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The cellist stands in the center of a smashed room, uncovering his frayed, worn suit that has long lost its splendor. He parts his graying hair for the last time, his spider-webbed hands falling into rhythm of memorized routine. He adds the cheap cufflinks to his jacket and though they are tarnished and rusted, he is still presentable.
He strains his ears in the silence. It is hushed save for the scuffles of some children upstairs. But outside is where the real horror is, where everything is on fire or burned to ash. The world is painted in gray cinders, black despair, and red blood. The whistles of mortar shells ring in his ears like echoes in a cavern. And perhaps they are echoes—remnants of the final, desperate calls of Sarajevo’s ghost.
He looks at his watch, its hands twitching weakly against fate. At this time, most people crying another day away at home. A few brave souls try to find food and water, dodging bullets on their way. The cellist knows that some will not come home tonight. Trying to put this out his mind, he walks across the room. The walls have caved in; sandy plaster settles a thick coat of dust over the broken furniture. Windows, clear and beautiful only months before, have shattered like fragile peace. The furniture is reduced to gnarled blocks of wood; the roof is dangerously close to collapsing on itself. But the cellist does not care because even more important than his own happiness is the cello.
Hand-crafted in Italy half a century ago, it is a vivid sunrise in the desolate world. Smooth wood, painstakingly bent and carved, forms the gentle curves of ocean waves. The sweet scent of cedar wood and resin linger like a bittersweet memory. The cellist holds his breath, admiring the elegant neck and the swooping mildness of the scroll. He remembers his father who loved to play it, imagining how the angry lines of his face melted like butter into the image of calamity. He sees his little son, laughing as his papa played during the long, cozy winter months. The cellist forces himself to stop thinking as he holds the streamlined body of the cello. They are all dead now, plucked off the streets by bullets.
And the loss hurts more than any shot ever could; it squeezes hope out of his heart until his chest heaves and there is nothing more to give. As tears fall like raindrops, they water the dust-caked floor and he can feel himself slipping and sliding, wildly and uncontrollably, into a black hole of sadness. Each day, the pull of the abyss gets stronger and he grows weaker. Someday, he is fearful that the grief might suck him away completely dry until there is not a single piece of humanity left. But the cellist wills himself to carry on, to be stronger than the men on the hills. There would be time to mourn, but not now. He has a more important job to finish, for both the living and the dead. Slowly, he forces his feet to the door with the cello and bow in either hand. Nobody can hear the quiet footsteps that make their way down the winding concrete steps.
When he makes it to the door, he pauses hesitantly. And just as quickly as the uncertainty had risen, it falls and is quickly engulfed by heated shame. How dare you! Those twenty-two people did not have a choice of backing out of death when the shots rang out. Honor that, the cellist tells himself. And then he steps out, with those words a bitter reminder on the tip of his tongue.
The cellist ignores the crowd of people, waiting expectantly for him to play. Slowly, as the days dragged on, word had spread by whispers in the street. Here is the man who will play for the twenty-two people he saw murdered outside his apartment window, one song for each soul, they murmur under their breaths. There are some that call him suicidal, hating him for putting himself out in the middle of the rubble, playing for the men on the hills. But others say with tears in their eyes: Here is the future of Sarajevo.
The cellist is not sure there is a future for himself or his city alike. Surely it should not lie on one man’s hunched shoulders, much less his own weary ones. The only tomorrow he can see is riddled with death, haunted by those who sleep beneath earth. How can the next generation rebuild Sarajevo, a city that had prided itself in avoiding conflict, until it became the backdrop for a bloody war? How can peace ever be formed from the hazy atmosphere of gunfire? He knows there is no way to protect himself or these people. Only a fool would believe different. The snipers situated on hilltops pick them out, one by one, always making sure that someone dies but another is spared to die tomorrow. That overhanging cloud of morbid fear gnaws in the hearts of the people. But here is the cellist, tempting death again.
That is the moment he begins to play, for the twenty-second time. The square is silent. Even weeks later, the magic is far from lost. A single, thin note of sorrow ripples across the air. It is followed by the most mournful melody, lined with the mellow cries of ghosts. The whole world holds its breath and all one can hear is the full, woodsy tones that reverberate through the hollow body of the cello. The sadness turns brighter, until the cellist speeds up his fingers, letting them fly across the strings. The river seems to never end, the sounds stirring the air and dancing into the wind.
His audience remains, mesmerized. Some are too busy hiding their tear-stained faces. Others kneel, clutching their broken hearts. But most stare straight ahead, their bodies unable to respond. They hope the song reaches the men on the hills. They hope it is enough to show them that Sarajevo will never fall--that it is enough to save a few more lives.
When the cellist closes his eyes, he can almost imagine that life is fair. He is playing at the concert hall, brilliantly constructing a solo out of black notes. The crowd will cheer for him as they did a decade before and he will stand and bow humbly. It is almost as though life could be normal again. And he knows the people sense it too. It is the relief they feel when the spirits sigh with forgiveness. Something in the world fits in place. The staccatos take the place of heavy gunfire as loose vibratos soften the cries of victims. Broken buildings reconstruct themselves, windows flying back into place. Walls are put up, spotless and no longer stained with blood. With his bow, the cellist presses rewind to a time when Sarajevo was not under siege, when the Baltic States never fought. They see it all: people walk by the square without fear of death. Children call in cobblestone streets, no longer playing on a graveyard. The sun shines, the hills are empty. The deep swaying of the bow across the silver strings covers Sarajevo in the sparkling, impenetrable armor of the past.
For a moment after the cellist finishes the concerto, the mirage stands. Slowly, it disappears into the sky like smoke. There is no applause but he does not expect there to be any. In the carnage he stands upon, the wreckage of buildings and shops that pile up as mountains, the cellist drops his weathered bow right in the middle. Then he lays his cello down beside it, feeling the warm wood beneath his fingertips. It marks a final, twenty-third grave.
The cellist walks back into the building and closes the door. He has only played for minutes but a lifetime has whooshed by. He sits at the steps of his door until night begins to fall and the moon blooms in the sky. For those long hours, he closes his eyes and tries to imagine Sarajevo a year from now. But matter how hard his eyes squeeze shut, there is nothing.
He tells himself that just because he cannot see it does not mean it can never change. He knows that there is only the hope to try. The hope to hope must rise far above the alluring desire to lose, to give in, and to die. Sarajevo will never truly fall into the hands of the men on the hills as long as the city is fueled with that power.
The cellist feels a rush of pride and is sure that his son and father would agree, along with the twenty-two people he saw murdered in front of him. He stands up, reminding himself to be strong and to believe. Perhaps if he is tough enough, he can force time to skip a beat for those who fell.
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