Translated by Kristina Pribicevic
We all stare at the lump on Father's throat, as it saps and drains his body, shriveling it before our very eyes and no-one knows what to say to him. The wound has torn open and curled outwards. Inside, there's a gaping black hole. It presses on his windpipe and releases fiendish pain. It makes a caricature of him. You only have to look at the nerve strapping his face throbbing and stabbing as if it were full of poison and venom. It warns him that life is short. We all stand there as if we've forgotten how to talk, and he stares straight through us, out at the orchard. Who knows what pictures he sees out there amidst the trees? It's as if he's praying for salvation, but we don't hear it. He got that wound in the last war, and now it has jettisoned him back into the trenches, to remember all the suffering and pain. Life weaves its circle. You can see him clench his sweaty fists and in his mind he's charging. (Do his ears ring with the order: "Full attack on the enemy fire!"?). But the muscle in his neck tightens, he flinches, grits his teeth and lifts himself up against the headboard of the bed, as if layers of darkness, and calls for surrender surrounded him. Then he turns to look at the photographs on the wall, to grab some last vestiges of life from them. That's why they were made, One shows his father standing among the children, his hand raised in valor, strong and healthy. It's as if that picture has long since become phony to him. What a gulf between what he sees and what he feels! Father's face is moist, but it isn't from tears, it's from sweat and pain. Perhaps he's just remembered something. A shadow of bitterness creeps across his lips. They are dry and hard. Swollen both inside and out. Like a bomb about to explode in everyone's face. It reminds me of the time when he scolded us and told us not to poke around the walls of the house and fence because bombs and munitions from two wars still lay hidden there: who knows who planted them? We laughed at these stories until one day a bomb claimed both hands of Djordjije's son. Lame and crippled though he is, he still waves around what's left of his arms. But Gospava says it was meant to be and that she saw the signs before the child was even born.
"Where are you, son?" Father keeps calling me, staring at me and sizing me up to see whether I look like him. I see his lips move, he's whispering something. Outside, we hear voices saying the disease are incurable. But, who can believe that? I lean my face close to his, but my father-creator doesn't see me, his eyes are glazed. And like the karst caves, they send out a whirl of smoke and mist. It envelops everyone, making everything hazy. We must look like ghosts to him. And yet, there was such goodness in that man.
No one looks in on the house, the pain is not his or hers. They're afraid of sudden illness; they're all up on the mountain looking for grapevines to border their stalls and houses. There's no one to scream and drive away the illness that can spread. Life accumulates, is torn asunder by some inner force and then suddenly collapses. It is with this fear that one should embark on life.
There's no Mijat to come and swear like a madman at his creator, then clap himself over the mouth in horror and remorse. There's no Bosiljka to beg Father to burn droppings in the beehive, while she takes out the honey. She loved Father's hand that had touched her breasts, too. There's no Kosa to tell us about what's going on in nearby Italy, who's fighting with whom, how the horse-trading with them is flourishing. She knows yesterday's news as well as tomorrow's.
Father holds on to the doorpost, fingering it: a picture of collision between everything and its creator. It's as if he isn't standing on his legs, as if there's a rupture somewhere inside him, a chasm making him crazy and shaky. As if there's an ambush lying in wait behind the walls and trees, as if everything has conspired together and is waiting for the sound of the cowbells and sheep-bells to herald death. That's the sign for Ugljesha to take out the yellowed boards and start making a good coffin. Whispers mold Father into a hero of the first order, and then into a doubtful character in the Curd Cooperative fraud. But we know all he did was finger the crooks and that he was opposed to digging a lake in the middle of the village and flooding the area for the sake of the future dam.
Mother rushed around, she sapped her strength digging up the garden, planting the vegetable bed with onions and mangle. She labored under a load that was more than she could or should carry. She would burst into the house, grasp the medicine bottle and thrust it in Father's mouth. This was some sign of hope, especially when that gentle smile appeared on his face as the pain receded! Then she would pour into his mouth a spray of yellowish liquid with a pungent and unpleasant smell. It drugged and numbed him to both pain and life that still assaulted him from all sides.
And here, within reach, is the unfinished water barrel. It still needs to be shaved down and have the hoops drawn over it. The sight of it pains his eyes (and his liver). He had laid out the tools neatly with his own hands, so that he could always find what he needed. But there is always something hidden or missing. You can feel the sweat from Father's hands in the wood and metal of the axe and cutting tools hanging above the door. Even Spiro Mastilovic didn't know how to fix the mill dike or get the right stroke on the water wheel, until Father showed him. Here, too, is the barrel that he had started to make, with its nine big hoops. We're going to fill it with the Konavlje brandy bought for Patron Saint's Day and for all the other saints in the year. At least then you can be sure people will make the sign of the cross. Everything torments and taunts him, but we don't see it.
Maybe he wanted to tell us something important. A secret from the war, from the prison camp. He pursed his lips and grimaced, but only a soft moan came out.
Mother rushed to repair the worn fence, to weed the dandelions around the spring lettuce and pull up the nettle. Instead of opening her mouth, listening and remembering. All those work in vain because the weeds only grow again, inundating everything.
The smell of new grass in want of a good reaper comes through the windows. Nature is cruel, spitting on everyone and humiliating the helpless. The shed in front of the house looks ramshackle and angry to his eyes. It's probably mad at him for having done the wall so badly. It's crooked and yellow. His army boots hang from a thick cord held up by the nail on the wall above his bed. Hanging next to them are his World War I cartridge belt and knapsack; full of living memories, All the things he smuggled in it through Herzegovina and Dalmatia, from tobacco to dried figs and all kinds of medicinal herbs. The gold-plated chain watch lies there on the chest. It worked on its own, showing nothing to anyone. It ticked without winding. Grandfather was the only one who ever wore it. He would pull it out from the depths of his pocket to see how far the day had progressed, and stand in awe of those strange moving hands. In the evening, he would look mistrustfully at the numbers, feel the pulse-like ticking, until sleep got the better of him. As if he couldn't understand how the day had passed so quickly!
