What Any Mother Would Do |
by E. Lane Keller

 1991 Krdn, Croatia

The train to Belgrade was departing early the following morning, and guessing that he would not be returning to Krdn for some time, Duke meandered about while giving his grandmother’s house a final look. The sound of playing children reached in to him from the street, limbs like sticks and clutching bikes, chalky and wobbly, their faces happy, chiding, heedless; they were somehow aware that this moment in time was not to be squandered. It was hard to comprehend that his father had grown up in this place, with Baka Sofi, in this gritty little house and neighborhood, where little boys played made-up games without thought to lives that might one day be consumed with bitter, useless acrimony.

He found his youngest cousin in the barn shoveling feed into a bucket, and she balanced it on her head like Zeus, the Elephant Trainer, before handing it over to him. He told her he was leaving the following morning and she leveled her quiet gaze at him with her usual lack of comment. No doubt she perceived the truth, that he was functionally inadequate and could no sooner find words for his questions than she could form words to answer them.

"It's difficult for me as an outsider, you know." He said this stupidly, as it seemed all his words were coming out these days, noting that despite his cousin's silence she seemed acutely attuned to his thoughts. She was far too wise for a girl of fourteen years, he decided.

His cousin skipped and moved them forward, her skirts flapping as she wound them through dirt-packed lanes and crisscrossed through backyards, until veering off onto a small gravel path leading to the far end of town. Beyond what appeared to be a dumping ground for decaying farm equipment, and before the golden tracts of arable land splayed out with nary a shopping mall, paved road or McDonalds in sight, arose a lone, two-storied, vacant-looking house.

As they neared the structure he saw it betrayed the Croatians' usual love affair with Austrian architecture. But instead of gaily blossomed terraces and bright stucco facades, tiers of barren flower boxes adorned a smoke-darkened fascia with sooty window eyes. He followed Petra to a semi-path behind the house, wondering what they were doing in this God-forsaken place, and then, why they were wading through choking weeds and broken crockery. They stopped at a disused stable some fifty yards from the house, where, instead of cows and horses, several dozen mounds of lazing fur sprung to feral life as they entered, frenzied cries mingling with frenzied purring as ragtag felines raged for a good spot against Petra's legs. He helped her spoon food into bowls while marveling at her crooning, which sounded to him just like a real mother cat's.

What Petra was doing here was a mystery, but he forced his questions down, turning to fill a basin from a stiff, barely-working pump before following her into a dusky kitchen. From there they proceeded into a high-ceilinged sitting room, where, upon on an ornate chair sat the apparent object of their quest, a woman as old as Baka Sofi, as dusty and dejected as the home in which they found themselves.

At the sight of Duke the woman jolted back with a cry. "Who's that with you, Petra?" The woman's tone crackled from disuse, and as he set down the basin in front of her Duke stole a look at her faded dress and long, jeweled earrings, which he deemed to be circa 1947 at best.

The woman's expression was sour. "This is not one of your brothers, Petra," she hissed while continuing her assessment of the intruder.

"He’s my cousin, Mrs. Huddel," Petra answered in a clear tone, causing Duke's head to whip around.

She could speak! It was the first time he'd heard Petra utter a word. What a conniver. But no, she was not of that ilk. There was undoubtedly some deep mystery behind her silence that she would withhold from him until his death. Petra returned to the kitchen, leaving him with an entirely upgraded opinion of her.

He turned back to Mrs. Huddel and her protracted scorn. “Humph,” the old woman pronounced. “So this is the great American grandson.” She dipped a rag into the basin, drew it over her crevassed face, then darted expertly around the earrings. “Rude boy!" she snapped. "Don't stare so."

As Duke faced away Mrs. Huddel's voice lost its edge. "It's a long time since I have had anyone to talk to. Your aunt used to come. Do I look dead to you?"

He turned back slightly abashed, and answered with sympathy. “Sofi’s ill. But at least she's got family near her."

Mrs. Huddel rasped as if she held the ghosts of a thousand mourners within her chest. "Yes, she's a good mother, isn't she?" She added, "Yet Sofi Vrakuvic will always be by herself, make no mistake about it." She motioned towards a faded stepstool and as Duke pulled it near he disturbed a nest of soldier ants that preceded to rush his way. "Has your grandmother told you anything?" Mrs. Huddel's bony fingers clenched the worn brocade of her chair as Duke fought off the ants.

"One or two things," he responded, shaking out a pant leg, then another. Her wounds were undoubtedly abysmal, but at that moment he was challenged more by the idea of ants in his nether regions than he was by hearing ancient stories.

