Standing at a bus stop outside the Lindt chocolate factory, Vadim Abdich abruptly turned around, as though someone were behind him. On the dark, colorless Zurich Lake, white sails swelled with the wind, and the boats slid silently past fir trees on the shore — tranquil, hooded giants whose hairy arms spread downward as though they would embrace him.
Vadim felt the wind-borne particles of water bursting in the hazy sunlight. He breathed the firs’ musty aroma and remembered Bosnia’s mountain pines above his red-tiled house, and the day Serb soldiers had firebombed the forest and his house had burned in high-explosive flames. Sheets of fire had lifted him as he jumped to safety. When he’d come to, he’d found his left leg on fire and burned his hands putting it out. He’d hopped on one leg to the local hospital while the other leg sizzled. The wound had been a godsend: a passport to Switzerland. (His family had already gone to Switzerland months earlier, while he, as a draftable man, had been forced to stay.) Now, two years later, the leg was all right, although hairless and a little weaker than the other.
It was still sunny as it began to rain, yet there was no rainbow. Vadim had forgotten his umbrella. Of course, if he’d had a car he would not have needed an umbrella. If he worked overtime on Saturdays, in half a year he could manage to save five thousand francs for a used car, and then he wouldn’t have to wait in the rain anymore.
He climbed onto the blue city bus and stood among seated children and the elderly men and women with yellow hearing aids and fine walking sticks. A man his age — about forty — stepped on at the next stop, grimacing and talking to himself. Only men with medical conditions or criminal records ride the bus, Vadim thought. Otherwise, they’d have valid driver’s licenses with all the appropriate stamps. (Here, everything, even food, was stamped.)
Vadim had the impression that people’s eyes were touching his back and creeping sluggishly, like snails’ feelers, among his gray neck hairs. He strained to stand straight, pulled his head back, and set his jaw so that the bristles of his mustache pricked his lower lip. If he had been wearing an olive-colored cap with a star, he would have resembled the partisan statue in the square of his native town of Drvar.
Passing a muddy soccer field, the bus buzzed into a lower gear before stopping. Vadim’s stomach rumbled, and he burped. Moving stiffly, aware of his thin body, he said, “Entscheidung,” to the children who stood between himself and the door. For a second, they would not move — just long enough to make him feel disrespected. As he stepped off, the children giggled, and he realized he’d said the word for decision rather than excuse. Sheets of rain hit him as soon as his feet touched the pavement.
At home his daughter, Sonya, sang “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”). Her brown eyes shone as her voice rose, high and clear, and Vadim thought of a window frosted with stars and hexagons. Her brother, Marko — who was watching Tom and Jerry in French, his belly on the floor and feet in new red sneakers flopping in the air — shouted, “Silence!” in English.
“Ludnica,” Vadim said in Serbo-Croatian (madhouse). He smiled at Olga, his wife, whose white-streaked hair was twisted in a bun. She did not look back at him, but went on adding up the bills, whispering numbers.
“Kolko fali?” he said (how much do we need?).
“Stille!” Olga said. She insisted that they speak German at home so the kids would do well in the Swiss school. The only language the kids didn’t speak so well was Serbo-Croatian — or, as Vadim thought of it now, Bosnian. They could always speak Bosnian with Dad, but rarely did. Though Sonya was ten and Marko seven, their Bosnian was younger, frozen at the level it had reached before they’d left their homeland three years earlier. If it continued this way, Bosnian would become their baby language. When Marko had been a toddler, he’d said “bana” for banana. Then he’d managed to say “banana,” and, noticing that adding another na had pleased his parents, he’d added many more, saying “bananananananana” for a month thereafter. Maybe that’s how Marko would speak Bosnian from now on.
“Daddy, will you buy me a violin?” Sonya said.
“Why a violin?”
“All my friends play the violin.”
“All the more reason why you should play the cello. It has the most lovely sad sound.”
“I don’t need sad sounds.”
“How do you know?”
“Shit!” Marko shouted in French.
“I want the violin,” Sonya said.
“Why not the piano?” Vadim asked. “You could play it alone, even after your friends are gone.”
“Vadim, you sound like a madman,” Olga said. “No musical instruments. Music means lessons, and that means bills. And we need to renew our visas this month. It’s harassment, I tell you. They want to make sure that we don’t stay.”
“America or Canada — that’s where we should settle,” Vadim said. “There, almost everyone’s an immigrant — or an immigrant’s child, or grandchild, or whatever — so you can’t be a foreigner.”
“What’s the point of dreaming?” Olga said. “We need to make the best of things here.”