Does anyone remember the sermon given by our dear and slightly inebriated priest Zimonjic, who forever called on the people to do good, because you only get as good as you give. But, who can believe in that? Tanasije, sitting under the pear tree (he spent his entire boyhood in its shade) tosses pebbles into the chimneystack of Poparina's house, but only as long as no-one sees him. And here's Dimitrije, soaked in sweat and sorry that he hadn't come much earlier so that he could put in his own two cents and relate what he had seen and heard since this morning. But, it's never too late. Even the rain can't fall unless he announces it first, I know, he'll start off by grumbling and complaining about his brother with whom he hasn't been on speaking terms for well on twenty years. Two brothers nursed on the same breast. It's enough to strike fear in your heart; who'd ever believe it?
The drought was getting worse as we waited and Father's torment grew. Dry blades of grass jutted out from the cracked, thirsty soil. The torrid wind was as parching in the shade as in the sun. As if this summer had escaped all control and everything was again plunging into chaos. The seared wooden trough has become deformed and you no longer know what to use it for. The bees alight languidly on what was once a pool; we see it in our mind's eye and for just a second live in our imagination. Lizards and frogs mingle together in this hell on earth, they touch and drawl over each other. If Tanasije looks a little closer, he'll realize that he has already seen this picture. And that means having spent his whole life in one spot. If he looks up at the treetops, he'll see Nikodije stuck between the branches. As if he were somewhat mad.
"There's so much water in the sea and we're going thirsty ... this place is burning as if we've committed some terrible sin!" says a voice from the trees. Tanasija talks about the great flood he dreamt of the night before. He dreamt how the water had rolled away the trees and stones. And then some reptiles had appeared. And then desolation everywhere. In the evening a flood, next morning parched land!
"Can we expect rain again?" asks someone whom we can't see. A young girl runs down the road and off to Stamena. She holds out her white breast and shows it to the woman, whose hands are deep in dough, kneading bread.
"This mole appeared in two days ... I dreamt that it gushed blood... What can that mean? Then light issued forth from the wound and illuminated us all! There's a deafening in my ears."
Maybe she caught fire and is looking for the touch of a man's hand.
The lizards and dying bumblebees are the best proof of this story. You can't but feel sorry for them. The cattle are dying, they are herded down to the river to water. By the time they come back they're thirsty again. What a pointless exercise! The common water pails stand forlornly, eaten away by rust; they're afraid that the disease will spread. And no one asks us anymore for the brandy container that the settlers had brought from Banat, and that we use for roasting coffee. At the crack of dawn, there's the sound of song from the road in front of the house. Someone is bursting with health and joy.
The smell of tobacco from the coffin makes you want to smoke. Father's pipe is lying there on the table: inside it are ashes and poison. Surely he remembers Stojan who brought it to him from Dubrovnik.
Father flinches and looks at Mother. " Could you find some snow for me to put on my wound ... to cool the burning heat..." The words come out with difficulty. Mother slips off her shoes so she can run faster. She runs off into the mountain with a wooden trough on her back. This is a battle for life, for everything that gives her reason to live. She manages to descend into a cave and bring out a handful of snow. She comes racing back. Father reaches for the ball of snow as if it were a lifesaver. He opens his mouth to let out the fire, swallows the snow and presses it against his wound. As if his intestines are tied in a knot and sinking. Oh, martyr! The pain starts again and tears at his throat, Mother hovers over him. She'd give him her life if she could. She pulls out her left breast and milks the wound as if it were a child. The pus-laced blood of the wound mixes with the white liquid of Mother's breast. She puts a mixture of honey, wormwood and durmast on it and finally a herb sent by a herbalist named Salatic from Bogdasic. He brought it back with him from America.
But, there was no cure. In the secrets he left and placed in the chests and boxes around the house, Father found peace without a word or a sound. Who could put those two different pictures together; Father getting up from bed, so tall and strong, as things were moved out of his way, and now, lying there so still, his face distorted and sickly yellow. Now I understand why Sakot says that "life is a dream."
Jelisaveta mourns and wails, she evokes the dead (whose names she sometimes gets wrong) and warns them to take care of themselves in the other world. Then she sends them a message; to her Djuradj that she has been faithful to him, to Grandma Jesna that she still has the vest and top with the gold plates and to somebody named Grkovic that she loved him more than anybody else in the world. She stands at the front door, all in black, and won't let anyone pass.
It is only after they bathe Father, wrap him in a sheet and lower him into Ugljesha's coffin (Ugljesha is already drunk
and doesn't understand what's going on) that the women start rummaging through the old chests and drawers, looking for Father's picture. Gospava takes a box from under the bed and starts rummaging through it. (So many people together in a split second. There are some to who Father never even said "God be with you. " They hide in the crowd.) Everyone could have sworn that Father was there in the family picture hanging above the bed. Now, they cross themselves in astonishment, because his face isn't in the photograph any more. Others say: "Maybe the picture has faded and his face disappeared when he passed away." It followed him into nothingness. It's as if he'd never had his picture taken, even for his army I.D. How can we mourn him, and how can the dirges be sung when theres no picture? The mourners have nothing to look at. In these parts a dead man is immediately nailed down in his coffin and forgotten. Out of fear the disease may spread.
In the middle of all this chaos, turning the house upside-down, Baldy lets out a bellow, as if to say even a cow can feel pain. Once again they dig through the chests and boxes stowed away from the human eye, and once again they see there is no picture. After they've gone through everything and found no photograph, Gospava (pointing straight at my forehead), cries: "We'll put Jakov next to the coffin it's his father, and he's his spitting image! They can look at him while they lament the dead man ..."
Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. These words seem to still the panic. They grab me, dirty and tear-stained as I am, and start undressing me. Gospava yanks the sweater off me; she doesn't care that my head won't go through and that the collar cuts like a knife. They pull at me from all sides, as if they want to crucify me. I know what it is. Gospava is paying me back for that window of hers I broke. They strip me naked as the day I was born, and Gospava looks as if this is the moment she's been waiting for. They take my things out of the house and throw them in a heap where they can't be seen. Then they grab me and hoist me into a tub of hot water, the same one they just bathed my father in. I can feel the cold of the metal, it feels as if death had touched it just a few minutes before. My cries are drowned in all the sobbing and crying. They scrub me down with a hard brush, and wash me as if I haven't had a bath since the day I was born. Jelisaveta grabs me between the legs and washes me there, too, "At least he'll be clean for the other world!" says Gospava with fervor, as if I'm the one who's dead. Jelisaveta rubs me down with alcohol "to keep the worms away."
Velizar's mouth droops open; he must be worried about his potato patch needing water. Or else his mind is off somewhere, thinking about how he'll gather up snails as soon as the rain falls, and earn more money than anyone's ever seen. Further off, some unknown people are talking, as if they've forgotten why they came here in the first place.
Once I'm properly bathed and scented, they start dressing me. They try not to touch my body. First they pull Father's big, white shirt over my head. It's so big my whole body could fit in just the sleeve. They dress me in his trousers, in the shoes that Father had bought in Dubrovnik after he sold the tea. Last of all comes Father's coat that covers me up, protecting me from evil eyes. They turn up the sleeves and pull out my arms and neck so that at least some of me can be seen. They start raking at my hair with a wooden comb, as if they're stacking hay. Mother is overcome with grief, she can't tell who is, who anymore.
Somebody says the body is ready. Three women dressed in black immediately kneel by the coffin, their kerchiefs slipping from their heads, as if they longed for the sound of crying and wailing.
Someone named Kosara wails that the spirit of the deceased will live on in the masterpieces he has left behind. She describes his build, his face, his hands and his feet, as if she had been in love with him. (Mother would die of jealousy if she were in a normal state of mind. Maybe she would push her away from the coffin.) She extols him, but she can't think of anything to improve on the picture of the dead man. Somebody named Latinka, who had fallen into a trance at the very beginning, says that it is a terrible pity such a young person should be going to his grave. She beats her chest, wailing: "Oh, pain, what about your books, your-friends and teachers ..." She collapses in despair and loses consciousness. The crying and wailing gets louder, as the people prepare to mourn me. And again, it's as if many of them are putting on a show, as if there is a kind of furor to their voice.. Latinka tears her hair, but her voice loses its melody. It's as if this is just a trial run for the real dirge (which turns into song) at countless funerals throughout Herzegovina.
The loudest sobs come from Mitar (who would have thought he had such a tender heart?) when Latinka starts sending greetings to the dead. "Say hello to Stanoje for me and tell him that his two kids are alive and well... Give a kiss to Staka and tell her that Momir has remained a bachelor." Some of the words get lost in the open hole of Gospava's mouth. The wailing gets louder, everyone cries and wails for his dead ones. A woman embraces her daughter's grave, kissing the cold stone. People collect around a fresh mound of earth, wailing. The men's voices are too harsh and hard for lamenting.
Tomislav comes up behind me and slaps me on the shoulder. He's checking to see whether I'm alive and whether he'll have someone to play with tomorrow. My legs are stiff with cold and fear. A crow flaps its wings nearby, its joy is so far removed from everything!
Kosara wails that the effigy is as handsome as a god. That's the first time I've heard a compliment come my way. It sounds damned unconvincing to my ears.
And as they mourn Father one minute and me the next, you can hear the shriek of the lambs. Nebojsa is slaughtering them for the lunch that comes after the funeral. Brandishing his knife he plunges it through their necks. It's terrifying to watch. Where does he get all that steely courage and skill?
The next to speak is Spiro, the Cooperative manager. His eyes look out at a point somewhere above us. His bulging neck is fat from the Cooperative curd. He says a few passing words of eulogy about the deceased and then starts talking about how the lake has to be built and repairs done on the school. Spiro holds forth, saliva spewing from his mouth, as if he were addressing some public rally. He talks about construction and progress, about the new road over the hayfields and meadows. And he'll screw anyone who dares say differently. Here he's referring a little angrily to Father, but he's well into his speech and doesn't mention him by name. His deputy pokes him from behind: it's time to bury the deceased. But, Spiro goes on and on, he's delivering a big speech about the country's construction and renewal. It's his thing.
Nikodije, who's standing right next to me, lifts me up when the wailing stops, wanting to toss me into the hole. When he comes to his senses, he bursts into tears. I see Metodija swing his shovel and strike at the earth, covering up Father. He looks as if he's digging a well. He's suddenly become enterprising and hard working. He's cool and collected, although there's always something a little spiteful and vengeful about him. Men and women come up and toss clods of earth on the deceased. There are all kinds of faces and mugs. But, the earth is not choosy.
We're girdled by the cemetery on all sides and it's a good thing the gates are open. In just a moment, many people will even forget where they've been.
We go home, and my thoughts are morbid. I can't think of anything but Father's picture. Everything taunts me, I see his spirit everywhere.
Just before nightfall, Metodija runs over to take Father's scythe, the sharpest in seven villages, and along with it he asks for the anvil, the water horn and the marker. As if he had been waiting for this very moment. Then the miller comes along asking for seven sacks woven out of the finest wool, with special markings in the middle. And in the evening Kruna drops in, her pointed nose was piercing the air, as if the world has never seen anything as smart as she. She asks for the Hungarian wool-combing machine the first one to be brought to these parts by Father when he was released from the prison camp. Mother gives everyone a shake of her head, at which Kruna, raising her pointed nose like a blade of grass, takes off through the plum orchard. The next day, Mojsije puts in an appearance. He, too, wants something, and I don't even know whether he was at the funeral or not. He asks for the four wagon wheels made out of special wood and iron, and brought from Vojvodina. He leaves empty-handed. Overnight, the wheels disappear. We don't know who stole them, but we do know that no-one would dare use them on their wagon, because Mother would immediately say: "They're mine!"
