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Balkan Farewells
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EDITIONS
- Balkan Farewells
- The Balkan Roulette
- The Shade of Reason
- Love as punishment
- Half-way o heaven
- Good night my friends
- Dreams have no price
- We are all brothers
The Balkan aquarelle

 

 



CHAPTER I

 The gloomy, boring autumn rain was doggedly watering the dilapidated roofs of the old part of the city of Pula [1] that 1991, while I drearily looked through the window of my apartment in the attic, trying to pick out something in the twilight that would lift me from my lethargy, that would give some kind of meaning to the evening. All in vain! If ever you feel that time stands still, then it is on such rainy autumn evenings, particularly if you are alone, as I was. I had turned off the television, trying not to insult the little common sense that had remained to me after all these years, and especially after the events of the past few months. How can a normal man watch some foreign comedy series, which continue to alternate with reports from the front lines, series with characters and plots that at this moment had not a single thing in common with the events hanging over this Balkan region, where the talk was only of war, hatred, pain, suffering, and everything else accompanying with such social events intrinsic to these regions. In any case, how could you concentrate on the story of such a series when just at the funniest moment (at least as could be concluded from the canned laughter of a crowd, as if they were actually following the series), a banner appeared on the screen announcing something like air raid warnings or general war threats have been declared for Karlovac, Gospic (sorry, wrong, for Gospic it is given only once a day, as it usually doesn't cease there at all), and other towns in this most beautiful country on earth, at the moment at war. Admittedly, in this fairy tale country a state of war has not yet been declared (if it will ever be declared), but this is no obstacle to the daily destruction of everything and the killing of all that the "liberators" get their hands on. Luckily, for who knows what reason, Pula had so far been spared destruction (probably thanks only to divine providence, and in terms of human merit for this, probably after this undeclared war a sufficient number of those who saved the city from this evil will make themselves known, as if they had not existed, naturally, we or rather the city would not be here).

Never mind, let them leave it alone, let them not destroy it, and as to who will hand out and receive kudos for the worthy, well, will that matter to anyone then? Presumably not!I put on some old Pink Floyd and poured myself a brandy. French, a cheap variety of "Napoleon" cognac. It at least looks good, and I don't drink it straight anyway, so I am hardly fit to judge. An ideal night for a little contemplation of the past, and naturally, this has to be accompanied by alcohol, as who in the Balkans can think in a completely sober state about their own past, or God forbid, about the meaningfulness of the future. In fact, it is now several years since I have stopped drinking, so that the first glass has the same effect as the former fifth, sixth, or who knows which. Depending on the occasion. And I have changed my drink, if it could even be said that I drink anymore, given that the occasional half celebratory glasses that I drink here and there definitely represent an insult to the majority of grown men born anywhere in the Balkans. Oh yes, once I drank vodka, and it could be said in considerable quantities, to say the least. Now I can't even look at this once valued drink, just as I cannot understand how I could even have drunk it, and even less in what adds up to hardly negligible amounts. But this is only part of a problem which can colloquially be placed under the working title: how to understand your own past in a section of it which is now unacceptable for who knows what reasons. Impossible, as the problem lies in present reasons, and not in the past itself. So how can you even consider someone else's past?

 That's it! As soon as I reach this state, I begin to be distracted by the sterile lifestyle philosophy of my own everyday existence, which is as fruitless as the majority of my relationships with women. Women! For the first time I remember them this evening. I start out well with them, but finish even quicker. But, more about this later. Women in a state of war are in the background, are they not? Not every evil is bad (come on, try to resist being a male chauvinist when you are given a war as an excuse, even an undeclared one).

 Men! Friends! Front line! My God, where are all those various characters now? Nice, wonderful, devoted, corrupt, hypocritical... all types had filed past me during all the years I had spent in the uniform of the Yugoslav Navy, [2] and also after my resignation during the last year from the YN, when I had finally become a "civilian".

 Some are dead, in fact several, but they took care of this before the war, with no monuments. I had spent my youth and numerous sleepless nights in the company of Toni. He had slept through one such night; too many drugs for a tired body, a good-bye note that I regularly read once a year, on the anniversary of his death, of course, when I regularly get drunk and cry to myself, with no witnesses and as if at the beginning. As the years go by, I cry even more on that day and think even less of Toni. The only constant is the drinking to mark the occasion.

  Aca, short for Alexander, my best man, [3] or in fact I was his best man, is a non-commissioned officer in the Yugoslav Navy, or whatever it is now called. He has a great heart, like his native Vojvodina, [4] and is the only person I know who accepts all the evil of the world with a Buddhistic nonchalance, because, as he says, what the hell, it had to happen, what can you do, forget about it. Even this best man business was nothing to write home about, he got divorced quicker than he married, but we remained best men. As far as he is concerned, I was only his best man, not his wife's, and so the fact of divorce had no effect on the further development of our friendship. I haven't heard from him for days, for months, he is stuck in the barracks at the base and they won't let them out until their ships leave for Montenegro. [5] They can't even phone. Nothing!

 Boris, of "mixed blood" from a marriage between a Serb and a Croat, born in Belgrade, uncommitted, no longer belonged anywhere. He had only been in Pula for three years, having signed a contract for a temporary position (this was introduced by the already former armed forces just before the breakup of the country, as an attempt to reorganize and modernize, although in fact it all boiled down to the fact that they no longer had sufficient candidates for the military academies, and thus no later lifetime soldiers; no longer did they have sufficient numbers of those crazy enough or those forced to choose military schooling followed by a lifetime of modelling military uniforms). His parents divorced, he was left to the streets, and found a way out in the army. At least temporarily. Nothing original, but effective, as our new president Frankie would say. [6] And, naturally, such types always glue themselves to me. From the most varied motives, of course.

 Dino is teaching sociology somewhere in Slovenia. He exchanged his uniform for a university department. I'm not certain that his choice is exactly perfect, but who can ever understand Slovenians? They are too close to the Austrian border, so that the broad-hearted Slavic soul suffers detrimentally from Germanic influences. But then again, when I think of female members of that nation, somehow it seems to me that they retain some kind of balance with the rest of us, and on average they are nonetheless acceptable. At least the ones that I have met.

 Rinnnng! Telephone! Who thought up this damned contraption that as soon as you turn thirty only rings when you least need it? I'll have to get some quieter phone, this one that I have could be used, knock on wood, as an air-raid siren for my entire neighborhood. Never mind that in this part of the old town you can no longer alarm even the rats when you accidentally step on them on the stairs in the early morning, when most of the esteemed inhabitants are sincerely trying to find their own front doors.

 "Yeah", I barely muttered into the phone.

 "Sima here. Robi, is it you?"

 "Sima who?"

 "Sima, man, from intelligence. What the hell's the matter with you, don't you recognize my voice?"

 "Oh, it's you. Hey, what's up, Simke, how are you doing?"

 "Don't fuck around. Listen, I have something very serious to tell you. As a friend. Are we still friends or have you gone over to the other side?"

 "The hell with it, Simke, what's the right side?"

 "Come on, Robi, you're a normal guy. A little crazy, but an honest man, and I would be unhappy to see you suffer. That's why I'm calling. My lot are farting around with something, you're seriously getting on their nerves, 'cause you're organizing all the paperwork for your Croats that are fleeing from the army, writing some kind of requests, encouraging them, and all that stuff. Okay, what the hell, you were doing that even this summer, and we knew that, but now before they leave, they're going on about it, they probably saw you on television, at some ceremony where the Croatian hymn was played, and you standing to attention and God knows what else. In any case, whatever happens, I told myself I had to call you, tell you to take care these few days. Hell, we drank entire seas of stuff together, it wouldn't be right for me not to tell you."

 "Oh my Simke! Fuck it, what can I say? Thanks. Tell your idiots that we trained together, at the same training grounds, and if they want to come, then come. You know what they say in Dalmatia [7] where I come from: you can't kill anyone twice! You know how I like company, and I have no intention of going to heaven alone, so let them come. Who gives a shit for them anyway, how are you doing?"

 "Forget it! My wife and kids left for fucking miserable hell, on a boat to Montenegro, with all the furniture, I haven't the faintest where they are. If they survive, and my wife is indestructible, then somehow they'll make their way to Poûarevac, to my parents, and after that who knows. Oh yeah, I already lost all the furniture. You know that horse's ass Mirko from the auxiliary ships. Of course you do. Well, see, he was on the same ship, and somewhere around the island of Vis, just in the middle of the Adriatic, he had a nervous breakdown, and before they packed him into the strait-jacket, he threw half the furniture into the sea. Only at Vis did he figure out that he was leaving Croatia forever, and the guy just snapped. Of course, it stands to reason that the half of the furniture he tossed overboard included mine. But so what. I don't understand half of what is going on today. In fact, I don't understand a thing. But him I understand."

 "And you? What are you going to do?"

 "Well, I'm going to try to get myself involved in some kind of paperwork, you know the drill, become some kind of desk-jockey, find a way around this shitty war. If I succeed, fine. If not, fuck it. No deal."

 "Hey, where are you calling from? You're not at headquarters, are you?"

 "Are you nuts? I'm at the apartment of a friend who already left for Serbia, and gave me the keys. I don't know what I need it for, but what the hell. I can't go to my own apartment; who knows who is using it now. You know, we spooks can still manage to get outside for an hour or two. Special commando units from Niö have been sent in, supposedly to guard us from Croatian fascists, and they won't let anyone out. Man, they're crazy, I swear. Kill you like a dog. And when they eliminate you, you're a deserter. Pack you in a suitcase, send you to Serbia, and bury you with full honors. You try to understand it. What a crazy nation."

 "Simke, thanks again, and get back safely. I don't want to have you on my conscience."

 "Hey, just let me ask something! What was going on with that hymn when you were on television?"

 "Nothing. We were organizing an officer's committee."

 "What?"

 "An officer's meeting"

 "What does that mean?"

 "Well, its something like the former Union of Veterans of the People's Liberation Army, the partisans, you know. An organization of officers. Officers from all former Croatian armies, from the National Guard, the Ustasha, [8] the partisans, the French legionaries, and even us in the Yugoslav armed forces. They're from all over. Average age of sixty years, no barefoot children. Speaking of the average, even you can join if you want."

 "I could? How?"

 "Simple. You merely state that you don't give a flying fart for Yugoslavia, that you have always felt like a Croat, but you have just realized this. A bit late, but hell, better late than never. Or you can stay a Serb if it means so much, but you feel that Croatia is your homeland, as in Serbia you have no one except your wife, and children, and the rest of your family, who've given up on you anyway, which is exactly what you could expect of them. Just don't declare yourself a Yugoslav, that a little advanced for this day and age. And being uncommitted in the Balkans has always involved a high risk factor. And, of course, that if necessary you will sacrifice your life for..."

 "My ass, I'll sacrifice myself!"

 "For the love of God, see the point! Today you can neither be a Serb nor a Croat if you are not prepared to sacrifice your life, so it's all the same. And in any case you're going to lose that crazy head somewhere, but at least you don't have to travel very far. Less expenses."

 "You know what? When I think about it a bit more, you Croats are really crazy. You Dalmatians especially. And you in particular."

 "Look who's talking. A member of the most reasonable nation on the planet and beyond. In any case, in terms of the television, I didn't even know they were filming until I turned up that evening on the late news. Christ, my legs felt cut off from bravery when I recognized myself, standing so rigidly. I knew that your lot would immediately become interested in my health, so for days already I've been sleeping with a pistol under my pillow."

 "What a good way to begin a war of liberation. And why do you hold your hand over your heart when the hymn is playing?"

 "I haven't the faintest, just like today I don't know what half the shit was for when I worked for the army."

 "Now that's true. Listen, buddy, what can I say? Hold on, keep far away from the battlefield. Don't let them give you some damned commission, you're a goner. You can't avoid the front then. You're trained for all kinds of stuff, so you know you're screwed. Oh, yeah! Listen, I'll tear up your personal file in the command center, and you save yourself from those who know something about you as you best can. In the end, you've been a civilian for quite a while, so they might well leave you in peace. Hey buddy, you hold tight. I could talk to you for hours, but I have to go. I don't know, somehow after this conversation everything seems a bit easier. At least one thing hasn't changed. You are always the same. You know what, who gives a shit, it was nice while it lasted. I'm leaving these days, so if we don't hear from one another again, we'll continue our talk in some other life."

 "Absolutely, man. Those of us born in the Balkans are guaranteed a second life, 'cause the first one doesn't count. Written off in advance. Take care!"

 "Hey, wait! When you mention the Balkans, I hear that your lot in power claim that Croatia isn't in the Balkans. Where the hell is it then?"

 "My dear Simke, your problem is of a double nature. On the one hand, you're an intelligence officer, and according to the nature of your work you shouldn't understand it, and on the other hand, you're a Serb, and in the nature of things you can't understand it. This is a fine distinction between political and geographic concepts, which you will perhaps understand only in another life. Just don't bother asking me if I understand it."

 "Ha, ha! I won't ask, and I'm not certain that I will understand in any life. Hey, Robi, do you believe in God? I mean all this stuff about the afterlife, and so forth."

 "Hey, man, relax and sneak back into the barracks. You're a disgrace to the entire communist movement. The late Jozo, if he heard you, would be spinning in his grave at Dedinje. [9] Where did all the ideals and stuff disappear?"

 "Fuck ideals, you see where they got us. Who in the Balkans can still have any ideals! Here, this can only last from today to tomorrow, but in the long term, no way. Sometimes this short term can be pushed to last forty years, but in the end everything goes strait to hell. But really, do you believe in God or not? I'm asking seriously!"

 "My old friend, you have obviously already realized, despite being a spook and a Serb, that there are no unbelievers in war."

 "That's what I thought. Now I really have to go. Goodbye, my friend."

 "Goodbye!"

 The line went dead. I put down the receiver on the telephone and dully stared at it. One more person disappearing from my life. With dignity, at least towards me. Towards others? Who am I to judge for others? And what did he say, that I hadn't changed? My God! He wasn't even aware how much we or all around us had changed. And how can you remain the same at all when everything about you has changed? You can continue to act "yourself" for your surroundings, as you had otherwise done constantly prior to that, just adjusting the grimaces and vocabulary to the new conditions, you can paint over the façade a bit in line with the new winds that are blowing, and that's that. Always the same! How could it be the same? What was I like before, and what am I now? It is unbelievable how little in fact we know one another, you can spend years and years together with someone, and in fact you know nothing.

 Momentarily, it again seemed to me that people don't change at all, that everything that we note about them tomorrow, that surprises us, that we didn't expect, we suddenly recognize that it had long ago existed, and just for who knows what reason we had not seen it. They didn't show it, we didn't recognize it, it didn't interest us, it's all the same. Wherever you turn, in the end it turns out that we know nothing about anyone. Starting with ourselves, and working outwards.

 If we further place this in the context of the region in which we live, then it is truly hard to say whether this should be called a change in a person or merely a simple adaptation to the conditions with which he is faced, most often independently of his own will, in which each person will cope as he can, where the rules of behavior have not been set in advance, where the only goal is to survive to the next day. And tomorrow we wake (if we awake) exactly where we were, with all those immensely objective social circumstances that directly effect our fate, on which we naturally can have no effect whatsoever. We will either adapt or we won't. It seems to me that the most adaptable living species in the Balkans is human, under the condition that all relevant specimens had been born and grown up here. Other members of the human race, no matter where they come from, have never nor will ever adjust themselves to the Balkans, nor will they ever understand its peoples They cannot understand the strength of our innumerable historical truths, the even more numerous living myths, and the current fallacies that no one is even counting, all of which form such a firm weaving that it is difficult to establish a boundary between them. More exactly, it is impossible. We were born with this, we live through this (whether we want to or not), and one day it seems that all is clear from the very beginnings of the world, and on another day something occurs that no one ever, even in their second thoughts, could think would occur, and the entire cycle is reconsidered from the beginning. And how can you understand it when you live one part of your life according to one truth, a second part of life by a different myth, the third part of your life with a third fallacy, and this is how life passes. You're born under one hymn, live with another, and only God knows with which one you will die. And you try to find, from all these endless international aspiring geniuses now circling through the Balkans and teaching us that it really isn't quite democratic to massacre your neighbors (is it our fault everyone else is so far away and won't come fight us?), even one who will understand this. "Malo morgen" (fat chance), as Slobo put it. [10] You can't find two natives in the entire Balkans that would have even approximately the same viewpoint about such things. It doesn't matter to which nation they belong. And when they don't have common viewpoints, well war is only a different manner of carrying out politics, isn't it?

 The hell with it, I'm digressing. As things stand, tonight I could really get drunk for a change, listen to old records, and remember a time when I didn't bother my head with things like this. A time when I thought about things the rest of the world that was not at war thought of, about women, love, parties, hanging out, friendships that seemed as eternal as the youth in which they originated.

 Midnight had already passed when I took stock and found that I had drunk almost half the bottle of "Napoleon", and that it had gone to my head. When I started putting on records of homegrown bands, then I knew I was in trouble. I don't listen to them in what could be called a "normal" state. And when I do listen to them, then I start with Oliver, then various other Dalmatian troubadours, and after several hours, I turn to folk songs. I listen on headphones, naturally, as today you can't know when some enlightened type with the wrong provenience will pass by the apartment, hear the music, and shoot. To hell with music accompanied by explosive effects in the near vicinity!

 I took off the headphones to change the record, when the doorbell went off. Who knows how long it's been ringing, I think, since while I had the headphones on my ears, the could bomb half of Pula, and I wouldn't hear a thing considering the volume of the music. K-r-r-r-k. I must take this occasion to note that the doorbell has an exceptionally irritating tone, which happened during its mutation from a normal sound into this rattling, which was again a result of my former not highly conscious activities. At least as far as I remember. See, several years ago, in a fit of passion, I spilt it into pieces with a single accidental blow; the next day, when both passion and the hangover had passed, I tried to put it together from parts that I gathered throughout the apartment. Since then, for years halfway put back together, it tries to ring (if such a sound can be described by that verb), each time letting me know that it is on its deathbed and that this is one of its last attempts to tell me that it wasn't guilty for that unhappy blow, and even less for all that went before it. For some unknown reason, I continue to listen to it, although I long ago bought a new bell that waits to be installed. I can't do it. I keep waiting for this one to die by itself, in peace, then maybe my conscience would bother me less. But it won't. I know it won't.

 I quickly hopped into my room for the pistol, reloaded the breech, and moved towards the door. I stood to the side and asked who is it.

 "It's Aca, for God's sake, open the door. I've been ringing for half an hour. Are you deaf?"

 "Aca, is that you?"

 "No, it's my dead grandfather. Open the fucking door already."

 A million thoughts raced in a moment through my head, which was already ringing from the drink and the too-loud music (when I have to put on headphones, then I crank up the volume). What was Aca doing at the door, in the midnight hour? Maybe they had put pressure on him, maybe the others were there with him, preparing something for me, should I ask him if he's alone... Oh hell, how can I ask Aca if he's alone? Did he come... If I can't trust him, then who can I trust? But then again, why turn up just now, when I haven't heard from him in months? Oh well, what the hell, if I have to lose my head, then let it be poetic, let it be with my best man with whom I have spent half my life. Now I really have gotten combat fatigue. I unlock one of the two locks on the doors, first the old one, then I go on to the other security lock, which I had installed a few months ago at the urging of several friends. This second lock is so complicated that I would always succeed in unlocking it only at the third or fourth attempt, and several times I had already, usually in the early morning hours, drawn a pistol for a quick removal. I still haven't, but thank God, there still is time, I'll take care of it. Finally I succeed in unlocking it and opening the door.

 Aca and Boris stood in front of the door, both fairly wet from rain, looking at me like... I don't know how to describe it, so that it wouldn't seem horribly pathetic. It should be mentioned that Aca and a large mountain bear from Lika, [11] in the dark, at a distance of thirty feet, would be hard to distinguish. This must be because his parents had been from Lika, and had only moved to Vojvodina after the second world war. Aca simply flew through the door, fell into my embrace, grabbed me and walloped my back (this is where the bear comparison comes in handy). Boris stood to the side and waited. Well, I thought, he is smaller, maybe I'll live through this, as long as I somehow move this mammoth away. The same ceremony was then repeated with Boris.

 "Where the hell have you been, damn it?," thundered Aca in his baritone.

 "Here I am, guy, just as always. Where have you been? I've been trying for months to get to you. Are you truly alive?"

 "Alive, fuck it, what do you think? You can't get rid of your "godfather" so easily. What the hell is all this on the doors, my God," he asked, staring in wonder at the shafts of the other "security" lock, that extended along the entire door. "Fuck me, you've made a fortress of your apartment. Ha, ha, ha! Hey, this is really good. If someone comes to snuff you, while you unlock all this shit, they'll give up. No one would have the nerves to wait until you unlocked all this stuff. What idiot talked you into this?"

 "I can see that all those drinks still didn't succeed in totally destroying your powers of observation," I laughed, noting his reaction to my lock.

 "Speaking of drinks, what can you offer us?," he asked. "I'm as dry as gunpowder, and you know that I'm not really at home in such a state."

 "Napoleon brandy, on the table".

 "Well, well, we're going French. That sounds good."

 Aca went into the kitchen, took two glasses, for himself and Boris, and returned to the table. I discreetly hid the pistol in the drawer of a chest next to the door, so they can't see it, and joined them at the table. Boris was still standing to the side and holding his tongue. He was unnaturally pale and looked as if he would start to weep at any moment.

 "What's with you, why are you so frozen?," I asked him.

 "Nothing," he forced out.

 "Jesus, they almost took us out when we were getting over the barracks walls," Aca jumped in. "Those crazy special forces troops. The kid almost peed in his pants."

 "I pissing myself from fear?," yelped Boris, and finally he also sat down at the table where Aca had already lifted a glass. "You were the one howling on the wall like some wounded animal, and not me! For God's sake, they must have heard you all the way to the Arena, [12] you were yelling so much, not to mention those fools at the watchtower three hundred feet away."

 "Naturally, you idiot, when my balls were caught on the barbed wire on the wall, and you were on the other side of the wall pulling on my leg like crazy," returned Aca. "Imagine, my friend, this Serbian tragedy. I am hanging on the wire, my left ball halfway punctured, fellow Serbs shooting at me, and all of this so that I could see my Croatian best man. And this Yugoslavian fool is hanging on my leg, and tugging on it, tugging. And shouting at me to get down, as if my greatest wish was to remain on the fence to the end of my life. And how could I get down until I had released myself from the wire. And how could I release myself when this fool was pulling my leg down and not letting go. And as he was pulling down, I was roaring with pain from the bottom of my heart. I cursed the mother that birthed this cretin, and all his other relatives, which is surely normal in such a situation, I shout for him to let go of my leg, but hell no, he doesn't care. He keeps on pulling like a horse in a yoke."

 "And how does this Serbian tragedy end, for God's sake?," I asked.

 "Elegantly," answered Aca. "The trousers split, half my leg was sliced, blood dripping off my big toe, and I haven't yet taken a look at my ball. Something probably remained of it. From the barracks to here, I've been giving it a wide circle while I walk."

 "We almost lost our heads because of your seventy pounds extra weight," Boris added half maliciously, who had quickly drank his first glass and poured another. "And in terms of walking, thanks to your inbuilt elegance, no real difference could be noted."

 "You shut up. I've been totally fed up with you these past few months", complained Aca.

 "Okay, fine, let me see what you left on the wire, and what you brought with you," I told Aca.

 Aca got up and showed his leg. Truly his left leg was all ripped up, and traces of blood could be seen everywhere on the trousers. I had at first thought that this was all a joke, or at least that everything had been exaggerated, to cheer me up and get me in the mood, as he had always done. He accepted everything in life with a dose of healthy humor, always in this manner watering down reality, making it somehow more acceptable to himself and others. His motto was that it can never be so bad that it can't be worse, and if this is the way it is, "...fuck it, we should live with what we have". And for this reason he was accepted by everyone, including me, from the first days of long ago 1974, when me met for the first time in the military school in Split. However, judging from the traces of blood, this time he had really fixed himself.

 "Come on ,man, let's put some alcohol on that, so it doesn't get infected."

 "Forget it, we came to see you, then we're off."

 "Stop talking nonsense. Come over here. I have some moonshine. [13] Put it where you cut yourself."

 I pulled Aca from the living room (which is also the entry hall) to the kitchen, where I had a bottle of some kind of homemade brandy that someone had given me who knows when. Aca took off his trousers, opened the bottle, poured some brandy into his palm, and slapped it onto the cut in his leg. The effect was momentary and shattering. He began literally to jump about the kitchen, while tears of pain ran down his face.

 "God damn it!" he yelled. "Where the hell did you get this? You couldn't even use it to wash windows without protective gloves! You can't use it to doctor mutilated deserters! You're warped! I knew that I would perish tonight, but not from brandy! Yow! It burns like hell. Yow!"

 "What a hero," threw in Boris from the living room. "For three days you've been convincing me to come, no problem about the bullets, we'll pull through somehow, and now you're wailing about a little brandy."

 "Listen, kid," responded Aca, "if you don't pull in that insolent tongue, I'll massage it with this brandy and you can serve as a flame-thrower, which might come in handy for our return."

 "You're going back?," I asked, although it was immediately clear that they had broken out of the barracks just because of me, to see me one more time this night. "Why not run away completely, for ever?"

 "To hell with for ever," cursed Aca, who was still holding his hand between his legs where he had put the most brandy. "We ran away just to say goodbye to you, no matter what it cost. Tomorrow we sail for the Bay of Kotor. [14] The time has come, we're off, fuck it! What can you do, we have to go."

 "Well, how do you intend to get back onto the base? Now when your lot see  that you are missing, they'll spread the alarm, and what will you do then?" I asked.

 "The hell they'll see," answered Aca, trying to smile. Evidently the first effect of the brandy was wearing off. "The idiots shoot at night at every sound. Even the mice no longer dare to walk by night around the base. If anything moves, the brothers let loose, and the next day they report that Croatian fascists attacked from all sides. Fuck it, the army as usual. You don't really think they know that we've left. No way."

 "But did anyone shoot at you," I wondered.

 "How should I know," answered Aca in a voice that more and more resembled his usual nonchalant way of speaking, since in the meantime he had recovered from the first shock caused by the medicinal brandy. "They all shoot, mostly at night, so you just guess who has a finger on the trigger."

