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BE WATER, MY FRIEND

Damir stood first in the line that wrapped around Kino Kozara like a serpent. The master, the immortal Bruce Lee, was in town. It was the opening night, Dragon night—the spirit of the impossible. At last, Enter the Dragon was about to play in our tiny theater with yellow walls covered in sloppy graffiti and wooden seats cracked in the middle, pinching our bottoms every time we moved too abruptly. After the movie played for an entire year in the cities around Yugoslavia, and although it was over sixteen years old, it finally found its way to small towns like ours.

On the way to the theater, our crowd of teenage boys had slowly but steadily grown as we joined the caravan. Not Damir. Damir had already beat us by a good two hours, the crummy nunchucks he’d made himself resting under his arms, the sleeves of his white t-shirt rolled up, revealing his lean biceps and triceps. The rest of his outfit was simple: washed-out jean shorts and a disintegrating pair of blue Converse. He was ready, waiting patiently for Master to show him the way—inside the dragon’s nest.

That night we inhaled the movie in one big swig, our eyes peeled, afraid that if we blinked we’d miss something. We swallowed every move, every jump, kick, smash, and every line uttered by Master himself. Obviously, no one could capture the essence of the great warrior, the master of all masters. No one but Damir. On the way home he soared and kicked, blocked our shots, whirled his nunchucks. He whacked himself in the gut repeatedly, all the while pretending that nothing had happened, as if he didn’t feel the blow at all.

The way home was long since our little crowd hardly moved. We continued spitting out the lines from Enter the Dragon and from any other previously-seen footage of our hero. It was late and the words made more sense in the obscurity of the night, our imagination reaching the stars in the sky. Obviously, no one could keep up with the stars like Damir.

Before we separated, he looked me in the eye and said, “Be water, my friend. Remember this: Empty your mind, be formless…shapeless, like water.” He wiggled his fingers and spread his arms. Then he continued. “You pour water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You pour water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. Pour it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.” Damir tilted his head sideways, his dimpled chin pointing upward, his right eye squinting. “Now, water can flow or it can crash. Remember, Edi…be water, my friend.”

I beamed and bowed in awe. “Yes, master.”

So, the river tomorrow?” His face serious, dead serious, as if he had already turned into water.

“Yep, meet you here at noon,” I replied.

Like every summer afternoon, the next day we set out for the river. Damir, me, and two more kids, Mirjana and Amra. It took us more than half an hour to cover less than a mile. Damir brought his nunchucks and demonstrated the previous night’s freshly-acquired skills from Master. Now he had a special audience.

Mirjana and Amra pretended they were impressed for a moment, then switched to their thrilling discussion of Bros, the boy band every teenage girl in town heaved over. Damir’s improvements weren’t noticeable, but the bruises were—the plum-colored patches scattered all over his thighs and arms. He didn’t care, for only true suffering could measure a warrior’s heart.

When we got to the river, we witnessed more of the same, only in the water this time. He stood in the stream, balancing on one leg, against its flow. He wrapped the nunchucks around, drumming them over the water’s surface, terrifying the poor fish. Then he jumped and shifted to the other leg, raised high on the rock hidden in the stream. He plunged in, of course, at least a couple of times. The girls laughed, then continued their discussion about Bros, Guns ‘n Roses, and the rest of the popsicles. The restless river furiously streamed down the mountains on the way to the valley, now vividly green and scentless, in stark contrast to its usually rusty hue and rotten-egg odor. Every July, the paper mill upstream shut down for a whole month. Vacation time for both the Yugoslav working class and its rivers.

And if you thought that this would be the end of it, that Damir would lay off after a while, you were wrong. He traded his best comics for temporary ownership of Master’s book. He continued his journey. One autumn day, I was on the way home from school. It was early evening, six o’clock. I was in junior high, the afternoon shift. I ran into Damir in front of our school’s gym. He was in his black rubber boots.

His face was cool, but his voice cheery. “Okay, Edi, get out of your sneakers.”

“What?”

“Do not question. It’s for the greater good.”

“Why, what’s going on?”

“Need your sneakers, bro. They kicked me out. Didn’t like my boots. I have no other shoes. But I can get in again if I get yours.”

“Oh, karate practice tonight?”

“Yes, I signed up. And no, not karate, taekwondo. Have no money for the sneakers though. Gave them all I had to get in.”

“Okay, let’s do it,” I said. “Your feet are two sizes too big. You sure you want my sneakers?”

“Of course Edi, no worries. Just have to squeeze my toes a little. If you put water in a shoe… you know… Master says.”

“I guess so.” I laughed. “If Master says…”

That night, I waddled home in his giant rubber boots while he ran back inside the gym like a ballerina. The next day he returned my shoes. He was limping. We both pretended that didn’t happen. Nevertheless:

“Hey Edi, don’t need the sneakers again. They don’t like me there.”

“What happened?”

“Was a little too much for them.”

“Got it.”

Next day, I found out that he’d punched some rich kid in the nose, for real. The boy’s father was after him.