But, you can still feel Father's eye watching over all these things, controlling and running everything. He taught Jelisaveta a lot of things. The loom Father made out of maplewood, with the light reeds for pressing the yarn, is with Dimitrije. Dojcin was given the packsaddle; Bosiljka, her legs spread, would ride on it. She liked being close to Ognjen, touching him inadvertently with her hot thigh.
Father's clothes, the bed stuffing and the quince full of chicken feathers, piled up near the house, waiting to rot, are all reminders of him. All night long, Kruna rummaged around the stuffing in the hope of finding any gold coins Father may have forgotten to take out in his illness. (They say the late Scepan left her a jar full of gold, buried on their property, but she can't figure out where it is or how to dig it up. That's all she can think of, she can't get her mind off it.)
The children run away from me, as if they're afraid to touch me. Velizar shouts: "Beat it, there he is, the dead man rises again!" And Kosara shouts: "The Devil's luck, look, he's like a vampire! We've already mourned him once and here he is resurrected ... that's not him, it's his ghost... And he'll toss horse feed into the vat again and we won't even be able to drink the water!"
Before I fall asleep I always hear Father's reproachful and angry whisper. I see his face fade, vanishing somewhere behind the stable.
For days we gather up the summer crop, the little that is left from the drought. Gospava crosses herself as soon as she sees me, as if she wishes they really had buried me. We tie up the rye in sheaf and arrange them crisscross in blocks, the way Father used to. We put dry grass on top to stop the kernels from rotting. At night Mother jumps in her sleep, shouting something, but you can't decipher what. When she wakes up she says: "I dreamt of your father, he said we have to restack the grain, it'll rot and go dank as never before." We immediately start rearranging the sheaves, changing everything.
Everything we do seems to ask: how would Father have done it?
Everything is a frightening warning.
One moment it's as if it were long ago, the next as if it were now.
Translated by Kristina Pribicevic
The new Herzegovinian road gleams like never before as it suddenly appears and enters Bish heading straight for Ugljesha's house as though it were about to knock it down. Once choked in dust but now swept clean by the wind, with rocks and ruts that glisten and devour each other like a sluggish blindworm after the rain it hurriedly curves away from the boulder that would cut short its path. Stevan spent three days wrestling with that rock but its weight was too much for him and he had to throw down his crowbar; now they call it Stevan's Heave. They say that some priest committed a terrible sin by this rock and that grass won't grow there anymore. It's a cursed place and everybody steers clear of it. (If you were to believe everything people said, you'd go crazy!) The point where the road joins up with the new, still only imaginary highway, is our only window onto the world. It was from there that armies came to beat and slaughter us, that thunder and lightning hurl together from the sea, from there that the smugglers, gendarmes, flames and penalties come. It's from there that the coastal winds cross those from Volujak, but ours always carry them off for a bit of fun. It's like that from the Nativity till Saint George's Day.
Noisy kids run along the sharp, pebble and earth-strewn gravel, on hardened barefoot soles, their feet unglazed by the stones. They let you know when somebody's coming, disturbing the deathly silence and warding away the wolves which might stray here in broad daylight and pass through Bish like through a Turkish cemetary.
A man and a woman are making their way among the bobbing heads of the children, over whom Droopy Head towers like a toy. "The Lord forgive me, but it's Trivun risen from the dead that's just how he walks!" The man is leading a pack-laden nag that whinnies as though the weight were too much for it, and the woman holds up the load, so that it doesn't slide off. Carefully and painstakingly, as though carrying a load of rifles and machine-
-guns. If the mare sneezes it'll fall all over the woman's skirt.
Gospava immediately crosses herself, she sees signs of the devil in everything, and if not that then some dream she has had.
"That there is Golub Skakavica, if it's anyone that's his cap alright... And if it isn't, then it's his spitting' image! It's either him or his ghost!" Gospava cries out as though at Christmas sermon.
It's Golub, alright, shrouded in tobacco smoke curling out of his nose, his mouth and his ears. He's still defying the gendarmes who were on his tall more than that of any other tobacco smuggler in the state.
"Hooey! Hooey Ugljeshaaa! Here comes your brother, he's back from Banat!" a voice calls out from the top of the hill. Absorbed, Ugljesha strikes his crowbar against the huge rock, ready to bring the hill down with it, if need be. He puts his shoulder up against it, mustering up all his strength, as grave as though he were erecting a monument.
The priest pulls at the bells without measure and without need. Everyone crowds around staring at the newcomers, waiting for Golub to say something, to open his mouth and spew out the bitter hardships of resettlement. They expect him to say that everyone who left with him died of sorrow on the third day. That's the only kind of surprise or news they respond to. They laugh only at the hardships of others, otherwise all they do is corn-plain. Even when a child is born they don't rejoice, they say: "Woe is he, for all the misery that will kill him in life!"
So Golub broke away from the nationwide drive (organized eight after the war) to move into all the German homes in Vojvodina.
Gospava tugs at his coat she needs more proof that it's really Golub and not some apparition, that he is still alive.
The laden horse stops, as though afraid to go on. Ugljesha stands gaping at his brother, wanting to ask him questions but unable to. He goes up quietly to the horse and kisses it. Gospava runs up as though to throw herself into Golub's arms.
"Golub, man, why have you come back now, in these hard times when everyone has to say what he is and who he is?!" Spiro, the manager of the cooperative, cries out from afar in lieu of a greeting. "Has something maybe soared you away?" Golub pretends not to have heard him. (Whenever somebody even farts to Spiro it's political!)
Shuffling its feet, the mare bears the cutting marks of the flat board, which the woman is now carefully dragging down so it doesn't fall. It's a present for Golub's brother Ugljesha who has been taking care of his house and property and who has endured all the propaganda and speeches from Spiro to Pucar.
When the crowd disperses (Gospava is the last to leave, staring at the wrapped-up board leaning against the wall, mumbling: "A-nate-te-mate, the devil be gone!")