 "Hey, our idiots really eat shit," added Boris. "They shoot every night, and it's only for us. To frighten us. Like there are hordes of Croats everywhere around us, just waiting for us to peep out so they can slaughter us. In fact, they are trying to frighten the few of us who are still left so that we don't run away. Nothing more."

 "All the same you were shitting yourself from the barracks to here," laughed Aca. "Man, his eyes were as big as pumpkins. He just stared all around and sputtered."

 "Hey, it's reasonable to take care," returned Boris, slightly insulted. "How do I know what fools are walking around and what film is playing in their head. We had to escape in uniform, so we changed to civilian clothing in some woods there by the wall. After that it was easier."

 "And then when we met those three guys," Aca reminded him. "Good evening, boys, how's it going? And then putting on an Istrian accent. Jesus Christ, you don't even know Serbian that well, much less Istrian."

 "What a fool you are," returned Boris. "What was I supposed to say? That I'm an officer of the Yugoslav Army who has just run away from the barracks with another idiot so we can breath some fresh air, huh? You people from Vojvodina are truly screwed, it must be from the endless plains and the monotony, immediately after birth you fall into nirvana and you spend the rest of your life partying. Hey, fuck you and this subject, listen Robi, do you have that Prljavo Kazaliöte [Dirty Theater] tape, with the song "Ruûica" [Rosie] so I can hear it." [15]

 "Damn you and your Rosie to hell and back. A few days ago the idiot got drunk, took a tape with that song on it, and let loose full blast. You can imagine in the middle of the barracks when that song started, when it got to that bit about "the last rose of Croatia", or however it goes. Everyone came running, and Boris OTEFTERIO the tape player, drunk as a skunk and crying like a rainy year. I barely got the idiot off. I had to bring them his birth certificate so they could see that his mother is named Rose, that he was crying about her, that he had heard that she was very ill, otherwise he would have gone to fucking hell along with the tape! Imagine what would have happened had his mother not been named Rose [Ruûa]. Even God wouldn't be able to save him. And then, drunk as he was, he started going on about you, about friendship, about brotherhood. What can I tell you, the shit was on its way to the fan!"

 "Oh, and you didn't cry, right?," Boris interjected.

 "Sure I did, but when all of the others had left," Aca answered. "You fool, they don't understand a thing, they've been stuffed full of stories about horrid Ustasha, and they are merely waiting to find someone to slaughter. And homegrown traitors are the tastiest."

 "And later you wanted to kill yourself," continued Boris.

 "Because of you, you idiot! If I had had any intention of snuffing myself for personal reasons, I would have done it long ago, and not wait for this crappy time," Aca snapped at Boris. "Fuck it, before dawn, ground to air control, I was so wasted that I didn't know my own name," Aca continued in a small voice, as if he were speaking of something that embarrassed him. "And this idiot constantly was playing with his pistol and going on about how it would be most honest if we shot ourselves and solved everything in this manner. Non-stop he kept on yelping in my ear that we had remained without a land, without friends, without a life, that we couldn't even go into town to get a drink, to see you, to see some bimbo he became infatuated with before this shit began. Man, everybody watches the fucking television, they're shooting everywhere, and he falls head over heels in some forest at Stoja, for that girl from Umag, you remember his girl because of whom we couldn't walk around at night in case we ran into her, from fear that our hearts would stop, hey well, she was a winner compared to this one. And at such times, I see red, and when this cretin for the hundredth time mentioned that girl from Stoja, I grabbed his pistol and said to myself, that's it, fuck this kind of life. I simply couldn't bear it any more."

 "And what else?," I asked, as Aca had stopped.

 "Nothing," replied Boris, "I took back the pistol and then we continued in a duet to drink and cry till the morning. The next day we slept all day, and in the evening we got drunk again. The day before yesterday we slept again...shall I continue?"

 "No need, I got the idea," I replied. "And when did you sober up?"

 "The day before yesterday was the first day," Aca peacefully replied. "We had to plan our escape from the base, so we got ourselves a bit in order. We paid a bit of attention to the behavior of these new heroes that had arrived from Serbia, where they go, and so forth, and we concluded that they are shitting from fear ten times more than we are. And then this Yugo-strategist chose what was to be the easiest place to cross the fence, and you see how I came through."

 In the meantime, Boris had found the tape he was looking for, and the sounds of Dirty Theater and their song filled the apartment.

 "Hey, strategist! Just don't start crying again," Aca told Boris.

 "Fuck off," Boris replied.

 "Home upbringing in the Serbian way, Belgrade section," was Aca's peaceful comment. "Forget him! Listen, my friend, we came to say our farewells to you. I arranged with this idiot here for there to be no mention of any political shit, no convincing, we went through all that a month or two ago, when we last saw each other. That's the screwed nature of life in the Balkans, the time comes when everyone has to take their own path, what can you do? We should just say our farewells as men, as close friends who have gone through half of life together. Tonight fuck the army, the state, the nation, here it is just us and the last fifteen years together. I don't care if you are a Croat, an Eskimo, or a Frenchman, you are my friend and best man with whom I have spent the finest days of my life, and I want to bid farewell to you as a man, so that I can say to your face before I leave: "Man, I love you, you're my best friend in the world, and I shall never forget you." And if there is a God, then this crap will finish, we will again meet, as friends, as best men, and not as members of this or that nation. And then let us drink to this, as friends! You agree?"

 "Yes, I agree," I force out between my teeth, while my throat tightened. I drained my glass of cognac, so I wouldn't cry. "I agree, although..."

 "Although you have to tell me I'm making a mistake, that I should remain here, and so forth. Don't start from the beginning, I beg you! You know that my marriage fell apart quicker than it was put together, that the bitch left Croatia last year with my child, and my aged and sick parents are alone in Vojvodina, and that no one wants to see me here for at least the next several light years. And if anyone did care, they couldn't show it, because they would also be screwed, leading to the same fucking end! Who would dare to hire me when they heard my name? What would I live from? I could get citizenship here easier if I had came from some UFO than from Serbia. Fuck it, that's the truth. This poor bastard," Aca looked at Boris, "what can he do? He's only been two or three years here, no apartment, no job, no nothing! No choice exists, it's only a question of how many bottles you need to become reconciled to it."

 "If bottles are your measure, you won't be reconciled until death," shot in Boris, who had already played the same song three times.

 "This kid has gone completely to hell since you left the army," Aca complained. "And in the last three months he has aged thirty years. Even my late grandfather Marko had more lust for life than him."

 "Your grandfather didn't exactly have a Serbian name," Boris spat.

 "See that?," Aca looked at me. "The kid has become walking poison. The Chetniks [16] that have been sent to guard us are going to kill him. They already call him little Yugoslav."

 "Screw them," retorted Boris. "Chetniks slaughtered my grandfather in World War II, so why should they love me now?"

 "Hey, hey," I broke in. "Listen, buddies, let's get it straight. I have another bottle or two of cognac. Some woman brought them a month or two ago, she found them on sale."

 "See, you idiot," Aca grinned at Boris. "This is the kind of woman you have to find, and not your scorpion from Stoja."

 "Now that's really enough!," I again broke in, seeing that Boris intended to answer in the same style. "You, Boris, have always played disk-jockey at my place, so you can do it now. Screw Chetniks, women, scorpions, and other charming life-forms of this planet! We will listen to music, drink, and talk about the old days. And speaking of the old days, Aca, do you ever think of Toni? I was thinking a bit of him before you came, he seems to come to mind frequently these days."

 "Me, too," answered Aca in a quiet voice. "I often think that he's the only one that left in time, while it was still worth it to leave. The most important thing in life is to leave on time. Now there's no more leaving, just running. Jesus Christ, you can't even kill yourself, and have someone notice it. Who gives a shit. The two of us cried more for Toni than everyone together will for us, if we get screwed in this crazy war. Statistics, as our crazy generals say. If one dies, that's news, if a hundred thousand die, that's statistics. Toni was news, and we'll be statistics. Fucking Balkan statistics."

 "This fool has already buried us," Boris noted. "Robi will survive, as he isn't crazy enough to put on a uniform again when he succeeded in getting rid of it on time. Me, too. As soon as we get to Montenegro, I will go to visit my sick mother in Belgrade, and then, hop, over the border. I have some contacts from earlier, some relatives in Germany, and whoever wants to go to war, good luck. I'm not going to shoot at anyone. I don't give a fuck, I didn't create this state, so why should I try to save it? And you," he turned to Aca. "You will certainly give up the ghost. Without a bullet, of course. Fuck it, how can someone with that many extra pounds and such agility survive any war?"

 "I'm gonna kill him, I swear on my mother's grave," muttered Aca, looking askance at Boris.

 "Leave him be! What about the others that stayed on the ships?"

 "Hell, who stayed," answered Aca. "Everyone ran. Tomorrow a tug is coming to tow us, 'cause we don't have enough people to sail the ship. The older ones have already escaped, people have families here, they've spent their whole lives in Pula, no one even knows them anymore in Serbia, and where are they supposed to go? They all ran off from the base. Your lot slipped off earlier. All that has remained is a couple of screwed up cases, we who have nowhere to go, and are all calculating how to strip off the uniform as soon as we go south, to the Bay of Kotor. Man, who am I supposed to fight with? Who am I to shoot at, damn it to hell! At people I have spent half my life with? Then again, on the other hand, as I tell this young fool, if we see the shit start flying, it's better we stay in the navy, playing the fools aboard the boats until the war passes, better than that we take off the uniforms, they catch us, mobilize us, and we end up on the front lines, and then we're really screwed. Go ahead, try to be clever now. We'll see when we meet in hell how things worked out. Sajo offed himself, you know that."

 "Safet!," I exclaimed. "When? How? I hadn't heard!"

 "You don't know," for a moment Aca looked at me in wonder. "Oh hell, how were you to know? A piece of stupidity squared. One night we all got seriously drunk, he went to his cabin, put on that Bosnian folk song "Don't Rattle with Your Clogs", [17] some idiot came by from the new (Serbian) guys, said something like, go to Bosnia if you want to hear that shit, he pulled out his gun, that big pistol, placed it against the forehead of the music critic, and forced him to listen to the song twice in a row and sing along with him. The idiot shat himself. And then we arrived. Come on, Sajo, calm down, all that stuff. Sajo put on the "Clogs" song for the third time, and somewhere in the bit about the old mother, he turned the pistol around and blew his head off. God, what a horror. Blood everywhere, we were all in shock. The next day his remains were packed and taken off. We don't even know where."

 "Poor Sajo." I could barely get it out. I knew the man quite well. In his forties, he drank a bit, always cheerful, marriage problems. Déjà vu. I was really sorry about him. He was dear to me in a way. I wasn't particularly close to him, we were from different generations, but we had known each other for years. And worked together. Damn! What a fate!.

 "What are you going to do?" Aca awoke me with his question. He had evidently already come to terms with Sajo's fate, and didn't attach that much importance to it. "Have your lot caught you?"

 "Nothing yet," I answered. "I don't know what to tell you."

 "Nothing, let it be," Aca responded quickly, evidently not wanting to dwell on the subject. "Whatever has to be will come to pass. Hand over that drink, blockhead," he called to Boris. "Man, this human sponge recently has been drinking alcohol at the speed of light. If he keeps on this way, soon he'll be able to fly, 'cause his liver will resemble a wing, it's been developing so much recently. If you aren't careful, there's no chance to get wobbly next to him. Fuck him! You know what, Robi, all day long I've been thinking of what I want to say to you tonight, and now I have nothing to say. I simply don't know what to say."

 "Well then, try to shut up," cracked Boris.

 "Truly, I don't know what to say," continued Aca, ignoring Boris' heckling. "Probably we've already said everything through all these years. Well, cheers, long life to you..."

 It was somewhere around four in the morning when we finally drank the third and last bottle to the end (I comforted myself with the thought that the bottles were fifths, not quarts, so it didn't seem so terrible; and in fact, in comparison to those two, I hardly stood out in consumption). The cognac disappeared, and Boris wanted to continue with the brandy used for disinfecting Aca, which the latter, having learned from his earlier experience, refused with indignation, declaring he was not a war criminal that he needed to be punished in that manner, and that he was hardly imperiled enough to drink that poison.

 Aca and I retold events from the past for hours. Boris tuned out (he hadn't been with us then on the boat in any case), put on the earphones and listed to Dirty Theater for probably the hundredth time, with his head turned towards the window, so that I don't know whether he was crying or not, as I couldn't see, but Aca whispered several times to let him be, let him cry if he wanted to, who knows when he will hear it again. Maybe never, as one morning he had thrown all his tapes into the sea, even the one with that song. And only God knew what awaited him in the future, as he was not as strongly tied to the navy as Aca, and they could transfer him wherever they wanted according to his contract. Boris truly worshipped his mother, a woman from Dalmatia who one sultry summer became attached to his father, who later took her to Belgrade and left her with two young children. His mother Rose had raised him and his younger brother, working day and night in some firm in Belgrade, so when this song first came out, he had become inseparably attached to it. And this was truly because of his mother, but try to tell that today to some commando from southern Serbia who had just arrived a day or so ago in Pula. Since God had made him obstinate and hot-headed, I could easily imagine all the trouble he could get into. As Aca said, the idiot commandos cannot understand that he will listen to this song even if it costs him his head. Given that I myself was a child of divorced parents, I could easily understand Boris, and a firm friendship was quickly formed, interwoven with shared nights, drinks, women, stories, understanding. The majority of Belgradians (at least those that I knew, and I knew quite a few) have a weak spot for people from Dalmatia. For some inexplicable reason, they like Dalmatians, probably because of the temperament, the Mediterranean madness, the unpredictability, who knows what. As soon as they spot you, they usurp you, and you cannot get rid of them anymore. And this was especially true of Boris, who was half Dalmatian himself. He often said that the only happy memories from his childhood were tied to the rare visits to his mother's relatives in Dalmatia. Ah yes, of course, I am talking about a state before the war. A state when at five in the morning an entire chorus in Skadarlija [18] sang "Marjane, Marjane" [19] (in fact, thanks to me and a bet, as none of the musicians there wished to believe that a Dalmatian could play the music for a specific Serbian wheel dance, and on the bass guitar, too. You learn all kinds of things in the armed forces.) With relentless drinking, of course. Now!  I don't know. Now there probably only exist Serbs and Croats, Belgradians, Dalmatians and other ians, the latter a little different from other different ones, they will perhaps pop up a year or so after the war. Perhaps! Until then, some of them will preserve in their memory some of this, and see what will happen after the war. Depending on what each of them goes though in this war.

 "Robi, it's time, we have to go," said Aca, stammering a bit from the drink.

 "Hey, Robi," Boris appeared. "Before we go, take your guitar and sing "I Grew Up Next to the Danube" [20] for this fool. He's been pestering me for days that he has to hear this one more time, how you sing it for him, no matter what happens,"

 "Really?" I glanced at Aca.

 "Fuck it," sighed Aca. "I would like to hear you sing it one more time, but better not. Someone could hear, and you'd be screwed. Or if you can, sing it quietly, sotto voce, soulfully."

 "Oh the hell with it. Anything goes. No one lives twice, not even me," I muttered.

 I got up from the table, somehow sorting out my heroic legs, I went to get the guitar, I sat next to Aca, and we began to sing quietly.

 "I grew up next to the Danube,

 Next to the good old fishermen,

 I caught carp, I saw off the boats,

 And I dreamed wonderful far dreams.

 Oh, Danube, Danube, my heart remains with you,

 Oh, Danube, my heart remains next to you..."

 We finish the song. Our eyes had fogged up from tears, drink, emotions, a bit of everything.

 "Sing for this fool kid "Forgive Me Father" by Oliver. For his old man, who's a Serb, he listens to Dalmatian songs, and for his old lady, who's a Dalmatian, he listen to Serbian songs. Completely screwed up, but sing this for him, and then we're off," Aca said quietly.

 "Okay," I answered and continued with Oliver and his song.

 It was around five in the morning when we got into my Opel, so I could drop them off near the base, and they would then somehow make their way back in. In fact, they didn't want me to drive them, in case someone saw me with them, but I insisted. In any case, I was so drunk that it was all the same to me. Anyone could have seen me at that moment, anything could have happened, everything was anyway beyond logic and reason. Quite simply, on that rainy autumn night, it was all the same. I slowly drove through half-lit, wet, and empty streets towards the base. Aca told me to turn off into a small woods about three hundred yards from the barracks, that they would get out there, and I should go back to my apartment. I turned an stopped. I turned off the engine and the lights. All three of us got out of the car. The rain continued to drizzle relentlessly. We stood under the shelter of some tree, in the dark it looked like a branching pine, but I wasn't sure.

 We looked at one another. Then first Aca hugged me, and then Boris. We stood and quietly wept. I don't know how long. Perhaps a minute, perhaps an eternity. Then Aca barely muttered something.

 "What did you say," I asked.

 "I told the kid let's go. Come on, kid, unglue yourself! Let's go!"

 He took Boris by the arm and tugged at him. They disappeared into the dark. I remained. I sat on the hood of the car, lit a cigarette, staring into the dark, into the bushes where they had disappeared. A huge emptiness like a tidal wave spread through my body. It hit at my chest, my head. I lit a second cigarette. The silence was disrupted only by the sound of the rain. Everything looked so absurdly empty. Everything was so senseless. And empty as well, but what hurt was the horrible strength of the absurdity that so easily dominated our fates. I tried to think of something reasonably, to turn, to get back in the car, anything, but it was impossible! I sat on the hood, completely lost, while my mind simply refused to react. Nothing! I simply stared blankly ahead and listened to the rain as it fell. The second cigarette became drenched halfway through. I threw it on the grass, crushed it with my foot, and then uncontrollably I struck the hood with my right fist at full force. A terrible pain went through my entire arm. I sat, falling down next to the car, on the wet grass, put my head in my hands and began to weep aloud.


CHAPTER II

 Two days later, I was sitting in the café located on the ground floor of the building where I live. The café is owned by my friend Mario, who had returned to this after a dozen years, using it more for personal purposes and the needs of close friends than for those of other guests. In fact, in terms of appearance and the makeup of the guests, it looked more like a military canteen than the kind of coffee bar usual in this town. Only the two of us were in the bar, as was often the case in the late afternoon hours of this autumn. I had met Mario many years ago, immediately after arriving in Pula, when he was the owner of a sort of boat-café, which would best correspond to the concept of a "whorehouse", if that term could be used publicly in this country. Or the one before it. In terms of the quasi-morality and horror expressed over the appearance of such things, nothing had changed with the establishment of a new state. To the contrary! In these regions, shock was mainly expressed to the present over everything except shooting at our fellow creatures, no matter who they might be (if we ignore the occasional periods when all were brothers, although it seems to me that so as to understand such brotherly love uncharacteristic  of the average human being it would be very worthwhile to study the mental status of the creators of such an odd phenomenon). Or it was a stereotype typical for this clime. And if so, then it had become terribly topical in the recent period.

 In any case, Mario's business with this boat had fairly quickly entered bankruptcy (which was a logical result of the fact that Mario himself was the most prodigal guest of his own place), had then gotten married, to have that marriage also fail (he did not succeed in adjusting in time, but considered that he very nearly had), and afterwards had gone somewhere in Austria or Germany for several years, where only God knew what he had been working at, and that summer he had finally returned to "help the homeland", as he put it. As a start to "liberation" activities, he had chosen this café, rented it, and hung a large Croatian flag in it (more exactly, he had covered the entire ceiling with it, and as far as I remember, he had to wait an entire month to get it, as it could not be mass produced given its size, instead someone in a moment of inspiration had sewn it according to his wishes). Volunteers leaving for or coming back from the front hung out there, while he was preparing every day to leave himself. He had not yet left, but as far as I knew him, it was just a question of time, as the savings that he had invested a few months ago in the café had almost all been drunk up (what he had drunk himself, or the selected company that gathered after closing time, when only patriotic songs were played, and when, naturally, the alcohol flowed like water, free of charge, of course!), so all the conditions necessary for him to put on a uniform and move to the battlefield were fulfilled. His life was otherwise always lived from today to tomorrow, and the years had simply passed by his mental make-up, not touching it, but they had come into their own in terms of appearance: fairly gray and partly thinning hair, while the numerous lines on his face spoke for themselves. Nonetheless, along with Toni, he was the person with whom I had spent the most time in my early twenties talking about life and its meaning, considering that he had been fairly eloquent and well-read, not to mention his wide experience of life. At least it seemed so to me from my viewpoint at that time.

 He poured himself a double tequila, as he had preferred this drink since he came back from abroad, considering that with this he had become partly Europeanized, emphasizing the undoubted difference between tequila and the local rot-gut brandy that he had drunk earlier, at the same time ignoring the fact that its country of origin was far beyond Europe, emphasizing that at the moment in the rest of Europe tequila was momentarily in fashion, and we should definitely follow any positive European trends. Especially if one started from the fact that we are one of the oldest, and, oh yes indeed, on the basis of this one of the most cultured nations in Europe, as he would say, or more accurately repeat what he could have heard at least ten times a day in the media (radio, TV, and similar media). In fact, he listened to them so much that some originality could even be attributed to him in this. Here and there in vain I would point out Krleûa's [21] desire that God should preserve us from Croatian culture and Serbian heroism, and that perhaps it would be more clever to choose some other European trend that was not necessarily tied to hard drink (that is, if all this stuff about tequila was true, about which I expressed my most sincere doubts), but he still remained faithful to his principles. There would be time for other trends, when we free ourselves, become democratic, then we can worry about the other stuff, if we really have to (I added the stuff about having to, as a formality, as it somehow seemed to me that the transition from this to other trends would hardly go so easily, but let the war just be finished and then we will somehow grab onto these new European winds). So much about European trends.

 "Do you want some coffee, too?," he asked, shoving a cola across the bar, which was what I had been drinking lately.

 "Just a cola. Enough coffee today, I must have drank at least twenty. Even the cola is too much, but I must drink something."

 "Hey man, I'm still wondering how you succeeded in stopping drinking! I just can't, and to tell the truth, I don't really have any reason to stop. What for? Everything I had in life I spent on parties and women, now I just have to pay my debt to my country, and I no longer have anything to complain about. If, on the way out, I come across a few blondes under twenty-five, then I have God by the short and curlies. And you? Hey, you screwed up your marriage and all. Two marriages, by what I hear! Way to go! I always thought that you would never be caught, and then two marriages in a row, and you fuck up both of them. What the hell did you need that for?"

 "Who knows," I answered noncommittally. "Let me answer you in the order you asked. Hmm. Well, I stopped drinking or mostly stopped because it simply wasn't fun anymore, it bothered me. Really! Naturally, every once in a while, I get stuck in some company, and I tie one on, and then I'm sick for days. You know when you need to stop drinking? You don't know, of course, because you've never stopped. Nor do you intend to in this life. In any case, you need to stop drinking when you awake the next day, falling apart and hung-over, and you physically cannot drink that famous extra glass with which you stabilize yourself, the "fight fire with fire" system, as the proverb goes. And when that happens to you several times in a row, you simply cannot drink."

 "Why can't you?" Mario asked worriedly.

 "You can't," I answered. "You just can't and that's it!"

 "That's really awful," Mario said with understanding. "Brrr!," he shivered, "really awful."

 "I'm telling you," I laughed at his worried face. He evidently was thinking what it would be like to find yourself in such an uncomfortable situation. "In terms of parties and women, you know yourself how we lived. To tell the truth, I don't regret a single minute of the past. It seems as if everything we did then had some kind of sense to it. The partying and the women and the drink and everything. It simply goes along with youth. Today! Well, maybe I'm a little tired. I guess I no longer have either the strength or the will for such a life, nor do I think it's possible anymore. At least not in the way we once did it. You simply stop doing something when the beauty of it disappears. Now I live, or I don't live with some woman who luckily isn't here in Pula, in some kind of non-binding relationship; for a time we're together, and then we aren't and that's the way it goes. The only valuable thing that has remained is two children, one from each broken marriage, a son and a daughter, whom I adore, and I hope this is mutual. I have my heirs and what do I need with marriage anymore? I'm joking, but that's almost the way it turns out."

 "How did you even get involved in marriage? What were you thinking?"

 "The same as you. You tire of life, the lost nights that were exchanged for slept-through days, women whose names after several days you can't remember even if your life depended on it, and you see others around you who live normally, whatever that means. You get bored with waking in strange beds or alone in your own, or in the best case with someone whom you sincerely want to forget before they get out the door. And in such a state, one day you crack and you say to yourself: I can do that, when other people can, I can too."

 "That part I know," he cut in.

 "No doubt. And then God sends someone who seems different from the others and you say to yourself: that's it! You try, it goes well for a while, a child comes along, and then it just breaks. You cleverly conclude that in fact it was not the real thing, that this was all more tiresome, at least twice as much as what went before, as naturally, in the meantime you had forgotten, repressed, the bad side of what went before, in any case you mostly conclude that you are only physically in a marriage, you don't hear your dear little wife any more, you don't listen, you just nod your head and wait your chance to go out. When you no longer have the strength to nod, you simply go."

 "And you went through this twice!," he noted.

 "Just in case," I muttered. "That's how to make sure. What's certain is certain. Actually, the first time you think that maybe the mistake was in the choice, in the woman, so you try once more. Then you realize that the problem is in you and not in them, which by the way is a fairly devastating realization, you comprehend that as far as marriage is concerned you are screwed for life, that you don't have sufficient nerves to live together with someone to a copper anniversary, much less a silver, golden, or whatever other anniversaries exist, and that is that."

 "You seem to have significantly simplified your philosophy of life in comparison to your youth," he laughed. "Somehow this all sounds too simple, too easy, particularly since I knew you from before. As far as I remember, the majority of your relationships then lasting longer than seven days regularly turned into minor dramas, and you always had at least three answers to every vital question. And now?"

 "Well, it seems that all three were wrong," I answered. "You know, when you're young, you always think that you have hundreds of possibilities. As the years pass, one by one they fall away, the choice is ever narrower, and this continues until the choices cease to exist. Some soon, some later. You expect less and less and you hope less. A proportional relationship. And then one day you stop hoping, and it all becomes the same to you, because you simply have nothing left to lose."

 "You always have something to lose. Always, the question is just if you are aware of this or not. Especially you. You can't have reached a phase where you have nothing to lose," he said worriedly. "Hey, man, you're only thirty something."

