Christian Short Stories


Selznik's Balm
by Web Ruble

Web Ruble writes: "Many years ago, during the Cold War in the 1950s, I was a U.S. military intelligence soldier in Europe. I subsequently was a newspaper reporter-editor for some 40 years, and now a short story writer and a novelist. Living in Fairview, OR, I am a lay leader in my neighborhood church."


I wonder what happened to old Selznik. I’ve never met him and I’d love to see him. Be that as it may, our whole mutual adventure was a long time ago. Maybe too long.

Today it seems lost in mysterious – almost cosmic – antiquity.

How many times have I wondered about him? For that matter, how many times have I advised myself of the time element? And I have wondered, has he ever thought of me and my cohorts, God, and the times, anxieties and secrets we shared.

Yet here I am – wondering the same thing again for perhaps the thousandth time, shoveling sands of time. God knows I can’t seem to let it go. Yes, now ‘tis still important. I can’t really say why. It seems some matters were just left hanging. Maybe in my soul I need closure.

I thought I had given up a number of years ago on “stuff” relating to those dark, obscure days in Europe. But No. That concern has returned. It is as if those in-between years never existed. Even in the interim I had moments of dread concern. Whenever upsetting events behind the Steel Fence unfolded, I got an intestinal wrenching. I needed to know what happened to the dear souls I knew indirectly.

In other words I sort of look at it as something between me and God to learn how dangerous and debilitating was life for them after I left town, so to speak, and never came back.

You see, I just walked away and left them the aftermath. In short, I feel somewhat responsible if not reprehensible. When I returned to the land of round doorknobs (USA), I pursued a career in a whole new unfettered galaxy.

Instead of international intrigue and “ghosts” oscillating from behind the electric fence that separated West Germany from Czechoslovakia, and “other ghoulish stuff” farther south in Bosnia, I snared myself in personal life advancement.

The detritus of the central European muddles I was able to leave behind. Our indigent agents could not do that, of course. Their home was there. It was a full life game for them.

One day in 2008 I decided to go to Europe -- on my own -- to see whether I could find old Selznik.

That’s it, I would brazenly take the trip to that war-ravaged land. I’d go to his last known address, hoping that it still existed. I had serious doubts, however. The address was old. Say

more than 40 years. And many terrible things had happened in the former Yugoslavia in the meantime.

- - - - - -

Well, I did it. Here I am in Sarajevo, trying to decide whether I should go through with it. The risks are terrible. The country is full of heartless macho types, perhaps some of whom are even armed. Moreover, the way they sometimes handle things is not anything close to the way we handle matters in the USA. Death, kidnapping and other assorted mayhem in Bosnia comes easy.

Nervous doesn’t quite cover it. I am sitting here in a café in Bascarskija adjacent the riverside avenue Obala Kulina Bama and close to Muta Mustafte Baseskija -- not far from a couple of mosques and a Serbian Orthodox church. I am watching variously dressed folk chatter and greet one another. Moreover, I myself am trading greetings with a most-affable waiter and people sitting nearby.

Cool in my body core I am not, despite the rust-colored October. I am upset as the bewitching hour is approaching. I can only envy the armies of pigeons cooing and clucking about the cobbles.

You see, I am in the land of eternal suspicion and conspiracy – one of complex ethnic loyalties and trisected by at least three religions.

Evidence is everywhere of a four-year brutal civil war – after shattering of the post-war Yugoslav union -- between Serbian Bosnians (mostly eastern Orthodox) Croat Bosnians (mostly Roman Catholic), and a larger population of Bosniaks (Moslem Bosnians). One easily can see unstable buildings bombed into fragments; other edifices shell pocked, and still other walls with bullet holes.

Signs in Cyrillic and Latinic letters warn passersby that the bricks, stones and the entire walls were unstable , dangerous, and could topple. Pedestrians, many of the signs say, pass at their own risk.

Though the civil war ended 14 years ago, hardly any repairing has been done. Bosnia is poor, hurting. Sarajevo was shelled almost daily by Serbian guns on surrounding hilltops for 3 ½ years, all but destroying the city.

One young man at the train depot – he was helping secure hostel billets for tourists -- said he spent his teenage years in terror – afraid to go outside, and yet afraid to stay inside his home apartment for fear it would take a direct hit from “incoming mail” (artillery rounds).

Not far from where I am sipping coffee, is the Bosnian national library, which was torched by Serbian forces, burning all of its books and records, and all but destroying Bosnian history and culture.

Also I am near the foot of Latin Bridge where Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie, were shot and killed by Serbian patriot Gavrillo Princip, in 1914, triggering World War I. Bosnia -- which throughout centuries has been many things -- at that time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Serbia was a neighboring country which in the early 1800s had broken from the Ottoman Turkish Empire. Princip was a second-class operative in the underground that sought to force Bosnia into the Serbian orb by killing the empire-touring archduke.

It didn’t work and the whole world plunged into war. Serbia was all but destroyed, and eventually the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, giving way to the formation of multi-national Yugoslavia.

I am pondering all of this – plus the post-World War II Yugoslavia under Marshal Tito and his Partisans and Rebecca West’s classic 1938 book on Yugoslavia: “Black Lamb and Gray Falcon” -- as my stomach goes bonkers. I know the hour of truth has come – my whole purpose of coming here and culmination of more than 40 years of wonder were on the timeline.