Sonya continued to sing “Stille Nacht” in a snowy voice, an octave higher than before. The part in her hair was a wind-beaten meadow path; her thin black eyebrows like two faraway crows gliding on a warm wind. Vadim listened to her and felt happy and proud. Come what may, he had a wonderful family; beneath the bickering there was harmony.
“I’m going out to mail the bills and take a stroll,” Olga said, wrapping a green veil around her head.
“Since when do you wear a veil?” Vadim said.
“We are Muslims. Nobody lets us forget that, so let’s be Muslims,” she said. “I don’t mind the anonymity. I don’t need eye contact with strangers. I’m not lonely.”
“Nonsense. A veil draws attention to you.”
“Mom, can I have a cat?” Marko shouted. “Why can’t I have a cat?”
Olga said to Vadim, “You wear sunglasses that hide your face.”
“But a veil makes you look too foreign.”
“It’s good to have a visible cultural identity. You can actually fit in better that way; people here respect that. You be you, and I’ll be me.”
“That doesn’t sound particularly Islamic to me. You’ve been reading too many Swiss magazines.”
The doorbell rang. Vadim looked through the peephole at a woman in a veil. The curved lens made her appear rotund and remote.
‘That’s my friend Fatima!” Olga opened the door and the two women exchanged kisses and went out.
Vadim sat home with the children and brooded. He could not get used to his new Muslim identity, which to him seemed imposed from the outside, even though his ancestors were Muslims. He’d never been religious; he’d been raised an atheist, like nearly everyone else his age who grew up in Yugoslavia. So what was all this sudden religiosity about? He could not be a Muslim now, just as he could not have been a communist before, and could never be a Swiss. He was no good at identities. Or at making new friends. Luckily he had his family. They were his friends.
Absentmindedly, Vadim set up his chess pieces for a mate-in-three.
“Dad, you’re a retard,” Sonya said. “You should have a computer chess game, not push those ugly wooden pieces around like a peasant.”
“A computer will hurt your eyes and your head. The wood won’t!” He laughed. He was no peasant. In Drvar he’d been an artisan — he’d made hats and caps — but at the outset of the war Serb soldiers had demolished his shop, shattered all the shop windows downtown.
“If you won’t buy a computer, you’re a peasant,” Sonya said.
“So you’d like me to buy everything — a violin, a computer. What next, a horse?”
“The violin first,” Sonya said.
Vadim said nothing, but placed his hand-carved white knights in a symmetrical position. The violin bow, he thought, is just a horse tail rubbed in resin, a fir secretion: peasant materials. He imagined his daughter, grown, wearing a black-and-red-and-white folk costume, playing the fiddle at a peasant wedding.
Sonya sat cross-legged — a habit she had probably learned from American kids at her school — and did her homework, aloud: “Twenty minus x . . .” She wore neon socks, and her hair was shiny from expensive conditioner (nettle juice, eggs, aloe, coconut oil, and other loudly advertised natural ingredients: a United Nations of peasant produce). Vadim admired her modernity, but was also vaguely bothered by it.
Marko’s sharp breathing and gasping interrupted Vadim’s contemplation. Another asthma attack. In the rainy season, Marko had asthma attacks whenever he was frustrated or ignored. Vadim placed an inhalator before Marko’s face and gently tapped him on the back, the way he used to burp him as a baby. “I will get you a cat with three little kittens and a pair of mittens,” Vadim said.
The next morning on the bus, Vadim noticed a young woman with beautiful coppery hair streaming from beneath her beret. She was talking to a neighbor, her swelled lips languidly parting and closing. He gazed at the young woman’s face with wistful yearning, although he wasn’t sure what he yearned for: he would never talk to this woman or touch her lips. Age, nationalities, mores, religions, and her self-possession removed her from him: they were not neighbors. He continued to look at her, but she didn’t acknowledge him in the slightest. He thought how, in Bosnian, when a man falls in love, the expression is zagledo se — “he looked for a long while.” Of course, he would not fall in love with her — it would be preposterous, impossible — and this fact filled him with melancholy.
Vadim missed his stop. To walk back should have taken five minutes, but his leg was tender that day, tingling with the loss of sensation, and it took ten. He wished for a cup of Turkish coffee and a chance to dip his face into a Bosnian mountain brook, drinking in the aroma of tree roots and moss to sober and strengthen himself; he still felt dizzy with longing. Suddenly, veils made sense — a face could enrapture you more than a naked body ever would.
