Excerpt of Pretty Birds by Scott Simon
(Page 1 of 4)
Printer Friendly Excerpt
Irena Zaric put her last stick of gum in her mouth, winked at a bird,
and wondered where to put her last bullet before going home. Sometimes
she conferred with the pigeons that flocked along her arms. "What have
you seen, boy? What's going on over there?" The birds were cohorts; they
The grim sky was beginning to open into a briny blue. The first winds of
the day from the hills blew in with a bite of sun and a smell of snow.
It was the time of day when sharp soundsthe scorch of a shot, a scream,
a humdrum thudcould be heard best in the hollow streets. After a long
night alone in the city's rafters, Irena was consoled by the swish of
the pigeons. They reassured her: she wasn't the only one left in town.
The birds were tired and, she imagined, cranky from hunting for tree
limbs to settle on. Their feathers clapped in the stillness. People with
hatchets and kitchen knives had hacked down most of the city's trees to
burn them for heat and cooking fuel. The park across from the old
Olympic Stadium, where Irena used to go with boys, now sprouted only
grave markers scored with sharp, blunt letters: slavica jankovic
19561992. or blond girl on karlovacka and proletariat brigade boulevard
27-5 (those who had slashed the graves into the ground last spring never
imagined they would have to specify the year, but already a new one was
The planks offered no leaves or bugs to the birds; no shade or shelter
to people. At dawn, the pigeons became like any other hungry citizen of
Sarajevo. They settled in the exposed bones of bombed-out buildings,
perching on bent and blackened iron rails. ...
While Irena crouched soundlessly on a scarred concrete landing behind a
smashed wall, she could hear the tinny blast of a loudspeaker begin to
blare the Knight from just across the line. He was the morning voice the
Bosnian Serbs broadcast from Pale, the old mountain resort a dozen miles
away, where they had wheeled artillery pieces in among the ski jumps and
hot tubs, and declared a capital. Irena heard the first chords of the
Clash song the Knight often used to begin his show after a night of
pouring mortar fire. London's burning, she could make out as the words
battered her ears, all across the town, all across the night. The
Knight's voice crept in over the last lines as the band sang about wind
howling through empty blocks and stone.
"That was some night, wasn't it?" he said with a show of wonder. "Over
in Novo Sarajevo, Hrasno, and Bistrik. Sexy motherfucker fireworks!" he
declared in English. "It looked like The Terminator! I don't mean to be
ungallantbut my lady and I actually got it on by the blasting lights.
Each boomanother boom. I almost cannot keep up with those cannons!
Boom, boom. Boom, boom. My lady said to me, 'Is that you, Knight, or the
bombs making the earth rumble? Whatever it is, do it again! My ass is
yours!' " The Knight seemed to chuckle at unseen companions nearby.
Forty years of turgid state pronouncements had dulled citizens on all
sides of the old Yugoslavia to the kind of dreary propaganda that broke
into phony, breathless bulletins"Truly astounding, comrades! A new
record for cucumber production!"between tuneless socialist anthems.
Outlandishness had become a new state language, audible in the decrees
of Milosevic and Karadzic, Serbian turboprop nationalist rock, and the
Knight's morning monologues.
from Pretty Birds by Scott Simon Copyright © 2005 by Scott
Simon. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random
House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be
reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the