It was nineteen-eighty-three and life in Canada was pleasant. Zlata was happy that she no longer had to live in the wretchedness and unhappiness of her old hometown. Days like this made it worthwhile for her to be alive and it made her grateful that she made it through the hardships she had faced. She was a Canadian citizen now, and had been for the last thirty years. She would never go back there; not after all that she had gone through. There was no one left over there for her anyway.
Zlata went about her business every day; she was on chapter thirteen of her new ethnic European fiction novel. Lucky thirteen. Her agent, Janet Percy, was pushing her to get this one done. Its been a difficult one. People were starting to beg for more realism, more feeling in the story. The story had to fit the terms of “realism” and Janet was making sure that she embe dded this in Zlata’s head.
She had a lot of experience in her own life to draw on when it came to the history that she was embe dding in this book, but not enough. Research was difficult since she had segregated herself from most of the Serbians and Croatians in the city and neighboring towns. When she did get interviews, most of them had a wall up when you asked about their experiences in the war. Piercing that wall was difficult and usually led to her being asked to leave or to reschedule; that was, if she was lucky. Some even resorted to physically pushing her out of their home.
Her first few experiences with research were difficult. She was young, bright, married for five years at the time and pregnant with her second child. Zlata had introduced herself to the interviewee as Mrs. Zlata Pierce. The interviewee, a gentleman, happened to be a retired Serbian policeman who had moved to Canada to make a better life for his family. When she mentioned her full name, he automatically picked up on the name, “Zlata” and said, “That name is Croatian, is it not?”
To which she replied, “Yes, but I have been in Canada since I was twenty, and I have no family ties in the old country and I have very little remembrance of the Country itself and of the language. My husband is English, and I go by the last name of Pierce.”
Needless to say, that interview was quite difficult, and produced very little information that was useful. From that point on for every interview, she introduced herself as Ms. Pierce and had her pseudonym for the rest of her novels as Elizabeth Pierce. Very few asked about her accent, and at any time the subject was brought up, she would avert the conversation into some other question she had on hand.
Her husband Tony Pierce was wonderful. A lawyer by trade, he was always there for her on a professional manner as well as on a personal basis. Her children, Karen, Steve and Jim were all wonderful. Karen had passed the bar exam last fall and was working in an entry level position in one of the medium sized law firms in the city. She was hoping to get partnership in five years—she was such an ambitious child, just like her father.
Steve was an artist. A graphic artist. At the age of twenty-three he was one of the most successful graphic artists in Canada. It was a growing field in the country and he was excelling at it.
Jim was still in University. At the age of twenty, half-way through his economics degree, he decided he wanted to change majors. He decided to take an engineering degree and major in civil engineering. They could never figure him out. So far he was doing really well, scoring top marks in his class—ninety-seventh percentile. Yet he still seemed not to be happy with his choice. Zlata talked to him many times and told him just to finish one degree. He had his whole life to figure out what he wanted to do. If he didn’t like it, he didn’t have to work in his field of study. He could go back and do something else. Nothing was ever permanent. All you could ever do was guide them, if you did that right, they would eventually find their way. She was confident he would eventually find his way. He reminded her so much of Zarko. He would have loved him.
Zlata’s life was perfect. She had everything she could ever ask for – a wonderful, successful husband, three wonderful children, and a healthy career as an author. Nothing could be better. They had a beautiful house and a beautiful summer cabin. The family had even enjoyed very wonderful and lavish holidays, twice a year for many years. Absolutely nothing could make this better.
Then the call came. It was very innocent at first. Zlata had no idea who the person was on the other end of the phone. She was thinking that it was some type of prank or someone who didn’t understand English. Or at least that’s what she first thought.
“Hello?” Zlata answered the phone.
“Who is this?”
“I said, who is this?”
Some rustling on the phone, then nothing.
“If this is a prank, then please go away. I have had enough of you people harassing me. I’ve had to change this phone number five times in the last two years and quite frankly I have no comment on any of your questions. Have some decency and please leave me alone!”
As she was about to hang up she heard a yell from a voice through the receiver. She was not exactly sure what the voice said, but it sounded like, “No! Please!”
Zlata put the phone to her ear and said, “I’m listening, but not for long, so please keep this short. I am a very busy woman and I do not like to waste my time.”
“You speak very good english, no? But of course, its been about thirty years or so since you were in the old country and about thirty-five or so since you were last in the village.”
The voice was deep, male, thick accented, and a bit rough. The kind you know has seen a lot in its life. The voice that is aged through time and experience. The voice of yesterday.
