I like to see life with its teeth out.
My mother kept the baby teeth of her four children, my two sisters, my brother and me, in four small glass jars. She called the teeth ‘milky denticles’ and she had them tucked behind the large Turkish džezva, a long-necked coffee pot made of brass. This pot, together with small demitasse coffee cups, was a centrepiece of the vitrine, a glass cabinet in the living room on the top floor of our house. The teeth jars sat there from the mid 1970s until early June 1992 when a mortar bomb destroyed the floor in question.
The war in Bosnia had been going on for less than two months and my parents, like many other citizens of Sarajevo, hoped that the international community would intervene and stop the madness. But first the Western ‘leaders’ who initially promised democracy, but rapidly delivered destruction in our socialist homeland, had to sell lots of guns and bullets to whichever side came with a bag of money. So for reasons of naivety about how modern diplomacy works, but mostly because war catches you unprepared, my parents never got around to moving sentimental items such as the photo albums, and in our case the jars with family teeth, to a safe place.
For my family the safest place in the house was the basement, where they lived throughout the four years during which Sarajevo was surrounded. It was a siege that lasted longer than the siege of Leningrad or any other siege in the annals of modern warfare.
Small mementos of our lives, such as sentimental items of our clothing when we were little, or plasticine figurines of cowboys and horses that I made when I was six, some toys and our baby teeth were all ‘up there’ when the bomb hit. My mother didn’t have all of the teeth but she had most. By last count there were about 50 teeth in those jars and there were none to be found after the explosion. My family told me later that for a long time after the war they found fragments of a million different things that the bomb destroyed, but not one tooth ever resurfaced.
In the class photo above I am in the front row, second from the right. There is only one student who is smiling (the blonde girl, front row, first on the left). Her name is or was Jasmina. You never know what tense to use with people who went through four years of war until you find out for sure. I don’t know why she was the only one smiling and looking at it years later I am perplexed at those young glum faces. Maybe the photo was taken on a late Friday afternoon after a particularly busy week, or maybe we sensed that there was mayhem on the horizon. The class bully was the boy in the middle row, fourth from the left. I was one of his favourite targets. It would take me another two years before I mustered some courage and ‘showed him my teeth’ like a hissing kitten cornered by a dog.
All the students’ uniforms were different in design but they were all some shade of blue. No child in the photo wore velcro shoes. They were all lace-ups. It was 1976 and at that time in Bosnia (or in the whole of Yugoslavia as far as I know) we had no idea what velcro was. My first-grade teacher’s name was Milka, like the Swiss chocolate. One morning I was running late to school and as a result I tied my shoelaces in a knot. Later that day when I was changing from my school shoes to my sports shoes I could not untie the laces. My teacher Milka helped me. She fished out a large safety pin from her bag and used it to untangle my mess. I remember it clearly because that day, apart from the laces incident, I also lost my two front baby teeth. You don’t normally lose those two in one day. If a child lost two upper front incisors at the same time it would be cause for concern.
The first came out while I was eating my breakfast. No dramas there. A little blood dribbled out, I bit on a folded handkerchief for about ten minutes until the bleeding stopped. The second tooth, although a little wobbly, wasn’t close to coming out. But a soccer ball that hit me in the face took care of that. My mouth was dry from running after the ball, I choked momentarily and struggled for air. I dry-swallowed hard but my throat felt blocked. I fell down and then got up with a bloodied face. They took me to the locker room where I went straight to the water tap and drank and drank until my throat cleared.
It took me until later that day when my mum saw me to realise that my second front tooth was gone. She said it must have fallen out when the ball hit me but in that moment I knew my baby, milky tooth was somewhere in my stomach. Many years later I learnt that the acid from my gallbladder had dissolved it within 24 hours.
In February 1994, during the third year of war in Bosnia, I was in Vienna, Austria. The Australian Embassy official in charge of English testing pointed his skinny finger at the answer on the page. He looked younger than my little brother back in Sarajevo and I was 24. He was wearing braces, top and bottom, and they gave him a slight lisp. He showed me the answer I got wrong.
‘How much is the airfare from Sydney to Melbourne?’ With his pencil the official circled word ‘airfare’.
‘Not ticket,’ he said, ‘airfare’. Because of the braces his ‘airfare’ sounded like ‘ayfay’.
‘U redu (All right)?’ he asked me.
‘U redu,’ I repeated.