Even though we never met, Selznik and I were long-distance compadres during the Cold War of the middle 1950s, when I was in U.S. military intelligence stationed in Germany. Although my detachment’s primary function was watching the German-Czech frontier, a few of us had still other responsibilities. Mine was keeping in touch with a Yugoslav underground force. I handled the mail for an agent code named Filgreg.

However, he soon was caught and executed by the then Communist Partizans. The underground quietly replaced him with Selznik. We -- cautiously at first -- worked together, getting vital information out of the Bosnian part of Yugoslavia. Moreover, we even shared personal tidbits, a dangerous excess.

Since I left Germany, yay these many years ago, I have tried to locate Selznik and arrange a visit for old times’ sake. I have some explaining to do.

The search has been difficult. Some time ago I suspected a strong reluctance on Selznik’s part. He was maintaining a low profile. Perhaps the whole thing – even at this late date – could be dangerous for him.

However, a fellow retired operatchik told me –no, it wouldn’t be. “Those days are over and have been a long time.”

I have an address for Selznik. ‘Tis on nearby Hubrik Street. I’ll walk from here. Brace myself. Look cheerful. Here we go.

It doesn’t take long. The address is an apartment building, showing chipped walls from artillery shelling. I hesitate, brace myself and knock on the partially ajar door.

After a minute or two, a middle-aged, unshaven, round-faced man in a black beret answers and mutters something unintelligible. I brush it aside and swing into my best Bosnian, explaining that I come to see Valentin “Selznik´ Pavlic. The man stares at me a moment. I obviously am a foreigner and yet am speaking passable Bosnian -- something that’s rare.

After a few minutes he brightens, and says Valentin -- the man I seek – no longer lives here. He says he’s a cousin of Valentin. He gazes upon me for a seemingly long 2-3 minutes. He finally decides I am okay, and with gargling throat gives me Selznik’s last known city – Ljubljana. It is in the northern-most province of the former Yugoslavia -- Slovenia -- which now is a separate country.

But alas he has no current address for Selznik there. The man at the door explains Valentin (Selznik) has moved several times in the last year.

I ponder that I wouldn’t know how to find him there, but thank the wearer of the black beret, anyway. I excuse myself, depart casually, and then late that afternoon hop the first train to Ljubljana.

I arrive in Ljubljana’s jumbled train depot at night and immediately look for -- and find -- a Ljubljana telephone book.

“This is ridiculous,” I say to myself. “I’ll never find his name here.” But I look anyway. What? I can’t believe it. I find in the listings Valentin Pavlic. Listed is a phone number and an address.

I note the information and vow to call his number first thing in the morning – about 7 a.m. I secure lodging at Alibi Hostel in Old Town Ljubljana for about 12 Euros -- a bargain if there ever was one. I am so excited I can’t sleep. I finally doze. Shortly after 8 a.m. I awake and call the number. A middle-aged woman answers.

“Valentin? Yes. This is his place. I’m Belba, his wife. Can I help you?”

I ask if he used to live in Sarajevo at the address on Hubrik Street where his cousin lives now.

“Yes.”

I explain who I am and the fact that Selznik and I used to be compatriots during the 1950s, and that I haven’t heard from him since I left Germany. I tell her I’ve come a long way to see him. Nothing urgent. Just old time stuff that’s important now that I am getting older and nostalgic.

She takes it all down and seems reasonably agreeable.

“He is out right now, but I’ll tell him and have him call you. Where can we reach you?”

I give her my hostel number. She jots it down and says expect a call at noon.

Right at 12 almost on the dot, the hostel phone rings at the front desk as I sit in the lounge nearby. Hostel manager Havir Goric answers, and motions to me. I take the call on the office phone.

However, it is not Selznik but Belba again.

She says, “Yes, he remembers you well. He is excited and says you meet him at the Parrot Café at 1:30. Sit inside by the windows. Have whiskey, lunch.”

Then she gives me the cafe address. It’s but a few blocks from the Alibi Hostel. I am overjoyed and describe myself to her and add that I am wearing a light blue suit with a white boutonniere.

“Excellent.”

After a few cordial amenities. We ring off.

The café is not big. It is almost hidden by a contiguous, much larger restaurant which is popular with tourists. I enter The Parrot and a short, perky waitress greets me. I ask for a window seat inside. She seats me, studies me for a moment, and retreats.

Moments later she returns and says, “Mr. Pavlic says he has been delayed. I am to give you this menu.” She hands it to me and swishes away.

At this point I am crestfallen -- something is wrong. Selznik will not appear. I am certain of that and am colossally disappointed. Almost in tears. After all our sharing and my dreams . . .

Nevertheless, I open the menu and an ornate, multi-colored English language brochure bearing the countenance of Jesus falls out.

I read it and my heart soars:

“If I rise on the wings of the dawn; If I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light becomes night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you. The night will shine like the day for darkness is as light to you.” Psalm 139:9

Then, at the bottom -- God Bless you, Slznk.

(© 2010 Web Ruble – All rights reserved. Written material may not be duplicated without permission.)



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