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Wenting Li

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A power outage descended upon a section of the Plateau Mont-Royal one evening last September. It was still summer, Crèmerie Meu Meu was still selling ice cream and the crickets were still chirping in the alley behind the building. Sitting on my terrace in the pleasant Plateau darkness, I was transported to the outages of yore – the ones that had prompted me to move to Canada nearly a decade ago.

There were the legendary power outages of KEK, Kosovo’s moribund state electricity company, which persisted on a reliable four-hours on/two-hours off basis throughout my 20s. If the power happened to be off when I made my way home in the dark of winter, I would enter the socialist apartment block with caution and a raised Maglite flashlight which was to serve as a club. It weighed about six pounds and every United Nations Mission member had been advised to get one for personal protection and the recurring two hours without light.

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I would leap up the pitch-black stairway as fast as a hare until I’d gotten past the first floor, which consisted of an empty hallway filled with trash deposited by the building residents. The glass on the double doors separating the hallway from the stairs had been broken, and through the gaping door frames one gleaned the sinister shapes of the rubbish residing inside. Reaching my own door on the fifth floor always felt like a triumph and, by then, my fear seemed exaggerated.

Taking the elevator was no picnic, either. One morning, its door opened to reveal a fulsome garbage bag which had already made several journeys up and down the shaft in the hope of being taken out for air. In the course of its rides, it had unhappily regurgitated some of its contents on the elevator floor, including the classic banana peel.

Danger did not end there. The apartments facing north toward Dragodan overlooked an outdoor landing with no evident access or apparent purpose except to serve as a dump. When the power was out, items would land upon it from the higher floors like seagulls, including an old washing machine which had been tossed out in distaste and now sighed atop a pile of litter. Risking injury from above, I often craned my neck out the window to examine the ever-growing heap.

I spent six years in Kosovo in the years leading up to its declaration of independence. The power restrictions got better with time and I eventually moved to a less sinister building facing a park, but the garbage situation deteriorated as the young country dipped its toes into capitalism and all the goods that it had to offer.

Ten years before that, while I was in my teens, I lived through the power outages of wartime Sarajevo – a four-year-long outage, really, interspersed with rare and haphazard bursts of light. If people happened to be loitering outside when the power suddenly came on, the street instantly became deserted as everyone rushed home to take advantage. Youth switched on their stereos. Women vacuumed. Men occupied themselves with the household car battery, an essential item which had been extracted from the family vehicle and now powered a radio so as to maintain contact with the world during the city’s siege. Everyone had one – a car battery connected to a radio. Turning on the lights was a different matter, however. That was simply not done, as every Sarajevo glimmer became a target for a mortar shell.

Back in Montreal, the power returned and the yard party below me broke out in a barbecue. The smoke wafting up to my terrace brought to mind the meat that we tried to save in Sarajevo in May, 1992 – the meat in our freezer, which, once the power had been cut, began to defrost rapidly. The power wasn’t coming back. It was going to be a long war with no illumination, no power and no meat. It was going to be a four-year stretch of beans and rice and macaroni and humanitarian dispatches of mouldy biscuits leftover from the Vietnam War.

We tried to save what we could. Everyone’s meat defrosted, not just ours. All the meat in the city was melting all at once like a sinking symphony. Women came up with old recipes once deployed by their mothers and grandmothers, which were intended to preserve meat for a long time. The meat was placed in large vats of oil: a preparation my mother called kaurma. It must have predated the advent of refrigeration.

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I thought of the kaurma and the fear and the fever with which it was prepared. I remembered the sadness of the kaurma meat, which we worked hard and fast to save. I remember the large vats of oil sitting on the kitchen counter. I remembered that feeling of things slipping through our fingers like sand: melting, spoiling, disappearing.

The kaurma meat tasted very good, I recall. How strange that it took a crisis – a war - to revive a worthy recipe. But it did not last nearly long enough. We ate all the kaurma within a few weeks – it was all we ate during that race with time - but the war went on for years. One day, it ended as abruptly as it had begun. The power came back on, the car battery was returned to the car, the radio was plugged into a socket, as well as every other appliance and device. The kaurma recipe was discarded – it now reeked of hard times. New meat was frozen and life continued in postwar darkness under blazing electric lights.

Twenty-five years later in Montreal, neither sausage nor steak nor the city’s famed smoked meat makes my mouth water, nor my heart break, as once did those oily vats with their urgent content.

Emira Tufo lives in Montreal.