Edi Matić

Illustration by Andrea Popyordanova

Who rides so late where winds blow wild?
It is the father grasping his child;
He holds the boy embraced in his arm
He clasps him snugly, he keeps him warm.

 —J.W. Goethe

My son isn't talking. When he was a year old, right on his first birthday, we were all sitting at the table waiting for him to speak. He cooed, made simple explosive sounds like: ba, goo, pow, even bang, but he did not speak. We decided that it could be because he felt the fear when he was inside the womb every time his mom crouched in fright because of explosions or rapid gunfire. I don't know. When he was eighteen months, we began worrying. When your primary concern is staying alive, everything else is beside the point, meaningless. That kind of concern just drowns out all other concerns, they become a barely audible hum flooded by fear. A missile fell on our house. Other missiles fell on other houses. My wife said that maybe our son had that Einstein syndrome, he would start speaking late but turn out to be a genius. I said we could no longer live in fear of explosions and bullets.

My wife is fragile and sickly, but tough. I have loved her since the moment I saw her. Without her tough female strength we would not have anything in the house, we would not even have the house that was hit by that missile. I took all the money saved and the family gold, wrapped it in a scarf and tied it around my waist. And I can say, we were well off. We found a bus that would take us far away from the house, far away from the bomb. This is where our journey towards some place I had no intention of going, began. But it's different now. We have to get as far away as possible, out of missile range and their deadly whistles. Our relative, my wife's uncle, moved away to Switzerland ages ago. He sent us a couple of lovely postcards. They featured closely set mountains shining under the sun. Back then, that country looked lovely and distant, now it was looking like a bare necessity. We'll find him over there somehow. The country isn't that big. For a while, we travelled with hundreds of other people, almost like us, almost the same fear on their faces, messy clothes and dirty hair, tired feet and weak bodies. Our ancestors' tribes were nomadic, we sought in ourselves the blood of the nomads who had crossed deserts and mountains to find a new haven, but deep in our past and memories we encountered only walks in the park and the little lake in our town, fancy stores and schools, restaurants and salesmen on bright streets. We stayed longer in some towns, trying to find the same streets and people we knew back home or just taking a break before moving on, without the hundreds like us, and then again with other thousands of people just like us, until we were finally alone.

My son is still not talking. In breaks between walking, jostling in buses, trucks, and trains, we tell him about all sorts of things, but mostly Switzerland. As much as we know. Life is more lovely and peaceful there, no gunfire or demolished hospitals, one day we could live there the same way we lived in our town, maybe. Svizzera, Svizzera, we keep saying, as if he knows where it is, as if he knows where we're from. And he looks at us with those little black eyes, laughing and cooing, sometimes crying. He likes anything chocolate-flavoured, we discovered that in Italy, where we stayed too long. We spent the gold in the last two months, which is how long it took us to arrive illegally to where we are now, avoiding the muddle with the refugees at the borders. We have only enough money left to finish the journey, with the most difficult part still ahead, by all accounts, just where we thought it would be easy to cross. For us the roads are closed, the trains are under surveillance, Switzerland is on shut-down for any immigrant, asylum seeker, or refugee. It's funny how they call my wife and son immigrants, while their sons are just sons, their mothers mothers, and their fathers fathers.

At the Milan train station I meet these two, one of ours and one of theirs. It is a cold morning, autumn is already in full swing, showing its teeth for the first time and I am buying a thick winter jacket for my wife and a down sleeping bag for my son, when I see them in front of the store. The older one has a cap pulled down to his eyes, scrawny legs and ragged mountain boots, so he looks like some kind of a strange bird, stork-like, and the younger one is shortish, you almost cannot see him, the sleeves of his jacket are too long and get in the way while he is lighting a cigarette. They are experienced. They knew I was a foreigner and struck up a conversation immediately, offering a service I did not even imagine I would need. The older one talks the whole time, glancing over to the shorter one, but the offer is totally clear. They know I want to go to Switzerland, they know it's impossible to do so legally, but they also know a way over the mountain where you can cross the border with no problem. We are used to it by now. Since leaving the house hit by the missile, up to the store where I meet them, refugees are always asked to pay. No one is surprised, and the price is set. Four thousand euros per person to get over the mountain to Svizzera with a guide. I strike a bargain at six for the three of us, that's all we have left. The shorter one shakes his head grudgingly and gives up; long-legs pulls his cap down more, holds out his hand and smiles. We have a deal; first, we go in their van, then we go on foot, along the road and paths as much as possible, and after that it is up to God. Four days and we are on the other side, if we hurry. We have to hurry, that's the most important thing. Winter is almost here.