 "No, I haven't, naturally, but you are asking me for a slightly more complicated explanation of what happened, or really, what is happening, and so, that's what I'm doing. And I honestly hope that I am not yet near a state where I have nothing to lose, although if you were to ask me at the moment what matters greatly to me, it would be difficult to answer coherently. Except for the children, of course, but fuck it, I don't live their lives, nor they mine, despite all the interweaving and mutual connections of those lives. It seems to me that thanks to super wise decisions in life, I have found myself in the classic position: I know what I don't want, but I don't know what I do want. Well, you need to learn to live with small everyday things, and then everything is easier. At least that is what they all say! If you constantly wait for something major and important to happen to you, you spend your life waiting. And how are you to recognize this major and significant thing if it happens to you, when you don't know what you really want?"

 "I don't believe in such major things," he said, pouring another tequila. "First, if something major happened, I am so screwed that I probably wouldn't recognize it if I fell over it. Second, and this derives from the first, it is better that this doesn't happen to me, as I would understand too late, as usual, just like everything else in life that was worth anything, and then nothing would remain but to increase the quantity of tequila, so as to survive and keep on going. Third, which is also of considerable importance, I have already pushed the tequila to a risky point of danger, and thus both first and second are unacceptable."

 "Well really, any commentary to your little addition would just seem second rate, so I'll refrain from elaborating the fourth reason," I replied.

 "Hell, the times have passed when I could sell delusions to myself. You know I have no gift for trade, and especially such types. In the end you become reconciled, just that's the way it is. But listen, I was thinking in terms of you. You somehow seem relatively normal, and so I think that you would have succeeded had you found the right woman," Mario attempted to console me.

 "Which of the words are you singling out?" I asked him, laughing. "The word "relatively" or the word "normal"? Whichever, I agree with you, so I accept that I would have succeeded had a found the "right" one. And what else can I do? Why should I publicly admit that the problem is mine. I don't want to admit that to myself, much less to others. I prefer to wait, like all other mere mortals, for God to surprise them pleasantly for once."

 "Then how can you tell me, if you're not prepared to admit it to yourself? What does that mean, you consider telling me to be like talking to a wall, or what?" he asked in a half quarrelsome tone.

 "If you say so. Whether or not I told you, it changes nothing, right? It certainly won't have any great effect on you, nor will you wonder whether or not I am right, quite simply you have had quite enough of your own failures, just as you yourself said a bit before. You'll probably forget this conversation as soon as it is over. Am I right?"

 "You probably are," he conciliatory muttered.

 "There, you see? But if I said that to some eager creatures, for days they would be bothered by this, for God knows what motive. Or perhaps they wouldn't be, perhaps this means nothing to others today, but you must agree that at least it is a highly unusual theme for breaking the ice. But if we start from the point that someone would nonetheless react, and additionally, God forbid, that this would be a female, and that she would get the idea that she was just the one who would finally prove to you that marriage definitely makes sense (with her, of course), then all the possibilities exist for you to start again from the very beginning. And that is the most difficult thing. As time goes by, I need increasing more of it to believe in miracles, and increasingly less of it to be disappointed in them afterwards. Each beginning bewitches you, the seventh heaven is promised, sometimes more and sometimes less, only to have monotony creep in afterwards, unheard, almost stealthily, followed by its logical results in the form of satiety, and suddenly you wake up in the ninth circle of hell... In fact, it is always that beginning that takes you for a ride, leading you to a wrong decision that you later pay off in the form of child support, a division of property, and other similar attractions of post-married life. When this is the way it is, then you at least attempt to live without the latter pleasures. Somehow it seems easier."

 "Fuck it," he grumbled, "it seems to me that we all merely float along the path of least resistance. As soon as something isn't to our taste, and hardly anything is, we run for our lives. You know what my ex always said? In marriage, what you give is what you get. And given the amount of effort I put into my marriage, I never got around to taking anything, much less to giving anything. At the end, she called me an emotional cripple and left. Completely rightfully, of course. I could even add a few epithets by myself, but I'm ashamed. Fine, fuck her, it could have been anyone, but if you don't give anything, if you don't make an effort, it's normal that they tell you to fuck off. And then we leave like some kind of victors! Fucking hell," he sighed, "if that's a victory, what does a defeat look like? Listen, this conversation is depressing me, and we long ago knew in advance how we would end up. At least I did. You can try once more, in line with the proverb "third time lucky", although I am not exactly sure that in your case the saying would stand. Maybe the seventh or eighth time, when you would no longer have a choice. Oh, the hell with all this. Hey, do you know that I am leaving for the battlefield shortly?"

 "You're a genius," I laughed. "Simply a genius! You know, I have always admired your ability to change a difficult subject for an even worse one. A man can relax talking with you so much that afterwards the entire manufacturing industry of liquor and other means of unwinding wouldn't help. No, I didn't know you were off for the battlefield, but I could assume it."

 "Because of what?" he asked suspiciously.

 "Just..." I answered vaguely. "I guess you're ready for it. After the many bottles of tequila that you have drunk these months, after the thousandth version of "Jure and Boban", [22] you are ready either for the front or a madhouse. And since the majority of Napoleons and other nut cases have already been let out of the insane asylum for long weekends that they spend on the battlefield, there's no reason for you not to go there, too. Pretty logical, isn't it?"

 "Fuck it, it's why I came back," he said. "And I've already pissed away most of the money, so what am I still doing here?"

 "You could start charging for drinks, for a change," I noted.

 "Oh, you know me," he said resignedly. "How can you charge the boys for a drink when it might be their last one?"

 "Stop bullshitting," I muttered between my teeth. "For some of them it isn't their last drink, instead you will have them on your conscience because they became ill at your place, they became lifelong alcoholics. Even God couldn't cure them."

 "Oh, who gives a shit," he replied and poured himself another. "You won't have anything? Okay. Listen, I wanted to ask you, but I just can't get a word in edgewise through all our drivel. It seems that you've screwed up your hand royally if they've put it in plaster," he remarked, looking at the cast on my right hand.

 "I told you I fell on the stairs, slipped and broke some tiny bone, and the doctors immediately put it in a cast, and that is that," I answered peacefully.

 "And who did for your car?" he asked. "I heard someone gave it a good bang on the hood."

 "Haven't the faintest," I replied. "Some wacko, who knows? Probably because of the Zagreb plates that I still haven't exchanged for Pula ones."

 "It could have been worse," he remarked, slowly drinking his tequila. "He could have totally wrecked it, and who could you blame it on today? Jesus!"

 "I came through almost perfectly for these times. I just couldn't have done better," I grumbled.

 "Shall we change the subject again?" said he. "Are you going to the front? You could be very useful there."

 "Oh, yeah!"

 "Don't fart around, I mean it seriously," he continued. "You've been military stock for years, you're trained, you know weapons, you're schooled to make war, for God's sake. I know that once you were on that special course for diving, you could be an underwater saboteur or something."

 "You're loopy. You want to know the last time that I went diving? A year or two ago, when some idiot accidentally pushed me in the sea, and afterwards I cursed his entire family tree. Do you know how many years have passed since all those courses and similar crap? I'm no longer capable of making a raid on this hole of a café, much less to act like Rambo off in the middle of nowhere."

 "Then what about me, with so many more years behind me?" he asked.

 "Well, you are naturally gifted in the field of screwing yourself," I answered. "You, when the madness strikes, and it doesn't leave you often, would be capable of organizing a minor revolution in a retirement home, but luckily you won't, as it can be assumed that you won't survive to old age."

 "Hey, thanks a lot"

 "I don't believe that you will die in this war, if you thought that was what I meant," I corrected myself. "For other, commonly known reasons that I won't list right now, I think you won't have many chances to enjoy your pension."

 "Thanks just the same," he laughed. "But you have to admit that while it lasted it was worth it."

 "We already talked about that," I noted absently. "When you mentioned that, I remembered that I had already heard the same thing recently."

 "From whom?"

 "From someone who in all likelihood will end up on the battlefield, like you, but he didn't exactly fall over himself to show enthusiasm for such adventures."

 "One of theirs?" he asked suspiciously. "They are still getting in touch with you?"

 "Listen," I passed over the question, "this division into ours and theirs at one point seems perfectly clear, logical, and understandable to me. It's war, fuck it, and this division is quite comprehensible. And then, something unforeseen turns up, and I start to experience it on a purely rhetorical level. I know that it's a little bizarre, not to use a stronger word, how you can think this some hundred kilometers away from the front lines, but all the same, for a moment it seems so to me."

 "I don't exactly get what you mean to say", he stated.

 "Look, how would you react now if Aca came into the café?" I asked him.

 "Your best buddy. Hell, with him I've drunk entire barrels, not quarts. Anyway, he left months ago, is what I heard."

 "It's irrelevant when he left, just speaking hypothetically, what would you do if he came in?"

 "Probably lose the gift of speech for a while, for one. Oh, fuck it, I don't know," he shrugged. "I simply can't imagine such a situation."

 "And can you imagine a situation where tomorrow you have to shoot at each other?" I demanded.

 "Hang on, this is a bit much," he complained. "First, he is in the navy, and we couldn't meet as I am going to a front on the mainland. Second, there is a war on, man, and you don't ask such questions. You defend your homeland, that is the sacred thing, and whoever attacks it is your enemy. The logic of war is very simple: either I do it to him or he does it to me. And that's it."

 "Okay, say that I agree, but if you were in a position to shoot at him, would you?," I didn't give in.

 "I would have to, otherwise he would shoot me."

 "Would you kill him?"

 "What?"

 "I asked, would you kill him?"

 "Ah, fuck it," he said angrily. "You can't think like that! If everyone thought like that, who the hell would go to war?"

 "A good question," I noted. "But don't worry, in this crazy world there are more than enough people who don't think like that, and you definitely don't have to worry about how well they are represented in the Balkans."

 "You aren't being fair," he said, quite upset. "I am defending myself, I'm not attacking. I am only defending my country. If someone attacks my country, even if this someone is Aca, I have to defend it. And the problem isn't in me, but in him. I didn't go to Serbia and attack him, he came here and attacked me."

 "Okay, and I can agree with that. But look, he came to Croatia more than fifteen years ago, he thought of it as his country, and now he has to flee from it. And now, wait for it, he didn't succeed in fleeing, so he neither wants to shoot anyone nor to occupy Croatia, he simply didn't succeed in fleeing, in leaving, and you come across him in the front lines."

 "You are a real pain in the ass," he said through clenched teeth, waving his arms. "Well, of course I wouldn't want to kill him, you idiot, I would try to avoid it however I could."

 "That's all I wanted to hear, nothing more," I laughed at his serious face.

 "Yeah, right, but with my luck he wouldn't recognize me, and he would shoot me like a rabbit," he added, in a little better temper.

 "So much for rhetoric, hypotheses, and the luck of war in the Balkans," I noted with resignation.

 "And what would you do in the same situation?" he asked, while his face acquired a half blissful expression, evidently pleased that he had come up with this question. "If you have to go to the front, you will, that's clear to both of us. In any case, if someone had shoved a rifle in your arms a few months ago, at the beginning of the euphoria, when things had just started, you would have gone immediately, right?"

 "Exactly!" I agreed.

 "If you were in your home town of Sinj [23] when they were shelling it, you would shoot at them to the end of time?"

 "You're right again!"

 "So, genius, what would you do in the same situation that you hypothetically involved me in a bit before?" he asked triumphantly.

 "Pray to God that he recognized me in time," I responded calmly.

 "And if he didn't?" Now he was being persistent.

 "I don't know, just as you don't. For now, I can just pray to God to at least spare me from such a situation, if I have to end up on the battlefield."

 "I'll join in your prayers," he said.

 At that moment the little bell that hung on the door and announced when someone came in jingled. This to some extent legendary bell had accompanied Mario from the time with the boat, the one from the beginning of this story, where it hung on the door of his cabin. Since the cabin tended to be used frequently for not exactly ordinary purposes, this bell would inform the person then using it that someone was coming. Mario never had a lock installed on the door to the cabin, noting that the majority of those that went inside would then never come out. At least not in any reasonable amount of time. But then again, he sometimes had to sleep an hour or two. In fact, he spent most of his youth awake, but not exactly conscious, so that I often had the honor to inform him the next day where he had been and what he had done. To be quite frank, sometimes it went the other way, so I never particularly held it against him. In fact, when I thought about it a bit more, I didn't hold it against him at all.

 The Doctor entered the café.

 "God and the Croats!" he cried, raising his right arm in a salute, imitating certain historical figures of this nation.

 "And the same to you," I stiffly replied.

 Mario's response was half muffled, of which I understood only the word "Croats", while the bit with God was lost somewhere while he bent underneath the bar, to get out the bottle of grappa, which was what the Doctor drank. The Doctor was a fairly peculiar individual. He truly was a doctor in terms of profession, but immediately after the protests and unrest had begun in the country, and soon thereafter, the first serious armed conflicts had erupted, the Doctor had given up his calling and was among the first to leave for the front. In fact, he belonged to a younger generation, around thirty, and supposedly he didn't exactly have any brilliant predisposition for a medical career in the hospital, where he had worked previously, so he had barely waited for a chance to leave. I don't know how true all of this was, but I was ready to attribute most of this story to the "heroism" of his colleagues from the hospital, who naturally were extremely interested in avoiding any exotic trips to Lika, Slavonia, Dalmatia, or anywhere else where war was raging. Maybe he wasn't some hot-shot doctor, but evidently he wasn't lacking in courage. It is entirely another thing how often in life bravery can be identified with insanity, but this can't be seen at the first moment, to be more precise, we find out later when everything has already happened, but if you yourself do not have this trait, you still should not underestimate it in others, so as to give it a completely different character, meaning that such a person would lose face in advance. I at least had considered this as a typical piece of hypocrisy by those who didn't have what was required at that moment by society as a whole (leaving to the side whether someone had accepted that or nor, from various reasons). It is not hard to understand those who don't want to go to the front (to be quite honest, much easier than those who do want to go), but it is difficult to accept the belittling of those who go to fight as volunteers, no matter their motivation (but only those who are truly volunteers, and not those choosing this as an alternative to a lengthy period in jail, their sentence having suddenly been cancelled for patriotic reasons). A man can agree or disagree with their decision, but prior to taking up an attitude of (dis)agreement, I would recommend everyone that they place themselves in such a situation, and try to make such a decision. Even when you are aware in advance that did you nonetheless decide to go, this would actually never be carried out, you still get the shivers from the very weight of such a decision. At least I did, so I wisely let fate decide in this, simultaneously hoping that it is sufficiently on my side.

 "Robi, where are you wandering tonight?" the Doctor asked, breaking into my thoughts. Even after several months of hanging out together, I didn't know his real name. But how important was this to anyone?

 "I was thinking about going over to the theater, I heard there was some performance, so I said to myself that I could use some cultural uplifting in these degrading times," I answered.

 "Our theater never put on performances in peacetime, much less today," Mario remarked, pushing a glass of grappa towards the Doctor.

 "That's too true," the Doctor agreed with Mario's comment. "I can't remember the last time they performed something clever, except for the occasional summer stuff in the Arena. Hey," he turned to me "have you ever responded directly to a question? Where does this theater stuff come from? Give me a break!"

 "Okay, if the theater is closed, then evidently everything is all set for me to remain here or maybe move on to some similarly high status cultural institution in this town just bursting with life," I answered maliciously.

 "What do you have against this café?" Mario turned up.

 "The same as you," I answered. "What bothers me about it is everything that is missing. And so much is missing that I will leave this topic aside, vis-a-vis my fine upbringing in early childhood."

 "Be here!," the Doctor turned to me, ignoring our discussion about the imperfections of the café. "Some boys that I am taking to the front arrive tonight, so I'll need you."

 "Why?"  I asked him. "I'm not a priest to give them their last rites."

 "God has given them absolution in advance through their act of entering the Croatian armed forces and their will to defend the homeland," he said quite seriously.

 "Leave this bit for them," I noted. "I've already heard it several times and I always wonder what the hell God has to do with it."

 "They are ready to place their lives on the altar of the homeland," he continued quite seriously, almost theatrically. "Were it not for them and others like them, Croatia would always remain buried in Serbian Yugoslavia."

 "Fuck it," Mario again turned up, "it's easy to place your life on any old altar when you still know nothing about it. This last time they were just children. They still stank of diapers. They don't know who is risking their lives, and they aren't aware that they are sacrificing their lives. Half of them think they're just going out to shoot a little, have some fun, and then they'll come back as heroes and play big-shots. Poor kids. I hope that both God and their country that is now calling on them will know how to repay them. They're going to need it."

 "What the hell is wrong with you two today?" asked the Doctor, looking at us with a mixture of worry and wonder. He must have been caught off guard by my attitude, and especially Mario's, since he used the word "hell", as it was truly rare to hear him curse.

 "Ask him!" replied Mario.

 "Nothing, really," I answered. "We were just philosophizing a bit about life and got all messed up, so we won't be any great help tonight."

 "I can see that both of you, given your metal state, are ripe for the battlefield," he said placatingly.

 "You know this from your own experience," Mario couldn't resist.

 "Well, yes indeed, something like that," he calmly replied. "I can tell you that on the front it's a different story. There we are all the same. No philosophy there. But let me finish, I need you, Robi, as one of those arriving knows you and asked me about  you, presumably he wants to see you. I think he comes from Germany, that much I understood in passing."

 "He knows me?" It was my turn to be truly surprised. "From Germany? I haven't the faintest who that could be! In fact, half of my home town of Sinj, including relatives, are in Germany, so it could be anyone. Okay, we'll see. Probably some distant relative. You know how much time has passed since I left the former army, and they are still calling me from Sinj, checking whether I am still in the army or have I gotten out. All of them are some kind of relatives, at least half of whom I have never heard of in my life. I didn't even know they existed until this war."

 "Hell," Mario added his bit, "you can understand them. It's not easy at the moment to be in Sinj and have a relative in a Yugoslav Army uniform. You know how it is."

 "I know," I answered. "I have enough problems that I was ever in it, and not, God forbid, that I should still be in uniform. Although, since those geniuses showed me on television, they've stopped calling. Every cloud has a silver lining."

 "That was an honor, a Croatian honor, old man," said the Doctor. "To establish our officer's committee only several yards away from the headquarters of the Yugoslav Navy, with the Croatian hymn and flag and all. That's the way to do it! Let them see that even in Istria there are those who are prepared for anything when the homeland calls."

 "Doctor," said Mario in a serious tone, "are you going to drink or give us a hard time?"

 "Both, if I can," he answered, evidently giving up on further patriotic rhetoric.

 "Hey guys, I've had enough for the present," I murmured, moving from the bar. "I'm heading for my apartment, stretch out a little, I'll see you later."

 "No problem,"  said the Doctor. "If the kid comes, I send him up to you."

 "Better yet, call me, and I'll come down," I added as I left.

 They called goodbye and I left, slowly making my way towards the apartment, asking myself for who knows what time why people bothered to construct buildings higher than two floors before they invented elevators. In terms of the unknown relative who was arriving that night, I preferred to meet him in the bar than at my place, as you never know how long these patriotic sessions would last. I could always leave the bar, making my apologies for this or that reason, but once they get into your apartment, forget sleeping that night. And further, I was expecting Sandra to come from Rijeka [24] this evening, so with all respect I wanted to shorten the patriotic stuff as much as possible.

 I entered the apartment, for a wonder without any problems with that second lock, closed the door, turned on the television in passing, and from habit lay down on the sofa. Next to the sofa on a small table were several remote controls, for the TV, satellite antenna, video, tape player... At least in something we are in step with the rest of the world, I thought to myself. I liked to stretch out this way, watching television without entering into the content, listening to some record or a tape, while I left just the picture on the TV, probably for comfort. That way you have the feeling you aren't alone in the apartment, some figures are passing through, even if only on the screen.

 I was tired as I had to type some agreement in the office, with one hand, while a light pain regularly ran through the other one in the cast, which constantly reminded me of its cause, of Aca and Boris and that night when we said farewell. They sailed the day afterwards, sometime in the early afternoon. I heard this from Ante, yet another former officer of this navy, who was at Verudela on the coast and saw the tugboat towing the ships on which we had spent so many years. Even if I had known when they were leaving harbor, I would not have allowed myself this last "send-off", the farewells were enough for me. Surely a man does not make his farewells so often throughout an entire life as he does in several months of war. And who even knows when this one will end. I had hoped that it would be quick. Most of the estimates ranged around a year at maximum, while I was always reminded of the remarks of one aged Dalmatian, from Imotski, who had lived in Pula since the fifties, Barba [25] Ive, who had told me one day that not a single war in the Balkans can last less than five years. That they had said the same thing about the last one, the Second World War, that it would be over by Christmas, and, I'll be damned, he had said, it was, just it was the fifth Christmas and not the first one like they were counting. I must admit that my war experience in the Balkans is limited to passages from historical textbooks, so I was hardly in a position to judge the truth, but I sincerely hoped that Barba Ive was wrong. The very thought that the war could go on for years, that I could live in uncertainty for years as to where I would end up (the battlefield is the worst variant, but no roses will be flowering elsewhere if it goes on), was enough to make me sick. Nonetheless, this is all occurring at the end of the twentieth century, the western powers, America, they are all watching, surely they will not permit a war to continue for several years in the middle of Europe! In terms of home-grown politicians and their farsightedness, humanity, democratic leanings, and other similar pro-western hodge-podges, it is clear to me that under their control there would probably be no end to the state of war. I didn't have any particularly elevated opinion, either, about the so-called international community, and even less about their benevolence towards these regions, but I nonetheless considered that just because of themselves they would not permit lengthy war situations in their closest neighborhood.

 Well, in the end, who ever asked me anything and who cared about my opinions, I thought to myself, totally turning off the sound on the TV and turning on the tape-player. I laid myself down to the sounds of the songs of U2, whom I had most frequently listened to recently. They somehow fit into any kind of mood I had, and many of the texts could easily be applied to these regions. The Irish and the Croats in any case have several similarities, if you look at history and other elements. I dozed off on the sofa listening to them.

 I was dragged from a half-sleep by my bell, whose specific sound I have already described. Krrrrrk! My one and only unique bell. I really should replace it, I thought to myself, no matter the state of my conscience. Who was this at the door? Whoever it was, I was tired, grumpy, and I didn't want to see anyone. I simply won't open the door. Krrrrrk! No matter how persistent! Krrrrrik! Fuck it, no matter how reasonably persistent. The sound was so horrible that you couldn't listen to it for too long and not leave traces on an otherwise damaged pysche, I thought darkly, slowly getting up and going to open the door. At the door stood Denis, my cousin, the son of my aunt who lived in Berlin. More exactly, he had been born there, raised there, had gone to school there, and had lived there, at least until now. I didn't even know if he was officially an adult. During the summers, as a child, he had come to Dalmatia, when he would listen with open mouth to stories of my adventures in the navy, which I would tell him by the hour. He adored me. Wait, he's still a kid! I looked at him in shock, smiling like that in the black HOS [26] uniform, with a checkered [27] patch sown on the arm.

 "Hey there, cousin!" he shouted and hugged me.

 I am rarely at a loss for words, but this time I remained frozen, speechless, I simply didn't know what to say. He must have been the last person on the planet that I would expect to turn up at my door.

 "Well, say something!" he shouted, patting me on the back. "Are you glad to see me?"

 "My God," I finally managed to get out. "Of course I'm glad, but what are you doing here now? In Pula?"

 "I've come to defend the homeland," he said, while his broad smile never left his boyish face. "Several of us decided, took off, and here we are. We are here to fight, to liberate the homeland."

 "What are you doing?" I sized him up wanly, and slowly staggered over to the couch, where he had sat down.

 "I really surprised you, huh!" he burbled, while his pleasure in the moment simply shined from him.

 "Yes, by God, you did," I responded, still disoriented.

 "Don't take the name of the Lord in vain," he commented. Ah, I had forgotten the strict Catholic upbringing of my close and distant relatives from Sinj, I thought to myself.

 "He's gotten used to it," I muttered more to myself than to him. "The two of us have been communicating this way for the past thirty years."

 "What?" he asked. He hadn't heard or else understood my comment about my contacts with the Almighty.

 "Nothing, nothing," I answered, and went into the kitchen.

 "Where are you going?" he called after me. He knew only the Dalmatian dialect of Croatian, with a Sinj accent, which he had acquired from his parents, more exactly his mother, living and growing up with her in Germany.

 "I'm going to see if I have anything to drink," I called back. "I've just decided to change my decision about drinking, so now I'll look for something liquid, just to substantiate such a far-ranging decision."

 "For me, too," he called.

 "Of course!" I answered loudly, thinking to myself that if he could get into a uniform, then he could get drunk, as well. That would certainly be a lesser evil than what awaited him as a result of putting on those black fatigues.

 Luckily, that very morning I had bought a bottle of Stock [28] , as Sandra drank it, and a glass or two always came in handy for relaxation. As matters stood, tonight I would have much stronger arguments for drinking than getting Sandra relaxed, although the latter would certainly come easier. Not to mention being more pleasurable. But, what the hell, I had to find out how this hot-headed young fool had turned up here at this moment. I brought the bottle and glasses, poured, and lit a cigarette. He lit up too. "You've started to smoke," I noted.

 "I've started to do lots of things," he laughed.

 "So I see," I said. "Let's start at the beginning. How did you get here?"

 "Well, I told you," he answered. "Several of us got together, piled into the car of a friend, and set off for Zagreb. Some went straight off to the front, and I took the opportunity to come down to Pula, to see you. I wanted to see you, so I came."

 "Well, that's nice," I said, falling into dialect myself. "Can I just ask a tiny question, just out of curiosity? Mommy and Daddy must certainly have been there to see you off from Berlin, waving handkerchiefs, overjoyed that their only son had decided to sacrifice his life for the homeland, right?"

 "Are you mad?" he shouted. "They haven't the faintest idea. I told them that I was off on an excursion with some friends, seven-eight days, so I'll call them then and tell them where I am. They can't do anything about it anyway."

 "An original approach, undoubtedly," I acknowledged. "And what do you think they'll do when they find out? Jump for joy because of your decision, as any honest Croatian parent should, or end up in a psychiatric ward, which in such cases also happens to some Croatian parents, those who are somewhat more caring and wise."

 "Ha, ha, ha!" he laughed delightedly. "You always put me in a good mood, that's why I came to see you. And also I thought maybe you could call and tell them, 'cause who knows where I'll be."

