When I was growing up in the hilly mahalas of Sarajevo, ice cream was a rare commodity. The tiny shop down the street offered only basic foodstuffs because the greasy owner thought something like ice cream wouldn’t sell. Our mothers would make us cakes from scratch when there was sugar to be bought. But I wanted no homemade cake. I wanted ice cream.
The ice cream desire started the way most of our desires start in life—we covet what others have. Omer, the eleven-year-old neighborhood bully, showed up one day, carrying a cone topped with three colorful balls of ice cream. His unnaturally long, pinkish tongue lashed out to wrap itself around the ice cream in a greedy lick, while he glared at us with his close-set eyes, making sure all low-life, ice-cream-denied creatures would see him and lust after what he had. Saliva was running down my chin.
My mother’s thin eyebrows rose when I broached the subject. “We have no money for ice cream,” she said. “And it’s not good for you. You’d only get a sore throat and end up on penicillin again. I’ll make you a nice apple pie today if you run down to the market and buy me some apples. Here, take the money.”
The injustice weighed heavily on my heart. Ice cream was a small thing; it’s not like I asked for a football. I fancied simply spending the money on ice cream right then, but I feared my mother almost as much as I loved her and couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. I dawdled, irresolute, when Rifat came by with a slice of bread in his hand. He was scrawny and a few years younger than me, and his nose was always running. I tried to ignore him.
“Hey, Samir, wassup,” he mumbled through a mouthful. The dribble from his nose was going straight onto the light-colored jam.
“Watch out, stupid, you’re eating the stuff from your nose.”
Rifat became cross-eyed as he tried to see without removing the bread from his mouth. “No, Samir, I’m eating my mother’s apple jam.”
Rifat’s family lived in a ramshackle traditional Bosnian house, built of mud bricks and wood. His father’s job was to hose down the green market after closing every day; he would follow this with a visit to a local joint where he would drink away that day’s wages. He would then go home to beat his wife, while Rifat and his little sister hid under the bed. My father and the other men in the mahala would sometimes intervene and try to calm him down. That’s how domestic violence was dealt with in those days.
Rifat’s mother, Fatima, was fair-haired and larger than her husband. She had managed to support her family by sewing until her husband sold the sewing machine to buy more drink. After that, she came to help our mothers with housework and fed her children with apples from their small orchard.
When Rifat mentioned his mother’s apple jam, I suddenly had a brilliant idea. “Where’s your mother now?”
“She went up to help Omer’s mother with housework.”
“How come you’re not watching your sister?”
“My aunt took her.”
My day was getting better by the minute.
“Listen, Rifat, how would you like to play ball with me later? Mother sent me to buy her some stuff, but if you’re willing to go up to my grandmother’s and pick up my basketball…”
Rifat’s jaw dropped in shock. No one ever invited him to play. I knew it would take him at least twenty minutes to get up the steep street to my grandmother’s, discover there was no ball, and return. Plenty of time for me.
Fatima’s apple orchard was deserted, and I was in and out in a matter of minutes, carrying juicy apples in my mother’s cotton market bag. Easy as pie. Mother was surprised I got so many apples for the money she gave me, and I stopped breathing for one terrifying moment. But she moved on quickly to start preparing the pie and smiled at me. I felt the warmth of her smile defrosting my insides, stone cold with fear a mere moment before.
I hid the money under my mattress without even counting it. It would be a lie to say I thought of the ice cream that the money had now made possible. My hands were shaking and my heart was racing wildly, and the smell of flowers from the elder tree came sweet and heavy through the open window. The thrill of the accomplished plan, the fact that no one suspected me of anything—it all tasted like something I had never known before. Like success.
Intoxicated with a host of new feelings, I was hanging out on the side of the street when Omer showed up, holding a new ice cream and dragging a crying Rifat by the ear. I noticed that Omer was wearing leather sandals, another source of my envy; mine were made of plastic. He closed in on me, half a foot taller and twenty pounds heavier. I straightened up and looked him right in the eye. My pulse was thumping against my throat.
“What’s this I hear you’re sending this retard to fetch for you?”
All the kids had suffered Omer’s abuse since the previous summer, when he had suddenly grown taller and bigger than the other kids his age. His father was a local baker, a heavy-set man known for his temper. He let his son run loose and even encouraged his mean streak, but no parent ever complained. I guessed they were as afraid of Omer’s father as we were of Omer.
At that moment, however, flooded with adrenaline and feeling invincible, I mustered all the strength in my underdeveloped body and pushed Omer back.
“Get out of my way, fatso!”
The ice cream went flying through the air in slow motion as Omer lurched then fell into the high grass behind him. Incredulity flashed on his round face, and he started screaming. He had landed in the overgrown nettles.