At the factory, as he passed the porter’s varnished booth, he said, “Buon giorno!” to the Italian inside, who frowned and marked something down, perhaps that Vadim was seven minutes late. And when Vadim got to his spot along the conveyor belt, he said, “Buenos dias!” to his Spanish co-workers, who gave no response. He melted one white-chocolate square on his sleepy tongue and chewed. A nut wedged itself like shrapnel between his molars and his tongue pushed vainly, trying to dislodge it. He tilted his white cap. Everyone was dressed in white, as though they were doctors and nurses rather than chocolate gastarbeiter: guest workers.
Vadim worked downstream from several robots. One wiry robot arm produced the lower level of a box, another abruptly lowered a dozen chocolate cubes wrapped in gold foil, and a third glued red-foil roses atop all of them at once. The boxes then flowed past him to where another robot capped the box with a crimson lid. Whenever Vadim noticed an irregularity — a naked chocolate cube, a tilted rose — it was his job to pull the box from the belt, remove the irregular cube, and replace it with a good one from a box at his side. God forbid a customer should buy a box of cognac chocolates with one cube amiss. That customer would never buy Lindt again.
All the red foil made Vadim see thin red streaks, which in turn brought back this image: an ax stuck in the skull of a prostrate gray-haired man, and blood flowing down the steep, cobbled street, branching out into thin crimson trails that carried golden cigarette butts, like a file of red ants transporting dismembered bees. His brain, he thought, had become a storage room of frozen images that defrosted one by one and dripped into the scarlet light of his vision.
During the fifteen-minute midmorning break, the supervisor, a man with thin blue lips and a thick red neck squeezed by a blue tie, came to see him. He spoke to Vadim in German, slowly and loudly, the way one speaks to the hard of hearing or the stupid. Perhaps because of the excessive effort the supervisor put into his voice, he sprayed drops of saliva over Vadim’s forehead. Vadim could see each bursting particle, like dust in a beam of light.
The supervisor said that Vadim had missed two defective boxes, and that he should not be late because the conveyor belt could not be started until everyone was in place. Robots could do Vadim’s job as well. Lindt only kept people employed around conveyor belts as a form of charity. Without it, exiles like Vadim would be on welfare. But Vadim was allowed to work for his money as a favor to him, because one needs work for mental hygiene.
“You’re right,” Vadim said. “Entschuldigungung!” He was aware that he’d added one ung too many, and sounded like his young son saying banananana. He resented having to apologize; he was not sorry. He thought of saying that the bus had been late — a lie, like a child with a schoolteacher — but then thought better of it. The supervisor would probably take it as an insult to the Swiss system. And to say that he’d been late because he’d gazed too long at a young woman’s lips — he couldn’t tell that to anyone; it was more disgraceful than adultery, which at least would be something substantial, physical, understandable.
When the conveyor belt was again rolling by, Vadim toasted the fine job he was doing by placing a defective cognac chocolate on his tongue (workers were not supposed to eat chocolate during the shift). There was nothing defective about its taste, which made him clear his throat from so much sweetness. The taste brought back childhood memories of climbing orchard trees and chewing crimson cherries, sucking on their stones before spitting them out. The image began to glow with the light of Bosnia’s strawberry slopes as the red hair of the woman from the bus leaked its magnificent radiance over his memories. He was glad, because it kept away his memories of bloated bodies drifting down the Una River.
At home, Vadim entered a miniature war. Sonya was pounding Marko’s head with her walking shoes. Marko, in turn, had grabbed her hair and was pulling it. They both shouted and cried.
Vadim pulled them apart. “How can you allow them to get so out of hand?” he yelled at Olga, who was crouching next to the sofa and pulling a hissing orange cat from underneath it.
“I don’t have thirteen hands,” Olga said. “This cat’s trying to eat Sonya’s dove.”
“Since when does she have a dove?”
“I found it injured in the hedges by the woods,” Sonya said. “Something bit its wing.”
The bird fluttered in a cardboard box with small holes poked in it. One hole was torn where the cat had taken swipes at it.
Olga carried the cat to the window by the scruff of his neck. A white film half-covered his eyes and his paws hung forward limply. Marko ran after her and tugged at her green skirt.
“Let me keep him!”
“No, you can’t have him. We aren’t allowed to keep pets in this building.”
“Who’d know?” Vadim said. “Let him keep the cat for a day at least.”
“Throw the stinker out!” Sonya yelled. “He’ll kill my dove.”
“Just keep your bird in the bedroom,” Vadim said, “and when it gets healthy, let it go.”
“They’ll throw us out of the apartment, and then what?” Olga said.
“All right, but at least let him keep the cat for an hour, to play a bit, feed it.”