 "Ah, all is clear," I looked him up and down. "You chose me to be the joyous messenger. You never heard that they kill messengers who bring such good news? No, of course not. So, I'm supposed to call and ask if they by any chance remember your little trip, and if they say they do, then I just mention that it would be best if they forgot it for a year or two, right? Fucking hell, are you normal?"

 "What's with you?" he asked all surprised. "I thought that you would understand and that you could best explain to them that I had to do this."

 "The only thing you have to do is die, and you are evidently hurrying to find this out as soon as possible," I responded sharply. "Listen, sonny, everything up to now has been farting around, and now we will talk a little more seriously."

 "Okay," he answered, half frightened.

 "How old are you?" I asked.

 "Twenty," he answered.

 "Already!"  I was startled, looking at him in disbelief.

 "Seriously, here's my passport," he said, trying to take it out of an inside jacket pocket.

 "Okay, okay, I believe you," I muttered. "Hell, that's screwed up my concept a bit. Twenty, you say. Okay, we have two approaches. One is for me to explain to you that you have just made the stupidest mistake of your life with a description of what actually happens in a battlefield, and the other is that you have made an even greater mistake with a description of what you will miss because of leaving for the front. Which approach do you want?"

 "I know everything about the battlefield," he said confidently. "We had training in Berlin. Some guys came and explained what we could expect."

 "Oh, really," I gave him a look that was a mixture of pity and rage. My God, you can be so stupid when you're young. "Then we'll try the second approach, given that they have, lucky me, trained you and you know all, so there's no point in me filling your head with stupidities like what a tank looks like or how shitty you feel in front of one with merely a rifle in your heroic little Croatian hand. So, the second approach. Okay?"

 "Okay!" he said eagerly.

 "Shall we talk on an academic level or a simple Balkan one?" I asked him, gazing at the expression on his face that said he didn't understand what I was saying. "Okay, I take the question back. Fuck academicism in the Balkans, anyway, that's what led us to this state. At least as far as the Serbs are concerned, [29] since the Croatian Academy has otherwise made itself famous for keeping its mouth shut."

 "I don't understand what you're talking about," he said.

 "I don't either," I muttered sulkily, as I had a bad feeling that this conversation wasn't going anywhere, no matter what level it was on. "Well, let's start from the beginning. Have you had a sexual relationship yet?"

 "What?" he sputtered in confusion.

 "Have you..."

 "I understood!" he interrupted. "Well..., yes, I have!"

 "Aha! Given the convincing tone of your answer, let's say I guess you have, but not a lot. Well, it's understandable that after the required Sunday mass in Berlin, with your parents, you can't go to a brothel, at least you can't until you pass thirty and your first divorce. Afterwards it all functions together. But, enough of that! Well, you see, by going to the battlefield you have a fairly good chance of coming across, let's say, a pressure-activated mine, which are multiplying out there like mushrooms after rain. These are otherwise peaceful little things until you step on them, as you can guess from their name, but if you do step on one it has a nasty habit of blowing you to pieces. In the best case, what will happen is that your balls are imitating sparrows somewhere in the woods. Hanging on a branch, you get it?"

 "But it won't happen to me," he protested.

 "Of course it won't happen to you," I angrily snapped. "You'll be the exception. You'll end up completely hanging from some tree, and not merely your unemptied balls. Shut up, for God's sake! Don't look at me like that, I won't curse anymore. You see, maybe that's a good idea, to stop cursing, maybe God would be so surprised by such a drastic change that he would spare a glance for this damned corner of the planet. Then again, he isn't crazy enough to have anything to do with us. Never mind! So, to sum it up, you have a good chance of finishing forever your rich store of sexual experience with this little trip to the front. How do you like that idea?"

 "Whatever happens, I'm prepared," he answered, trying to show toughness  with this, which simply didn't go with the naïve, boyish face.

 "Son, you should have made a visit to a shrink before you came here," I continued. "In contrast to you, even today this argument about balls and a possible future without them discourages me from the very thought of moving to the battlefield. If I don't have to, of course."

 "I thought you'd already gone," he said.

 "I started out a couple of times, but each time I wandered into a wilderness of realities and I didn't get there," I grumble. "You don't understand? You haven't read the history book of our dear Frankie! [30] You haven't? Well, really, where is your ideological background, for God's sake! Never mind, I'm screwed up tonight and I'm babbling, but I must admit that you have completely thrown me for a loop. Look, let's say you survive, but what will happen if you are captured by the Serbs? Did those people in Berlin explain what they will do to you if that happens?"

 "What can they do to me?," he answered confidently. "They can only kill me, and I am prepared for that."

 "Oh, my Denis," I said helplessly, as it was already evident that this conversation wasn't going anywhere, "if that happens to you, and pray God it doesn't, the least that can happen to you is that they will kill you. Believe me, death in that case is the least problem, you just have to somehow get a hold of it. But what you will experience until death..."

 "I know all that," again he interrupted me, "and I'm prepared for everything. I truly am. Cousin, I have to go downstairs now, the others are waiting, will you tell my mother that I am here, please?"

 "I'll tell her, what else can I do?," I helplessly shrugged my shoulders.

 He drained one more glass, coughed, evidently also unprepared for a drinking life. He got up, kissed me, and left. The door closed after him. I gazed blankly at the levers of the second lock, the security lock, and concluded that this would be the right time to dismantle it. I took a hammer from the broom closet, and began to hit it. Harder and harder. I finally had it dismantled. I was dripping with sweat, looking at the broken levers and the door that no longer was. There! Now I had a doorbell and a door in the same condition! Shit! I took the phone and called.

 "Mario, is that you?" I shouted, as on the other side of the line, a patriotic song was ringing out loudly.

 "It's me," he answered. "Is that you, Robi?"

 "Yep. Listen, when are those kids heading for the frontlines?"

 "Tonight, tomorrow morning, I don't know."

 "Tell the Doctor that that kid is my aunt's son, and to keep him safe if there's any way he can. Put him somewhere in the rear, at least for a while, until he learns something, otherwise he'll lose his  head on the second day. Do you hear me?"

 "I hear you. No problem. I'll tell him. I'm going myself in a day or two, and maybe even with them, if I get good and drunk tonight, as I'm fed up with everything here. If I go, I'll keep an eye on him. If not, I'll tell the Doctor, don't worry."

 "Please, I beg you. Don't forget!"

 "Don't worry, I'm telling you. If we don't see each other, buddy, hold tight!"

 "You, too. Watch out for that crazy head if you do go, I've gotten used to you."

 "Ditto. If I die, you know what my last thoughts will be. I'll be thinking of those two Czech blondes, ages ago, on the boat, when we were with them all night and the next day till noon."

 "One was dark haired."

 "Okay, that was yours, mine was a blonde."

 "Yours was a brunette, genius."

 "Hey, don't fuck around with my last thoughts, man. They were two blondes, as far as I remember, sex for the gods, drinks by the gallon, hey, that was the life!"

 "Oh, right, now I remember, they really were two blondes. Yeah, that was the life."

 "Who gives a shit, we've had it all, no matter what happens."

 "That's right!"

 "Take care!"

 "You, too! And if you go, for God's sake, come back. Where will I ever find such an idiot!"

 "Nowhere! That's why I'll come back."

 "I'm counting on it."

 "Hey, put that pistol down, you fool, you'll kill someone! Sorry, Robi, some idiot chambered a pistol and wants to shoot it. He'll pull down the police on my head, and you know how crazy they are without me. Damn, I really am fed up with everything. Robi, I have to go, I have to dress these cretins correctly so they don't end up shooting each other. See you!"

 "See you!"


CHAPTER III

 More than a month had passed since Denis had left for the front. Mario had also left that morning with him and the others. He must have drunk a sufficient quantity, and so had finally gone. I slowly scuffed my way next to the café, which was now abandoned, messy, with things tossed about inside, evidently left the way it probably had been the morning they had gone. The flag, large as it was, with several bullet holes (someone's impulse had been stronger than their self-control that night, if there had been any control at all towards the morning) and stains from drinks, had come halfway loose from the ceiling and hung down, which additionally created an eerie impression of abandonment, or even better, of being left to shift for itself. It seemed as if the café had lost every purpose of existence with the departure of Mario and the others, I quite simply couldn't imagine that tomorrow some ordinary bar would be there, with average guests, those who didn't have the trait of arming themselves to the teeth with all available explosive items to go get a drink, those who didn't spend night after night singing songs extolling the historical figures of the Croatian people, intensively involving themselves in passing with liquid themes on the lines of brandy, marc, and grappa, which heated heroic hearts to fever pitch. To tell the truth, if I ever have to leave for the front, I will probably follow them in the question of drinking, as in a sober state, I just don't want to go. In terms of being armed, I had also been consuming weapons in the last few months, up to the departure of the Yugoslav military forces from Pula (the last troops have just left, according to rumor), often walking with a pistol in the inner pocket of my coast, so all that could be discussed would be the amount of weapons with which a man walks around in these unsettled times. I would rather not go into the purpose of carrying weapons at the moment. In terms of songs, "who's singing, can't be doing wrong", as the saying goes. Whoever thought that one up, and it seems to me that this had to be a product of some member of the human race born in the Balkans, well, he had a quite specific sense of humor. Just as the entire Balkans are specific in every way.

 Mario has simply disappeared, as was his habit, leaving a message for the owner of the café to get in touch with me, as his legal representative who would put everything to rights. Naturally, I explained to the owner that Mario had "taken care of everything" that he could (carefully avoiding any exact explanations of what "everything" meant), and that for anything else, he should approach him when he got back in a month or two. Okay, so I didn't have the slightest idea when Mario would return, or if he ever would, but in this manner I at least took the burden of the following two months off the worried owner's shoulders. Thanks to such a convincing explanation, the café still awaited Mario. What else could I do? How could I tell the man that Mario, if he ever did return, would not again rent the café, much less pay the back rent owed (which was the greatest worry of the owner). I didn't have the heart to kill the hope in the man for some kind of profit in this year of 1991, nearing its end in a few days. I am a genius when it comes to buying time, even if at the end I have more damage than benefit. In fact, as a rule I have more damage than benefit. Quite simply, if you don't solve a problem at the right time, you merely prolong its extent, and in the meantime it usually manages to outfit itself with additional negative circumstances, and when the time finally comes that you must solve it, it is almost always at least twice as hard as at the beginning. However, how is one to resist the line of least effort, especially in the Balkans, and in such uncertain times, when in any case you don't know if you will survive until the next dawn, so in this much the fear is justified that the payment of the back rent would nonetheless prove to be at the very least a premature act, to one's own detriment, of course. Thus a reasonable man comes to the conclusion that such activities should be aligned with the actual social moment (which includes many things, but certainly not paying rent). When this is the way it is, let us take these two months, which the man accepted without any hesitation (you simply cannot believe how many people these days have understanding for such things), and later we shall see how it all works out.

 I had told my aunt in Berlin about Denis leaving for the front, watering down the reality as much as a I could with stories about how she shouldn't be specially worried, that he wasn't directly on the front lines of the battlefield (as if she would know how many lines the battlefield has, and as if it is important if they snuff you in the last line instead of the first, but at least it sounded good), instead he was in the reserve units, and that I know people who are there and that they are taking care that nothing bad would happen to him, and so forth. From then on, she calls every night, asking if I've heard anything new about him. I repeat like a parrot that all is well, then she cries quite a bit, and at the end of the conversation she regularly curses the entire family tree of her husband, who is, naturally, guilty for everything. According to her, if not for him and his insistent beating of his heroic Croatian chest, his stories about how if he was a bit younger, he would go off and "slaughter all those damned Chetnik Serbs", the kid would never have lost his marbles like this. Constantly listening to the drunken idiot going on about how "he would take care of them", the kid in a moment of inspiration went off in his father's name to do the job. Why didn't he send his son from his first marriage, hissed my aunt, instead of their only child? To tell the truth, the problem of the first marriage was a little more complex from a newly created perspective. His first wife was from Serbia, Vojvodina, so this little son of thirty some years should now be living in Novi Sad, [31] and if by some lucky chance he had ended up on the battlefield, it definitely appeared he wouldn't be on his father's side. In any case, my uncle had now become even more pious than the Pope, intensively praying to God for his son to return alive and healthy, as if not, he himself might well end up on the front, as his better half suggested every day, telling him to go take his son's place, and that way he could finally slaughter all the Chetniks he wanted. Heaven forbid that his son not return, as in that case the battlefield would be a kindergarten in comparison with the rest of his life with my aunt. At least inasmuch as I know her. It seemed to me all in all that uncle's front was nothing easier than his son's, no matter where the latter was located. And speaking of Denis, since they left I had heard only once from Mario on the phone, when he told me that everything was fine, not to worry, the kid was first class and got along well, whatever that means.

 I continued to work regularly in my office, in my spare time helping various unhappy Croats with legal advice, from soldiers to refugees, as much as was at all possible and as much as made sense in these times when literally nothing functioned, and least of all the state system that was supposed to take care of individuals and solve their problems. As if ever in the history of these regions an individual was put above the nation, that mass in which in these moments of crisis (and it is always crisis time in the Balkans, the question is merely the momentary cause and the intensity) spew out enormous quantities of uncontrolled passion, which seem to deprive certain members of this overheated mass (not to mention quantities now) of all feeling for moral responsibilities, along the way fostering a feeling of invincibility to absurd extremes! Every day you can hear triumphant comments on the lines of God is certainly with the Croats, the Serbs would claim "it goes without saying" that God is with them , and naturally Allah is with the Muslims, that crimes cannot be committed in a defensive war, and all the bad things are being done by those others, and so forth, and so on, all depending to whom you were listening at that moment. This is mainly celestial business, where arguments of this world not merely have no strength whatsoever but no one even wants to listen to them. And now an individual wants some kind of justice, only for himself, unessential for the nation, the state, history?! Give me a break! And how could anyone ever be individually important here, when not a single generation passed without a war for this or that independence, this or that ideal that definitely represented the most perishable goods in this part of the world. It always goes bad before the best by date stamped on the packet of illusions, which its creators nicely wrap, tie a bow on, and sell to the people. And while it sells, it sells. I always become bitter when I remember all those wretched fates that no one cares about and that mean nothing to anyone.

 Other than members of my own nation, I also helped the numerous former officers of our formerly mutual and now enemy army, of all possible nationalities, mostly in solving questions of their status. For example, in the beginning this state didn't even want to consider acknowledging their years of service in this enemy army. The fact that this had been the only army in the former state for the last fifty years, which had become the enemy only a few months ago, that they had been employed there throughout their entire working life, hey, well, that's their problem. Whose fault was it that they hadn't been a bit more foresighted thirty-some years ago and paid attention to what uniform they were putting on?

 In the meantime I had renovated the apartment, which in my case means that I had merely painted it and changed the front door, which after the highly successful removal of the security lock no longer functioned very well. Again I didn't change the bell, although I did halfway unscrew the screw holding it up, and then I gave up. During this operation, I lost another screw, so now the bell had a slightly quieter but even more horrible noise. I'll croak before it does, I thought to myself every once in a while, frowning at it.

 Sandra had come that night when Denis had left, seen drunken volunteers in the café, then me in a half drunken state trying to do something about the door that I had previously destroyed, turned around and left without a word. In fact, at the first moment I thought that she had forgotten something from the car, and that she'd gone back for it, and when she didn't show up afterwards, I realized that she had truly left. For days I though about what was it about, waiting for her to call, but all in vain. She didn't call and I didn't call. If I were guilty for one of our arguments (and this was usually every time when an argument would arise, as most of them had the same reason, which perhaps shall be explained later), I would somehow find a way to smooth over the situation. This was the first time that I had felt innocent after a long time, and I definitely wanted to capitalize on this rare event. I knew that she would turn up sooner or later, but I really didn't think that so much time would pass. In any case, she had finally called this morning, when she said that she would be in Pula this evening and would "drop by". I agreed, no matter what the term included, sincerely hoping for a pleasant evening, not to mention night. She sounded a little distant, but not wanting to spoil the pleasure to come, I attributed this to a bad telephone line.

 I was sitting on the couch, listening to a tape with a collection of relaxed foreign songs that I had put together for special occasions, when she appeared. As beautiful as always. Tall and beautifully built, with dark eyes and short dark hair, a slightly turned-up nose, and prominent full lips. Exactly to my taste. At least in terms of physical appearance. In terms of the other, mental and emotional side, it would take too much time to explain this relationship that had continued for some ten years, with small upswings and even greater falls, which at moments resembled abysses, and finally, when I think about it a bit, I am not even certain that an explanation would be successful. But, whatever had happened between us, and all kind of things had, we always somehow in the end succeeded in surviving it together.

 She was poured into a gray outfit, below which glimpses could be caught of her almost perfect body. Perfect at least from my perspective, as I've already said. And I hadn't seen her for more than a month, and this additionally increased my fondness for her charms, particularly physical. She came in quietly, lightly kissed me on the cheek, and sat on the couch. She was very serious. Too serious, when I thought about it. WE usually first kissed, certainly not on the cheek like now, and then she would stretch out on the couch, ask me to take off her shoes, and after I had done that I would bring here a drink, and the evening would start in this manner. It was vice versa when I would go to visit her. Now she just sat, was silent, and measured me seriously with her eyes.

 "I would at least say good evening," I said, scrutinizing her discreetly, trying to understand the situation.

 "Good evening, my love," she quietly replied, with a cynical overtone that didn't sound too good.

 "Do we have some kind of problem I don't know about?" I immediately asked her. It would be better to know immediately what this is a bout, I thought to myself, then it can be solved sooner, no matter what it's about.

 "Do we?" she responded with a counter-question.

 "Judging by your look we do," I concluded. "The only problem is that I don't know what it's about."

 "Well, my God," she said affectedly, "when did you ever know what the problem is?"

 "Tell me what this is about, I'm not in the mood for this kind of discussion," I said seriously.

 "You're not?" She acted surprised. "And what are you in the mood for? A discussion where I will agree with you in advance, where I won't ask anything from you, where you don't have to do anything, where nothing dealing with you will be touches, and on and on. You're probably in the mood for that, right?"

 "Sandra, what the hell is the matter with you tonight?" I snapped, while the anger slowly built in me. This conversation was starting to get on my nerves.

 "My name is Aleksandra, [32] and not Sandra, you must know at least that much about me, right?" She said this not moving from her position on the couching, piercing me with her large black eyes.

 I numbly stared at her, in a quandary. It definitely wasn't clear where this conversation was leading. Of course I knew that she was named Aleksandra, but I had always called her Sandra, just like everyone else. In fact, it was by that name that I had first met her. Either she's lost a few marbles or something has happened that I don't know, I thought to myself. In any case, something evidently was not okay. Now I was sorry that I hadn't called her in the meantime, despite my unquestionable "innocence", which for some reason began to seem thinner and thinner. I tried to read something from her lovely eyes, of a remarkable depth, which were simply exquisite, despite her mood. A man would like to leap into them and never swim out of those two deep dark lakes. However, if the situation continued to develop so unexpectedly, then there is no question of any leaping tonight, I thought worriedly.

 "Okay, Aleksandra, if that's what you want, but I don't know where this change is coming from ," I started carefully. "I have always known you as Sandra, but if it's a problem, we can introduce ourselves again. So, Aleksandra, I am glad to meet you, I'm Robert, Robi to his friends. Do you have some nickname your friends use?"

 "Why didn't you call all this time?" she demanded sharply, ignoring my attempt at re-introductions.

 "Me?" I stared at he in wonder. "Why me? And you? Why didn't you?"

 "Why didn't you come to my father's funeral?" she continued in the same tone.

 "What!"

 "What?" she continued in the same, slightly raised voice. "What is it? Lost the gift of speech or what? Then I will reply in place of you. My Croatian patriot just couldn't allow himself to turn up at the funeral of the father of the woman with whom he lives or tries to convince to live with him for some ten years just because her father was Serbian, isn't that right? Not to speak about how much that now deceased Serb loved and esteemed him. That's sad! No, it's not sad. It's pitiful. Pitiful!"

 "What the hell are you talking about?"

 "Oh, and how sordid for him to come to the funeral," she continued sarcastically, with an equally sharp tone, ignoring my interruptions, "when it is a Serbian funeral, when there is a Serbian and not a Croatian priest, and finally, we have a Serbian corpse, and you can't proclaim the dead to be a Croat. Or maybe you can now, who knows? If you had some kind of connection for this, and you have so many connections that you don't even know what most of them are for, you could have told us in time, so that we could satisfy this tiny little formality, it would be all the same to him, he could hardly have anything against it now, and then you, although you are a Croat, could have turned up and accompanied him to his final resting place. Then perhaps you could have walked alongside a man that you knew all these years, with whom you drank a sea of liquor, whose daughter, among other things, you regularly drag into bed, and on average ten times a year you swear to her that you will spend the rest of your life with her... I am mentioning all this, naturally, only if it seems of some relevance for coming to his funeral. And when we are already mentioning my humble self, who had the honor to be his daughter, I would really like to find out if there is any relevance in the fact that his daughter has been waiting for you all these years, like the stupidest of idiots, which I evidently am to have anything to do with you, to put up with all your failed marriages, and it's better not even to mention your relationships that only by chance didn't end up being "crowned" by marriage, to pass over things that no-one normal would pass over, and so forth and so on. What the hell, a madwoman who got stuck, who considered it normal to admit to someone that she loved him just because she truly does, as she thought that it was also normal that you fight for someone when you feel something like this for him. This must be a result of the Serbian half, the crazy, paternal side of me. The Croatian side, from my mother, constantly tells me that I have successfully acted the part of a fool for all these years. If by any chance they awarded Oscars for such a role, I would be nominated in a special category, the one for lifetime achievements, beyond any competition. Well, there it is, my love, the Croatian component in me has finally predominated, thus the reasonable side, so I have come to tell you, as a Croat, no less, that I have ceased to feel that emotion and that I am leaving you forever."

 "Wait a minute," I shouted sharply, when I could finally get a word in edgewise, as she spouted out this monologue almost in one breath, or so it seemed to me. I hadn't experienced such poison all at one in a long time. "First," I continued, "I love you, no matter what you'll come out with next. Second, I haven't the slightest idea what you are talking about except that you are leaving me on the one hand, and on the other, if I understood correctly, that your father died?"

 "And you, like, don't know this?" she snapped irritably.

 "No, I don't!"

 "How can you not know when I sent you a telegram?" she raged on. Now she had gotten up from the couch and was walking up and down the room, shooting daggers at me with her eyes.

 "What telegram?"

 "I sent you a telegram, telling you about it. A telegram! That's a little piece of paper that the mailman brings the same day you send it and it usually contains important news. I sent you such a little paper as soon as he died, a few days before I was in Pula the last time, when I came just to tell you to your face what I think of you not turning up and everything else that I have told you now. But when I saw you drunk, next to the broken front door, and before that your drunken cronies in black uniforms, I realized that there was simply no point to it, so I turned around and left."

 "How did he die?" I asked in as normal a voice as I could at that moment, although I very nearly asked why then had she come now, but that would naturally be the end of the conversation and her presence in my apartment, not to mention the inappropriateness of such a question at such a moment, so I congratulated myself on my self-control.

 "Heart attack, what else could it be," she answered caustically. "Serbs today either die from bullets or heart attacks. He died of a heart attack."

 "In terms of the manner of death, heart attack or bullet, we Croats are still united in brotherhood with you Serbs," this time I couldn't hold back, although warning bells were ringing in my head, everything was telling me to stop while there was time. True, but that uncontrollable Dalmatian tongue... "Hell," continued that other one inside me, "so sorry, I forgot that now we are on the same side since you've become a Croat, but from that point of view, as you see, unfortunately you haven't particularly profited by your change of blood cells."

 "Fuck you! I'm leaving!" she shouted, taking her bag and moving towards the doors. "You truly are pathetic, miserable, unworthy of a single tear, and definitely not deserving that I came here. You don't even deserve that I should say this to your face. You aren't good for anything! Worthless!"

 "Sandra, please accept my most sincere condolences for your father," I tossed after her, when she was already at the door. She stopped for a second. "I really am sorry," I continued. "I loved that man, and if I had gotten the fucking telegram I would have come to his funeral, even if it were the last thing I ever did in my life. And you know that. Now you can go if you want, but I think you came here to hear this."

 She stood, lost in thought, somehow tired, at the open door, turned her head towards me and gave me an endlessly sad, resigned look. It seemed that the rage had begun to diminish. Only God knows what all passed through her mind at that moment. I kept quiet, I didn't know what to say so that everything wouldn't go to hell again.

 "Robi," she said in a thin voice that sounded like when at the end of a ballad someone forgives everything bad that you have ever done to them, but only because all other feelings have lost all meaning, "you received the telegram, and that is in fact the problem. I checked personally at the post office. The telegram was delivered to you." 

 A thousand thoughts ran through my mind in that moment, as I tried to figure out where the misunderstanding had originated. I truly hadn't gotten any telegram, but I was equally sure that Sandra had indeed sent it, as I knew quite well that she would never make up something like that. Then it came to me!

 "Fucking hell!" I shouted and put my head in my hands.

 "What is it?" She suspiciously measured me from the doorway. "Don't try to tell me you've thought up some kind of excuse. Please don't. I really couldn't bear it tonight."

 "Sandra, come back here, and I beg you, listen carefully to me, and then you can go wherever you want. Please!"

 She continued to stand in the doorway and look at me. Somehow lost looking. Finally, she turned and came back into the room. She sat down at the table.

 "Talk," she said through clenched teeth.

 "Sandra, you know me well enough to know that I would have made it to the funeral even if I had lost my head for it. From principle. You know that I respected your father greatly as a truly good and honest man.

 "He felt the same way about you," she interrupted. "That's why it hurts so much. You betrayed me, Robi. A betrayal worse than the first time at the beginning, ten years ago, when you left me for the first time."

 "Listen, that thing ten years ago doesn't have anything to do with this. And I didn't betray you then, it was just an absurd misunderstanding, but since I haven't succeeded in convincing you all these years, it would be too much to think that I would finally succeed tonight. But listen to me, I swear to you that I didn't get the telegram, but now I can guess why," I continued. "I have, or more accurately, we had a crazy postman who constantly got drunk downstairs at Mario's, and just in those days was preparing to go off to the front. You have no idea how many times he left his official satchel in the café. Even Mario one trotted around delivering mail, probably something important, because this guy was totally out of it. And now, as far as I know, he's gone off to fight. The idiot must have lost the telegram, and later, when he sobered up, he signed the delivery form himself, and considered the matter closed. He was always doing it, honestly."