Ugljesha looks at the gift, sizing it up. He suddenly jumps up and starts unwrapping it, impatiently at first and then somewhat uncertainly and apprehensively. Out of the paper and rags, emerges, like a bar of chocolate, a strange object. When Ugljesha sits down by the fire, something in the object lowers down and trembles. Suddenly, the pot, the dough tray and the bread move in it. Only now can you see how old these things are, and coated in a grayish-black color; the poverty is more clearly reflected. Ugljesha apprehensively stands up, takes a step back and crosses himself. In the glass he seeks a woman behind his back. Tavita, all absorbed, is whispering something.
And so it was that the strangest of all objects first came to Bish so tall and wide that they barely got it through the door a large mirror. It was as tall as Ugljesha himself, taking in and showing everything, with a wooden, crossed frame, bearing in the upper right-hand corner the name of the (famous prewar) Viennese firm "V. Brausewetter". Ugljesha looks at this wonder from a distance, still not daring to go right up and stand in front of it.
Tavita makes the bed, watching the mirror, as though some strange beast were about to leap out and devour her right there and then. Ugljesha looks at the half-naked woman from behind, she is young and pretty. The lamp Tavita is carrying moves the figures in the mirror. The woman lies down and is soon fast asleep.
Ugljesha doesn't move. In the mirror he sees the woman's deadweight head amongst the various objects. The straw bed, stove and part of the dishes float, as though forever captured in the mirror. The empty wooden water vessel, the old milk pail dance as though they'll fall apart. Only now can you see how worn the wooden spoon hanging on the wall is. The soot black pot chains, dating back to great-great-grandfather's day, flicker noiselessly, as though ghosts were moving them. There is the deer-bone spoon and the big chamois horn comb. If the oven door looks bigger and wider than those in the room, that's just an illusion. Also reflected in the mirror is the basin full of water, shimmering like the sea. The woman's breathing moves the objects in front of Ugljesha`s eyes. He stares at the mysterious thing before him, looking like his sheep when it's getting ready to do battle with Mijat's ram. Deep inside the mirror he sees an ax, threatening him with its blade. Then he stands up slowly and moves bravely towards the mirror as though he were about to testify against himself in some terrible court. He hits against something foreign and unfriendly. Deep inside this devilish device a face moves and, looking him straight in the eye, it threatens him once again. A pain inside him tears him, the muscles around his head and mouth contract, countless wrinkles attack his face, his body wracked with fear and trembling. He puts his hands to his head, hunched over as if about to scream. But he stays there pale and mute in front of himself. The blood starts stirring in his veins, getting all roiled up. He shuts his eyes, trying to pull himself together, and then opens them again to make sure of all he has seen. There's no sight of that man with the curly head of hair, as he imagined himself. He moves his hand and tries to flex his muscles, but all that moves in the mirror is a small little hand. His face fills with hatred and enmity. Somewhere within the depths of the mirror he sees the woman who sleeps next to his side. He stretches out his hand to touch her, but there's nothing there. He wheels around and sees her lying behind him on the straw bed. He buries his hand in his hair, he is alone with himself, unconscious of anything. When he looks back at the mirror, he sees the image of his father, in his long, torn army coat, ripped around the sleeves and chest, a scarf wound around his neck and hanging from under the scarf a bandage soaked in blood. Ugljesha goes to the wall hung with framed, yellowed pictures of his father. The fire is dying out in the hearth, but he kneels down and blows hard. There on the photograph is his father, but without the bandage. This disturbs and upsets him. He starts breathing rapidly and sweating. He looks again into the devilish mirror and goes up to it. And again he seems to see in it the entire blood-soaked bandage and the blood trickling from the wound. He reaches out to touch his father's face, but his hand comes back of its own will. Behind his back, right by his shoulder, his mother appears. Dressed in her good clothes, she smiles and then vanishes. He feels as though devils were luring him into an illusion and that he has already gone mad. Images quickly flash in front of his eyes. He hears his own voice. He runs to the barrel, splashes water on his face, and drinks some of it. He wants to take off his shirt but he thinks he hears the creaking of the door. He listens, looks at the mirror and sees Golub coming through the door. He whirls around. "What are you doing here at this hour?" But, Golub just stands there mysteriously and doesn't move. He's wearing the same suit and the same cap he had on today when he arrived. Ugljesha moves up to the mirror, looks at himself and instead of his brother sees himself. Everything is muddled in his eyes and his head. Everything around him becomes unreal, everything assumes the shroud of uncertainty: the mirror, and his encounter with himself, and the wall on which the mirror hangs, and the house, and everything all around.
The milky white mirror is conjuring up something new. Ugljesha takes a step forward and then back, staying where he is. His head flattens out at the top, and this moves him a step away from the wall. Only then does he see how he is half a man and how his hands hang against the trunk of his body. He sees a feeble man without determination, without an encouraging expression on his face, without clear eyes, without that ever-ready smile, without a twitch of the neck muscle, without anything of the familiar self-image. Out of the cloth bag he pulls the knife with which he slaughters the animals and slips it under his belt. Instead of deriving from the knife a stronger urge to fight, he feels even more helpless. Two sets of hostile eyes meet. Suddenly, the image of his father reappears in the mirror, but this time he is not in his Serbian army uniform but in his peasant dress. Ugljesha shamefully returns the knife to the bag and turns towards his father. "It's just as well that I can see you again to tell you ... All my life you kept telling me: hurry, run, work, plow, dig, break your back! The rain, hail, snow, the devil himself will take it all away... I killed myself toiling and lugging, wresting from the bad weather even the rotting wheat and potatoes, the grass and greens. And you kept shouting: you haven't achieved anything, you haven't done anything! What have you achieved or done? You toiled and worked until you croaked ... You forced me to slaughter the cow and she was pregnant..." Some power draws him to the mirror. He sways but remains on his feet. He puts out his hands to defend himself against this something that is drawing him into the abyss, the chasm. He looks at his father angrily, "What are you laughing at, what do you want to tell me with that face of yours? You were in the war, where am I supposed to be? What am I supposed to talk about?" Somewhere in the background he again sees the face of his mother, covered in a black scarf like the one she always wore. And he hears the curses and the anger.