This is how it worked. The high school kid with braces was pretending to be a professor of English language, grammar, literature and all the related subjects, but was actually a low-level public servant born somewhere like Dandenong or Liverpool where there are more wogs than Anglos and who got the overseas job because of his bilingual skills, uncompleted degree in political sciences and his father’s knowledge of the local machinations regarding party membership. This kid asked me in my language how would I say this and that in English. But the sentences he used were very similar to standard common phrases one could find in a ‘learning a foreign language’ dictionary.
The next stop for me was a medical exam. The first thing they asked for was a urine sample. I went into the toilet and the English language examiner was in there rinsing his braces in a clear plastic cup, the same type of cup I was holding in my hand.
‘Had a bratwurst for lunch,’ he said, ‘meat gets caught between the wires.’ I smiled and nodded but I wasn’t entirely sure at that time what bratwurst was. I had a feeling it had something to do with pork.
As the examiner put his braces back on his teeth and I washed my hands, he said, ‘You guys are lucky. Receiving permanent residency visas just like that. It was a different story when my parents went to Australia.’
‘We still have the medical to pass,’ I answered.
‘Unless you’re dying from AIDS or you’re stage-four cancer, all of you Bosnian refugees are getting visas.’
And I did feel lucky that I had escaped the horrors of war. My whole family was left behind in a bombed-out house, with no water, food or electricity, being shot at every day and night, and I was soon to be on my way to a country on the other side of the globe, with no family, friends and only basic language skills. It would take the better part of a decade from that day for me to come to terms with my ‘fortitude’ in leaving my home with nothing but my own life and a bag of clothes.
In the mid to late 1990s, if you were a wog-boy or a wog-girl, Metro Nightclub at the top of Collins Street near Parliament House in the city was the place to go out. I went to Metro—we called it a discotheque—only once with a group of Bosnians, all refugees, all boys. We were all roughly the same age, early to mid twenties, with our individual horrors etched on our faces. All except Edin, who was ten years older than me and had much more ‘life experience’ than all of us combined, or at least that’s how it appeared to me at the time. He also came to Australia from Vienna and within a couple of weeks had bought himself a second-hand car. We all wondered where he got the money. He claimed he brought some with him from Europe. That night I went out with ‘the boys’ I lost a tooth from a punch to my face. Surprisingly it wasn’t one of the upper central incisors but one of the molars from my left bottom jaw.
Before I got ready to go out I set up my second-hand Hasselblad 500 cm on a tripod and took a self-portrait using the Polaroid film. My right hand is extended and holding the camera’s cable release. I had just cleanly shaved my head with an electric shaver and I looked pretty much the same as in my travel document to Australia. I wasn’t shaving to look tough or because it was trendy at the time. At the age of 25 I was virtually bald, save for the patch of thin hair on the back of my head, so I decided to go Kojak-style.
It was Friday night and the group of us arrived at about nine, expecting Metro to be packed. But Melbourne wasn’t Sarajevo and the youth here were only getting ready to go out when we ordered our first round of beers. There were a few couples scattered around and one couple dancing. We watched as the handsome, swarthy man twirled a very attractive blonde girl with paper-white freckly skin around the dance floor. Years later my daughter started school and I remembered the blonde girl. My biased guess was that she was of Anglo background and lived in a migrant-heavy suburb such as Deer Park or in the ethnic stronghold of St Albans.
Her parents weren’t rich and couldn’t move away from the immigrants and the western suburbs. They got themselves further into credit so they enrolled their daughter in a private school on the other side of Melbourne. Together with other sleep-deprived skip children she travelled long distances every day in school buses just so she didn’t have to go to school with her slanty-eyed or dark-skinned neighbours or, heaven forbid, with someone who wore a hijab. This girl went to school with boys who looked like her brother and father and wanted something else in her life, so that night more than 20 years ago she danced with an ‘exotic’ looking man.
Edin was the first to say that the girl came to Metro to get herself some dark hairy cock. He was always crass and wasn’t shy about talking publicly about his sexual exploits. He often shared sordid, graphic details, fuelling the imagination of horny young men around him. There was an occasion when he described one of his adventures in such detail that some of the boys were rubbing their privates through their pants as he talked.
One of the boys asked Edin what he would do to the blonde girl if he had a chance. Edin took a sip from his scotch—he was the only one not drinking beer—and paused. We expected something dirty and funny at the same time, but Edin misjudged the mood of his company that night when he said, ‘I’d fuck him first so that she knows what’s coming to her.’