My archenemy was lying on his back, being stung by the unforgiving nettles all over his bare arms and legs in summer shorts, and I had put him there! I looked around for something to help me seal my victory—a piece of wood, a stone. The desire to hurt Omer exploded like warm acid in my stomach and started eating its way up to my heart.
Then I saw Rifat reaching for the cone where it had landed on the asphalt, meticulously scraping the ice cream and pushing it back inside. He moved deliberately towards the flailing body of Omer, unflinching as the nettles whipped his own skinny legs. He stopped just beyond Omer’s reach, aimed carefully, and hurled the ice cream. It splashed all over the bully’s face.
I literally bent over laughing at Omer’s predicament and dropped the stone I had picked up. The first dark moment of my life had passed, withdrawing to the depths of my being to wait for the next opportunity.
As Omer was starting to get up, Rifat and I ran as hard as we could. We hid for a while between the houses, imitating Omer and savoring the moment. We knew that Omer would be coming for vengeance eventually, but for now, we sucked in the unfamiliar feeling of self-esteem. When we finally got to my front door, I saw that vengeance was already marching towards me in the form of Omer’s father, red in the face and wearing his white baker’s uniform.
I ran into the house, which smelled of baked apples and cinnamon, and spilled my guts to my mother. “I’m sorry, Mom, but Omer started it. He was beating Rifat and wanted to hit me as well. I just pushed him so we could run away, but he fell into the nettles.” I made no mention of Rifat’s use of ice cream.
Mother’s look of disapproval was almost more than I could bear. Her eyes skimmed over Rifat’s legs where nettles had left red marks, but she said nothing. Instead, when Omer’s father banged on the door, she threw away her apron and faced him.
I would always remember my mother like that—a slender figure in a blue summer dress, both hands planted firmly on her hips, as she stood before a grown-up version of Omer.
Omer’s father yelled about having to call an ambulance because Omer had had an allergic reaction. I saw neighbors peering from their windows and listening in. Mother’s voice came out sharp and firm.
“I’m sorry, but your boy had it coming. You tell him to stay away from my son and his friends, or I swear to you, no woman here will ever buy so much as a bun from you, you hear me?”
News of Omer’s demise and his father’s lost battle with my mother spread like fire through the mahala, which sustained itself on gossip. Fatima already knew all the details when she came by in the afternoon to pick up Rifat.
“Sometimes you just have to stand up to bullies, Fatima,” my mother said. “It’s the only language they understand.”
Fatima thanked my mother and made to leave, but then her blue eyes rested on me for a moment. She had a nasty bruise on her left cheek, a calling card from her drunkard husband.
“Just to let you know, I’m selling apples from my orchard. I got plenty this year, and I’ll give them cheap. So if you need any, just send Samir over.”
Her gaze bore into me, and I knew that she knew. I don’t know how, but she knew. Perhaps a neighbor had seen me and told her. My cheeks were burning.
“That poor woman,” my mother said after Fatima had left with Rifat. “I wish I’d known earlier she was selling her apples.”
That night an even stranger thing happened. We learned about it at breakfast the following morning, when Fatima’s gossipy next-door neighbor came to tell my mother that Fatima had thrown her husband out.
“The racket woke us up around midnight, and I came to the window just in time to see their door opening and him staggering out. She was wielding a pan and yelling at him like a wild woman, I tell you, and then she slammed that pan against his back so hard that he went down on all fours. Can you believe that? I mean, I know she’s a large woman and all, but where did she get the guts to do that?”
As I was hearing all this, I couldn’t quite grasp the significance of all the events that had unfolded just because I’d craved ice cream. I hadn’t slept the previous night, mulling over the issue of the money and the fact that Fatima knew I had stolen the apples. Somehow, hearing how she’d thrown her husband out made me decide. When Fatima saw me at the door of her house, she wasn’t the least bit surprised.
“Here’s the money for the apples I took yesterday from your orchard. I’m sorry. Please don’t tell my mother.”
For the longest moment, Fatima just looked at me, unblinking, while a trickle of sweat found its way down my spine.
“What were you going to do with the money?”
“Buy ice cream.”
The corners of her mouth arched up as she put the money back into my hand.
“Why don’t you take Rifat downtown and get you both an ice cream?”
It was her way of saying thank you, I guess. Omer stopped bullying other children, although they taunted him for a while with bouquets of nettles. Fatima’s husband returned home, but the men of the mahala didn’t intervene again in their house. As for me, the ice cream I had that day with Rifat was the best of my life.
Photo: Keith McDuffee
*First published as part of ‘Narrative witness’ project*