 "There were death notices in the papers, even in the Pula newspapers, because you know that we have relatives here in Pula as well. How is it that you didn't spot it there?"

 "I have never read local papers," I said between my teeth. "You know I don't read them."

 "And you didn't know that he had died?"

 "No, I really didn't!" I replied. "Let me explain something. I may be a Croat, but that is my personal affair, and just because of this I don't a priori divide people into Croats and Serbs or who knows what other nation, differentiating this from the divisions that exist on the battlefield, where two sides are always opposed, independent of my wishes or those of any other ordinary mortal. This is the problem of the lords of war, and I, like the majority of others, can only be a servant in such acts. As long as I am not on the battlefield and as long as no one is shooting at me, as far as I am concerned all that exists is a man with his name. If someone shoots at me, then I will shoot at him, no matter who it is. And if I actually have to say all this, well, I am proud to be a Croat to the same degree that anyone else in the world is proud of the fact that he is an Englishman, a Frenchman, a German, or anything else. No more and no less. Particularly when one's country is at war, when emotions slip their controls every now and then."

 "How much have your emotions slipped then?" she interrupted.

 "Certainly not enough that I would harm anyone because of that, if that person was not directly threatening me," I answered. "To continue where I left off. In my case, you have to start from the fact that I was born in a region where they first teach you the Croatian hymn, then how to play briscola and tressette, [33] and only then how to call for your mother. The last one isn't even obligatory. It sounds a little oversimplified, but believe me, it isn't far from the truth. We remember our closest only when they leave us, or, God forbid, we remain without them, and then we regret everything nice that we didn't say or show when we had the chance. Thus this suffering is immeasurable, sung of so many times with such feeling, but rarely expressed at the right time. But let me return to what we were talking about. Mainly, with a bit of pathos, such notions of pride accompany birth in the area I come from, like fate and they follow you all your life, but like everything else in life, there are a hundred and one ways that they can be borne. For example, my pride, such as it is, allows me to esteem any Serb who is proud to be a Serb, as long as this isn't at my expense. And my Croatian national awareness is only for personal consumption, not for anyone else. It never has been and it never will be. It is quite simply my personal, private affair, which I am telling you now because this bizarre situation forces me to, as it almost follows that I must defend myself because I am what I am, which is naturally absolute nonsense, in every respect. For everyone, and not just for me. In any case, I don't tell this to other people, because they don't need it and I don't want it to interest them. So, I don't think that just because I was born a Croat, I gained or lost anything in particular. This is simply a fact that God was supposed to take care of, and not me, for I don't mess around in his areas of competence. It's true that I would be happier had I been born in New York, no matter from what nation or origin, but this is that problem of the conflict of interest between God and me, where I, as can be seen, always come out the loser. And finally, I must mention that I can't stand professional Croats, Croats by profession, and that is what you have indirectly declared me to be in your gushing of enthusiasm a while ago, and naturally, I appreciate professional Serbs even less. And also, I don't allow anyone ever, for whatever reason, to determine with whom and why I will socialize, nor will anyone ever force me to give up certain people and memories, or more exactly, to give up part of my life. I can renounce some people on my own, some of them I have, but then I will do it from my own impulses and motives, but no third person can force me to this from some reason of his or her own. I didn't form friendships because of politics, and I won't lose them because of politics. Some of my "friends" have washed their hands of me because of politics, and I afterwards washed my hands of them, not because of politics, but because of their decisions. Politicians could turn my stomach before, but they repulsed me only when they began to treat people who were friends up to that point exclusively according to momentarily valid political criteria. So, if I have renounced some friends, then it is for reasons that were personally important to me and that mean something to me, and I don't give a flying fuck what anyone else thinks of this or what it should mean to them. I have functioned this way since I first became aware of myself, as is well known to you. Have I been sufficiently clear?"

 "Fairly," she answered.

 "Just let me say that I am sorry and that I sincerely sympathize as much as I can with all ordinary, so-to-speak normal Croats, many of whom throughout this sad land are now suffering in the worst possible manners, for no fault of their own. For balance, and for my peace of mind, I am equally sorry for all honest Serbs suffering for similar reasons, also from no faults of their own. But I am not sorry for those idiots who are now shooting at my country and are killing people. No one normal could expect that from me, nor from any normal person, whether Croatian or Eskimo."

 "Croats don't kill except in self-defense?" she asked.

 "I really don't know if my lot are merely defending themselves or if they are killing others just because of differences in nationality, so I can't say anything about this now, but if they are doing this, time will tell. If such things have occurred, it doesn't mean the entire nation is guilty. Fools, idiots, and various mentally ill people have always existed and always will in all nations, and the fact that a state of war is their natural framework for a happy existence is not my problem. You can't possibly blame me for that!"

 "And Serbs can be accused as a nation?" she asked.

 "Well...," I dragged it out, while that other Robi again awoke inside me. "I can't, naturally. But you must admit, given the situation, it looks like the Serbian people have a few more examples of the iffy mental cases I mentioned than we do."

 "That does seem to be the case," she agreed, to my surprise. Not because I had thought that she looked at this in a different way, but simply to disagree with me. "But listen," she continued, "it strikes me that always, whenever we have a bit more serious conversation, whenever you want to say anything somewhat deeper about yourself as a person, you return to Dalmatia. All of your attitudes in life, your considerations, your decisions are tied to your origins. And what about all the years spent outside of Dalmatia, what about the other influences you have been exposed to all these years? Don't they leave any kind of trace on you?!"

 "Hmm," I murmured at the unexpected question. "It's not exactly easy to answer that briefly. Our course everyone absorbs influences from all sides, but it's another thing how much they are accepted. It could be that for us Dalmatians the foundation from childhood is so strong that it always gives a certain tone to things, and the impression is given that we never change, which naturally isn't true for anyone, not even for us. But this built-in base is probably more emphasized for us other than for others. Oh, it is hard to understand a Dalmatian soul!" I laughed. "For centuries it was very, very hard to live in Dalmatia. Especially in the part I am from. People survive there out of spite to the world and God, as far as they can. When they can't, then they emigrate, to Germany, America, or God knows where; they work like slaves, working hand in hand with nostalgia, they live for the memories of their stones, their sea, their mountains. It doesn't matter from what part of Dalmatia they came, they are all the same in this. And as time passes, they are increasingly archaic, they retain what they took with them, they aren't particularly concerned with social and other changes occurring in the land they left, they merely dream of Dalmatia and yearn to return."

 "Do you dream?" she asked.

 "Every Dalmatian dreams, wherever he is, I already told you," I continued. "However, life in all its curious forms carries you into foreign waters, you swim because you must, you earn a pension in this manner, and then you return home to die in peace. So, in the end, the majority of the Dalmatians who left it spent their youth there, and then spent the rest of their life in one manner or another in who knows what countries and lands, and then, in their old age, they return to Dalmatia and stretch out under some withered fig tree until God gathers them to his bosom. You see, Pula is in Croatia, at least it still is now. I know a lot of aged Dalmatians here. Their families are here, they live here, when they have the chance and the time they occasionally visit Dalmatia, but the fascinating thing is that the majority of them in their wills specify that they want to be buried in Dalmatia. I know this, because I set out those wills! Well, you try to understand this! Their children are here, their families, everything, but they want, no matter the cost, to be buried in some tiny little village under that incandescent sun, where otherwise there are only three or four elderly people living out their lives, who would be quite happy to die themselves, but they don't dare, from fear that there would be no one to bury them. They have to wait for summer, for the tourist season, when the young people come to visit, so as to take advantage of the opportunity to die, so there will at least be someone to take them to the cemetery. And similarly, my Dalmatians here would rather be buried there, in some overgrown grave, with no one to look after it, no one to visit it, than here, where all logic declares that each week someone would come to visit the grave. But, no, this means nothing to them, they only want to return home, even when dead.

 "Where do you want to be buried?"

 "Hell," I grumbled, "it's a bit early to think about it, although, in fact, in these regions it's never too early. Well, I'll answer indirectly. If I end up on the battlefield, if I have to, naturally, then I will do all I can so this would be somewhere in Dalmatia. And if I die, let it be there. If I were to be killed in Istria, for instance, then I would die twice. First, because they killed me, and second, because it wasn't in Dalmatia. And, hey, fuck it, I'm just not quite in the mood for this to happen to me once, much less twice."

 "You don't seem to have a particularly positive opinion of Istria," she noted.

 "No, wrong , this is a fantastic land," I answered. "I have found so many friends here, not to mention the endless cretins, who seem to pop up everywhere. What I said before was related only to my origins and not to some kind of animosity towards Istria. God forbid! I have spent wonderful years here, my entire youth, that I would not give up for any price! Hey!" I looked closely at her, it seemed to me that she had suddenly started to cry, "What is it? What have I done now?"

 She didn't respond. She really had started to cry. Quietly at first, and then louder. For a moment, I looked in surprise, then I got up, went to her, pulled her up from her chair, and seated her on the couch. I held her. Thoughts sped through my head, as I tried quickly to condense the course of our conversation, thinking of what the actual reason was for this change. Nothing special, I concluded, just everything together. There was simply too much emotion in the air for it not to have an effect, as well as the mention of her late father, whom she had truly adored.

 While she sobbed in my embrace, the figure of her father returned to my memory; Aleksander, for whom she had evidently been named. That parallel between their names hadn't struck me until now, names simply didn't mean anything to me. I rarely remembered them, unless it was some relationship that continued somewhat longer, when in the nature of things you remember the name of the person you are in contact with several times! Otherwise not. What a strange time when names had become the most important characteristic of those that bore them, I thought to myself. [34] All other characteristics became of secondary importance. At least at first glance.

 Disconnected thoughts continued to spin through my head, while she still quietly cried, leaning against me. Again, all these disjointed thoughts somehow constantly returned me to the absurdity of a situation in which your name was decisive even for the choice of visitors at your last send-off from this world. For the first time I truly became aware of the full weight of circumstances that could be condensed into a theme: the wrong name in the wrong place at the wrong time. When God decides that you will be born in the Balkans (meaning a priori that you have been royally screwed), then you can't avoid at least one of the three above factors dinging you in the head, it's just a question of when in your life this will happen. And if by any chance you miss this during your lifetime, you still can't avoid it afterwards. It should be set down in law that people born in these regions receive numbers at birth, and not names, which would certainly make life easier.

 I thought of how much luck I had had with my name, as my mother had chosen a relatively neutral name, not associated particularly with any of the living nations in the Balkans. She had once told me that my father, before he had abandoned me and her, which happened soon after my birth, had wanted to give me the name Adolf, after some failed Austrian corporal, who had later turned into a very successful politician, admittedly only for a certain time. The fact that Adolf, diabolical as he was, in his affairs as he conceived them, was most famed as the exterminator of members of unsuitable peoples, as well as the fact that Slavs, and thus also the Croats, were hardly ranked highly on his hierarchical ladder of the chosen races, was not of any particular importance to father (nobody's perfect!). Well, if my mother had not been stubborn (one of the rare positive examples of her stubbornness in my life), I would have remained an Adolf, which would certainly have ensured me numerous pleasant moments during the reign of communism in the former state. On the other hand, had I remained Adolf, now I could accuse the former government and the communists for all the failures in my life (as in: how could I succeed as a Croat, and one called Adolf, at that), present myself as a martyr, and make an entire career of this. As it is, fuck it, I can blame no one but myself, and that is hardly a stimulant to strengthening mental health.

 Finally Sandra stopped crying, and I rid myself of fertile lamentations on the meaning of names in the Balkans. Such cases must be known elsewhere throughout the entire world, but only here are they extreme, exclusive, crucial, and not subordinate, as they should be. Fuck names, I thought, and caressed Sandra's hair.

 "Do you feel better?" I asked.

 "A bit," she muttered through her teeth, wiping mascara from her face with a handkerchief.

 "A slightly inappropriate question, but how did your father die?" I asked. "I mean, I heard you say it was a heart attack, but how did it happen?"

 "Ah!" she sighed. "You know he had heart problems, high blood pressure, diabetes, not to mention too many pounds."

 "I know," I responded. "How could he not, when a good party was more important to him than his health."

 "Yes, true!" she continued. "He would give anything for good company. However, recently, in fact from when MiloöeviÊ started to drivel at Gazimestan, [35] he began to withdraw into himself. He constantly repeated that there was no hope, that there would be war, that this was simply the fate of the Balkans. And you know that as a former history professor he was quite caught up in this, and also he had lived through World War II, as a child, it's true, but he had seen all kinds of things."

 "And your mother, what does you mother say about all this?" I asked.

 "Oh, my mother," she sighed. "She is a wonderful wife and mother, but she attributed it all to his obsession with history, she accused him of just making a drama out of it because he was a Serb, she didn't understand a word. She, as a doctor, just crammed him full of tablets, pained his soul with advice about a healthy lifestyle, which drove him even crazier."

 "But that's what I mean," I said. "How could she, as a doctor, not succeed in helping him? She didn't spare even me from a lecture on a healthy lifestyle, and she can't stand me, so what about him?"

 "Don't be stupid," she said. "It isn't true that she can't stand you, she is just driven map by our relationship over all these years, where we never know exactly what we are doing. At least I don't. And as far as my father is concerned, do you know how he kept on a diet? You don't! Every third month he would go on a diet, after which his condition would always be worse, to our astonishment. And do you know why? He went on a diet at the nearby restaurant (Chez Frank), where he would be in charge of turning the sucking pigs and lambs on the spits, along with other dietary food. Half the community would wait until he began to go on a diet, and then there would be parties at Frank's. After such excursions, and they were daily during his diet, Dad would come home, humbly eat just a small salad and a cup of yogurt, and poor Mom was so happy, she couldn't believe that he could be so disciplined in holding to a diet. She would usually go on in a satisfied way about how it was all in the head, that all you had to do was make a firm decision and then you could do anything, and Dad would even more happily repeat: "Yes, yes, that's right old girl, it's all in the head." A tragicomedy. Even today, mother doesn't know how he kept to his diet. I found out after the burial, but I don't have the heart to tell her now. What for?"

 "He was a living legend," slipped from me.

 "You support this, right?", she asked.

 "No, of course not," I said unconvincingly. "Fuck it," I changed my mind, "everybody has a right to the kind of life they chose. At least he lived like a human, and while things were going well, he enjoyed himself, and he didn't vegetate like some plant. What I mean to say is that as he lived, he also died. It was his own choice. Just like my father a year ago."

 Your father died from cancer of the throat?"

 "Something like that," I answered. "He could have lived at least another ten years if he had agreed to a throat operation with the installation of a speaking device. But no, the old man asked the doctor can he drink after that, and the answer was no, can he smoke, no, and he turned around and died within a month or two. You've heard of the motto of my father: wine, women, and song (and throw in smoking). Since he could no longer enjoy women and gambling, he didn't want to give up the rest. And then he remembers that I exist and he called me. Then I met him, for practically the first time in my life. And the last. My only memento of him is the bill for the funeral. I don't even have a picture."

 "Poor you," she patted me. "It must have been hard."

 I looked at her and thought of my father, whom truly I had then seen for the first and last time, if you don't count his dead body in the coffin. Had it been hard? To be honest, even with the best will in the world I didn't succeed in seeing him as my father, he was simply a foreigner whom I had seen for the first time in my life, and whose only connection with me was that he was my biological father. No, it hadn't been hard, but I had felt miserable exactly because I didn't succeed at all in visualizing my father in his dead body. Only months later did I go to his grave and have a good cry. But, to be honest, I cried for myself, and not for him, because I had never had him, I had never learned what it meant to have a father. I hope that he didn't hold this against me, if he was watching from some celestial height. He wouldn't have had an argument even if he had. On the other hand, thanks to the chance mention of my father, the mood had unexpectedly begun to resonate with some strange closeness. At least let my father be of some use now, even if dead, I thought to myself, when he hadn't earlier.

 "Yes, it was hard," I quietly said. "I must admit that I cried," I continued, thinking on that other visit to the grave, when I really had cried, and so I wasn't really far from the truth, it was more a gentle shifting of dates, taking advantage of an opportunity,"

 "My poor baby," she said softly, pulling my hands through her hair, starting to kiss me. Father, I forgive you tonight for all the thirty years you didn't turn up, I thought with satisfaction. If tonight is completely successful, perhaps I won't even revise my feelings. Father, this is a unique chance for you to redeem yourself for all the shit you caused by leaving your only child in that miserable, fucking backwoods of Sinj. Don't give up! Don't get tanked tonight in some heavenly dive and forget me again.

 The rest of the night exceeded all my expectations. Sandra had never been more tender, truly never. The hours passed like minutes while I felt each tiny bit of her glowing body next to mine, her heat, her entire being that simply radiated emotions. Only God knows how many times we had been in bed until then, or done without a bed, it didn't matter, I had thought I knew everything about her, her body, her habits, her minor and major wishes, her preferences, but tonight I had the impression that someone was giving me a lecture on making love, that sex without emotion is merely sex and nothing more, how all in all without a spiritual quality it doesn't mean anything. That night she offered me her soul, stripped barer that her splendid body, she offered it to me, to us... That night she was a woman in the most magnificent sense of the word, a woman with whom you could catch hold of a moment of eternity, a moment it pays to live so you experience it, that you can never forget because something like that just doesn't happen. If by some miracle it happens, like it did to me, to us, that night, you can only pray that it never stops.

 It was already morning, while we still lay next to each other, gazing.

 "I have to shower," she said quietly.

 "Why?" I asked. "Must you hurry off? We could stay here all day, a week, a year, forever. The cold cruel world is outside, and we don't need it. I love you! I truly love you, and this time..."

 "I really do have to go, my love. Just let me shower, then we will talk a bit. Okay?"

 "Do I have a choice?" I asked.

 She only smiled, got up, and went to the bathroom. I watched her naked body graciously floating away. My God, I really do love her, rang through my head. Perhaps third time really is lucky, I thought, remembering Mario and our conversation about marriage. At this moment I would even agree to lifelong enslavement and not merely marriage, just so that she would remain with me. Somehow I will convince her to stay. I had always succeeded, why wouldn't I now? I got up to change the tape and light a cigarette. The second cigarette was close to a stub when she returned to the room. Dressed!

 "Why did you get dressed?" I suspiciously squinted at her.

 "I told you we have to talk," she said quietly, lighting a cigarette for herself. "Robi, I have to tell you something very important."

 "Can I go before you?" I asked.

 "No, I have to be first, and you'll go later," she continued. This all began to seem weird to me, it began to make me a little nervous.

 "Just don't, I beg of you, tell me that you're leaving me again," I said, looking her in the eyes. "Surely we have gotten over that."

 "I love you, Robi," she said. "All these nights all these years I have laid with you in my thoughts, and awoken with you before my eyes. If I lose you, and if there is a God, I will never love anyone else like this. I couldn't stand it one more time. Let me finish! And if I end up without you, that is now only up to you."

 "All of this I can tell you, but my stomach has begun to be slightly upset from this uncertainty that appears not to lead where I intended to go. Or am I wrong?"

 "It depends, my love," she said coyly, while tears again began to appear in her eyes.

 "Sandra, tell me, for God's sake, while I can still hear!"

 "I'm leaving," she said.

 "Leaving! So I see! For home? Where are you going? What do you mean by this?"

 "We're leaving for Canada."

 "What?!" 

 "You heard quite well," she continued, while tears ran down her face. "Canada. We took care of the visas, everything, we have relatives there, and we're leaving. Since Father died, my mother, sister, and I have thought long and hard, and finally we decided. None of us had any reason to stay any longer in this country, and that's the way it ended up."

 "No one had a reason to stay? And what about me?," I asked, lighting a new cigarette, trying to control myself so I wouldn't weep, curse, or throw up, since my stomach seemed to be floating around my ears. "Don't I mean anything to you?"

 "You meant everything to me, love, and please don't torture me further. I love you and I am not giving up on you. I will be in contact as soon as we get there, and I will do everything to get your papers in order for you to come."

 "Where am I supposed to come, damn you!" I exploded, I couldn't take any more. "Where am I to come? What are you talking about?"

 "I'm leaving in ten days, everything is already set up, she said, getting up and preparing  to leave. "We have enough time to get married, and then when I get there, I can very easily take care of the paperwork for you as my husband, and then you can come over."

 "Are we supposed to get married for Canada?"

 "For us," she answered.

 "And what am I supposed to do there? Dig ditches?"

 "Now, love, don't start. You have several professions, you'll quickly catch on to the language, and what is most important, you have me. Isn't that enough?"

 "Where and at whose expense will I live until I learn the language, until I find employment, until I kill myself?" I asked. "With your mother, who deeply and sincerely hates me, no matter what you say about it. To tell the truth, I don't blame her, but doesn't it seem to you that this will hardly be a honeymoon?"

 "Leave my mother out of it," she said, leaned down, and kissed me. "I love you and please don't leave me."

 "I leave you?!"

 "Please, think about it and get in touch as soon as possible. I'll wait for you."

 "Till when?"

 "As long as I love you, and I will love you forever, whether you come with me or not. But if you don't come, I will die far away from you. If you don't come, perhaps one day I will get over you, but I will never forget you."

 "Nor I you! Never!"

 "I love you."

 "And I love you."

 The door closed after her. I listened to how her heels echoed off the stone stairs. The stopped echoing. I lit I don't know what cigarette in a row and started at the door. My breaths were coming shorter and shorter, I'm going to suffocate, I thought to myself. I knocked back a glass of brandy. I lit another cigarette. The door didn't open. She really had left. For Canada? Damn it to hell, was there no end to this insanity? Was there anything beautiful that lasts longer than a single day? Was there any sense at all in waiting and hoping for anything nice? Or should you search in Canada? Or on the moon? Or anywhere else except for in the cursed Balkans. You could not even spend a night with the woman you love, and that afterwards... Well, father, you have an easy time of it in heaven. You left in time. You didn't have to think about whether tomorrow you would go to work or go to Canada for the rest of your life. All the same, thank you for making an effort for this one night, I will never forget it. Thank you! 

 

CHAPTER IV

 Christmas 1991 passed, and so did New Year's Eve of 1992. A wartime Christmas and a wartime New Year's Eve. Any and all means were used to shoot off all available ammunition, thanks to which at least the city fathers didn't have to organize fireworks at midnight. It "spontaneously" lasted for days, starting in the morning, when the newly trained pyrotechnic experts would manage to stand on their heroic legs, and lasting as long as they could stay upright, to the late hours of the night. The authorities, after several people just passing by were accidentally shot, begged in vain through the public media that ammunition be saved for better purposes, that at the moment there were lots of places in the country where such discharges were almost natural, even desired, but most of them passionately continued to press the triggers with barrels pointing to the heavens. And bullets like bullets, every so often they plunge downwards and then you have a problem. I won't go into the contribution of alcohol to this new form of general "celebration", from simple politeness, and so as not to repeat myself unnecessarily.

 Somehow I survived even this. The first few months passed of the newly arrived year of 1992, and most of the inhabitants of this beautiful and sad land had finally realized that the war was not over to Christmas, and that only God knew (if even He knew!) which next holiday would bring an end. Columns of unfortunates, sometimes called refugees, sometimes exiles, who were in any case people who had lost their homes and everything else, filed everyday across the TV screens, in directions that were known neither to themselves, nor those who led them. Hotels, no matter their luxury ranking, began to be filled temporarily with them. It was said that this would be a temporary stay, although no one who knew anything about the Balkans could ever lightly subsume anything bad under a status of temporary. Temporary here can only refer to good things, since it would be intolerable that any generation, Heaven forbid, should by chance become accustomed to them. Those other things have somewhat different, longer lasting traits.

 It seemed that people, at least here, had become somewhat used to a wartime lifestyle, which was helped most by the fact that the battlefields were a bit further from home, and it was that much easier to come to terms with the events occurring there.

 Sandra had left for Canada with her family despite all my arguments. A faulty argument multiplied by stubbornness will inevitably result in the disintegration of everything involved. After she left, we talked frequently, usually late at night (which suited me, and also solved the problems in terms of the time zones between Croatia and Canada). It seemed to me that we hadn't talked this much even when she had been here, when we were together. In fact, I'm sure we didn't. This must be how you make up for the loss of someone's nearness. Neither of us had given up on the other, at least verbally, making plans for the future that would like a phoenix arise from the ashes of this wartime backwater; when suddenly it disappears, and we assured each other that it would shortly, then we would find some mutual modus vivendi... Ah, while it sounds good, why not, although, if that was the case, why did I feel deserted? I had not married her, naturally, although I would otherwise have agreed to this in other circumstances (if she had stayed, I would have certainly, at least now I use this to comfort or accuse her, depending on your point of view), but to do this because of Canada, that would be too much for my already undermined ego, my sensitive vanity that I had not had food for in months. In nay case, I would live through these temptations. But it was certainly not easy! It was a very close thing as to whether or not I would join the long lines that already formed in the early morning hours in front of all the embassies, including the Canadian, but since I have never been able to tolerate any kind of waiting in line, here I remained.

 Everything and nothing was happening around me. The everything referred to the social conditions and the destruction of war, and the nothing to me personally, as nothing happened to me of any kind of importance, and especially nothing that would represent a positive omen. Since I had still succeeded in avoiding the battlefield, I mainly spent uneventful, monotonous days in Pula, where practically nothing happened, at least not in comparison with the regions caught up in the winds of war. A typical breach between actual social events and an individual who against his will is caught up in them, and who cannot relate to them at all (more exactly, who does everything in his power so as not to have to relate, but this effort still is not of such a character as to mean a move from that "nothing"). This present state, which was closest to the concept of "surviving", I just couldn't accept as something that impressed me in an at least bearable manner, if not anything more.

 I found out about the fate of friends who had gone off the fight partially and in an unconnected way, so that for Mario, for example, I first heard that he was dead, then that he was wounded, and afterwards that he had been spotted in a bar, which he had blown sky high in a fit of passion because of a misunderstanding with the employees... Mostly it was impossible to confirm anything with the slightest acceptable degree of certainty, and with time you cease to pay attention to such stories.

 The first days of spring finally arrived. On one of those April days, actually evenings, the telephone rang. I answered.

 "Robi, is that you?" I heard from the other side of the line, but the reception was so bad that I couldn't even begin to guess who it was.

 "Yes, it's me, as usual," I answered, waiting in curiosity to find out.

 "It's Mario," the telephone squawked.

 "Mario!"

 "Yeah, it's me, can you hear me? I've been calling for hours from some ancient cemetery of a telephone, some remnant from your former lot, and I just couldn't get through. Can you hear me?"

