Christmas crawls over the Balkans
on its knees. Vranje, Niš,
Paračin. We’d stop for lunch
but fog pouring down the ridges
could be ancestral ghosts, the gargle
of surly rivers may restate
death rattles of recent wars.
Your moustache twitches like bait.
You’ve never met my cousin
but insisted on guiding me
over these corrugated vistas
scarred by religious excess
we lack the will to understand.
You’ve never been so excited
in seventy years of postwar gloom.
Yet you admit you’ve never driven
north of Macedonia before,
never tested the landscapes of
Kosovo, Croatia, Bosnia,
In the Athens
of your childhood, in Plato’s
and Sophocles’ Athens, no one
ventured north of Thessaly
because wolves as big as chariots
howled down from cold pine forests
and ripped the hides from travelers
and pulverized their bones with jaws
powerful enough to sever bronze.
Along the side road to Topola
a metal Quonset hut gleams
with fresh black enamel. “There,”
you claim, “there the dead gather
when the New Year blizzards howl
to discuss the fate of Serbia,
the exaggerated history,
the studied akimbo stance.”
We park at a turnout and open
our last bottle of retsina.
A shiver blows over the hills
and the fog feels icy on our hands
and faces. We drink to the dead
of a dozen pointless wars,
then point the car toward the village
where my cousin’s country dacha
leers above a quick black stream
wheezing from a scab-shaped mountain,
the gravel road dead-ending
in the grotto of his practiced smile.