I stared down at the six Barbie dolls lined up neatly on our plush orange carpet, their hair combed back, their dresses smoothed down flat against their legs, their eyes looking back up at me, unblinking. I was seven years old and my mother had asked me to pick one to include in her care package to Yugoslavia. The shampoos, soaps, and clothes would go to my aunt’s house in Belgrade, and the Barbie would go to my cousin Maja. I’d like to say I picked the most beautiful doll to send, but instead I chose the Barbie that I thought I could live best without.
A white pigeon sat in the gutter, waiting. Her wings were folded up like sails of a ship at anchor, her head bobbing in a sea of cobblestones. Slobodanka stopped, crouched down and peered into the bird’s brown almost red eyes. They blinked at each other. She reached out her hand slowly towards the bird, expecting it to fly away, but it didn’t move. The pigeon was like silk, smooth and shiny, her body firm and substantial under the girl’s fingers, weighted with warmth.
Moles. Spots, dots, freckles, and beauty marks. I’m covered in constellations of them, enough to trace out a few copies of the entire Roman pantheon. Instead of the spotted camouflage of a leopard whose fur can mimic the fall of dappled sunlight, my spots only draw attention to me through the thicket of evenly stained bodies at a beach in New Zealand.
I hope you’re still angry. You were smiling when you agreed to drive me around Easter Island and show me the sights, but you boiled over as soon as we started talking, driving too fast through the small streets of Hanga Roa and out to the parched fields in the shadow of the volcano.
It didn’t seem odd that a heavily armed police officer was leading a German Shepherd through the train, looking in at my open cabin as he passed. It was Russia – they didn’t take terrorism lightly. They had locked down Sochi and brought in hundreds of thousands of armed guards to protect civilians, and I could still remember what had happened to the Chechen militants that had taken hostages in 2002. All forty of them had been gassed and killed while still unconscious.
My spit came back as a brightly-colored spot over a map of the Balkans. After his grandmother had told us she had bought a DNA kit to find out about her ancestry, Dave and I had bought them too, matching his and hers saliva vials that we filled while standing in the living room.
Only the worst cases ended up in the isolation room. Birds with contagious growths in their mouths forever gaped as if waiting to say something, birds with neurological conditions that left them unable to stand, their necks twisted under their bodies so that they looked at you upside down, and birds so sick that they didn’t react to your touch, just puffed up their feathers and closed their eyes, fighting back nausea.
It had been ten years since I’d been to Belgrade and the first things I noticed were the billboards. The blasted-out skeletons of iron had been rebuilt, painted, and were skinned in colorful faces smiling down on the grey skyline. They seemed so oddly out of place, as if they had landed straight out from the sky.
Serbia. For me: baklava, sarma, palacinke, family, roots, the old country. For the uninitiated: a small landlocked country in southeastern Europe separated from the rest of the continent by the Danube river in the north, and from the Mediterranean by the Alps in the west.