 "I can hear you, man," I started shouting, somehow presuming that he would hear me better that way. "How are you?"

 "Screwed!" he shouted. "You can imagine how I am! But I can hold on, and what else can I do? Can you hear me?"

 "I hear you," I said. "What's going on? Where are you calling from? How's Denis?"

 "From the Dubrovnik front. And I'm calling you about Denis," he could barely be heard. "He was wounded a couple of days ago. It's pretty bad. In the head. You should get down here urgently."

 "Wounded?" I repeated, while some kind of tremors slowly began to course through my body.

 "Yes! You should come immediately and take him to a hospital in Split or Zagreb. [36] This is just a field hospital, you know. Maybe they will find some way to send him on if his condition stabilizes, but I would nonetheless immediately transport him. He doesn't look good. And he constantly mentions only you. As soon as he stops raving, he asks if you've come."

 "Where is he now?"

 "In the MASH here"

 "In the what?" I asked.

 "The MASH, for fuck's sake! You know what a MASH is! You don't? A military hospital near the front lines, a clinic, just abbreviated from the English version, M.A.S.H., man! Some American shit, that's what it's called."

 "Hot damn, I didn't know we'd already joined NATO," I couldn't resist.

 "Don't screw around. He's at Ston, [37] in the MASH, but these are field conditions, and I'm not sure that they can do a lot. It would definitely be better for you to organize getting him to Split or Zagreb. He truly is a fine boy and I would be sorry if anything happened to him."

 "Well, for God's sake, what else can happen to him except death?" I shouted bitterly.

 "Exactly! There are other wounded here and they patch them up quite well, but this wound of his is bad, it's a head wound, and it would be bet..."

 The line went dead. For a while I heard crackling, and then a hush. The phone rang again. I grabbed the receiver, expecting Mario.

 "Robi, it's Aunt Maria, how are you?"

 "Yow, fucking hell!" slipped out.

 "What?" I heard my aunt's confused voice.

 I dropped the receiver, as if I had been holding a live coal, and moved away from the telephone. What now? What was I to tell her? If I tell her that her son, whom she literally worships, has been wounded, she's going to go crazy. If she doesn't end up right away in the hospital, she'll leave immediately for Croatia. If I keep quiet and he doesn't survive, what will I tell her then? I disconnected the telephone from the wall and sat down. I lit a cigarette. I needed at least a few minutes to collect myself, to think up what to tell her, and how to make it sound somehow tolerable and reasonable. You can imagine! What the hell is tolerable about this? And it is better not even to mention reasonable. If I was at least in a situation that I could choose the lesser of two evils, but I couldn't even do that. No one can, just sometimes we pretend to ourselves, thus reducing the gravity of the situation. Bad is bad, no matter which way you look at it, and only God knew which of the two possible methods would in the end seem less negative. Neither! They are so large and unacceptable, that there is simply no point in choosing. In the end, fuck such a choice and anyone who dares to call it a choice. I lit a second cigarette. Revolt was roiling upwards in me like a volcano. If you at least knew towards whom to direct it, everything would be easier, but like this? What? Towards the government of this unhappy nation, towards God? There was no sense to it, these were all celestial, or at the very least unquestionable and untouchable factors who couldn't give a shit for Denis being wounded, and even less for my bitterness. I breathed in deeply. I knew that my aunt was calling constantly, it was clear that I had to answer, as if I didn't, it would be the same as if I had said that he was dead. At least that was the way she would treat this. Poor uncle, I thought. First she will kill him, then she will herself end up in the hospital, in the psychiatry wing, and after that she'll be off for Croatia, searching for her son. Fuck it, what could I do. I plugged in the telephone again, and put out my hand to pick up the receiver. While I was doing this, the phone already rang. I knew that it would be like this.

 "Robi, is that you? It is!" I heard my aunt's panic filled voice. "My God, I was scared to death. Has anything happened to Denis. Have you heard from him?"

 "Yes, I have, everything's okay," I answered, while I rolled my eyes from distress and stared at the ceiling. "He's just got a scratch, so he's in the hospital, but it's nothing to worry about."

 "Is he wounded, oh poor me," she had already started to cry.

 "A bit, just a bit," I tried to quibble, not even myself knowing how to continue. The I heard some kind of dull sound, and furniture toppling, and all at once silence. "Auntie, auntie!"

 "What's happened, Robi?" Now I heard my uncle's no less panic filled voice. "Your aunt has fallen unconscious. What is it, is it Denis?"

 "Well, nothing really, he's a little wounded, go on, take care of her, we'll talk later."

 "Okay!" he said, and obediently hung up the phone.

 Oh, my God, what a relief. Hopefully aunt Maria won't come around so quickly, I thought, and immediately was disgusted with myself for such thoughts. My aunt's Dalmatian dialect had reminded me of Denis, as he knew only this variant of the Croatian language, as I had already said, while the influence of my poor uncle and his northern Croatian dialect was less than minor. So much about who wore the pants in that household! I truly have gone nuts, to be thinking about this now!

 The telephone was silent. Neither my uncle nor Mario called. If my aunt had regained consciousness, then it was understandable why uncle wasn't calling, and Mario probably couldn't get through. What should I do now, I asked myself? Go to the Dubrovnik front, to Ston? With all the goodwill in the world, I couldn't see how I could be of help to Denis there, except to hold his hand. I loved the boy, but what use would I be to him there? Not to mention that this was a front where the shells fell regularly, without designated targets. Damn it, this wasn't how I had imagined leaving for the front. Or should I wait a day or two, see what I could get done through connections here. Presumably I wouldn't be driving the ambulant with him to Split or wherever? I must admit that I didn't succeed in understanding why my presence there would be useful to him, other than to make him feel easier, from the psychological point of view, as was true for anyone in such moments when someone close is nearby (if he was in any condition to recognize me, and presumably he was if he was constantly asking for me). I often think that it would sometimes be easier if certain people would be less attached, less admiring, all the same, if nothing else, it would be easier to justify certain actions to my conscience. It's not that I don't want to go, it's that I really don't want to go, I acknowledged to myself, but then again, given the way this situation was unfolding, I had a bad feeling that I would soon become acquainted with all exotic features of the Dubrovnik vicinity in these war conditions. My God, how many times had I been in Dubrovnik, mainly while Tony was alive, as this was his hometown, and everything in it reminded me of him. What would it remind me of in the future? I didn't have the strength even to think about this!

 The next morning I was already at the Crisis Headquarters of Pula, and then at the Croatian Officer's Committee, asking about the easiest way to get to Dubrovnik, or rather Ston. Before that, half the night I had convinced my aunt that nothing really serious had happened to Denis, that I would take care of everything, than in any case I had to run down to Dubrovnik on official business, and that I would get keep her informed from there. While I was saying all this, I almost began to laugh at myself from wretchedness; I hadn't succeeded for a long time in thinking up such a pathetic and absurd story about having to pop down to Dubrovnik on business in wartime. Now you can only "unofficially" hop down there, until some wandering shell doesn't stop your hopping. And by the way, even my uncle had not managed to get through his battlefield without wounds, as in an attack of total enthusiasm, my aunt had shot a rather large porcelain plate at his head, and now, all bandaged up, he was whining, at least that was how she vaguely explained the reasons for his cries for help that could be heard in the background. In any case, it didn't need a lot of imagination to think what his next couple of days would be like. In fact, I would rather go to Ston than be in his shoes, I thought to myself. The shells might miss me, but my aunt certainly wouldn't miss him. A good therapy; when you are badly off, it is always a pleasure to think of someone you know who has it worse.

 After my aunt, Sandra called, and naturally, I couldn't resist telling her that I had to go off to the battlefield. I didn't mention any wounded relative, just briefly and seriously, more in passing, I mentioned that I had to go (so as to gain importance, on the one hand, and on the other, since I was already screwed, at no blame to myself, then I should at least gain a little free drama!). Naturally, this approach was a complete failure, because of which I again was on the receiving end of a positive hurricane of tears, and under pressure from my conscience, I admitted that I would probably return in a day or two, that it wasn't a classic joining up, rather some delegation I was going with just to visit the army. She again understood this as an attempt to comfort her, and we couldn't talk anymore because of her crying. At that point I wanted to tell her the truth, but she would probably have taken it as yet another attempt at playing down my "departure", so I didn't. In any case, she cried so much that I began to get into the spirit of the upcoming adventure, and I also started to cry, which worsened an otherwise difficult situation to an absurd degree, so I was forced to break off the conversation, if it could even be called a conversation. Until morning I tried to fathom why I had cried! I didn't succeed.

 At the Officer's Committee they were just setting up some delegation to the southern front. The secretary explained that they did this every couple of months, sometimes more often, to take the soldiers cigarettes, food, and similar things, and that one group was just setting off and that they would be very pleased to have me join them. That's nothing compared to me, I thought, I won't be able to get over my happiness until my return, if I return! In any case, my departure with this delegation was solved in a few minutes. I had thought that leaving for the front would be a considerable problem, but it had turned out easier to go there than to go shopping in Trieste. [38] Probably all roads to hell are so simple, I though maliciously at my own expense.

 In the late afternoon of the next day, I sat in a full bus and was driven towards the south. Sober! I didn't even manage to get drunk, but all in all, I'm was only going for a few days, after which I would come back, so I judged that this was not worthy of any special drinking. On the door of my office I had put up a note that I was on vacation until further notice. To be careful. You never know how long this could be extended. Vacation on a battlefield, what an exotic concept! Balkan, of course, I comforted myself that this was only to Ston, to the hospital, MASH or whatever it's called, and then back. It never entered my head to visit any part of the battlefield, not the front lines or any others. Just to see what I could do for Denis, and then home again.

 Other than the delegation composed of members of our officer's committee, the bus also contained several journalists, and a group from some humanitarian organization. Each group gathered together, apart from the others, and held internal conversations. Another journalist joined us in Rijeka, a blonde woman, very attractive, and she sat behind me. I thought about starting up a conversation with her, but the idea soon passed. It had started to droop from tiredness, and I wasn't particularly inspired by the idea of some male-female dialogue in these conditions. The need for that kind of conversation had been satisfied for the next couple of months thanks to Sandra's last call.

 Rattling along the Adriatic coast highway had never represented any kind of satisfaction to me before, and now even less. Especially because the driving time included waiting for the ferry to the island of Pag, as this was the only way to get to Zadar now, after the Serbs had thought that the Maslenica bridge was a bird and sent it flying sky high. [39] In the morning we passed through Split, and later Omiö, Makarska, and PloËe, and then we were entering war territory. Until somewhere around PloËe, most of my group wasn't lacking in animation; they told stories of adventures experienced in various uniforms, and the narrators were always the main figures, brave and relentless in eradicating bitter enemies, which, of course, could be found everywhere on this planet. They had done all this with their thoughts on their homeland of Croatia, because of it, although I never succeeded in finding a connection between killing members of a rebellious black tribe in some remote central African mini-state that God had said good-night to even before it was founded, and the events occurring in this country. Had someone thought to record all these stories, he could have written several new Iliads and Odysseys. But after passing through PloËe and entering the "war area", the group got quieter and quieter. In fact, as we traveled ever deeper into the territory where military activity was taking place, as the phrase goes, proportionally to this unhappy fact the desire for heroic stories declined. Especially when the driver told us to pay no attention to the occasional detonations, that this was all somewhere further away, and if by chance some nonetheless hit us, it would still be all the same to us. Some kind of witty guy. He evidently enjoyed the sudden deflation of enthusiasm among my warriors past their prime (I was the youngest representative in the group). I pretty much kept quiet the entire trip. The driver even winked at me while he was addressing the others, no doubt thinking me a war veteran, when I looked on everything in such a serious and peaceful manner. I slightly nodded my head to show I understood. So what, let him think what he wants. I was contemplating how this jolting along by bus was truly tiring and uncomfortable, but that such jolting will sound like a heavenly choir when we are headed in the opposite direction. As my friend the old psychiatrist Aldo would say, the same thing can seem completely different in different situations. You just have to place it in the right context, and everything is alright!

 Finally, just before evening fell we reached Ston, a small coastal town all of stone that had been turned into a command center for the Croatian National Guard, with a military field hospital. The headquarters were located in the center of town, in the local hotel, which, like many other things in this country, had changed its earlier peacetime role in line with the practical needs of the moment. We headed off there. Far away in the distance you really could hear the occasional explosions, with random spacing, but this evidently didn't bother anyone here. Habit makes things second nature, I thought to myself. The hell with habits like that! I had to keep up with my group, and tomorrow I would go about finding the hospital, and perhaps even Mario. I went along with the group, behind the guide, some sergeant whose name I hadn't really caught, when I heard a voice I knew.

 "Robi!"

 I turned towards a group of ten or so soldiers, who were either returning from the front or going there, as could be concluded at first glance since they were all fully loaded down with weapons. Somebody from the group was calling me.

 "Robi, is that you?" I heard again.

 I recognized the source of that sound. It was Luka, my childhood friend, from Sinj, where we had grown up together. We ran into each other again later at military academy, and after he had spent several years at the naval base in the Bay of Kotor, he arrived on our, excuse me, what were then our ships in Pula, so that in fact we had spent most of our lives together. He was among the first to flee the Yugoslav navy and immediately joined the Croatian National Guard. Even now, visions of his escape still pass before my eyes. When he had already left the navy, only then did he remember that he hadn't taken his personal effects from the ship, including his diploma that had remained in his cabin, but he had succeeded in taking a rifle, two pistols, and sufficient ammunition for several months of active warring, so you could say, given the weight, that he had crawled away instead of running. "The hell with the degree, we have to fight, to liberate our country, and you need a gun for this and not a diploma..." However, it soon turned out that this was hardly the case. Problems cropped up when he had to register with the Employment Office, and later with other bureaucrats, who all refused to accept his war & liberation logic and in their wildest dreams didn't want to discuss recognizing any educational level without proof. And without an education you can certainly join the army, but only as a private. And so he was forced to come back for his piece of sheepskin, which was totally impossible, as he could return only for his own personal bullet. Finally, with the help of some sailor on the ship, of Albanian nationality, who evidently wasn't any too happy to be there himself, he had somehow succeeded in getting back his degree, but he almost lost his life for it. The guards noticed him only when the diploma in its case had been tossed over the wall, and then they began to shoot. Bent over beneath the wall, with his degree in his hand, while bullets whistled over his head, he wondered whether it was better to be buried as an intellectual with a degree in hand or to prove in living form to various cretins that you had to have some kind of education when you possess the knowledge you claim and that they in the end do not dispute, but still cannot recognize without a piece of paper, despite the fact that this ill-fated piece of paper through "fateful factors" (as our Frankie would say) was now located in enemy hands. Afterwards, we first barely kept him from ripping it up, and then later it was even harder to stop him from shooting at the people who had demanded he produce his diploma. I know exactly where I'll stick the diploma, he shouted, cursing their damned bureaucratic souls, telling us how everything would be changed in this war, that nothing could continue as it had been... It can't be any different, I thought to myself then, but I wisely kept my mouth shut, as the moment hardly seemed especially suitable for such a commentary. Anyway, he very soon left for the front, and I hadn't heard any thing about him or seen him until this moment.

 "Luka, is that you, by God?" I asked, sincerely surprised.

 "Yes, it is, none other," he laughed, came across, and hugged me. Medium height, dark, tanned, unshaven, and evidently in a good mood. "So you finally got here! Well done, we can use you. When did you arrive? Where are you assigned?"

 "Hold on a minute, please!" I said, being careful, trying to reduce his enthusiasm to a bearable level, at least as far as I was concerned. The very mention of assignments had immediately cooled me off. "I've come with some delegation to visit, and a relative of mine is wounded, so I want to see what's with him."

 "Ah, fuck the delegation," he continued in the same tone. "The main thing is that you are here, we'll settle all the rest easily."

 "My butt we will," I said in disapproval, seeing my delegation moving off towards the hotel across the way, while I continued to stand there with Luka. Looking at the "hotel", it seemed somehow more natural to continue to treat it as such, and not as some headquarters, if not for any other reason than that at least formally I was on vacation, and that was more suited to staying in a hotel than in a military encampment. This conversation with Luka had begun to give off vibes of possible problems, and it seemed to me that I had to do something quickly before it got worse. And who would claim that in war it is most important to have friends with you! "Listen," I changed the subject, "where is your MASH or whatever you call your hospital, I have to see a wounded relative there, that's why I came."

 "Because of Denis," he surprised me. "I know all about it, he was under my command."

 "You know Denis?" I interrupted him.

 "Of course I do," he looked strangely at me, as if it was odd to hear such a question. "He came with Mario, I found out from him that Denis is your relative. And remember, I know both his mother and father, and I saw him too as a brat when he would come to Dalmatia. A great boy. The real stuff. I'm telling you that I was his commander, not directly, but higher up, but it's all the same."

 "So what happened to him?" I asked.

 "Ah, fuck it, he caught some shrapnel at »epikuÊe, [40] " he answered. "In the head. It flew in, fuck it. The luck of the draw. Only two of ours wounded and this got to him. Mario will tell you all about it, he was with him."

 "Where is he now? Is he in this MASH?"

 "I don't know, we can go over there straight away to see," he offered.

 I accepted the offer and we started off to the MASH (since that's what they call it, there is no point in me using some other term). This was in fact the local Health Clinic, where a field hospital had been set up, with military tents around it, presumably because there wasn't enough space inside for all their "clients". Just at the entrance we came across a middle aged nurse who very politely greeted us and asked how she could help. I explained to her.

 "But he was transferred to Split this morning," she said kindly, looking at me with sympathy. She had probably come across such situations before.

 "This morning?" I repeated mechanically.

 "Yes, this morning," she said. "As soon as his condition had stabilized sufficiently for transport, we sent him there, so that he is now in the hospital in Split. He'll be alright, don't worry."

 "Thank you, nurse," I muttered, turned around, and set off back to the hotel and the group, while everything began to ring in my head.

 "Hey, slow down!" Luka caught up to me, evidently caught by surprise by my reaction and who had remained to say more thanks to the nurse. "Calm down, everything's okay. They'll patch him up and he'll be back here in a month or two. Like new. It's just a scratch."

 I didn't have the energy to comment on Luka's words, and there was no point. I had known him too long, and he was stubborn to the extent that it sometimes took hours to convince him of something. I was definitely not in the mood for that now. And I didn't know what to tell him now! Certainly not about any soon return of Denis to the front.

 Why had I even come here at all? I couldn't have waited a week and then gone down just to Split? What an idiot I am, I thought to myself. A hasty idiot! With a screwed-up fate. This group just had to be coming here now, it could have waited a year or two, there would be chances enough, as the way things were going, this war probably wouldn't be over by then.

 "What are you going to do now?" Luka broke into my thoughts.

 "Nothing," I replied sullenly. "Catch the first possible transport to Split, that's what I'll do."

 "You can't go anywhere for a couple of days, until your group goes back," he said, presumably finally realizing that I had come only because of Denis. "If you want, you can come with me to »epikuÊe. That's our base at present, I'm only here for a briefing, which is over, and I'm going back now."

 "What the hell would I do in »epikuÊe?" I asked, still in a bad mood.

 "And what the hell would you do here with these old farts?" he replied. "Up there you have Mario and at least ten others you know. You'll spend a day or so with us, and return before your group goes back. Here they just drown you in propaganda, there you can fool around in peace, have a few drinks with us, catch up on your sleep, whatever you want."

 "Isn't that the front line?" I asked suspiciously.

 "No way!" he answered. "I mean, it is, but not exactly in the village. As soon as seven days pass from when you capture a place, you're safe. And we took it fifteen days ago."

 "Why seven days?"

 "That's just the way it somehow goes," he answered. "When we chase the Serbs out, then they shell the captured place for about seven days without cease because they know exactly where they have to shoot, which is to be expected when they were there just before us. Fuck it, they know exactly what remained whole before their departure. They know what houses still have a roof, and since we aren't likely to set up camp in the ruins, they shell those points."

 "I see. And after those seven days, are there any houses with roofs left?"

 "There always are," he laughed. "We let them flail away, then we use the artillery to move the front line up a bit, and then we move in peacefully."

 "So that up there now you only hear the cheeping of birds and the songs of crickets?"

 "Almost," he said, again laughing. "I can see that you have lost nothing of your spirit, come on, come visit for a day or so, it'll be fun. There aren't any operations these days, nothing, a pause, relaxation, buddy, a real military at ease. You know what that looks like. All armies are the same in that. It'll do you good to relive old times."

 "I'd like to see Mario since I'm already here," I muttered, thinking that I had really had enough of those geniuses from the group and their stories. And the very thought of the kind of propaganda lectures that I would probably be subjected to did I stay horrified me. I had problems with that kind of drivel in the former army, I simply didn't have the patience to listen to various communist big-shots who were constantly carrying on and on, and I presumed that, thanks be to God, nothing had changed in the manner of presentation, merely the subjects had been changed. I remember those meetings all too well, where the hordes of exterior enemies were always discussed, not to mention the innumerable interior ones, and the brotherhood of all our nations to the grave... And indeed, that brotherhood was now pushing them to the grave, literally and not symbolically. As it was usual after such lectures for those present to be asked if they had questions, I had naively taken this literally and asked a few, and the then commander had shortly thereafter by order freed me from the requirement of attending these meetings till further notice, in translation meaning forever or at least while he was commander (after my innocent questions he had to take tranquilizers for several days).

 "Super!" Luka was pleased at my indirect acceptance. "I'll tell your lot that you are going with me, and set up everything for your return. No worries. Hey buddy, I am really glad to see you."

 "Me too." I answered honestly. I was truly happy to see him, but I was bothered by the fact that I was there at all. But then again, to be honest, Luka wasn't responsible for that, just my lack of brains,

 Soon we left Ston by jeep, heading towards »epikuÊe. As night had already fallen, even had I wanted to I could not have seen either where we were going or what surrounded us, which didn't even particularly interest me. While we bounced along, I comforted myself with the thought that it was better to be up in the hills among soldiers, spend a day or so with Mario, and then return than to hang around in Ston and listen to bores.

 We arrived at »epikuÊe after a relatively moderate half hour drive, a lost quicker than I had expected. We passed the guards at the entrance. The village looked spectral, at least at first glance, with demolished houses from which only the walls poked up, those that probably had not burned through. A little to the side of the center of the village (if one could even speak of a center) there were two houses in relatively decent condition, surrounded by rows of military tents, vehicles, trucks, people moving about, a completely different picture than that at the beginning. An unbelievable contrast for a distance of only two hundred meters. Here there was a sense of life, military, but nonetheless life. On the other side the houses had died. They hadn't just been demolished, set on fire, rather I had the impression that they had died in collapsing, burning. They simply gave off some sorrow, misery, wretchedness, Balkan wretchedness; like when you see a dead person who before death had been ill with some serious disease and had suffered, and this suffering seems almost palpable on his dead body. My God, would anyone ever again be able to live in those houses?! I couldn't, even had I been born in them a hundred times. How  can you bring the dead back to life? You can't. How to live next to the dead? By slowly dying next door.

 I shook off these black thoughts. Bouncing about in the bus, finding that Denis had already been transferred, the meeting with Luka, and these surroundings, all of this had evidently been too much for me. I got out of the jeep into the lit area in front of the headquarters.

 "Where are you, legend?" I heard Mario's familiar voice.

 "Just got out of it," I answered, while he already hugged me. Luka must have told him I was coming, so he waited for us outside. "And you?" I asked, looking at him. He had changed or so it seemed to me this evening. As if he had turned entirely gray, turned several years older!

 "I really am glad that you came," he honestly was pleased. "I need a bit of your humor. Come inside! Boss," he was talking to Luka, "so I don't forget, on the menu today we have a prisoner."

 "Alive?" Luka responded, looking at him in evident surprise. Presumably he wasn't expecting any prisoners.

 "Well, we would hardly capture a dead one," Mario answered.

 "Don't fuck around," he responded more sharply. "How was it that he surrendered alive, that's what I mean."

 "Some young fool," answered Mario, evidently not attaching great significance to it. "He probably bet with his lot and lost, and had to get to our position, to provoke us and then run away. However, this inexperienced kid got lost and arrived directly in the clearing in front of our trenches."

 "Well, how did he manage to stay alive?" Luka asked, still surprised. Evidently prisoners weren't exactly a common thing around here, I thought to myself.

 "Nicely," retorted Mario. "Our boys had their backs turned and when they heard that someone was coming, and turned around, he had already thrown down his weapon and raised his hands. He could have taken out at least several of our lot had he wished. And what are you going to do, you can't shoot at him then. And, well, there he is, inside, waiting to be interrogated."

 "Shit," muttered Luka.

 "Why?" I joined the  conversation out of curiosity.

 "What do you mean why?" Luka gave me a look. "The best enemy is a dead enemy. This kind of thing is a royal pain in the ass. First you have to interrogate him, then write a report, and then they come for him from the main headquarters, and then... Fuck it, a real pain in the butt. Hey, right, you're a lawyer," he continued, gazing at me as if he had gotten an idea. "Let's go interrogate him together."

 "And what the hell will I do there, for God's sake?" I asked him. "Defend him?"

 "Yes, exactly, you can defend his rights," Luka laughed.

 "Well, does he have any rights?" I asked him.

 "He does my ass," Mario tossed in, giggling. Evidently this situation struck him, too, as funny.

 "As you wish," said Luka and turned towards the house. "I'm going to go settle this tonight."

 "Fuck interrogation," said Mario. "Let's the two of us go get something to drink, toast the fact that we are alive, and that we've met again."

 I ended up with Mario in the first of these two houses, in a large room that evidently served as a handy cantina. It was packed full of soldiers, and so noisy you couldn't hear anything. Everyone greeted Mario, and it was only then that I realized that some rank had been conferred on him, presumably he had been made a sergeant, and he thus had priority in having drinks served. Some of those present I knew from Pula, so a series of toasts started, at one moment with one, and then with another. Everyone asked how it was in Pula. At first, I answered, and then I realized that they couldn't hear me anyway, so I simply opened my mouth and nodded my head. After half an hour I had had enough, I grabbed Mario by the arm and dragged him outside.

 "Hey, man, I can't take anymore," I puffed, while my head swam from the brandy.

 "What the hell, the guys relax a bit when they return from a mission," Mario calmly replied. "You can't blame them. Each one has a drink from thankfulness that he are still alive, because when you go into action, there's no drinking until it's over."