"Only one or two? There are some stories your ‘Baka’ will never tell you." Mrs. Huddel raised her head as Petra entered and placed a bowl of steaming dumplings in her hands. Petra cast a worried look at Duke as she did so, and Duke cast her an assured smile.

"Duke and I are friends now, Petra," the old woman explained. "Wait inside like a good little bird. " But Petra lingered and Mrs. Huddel pierced a dumpling with her fork, wielding it in her direction. "I said, I want to talk to the grandson!"

Petra scurried away and Mrs. Huddel aimed the dumpling at Duke. "Have you heard of Ustashe?"

Duke grew silent. Ustashe. The word was like a disease.

Before he could respond she answered, "We saw it happen in this village." Mrs. Huddel lowered her fork. "Our own turned. My boys were taken from me, my eldest killed. It was '43 when they came to round up my boys. The other two put in camps. All three dead." She settled back in her chair, and Duke got the feeling he was about to hear a tale she had been waiting a very long time to tell, waiting maybe, for him. He thought he should take notes, but then thought better of it as she might be dissuaded from talking. He decided to commit her words to memory instead. The gist would be fine, and might just make a good personal interest piece.

“I had no husband by then,” she explained. “But Sofi's husband? Josip Vrakuvic was brave Krajinisci. He was going to protect us.”

She referred to the grandfather he never knew. As the tale unfolded the village of 1940‘s Krdn arose upon the room's walls, the shadows fell away, and Duke forgot about taking notes.

"The Huddels and Vrakuvics were excellent friends,” she said.

“Josip Vrakuvic was godfather to my Vetska. Her baptism was a beautiful ceremony. Every villager came, our Orthodox Priest as well as the Catholic one. Vetska was a beautiful girl, as sweet and wise as Petra. Several boys in the village asked for her hand. But she was only fourteen and so I told them it was too early." Mrs. Huddel laughed and clasped a hand to her breast. "Oh Vetska! My girl!" She clamped her eyes shut.

"As I said," she explained, "Josip Vrakuvic was our dear friend. He would protect us if the time came. Many of the Serbs had already left for they were afraid their neighbors would turn on them like they had in other villages. But Josip Vrakuvic was head of Krajinisci and not only did we trust him, he had influence.

Soon enough, the Serbs in Krdn began to disappear. Some were shot in front of us. Our dear priest Father Kurkovic, and Obrad, our doctor. Eventually we wondered how Serbs came to be identified. Everyone had similar names, how did the Ustashe know who was whom? Was someone in our village pointing them out?

On the night my boys were taken away, my faith slipped. I believed I sent them to their deaths by remaining in the village and not fleeing while we had the chance. From then on I was tied here. I couldn't leave while my boys were in danger. I clung to Vetska, vowing to protect her with my last breath. Josip and Sofi promised they would do everything they could. They took us in and hid us. Because of this, I believed them.

Eventually the remaining village boys were rounded up like so many pawns, drafted into the Ustashe or killed by them. Only the old people and women and children were left. Your grandfather, Josip, was too old to be drafted. He was twenty years older than Sofi. They used him to train the soldiers, and Sofi was happy to see him in the favor of the Ustashe for this would keep them safe. She loved Josip fiercely, as much as she loved her boys and certainly more than herself. As much as my Vetska was to me, Josip was to Sofi.

Josip was on the farm the day the Ustashe came to our village. They cornered him and demanded he point out the houses of Serbs. Most were gone by then, so he had no trouble doing this. Mrs. Huddel jabbed a boney finger at Duke. "Would you have turned on those who depended upon you?'

Duke whispered that no, he wouldn't have, and she continued.

“That Ustashe officer knew more than he was telling. What he wanted was for Josip to identify the Serbs staying in his home. The officer was toying with your grandfather. If the Ustashe hated one thing it was a man who felt he was morally above them. Josip Vrakuvic was a better man and the officer knew it. He repeated his question, asking Josip to point out the houses that Serbs still lived in.

The officer knew the houses and he also knew that Vetska and I were inside the Vrakuvic home. But he wanted to hear Josip say it. Your grandfather didn’t respond and a soldier cracked him across the face with his rifle. That's when they came after us and dragged us out. The officer wanted a show, you see. He wanted to observe what a man of substance would do in the situation he was about to create.

Sofi arrived then, flailing her arms and hair flying from under her kerchief as if she was Medusa. I threw Vetska behind me, praying the Ustashe wouldn’t see my action, for some reason still believing we might be saved. Maybe the Ustashe had all been like Josip Vrakuvic once. Why else would they have spent so much time torturing him? To them, moral courage had become a big joke.

