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
    Paperback:
    May 2006, 368 pages

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But now the national army had been converted—guns, tanks, and officers—into the Bosnian Serb Army, which had quickly captured two-thirds of Bosnia. Most army officers and their families saw no need to live like the people they were shooting across the way, crouching below shattered windows in shot-out rooms. Many Serb military families had moved out of range, to country places in the resort towns nearby. But scavengers, thieves, and Serb refugees had come to squat in Grbavica apartment blocks, alongside Serb snipers.

Across the way, Irena observed certain rules. She had been taught a few, and kept a few more for herself. Tedic, her chief, had told her not to shoot at children. The morals were dubious and the publicity devastating. On her own, Irena had determined that she would not shoot at pets. Tedic had instructed her not to shoot at grandmothers, and when she'd wondered if grandfathers were included by the same logic, he had reminded her that Milosevic and Karadzic could have grandchildren.

Tedic had also directed Irena not to shoot at squatters. He said they weren't worth the waste of a bullet, or the risk of revealing herself. Serbs reviled squatters as bothersome bumpkins and pests; their loss would cause no inconvenience or remorse.

"Why should we clean out their rats' nests?" he asked.

Irena decided that she would not shoot at someone who looked like Sting, the Princess of Wales, or Katarina Witt. She wanted to be able to enjoy looking at their pictures without seeing ghosts. She would not shoot at someone who was already wounded, though she would judge if someone limped because he had truly been wounded or because he had jammed his toe kicking a plugged-up toilet.

Irena knew that Tedic would have a score of sensible objections to each of her rules. What if Serb snipers started tucking puppies under their arms? What if a Serb mortar team carried a little ginger cat as their mascot? Would she shrink from firing at a Serb setting off an artillery piece if he had eyebrows like Katarina Witt? Irena kept her rules in confidence so that she could not be reasoned out of them. She already knew that when the bullets she fired singed the air, they sailed under their own authority.

"Two facts to keep in mind," Tedic had told Irena when she began work. "They are always up. We are always down." The Serbs and their heavy guns inhabited the hills. The Bosnians of Sarajevo looked up into those guns from the valley into which their city was tucked—or trapped—along the river.

When Irena looked across into the landscape of windows and balconies where she had once lived, she imagined that she could make out bowls of glistening hard-boiled eggs, glossy brass pots of strong black coffee, and stout platters of fat brown sausages, passed between the dirty hands of brutes.

Sometimes she could steady her sight and see little curlicues of pink or blue petals dappling the family pottery. She imagined what it would be like for a Serb family to sit at their table listening to the Knight. She liked to picture their surprise when a loud snap smacked through their window and punctured their coffeepot. She saw a brown downpour splash against the wall, runny as blood, while the family scrambled under the table. The sausages would go down like blasted ships, the lacy ivory tablecloth would tear as the young son dived, grasping at the scalloped stitching for covering. Irena imagined delicately tapping out their telephone number. The family's phone would quiver slightly as it trilled in the window (most phones in Serb territory worked), a trembling hand scrambling up for the receiver.

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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