 "So, when you're in battle, there's no alcohol?" I asked him.

 "None, old friend, absolutely never," he said.

 "So how do you hold out?" I asked in curiosity, while we sat on some beam in the courtyard. "I mean, how do you specifically manage?" I asked, making my question more precise.

 "Old friend, when it's your head in question, you can't imaging the extent of all you can stand," he said. "I had thought that I had gone through everything in life, but this experience, well, this is priceless."

 "And what will you do with this amazing priceless treasure when the war finishes?" I asked him. "How do you mean to make use of it? It would be a pity for it to go to waste, wouldn't it?"

 "You're farting around as usual," now he was laughing. "I'll probably stay in the army for good."

 "You?"

 "Yes!" he said. Me, who else. Believe it or not, I have found myself here. Friends on whom you can always depend. Man, our medical corps are on an American level. Nothing is ever lacking or in short supply. Not food, not clothing, not medicine, everything is perfectly organized. In the beginning there were problems, shit happens, but now it runs like clockwork. Seriously."

 "Okay, if you say so," I muttered, gazing at him. "And if you die, all of your acquired wealth goes straight to hell."

 "I won't die," he said confidently.

 "You won't?"

 "I won't, I know I won't  ," he repeated in the same tone. "I have some kind of foresight that never lets me down. It was that way with Denis, I just sensed that he would be screwed. You remember that Fadil, who came by my place. You know. Yeah, well, he was mad as a hatter even before, you know that yourself. He tempted fate, always rushing out first, dashing headlong as if he were completely witless, and nothing ever happened to him. And then suddenly he went gaga around the tenth day after we liberated the village. He took an umbrella, nobody knows where the hell he got a fucking umbrella on the front, he must have taken it from some house, opened it, the sun was beating down, and he trotted calmly off across some fucking clearing, shells were falling on all sides, and he passed right through. The guy was carrying an umbrella as protection against shells. And the kid just couldn't stand to watch it, he jumped up to get him back, he hadn't taken more than ten steps, a shell exploded, and that was that."

 "Denis?"

 "Yes, of course, I'm telling you how he was wounded," he said, stamping out a cigarette butt on the ground.

 "Denis almost lost his head because of some idiot taking a stroll with an umbrella among the shells?"

 "Something like that. That's war, my old friend. No rules! And fuck it, you have to understand him. That crazy Fadil, no matter he's as loony as a bedbug, saved his life once, and that's something you don't forget here."

 "Mother of God," I exhaled and grabbed at my head.

 "Hey, don't worry," he comforted me. "We wrote that Denis had been wounded while he was rescuing wounded colleagues."

 "Oh, well. then that's okay," I barely got out, under my breath, still holding onto my head. "I feel better immediately when I hear that. If that doesn't help him now, nothing will. And how did Fadil and his umbrella end up?"

 "When he saw that Denis had fallen, he came to himself, threw away the umbrella, and ran to him and got him out. Then he got him out of no man's land. After that, he cracked completely, he just cried for days, so we had to send him off for treatment. He's somewhere in a psychiatric ward, I haven't the faintest where. Who knows if we'll ever meet again."

 "Who knows if any of us will ever meet again," I grumbled.

 Just then Luka appeared in the illuminated entrance to the second house and waved at us to come over. My head was in a state of total collapse. I must admit that everything that I had heard to date seemed more like a bad script for an unsuccessful war story that any reality. If it hadn't been Mario who had told it, I would not have believed this story, but his serious face gave me no reason to doubt the authenticity of what had been said. There's no point in thinking about it, at least not tonight, I thought to myself, shuffling along with Mario towards Luka.

 "What's up, boss?" Mario asked Luka.

 "Come and see," the latter answered, going back inside the house, with us following.

 A young man was seated at the table, in a camouflage uniform with some kind of symbols that I didn't understand exactly, other than the four letters "C" [41] (probably from some of the local Serbian units, because he wasn't wearing a Yugoslav army uniform). He was eating a plate of risotto. This was evidently the captive.

 "What the hell's he doing?" asked Mario.

 "He's eating my dinner," Luka calmly replied.

 "Your dinner?" Mario stared, at a loss. "It seems that you have a very unhealthy influence on your surroundings," he quietly whispered in my ear.

 "Well then, Mitar," Luka said a little louder, addressing the prisoner, while he held his booklet containing his military record in his hand, "tell these two briefly how you got here and what you want. This is our lawyer, so let him hear this, too. So, how did you, from the Una River valley, all of twenty years old, end up in this Godforsaken wilderness?"

 "Sir," shouted the prisoner, standing up from the table at attention, "I was mobilized in Prijedor, where I was born, at night, and taken away by force. I was in the 2nd Krajina [42] tank division and they sent me here. I have never killed anyone. I swear on my ancestors. I was captured today because I lost my last cigarettes gambling, and I was supposed to get to your positions. That was the bet. Then I got lost, ran into your outpost, and immediately surrendered. My only wish is that you not send me back, and if it is possible, for you somehow to arrange for me to leave for Australia, where I have relatives. Was there anything else, sir?"

 "Nothing, Mitar, nothing," Luka answered. "Sit down and eat. Well, there you have it," Luka turned to me, "he hasn't killed anyone, he was drafted against his will, and he would like us to arrange for him to go to his relatives in Australia, so he doesn't get sent back. Think we can we do this?"

 "I'm just thinking up something," I said half seriously, looking at the tank corpsman from Prijedor, who was truly too young for this kind of shit, if years were at all important in this. "I'm arranging some papers for myself, so if I succeed, we'll see. Well, Mitar, what do you think, how about Canada?"

 "Yes, sir, that's fine, sir," he leaped up again from the table, while the fork flew onto the floor from his enthusiasm. "Anywhere is fine, just out of Yugoslavia."

 "There is no more Yugoslavia, Mitar," said Luka. "If there were, you wouldn't be running for Australia."

 "Yes sir, exactly as you say, sir," Mitar agreed.

 "Well, Mitar, you finish that supper, and then you'll be in custody for a bit, and we'll see what we can do. Okay?"

 "Okay, sir," responded Mitar.

 We went out, while Mitar remained with the soldier guarding him, continuing to make inroads on Luka's dinner. We shared a few comments about Mitar's desire to go to Australia, which seemed to me the only natural impulse in this vale of tears, then we again has something to drink, and then, so tired that I could barely walk, I finally set off for the bed that Mario had set up for me. Before I retired, I asked Luka what would really happen with Mitar, and he answered that in the end he would be exchanged for one of ours in captivity, like most of the other prisoners. As matters stood, he would see Australia when I saw Canada.

 I fell asleep as soon as I laid down. Exhaustion increased by the drinking had its way. I was woken by Mario shaking me. Slightly hung over, everything still seemed dark to me.

 "What time is it?" I asked, barely opening my mouth.

 "Four!" he answered.

 "Four in the morning?"

 "Yes!"

 "Why the hell are you waking me up?"

 "Orders, bro, orders. Orders came for us to push on tonight."

 "What? Fucking hell, where are you going?"

 "We're pushing forward. Moving out. Can't you hear the explosions? We have to take some hill nearby, so we'll be safe. You can't go back to Ston now. They're firing nearby, any moment now they'll start on us. Luka has already moved forward. I've brought you a uniform, we have to get going quickly, capture the damned hill. You want an Argentine or a Serb?"

 "What uniform, you idiot? What do you mean, an Argentine or a Serb?"

 "Ah, fuck it, we don't have that much time. Those are weapons. An Argentine is imported from Argentina, it has a slightly longer barrel, and a Serb is the type you had in the army, a kalashnikov. Which do you want?"

 "Neither!"

 "No can do. You have to have one. I won't have you lose your head so stupidly."

 "I don't want a uniform, I don't want an Argentine, a Serb, or a Muslim, I don't want a damn thing other than to go back. Do you get my drift?"

 "Yes indeed, just hurry up. If you keep on wasting time, neither you nor I will need anything any longer."

CHAPTER V

 It was somewhere around ten o'clock in the morning when we penetrated through the underbrush below Ilija Hill, which extended above Popovo Plain. Popovo Plain is a shallow valley, surrounded on all sides by hills, while the Trebiönjica River winds through its center. The left or western side was controlled by our lot (or at least they intended this to be the case shortly), and the right, eastern side was controlled by the Serbs. Their first lines were äeöelj's paramilitary units [43] and commando units from Niö, while the regular Yugoslav Army stayed in the background and mainly gave artillery and mortar support to them. Members of the Yugoslav Army were never in the front lines, they left that to volunteer fools, let them die instead. I found all of this out, naturally, in an exceptionally short time.

 I was still in a trance from that early morning, four o'clock awakening. The realization had not yet penetrated into by head that I was again in uniform, which I had put on, together with the equipment, in a matter of minutes (at least I had experience in this from the earlier army, an alert is an alert, always the same no matter what army). I had chosen the "Serbian" from the guns, a kalishnikov that I knew inside out, and when you come right down to it, I was used to this type and not some exotic South American beauty with a long barrel, particularly since I had only seen the latter for the first time in my life that morning. Homemade is always best.

 We soon caught up to Luka, and together a group of a dozen of us advanced towards the hill that presumably was held by the Chetniks. [44] At least that is what I was told, although I couldn't always distinguish too well who were Serb paramilitary irregulars and who were Yugoslav Army members, as I had the impression that our side lumped them all in the same basket! I still somehow couldn't get my mind around the idea that the Serbs who until yesterday had been officers in the Yugoslav Army, with whom we had spent half of our lives together, had suddenly all become Chetniks. Just like I never succeeded in seeing the officers of the former Yugoslav army who were Croats and were now in the Croatian National Guard as orthodox Ustasha! [45] You can't become either a Chetnik or an Ustasha overnight, and I definitely know that a good part of them did not feel that way. They felt their national pride in quite a different way, but membership among the Ustasha or Chetnik movements seemed quite questionable to me for a considerable number of them. However, it would be a bit much to analyze this problem at this time. In any case, I had looked on all this from a peacetime point-of-view, and who knows how a person feels about this on the battlefield! Given my luck, I would soon learn.

 Another two squads had evidently advanced parallel with us, just in different directions. It was only then, in passing, that I found they were in fact some kind of marines, trained for special missions, but that such missions weren't particularly common because the greatest problem here was catching the Serbs. I didn't immediately understand why this was the case!

 Both Mario and Luka consoled me that all of this had turned out accidentally, that it would last a day or two, and there was no way anything could happen to me and that I couldn't wander around in the hills around Popovo Plain in civilian clothes, just for the sake of our soldiers, so they wouldn't be unnecessarily irritated. And who knows what someone could think up. So that everything would be more true to life, they transformed me into an "inspector" who had arrived from headquarters to watch the operation, and to make a report about everything. They were convinced that I would succeed in returning to Ston on time, so as to return with the same group to Pula, and that this little spot of bother was something I could manage. I must admit that they seemed quite sincere, that they weren't just saying this to make easier for me the situation in which I had not even dreamt I would be involved, especially not in such a bizarre way, and that calmed me down a little. All in all, I had realized that the only way to avoid such problems was to go around a battlefield in as wide a circle as possible, as once you arrive there, no one can tell what might happen next. And when I am in question, naturally something unexpected will happen, preferably also negative.

 Despite all this, I cursed Luka's family tree up and down, and through all the branches, under my breath so that others wouldn't hear (only avoiding mention of his mother, as she had died young, and he was very sensitive about this), and particularly his brilliant idea that I would relax and rest up here, so as to avoid being bored by the professional patriots in Ston. Now those professionals seemed so benign to me in comparison with where I was now that I could listen to them for hours, without a single pointed question.

 The good side of the special training in the previous army had been that they first taught you to accept immediately a newly created situation, and not to bang your head against a wall over why it had occurred, and in doing this miss your chance at finding an exit.

 "If I die, how will you write it up in your report, since I'm a civilian?" I evilly questioned Luka, who was hauling along beside me.

 "Buddy, there ain't no civilians here," he answered, quietly giggling. "Look a little closer at yourself! And I can always fill in your papers. You won't get angry in Heaven above if I sign in your name?"

 "Wow, imagine, if I die, I get to die a hero of the Croatian army," I cynically commented.

 "What did you expect?" he responded. "When I get home to Sinj, I'll have them put up a monument to you in place of the jousting horseman in the center of town. Do you want to be on a horse like the knightly tilters, or without a horse? I mean, do you want to be riding, or just hold some heroic pose on your own two feet?"

 "How would you like a little ride on my lance," I vulgarly responded. "You know, in a really heroic pose."

 "Fuck it, you're never satisfied," he replied, still giggling.

 I had no wish for further conversation, and we finally reached the foot of Ilija Hill. There were sheer bluffs from the foot of the hill to the top, at 900 meters above sea level, and it wasn't at all clear to me how they thought they were going to get up there. Luka fooled around a bit with a topographic map and finally decided that we would go partway up, and then wait for the next day, when we would attack the peak! He explained to me afterwards that our artillery would be laying down fire a bit more on the peak, so that when we reached the top, no traces would remain of the enemy, maybe just an abandoned Serbian moccasin or two, so that in fact this was not really an attack, but more like a scouting party. It still wasn't clear to me how they thought they were going to get up these cliffs to the peak. Only if we played at mountaineering, but you needed at least some equipment for that.

 We set off across the first sheer bluffs, which seemed quite bearable at the very base of the hill. Luka was in front, I was behind him, with Mario behind me. In order to advance, you literally had to pull yourself up with your arms, as if you were doing pull ups, but here you couldn't stop when you got tired. We pulled ourselves along this way for about an hour, when Luka suddenly stopped.

 "What is it? Why did you stop?" I asked.

 He didn't answer. He seemed to have frozen and wasn't moving a single muscle in his body. I slowly began to climb next to him to see what was going on, and somehow got to the side, at his head height. The first thing I saw was his face, white as snow, unmoving and stiff. I looked further and my veins turned to ice. Just several centimeters in front of his face was a horned viper, [46] with its head raised, fixated on Luka. At any moment it could strike and bite him. Beads of sweat were literally running off his face. I thought, what the hell can I do? If I put down my arm to get my gun, first, I'll cartwheel down the cliff and probably end up like Lika and the snake, second, any move I make will make a sound, and the snake will certainly react. And if the snake gets frightened, Luka is a goner. So, nothing, just wait, just let Luka hold on. The viper continued to rear in the same place. Luka stayed still.  I felt as if the temperature in my head was rising, as if I had placed it in an oven. Finally, the viper lowered its head and slithered away. I had to hold onto Luka with one hand so he wouldn't fall, as his hands were quite cramped from his desperate hold on the stone. If Mario hadn't been beneath us, probably both of us would have ended up below the cliffs after this little encounter. Somehow we clambered up onto the cliff top, where we settled ourselves at the base of a new cliff. Luka was still silent, evidently in shock. We also kept quiet and waited. He finally spoke.

 "I have never been so scared in all my life," he barely got out. "The whole time I was waiting for it to bite me in the nose."

 "Why the nose?" asked Mario.

 "Because you are a naturally gifted idiot," he angrily responded, slowly recovering. "Where else would it bite me when its head was a few centimeters in front of my nose?"

 "He's trying to say that his nose is the most prominent, and thus the most threatened part of his body," I explained to Mario. "If it had bitten you," I turned to Luka, trying to relax the situation a bit, "what kind of monument would you have liked in the center of Sinj. You riding on a snake?"

 "Very funny," he said grumpily. "If it had bitten me, we have snake-bite serum, genius, as you will learn here, if God is willing, these days. A dose of serum and what do I care. No monument for me!"

 "Boss," Mario added his bit, "I don't want to upset you, but I have to tell you that by chance I was talking yesterday with the doctor about the serum."

 "And?"

 "Well, you see, it only works the first six hours after you take it out of the refrigerator."

 Luka immediately looked at his watch, and the little color that had returned to his face faded again as he realized that those six hours had passed long ago.

 "Are you screwing around?" he asked Mario in a serious tone.

 "Absolutely not," he answered. "Go ahead and read the instructions, if you know German."

 "Fucking hell!" he cursed. "What the hell do we need the serum for, when we get stuck in the hills at least two days every time. So, you can survive only if you are lucky enough that a viper bites you in the first six hours! After that, wait for a death certificate."

 "Take a fridge with you," I suggested. "Hey, don't get mad, man. You're alive, it didn't bite you and that's that. Over and done with, [47] as our brother Serbs would say."

 "Screw the brothers," Luka was intense. "And the serum, and the doctors, and this war, and all the rest. For me to kick the bucket over a viper! Hey," he turned towards me. "Remember how many of them we killed when we were still in elementary school!"

 "I remember," I replied. "We could have spared one or two. This was probably some distant relative, who had converted to the Orthodox faith and was awaiting you to get revenge for his ancestors. But when he saw you in that albino pose, he felt sorry for you and gave up."

 "Fuck off!" he muttered, and spread out on that part of the rocks that was somewhat flat and suitable for resting. Mario and I joined him.

 In the afternoon, "our famous artillery", as Luka called it, began to strike the top of Ilija Hill and didn't stop until dusk. My head was ringing from the force of the detonations. We spent the night on the cliff. I literally shook with cold until the dawn. We had nothing except the stones and the clothes we wore, with a temperature of around 4 degrees C (39∞ F), with a cold breeze that literally froze your bones. We sat leaning up against one another, so as to be warmer and look at the faint lights in the valley that would appear hear and there. This was all under wartime regulations, and at night no one puts neon ads on tanks, so that really you don't see a damn thing. Luka would call every once in a while to the others in the squad, who were also somewhere around us on cliffs. We relaxed talking about various odds and ends, from childhood to Mario's boat, women, about everything except this war. And snakes, naturally.

 "And if I had a blonde under twenty-five here in place of you two assholes, that would be the life," said Mario, after we had worked our way through childhood and the boat and some of the women in our pasts.

 "Here on a cliff that would truly be romantic," Luka threw in, shaking from the cold. "But you were recently in Slano, at the "Beauty", and you dipped your wick there, didn't you?"

 "What is this "Beauty" place?" I interrupted.

 "An inn," Mario answered in a serious tone.

 "Yes, an inn," Luka said, laughing. "A hole in the wall with whores. Mario went there just when he had put on his new stripes, to celebrate and do a little horizontal dancing, but when he saw the choice of dogs he was offered, he got so drunk we had to go pick him up. Well, except..."

 "Leave out that bit, damn you!" Mario interrupted.

 "Fat chance," Luka wouldn't give up. "You want to know where we found him? In bed, but like all great conquerors of female hearts, he wasn't alone. Except it wasn't a blonde, but a brunette. In fact, her hair wasn't brown, but salt-and-pepper. And considering the first gray hairs that covered her fresh face, in my judgement she was twenty five years old multiplied by two plus a few years more."

 "Fuck it," Mario defended himself. "I was as drunk as a skunk. And I wasn't up to anything anyway."

 "How do you know?" Luka was merciless. "If you weren't, then why did you have horrific itches in your groin for days afterwards?"

 "Circumstances of war," Mario said despondently. "Suddenly you've had enough of everything, and pride goes to hell. You think you may never again have the chance, you fool around a bit, and there you are. In any case, at least I didn't pay anything."

 "She should have paid you, not you her," Luka laughed.

 "Well, she did, in a way," Mario muttered. "She paid for half of what I drank."

 "I must admit that your explanation is crystal clear," I added, while Luka continued to laugh. "And if we are honest, even acceptable. Think about when you were twenty, then you were on the lookout for women in their thirties, and now, at age fifty, you're after women of sixty some. A very logical sequence."

 "Fuck you and fuck that logic," now Mario began to laugh.

 And then all three of us began to laugh loudly, and this lasted for several minutes. To tell the truth, I don't know if there was anything funny in all of the above, but I suppose we needed some kind of outlet to vent the accumulated tensions of the day, and given the lack of a better reason, Mario's visit to the "Beauty" had served well.

 Towards dawn, we began to climb to the top. The ascent lasted for hours, in fact this was mountaineering, climbing without equipment, and when we finally reached the top, both of my hands were sliced up from the sharp rocks, and the uniform was ripped in several places. The others didn't look any better. At the peak, which offered a view of the entire hinterland of Dubrovnik, we truly did not come across a single Chetnik. They had all fled from the intense artillery fire, so that you could say that they had been here only on the basis of the scattered cans, the occasional piece of military equipment, the crushed out cigarette butts, empty bottles, and similar souvenirs. When I looked at where I had to descend, it finally became clear to me that I wasn't going to return to Pula with the group I had come with. Perhaps with some other, but I could forget it with this one. I shrugged my shoulders, there was nothing I could do. As soon as I managed to reach the base and the first available transportation, I would be on my way to Ston, and further onwards. Everything to the present had been tolerable, at least no one had shot at us, and everything else was bearable. I was in need of some exercise, anyway, I merely stretched out in my apartment or sat in my office, so all things considered, it wasn't so bad. For now.

 Only on the third day did we descend towards Popovo Plain. From what I had heard, a village called Orahova Dol or something like that had been liberated down below. After our arrival the majority of the "Zengies" (for this was what our soldiers called one another) [48] , gathered in front of one large burnt house that was located in a hollow next to the road, and were leaping about in front of it, evidently elated at the way it was burning. If this had not been a scene of soldiers and a burning house, you might think that it was some kind of festival, and people were dancing some kind of local round-dance. The house was of stone, and it looked like some ancient half castle, half monastery, with a copper roof. Later I found that it had been equipped extremely luxuriously with a rich library, a large fireplace, and other valuable things. I finally found out the reason for the celebration -- the house was the property of the Serbian war lord Vojo äeöelj. [49]

 In general, it seemed that the situation had stabilized, and I expected to return shortly to Ston. The experience with the viper and the climbing on Ilija Hill was something I could get over, I thought to myself. True, but the problem was that at the moment no one was considering how to get the "inspector" back to headquarters. Two days were reserved for serious drinking, which I joined given the lack of any more reasonable activities. What else could I do? To watch all this sober definitely didn't present any kind of particular pleasure.

 A few days after that, when I was expecting to leave for Ston at any moment, the doctor who had explained to Mario the way snake serum worked arrived at the base. Doctor Martin was of Syrian origin, or something like that, which could be seen in a typical swarthy eastern complexion, and they called him Martin because this Croatian name was evidently closest to his true name, which I didn't succeed in catching. Actually, I didn't succeed in understanding him when he introduced himself, so I called him by the same name as the others. The anecdote with the viper and the serum was known to all by now, including the doctor, and he laughed like the rest; only Luka was still not inclined to see anything funny about it.

 One morning on one of these days, Luka took me aside and told me that he and a few guys were supposed to blow up some bridge on the Trebiönjica River, which wasn't any kind of problem, as everything had already been planned, and there was no danger. Almost no danger. I wished him luck, but he continued that it would be good if I went as well, as being an "inspector", it wouldn't be alright for me to stay behind. I again cursed my way through his family tree (those parts I could), rejecting the very idea that I would go traipsing off to blow some bridge sky high, explaining to him that I was waiting for some transport to Ston. After an hour long lecture convincing me that there really was no danger there, except maybe a little on the way back, and not even then if we went quickly through some pass, and immediately afterwards he would organize my return to Ston (which couldn't be done at the moment, naturally), I finally agreed. Against my will, but I agreed. The decisive point was that no one was guarding the bridge, and that there was no danger. I would never dream of risking my life on my last day on the battlefield. I asked him in passing why they were blowing the bridge up at all, and received the answer that it had to be done so that there could be no possible counter-attack across it. Presumably this was the only connection between the two banks in this part of Popovo Plain.

 In the meantime, we had been joined by the doctor, who had listened to everything with great enthusiasm, and in the end asked Luka if he could come with us, which the latter refused, as according to the Conventions, doctors were not allowed to carry weapons, to go on missions, and so forth. This guy was persistent, so Luka gave in finally, mentioning that the most important part of the operation was the heroic retreat back to base, as the Yugoslav Army artillery position was only two kilometers from this bridge, and when they see us, and see us they certainly will, we will be dead ducks if we don't get through the pass near the bridge very quickly. The doctor convinced Luka that he was in good condition, that his belly was merely to fool opponents (and it definitely was a considerable paunch, so the doctor wasn't particularly convincing in this), not to worry, that we wouldn't have any problem with him.

 In any case, the doctor came with us. I was still discussing with myself why I was doing this, why I had agreed. But if there was no danger, well, it isn't everyday you get to see a bridge blown up. It took two hours of pushing through underbrush to get nearby, and then we crept into the thickets next to the river and moved up to the bridge. I stayed with another two soldiers some hundred meters back, while the others sneaked up to the bridge. Next to the bridge was a small wooden hut. There was silence for a bit, and then we heard the acid sound of several shots. Then silence again. And then an explosion. The bridge first raised up a little, and then with a crash fell into the river. I must admit that altogether it was a lot less impressive than I had thought it would be.

 Luka, Mario, and the rest ran back, so fast that they zipped right past us, and we ran along with them. Mario shouted that they had had to shoot several Chetniks that they had presumably run across there, or something like that. However I looked at it, I really didn't need this, I thought to myself.

 We shot towards that pass, which we raced towards in three groups in three different directions. If they shot at us, we wouldn't all be together. My group consisted of Mario, Luka, the doctor, and another soldier (I couldn't remember all the names, there were too many of them in such a short period). We ran towards the pass, through terrain that in a military vocabulary represented a classic no man's land, as fast as we could, but as I had been taught in the former army, a column marches as fast as its slowest member. We needed to sprint or at least get as quickly as possible through those six hundred meters, where the only elevations were scattered stones, the largest of which might have been around half a meter in diameter. However, after a hundred meters, the doctor stopped dead, began to lose his breath, literally turned green, and looked as if he would become sick at any moment in the springtime heat. Of the three divided groups, I thought, he just had to end up in ours. And then again, it was hardly his fault, poor guy. Quite simply, at that age and with that kind of paunch you just can't gallop through such rocky land. He had evidently overestimated his abilities. Luka slowed our group down, and he and Mario each grabbed the doctor under an arm and literally began to drag him forward.

 "He's going to give up the ghost if we don't stop now," I shouted, looking at his already purple face.

 "He'll hold on, he can do it," Luka shouted authoritatively, not allowing any further discussion of the doctor's condition.