This didn’t sit well with some of the boys. None of us really knew each other. We came from the same country and we were all refugees but we were from vastly different backgrounds. Peasants’ sons mixed with boys from the city and we all thought we had to stick together because of the shared tragedy our country had experienced. One of the boys muttered something about Edin being a poofter who should have been left rotting in a concentration camp. Edin in his typical fashion replied, adding fuel to the fire, ‘A hole is a hole, mate.’
This in itself wouldn’t have provoked a physical altercation but without wasting a breath Edin added for everyone to hear, ‘The biggest mistakes četniks (Serbian paramilitary forces) made was not to slash your ignorant bigoted throats.’
The punch that followed was meant to land on Edin’s face but the wily old fox ducked and it landed on my jaw instead. The next morning the dentist who inspected my wobbly black tooth pulled it out with his gloved fingers. He said the tooth was dead already and would have come out soon. ‘You must have had a pretty bad untreated infection a few years back.’
All the cold, mouldy and damp places I slept in while in Austria flashed in my head as well as images of my ‘refugee diet’ of white bread, cheap spreads and cordial. I feared that at some point in the future the hearing in my right ear would slowly go as a result of another untreated infection. I shuddered at what else might go wrong with me.
On my way to English classes (four days a week, five hours per day, for six months, government funded, thank you, Mr Keating) I used to pass the vet clinic on Main Road West in St Albans. One day I saw a hand-written sign on the door: ‘General dogsbody wanted—inquire within’. From my backpack I pulled out my English dictionary and flipped to the letter D. Later that day I found out that the more appropriate and definitely more Australian word was ‘shitkicker’. As I read what it meant all I thought about was the absurdity of the sign. This was how my brain interpreted the sign: any dog’s body needed in the vet clinic (possibly for experiments?).
After the swirling thoughts settled in my head I took the sign off the door and walked inside. My English teacher said that the best way to learn the language was to mingle with the locals. This would be good practice and I would also satisfy my curiosity. The woman behind reception was on the phone. She lifted her forefinger in the air and nodded at me. I nodded back. She craned her neck and gawked at the paper in my hand then she winked very slowly and lifted her thumb up, all the while talking into the telephone. When she finished on the phone and before I could say anything she spat out info about the job.
‘It’s Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, our three busiest days. Eight dollars an hour. Mostly cleaning, some lifting. No-one’s really trained for this type of work.’ Her shoulders dropped and her palms opened up as if in supplication. ‘You’ll learn as you go.’ Again with her forefinger she motioned for me to come closer and whispered, ‘It’s ten bucks cash-in-hand, but you must be quiet about it.’ When I raised my eyebrows she said, ‘Or we do it by the book. No dramas.’
‘My English is not very good,’ I said hoping this would end my impromptu job interview.
‘You’re perfect, mate. Shake on it?’ The receptionist, who turned out to be the owner’s wife, took my hand fast and shook it even faster.
I started the next day and my official position name was not dogsbody but kennel worker. I swept floors and changed garbage bins, cleaned piss and shit from the kennel, fed the animals, unloaded the truck that brought medical supplies, loaded the truck with black bags full of euthanised pets. I could feel paws and tails and stiffened ears through the plastic.
A few weeks after I started, a young female vet tapped me on the shoulder and asked for help in one of the examination rooms. They were short-staffed and she carried a cat in a cage. Inside the room the vet said, ‘She’s not a stray but they all sense what’s coming.’ She prepared a syringe with pink liquid inside. ‘When I get her out you scruff her like this, hard and fast.’ She put her hand on the nape of her neck and dug her fingers into her own flesh. ‘Don’t let go.’
A minute later I was holding the cat just like the vet said, long stripy fur stuck between my fingers. The cat twisted her body and hissed at me like an overheating radiator. Her face contorted into an open-mouthed sneer as her ears flattened, back arched and tail fluffed out in a poufy plume.
The whole hissing thing was a bit surreal, as the cat had no fangs left. Only a few broken teeth remained in the middle of her mouth and they looked like tiny gravestones ravaged by wind, rain and time. When I locked eyes with the vet she said, ‘Mitzy’s nearly 20, can’t eat any more, organs inside her are failing.’