Somehow, he manages to move his feet and to run out of the house, the sound of the door creaking behind him. It's as though he is retreating from a battlefield, defeated and humiliated, without the courage or guts to go back. As though he had avoided some terrible punishment. The sun has been up for some time, shining through the window on the mirror; the air from the room strikes Ugljesha right in the forehead. He feels limp and heavy, as though tied to the ground.
Several black-scarved women peer through the window to see the strange object. Bjelov growls as though waiting silently to rush out of the house.
Finally, Ugljesha makes a sound: "Hooey, Tavitaaa!", he calls, getting his wife's name through his mouth. At the sound of his call, she turns out, ready to protect him like a mother. Ugljesha stares at her stomach, expecting a miracle from her.
"Cover that horror with a cloth, cover its face or I'll smash it to smithereens!" For a moment he thought his face had escaped from the mirror and was rushing towards him. He feels how that face and he, standing in front of the house, have three legs each and countless hands... His feet go cold and out of fear he lowered hands as though they weren't his, at his wrinkled hands and crooked feet; he feels his stopped back and his trembling jaw. Hunched over like that he looks like a distraught prophet exorcized and attacked by demons.
Tavita obediently enters the house, gets the melonscented cloth out of the box and covers the mirror, darkening its face.
Night appears above Volujak, descending and covering everything left uncompleted and undone during the day. Everything falls silent, and within an instant many drop off into a cowardly sleep. "It was on a night like this that the ustashas attacked Bish and killed everybody off", says Ugljesha as he throws himself into bed. He listens. The cloth on the mirror seems to be moving. He holds his breath, but the silence all around him swells. He feels the full weight of his helplessness, and with that thought, stretched out in bed, falls asleep.
That night, Ugljesha tossed and turned and shouted in his sleep. He dreamt a man was chasing him, with
his head, who wanted to catch him and tell him some terrible news.
Dawn brings him home and frees him of his nightmare. He splashes water on his face, touches his cheeks without any feeling, like touching a dry tree stump. Mitar breaks the silence by shouting: "Hey, Ugljesha, why you're dead!"
Gospava, who would like something of the sort (at least there would be some change and a way to shed a few tears), runs hysterically towards Mitar.
Mitar, always a bit absent-minded and absorbed even when saying something, says: "Last night I dreamt that you had died! I saw clearly how they got you ready but instead of a coffin they put you in a wooden trough!"
Gospava runs away from these words as though the devil were at her heels. Ugljesha stares at Mitar, then at Gospava as she runs towards her house, and only then does he feel capable of defending himself.
He leaps up from the rough-edged stone slab and runs into the house. He yanks the colored cloth off the mirror for a second his disfigured face of an old man reappears. In the very corner of the mirror he thinks he sees an unfamiliar face laughing and making fun of him. He sees himself in the image of a monkey showing his teeth like a monkey, his ears sticking out like a monkey's. He hopes he won't trip or fall. He grabs the iron poker from behind the stove and swings it as though about to kill an ox. The glass shatters into smithereens. His ears ring with the terrible breaking tinkling of the glass, as Ugljesha vengefully grates his teeth. He breaks the last piece of glass ready to leer at him.
Ugljesha Skakavica goes out to his front door and triumphantly sings: "Ohohooo!" He picks up a stone and hurls it with all his might through the open door and at the frame of the mirror. The stone makes a big hole in the wall. He could have brought the house done like that. As though carried on wings, he rushes towards the quarry, grabs the crowbar and starts swinging it and digging. He takes out the rock to wall in his father's grave.
The pieces of the mirror have been left to lie around the room; for him they are already only dead objects. He's not afraid of anything anymore.
Translated by Alice Copple-Tosic
It was said of Grgur Skakavitsa, who went blind at the end of the war, "The man sees as much as he is able to include in a story!" And Grgur, one of the wisest men from Bishan, could include centuries in his story, forwards and backwards, sifting them through fine and coarse sieves. He could take the living to the grave without them sensing where he was leading them, then, once they were there, he would show them who and what they were. He could raise the dead from the grave, lead them through the twelve secret doors, then under the rainbow up in the sky and thus transform them into their opposite. All who listened to him bitterly regretted that such a man had gone by them unnoticed and they had not made his acquaintance long before. When Skakavitsa stopped in a story, he saw his reflection deep in the eyes of each listener, skillfully plucked him up and led him out of his wandering. He was able with one word to solve and clear up the greatest mysteries, those that were rumored and whispered about, not so much from fear of the authorities as from helplessness because the truth was unattainable. Since he had gone blind, everything seemed to be different from before.
As soon as Grgur opened his mouth to disclose a secret and tell the stirring events that had happened to him personally he knew that something would disrupt him and interfere before he would even start to tell the story, let alone finish it. Things were constantly happening to him, making his feet stumble, his tongue twist and his eyes run. Analogous to a black cat crossing your path and you helplessly await the penalty. It's a divine warning and a message by which the mortal are separated from the immortal and sinless. And why shouldn't all sorts of things happen to him considering all those who listened to him. There would either be a sudden rainstorm with lightning and rumbling thunder, or else he would get an excruciating toothache, and all that would left of the story would be moaning and groaning. Or perhaps what Grgur felt to be the worst would happen, Mijat would appear out of nowhere like a calf miming into the neighbor's corn for he got the upper hand of everyone's story, making it seem that it was he who had been a prisoner of war and not blind Grgur, who had started the story, filtering it like sap from a dry dogwood. What was left for Grgur then but to thrash the ground with his blind mans stick, acquired while the war was still on, which he carried proudly, as though made from a battle standard.
Mijat had learned to be the center of attention wherever he went. In any company, both known and unknown, he would jump into conversation, like the man from Stolac who dived into the Trebisnica River, although he just flailed around and barely stayed afloat. But Mijat had gotten used to giving speeches, from the end of the war onwards.