To Zlata, this was devastating. Who the heck was this person? What did they want from her? She was obviously at a disadvantage here and somehow she would have to get the ball in her court. But how?
“Do I know you?”
“Zlata, Zlata! You should. I was one of your old neighbors. I was not much younger than you and I left the village at the age of sixteen to go further on to school. You must remember me.”
She thought more and more. Who could this be? “Were you on the road further towards the main centre or the opposite, on the other side of where I once lived?”
“Closer to the village. I had a big dog named…”
“Yes! That’s right! Now do you remember my name?”
“Of course, Charles! How did you find me?”
“It was not easy. It took many years. I immigrated to the United States many years ago. About twenty. I was a professor of foreign languages in Yugoslavia before I left, so it secured me a job in America. I also had a relative that could vouch for me. I met my wife who is from Canada three years after I immigrated to America, and I moved to Toronto with her. There I became a Slavic Language professor at the University of Toronto, and now I’m on sabbatical.”
“Your wife is with you?”
“No. She unfortunately passed away the year prior.”
“That is too bad. What can I do for you, Charles?”
“Can we meet for coffee tomorrow? I am flying into Calgary for a week. I’m doing a seminar during the week for a few lectures in the University up there.”
“I would have to see with my husband. He sometimes has me completing a few things for him for the law firm he runs. He usually springs them onto me by surprise and they usually take priority.” She wanted to hint to him that she was married, and happily. Why would a widower want to go for coffee out of the blue; especially one whom she had not seen for three decades? It did seem awfully strange. And how had he managed to locate her unlisted phone number was a mystery. Tony had threatened to sue the telephone company for releasing a number that they had paid to keep private; changing numbers five times in the last three years was a bit excessive—and a huge headache.
Zlata also heard of widowed or divorced Slavic men that went around looking for loose older women to have affairs with (if they couldn’t get the young type). One thing she didn’t want is for him to get the wrong idea about her. She hoped upon hope that he would be nothing like ‘those’ men—the ones that wanted to have affairs. It would be nice to have a good memory about someone who was from her village. Afterall, Charles was always a wonderful child; always curtious and graceful. He was similar to her beloved brother in that way. Yet Charles was always very conservative. Her mother use to tell her that Charles’ parents were very strict. That meant he was beaten for every bad thing he did, or anything that he did incorrect as compared to what they thought was right. Backhands and belts were common forms of discipline to most of the people in the Village back then.
“Bring him along, Zlata. Its just a friendly conversation. I have something to tell you. It has to do with your past. With Zarko.”
Zlata nearly dropped the phone. Zarko? She did not have anyone say his name to her in thirty years. Since her mom died, right before she left for Canada, Zlata never heard that name spoken to her since.
“You have my attention,” she swallowed hard. Why bring up something so old?
“I cannot say much over the phone. The communist regime still resides in the old country and if they figured out what I have deduced—which, mind you, took me many years – I could definitely be in danger. Does your husband know about your family?”
“I’ve only told him that they died in the war. I never was specific with it, and Tony has never asked. He knows that the war was painful and didn’t want to stir any bad memories.”
“If your husband can spare time, it would be a good idea if he came. He should be aware of what I am about to tell you, and you should have an escort. With your type of celebrity influence, another man by your side besides your husband might attract people’s attention.”
“I interview men all of the time, it won’t be an issue. Yet if he wants to come, he will come. When and where do you want to meet?”
“You tell me. I will be in Calgary at 11:00am and I have a lecture at 3:00pm.”
“Alright, how about this. Jimmy’s Diner, 12:30pm. I will be in the dining section, not the lounge. I will give you one hour. But I must tell you, Charles, I have wisened myself in the last few years, so if this is not legitimate, I will walk out the door. I am not afraid to do that; I am a business person now with Canadian beliefs. All that I knew before was left in the old country.”
“I do respect that and I do not blame you. I am also wisened from the ways as well. Believe me, I will not waste your time. I also have the suspicion that you would have picked that up by now. I will see you tomorrow at 12:30pm at Jimmy’s Diner.”
“Do you need an address?”
“No, I will figure it out. Ciao.” And he hung up.
As soon as she hung up the phone, Zlata’s mind started wandering. All she could think of was what he had to say about Zarko. What could he possibly have to say about Zarko? The subject in her mind was dead and gone – she had come to terms with his death a long time ago. Each day she thought of him, but his face was only vaguely clear in her mind. Memories in her weary old mind from many years back were long dead, but never really forgotten. She had made a pact with herself when she immigrated here that she would leave that world behind. There were no relatives, no ties, she did not know anymore where she came from. Her family that she had created with Tony is what Zlata knew now.
