An extract from Priscilla Morris’s debut novel, Black Butterflies, published by Duckworth on 5 May 2022.
It sometimes seems to Zora that, with all the teaching and curating and meetings and paperwork and caring and cooking and cleaning and errands, she is floundering at the midpoint of her life. There’s no time left over for the core of her. Perhaps, at fifty-five, she’s beyond the midpoint now, but she’d always imagined that these years – her child grown and gone, herself not yet old – would be her most spacious and productive. She’d pictured herself spending long, blissful days in her studio. But, instead, everything else always encroaches.
There’s the forward rhythm of the tram and the rattle of the dusty windowpanes – the worry. She presses her forehead to the glass, drinking in her city at this strange hour. The wind carries twisting flyers down the street and the mountains waver in the pre-dawn light. The outlines of things – buildings, frozen cars, a sleeping drunk – are porous. The threshold between night and day feels uncertain, as if she could just as easily slip back into the night as go forwards into the day.
Her husband, the sole other passenger, keeps his eyes closed and grips the handrail. His head droops, long spine curving. She could hardly stir him from bed. It’s the weekend and she’d hoped to spend her day in the studio, but the terse five a.m. phone call put a stop to that.
‘There’s been a break-in,’ her mother’s neighbour informed her. ‘Criminals, hooligans, God knows what. Dancing and drinking all night. Whooping and shouting. The police don’t want to know.’
A cool needle of alarm slid into Zora’s belly. But, she reminded herself, her mother’s neighbour had always overreacted and thought the worst of everyone. The ‘criminals’ were probably no more than a couple of stoned teenagers having some fun in an empty flat.
Still, she and Franjo moved quickly, groping for clothes, fingers fumbling with buttons.
Through the tram window, Zora sees that old sofas bristling with barbed wire have been dragged out to split certain streets in two. She feels a pulse of shock. She’s read about this but has never been up early enough to see it before. She knows, because everyone does, that men with black stockings pulled low over their heads do this every night to carve up the city into enclaves. These furtive nationalists could be anyone: a neighbour, a lover, a friend. It’s futile in any case. Every morning the bemused inhabitants of the streets – whether Muslim, Croat or Serb – simply push the barriers aside and get on with their days.
Candle stubs, wilted flowers, empty bottles and pamphlets litter the cobblestones of another street: the remnants of a peace march.
As the tram joins the riverbank, Zora catches sight of a family standing on the kerb by the bridge. Their rough clothes, battered bags and the headscarves the women wear suggest they come from the country. Zora wonders where they are going.
A shudder of bronze spills down the Miljacka. Clusters of blossom shake on the greening trees.
The tram clatters along the river towards the old town hall – or Vijećnica as everyone calls it. Zora glimpses a row of windows under the ornate roofline of the faux Ottoman building. Her studio is up there, where the swallows’ nests hang from the eaves.
A downpour of sleet as they dash from the tram. Going up the old stone stairs of the Habsburg building where she grew up, the air, as always, smells of mould and underground vaults. On the second floor, the front door has been forced open, its black wood gouged and splintered. Zora and Franjo hesitate in the doorway. Techno music spills out from the front room at the end of the hallway. Boom, boom, boom, it goes, and a woman’s high-pitched voice wails and then dips.
Zora follows her husband down the corridor, ice melting into his long winter coat.
In the living room, the shutters are drawn and smoke hangs in a haze. Two tall men are leaning back on her mother’s Viennese dining chairs, large, trainered feet kicked up on the coffee table on which a black boombox blares. A thick fold of banknotes lies next to it. Empty bottles and clothes are strewn around the place.
One of the men has a magazine spread open on his lap. The other is blowing smoke rings, his arm extending down almost to the ground, the orange tip of his cigarette hovering a hair’s breadth above her mother’s fine Turkish kilim.
‘What are you doing here?’ Zora says, her voice coming out small and high. ‘We’ll call the police.’
The men turn, faces hard and impassive. One leans over to cut the music and the other stretches his arms above his head and takes his time to get up. Zora notices that one of her father’s paintings has been knocked to the floor.
‘Go on,’ she urges, pushing Franjo forward into the room. The other man stands up too, his chair falling to the parquet floor, and all three start yelling at once.
Zora takes a breath to steady herself before edging around the gesticulating men. It’s only then that she sees the third intruder. A tiny woman is sitting in the armchair by the green-tiled stove, poker in hand. Her feet can’t reach the ground, but she’s large-chested and imposing, black hair piled high on her head as if she were Queen Sissi of Hungary. Thick dabs of rouge mark her cheeks and her eyelashes are spiky with clumped mascara. Chewing a syrupy pastry from a box on her lap, she stares directly at Zora.
‘She’s dead,’ she says, ‘I know it.’
Zora feels herself flush. ‘Who’s dead? What are you talking about?’
Unhurried, the woman sucks the syrup from her fingers and waves her hand around. ‘Whoever owns this old place, of course.’
‘My mother owns this place. She’s very much alive.’
The woman snorts. ‘Where is she, then?’
‘She’s staying with us at the moment.’
‘Hah! Why should we believe you?’ throws in one of the men from behind Zora.
Zora twists round. She realises, with a lurch of unease, that, despite the height difference, the woman is their mother. They have the same imperious features, the same wide-set eyes and curling lips.
‘For God’s sake, you can’t just move into a place because no one’s living here,’ Franjo says, the colour high in his cheeks.
‘Ah, but we can,’ one of the sons growls. ‘Haven’t you been listening, old man? So many people are leaving town at the moment that the government’s said all abandoned flats are public property. Up for grabs.’
‘That’ll make people think twice before leaving,’ his brother says.
‘You could even say we’re doing Sarajevo a service.’