After a good minute of hissing, the cat went floppy, didn’t fight any more. The vet quickly pushed the needle into one of the veins in her back right leg. The cat didn’t move when the needle pierced her skin. The vet pressed the plunger into the barrel of the syringe and the pink liquid disappeared inside the cat.
After a short time the vet nodded at me and I released the cat. Her body fell to the side. When the vet took the needle out of her leg, the cat didn’t move. Her eyes were wide open but her face was somewhere else. Then she coughed twice. The cough was wet and loud and mucus splattered the cold, shiny steel of the examination bench. I heard the vet say, ‘That’s normal …’ then she touched the cat’s upper chest, dropped her head and said twice, ‘She’s gone.’ The second ‘she’s gone’ was barely audible, it evaporated in the air somewhere between the vet’s chin and her chest and the words sounded like she blamed herself.
I left the room and went into the bathroom and for a few minutes I felt like I might cry but didn’t. For the next hour I was at the clinic finishing my tasks. The vet I had helped came later and thanked me. She handed me a black bag with the animals that she had put down that afternoon. I took the bag to the storage area. There was only one bag and the boss of the clinic postponed the pick-up until the next day. With two large bags of kitty litter under my arms I returned to the clinic.
The next morning when I arrived at work there was a cardboard box in front of the door. I didn’t open the box or go near it. I heard soft rustling and a couple of high-pitched, tiny, short, insignificant meows that the universe could not hear. Would not hear. Ever.
Just before her sixth birthday our daughter told us there was something sharp behind her two upper front teeth. My wife and I had a good look and sure enough there was another set of teeth (permanent this time) coming out from behind her baby teeth. A couple of days later the dentist told us they were a fairly common occurrence at that age and were colloquially called shark teeth because sharks have rows upon rows of teeth. While my wife and I (more myself I admit) fretted about this development, my daughter was over the moon with her new shark teeth. She was already imagining half a dozen stories to tell her friends in school about her new teeth. She asked us for permission for her two best friends to touch her ‘sharkies’. Then she asked me, ‘How do you say shark in Bosnian?’ ‘Ajkula,’ I answered.
The dentist elaborated that the roots of her baby teeth hadn’t melted enough for them to fall out and that her two front teeth (central incisors) would have to be pulled out if they didn’t come out in four to six weeks. Two weeks after that dental appointment the first tooth came out, and then another two weeks after, the deft hands of the young dentist who had just graduated yanked the second tooth in one fast, impressive motion. She also pulled a lower central incisor whose root hadn’t melted away at all. The tooth was a whopper, a centimetre in length. It looked different to the rest of the collection of my daughter’s teeth, which instead of a glass jar, I keep in small medical zip-lock bags until a more permanent solution is found (an empty chocolate tin, maybe?).
But before that entire episode, the dentist took a quick X-ray of my daughter’s jaw. When she looked at the image her face darkened just a little but enough for me to ask my wife to cover our daughter’s ears. Before I was able to ask what was wrong the dentist explained that she couldn’t see all of the permanent teeth that needed to erupt soon. She said that a proper, full scan of the jaw would have to be done. The dentist was worried about her two maxillary lateral incisors, two teeth next to the ones right in the middle.
‘She might not have them due to her genetics. Anyone among your close relatives missing the teeth in question?’
Both my wife and I shook our heads.
Later on the internet I read that not having those two teeth might lead, in rare cases, to intestinal complications later in life (early twenties usually) and in some cases to stomach cancer. I was beside myself though I also failed to understand what lateral incisors or teeth in general have to do with stomach and intestines. But Dr Google told me somehow they did.
We scheduled the scan for first thing Monday morning so I had the whole weekend to worry about this. The dentist booked us for midday. Saturday night I spoke to my mother in Bosnia via Skype but didn’t tell her anything about her grandchild’s teeth. That night I searched the internet for X-ray images of a six-year-old child’s upper jaws and I found many that looked like my daughter’s but the more I looked the more I was confused about what I was seeing. I couldn’t distinguish between her permanent teeth and her baby teeth. My wife switched off the internet in annoyance.
On Monday morning the dentist pulled out the scan from the envelope and stuck it on the light box. She pushed her glasses up the curve of her nose. ‘Ah, there they are. They’re all there, nothing to worry.’ I came closer to the X-ray and with her pen she explained what was what but I couldn’t hear anything after that first ‘all clear’. I looked at my daughter, who was busy picking a sticker from the hands of the dental nurse. She picked Sven the Reindeer from the movie Frozen and told everyone in the room that she was going to be a vet.