That phone call had stirred her up. It stirred her memories and they became alive again. For someone to go to this extent to find her was unreal. And if the information he will be providing is true , it may even be more than she bargained for. It must be for Charles to go to that extent.
She sat down on the couch beside the phone and deliberated her next move. Tony had to know everything. What she had let him in on was very fragmented and he had never pushed to get more information than what she volunteered. He respected her and left the past alone. They met when they were young and most of what she knew and discovered was with him. This time, though, she had a feeling he should know about the past. Last thing she wanted to see was to have this all come out horribly in the end. Her relationship with her husband and her children meant too much to her.
Zlata’s mind was decided. She picked up the phone and dialed Tony’s number.
“Pierce, Wesley, James, LLC, Joanne speaking, how may I direct your call?” The peppy voice of the sixty year-old receptionist came blaring through the receiver into Zlata’s ear. By her voice, you would never think the lady was sixty. She sounded all but fourty on the phone—no raspiness, only a clear, precise, smooth voice. That’s why Tony hired her. He was probably the only man that Zlata knew which hired for practicality, not for boobs, good-looks, or legs. She guessed that’s why she married him in the first place. He wasn’t bullshit – just straight and upfront. Just the way she liked them.
Joanne was wonderful and she was always pleasant to Zlata. The woman was like a mother to her in a way, but yet a “friend” as well. Not very close friends, but still Zlata considered Joanne to fall into her small circle of friends. After all, Zlata had invited her to many gatherings in the house and some outings. She always felt sorry for Joanne. When she joined Tony’s firm, she was about fifty, just widowed, and her children were difficult towards her. They blamed her for their father’s untimely death—he worked as a professional Engineer, running his own telecommunications firm. Joanne just took care of the home and the kids and never worked. The pressure was too high for her husband, and he killed himself in such a way that it looked like it was an accidental death. Joanne never told Zlata how he had killed himself, and that was just fine with her. What she understood was that Joanne’s husband wanted to make sure that Joanne and the kids were covered by his insurance policy, and he wanted an easy way out of the whole situation called “the world”. The long and short of it was that there was an investigation into the death, the insurance company and the courts decided it was not an accidental death and the insurance payment was voided. Joanne was left with everything else – a large house, cars on lease, payments for her husbands’ company, food bills, and the list went on and on. She sold the business for what she could get of it, split the money amongst the kids and found a job with Tony’s firm. Unfortunately, though she did all that she could, her children believed and still believe that she had something to do with their father’s death. From information Zlata gathered, they thought she planned everything with him—even coerced him to kill himself. Yet you can never tell what a person has hidden inside of them until you back them in a corner. Maybe Joanne had this happen, maybe she didn’t, but no one ever will really know.
“Joanne! Its Zlata.”
“Hey Zlata! Phones are ringing off the hook today, its driving me crazy! I’ll be looking towards our hiking trip next weekend, let me tell you! Do you want to talk Tony? I’d talk more, but its unbelievable here—I’m letting the calls go to voicemail right now.”
“Sure, pass me off to Tony. We’ll talk to you later!”
Next was the sound of the elevator music that Tony had chosen for the ‘hold’ option on the phone. He always liked to keep everything professional and stiff, but the way he was with the clients never really reflected how he presented the firm. Most of his clients were referrals and people that he knew for a long time, so when they came to him, they thought it was great having such a professional atmosphere, and being able to act themselves around their lawyer.
“Tony speaking,” rang his strong, English accented sweet voice through the receiver.
“Hey Tony, its Zlata.”
“Zlata, I could tell your voice without your introduction, my dear. Joanne must be really going crazy for her to blind transfer you to me. It has been a bit ludicrous today. Seems like there is a climb of criminal suits occurring these days. I have not compared this with other colleagues, but I am sure that they are feeling the same rush of clients. Funny thing is that most of the new clients coming lately are off the street. Its quite mind-boggling.
“Anyhow, enough of my bantering, my dear. What can I do for you? You want to do lunch?”
“Sure, sweetie. But I also had something I have to ask of you and talk to you about.”
“Why don’t we do it over lunch. Just park in the underground parking and we’ll go to the Ramada for lunch. I hate these trendy new restaurants that are opening up in the neighborhood. Is that okay with you dear?”