***

Three years later, movies stopped coming to our little theater and so did Master. It was time for a new kind of hero—men in uniform, nationalists, and war criminals. Most of my days and evenings I spent holed up inside, reading books under the pastel light of homemade candles that stunk of burnt animal fat, accompanied by the dancing shadows on the walls and the ceiling. My parents sat in the kitchen by the window, looking out on the street and whispering the latest news about villages scorched by the troops, battles in neighboring towns, the police picking up civilians and hauling them to the camp up in the mountains, or using them as forced labor on the front lines. Families were held at gunpoint and then disappeared without a trace. Rapes, murder, and the rest of the clichés from the war movies moved from the screen into our lives.

Every day I kept reading. just about any book that I could find at home or from the neighbors. I even read most of Zane Gray; my old neighbor, Neno the Cowboy, had an extensive collection, along with comics and books about the Old West. I knew that the answer to all that was happening around me was hidden in the lines, inside the time-worn hardcovers. The scent of print and parched paper blocked any trace of hopelessness and fear. I was safe in the company of the literary masters. It was the first time I truly understood Damir.

Like many others, Damir was nowhere to be found. He was lost in the whirling currents of war. He was a year older than me. When the war started, he was finishing high school. Six months later, he enlisted in the army. He told me he had to. He said that his family was out of food, living on whatever charity their neighbors shared with them: a few cans of sardines and spam, a small sack of flour or potatoes. Most of the international food donations went to the military and their families, not to us—not to Damir, and not to me. But worst of all, he was worried about his mom and his younger sister. Hordes of fighters returning from the front lines got drunk and harassed civilians, killing some, leaving some for later. We were inside the dragon’s nest, watching and waiting. We had taken a part in a typical civil war movie with all of its clichés, and there was no savior in sight.

“Times have changed and I have too,” he said to me the day before he left. There was no other way but join them, be one of them, for the sake of pure survival. The army would provide safety. The militias wouldn’t barge into their home at night if they knew he was fighting on their side. It was a matter of life or death. Damir shrugged his shoulders and shot me a remorseful look. “If only Father was alive,” he said. “He’d know what to do.”

Six months into the war, he was back from the front lines for a few days. That night I saw him for the last time. “Time to pack, Edi. You have to find a way to get out of here,” Damir started as soon as we met by the rusted lamppost in front of his house. “They’re coming, and when that happens… it’s over.” He shook his head nervously. He admitted that it had been a mistake to enlist. He wasn’t safe, either. His effort to save his family had been in vain.  His nunchucks were long gone. Instead, he slung a gun over his shoulder. On his feet were a pair of stiff military boots, his uniform wafted of naphthalene mothballs, moonshine, and cigarettes. It had been a long time since he’d mentioned Master. He was sullen and distant. He murmured, “I wish I’d gone with Father.”

He was eleven when his father died in the accident, down by the river, right outside of town. His Yugo skidded in the rain on the highway where the river curves like an angry snake guarding the underworld. It took the rescue teams three days to find him, hundreds of yards downstream. The rapid currents of the swollen river in April had taken his car and spun it into their muddy abyss.

During that time, Damir and his sister, Leila, stayed with me. Damir and I took this opportunity to practice hammer fist, elbow strike, crane beak punch, calf kick, ax kick, and sure enough, high and low blocks followed by a shower of kicks and punches. A true kung fu warrior knows how to defend.

Standing on the sidewalk by his mother’s overgrown jasmine, Damir continued muttering to me about everything going to hell, about the army’s plan to round us all up and take us out. A guy with connections in the command—his only friend in his unit—told him so. The best-case scenario was one day they might let us leave town, if we had survived by then. I looked at him carefully but couldn’t find a trace of the boy with nunchucks. The only part of him I still recognized were his big, bright-green eyes, inside them a hardly noticeable ember. Yet, before we parted he smiled, his eyes wistful in the insipid streetlight in front of his house. He said one more time: “Remember Edi… be water.

That summer, the river was as green and as pure as ever, as if life had returned to it in a new, crystal-clear form—emerald green and mysteriously bright. Industry was shut down, permanently, as was the whole country, perpetually in peril. The war had taken its toll. Our lives weren’t worth a dinar. But the river was resurrected as the pollution stopped. It ran strong and reckless.

Sometimes I snuck out to the river on my own, hiding among the bushes and the willows. I’d stand on a rock, knee-deep in water, trying to balance on one leg. Naturally, I’d nosedive—I was an amateur. Not a day went by that I wouldn’t spot at least one body floating down the river, mostly civilian. No one ever bothered to fetch them. The day before I left home for good, I counted four bodies at once, their faces down as if observing the fish. The only thing I could make of them were their clothes in camouflage green. One of them got caught on a fallen willow nearby, his face floating sideways. I couldn’t make out the features. It was puffed up, dissipating and dissolving into water molecules.

Be water, my friend,” I whispered and pushed the body away from the branch. “Be water.”

The river took him, submerged the whole body beneath its eddies and spat him out again several meters downstream. There was nothing that water couldn’t do. The water that gave this place its life took care of its dead, swallowed them piece by piece and ferried them to the other world, gently… quietly… fatefully…

Edvin Subašić was born and raised in Bosnia-Herzegovina. At the age of 21, he immigrated to the US in 1997 as a war refugee and learned English. He lives in Boise, Idaho. He is the recipient of the 2018 Redivider Beacon Street Prize in Fiction, The Florida Review 2019 Meek Award, and the 2020 Glenn Balch Award. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly ConcernThe Florida ReviewRedivider, Litro Magazine, The Blue Nib, B O D Y LiteratureMiletus International Literature Magazine, and more.

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