myth times. Viki is good at spinning urban mythology; when we got to the bridge that first night there were about fifteen or twenty people there already and she regaled them for half an hour or more with the mythification of streetlights. It passed the time, and she had them all around her like proverbial moths around a bright candle flame, laughing - a bunch of complete strangers (although I knew one or two of them by sight). Viki was a born attention-grabber.
Me, I went off by myself and stood leaning over the parapet, where I watched the city lights flickering in the water, watched the river flowing under them, watched the shadow of the other, broken, old bridge as it vanished into the night. It was a quiet evening, not much traffic. People talked in whispers, as though we were in church. Someone came over with coffee in a plastic cup and asked if I was all right. I said I was, but I also took the coffee. We waited, for hours; some were wearing anoraks and others had brought blankets, and we sat huddled in the night, on the empty bridge, and talked. Viki got everyone's phone numbers and gave them ours. We were a tribe apart; the title 'Mostovljani' (the 'Bridge People') kind of emerged spontaneously.
And people kept coming; by the time we had been there for an hour we had acquired over a hundred and fifty people by my count. At about midnight, or 1 am or so, another sixty-odd turned up, and some of the first shift went home, including me. Viki had acquired a pretty boy and was perfectly happy to stay on and chat to him. (When she phoned me to report back, she said she had got home at half past four, and then slept until noon. Some of us take our opportunities where we find them, I guess . . . ) And we made plans to go back. For as long as it would take.
There were . . . moments. There was the moment when they fired off something at an angle that merely wounded her, our proud beauty; her concrete flesh was peeled back and her steel nerves and sinews lay exposed, and it was as though we could see her heart beating; and still she stood and defied them. We cheered. There was the time when the anti-aircraft battery hit a rocket aimed at our bridge and we could clearly see it fall, mortally injured, impotent; and we cheered again. Then, later, we could hear helicopters over Petrovaradin somewhere before shooting started again and we hunkered down and waited for something terrible to happen. Then it all died away and we went home, nerves shredded, exhilarated, proud, punch drunk. This did not feel like suicide, Dave. I have seldom felt more vividly aware and alive in my life.
Then they holed her. Several rockets came straight at the middle where the two arches met and left what looked like holes made in butter by hot knives. A traffic ban was in place already because of the increasing fragility of the superstructure, and now even pedestrians were banned. But we all turned up again, on schedule, to guard her the last, the proud, the wounded, the living bridge, symbol of our resistance, symbol of our existence. They tried to prevent us from going on the bridge but there were only four policemen and nearly eighty of us and, anyway, they didn't have the heart for it. Eventually they came on the bridge with us, shining their torches, and the only thing they made us do was stay close to the bank and not go too far out on the wreckage of concrete rubble and twisted railway girders and gaping holes through which you could see the Danube flowing darkly if you shone a torch straight down.
So we sat there again, and this old priest came walking past and blessed us in silence, and I cried like a child. And a babushka in a black kerchief and thick black stockings and sensible shoes came out with this cheese pie still hot from the oven and wrapped in red-and-white check tea towels, and passed it out amongst us, and then went home and came back with more of it within the hour. It was the sweetest thing I have ever tasted, that cheese pie baked with love. And we sat there and sang songs in the darkness.
'Do you think they can hear us?' a fifteen-year-old in pigtails asked me in a voice which trembled.
'Does it matter?' I said. 'WE can.'
'What are we doing here?' a bearded young man asked me bleakly later, when the fifteen-year-old had left my side. 'What is she doing here? Why are we setting up our children as targets?'
'You don't look old enough to have her as your daughter,' I said, choosing not to answer his real question.
'My children are four and seven; he said. 'They are not here. My wife is singing them to sleep. She will not talk to me because I came out here tonight. She says I am betraying my children by seeking my death. But I understand, she is afraid. And yet . . . how could I love them all so much, my family, if I loved this city and this country and these people any less? How can I not come?'
I could not answer him so I hugged him, and he hugged me back, and the fifteen-year-old came back with more pie and my anonymous bearded friend smiled at me and walked away.
And so it went. I spent my days at the radio station, or sometimes just mooching about at home, and then at night I would go to my vigils on the bridge. And I'd come home, and Mama would cluck and tell me I looked transparent and that I'd catch the death of a cold out there, and that I looked like a wraith. And then she would realize what she was saying and make a quick sign of the cross lest God heard her and made me a real ghost. And sleep became a memory, and the wheel of fire that was the bridge we called the Defiant ate at my mind. Until I quite simply fell over one day, and fell asleep. Practically fell into a coma. I slept for twelve hours; you can work out when, because you wrote me at least one email during that time that I have yet to answer . . .
And then I woke up.
And she was gone.
One night I did not go to guard her, and she was gone.
They tell me it was a direct hit; they swear everybody got off on time, but we don't know that for sure, and I keep wondering if the bearded man's kids are orphans today. They say the bridge simply blew apart, and that concrete chunks the size of small refrigerators were raining down in the streets almost two kilometers away after the blast.
My river looks naked to me, and almost ashamed; I have gone to see them all, the three dead bridges in the Danube, and the river's whispers are quiet and subdued. Sometimes it runs through the metal skeleton of the old bridge, the first one to die, and wails like a small child in distress, and it tears at my heart as though the child were mine.
I haven't seen Viki since then. I couldn't look her in the eye.
Yes, I know it was not my fault. Yes, I know it was not yours either. But that last bridge, Dave, was already damaged so badly that any assertion that it was a 'military target' and was destroyed because of potential usefulness to the 'war effort' simply no longer makes any sense.
That bridge was targeted again and again and again. Because breaking it would be breaking the spirit of the people. That was the only reason it was finally blown up.
I know I have made more of this than is reasonable or even arguably 'sane', but I feel . . . responsible. I made myself responsible. I was one of the Bridge People, and I honestly don't know which is worse - the knowledge that I was not there when I should have been, or the fact that I could likely have done nothing had I been. The power to save her was never mine. And I suppose that my God, in his wisdom, was sparing me from having to see TWO of my beloved bridges die before my eyes. But that doesn't stop it hurting. And oh, how it hurts.
My computer has a new wallpaper - an aerial shot of the city, with all three of the bridges spanning the river. It looks like . . . like one of Viki's urban myths.
Alma Hromic was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. However she has lived outside her native country for much of her life: Zambia, Swaziland, South Africa, the UK and New Zealand. Trained as a microbiologist, she spent some years running a scientific journal, and later worked as an editor for an international educational publisher. Her own publishing record includes her autobiography, Houses in Africa, The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories, a bestselling book of three fables published by Longman UK in 1995, as well as numerous pieces of short fiction and non-fiction.
Published with the written permission of the author and the gracious authorization of the publisher, HarperCollins Publishers New Zealand. Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the authors. This material is copyrighted, © Alma A. Hromic and R. A. Deckert, 1999. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publishers.
Letters from the Fire can be ordered on the authors' Web site.
Sadness in Novi Sad, Serbia - by Alma Hromic
Smiles Amid the Sadness: A Response - by Alex Jay Berman
Poem: She Was Bridge-Killed - by Pedja Zoric
On the Anniversary - by Alma Hromic
My reading of Letters from the Fire and More... - by Jan Baughman
Resources on the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath
Articles Published on Swans Regarding the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath