Fiction by Jozefina Cutura
It took Mira just a minute to run into the henhouse, snatch two newly hatched
eggs from the nest, duck the clucking hens, and race back to the kitchen. It was a
routine she perfected over time and practiced every morning when Uncle Marko
and Aunt Slavica were not home. Once she retrieved the eggs, she scrambled
them and added them to a cake mix or to dough for a cherry pie. She swallowed
her food in gulps. Afterwards, she washed the dishes and opened the windows to
erase the smell of cooking and remove all grounds for suspicion against her.
Occasionally, when she was not hungry, she hid the eggs in her closet. To eat in
the future. Though snatching the eggs had by now become routine, her hands still
trembled and beads of sweat formed on her forehead every time she escaped the
Mira had arrived at Uncle Marko’s house in the midst of the July heats that
scorch the plains of Serbia’s Vojvodina province and color the corn crops yellow.
She was clutching her purse when she stepped off the Banja Luka bus. The town
she’d escaped was swarming with refugees. Banja Luka city authorities had
placed some two hundred escapees from Mira’s town in a high school gym, until
they figured out what to do with them. Mira and her parents unfolded their
blankets underneath the basketball hoop, where they slept and ate the rationed
bread with cheese.
At first, people inside the gym were cautious not to do anything embarrassing
in front of their friends and neighbors. But they let themselves go soon. Couples
quarreled. Drunken men swore obscenities while stumbling back to their corners
at night. Someone always stepped on Mira’s blanket on the way to the toilet.
One night, Mira’s mother whispered to her, “Your father and I are old.
We’ll wait things out here. But you shouldn’t stay.”
“Where could I go?”
“Uncle Marko in Vojvodina is a good man. He’ll take care of you.”
When Mira arrived at Uncle Marko’s house, he gave her the large
guestroom with the balcony. She spent the first week lounging around and staring
at her face in the hand mirror. The eyes that stared back at her startled her.
Peering out between the strands of henna-dyed hair, they seemed like the eyes
of a stranger.
“This whole madness will be over soon, and we’ll celebrate together,” Uncle
Marko would say. He would tell her of the days when he and Mira’s mother
were children and took the sheep to pasture in the hills of their small Bosnian
village. This was before Uncle Marko moved to Vojvodina in 1963 in search of
better job prospects.
These days Uncle Marko worked as a mechanic at the government-owned
automobile factory. But, as he joked, the socialist government salary could not
even pay for his son’s night out with his girlfriend. His ambition had always been
to build a large white house. Everyone around him was making ends meet by
growing corn, raising pigs, or selling pastries at the marketplace in addition to
their regular jobs at the automobile factory or the steel plant. Uncle Marko
started a chicken breeding business. He built a henhouse in the backyard and
bought twenty hens, each producing one egg per day. The business was such a
success that within four years he built his dream house. He and his wife sold
large yellow eggs from their home and plucked dead hens every Sunday at the
marketplace. On his house window facing the street stood the sign “Fresh Eggs
for Sale – Please Enter.”
Most of their customers were regulars and neighbors. Women sent their
husbands after work to buy a dozen eggs from Marko. Uncle Marko invited
some customers to stay for a cup of Turkish coffee, which they drank out of
little flower-painted cups in the garden, underneath the sycamore tree. Every
evening Uncle Marko and Aunt Slavica counted the eggs in the storage room.
They had a brown notebook, into which they entered figures for each day’s
production and sale of eggs and added up the profits.
Evenings at Uncle Marko’s house were reserved for the news broadcast,
during which nobody was allowed to speak. The news anchor with slick hair
announced the latest numbers of Muslim and Croat casualties. Occasionally,
the puffy face and the large neck of the president of the country appeared on
the screen. In his speeches the President denounced Croat and Muslim
aggression and commended Serbs for their bravery.
Everybody had expected Mira to stay with her uncle for just a few days,
until things calmed down in Bosnia. But days turned into weeks and weeks into
months. One Sunday, with her eyes fixed on the carpet, Aunt Slavica told Mira
that she had to remodel the large guestroom. “You can move to the old storage
room,” Aunt Slavica said before she put on her hat for the Sunday church
service. The new room could fit a bed and a closet, and if Mira climbed on the
bed and stretched her neck, she could look out of the tiny window onto the
Mira was known in her family for enjoying her cakes and baklavas. Her
aunt and uncle did not say anything at first, but Mira sometimes heard them
whispering about how fat and spoiled she was when they thought she was not
nearby. When Mira added her usual three spoons of sugar to coffee, Aunt
Slavica said, “You should really curb yourself with the sugar. You know very
well that we are in times of crisis. Sugar is very expensive.” When Uncle
Marko ran into her in the kitchen once around midnight making a ham sandwich
he said, “We live in difficult times. You don’t need to be eating luxuries like
“But what should I eat then?”
“Outside, we have a beautiful garden full of cabbage. All you have to do
is stop sitting on the sofa all day. If you motivate yourself, you can pluck every
day enough cabbage for a nourishing meal. We should make use of it before it
rots. You don’t think that we should waste all that cabbage, do you? It would
be a shame.”
Mira’s food options were dwindling rapidly. Since her arrival in Serbia,
she was receiving a monthly packet of emergency food from the Red Cross.
Distributed to all refugees, each packet was supposed to contain Swiss cheese,
flour, condensed milk, soap, and cans of American beef. But by the time she
received her ration from the Red Cross officials, the good stuff was gone. All
that was left were a few cans of the suspicious-looking American beef. At the
Sunday marketplace Mira saw women selling the Red Cross-packaged cheese
and flour. She wondered if this was her cheese and on several occasions had
to hold herself back from cussing the saleswomen out in front of the market
crowds. But she always walked away in silence. At the marketplace exit gypsy
children blocked her way. They stretched out their muddied hands to her.
Mira could spare no money for them. Two months into her stay in Vojvodina,
she had spent all her savings.
At first, Mira stayed away from the family food. She tried to be creative
with the cabbage and made cabbage stews, rice with cabbage, or cabbage with
potatoes. It was not easy. On Sundays Aunt Slavica baked potato bread rolls
and walnut cakes. Their smell permeated every corner of the house. Aunt
Slavica sometimes placed one walnut cake on a white plate and gave it to Mira.
It did not curb Mira’s hunger. Her jeans now sagged around her waist.
Turning the knob of the transistor radio in her room, Mira stumbled one
night upon a Sarajevo radio station. She tuned in daily since then, careful to
keep the volume down. The evening show announced a long list of missing
persons, and notes from people reassuring relatives that they were alive.
Battlefront updates on the Sarajevo station never matched what she heard on
Serbia’s evening news. Mira no longer knew what to believe.
It was on a morning in late August, when a brawl in the henhouse awoke
her that she decided to steal her first egg. The henhouse was a perilous place.
Uncle Marko skimped on feed and fed the hens only the minimum needed for
them to keep laying eggs. Two scrawny hens attacked her as soon as she
entered the henhouse. But she managed to snatch two eggs from the nest and
run out, with only a few peck bruises on her hands. She boiled the eggs and
ate them with relish. Afterwards, she rested underneath the sycamore tree. A
feeling of fullness settled in her belly. That afternoon she went downtown
looking for a job. She walked to the local grocery stores and restaurants and
asked if anyone needed extra help. She was willing to do anything, wash the
dishes or clean the counters. But nobody wanted to hire a thirty-five-year-old
Bosnian refugee without a work permit. Her search was fruitless.
The month of September sneaked upon the province of Vojvodina,
bringing rains that made the river Danube overflow and forced people to put
sand barriers in front of their houses to curb the flooding. At the Sunday
marketplace Mira heard that people from her town were being resettled to a
safe Serb area within Bosnia. When she ran into an old friend from her town,
he said, “I just came from there. Walking through that area is just like walking
through the main square back home. Everyone’s there.”
“So that means you’ll go back soon?” Uncle Marko asked when he heard
“I’m not sure,” Mira said. “The roads are still dangerous, and I don’t
know if the bus goes there.”
Uncle Marko called the bus station and found out that buses were driving
that route again. “It sounds like security is improving. You should think about
going back. You can’t keep sitting here around the house forever,” he said as
he hung up the receiver.
Mira did not sleep that night. When the telephone rang in the morning
with her mother’s voice on the other end of the line, she made up her mind.
“We are alive and healthy,” her mother said. “Living like the gypsies.
I’m fixing up this house they gave us, but your father just sits around and stares
into space, like a mountain bear in winter.”
Mira did not wait for her uncle to come home from work to start packing.
She had few possessions. Several pairs of jeans and shirts and a yellowed
photograph of her parents, taken years ago during a summer vacation at the
Adriatic Sea. Her suitcase was light.
Only after she had packed and straightened the pillows on her bed did
she notice a pile of eggs in the corner of the closet. There must have been a
dozen heaped together, each egg a testimony to her thefts from the henhouse.
The eggs which she had craved were now a nuisance. She had no time to eat
them and was unsure of what to do with them. As she grabbed her purse from
the closet, the purse fell out of her hand and broke one egg. Its yolk left a
yellow stain on the carpet, and a foul smell filled the room. The eggs had been
there for weeks and were rotten by now.
That evening Mira boarded the bus to Bosnia. There were few passengers
on board and she had her choice of seats. Uncle Marko waved at her from the
station deck. As the bus exited the station and crossed the bridge that
connected the city with the highway, she thought about her parents and the
country she was going back to. She no longer thought of the rotten eggs, which
still lay in the closet of the storage room, on the second floor of Uncle Marko’s
Jozefina Cutura works on gender issues for the World Bank, and has published
on the subject widely. Cutura holds degrees from Stanford and Harvard
University. Originally from Bosnia and Herzegovina, she currently lives in the
United States and is working on a collection of short stories about the lives of
◄ Previous page Apple Valley Review, Spring 2009 Next page ►
Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Volume 4, Number 1
Copyright © 2009
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to
in the Apple Valley
Review are retained by
the individual authors