The last time I spoke to my father over Skype I didn’t know it was the last time I’d see him alive. Before he appeared on the screen my mother told me that he had been feeling sluggish, sleeping a lot and asking for meals to be cooked ‘the way they were cooked when he was young’. He had just turned 82 and had abruptly stopped seeing neighbours and family members and wanted to be alone most of the time. After the initial small talk he quickly launched into a rambling anecdote that he had heard in his younger days when he travelled through some village in western Bosnia.
This story was about an Orthodox Christian man who lived in a small Muslim village of only 68 souls. This man died of old age in his sleep and had no family left. The villagers didn’t know where and how to bury him in accordance with the Serbian Orthodox Church ritual. So a villager went to their village hodža, a Muslim preacher who called the pop, the priest, in the nearest Orthodox village, who agreed to come and perform the burial ceremony. ‘This’, my father said, ‘was some time ago, when we Bosnians knew we were one people with two different religions.’
The pop said that the Orthodox man could be buried in the Muslim cemetery near the village mosque and the hodža had nothing against this. In fact the whole village secretly hoped for this as the dead man, whose name was Milan, had helped rebuild the mosque and had been a very good neighbour to all of them. The whole village turned up at the funeral, including Muslim women who normally couldn’t attend funerals. But in most places in Bosnia women were allowed to come to the funerals of their offspring and husbands, their heads wrapped in a šamija, a kind of colourful headdress. Six younger men slowly lowered the casket while the pop waved his kandilo, a cresset suspended from a pole and filled with slowly burning scented oil, smoke billowing to the sky.
When he was laid to rest and before the pop started his prayers for the departed soul, one older villager put a hand on the pop’s shoulder and leaned into his ear. He talked for some time and when he was finished the pop leaned into the man’s ear and said something and the old man nodded and quickly jumped into the grave. He lifted the lid on the casket, opened Milan’s dead jaws and pulled out his false teeth. When the two men pulled him out of the grave the old man drew a bottle of rakija, a homemade plum brandy, from his coat pocket, splashed the alcohol on the false teeth and then put them into his mouth. A big smile stretched across his face, according to my father.
When he finished his story my father clinked together his perfectly white teeth and said, ‘Every night I ate one Zlatni Delišes jabuka (Golden Delicious apple) for the past 75 years. Never had any problems with my teeth. Still have all 32 choppers. They’re going with me into the ground.’ I nodded, not knowing what to say. He finished with, ‘If you haven’t got your own teeth food doesn’t taste as good. And if food doesn’t taste good every other crap situation follows from that.’
The night before my brother and I were supposed to travel to Austria, he told me that he wasn’t coming with me. Our maternal uncle had agreed—very reluctantly considering the circumstances—to put us up for three summer months only. My uncle and his wife ran a small Gästehaus (guesthouse, a small motel really) high in the western Austrian Alps and they needed all the rooms by October when the ski season started.
‘I’m staying. You go,’ my brother said. ‘You just finished the army. They will come for you, not me. I still have two years before either side can call me up. This will blow over in three months.’
I had just finished my 12-month Yugoslav Army duty when the war in Croatia between the Serbs and the Croats started. The fighting was mainly along the Bosnian western border. One of my friends, an ethnic Serb, whose father worked in the army, tipped me off that I would have to report back to my tank unit and go to the front. The same night my parents organised for my brother and me to leave the country. Only I left. I had trained for a year to be a tenkista, a member of a tank crew, and had no intention of going back to take my place in a 50-tonne steel casket on tracks fighting my countrymen. A day later I would be an official deserter.
Three months after that conversation my brother was holding a gun and I was on the streets of picturesque Tyrolean villages looking for work and accommodation. But the two of us didn’t know that then.
I burnt my army ID card but not before I had peeled off the photo. I’m glad I did, as it is proof I once had hair. Behind my lips, although there is no proof of that in the photo, are 28 teeth, all mine. They’re white thanks to an apple a day and they’re straight thanks to top and bottom braces. The photo was taken only a few months before life took me by the scruff the neck. My wisdom teeth never came out. But I can still feel every ridge of all four of them right under my gums threatening to erupt when I least expect it. •
Fikret Pajalic’s fiction has appeared in Overland, Southerly, Westerly, Etchings, Sleepers and various US journals.