In a little forest next to the village of Santa Maria Maggiore, I check our backpacks for the umpteenth time. Water, food, chocolate, lighter, lamps, a little petrol, gloves, sweaters, scarves, it's all here. We smoke on a desolate road while they show me the map, a big tourist map with routes drawn-in with a red marker. A wall of mountains stretches before us, the younger one points a finger at a wooded bend in the distance as our destination. My wife calls me to get back in the van. She says our son is talking. He is laughing, rolling on the ground and gurgles out something like 'zeetza'. His first word is not mom, it's not dad, his first word is the country ahead. Svizzera. A cold tear rolls down my cheek and neck, while my wife holds the boy tighter in her arms and cries with joy, fear, anxiety, and excitement all jumbled together. God is great. We hug and hold our heads close—head one, head two, head three—we shiver and sob, and move out into the borderland morning.

On the first day, we travel a lot by road, then across pastures and into the woods, then over the rocky terrain to a mountain footpath marked with red circles. In front of a stout cabin where we are about to spend the night, the guides show me the bend once again, where the sun has just rolled over to the other side, letting dark clouds gallop across the sky. As if before a storm, they pack fear into a huge iron ball that rests on my shoulders. The fire quickly warms the small room, we huddle in one corner while our guides quarrel in whispers in another.

In the morning, I find a map on the wooden table with directions and a Swiss village marked, which should be our next meeting point with civilisation. Somewhere in the middle another cabin is marked, the same as this one, as a rest stop. There are boot prints in the deep snow in front of the door, indicating that our guides went back to Santa Maria Maggiore. Those smuggler vermin! They charged for a service they did not deliver and ran off to pick up the next suckers at the Milan train station. My wife wakes, wraps our son in the down bag, and also realises, out in front of the cabin, that we've been left to our own devices. She did not like the guys from the start. Maybe it's better that they are gone, they wouldn't have made the hiking any easier. Fear crawls deeper within while we look above the snowy treetops. We have two more days of heavy walking. Walking on snow is like walking on sand and we know all too well how the foot sinks into the soft surface at every step, how you need to try to pull it back up again and how that effort wears you down and makes you weaker and weaker as the day goes on, and the footsteps heavier and heavier. Back home I walked dozens, maybe even hundreds of kilometres across sand dunes and dusty roads from my father's home village into town, I know how the face freezes while the cold, north wind whips around and rattles the bones. I also know what it's like to run under a spray of bullets. It gives me strength to walk between the snowflakes while I carry my son in my arms and a backpack on my back going to a country where there are no bullets and no missiles. My wife follows in my footsteps. She finds it hard going, but she keeps on, forging ahead with shaky steps and yelling words of encouragement. Go on, on. I have never hit her, not even when the elders recommended when, why, and how you can and should hit a woman. A holy man taught us the switch to use to punish and the switch to use to educate, a woman. Everything was clear during the lesson, as young men, we all saw this was the way of the world and could not imagine a different life. Then I married and realised I could not raise a hand to such a beautiful and fragile creature, even with the heaven's permission, even if all my family and friends thought I had turned into a wuss, even if they suspected I was neglecting my faith.

