Detail from the cover of 'The Stone Fields.'
In 1996 at the age of 23, Courntey Brkic went to eastern Bosnia as part of a Physicians for Human Rights forensic team. She spent a month helping to exhume and identify the bodies of thousands of men and boys who were massacred by Serb forces the year before.
In a new book called The Stone Fields: An Epitaph for the Living, Brkic describes her time with the victims of Srebrenica, Bosnia, along with the history of her Croatian family during World War II. NPR's Melissa Block speaks with Brkic.
Book Excerpt: The Stone Fields
I placed a hand on his forehead, careful not to wake him, and let my fingers rest on the vein that pulsed in evening's thin light. Beneath the warm skin were the plates of his cranium, the sutures where entire continents met in his childhood and fused over the ocean of his mind. The gentle, breakable bones of his face were like china, or the hollow bones of birds. They were as fragile as calcified breath.
The flow of his blood was like water singing through rock, and in my concentration, I was only vaguely aware of figures standing on all sides of the bed. Lifting my head, I found myself looking through their bodies as through the fluid of memory; I turned them into glass and buried my face in him once again. Whether this angered or saddened them, I could not tell.
Wind from the open window made the curtains dance and crept over my naked legs.
Stjepan's vertebrae reminded me of dinosaur exhibits at a museum. There was something salamander-like about them. They started out small and graceful, and metamorphosed into the sturdiness of the lumbar region, where they were the trunk of a stout oak.
"Ribs are the tines of a cage," I recited under my breath, "and the sternum the thing that joins them. The sternum is variable: it can bow inward or out." It can have holes down its middle, tiny pinpricks, or be as smooth as the inside of a solid piece of bark. I brushed my eyelids against him, wondering what shape his had taken.
I examined his hand, which rested on my hip. Undone, it is a jigsaw puzzle, and reassembling it takes concentration and patience. I had been told that you get better with time. The skin on Stjepan's hip was taut and smooth. Although the pelvis is called the "innominate" because there is no other shape in nature that it resembles, the construction had seemed elephantine to me. Here you can discern a man from a woman definitively.
He stirred in his sleep. Soon—sooner than I would have liked—he would return to the base, and I would go back to my Zagreb apartment. I moved my right leg, which had become entangled in his. They had been like that in the ground, all arms and legs, and I shivered. I had not wanted to let that picture intrude while he held me, but it was inevitable, as was every memory of bones.
Stjepan sighed and stretched toward me in his sleep, burrowing his face into my neck. I continued to avoid the faces around the bed, realizing that his ghosts were vying with mine for position.
Months had passed since my return from Bosnia, but at times they dwindled down to moments, and now I looked at Stjepan, wondering if his ghosts looked the same to him. They started to bend their heads over us, as if attempting resuscitation, and I closed my eyes. I found that I could not bring myself to look at them from one day to the next.
A sudden change in breathing told me that he had awakened, and a moment later he wrapped legs and arms around me in a bear hug. He opened his eyes and looked at me solemnly, his breath making a few strands of my hair shiver as the curtains had done. My heart beat faster, and I smiled.
I wondered whether I would recognize him by his bones.
Excerpted from 'The Stone Fields: An Epitaph for the Living,' by Courtney Brkic. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC.