boring autumn rain was doggedly watering the dilapidated roofs
of the old part of the city of Pula
 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).
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,  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,
 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,
 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.
 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.
 And, naturally, such types
always glue themselves to me. From the most varied motives, of
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.
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.
I barely muttered into the phone.
Robi, is it you?"
from intelligence. What the hell's the matter with you, don't
you recognize my voice?"
you. Hey, what's up, Simke, how are you doing?"
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
with it, Simke, what's the right side?"
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
 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?"
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."
What are you going to do?"
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
are you calling from? You're not at headquarters, 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."
thanks again, and get back safely. I don't want to have you on
let me ask something! What was going on with that hymn when you
were on television?"
We were organizing an officer's committee."
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
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."
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..."
I'll sacrifice myself!"
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.
what? When I think about it a bit more, you Croats are really
crazy. You Dalmatians especially. And you in particular."
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."
good way to begin a war of liberation. And why do you hold your
hand over your heart when the hymn is playing?"
the faintest, just like today I don't know what half the shit
was for when I worked for the army."
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."
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
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?"
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."
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."
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.
 Where did all the ideals and stuff disappear?"
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!"
friend, you have obviously already realized, despite being a spook
and a Serb, that there are no unbelievers in war."
what I thought. Now I really have to go. Goodbye, my friend."
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.
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.  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,
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.
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.
for God's sake, open the door. I've been ringing for half an hour.
Are you deaf?"
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, 
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.
hell have you been, damn it?," thundered Aca in his baritone.
am, guy, just as always. Where have you been? I've been trying
for months to get to you. Are you truly 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.
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."
brandy, on the table".
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.
with you, why are you so frozen?," I asked him.
he forced out.
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."
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,  you were yelling
so much, not to mention those fools at the watchtower three hundred
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."
does this Serbian tragedy end, for God's sake?," I asked.
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."
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."
up. I've been totally fed up with you these past few months",
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
,man, let's put some alcohol on that, so it doesn't get infected."
it, we came to see you, then we're off."
nonsense. Come over here. I have some moonshine.  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.
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!"
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
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."
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,
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. 
The time has come, we're off, fuck it! What can you do, we have
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.
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."
anyone shoot at you," I wondered.
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."
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
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."
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."
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
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."
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!"
you didn't cry, right?," Boris interjected.
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."
you wanted to kill yourself," continued Boris.
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."
else?," I asked, as Aca had stopped.
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?"
I got the idea," I replied. "And when did you sober
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.
Just don't start crying again," Aca told Boris.
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?"
agree," I force out between my teeth, while my throat tightened.
I drained my glass of cognac, so I wouldn't cry. "I agree,
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."
are your measure, you won't be reconciled until death," shot
in Boris, who had already played the same song three times.
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
didn't exactly have a Serbian name," Boris spat.
Aca looked at me. "The kid has become walking poison. The
that have been sent to guard us are going to kill him. They
already call him little Yugoslav."
retorted Boris. "Chetniks slaughtered my grandfather in World
War II, so why should they love me now?"
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."
idiot," Aca grinned at Boris. "This is the kind of woman
you have to find, and not your scorpion from Stoja."
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."
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."
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?"
kill him, I swear on my mother's grave," muttered Aca, looking
askance at Boris.
be! What about the others that stayed on the ships?"
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."
I exclaimed. "When? How? I hadn't heard!"
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",
 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."
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!.
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?"
yet," I answered. "I don't know what to tell you."
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."
try to shut up," cracked Boris.
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
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  sang "Marjane,
Marjane"  (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.
time, we have to go," said Aca, stammering a bit from the
Boris appeared. "Before we go, take your guitar and sing
"I Grew Up Next to the Danube"  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,"
I glanced at Aca.
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."
hell with it. Anything goes. No one lives twice, not even me,"
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.
up next to the Danube,
Next to the good
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
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
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.
you say," I asked.
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.
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
 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
want some coffee, too?," he asked, shoving a cola across
the bar, which was what I had been drinking lately.
cola. Enough coffee today, I must have drank at least twenty.
Even the cola is too much, but I must drink something."
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
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."
you?" Mario asked worriedly.
I answered. "You just can't and that's it!"
really awful," Mario said with understanding. "Brrr!,"
he shivered, "really awful."
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."
you even get involved in marriage? What were you thinking?"
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."
I know," he cut in.
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."
went through this twice!," he noted.
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."
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.
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."
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?"
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."
any commentary to your little addition would just seem second
rate, so I'll refrain from elaborating the fourth reason,"
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.
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
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.
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?"
are," he conciliatory muttered.
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
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
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."
of what?" he asked suspiciously.
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",  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?"
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?"
start charging for drinks, for a change," I noted.
know me," he said resignedly. "How can you charge the
boys for a drink when it might be their last one?"
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."
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.
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.
did for your car?" he asked. "I heard someone gave it
a good bang on the hood."
the faintest," I replied. "Some wacko, who knows? Probably
because of the Zagreb plates that I still haven't exchanged for
have been worse," he remarked, slowly drinking his tequila.
"He could have totally wrecked it, and who could you blame
it on today? Jesus!"
through almost perfectly for these times. I just couldn't have
done better," I grumbled.
change the subject again?" said he. "Are you going to
the front? You could be very useful there."
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."
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."
about me, with so many more years behind me?" he asked.
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."
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."
just the same," he laughed. "But you have to admit that
while it lasted it was worth it."
talked about that," I noted absently. "When you mentioned
that, I remembered that I had already heard the same thing recently."
who in all likelihood will end up on the battlefield, like you,
but he didn't exactly fall over himself to show enthusiasm for
theirs?" he asked suspiciously. "They are still getting
in touch with you?"
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."
exactly get what you mean to say", he stated.
would you react now if Aca came into the café?" I asked him.
buddy. Hell, with him I've drunk entire barrels, not quarts. Anyway,
he left months ago, is what I heard."
when he left, just speaking hypothetically, what would you do
if he came in?"
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."
you imagine a situation where tomorrow you have to shoot at each
other?" I demanded.
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
that I agree, but if you were in a position to shoot at him, would
you?," I didn't give in.
have to, otherwise he would shoot me."
would you kill him?"
it," he said angrily. "You can't think like that! If
everyone thought like that, who the hell would go to war?"
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."
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."
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."
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."
all I wanted to hear, nothing more," I laughed at his serious
but with my luck he wouldn't recognize me, and he would shoot
me like a rabbit," he added, in a little better temper.
for rhetoric, hypotheses, and the luck of war in the Balkans,"
I noted with resignation.
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?"
were in your home town of Sinj
 when they were shelling it, you would shoot at
them to the end of time?"
what would you do in the same situation that you hypothetically
involved me in a bit before?" he asked triumphantly.
God that he recognized me in time," I responded calmly.
he didn't?" Now he was being persistent.
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
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 Croats!" he cried, raising his right arm in a salute,
imitating certain historical figures of this nation.
same to you," I stiffly replied.
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.
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.
never put on performances in peacetime, much less today,"
Mario remarked, pushing a glass of grappa towards the Doctor.
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!"
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.
you have against this café?" Mario turned up.
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."
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."
I asked him. "I'm not a priest to give them their last rites."
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.
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."
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."
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."
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.
really," I answered. "We were just philosophizing a
bit about life and got all messed up, so we won't be any great
"I can see
that both of you, given your metal state, are ripe for the battlefield,"
he said placatingly.
this from your own experience," Mario couldn't resist.
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."
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."
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 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."
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
said Mario in a serious tone, "are you going to drink or
give us a hard time?"
I can," he answered, evidently giving up on further patriotic
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."
said the Doctor. "If the kid comes, I send him up to you."
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  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
 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
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
 uniform, with a checkered  patch sown on
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.
something!" he shouted, patting me on the back. "Are
you glad to see me?"
I finally managed to get out. "Of course I'm glad, but what
are you doing here now? In Pula?"
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."
you doing?" I sized him up wanly, and slowly staggered over
to the couch, where he had sat down.
surprised you, huh!" he burbled, while his pleasure in the
moment simply shined from him.
God, you did," I responded, still disoriented.
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.
used to it," I muttered more to myself than to him. "The
two of us have been communicating this way for the past thirty
he asked. He hadn't heard or else understood my comment about
my contacts with the Almighty.
nothing," I answered, and went into the kitchen.
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.
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
too," he called.
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.
very morning I had bought a bottle of Stock  , 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.
to do lots of things," he laughed.
"So I see,"
I said. "Let's start at the beginning. How did you get here?"
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."
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?"
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."
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
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."
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?"
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."
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."
he answered, half frightened.
are you?" I asked.
I was startled, looking at him in disbelief.
here's my passport," he said, trying to take it out of an
inside jacket pocket.
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?"
everything about the battlefield," he said confidently. "We
had training in Berlin. Some guys came and explained what we could
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?"
he said eagerly.
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,
 since the Croatian Academy has otherwise made
itself famous for keeping its mouth shut."
understand what you're talking about," he said.
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?"
he sputtered in confusion.
he interrupted. "Well..., yes, I have!"
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?"
won't happen to me," he protested.
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?"
happens, I'm prepared," he answered, trying to show toughness
with this, which simply didn't go with the naïve, boyish
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."
you'd already gone," he said.
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!  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?"
they do to me?," he answered confidently. "They can
only kill me, and I am prepared for that."
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..."
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,
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.
is that you?" I shouted, as on the other side of the line,
a patriotic song was ringing out loudly.
he answered. "Is that you, Robi?"
when are those kids heading for the frontlines?"
tomorrow morning, I don't know."
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?"
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."
I beg you. Don't forget!"
I'm telling you. If we don't see each other, buddy, hold tight!"
Watch out for that crazy head if you do go, I've gotten used to
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."
was yours, mine was a blonde."
a brunette, genius."
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!"
now I remember, they really were two blondes. Yeah, that was the
a shit, we've had it all, no matter what happens."
And if you go, for God's sake, come back. Where will I ever find
such an idiot!"
That's why I'll come back."
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!"
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,
 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
"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
"Tell me what this is about,
I'm not in the mood for this kind of discussion," I said
"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
"My name is Aleksandra,
 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
"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?" 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
"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.
"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!
"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
"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
"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
"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,
 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
"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
"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
"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
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. 
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?"
"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,
 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
"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?",
"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
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?"
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?"
"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
"Leaving! So I see! For
home? Where are you going? What do you mean by this?"
"We're leaving for Canada."
"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."
"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
"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!
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
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
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
"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.
 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,  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!"
"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
"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.
 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.  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 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
"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
"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
"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?"
"Ah, fuck it, he caught
some shrapnel at »epikuÊe,
 " 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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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.
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 you wish," said
Luka and turned towards the house. "I'm going to go settle
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."
"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
"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."
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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"
 (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?"
"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
"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
"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  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
"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
"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
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?"
"Why the hell are you waking
"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?"
"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
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
 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. 
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!
 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.
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?"
if I die, I get to die a hero of the Croatian army," I cynically
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?"
you like a little ride on my lance," I vulgarly responded.
"You know, in a really heroic pose."
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.
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,
 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.
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."
nose?" asked Mario.
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?"
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?"
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!"
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."
see, it only works the first six hours after you take it out of
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
screwing around?" he asked Mario in a serious tone.
not," he answered. "Go ahead and read the instructions,
if you know German."
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
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
 as our brother Serbs would say."
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 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
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.
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
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?"
this "Beauty" place?" I interrupted.
Mario answered in a serious tone.
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..."
that bit, damn you!" Mario interrupted.
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."
Mario defended himself. "I was as drunk as a skunk. And I
wasn't up to anything anyway."
you know?" Luka was merciless. "If you weren't, then
why did you have horrific itches in your groin for days afterwards?"
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."
have paid you, not you her," Luka laughed.
did, in a way," Mario muttered. "She paid for half of
what I drank."
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."
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.
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)  ,
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.
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.
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.
to give up the ghost if we don't stop now," I shouted, looking
at his already purple face.
on, he can do it," Luka shouted authoritatively, not allowing
any further discussion of the doctor's condition.
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.
Luka shouted, dragging the doctor with him. A large stone lay
along the path. I looked at Mario.
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!
I barely got it out.
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.
this time I succeeded in responding, as loud as I could.
for the stones, the stones kill more than the shrapnel,"
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."
ask!" Mario shouted.
One shell fell
nearby, I couldn't judge how near, but the horrible whistle of
the shrapnel and stones petrified me.
I heard Mario shouting again.
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..."
the Lord's Prayer!"
remember it before the shelling ends, don't worry, that's the
way I remembered it, too. Just pray!"
say it aloud once, so I can hear it."
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.
you okay?" I heard Mario shouting.
know," I yelled. "They've hit my leg."
know!" I shouted. How can I know when I can't move a single
millimeter, I thought to myself. The pain was excruciating.
feel warmth on your leg? Can you feel blood?"
know!" I yelled.
move it a bit! You can? Okay, it's nothing too bad if you can
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.
rough," Mario admitted.
"I had already
said my farewells to all dear to me," the doctor announced
in a hoarse voice.
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."
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."
alright, but I don't have any tears left," I muttered, caught
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
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.
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
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
the shooting?" I asked the soldiers.
one responded. "Our rear line."
I asked in shock.
that they changed units," said the other. "When we left,
the unit from Omiö  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, 
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."
it," Mario finally groaned in my embrace, still coiled up,
while tears flowed down his face from pain.
you know?" I quickly asked.
would get screwed up today," he groaned.
are you wounded, man?" I again asked quickly, while he could
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
you in the balls?" I asked.
he drew it out. "Log."
man?" I asked, figuring that he had started to be delirious.
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.
your balls on the tree," I finally caught on. "You jumped
from above and impaled yourself on this log?"
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?"
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
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.
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."
there is, what then?" I asked him.
be anything," he answered vaguely, holding Mario by the hand,
and feeling his pulse.
Mario called in a barely audible voice. He had come to for a moment.
am, old friend, no need to worry, everything will be okay,"
I told him, while a lump formed in my throat.
greetings to Denis when you see him, please," he said quietly.
I answered. "When they patch you up, you'll tell him everything
yourself. Just be calm, everything will be okay."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
he?" I immediately asked.
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."
stupid way to leave this world," I said between my teeth.
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 muttered. "I know, but at least let it be that I don't
have to watch it going out."
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."
normal could accept this," I muttered, "but that's the
way it is. How the hell did you end up in Croatia, anyway?"
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."
you end up on the front?"
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?"
understandable as the depressing reasons for it, just like everything
else happening around us," I commented.
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.
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, 
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.
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
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
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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