It's becoming harder to walk, the wind is wet and works under the sleeves up to the sweaty armpits, there are no paths, and the route from the map, invisible now for a long while, seems almost unreal. The wooded bend on the mountainside is still in sight, but seems further away. My son is crying under the coat, I can't see his face wrapped in a woolen scarf, sometimes I just press my lips lightly against his and whisper we're almost there, we're almost there. Blood has been trickling down my arm ever since I hit a sharp rock and the cold is draining my strength through my torn jacket. The main thing is I protected my son from the fall, never mind the arm, I was injured before when my neighbour's house caved-in under a shell. Rock boulders rise in front of us, more slippery and sharp, rough and ruthless, so each step has to be planned like a chess move. No knight, only pawns inching carefully, bit by bit toward another night that is only colder. I compare the dark outlines of the cliffs with the ones on the map, and terror grips my throat as I realise we are off course and cannot possibly make it to the cabin tonight. We pile branches under a slanting rock, onto the wet ground, then pile them vertically like a wall to shelter ourselves from the cold. My wife is freezing, shivering, rocking rhythmically and chanting prayer after prayer, always the same one. My son is licking a small piece of chocolate, I repeat the prayer, the petrol helped to light a reeking fire with green branches that make us cough and retch. We huddle like a pile of meat, still alive, pulsing under the rock and wait for morning.

There is no twilight or dawn here. Only light and dark. There is day until the sun falls into the rift to the west. There is night until the sun peaks beyond the tall mountaintop. Just like this morning when it snuck between the branches of our shelter. I wasn't even sleeping, I was keeping my two little lumps safe, breathing down their necks, warming their blood. New steps, tumbles, pains, metre by metre we push up a hill that is almost vertical, steeper and more slippery, more repulsive and impenetrable. We are almost at the halfway point, there is no giving up, keep moving on. My son is crying in my arms, he is not even trying to say "zeetza" anymore. He is hungry, cold, tired, why did we undertake this journey, we could have died at home. Instead of an avalanche looming over us, we could have had a missile falling into our laps, God would have welcomed us with the same kindness, comfort, and upon us bestow His honour.

It's close to midday, the sun has given up and lets the snow clouds reign over the sky and discharge themselves onto the mountain. The cold is unbearable, it bites, muscles spasm, eyes freeze, who knows how many times I trip, who knows how many times I stumble to my feet. I hear my wife behind me praying and praying, round and round, back to the start, until I hear a muffled scream, hushed by shame. Shame because her boot is wedged between two rocks, fatigue has numbed her reflexes and now she is sitting in the snow with a twisted ankle that is swelling more and more in the cold until it becomes a blue balloon.

I can't even touch her, she is screaming louder than the wolves in the distance, she can't move, let alone stand. I kneel next to her, she caresses our son and weeps. I, too, weep. Time goes by as I seek more strength within, in God, in anything, as long as I can find it. I set aside a couple of chocolates and a knife, I wrap another coat around my son, I put everything else we have on her, toss away the rucksack, and carry her. Carry them both. My son is on my chest in the down bag, my wife on my back, I am pulling, more than carrying, her. She yelps and gnaws her lips raw, prays loudly, screams at the heavens. Shorter steps, but no stopping. Onwards, to Switzerland, to Zeetza. The mountain weighs down on me, I'm not built to carry three, not even with God's help. More and more breaks, a few prints in the snow almost fused together. As a young man I used to listen to a story about mountain people from faraway lands who have to abide by the laws of nature. And the laws say save the mother even if it means sacrificing the life of the child. Fear of extinction is stronger than the fear of death. The tribe is prepared to sacrifice the child and save the mother. I hug my son closer, kiss his frozen neck, he is not making those explosive sounds, a frozen and absentminded stare, black eyes peeking from the woolen scarf. In the wilderness people get used to loss, cruelty becomes normal, ordinary, such a long time ago, talking about death is the same as talking about birth, it's all part of the process and battle against nature. Saving the mother prolongs the species, children are born again, the tribe survives. I press my only son closer to my chest, my heart is beating wildly to help his little heartbeats along. My wife dangles from my back almost unconscious, while righteous anger towards God and all his angels allows me to find new strength to drag us to the crossing, all three of us. On the other side, barely two kilometres down, is the other cabin marked on the map. If we get to it, we are saved. Next to a fire I'd be able to figure out how to go on. But the sun is sinking towards the crossing faster than we can move, dark will follow after it slips over. Pitch black, even wild animals won't leave their cover. I build another shelter. There are fewer branches, but enough for my wife to lie on something soft, to light another fire for my son so he can lick crumbs of chocolate, where we can press closer to each other than ever. I dream of flaming missile trails scorching sky and earth.