The men grin and their mother lets out a low laugh.
Zora gives Franjo a look of confusion. It’s mid-March and things have been unsettled for months. Rumours of approaching violence circulate in the staff room and at the hairdresser’s, though the Bosnian president insists there will be no war. Zora doesn’t know whom or what to believe.
‘Even if that were true,’ Zora says, ‘this flat hasn’t been abandoned. My mother will be moving back in any day now.’
The woman makes a sound of incredulity and drags a finger across the armrest of her chair.
‘Look at the dust in this place,’ she says, holding her finger up to the light. ‘No one’s lived here for months, years even. This is the flat of a dead woman, I know it.’
‘My mother’s alive,’ Zora hears herself shout.
A smile as smug as a camel’s spreads on the woman’s lips.
‘Well, my dear, how about this? You say she’s alive. We say she’s dead. We’re not going anywhere until you prove it to us.’
Zora stares at her.
‘We’ll only leave,’ the woman says, ‘if you bring her here.’
One of the sons starts laughing and the others join in, their leering laughter chasing Zora and Franjo back along the corridor, down the dark stairs and out onto the street, where they stand in shaken disbelief.
Zora’s childhood home is in the old part of town, with views, one way, over the Old Orthodox Church and the other towards the dome of the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque and the red-tiled roofs of Baščaršija bazaar. If you crane your head, you can just about glimpse the square tower of the Catholic cathedral to the west. But the street itself is grim and foreboding, a dark chasm between the fume-blackened facades of the Habsburg buildings on one side and the high wall behind which the Orthodox church hides on the other. Trams career past the narrow pavements, pushing pedestrians up against the walls.
Zora slips her hand inside Franjo’s and gives it a squeeze.
They cross the street and go up the hill to the nearest police station. It’s not yet seven, but already there’s a small crowd in the squat concrete building. Everyone is clamouring to say their piece about looted shops and robberies. Mysterious ditches are being dug at the ends of their streets in the small hours of the morning, and no one feels safe any more. This would never have happened in Tito’s time. Someone asks if it is true that the doors of the prisons have been thrown open and all the petty criminals set loose.
Franjo grows pale and glances around for somewhere to sit. Some fifteen years older than Zora, he tires more quickly. The explosion of anger back there has left him drained. She finds him a seat and fetches them both cups of strong, sweet coffee.
When, several hours later, they’re finally seen to, the officer says, ‘I’ll note down the address and send someone over, but I’m afraid we can’t throw them out. The new law is as they say. Empty flats are to be occupied by whoever needs them.’
‘You can’t do anything?’ Zora says, head shooting back. ‘But surely they’re breaking and entering.’
The officer spreads his hands and shrugs. ‘Everything’s up in the air, madam.’ The nervy crowd behind Zora now extends into the street, and he glances at them before tapping his chest, eyes narrow. ‘Who knows what colour uniform we’ll be wearing in the morning.’
The only course of action, it seems, is to go home and take her eighty-three-year-old mother, who has not been outside for weeks because of a chest infection, back to her flat. She’s spent every winter for the past seven years with Franjo and Zora, leaving her cold, draughty apartment when the first snow falls and returning soon after Easter.
They find her dozing in her armchair in the living room, a yellow blanket wrapped around her shoulders and her embroidery spread out on her lap.
Zora nudges her awake.
‘What?’ she cries, clasping her needle and cloth to her chest.
Dressing her and squeezing her feet into her shoes takes an age.
‘Where are we going?’ she keeps saying, eyes wide with alarm. ‘It’s snowing out. I’m not well enough!’
‘Mama,’ Zora says, speaking in a loud voice as her mother is getting quite deaf, ‘we’re taking you to your flat, just for half an hour or so, and then we’ll come straight back again. I promise.’
Her mother gives her an untrusting look, but Zora doesn’t want to worry her by telling her more.
When they get to the flat, it’s mid-afternoon and a bored-looking policeman has stationed himself outside, but, beyond that, very little has changed. The sons are still rocking back on the dining chairs and their mother is sitting in the same spot by the stove, a glass of whisky in hand.
Zora’s mother enters the living room on Zora’s arm. She stands still for a moment, as her eyes adjust to the dimness. Then, cocking her head to one side like a bird, she moves quickly, taking two or three hop-like steps towards the strangers.
‘Who are you?’ she says in a quavering voice.
The intruders are speechless. The colour empties from their faces and the dots of rouge glow like embers on the woman’s pale cheeks.
‘Who are you?’ Zora’s mother says, more boldly this time. ‘What are you doing in my flat?’
The sons look at each other and then at their mother. She’s the first to respond. Jumping down from the armchair, she pushes past Zora’s mother and plants herself in front of Zora. She’s barely taller than a child, but her sons step up to flank her like giant playground bullies.
‘All right,’ says the woman, ‘she’s alive after all. Good for her! Well, we’ll keep our word. We’ll leave like we said we would.’
She nods at her sons and they set about grabbing their things, stuffing clothes and cigarettes into plastic bags and helping themselves to bottles of slivović from the drinks cabinet. They push roughly past Zora and Franjo, the boombox on the shoulders of the younger-looking one, talking loudly about where the best neighbourhood is to find an empty flat at this time of day.
Zora’s mother teeters in the middle of the room. Her gaze darts from painting to painting, from object to object.
The minuscule woman, the last to leave, grips Zora’s arm. ‘We might be going, my dear, but don’t think that your mother’s place is safe. Others will come. And when they do, don’t count on them to budge so easily.’
She leaves the front door hanging open. Zora and Franjo stare out of it for quite some time, until a cry from Zora’s mother makes them rush back to the living room. She has found her cut-crystal decanter, a wedding present from Prague, in pieces by the stove.