Where he couldn't succeed through telling stories, he managed with his gusle or by singing dirges. At the beginning of a story, Mijat would cleverly announce a tragic plot, keeping everyone on tenterhooks until he unraveled it and told the outcome. And he spun his yarn like a woman spinning on a spindle, turning and twisting, drilling like a carpenter in those places where a man was most sensitive. As soon as he reached an important detail in the story, Mijat would always look down on us, as though sitting on some golden throne, expecting a humble bow from all those before him. It was not surprising for one listening to him to feel Mijat's feet walking all over his face and head. Where the story was the weakest, he would yell, "All of this was told to me by an eyewitness, he could die right now!". And no one dared leave out of fear that the man really would die, and the listener was then cut off for a moment when the wool to be spun on the spinning wheel had run out and gotten tangled. Even though everyone knew that the eyewitness could be none other than Grgur, whose wool was being used to spin the yarn, everyone stared at Mijat and his mouth as if it were he they really loved to hear tell the story. If he had been like the others, he would have been right-handed and not left-handed. Although he said to that, "Well, Leonardo was left-handed, too, and that's why he was a genius!"
When Grgur heard his own words in that mouth, for he had tried to tell the same tale before Mijat at least a thousand times, he suddenly wilted like a flower in the cemetery in late afternoon. Mijat set fire to his soul like the Venetians set fire to our forests. Even though he had nothing to say, Mijat appeared to be the better speaker. He knew how to twist his words like a woman winding a ball of the thinnest yarn, to wave his arms like an eagle that has grabbed its prey and is ready to take wing. He knew how to roar loudly in the middle of a story, thus scaring both the hero and the listeners. And the women would immediately whisper that he did that out of sorrow for his long dead child, and they would give themselves to him in their thoughts out of pity. Is so little pity needed for them to forget where they are? He mercilessly engrossed each one around him in the story, like a spider its victim preparing to eat it, while the victim could no longer escape from his grip. Sometimes it seemed that he was ready, if it were possible, to pass judgment on all those who did not listen to him, like deserters in die worst conflict of war. If he noticed skepticism on the face of at least one listener, he would immediately ask a riddle and keep him waiting for the answer, as though his very life depended on it. So there was nothing strange about the fact that everyone around Mijat sat with gaping mouths while he threw them all sorts of wonders, although they had been torn from Grgur's heart. God, don't you hear what injustices there are in this world? Why don't you at least clear your throat and warn those who wander around and blaspheme? Just when he had presented some lighter incident, when he had cleverly introduced nature (he was mowing the lawn, cutting some tree for he was counting on our susceptibility towards the destruction of nature) and had built it into the story like the cornerstone of a house, throwing lime and sand around it so that the worst weather could neither turn it over nor tear it out, Mijat would suddenly change his course and cover up his tracks, just like the foxes at night around the chicken coop. He would throw new details straight into the listener's face. Bang, right between the eyes! For there are few people who are infinitely receptive and will react immediately, and many more who are a pillar of stone even when the drama of birth or death takes place before their eyes.
When Grgur heard someone else talking about his hardships during the war, he shook all over as if preparing for the worst punishment. Then he cracked like a dog rose when red liquid flows down its branches. But, no one knew how to read Grgur's face.
And Mijat always made some mistake in recounting the most important details, not even noticing how much this tormented Grgur. He was convinced that this had all happened to him, and not someone named Grgur, thus he would sigh and have such difficulties in retelling die past. Whenever he quoted someone, Mijat would raise his voice as if repeating the words of Napoleon Bonaparte himself, whom he admired more than anyone. Neither he nor the others saw Grgur's frowning and contorted face, the pain he felt at every unnecessary flourish and frill, as if someone were beating him with a rifle butt in the side. For, his life in the camp had been the ritual of the crucifixion, and that is how it should be presented. There was no room for any glorification of events, not the least pity.
Mijat was a man whose pocket always seemed to hold the key to unlock secrets and solve all the main problems of the world, heal the sick and feed the hungry. And Grgur was dosed within his blindness as though in an iron shell through which he could not see, but he, more than the others, felt every lie that Mijat added to the story. Stamena relaxed things a little, running up as though she'd lost her wits, for the night before her pregnant cow had disappeared in the mountains where we always heard the howling of wolves, morning and evening. Grgur calmed her down immediately and told her where to find her cow. He knew the nature of animals as well as of humans. He had delivered women and cows, sheep and mares. Even dogs. His soul was a fresco on the wall of the Dobricevo monastery near Bileca. It was linked either with the angels or with the devils, for he always guessed everything correctly. You could hide whatever you wanted, he would guess where it was right away.
As the story progressed, Mijat looked as if he was approaching the Throne of Christ. But, oh, his eyes resembled those of a vampire. In places where he was lacking facts and imagination, he invented and elaborated. He devastated history like a plundering army through Herzegovina. His head was a hammer and mallet, pounding where it was the firmest. He expanded and enlivened everything suspenseful in the story. He wouldn't bestow even one glance upon Grgur, who was energetically packing his pipe with tobacco, not even when he was getting the worst of it in the story. Mijat strutted around like a crow when it lands on the roof of our house. Maybe he was making fun of both the war and human suffering, and of Grgur himself, who knows. If he had at least turned around a bit as he spoke, he would have seen tears on the old man's face, and wrinkles on his forehead like damp and rotten wood.
When Mijat began describing the suffering in the camp and the prisoners' preparations for execution, Grgur was all-atremble again. It wasn't fear of hunger, of beatings and humiliation, but unrest at the very thought of what people could be like. He coughed loudly and sharply, hoping that at least one person would turn to the source of the story. But the people and listeners seemed to be born for illusion and for love of the orator, waving his finger. But these were all unimportant details for Mijat's inspiration. He added all sorts of wonders to the tale, on the spot. At that moment he resembled an illusionist who had taken the breath away from all those who listened to him, thus everyone looked very pale and sick.
