Excerpt from Pretty Birds by Scott Simon, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Pretty Birds

by Scott Simon

Pretty Birds
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  • First Published:
    May 2005, 368 pages
    May 2006, 368 pages

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November 1992

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 roosted together.

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 sounds—the scorch of a shot, a scream, a humdrum thud—could 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 1956–1992. 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 approaching).

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 ungallant—but my lady and I actually got it on by the blasting lights. Each boom—another 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.

Excerpted 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 publisher.

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