My son whimpers all night and my wife barely opens her eyes in the morning. She did not sleep, I think she fainted from the pain. She is as white as snow, her leg more swollen, her trousers bursting at the seams, we had to take her shoe off yesterday. I lift them up and move on. First time, second time, third. I curse the God to whom my delirious wife is praying, I want to reach the other side just to spite him. But it cannot be done. No. We crawl on all fours along the edge of a cliff plummeting into grayness. Some mountain tribes in faraway lands sacrifice their offspring so the family survives. Like a powerless young one in a herd chased by a lion. I unwrap the woolen scarf from my son's face to kiss his cold lips. He looks like my father. His mother jams her fingernails into the palm of my hand, gazing at me with her beautiful eyes, she strokes her favourite little head under the scarf, and exhaling briefly, "Bismillah!" she throws herself over into the chasm. Her body ricochets on the wet rocks almost soundlessly, the horrific snapping echoes with each bone broken.

I do not know when I drew my next breath. Sometimes it seems that I am still not breathing. My eyes fall with her into the depths, as if they could pull her back, back to us, to the snow, towards that bend on top of the mountain with Switzerland right beyond it. We are alone, my son and I, like Ibrahim and Ishmael. The great God is no longer with us. In the wilderness people grow used to loss. Cruelty is our reality. The wind is picking up and the climb steeper, I hold my bundle to my chest and sing out of spite. My son does not talk, does not cry and does not coo. He is sleeping and dreaming of those pictures in the postcards that his uncle sent years ago, left behind in the ruins of a faraway house. I stop less often, my feet barely lift from the ground, but still I move forward. I'll cross to the other side and reach the cabin where we'll finally get warm. My feet are mangled and completely frozen, I dare not look, the pain is enough to guess what my feet must look like. I'll worry about that later, for now, they only have to take us to the other side. The snowflakes are icicles sinking deep into the skin through the fabric of gloves and cap.

We reach the other side of the mountain just before nightfall. The sun does not roll over the ridge, it peeks through the thick clouds waiting for us at the top. It will keep falling for a time until it sinks into a Swiss valley. It's easier going downhill at times when I slide on my backside, but also harder at times because my feet are giving way. The cabin from the map is not there, and night is falling. My son is sleeping, I move on. If I stop, I won't be able to move. The snow is softer, the clouds let the moon dance in the sky while I slide down a ravine. Onwards. We might reach the woods by morning, get away from the wind cutting into the ears. Svizzera. My son will utter his first words in this accursed country without his mother. When he wakes up, he will see the sun and green pastures she told him about. I draw my strength from my memories of her. I never hit her. That sharp cliff bashed her enough for all the beatings of all the women around the world. Morning is near, we have been walking for twelve hours, if you can call it walking.

A warning shot sounds exactly like a shot to kill. They are all the same when you come from a country where weapons are carried into schools, the market, the hospital. A large dog runs towards us from the woods with a small group of people in white uniforms. They all have rifles. It's the same as at the market next to our house. I raise my hands pointing to the bundle on my chest and yell: son, son! My son is sleeping under a woolen scarf, he does not see the dog's ugly fangs and the long barrels aimed at us.

Just like long-legs and the klutz at the Milan train station, these young men in white uniforms are experienced. They know we want to go to Switzerland, but they don't really like that. They are experienced, they know I'm not carrying a bomb under my coat, it's my only son. They cover me with a warm blanket, make me sit on long skis and begin to slowly glide toward the woods. One of them is radioing to a person in the distance, others are holding me and everything seems easy in this Switzerland. After a while, a snowmobile approaches from the valley. The man on the snowmobile is wearing a bright red uniform. He says he is a doctor and wants to take my son. No, I can't let him go now while he is sleeping. When we get to town, when he wakes, when I make him breakfast with chocolate milk, so that his hungry eyes do not keep asking where his mom is, then he can go to the man in the red uniform and race around the snow slopes on the snowmobile. The doctor says my son is dead. A Swiss doctor cannot know this, everything isn't as great in this country as uncle used to say in his postcards. He can't know, the man in the red uniform, how only yesterday my son was so preciously licking chocolate and almost said: Zeetza! My son is sleeping. My son isn't talking.

translated from the Croatian by Una Krizmanić Ožegović