Just as Mijat was getting ready to rush into the continuation of the story about the camp, from where he had left off, Stamena's child ran up to Grgur and said, "Grandpa Grgur, do you know where our mare is?" The old man thought for a moment, turned his head to the left and then to the right, as though hoping he would regain his sight, and announced, "There she is in Jagos's wheat!" When Jagos heard this, he ran like the devil towards his field that had just turned green, and Stamena's child rushed after him. When he was quiet and listening, Jagos always moaned as if having a kidney stone attack. And when he ran, he mewed like a cat. He was one of those people who say hello when they run into you, but you can see the worst curses unspoken on their lips (Such a gap between expectations and reality).
Mijat, with the children staring at him fixedly, for he scolded them and frightened them by saying that everything they did was wrong and backwards, only quoted small and unknown people, never someone like Einstein or Tesla. He would always say, "As someone called Milentije would say" and that someone would give him enough room to support his story in whatever way he wanted. He never mentioned the Bible, although we knew that his corrections encompassed it as well. In the middle of die narration, he quickly pulled out his watch from an inner coat pocket and stood stock-still, as if cautioning those present that every story has its designated time limit Just like a man's life. He seemed to be asking us: Are you at all aware of how you spend your days and of how you will end them? He looked at the numbers on his watch, shook it before his ear and fixed it, just like a poor writer who fixes one word instead of the whole sentence. What he didn't say was: You don't deserve even this much.
When he had related everything how they had reached the camp, and how they had been tortured there Mijat suddenly stopped, as if out of breath. Ahemmm-hemmm, he cleared something in his throat, but it wouldn't go away. It seemed as if he'd forgotten the crucial pan about the escape from the camp. The audience stared at him helplessly, looking for support somewhere, something to grab hold of, but all that could be heard around them was the buzzing of the inarticulate universe and the chaos that is felt as soon as human words stop. It was futile to clear your throat, futile to make any effort. Mijat had forgotten the end of the story, the pan where Grgur managed to escape from the camp. Now was the time to remember how to tell another's story, with another's words, another's language and another's mouth! Come to your senses, man, and look around, remember what you were talking about. Even if someone were to cut off his nose or hand, he would still not know how to end the story. And he didn't venture to lie anymore. For God had placed all the ideas and events with the eyewitness the only place where they would not be lost everything else was out-and-out fabrication. People are equally amazing who are worn-out on the outside and preserved on the inside, or worn-out on the inside and preserved on the outside. The link between them gets strained somewhere and breaks. Mijat was among the former, and Grgur among the latter. Thus they could never get close to each other, like the moon and the stars.
Then Grgur puffed on his pipe and with the smoke drew the way the prisoners had escaped, evading certain death in the camp. The circle of smoke in his eyes tangled and untangled Mijat's torment.
"We didn't escape, because it was impossible to escape, there was barbed wire all around and it was electrified... The liberating forces rescued us, our army and the Russian army!" said Grgur and thus saved the story from certain failure. It was as if he had snatched the scattered, drying wheat away before the rain, as if he had saved the lamb before the wolves could tear it apart. He cheered up all those who had doubted who was the hero of Mijat's tale. Perhaps some of them felt it to be a slap in the face for their error and naiveté. Mijat himself stood there in disgrace, like a mower who boasts that he is the best, and his scythe breaks the first time he swings it. Like a suitor who comes courting without a suit and tie, without money and without his private pans. Like a military leader who is forced to sign the capitulation of his country. His eyebrows suddenly went up, he raised the curtain from his eves for probably the first time, to see his own shipwreck. He stood there like a tormented creature, but quickly got hold of himself and shrieked.
"It seems to me that your eyes can see and you're pretending, Grgur!" burst out Mijat, staring into his eye holes as into the darkness of night. There is an old saying that goes: attack is the best defense! Others came up and immediately started to parrot him, "You can see, you can see! Stop pretending!" These words echoed through the crowd and got louder. It was not until the words ricocheted and resounded in the surrounding hills that many understood the warning they contained. A woman went up to Grgur and touched his coat, another pulled his arm, someone tried to raise his eyelids to show the pupils, and his stick was hidden to see if he could find it. The crowd screamed and demanded that the old man admit what Mijat had been the first to say. They were ready to attack him, beat him up, to quarter him with horses. This is only proof of how brutal men can be, without die slightest compassion, instead of taking everything with reservations, both what Mijat said and what the others said. Matthew and Mark both write that Jesus was the guest of Simon the Leper, and this should also be taken with reservations.
When he saw what situation he was in and that he couldn't defend himself, Grgur said, "I see, but only through our black sheep!" Mijat jumped up, as if discovering a secret, still thirsty for revenge and a turn of events. No one had understood that in the story he'd told Mijat had been cut open by Grgur's hand, just as Murat had been by Milos' hand on the Kosovo battlefield. Mijat rushed into Grgur's barn and grabbed the only black sheep they had. Kneeling on its chest, he pulled a sharp blade across its throat. Blood poured out and the animal, resisting desperately, received the death throes that finally quieted her. Mijat's skin was as thin and gray as parchment.
That very moment, as Mijat was bloodying the knife he held, Grgur tumbled off his chair and died on the spot. His watch, brought back from life in the colonies, stopped and was silent. It was as if the hands had entered into the rhythm of the soul and expired at the same time. Or Zeus had killed him with lightning as he did Pluto. There was no end to the astonishment.
Now it was Mijat who gave the funeral oration, pretending to be unhappy and full of sorrow. He who had slaughtered other's livestock like that since the war. He said that everyone's judgment day was decreed and that was how it must be.
Stories started up right away, and the invisible creature dreaming them made contact. Grgur had not died because he was old and sick, nor because his sight had resided in a black sheep, rather he died because others had taken away from him the story of his life and suffering. And how could Mijat talk about something he had never seen or experienced, he whose heart was smaller than that of a mouse. And everyone knew that, everyone who had heard his lies for so many years. Or else the truth is so obscure and deceitful that the paths that lead to it are crowded with uncertainty and bitterness.
Grgur's face was frozen, with an expression of wonder, as if posing for a picture. It was as if he had yet to impart his final bits of wisdom. He looked like a hero after a terrible battle that he alone knows about and can recount everything else was a pale copy with earthly storms and heavenly disasters slowly calming around them.