 Whatever Luka thought or wanted to think about the doctor's endurance, the latter was doing even worse. We moved yet more slowly, but we were still moving. It was evident that we weren't going to stop, even if the doctor was going to die being pulled along between the two of them, as you didn't need to be a great military strategist to understand that we were all goners if we stopped, and not just him. The five minutes that Luka had foreseen for getting through the pass had passed, and we were only halfway through the clearing. It was already clear to me that this was not going to end well. Nonetheless we had somehow succeeded in approaching almost some hundred meters from the end of the open terrain, when the mortar shells began falling behind us. It was only a question of moments before they would adjust the sights and begin to drop shells nearby.

 "Take cover," Luka shouted, dragging the doctor with him. A large stone lay along the path. I looked at Mario.

 "What the fuck are you looking at me for, damn you!" he shrieked. "Get behind the stone!"

 Two medium sized stones stood to the side, a meter or two from one another, and I leapt behind one, and Mario behind the other. I curled up behind the stone, which momentarily seemed larger than a mountain to me. At least it will cover my head, I thought, and the rest, if it's hit, can somehow be patched together. I tried to take a look from below my helmet, to see where I was, but all I noted was part of Mario's boots sticking out beyond the other stone.

 The shells began to fall closer and closer. My God, this is what the end looks like, I thought. In a second, all the last few days sped through my head, the reasons for my arrival, then nothing, a complete blank. When you are in a battlefield, the reasons are all the same. I'm going to die, rang through my head, I'm definitely going to die, as this tiny little stone that God has placed next to these pathetic gray cells definitely cannot protect me when the shells get quite close, and the explosions were already deafening. I opened my mouth and put my hands on my ears, to save my hearing, in case I survived by chance, but this was somehow mechanical, something that had remained in my head from all the years spent in uniform, some use from all that military training. Suddenly I realized that tears were running down my face. My body was simply overcome by weakness; like icy water under a shower, wherever it would pass, the body would freeze up. What a stupid death. What an absurd death!

 "Robi," Mario bellowed.

 "Yeah," I barely got it out.

 "Robi!" he shouted again. Only then did I realize that I hadn't answered at all, I had just opened my mouth. I took several deep breaths.

 "Yes!" this time I succeeded in responding, as loud as I could. 

 "Watch out for the stones, the stones kill more than the shrapnel," he shouted.

 "You could have told me that when you called Pula the other day, you idiot," I responded. "Thank you, God! Thank you, Mario! If you hadn't called, I would have died without any shells, without shrapnel and flying stones."

 "You didn't ask!" Mario shouted.

 One shell fell nearby, I couldn't judge how near, but the horrible whistle of the shrapnel and stones petrified me.

 "Robi!" I heard Mario shouting again.

 "What now?" I yelled.

 "What are you doing?"

 "Eating shit!"

 "Pray!"

 "What?

 "Pray, man, pray!" he shouted. "This is going to last a while."

 He wanted me to pray?! To whom was I supposed to pray? Dear God, forgive me for everything, all the shit I had ever done in my life, just spare me today. Just today! Just save me from this shelling, so I can run away down to Ston. Jesus Christ, I had forgotten how to pray. I ran through a picture of my late grandmother from Sinj praying in the evening. How did it start? Fucking hell! God, forgive me, please, but fifteen years in the uniform of the former Yugoslav army was guilty for everything. That damned army. They could at least have left the chaplains, like the armies now, then at least I wouldn't have forgotten how to pray. How can you be in a war and not know how to pray? How did they ever expect to fight wars? A shell again fell nearby. "Our Father," I began to whisper, while tears crept down my face, "who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, give us this day our daily bread..."

 "Mario," I wailed.

 "What is it?"

 "I've forgotten the Lord's Prayer!"

 "You'll remember it before the shelling ends, don't worry, that's the way I remembered it, too. Just pray!"

 "Please say it aloud once, so I can hear it."

 "You'll remember it alright, believe me. Hey, Robi! Pray that if you get hit, you get hit properly! So you don't suffer!"

 A shell again fell nearby. "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven..." It was working! "Hail Mary, full of grace..." My poor old granny, how much you had to endure in the rocky land of Sinj, thank you for every evening that I had to pray with you. Rest in peace. "Our Father, who art in heaven..." If I get up there, prepare yourself, God, I have hardly been a model in many things, but I have never done anyone ill. At least not consciously. Shells began to fall in series around us. "Hail Mary, full of grace..." Everything was whistling around me. Shrapnel, and pieces of dislodged stone, and earth, and everything. Suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my left leg. I yowled in anguish.

 "Robi, are you okay?" I heard Mario shouting.

 "I don't know," I yelled. "They've hit my leg."

 "How bad?"

 "I don't know!" I shouted. How can I know when I can't move a single millimeter, I thought to myself. The pain was excruciating.

 "Do you feel warmth on your leg? Can you feel blood?"

 "I don't know!" I yelled.

 "Try to move it a bit! You can? Okay, it's nothing too bad if you can move it."

 The shelling lasted for six hours. Six hours! Each minute was like a year, each hour like an eternity. I prayed, cried, screamed, shouted, listened to Mario as he cursed his way through the doctor's family tree, his origins in a desolate desert, and how he was going to kill the doctor if by any chance he survived, and so forth... Six hours of hell. The pain began to ease up in my left leg after a while. After six hours, there was a lull. I heard Luka shouting for us to run now, that the Chetniks were cooling the barrels, that it was now or never. I ran like a maniac, while the pain blazed ever stronger in my left leg. I galloped into the copse of trees across from the clearing. We had all survived. Miracles exist! They definitely exist! Even the doctor was alive. At the moment he was as white as chalk, but I would guess that I didn't look any better myself. Along with my leg, another two had minor wounds, but we all looked as if we had run from a collapsing mine that had caught us halfway, but which we had somehow managed to get out of. Filthy, with clothes in tatters, and slashes through uniforms and bodies.

 Mario took a look at my leg and found that a splinter of stone had ripped open a quite substantial wound below my knee, the boot was full of blood, but the bone wasn't broken. Quite bruised, yes, but it wasn't broken. There was certainly no external fracture, nor any internal one either, as otherwise I wouldn't be able to stand on it. The blood was no longer flowing, and the wound was full of earth. He cleaned the wound, disinfected it, and wound it in some bandage. I felt like I had been born again. Fuck the leg! I was alive! I could see that the others felt the same way I did. Evidently something like this didn't happen often to them.

 "That was rough," Mario admitted.

 "I had already said my farewells to all dear to me," the doctor announced in a hoarse voice.

 "I'm ashamed to say farewell anymore," Luka piped up. "I have already made my farewells so many times that I have started to think that the Almighty will get seriously pissed, and really let me flutter off. Now I just pray. I have stopped making farewells."

 "I said goodbye to everyone even before the war, long ago, so now I don't have any problems like that," Mario said. Then Mario came up to me, and hugged me, to my surprise. "You're good, man, you're good. They're aren't many who could go through that for the first time and not crack. The first time I wept like a storm, and I wasn't embarrassed."

 "I'd cry, alright, but I don't have any tears left," I muttered, caught unprepared.

 "You're good," he repeated, hugging me. Then he let me go. I wasn't certain he had understood what I wanted to say, but it wasn't important. It seemed to me that he looked relieved in a way, as if some weight had fallen from his shoulders, and then I thought to myself that we all probably looked like that.

 We set off for the base. Mario found me a piece of wood that resembled a cane, to lean on while walking, he was always nearby and asked me how I was, and could I make it. It hurt, but I walked. I was alive, that was all that rang through my head. Alive!

 We slowly moved towards the base. I thought how I would today, this evening, immediately, with any form of transport, leave for Stone, on foot if I had to, because as far I was concerned, I had had enough of the battlefield. Night had already fallen when we finally arrived in front of our rear lines. Luka was in front and we were some ten or more meters behind him. Luka shouted out the password. From the other side there was only silence. Suddenly we heard shots from a rifle. We stood in shock on the paved road, not understanding what was going on.

 "Take shelter," yelled Luka and we all began to flee from the road.

 I ran off the road into the underbrush and fell into a hole. Mario ran by next to me and jumped somewhere. He simply disappeared, presumably also into some hole. Then I heard him scream horribly, which turned my blood to ice. Silence reigned.

 "Mario," I shouted.

 Silence. I kept calling, trying to get out of the hole. I finally succeeded. I stood stock still. Then I heard a quiet, painful moaning from close nearby, and I moved towards the source. Soon I found him. It was some ditch, perhaps two meters in depth or even more, I couldn't judge in the dark, and on the bottom lay Mario, crying in pain. Jesus, he must have been hit, I thought to myself. I couldn't see well from above, so I somehow dropped or rather rolled down to him. He lay all contracted, and groaned. He was literally rolled into a ball, like a worm, and despite all my attempts to move him, I didn't succeed. He kept on moaning in this position. He tried to tell me something, but evidently he couldn't speak from the pain. I ran my hands over him, I didn't feel or see blood anywhere, as far as I could note anything at all in the dark. I leant him against me, while he continued to cry for help aloud but inarticulately. He had been hit somewhere, but I couldn't establish where.

 The shooting had stopped above. Soon two soldiers appeared on the edge of the ditch, asking what was wrong with him. I answered that I didn't know, but asked them to help me get him out. They complied. To no avail. Each and every movement evidently caused Mario such pain that we could not move him, so we gave up, as we didn't know what was damaged, and any reckless movement could make his condition even worse.

 "Who did the shooting?" I asked the soldiers.

 "Our idiots," one responded. "Our rear line."

 "Why?" I asked in shock.

 "It seems that they changed units," said the other. "When we left, the unit from Omiö [50] was on duty and we agreed on the password with them. But since we were messed up with the shelling for six hours, we got back late, and the guards changed. Now it's the turbo-charged lot from Imotski, [51] as crazy as they come. They don't ask a lot of questions, bro, they shoot at once. Probably those cretins forgot to give them the password and tell them about us."

 "I knew it," Mario finally groaned in my embrace, still coiled up, while tears flowed down his face from pain.

 "What did you know?" I quickly asked.

 "That I would get screwed up today," he groaned.

 "Well, where are you wounded, man?" I again asked quickly, while he could still talk.

 "Balls," he barely got it out. It was only then that I noticed that in fact the entire time he had been holding his hands between his legs.

 "They got you in the balls?" I asked.

 "No," he drew it out. "Log."

 "What log, man?" I asked, figuring that he had started to be delirious.

 "Behind you," he barely managed to say.

 I looked behind myself, where outlines of some tree could barely be perceived. I felt it with my hand. It was a trunk of a felled tree.

 "You impaled your balls on the tree," I finally caught on. "You jumped from above and impaled yourself on this log?"

 "Yes!"

 "Yow, fucking hell!" I drew in a breath and shook myself at the very thought. I could imagine the kind of pain he was going through now. "Well, can we get you out of here somehow?"

 "Slowly."

 Somehow we managed to get Mario out of the ditch, and those down the road finally succeed in agreeing to a cease-fire. A group of idiots in close quarters, I thought bitterly. Only through the grace of God had all remained alive and well, if you didn't count Mario. He, poor soul, had howled so much when we were getting him out that one of the soldiers said it was worse than if he were being massacred by three Chetniks at once. So much for the perfect organization that they had told me about when I first arrived. Truly perfect to get screwed for no reason at all. If it hadn't been for Luka, who had reacted immediately, and looped around the position at a run, thus coming up on those from the rear lines and tearing a strip off all of them, who knows how many of us would have remained alive.

 The same evening I went with Mario in an ambulance down to Ston to the field hospital. The doctor had given him an injection against pain, so he howled a bit less, but he moaned the whole time. It seemed that he had broken some pelvis bones, or something like that, that was what the doctor could establish in a rush, but his condition in general was fairly worrisome. The doctor came along with us. Immediately after departure, Mario began to lose consciousness.

 "Let's just hope there's no internal bleeding," the doctor said in a worried way. "Just hope he holds out to the MASH, so we can see what the problem is."

 "And if there is, what then?" I asked him.

 "It could be anything," he answered vaguely, holding Mario by the hand, and feeling his pulse.

 "Robi!" Mario called in a barely audible voice. He had come to for a moment. 

 "Here I am, old friend, no need to worry, everything will be okay," I told him, while a lump formed in my throat.

 "Give my greetings to Denis when you see him, please," he said quietly.

 "Don't worry," I answered. "When they patch you up, you'll tell him everything yourself. Just be calm, everything will be okay."

 "Robi!" he was even quieter, so that I had to bend over him to hear. "Did you know that I lived in Austria with a Croatian woman for two years. Did you know that I have a daughter with her?"

 "No, I didn't!" I muttered in a surprised way. I truly hadn't known that Mario had a child, he had never mentioned it. Nor that he had lived with someone in Austria.

 "It didn't work out," he spoke between breaks, catching his breath. The doctor told him to be quiet, that it would be easier on him, but he just shook his head. "It wasn't just you who messed up twice, I just didn't go up in front of the justice. Fuck the papers, they didn't save my first marriage, so I just passed over it this time. We have a lovely daughter. She's called Anita, after my mother. She's ten years old now. I haven't seen her in years, nor have I ever written her a letter, and I started to hundreds of times. Up at the base camp, Luka knows where, I have an album with photos from the battlefront that we have taken all these months. I beg you, send it to her. There, in the album, her address is written. And write a few words to her, in my name."

 I could no longer stand it. The tears simply welled up. I started to sob. I took a deep breath, collected myself quickly, wiped away my tears, and turned to him. He was looking at me.

 "What a horse's ass you are!" I gently said through clenched teeth. "See what you are doing to me! You're making me cry over your broken balls. Nothing's going to happen to you, you'll just have to abstain from blondes for a while until you recover, and that's all."

 "I told you that I can always sense when something bad is going to happen," he almost whispered. "It has been haunting me from this morning. I thought it was over when they shelled us, and when that passed, I thought I had been mistaken. But I am never mistaken in this. Never!"

 He again lost consciousness and remained that way to Ston. The doctor and I were silent. Each with his own thoughts. Up to this conversation I hadn't thought that it was anything that serious, but now I was no longer certain. I prayed that Mario was wrong in his presentiments, that this was simply a matter of horrible pain, when one must think of the worst. Particularly in these unhappy circumstances of war, when everything otherwise acquired completely different dimensions, when every situation had a completely different meaning than it would in a peacetime setting. This night seemed darker and harder than any of my nights up to this point.

 My God, please don't take him. Not this time, while I am with him. I can't, I simply can't survive so many farewells in such a short time, to remain in one way or another without so many people dear to me. Save him for some other occasion, when it won't be me by his side, so I don't have to watch.

 "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done..."

 In Ston, they immediately transferred Mario to the hospital, and I waited outside in the courtyard, smoking one cigarette after another. Then the doctor took me over to headquarters, as there was nothing we could do at the moment, so we arranged to come back later. He explained to the people at the headquarters who I was, what I was, and how I was involved in all of this. They were exceptionally kind to me. They arranged for me to go into Dubrovnik the next day to pick up new civilian clothes free of charge, as mine had remained at »epikuÊe. They were willing to write any kind of statement verifying that I had been at the front, and so forth, which I politely turned down, since I didn't see the point. What use to me were such papers? So I could stay at the battlefield and have someone send them to my children for me? I wanted only for Mario to survive and to leave this place. Nothing else. Nothing!

 They assigned me a room so I could sleep, but I couldn't. I tried and gave up. The staff in the MASH had told us that they wouldn't be able to give us any information till morning about Mario's condition, so there was no point for me to go there. I stood next to the open window and smoked. Someone knocked. The doctor came in.

 "How is he?" I immediately asked.

 "They're fighting for him," he answered softly. "It's bad. He's bleeding internally, he broke all kinds of things down there. If he were in some better hospital, in more normal conditions, he might pull through, but, well, I'm not sure. They're doing all they can."

 "What a stupid way to leave this world," I said between my teeth.

 "That's true of every death," he said. "I have observed them at the front. You can't believe what serious wounds people will survive, and then again, from what tiny things people can lose their lives. It is all fate. No one knows where his or her candle will be extinguished."

 "I know," I muttered. "I know, but at least let it be that I don't have to watch it going out."

 "You know," he said, "when I studied medicine, I was full of enthusiasm and a desire to help people. I didn't think at all about dying then. Actually, I learned how to thwart death, how to save people so they did not die. If you thought of death at all, then it was always tied to old age or some serious illness, possibly some accident, such as happens here and there. And then you end up in a battlefield. Every time when one of these soldiers passes away, I regret ever studying medicine. This is neither old age, nor sickness, nor accident, this is war, where it should be normal that people die, that they are killed. They will die further, but this isn't normal. Quite simply, I cannot accept it. In the best case, if I save someone, it is only so that they can return to the front to be finished off a second time."

 "No one normal could accept this," I muttered, "but that's the way it is. How the hell did you end up in Croatia, anyway?"

 "I studied in Zagreb, and then I just stayed," he answered. "I became very attached to this county, to the people, I liked it. I fell in love, got married, two children arrived."

 "How did you end up on the front?"

 "Well, see," he said, "Mario often talked about you. We often talked, and he always had only the best to say about you, so I can answer your question honestly. You see, I am not a Croat, and who knows how someone might judge me tomorrow when the war is over. Not to mention while the war is raging, because people act strangely in wartime. And I decided, so I and my family would not have problems, to volunteer, and for months I have been stationed on the front. No one either today or tomorrow will be able to accuse me or my children of anything. And for a long time, even when the war is over, it will be important who was where at this time. I am not sure how much of this you, as a Croat, can understand?"

 "It's as understandable as the depressing reasons for it, just like everything else happening around us," I commented.

 "I agree," he said.

 The doctor and I talked to dawn. We couldn't endure it anymore then, and we went over to the MASH. The doctor went to find out what had happened, and I lit one of the endless chain of cigarettes that night, so many that I was already nauseous from them. The doctor soon came out and just sat down next to me. And he lit up. I didn't ask him anything. I didn't have anything to ask.

 That morning they first immobilized my left leg in the field hospital, and then they took me to Dubrovnik, where I got a black suit, a white shirt, and two ties, black and red. That afternoon we buried Mario at the local cemetery. Luka and fifteen of his colleagues came, they fired a volley of salutes, placed a wooden cross, and so ended one life. Luka handed over Mario's photo album to me. The first photo was of his little girl. Anita. The rest were his shots from the battlefield.

 The next morning I headed off by jeep towards Ploce, [52] and further by bus to Split. Before I left, I threw the black tie in the sea and waited for it to sink, and then I put on the red one. At headquarters they had previously checked on what had happened to Denis, and I had found that he had already been sent to Zagreb, as evidently even the hospital in Split was not able to cope with his head wound. I asked them for a pad of paper and a pen. While we rumbled along to Ploce, I began to write a letter to little Anita. In printed letters, as I knew that was what Mario's handwriting looked like. I wanted to get it over with immediately and send it before I got to Pula.

 "Dearest daughter,

 Please forgive me for never finishing any of the many letters that I have started to write to you all these years, but what can I say, I didn't have the strength or the courage to finish and send them. When you abandon someone, then it is hard to gather up courage and face this fact. Perhaps I wouldn't even now, but I don't know if I will ever be able to any more, as I am in the front lines, so I have decided to write this in case anything happens to me. If this is sent by my friend, it means that your daddy isn't around anymore.

 My little angel, your daddy loved you very, very much, he thought of you every day, every evening, when he would look at your picture and dream how we would one day play together, holding hands, how you would suddenly grow up and how I would hear you call me "daddy". I don't know how much I have achieved in life, but my homeland was dearest to me of all. I loved it almost as much as I love you. I hope that one day, when you grow up, you will understand why I have done all this. And all that I can leave to you is this album with photographs, when I was what I had to be.

 My dear daughter, don't worry, daddy will always be somewhere near you, you won't see me, but whenever you have troubles in your life, I will be there, you will feel it. Never ever forget that you had a father who loved you more than anything in the world.

 With love from your father Mario

 Dubrovnik, the 5th of April, 1992."

 In Rijeka, I went to the main post office and sent the letter and the album by registered mail. Before that I had written on the back cover of the album the date of his death and where he was buried. And my own address. And then I finally arrived in Pula, locked myself in my apartment, opened a bottle of cognac, put on some old records, and cried in peace. May this sorrowful Croatian earth lay lightly on you, my friend!

This is end of chapter V

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[1] Pula is the main city of Istria, the peninsula extending into the Adriatic Sea in the northwest of Croatia. The city was a Roman colony (Pola), and has changed hands many times over the centuries. Under Yugoslavia, it contained a major naval base because of its proximity to Italy.

[2] The navy of the former state of Yugoslavia, further YN.

[3] Godparents, best men, and maids of honor, all designated by the same word (kum), play major roles in the lives of the friends for whom they were sponsors, as well as their families.

[4] Vojvodina is a formerly autonomous province of Yugoslavia, now part of Serbia. It has substantial minority populations of Hungarians and Croats.

[5] Montenegro is one of the republics of ex-Yugoslavia that remained in a union with Serbia. It has a well protected bay and other ports on the Adriatic coast.

[6] Franjo Tuðman, the first president of the Republic of Croatia after the formation of this new state following the disintegration of communist Yugoslavia.

[7] Dalmatia is the coastal province of Croatia. The name comes from the pre-Roman tribe of the Delmatae, and the term "Dalmatia" has been in constant use for this region from the Roman period onwards.

[8] Ustasha is the name used to refer to members of the military services of the Croatian state during World War II, when it was allied to the fascist axis.

[9] This refers to Josip Broz Tito, the wartime partisan leader and president of Yugoslavia from World War up to the early eighties.

[10] Slobo = Slobodan Miloševiæ, the ex-president of Serbia. He used this phrase, typical of Zagreb, to express what he thought of independence for Croatia.

[11] The Lika region is a large geographic area in Croatia, consisting of elevated plains and hills in the karst region between the coastal mountains and the major river basins of the interior. It consists of forests and meadows, and is sparsely inhabited, with large wildlife populations. 

[12] This refers to the famous Amphitheater of Pula, popularly called the Arena, one of the best preserved Roman remains in the world.

[13] Homemade alcohol is quite common, ranging from that made from fruit (plums, pears, etc.) to the remains of grapes after making wine (like the Italian "grappa").

[14] The Bay of Kotor is an immense fjord on the Montenegro coast with a large naval base at a natural deep harbour.

[15] A popular rock band with a well known song written about a Croatian mother, "the last rose of Croatia", often interpreted as a politically charged song.

[16] Chetnik is the name used to refer to members of the armed forces of the Serbian (quisling) state during World War II. See n. 7 for comparison.

[17] A Bosnian folk song about a mother who has died.

[18] A famous night spot in an area of the same name filled with cafes.

[19] A Croatian patriotic song.

[20] A Serbian ballad.

[21] Miroslav Krleža was one of the most important Croatian writers of the 20th century.

[22] This refers to the song "Here is the dawn, here is the day", that exalts certain Ustasha commanders from World War II.

[23] Sinj is a town in central Dalmatia, in the hinterland of Split. The main character comes from this town. It was near the front lines and was badly shelled in the war. 

[24] Rijeka is a large coastal city and port in northern Dalmatia, two hours or so distant from Pula.

[25] "Barba" is a colloquial term in coastal Dalmatia used to address older men respectfully, which variously can mean Captain, Old Man, or Uncle.

[26] HOS is the abbreviation for Hrvatska Oruûana Snaga (Croatian Armed Forces), a volunteer unit set up at the beginning of the war.

[27] The Croatian coat-of-arms, also on the flag, is a checkered field of red and white.

[28] An Italian brand of brandy.

[29] This refers to the infamous "Memorandum" of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences from 1988/1989, which called for the formation of a Greater Serbian state by any means. 

[30] This all refers to the book "The Wilderness of Historical Realities" by the Croatian president Franjo Tudjman.

[31] Novi Sad is the main city of the northernmost part of Serbia, the once autonomous province of Vojvodina, heavily populated with Croats and Hungarians in addition to Serbs.

[32] Aleksander (Alexander) and Aleksandra (female version) are popular and typically Serbian names.

[33] Popular card games. This is the Italian form of their names.

[34] This refers to the fact that Croatian and Serbian (and Bosnian Muslim) names can usually be readily distinguished from one another, both first and family names. 

[35] Slobodan MiloöeviÊ spoke at a Serbian nationalist rally at Gazimestan in Kosovo in 1989 on the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo (when the Serbs lost to the Ottoman Empire). His speech is widely considered to mark the beginnings of Serbian attempts at hegemony in the former Yugoslavia leading to the disintegration of the federal state. 

[36] Split is the largest city on the Croatian coast (Dalmatia), and Zagreb is the capital of Croatia. 

[37] Ston is a small walled town at the head of a bay of the same name to the north of Dubrovnik.

[38] Trieste, in the far eastern corner of Italy, is a highly popular destination for shopping, and was especially so under communism.

[39] The Serbs blew up the main bridge connecting two parts of the mainland near Zadar in 1993. They controlled the other main route into Zadar, so all travellers were forced to detour lengthily by ferry.

[40] A small village in the heights above Ston on the way to Dubrovnik.

[41] Four letters S (looking like a capital C in the Cyrillic alphabet used by the Serbs) arranged around a cross stand for the nationalist slogan "Samo Sloga Srbina Spašava" (Only Unity Saves the Serbs).

[42] Krajina is a geographical term (literally "Military District", signifying the border with Turkish occupied areas from the 16th to the 18th centuries), and was the name used by the rebellious Serbs of Croatia in their attempt to set up a Greater Serbian state.

[43] This refers to the hardcore Serbian nationalist volunteer units formed by Vojislav äelöelj, a far right-wing, Serbian politician who supported (and still does) the cause of forming a Greater Serbia.

[44] The term Chetnik comes from the Second World War, meaning a Serbian nationalist irregular, in this (modern) case referring to paramilitary bands. 

[45] The term Ustasha comes from the Second World War, meaning a member of the Croatian armed forces allied with the Germans.

[46] The horned viper (Croatian poskok or "leaper") is the most widespread, temperamental, and feared poisonous snake in Dalmatia.

[47] The distinctly Serbian phrase "proöo voz" literally means "the train has passed".

[48] This word was derived from the abbreviation of the Croatian name for the National Guard (ZNG = zengi). 

[49] See n. 1.

[50] A coastal town between Split and Dubrovnik.

[51] A town in the hinterland of Split, near the frontier with Bosnia & Herzegovina.

[52] A formerly small harbor at the mouth of the Neretva River, now partly leased to Bosnia & Herzegovina and also used by UN forces. 

 

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