“Alright. I’ll come up to the office and we’ll walk down together.”
“It’s a date. 11:30 am is fine?”
“See you then”
The lunch was pleasant, and Tony proved to be more gently receptive of the information Zlata had imagined. She told him about her life in the old country, and what happened to her family—to her father and to Zarko. He asked why she was telling him all of this information now. She never was ever really open to talking about this before. Then she told him about Charles contacting her and that he had some information to pass on regarding her brother’s death and he wanted to meet the next day to talk about the incident of her brother.
“He says he has some information as to what happened. It sounded very important, and he said he could not talk about it over the phone. Something in regards to the communists still being powerful in Yugoslavia. I’m not sure exactly what he means by this. He said you should come along too. I don’t ask much of you, Tony, but could you make this meeting tomorrow at 12:30pm? It would mean so much to me.” She looked imploringly at him.
“My dear, anything for you. Where is this meeting?”
“Jimmy’s Diner. I thought it was low key and clean. I didn’t want to go any place where people would come up to me for an autograph. That place doesn’t usually have people that read my books. I just hope he has information about the incident that I don’t already know. I was told it was the Ustashe who did it. The only thing that I suspected is that they were waiting for someone else and mistook my brother for that person. Maybe that’s what he has to tell me.”
“I don’t know, sweetie. We’ll see when we get there. He isn’t an unusual fellow, is he? I just find it odd that he called you out of the blue like that.”
“That’s what I thought—that it was odd that is. But Charles was always a good, clean kid. I know he had a good clean education and as far as I know, there was nothing that happened in his life that would have made him into a crazy person. There is no reason to doubt him, but I would rather be safe.”
“With your celebrity background, these days, I don’t blame you. And frankly, I would rather be there to make sure you are not being taken advantage of. If he is lying, I will know. Don’t worry, luv, all will be well. Now finish up your sandwich.”
“Thanks for reminding me. I’m so caught up in this whole situation, that I’m forgetting that I’m here to have my lunch.”
“How’s the new book coming along?”
“I’m working on it. A bit at a time. I started another one and another short story. You know me – multiplicity is the game, and I always have another story up my sleeve.” She winked at him. It was a relief that he agreed to come. He didn’t know how relieved she was.
Her brother’s funeral was hard. Her mother cried day and night when she found out about the death of her son Zarko. Zlata remembered her mother’s teary streaked face, the paleness of it. When the funeral came, Lilja’s faced mimicked death. She was so pale and gaunt – she had refused to eat the past few days. All that she would say when food was given to her is, “God will provide me with the nourishment if he deems that I am worthy of life. Oh where or where have I gone wrong? Why has He taken all the strength that I had? Why….?” And she would cry all over again.
For the next years of her life, she wore the black crotched shall over her head and only wore black garments. She wore black until she died.
She remembered one thing at the funeral that stayed in her memory. Charles was there, and he was quite pale. He looked very sick. Zlata went to him after the prayers and asked him if he was alright.
“Yes, Zlata. I am fine. I think I am getting sick. The past few nights have been hard for me with sleep. After what happened with Zarko, God rest his soul, my mother has not let me out on the road or out very far from the house. I keep dreaming about Zarko and how dead he looked. Pale and dead.”
“You didn’t actually see him, did you? I mean before this?” She said to him in a whisper.
“Did it sound like that? No…uh…no I didn’t see him. I just dreamed about it—how I thought he would look. And that’s what I said. In my dreams, he looked horrible and I woke up screaming. I’m just tired. Excuse me, I need to relieve myself.”
He left with those words, and Zlata never talked to him about it again. It was weird to her how he answered then, but she didn’t bother to investigate any further. With all of the responsibilities she had laid on her, she didn’t have any room for extracurricular ideas that suddenly interested her. Life was not about fun anymore, it was about responsibility.
Now, as Zlata thought about this one memory that had escaped her all of these years – which was just reawakened by these events – her mind wandered at the thought of there being something more to her brother’s death. Unless her older mind was failing her, this old memory seemed clear as a bell. Why would Charles have reacted the way he did? Why did he stumble over his words, first saying that he saw her brother dead, and then changing the whole story? That he had dreamt about it. Did he hide what truly happened and then all these years came by and he’s now trying to make amends? What was going on.
These thoughts kept running through her mind as she drove home from her lunch with Tony. He was very understanding and now that he would be there, it would make all the difference in the world to her. Tony would be her support if it all started falling apart. They’ve been through a lot together and now they would get through this, whatever it turns out to be.