He resisted what they asked him to do, but I knew Josip couldn't hold out forever. They beat him with their guns while Sofi screamed, her hair wild like snakes. She flew at the soldiers, scratching and biting with all her strength, which, despite her height, was considerable. The soldiers threw her aside as she screamed, ‘It is not supposed to happen to us!’

That was when I knew that something terrible was going to transpire and that I was helpless to stop it. The Krajinisci were brave fighters, but they weren't trained to be inhuman like the Ustashe. I knew that once Sofi became desperate all would be lost. I pushed Vetska backwards, motioning that she should run away. It was a feeble action and one of them grabbed my arm and sliced it through."

Mrs. Huddel showed Duke her wrist. There was a jagged gash, still garish after forty-five years. "They nearly cut my hand off," she explained. “Still, I threw myself on Vetska as they dragged her forward. They wrung her from me and tossed her on the ground before Josip. I wedged myself between them, but they clubbed me.

They could have killed me, but didn't. They wanted me alive for what was going to happen.

'Is this girl a Serb?' the officer demanded. I could see from Josip's eyes that he would not betray Vetska for all the world. But Sofi was another matter. Her words ring in my ears fifty years later.

‘Tell them Josip, or I will,’ Sofi cried. Then, ‘She is Serb!’

And even still your grandfather tried to save Vetska. 'No, she is Muslim,’ Josip cried as the Ustashe laughed in his face.

Mrs. Huddel's breathing was ragged and her eyes were wide, as if the Ustashe were chasing her through the years. With a wrenched sigh she brought forth the rest of the story. "They threw Vetska down. I can not say the filthy words they used to tell Josip what they wanted him to do.

‘She is my godchild,' Josip tried to explain. But to these monsters feelings like love and trust can not be explained. The prospect thrilled them further. 'You are her godfather?' the officer asked with amusement. The other soldiers raised their bottles, looking forward to the show. I kept myself from falling into unconsciousness, forcing myself to stay alert for Vetska's sake. Sofi was prostrate on the ground, pleading with Josip to do what the soldiers wanted.

The soldiers held me as I watched Josip Vrakuvic rape my little girl. As he took her, she stared up at him as if trying to understand why he was hurting her. Then the soldiers followed suit.

Mrs. Huddel's chest was heaving, and the images she'd conjured spun about the room. When he could no longer stand his thoughts he choked out, "My grandfather. What happened to him?"

She shot him a look, as if surprised Duke didn't know the answer. She made no response as Duke shook his head and arose. He had asked too much and was sorry he'd come. He regretted ever trying to find answers to his questions. Once he reached the air outside he would forget everything he'd heard and leave his answers to what he'd imagined, his childish stories and half-baked rational that covered his parents' lies. Mrs. Huddel's stone-cold tone caused him to halt at the door.

"They broke his leg bones first. Your grandfather's screams faded as they moved to the rest of his body. He was still alive as they carved a cross into his forehead. Then they finished them both off with a knife across their necks." Mrs. Huddel's gaze was turned to the wall. "I'm glad she is dead. I am very glad. And I'm glad that Sofi Vrakuvic lives with the memory of what she did."

"My grandmother," Duke burst out, "Why did they leave her alive?"

Mrs. Huddel's lips drew up in irony. "Why, because she did what any good mother of four boys would do. She was the informant who spied on our village. That was how they knew the houses.

Duke stood motionless. His thoughts whirled. Sofi was an informant for the Ustashe? His uncles, Uncle Phillip, his own father--were they bought by the Ustashe too? He blurted out, “You said you 'believed’ Josip and Sofi. What did you mean by it?” The cracks of her smile were as ghastly as his thoughts.

A gleam entered Mrs. Huddel’s eyes, one filled with unmistakable malice. “I meant I believed when they told me we were family. Do you want to know the truth?”

No, he didn't want to know. Not anymore. He kept going.

"We are dogs to them and always were."

As he exited the kitchen her words followed him out.

“Myself, I would have urinated on my children's corpses rather than see them turned into the devil seed Ustashe.”

Petra was sitting on a barrel with her head on her arms as he entered the yard. Duke sat beside her and after awhile he decided that the choice to remain silent amidst the evil of the world might be a very sound idea at that.

E. Lane Keller's novel, Covenant of Poppies, unravels 1000 years of Yugoslav history while shedding light on the media bias that helped take the country down. Published in non-fiction with Reed Elsevier, her plays have been produced in Maryland, two short screenplays were produced with Sundance Award-winning filmmaker, Steve Yeager, and the stage version of Covenant of Poppies appeared at the NY Fringe Festival. A recipient of the Maryland State grant for writing, graduate of NYU, member of the Author's Guild.