Olga relented and swore under her breath in Bosnian. (There, Vadim thought, when you are pushed, you go to your mother tongue.) Sonya locked herself in the bedroom with her dove and shouted that her dad favored Marko. That’s not a dove, Vadim thought; it’s a pigeon. But let her call it a dove, as though a dove were something finer and better. Olga lowered the blinds so no one would see the cat.
“What kind of country,” Vadim said, “won’t let you keep a cat?” He smiled distantly, like a blind man listening to a melody in his head, and stroked the tomcat, who sprawled on the sofa, purred loudly, and licked Vadim’s finger. Now and then the tom gently bit his fingertip and put a padded paw to his cheek. The paw slid to Vadim’s upper lip, where the claws came out a little and combed his mustache. The cat’s pupils, which had at first contracted into exclamation points, relaxed into dark ellipses, then black circles, bringing the serenity of night to the disappearing turbulent day.
“You think you’re doing your son a favor by letting him keep this stray?” Olga said. “He’ll breathe the hairs in, and his asthma will get worse.”
Vadim heard Olga, but said nothing. He thought that Marko’s asthma was mostly psychosomatic, and that he would get better with the help of this feline psychologist. Vadim smiled at the tomcat, convinced that they had reached an understanding.
The next morning, the tomcat was gone. Olga claimed that he’d jumped out the window. Vadim grieved quietly, and, instead of going for the first time to a mosque with Olga and Marko — as he had promised he would — he decided he would take Sonya to downtown Zurich, near Bahnhofstrasse. They would go to an old violin maker Vadim had sniffed out along the narrow cobbled streets of Donaugasse, among creamy houses with chocolate crossbeams, and goldsmith shops and art galleries. He’d buy Sonya the violin as a gift to celebrate the end of Ramadan.
They climbed onto the bus together. There were several elderly people, a dozen high-school students, a leather-clad adolescent with green hair and a pierced lip, and two young women with black lipstick and mink coats and torn fish-net stockings. For a change, Vadim didn’t care what the people on the bus thought. He wondered whether in fact anyone thought, or only daydreamed, as he did.
“Could we go sailing?” Sonya asked in German, watching the sailboats bouncing atop the choppy waves of the lake.
Vadim did not answer right away. He was remembering how, when Sonya was thirteen months old, she had loved fish and had learned to silently open and close her mouth whenever she saw a drawing of one. When he’d shown her a picture of a red starfish and said, “Starfish!” her tiny finger had tried to trace a mouth and, not finding one, had drawn back into her fist. Confused, she had stared at Vadim as though confronted for the first time with the concept of a lie. Later, on a moonless night with a breeze murmuring through the pines, he’d pointed to the sky and said, “Stars!” and she had opened and closed her mouth happily, turning to him to show how well she understood. She’d come to accept all kinds of fish, even those that did not have mouths and that swam in the sky at night.
“Could we —” Sonya began again.
“Mozda kasnije,” he said in Bosnian. “Maybe later, after I teach you how to ski. Would you like that?”
“Hush!” Sonya said in English, blushing. “Somebody might hear you!”
He stared uncomprehendingly at her red face, and she whispered in Bosnian, as if he were incapable of understanding other languages, “Keep quiet — people will hear you.”
“So? That’s what speech is for!” he said.
She turned her head away and bit her lip.
So that’s it, he thought. She’s ashamed of me. She’s afraid of being identified as Bosnian. I’m a Bosnian peasant, and she’s a Swiss lady. My child, my best friend, is a foreigner to me.
From the bus stop, they walked past the cathedral Metz. Vadim had heard about Marc Chagall’s stained-glass windows there, but had never seen them. He beckoned Sonya toward the cathedral with a motion of his head, as though he’d lost the gift of speech for good. She followed him, her gaze darting around, as if someone were watching.
Inside, sunlight ignited blue, crimson, and gold flames in the glass. At the bottom, a sheep carried the weight of the tall work like a beast of burden. In the lights, Vadim saw the flaming pines he’d jumped through to get here.
When they walked out of the church, the sun glared at him from shop windows and cars, refracting into mirages of waterfalls. They continued on their way to the violin shop, where he’d buy his daughter a two-thousand-franc violin, so she could become more refined, more foreign, and more ashamed of him. No, he decided; he would not buy a violin. He’d save to buy a car instead, and they’d all pack up and leave, go back to Bosnia, war or no war, flames or no flames. They’d be one family again, surrounded by cats and dove-pigeons.
Or maybe they would not go back, but at least he would have a car where he could nest, like a rabbit in a magician’s hat.