Roman Simić Bodrožić

© Dimitris Tsoumplekas
Translated from the Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth

Of all the improbable things I've ever heard, the story of the dog is the one I remember. You told it to me at the beginning, while we were still going out, sniffing each other, maybe that's how a dog got caught up in the story. In any case, a long time ago, there was a stray dog in your street, some kid had sprayed the word Croatia onto it, which had made some other kid hang it, and that's how the war began, because of a dog and a couple of kids, you didn't say that then, I added that myself, because I don't understand what really happened, and because I don't think I ever will.
In the autumn of 1991, I was coming out of a Yugoslav National Army barracks in southern Serbia, you were being forced to prolong your summer holiday on an Adriatic island, and your father was disappearing in Vukovar. You say was disappearing, as though it took a long time, and explain that there was still something left of him for a while, at least what your mother was able to hear through the miracle of a telephone receiver – a miracle because it sounded as though it was really near, and because that little bit of contact took more ingenuity than almost anything else in our former life.
Former life sounds stupid, but that's what it was.
In the autumn of 1991, I was nineteen, you were nine, your father was thirty-six, I came back to the town on the coast and the shelling began, a grenade exploded in the courtyard, my sister and I spent the night in an old Italian bunker, I don't remember how scared I was, I only know that I carried her out of the house and shoved her into that concrete hole, that she was rigid as a corpse, but alive, that we waited in there until morning, Mum was still on duty, Dad didn't live with us, we woke up alone and went down to the sea, and it was calm, as indifferent as the holes in the house where we lived, in which we were subtenants, and at the time I thought that even that was a kind of victory, the fact that we hadn't lost anything that belonged to us.
Then I went to Zagreb, that was war for me, it was something else for your family. It was something else for everyone, you say, but the fact that your father disappeared makes you, despite the ten years between us, better informed, old.
I don't know whether I ever mentioned to you how afraid I was to ask you anything about that disappearance. When we were on Ov_ara for the first time, I almost couldn't breathe: so much space, so much sky, and everything empty of life, only you and your mother, and your brother, and people selling squat little Vu_edol pigeons, souvenirs of the Neolithic, inevitable tourism, rugs laid out on dirty car bonnets, and the thought that none of all that small-scale trade would have happened without all that other large-scale business, the misfortune which takes houses away and leaves stalls, tables covered with tent canvas, commerce which will make no one rich in the end.
As we lay that evening wrapped up to our eyes in bedclothes, without my asking, you told me that, when the town fell, the wounded people and men who had managed to hide in the hospital were driven out and shut up on a neighbouring farm, that they were beaten all night in barns, then in the morning loaded into buses and driven out to this desert, to the fields. There were five full buses, they found the bodies from four, your father was in the fifth, the one about which our neighbours the Serbs keep quiet. We are quiet too, it is dark in the room, there are no stars on the ceiling, I press you to me, I'm afraid of breathing. On that fallow ground, I remember, your mother is a small, dark-complexioned woman – you are slim and tall, with fair skin, you are not remotely alike and I think: someone took your features away in that fifth bus, your slender arms, your smile, your green eyes, which become yellow and brown under this sky, because it's autumn and everything is abating, apart from the heart, really, really, I don't say this, this is the saddest place on earth.
Whenever I think of that afternoon, I remember everything down to the smallest detail: your clothes, your mother's small bag, the music that was playing in your brother's car, the little crosses and rosaries that the bereaved had left under the memorial to the victims, a whole small hill of pieces of wood and metal, that kept growing until someone came and took it away, we were watching the news on television, you were preparing dinner, I was waiting for the sport, you weren't stirred by the item, you just absorbed yourself more deeply in the pots and pans, while on the screen an old lady begged them to return that at least, but you said nothing, and I thought that the war was still going on, that I ought to try to take you away from it, at least for a short time, as I had my sister, and I did take you away, only we had nowhere to take refuge, in fact a person cannot defend himself from that kind of news item, it gets to you who knows where and who knows how, like a letter with your name on it, even if there's no address, like when shortly after the war I travelled to Belgrade with my then girlfriend and when we were taken to the station by a taxi driver who wanted to know where we were from, and, when we told him, he said that during the war he had been in Vukovar and if we were to ask him now why, he would not be able to say, but that it made sense then – he mentioned relations of his wife's in Vinkovci, the Americans who had turned us against one another, and he sounded like someone whom no one could help any longer. I don't remember his face, just his voice; we gave him money and walked away, that girl and I, with a weight in our stomachs, with shame, I'm articulating this after all these years, because maybe he was the very man who drove the fifth bus, the one about which our neighbours say nothing, maybe he drove away the man I had never met, your father, the one who still today, after so many years, at the table in your mother's dining room, under our celing without stars, is said to have disappeared.
But I want to talk to you about us, who are here. Let's say: I'm sitting on a bench in the zoo and writing you a letter. You are at home studying and thinking that I'm having a beer with the guys. I sometimes come here like this, every time I sit in front of a different cage and I maintain that small lie, I pay my entrance fee for this little bit of solitude, solitude for you. Once we were in the zoo together, just long enough to remember how much we disliked it, but now I could write to you about it for hours. Who founded it, when, why, over how many hectares, and that the first animals in it were two foxes and three owls, not a remotely exciting display, almost like foodstuffs, no one says anything about them any more, they are the past, and all the rest is just a present of little labels with complicated Latin names and the appropriate authorities, which bore one to death. I'm not bored. I'm standing in front of the pool with the pygmy-otters, I'm writing, I'm thinking about the dog which has got stuck in my memory. Sometimes, all your stories resemble the one about him. Like the one when your mother came out of Vukovar, first the three of you lived with relatives in Zagreb, and when that hospitality too was worn out, your relatives registered your mother for a run-down apartment on the top floor of a skyscraper, an empty apartment with pigeons and a view of the edge of town, which swayed with every strong wind, and which you moved into, with the help of an iron bar and the neighbours, strangers who wanted to help. The owner had never lived in the apartment, but when you came along, he remembered that he had it so they soon drove you out and you ended up in a bus, with others like you, on your way to some other accommodation, where you wouldn't be in anyone's way.
Someone once said that the problem with a zoo is that – when you see them in a cage – animals cease to be animals, in a matter of moments they acquire a soul. And souls are a problem, aren't they? When they housed you in a little room in the former police school, in a village where before the war you had gone on pilgrimages on public holidays, the birthplace of our former president-for-life – your mother was thirty-seven, you were eleven, I was twenty-one, I was studying philosophy and I was certain that none of all that was happening around me had anything to do with me. My mother was only a little older than yours, she was working as a doctor on the battlefield and she once told me that every day she saw boys my age dying, while I was philosophising around Zagreb, and that at one time she would have liked me to be there, alongside them, among them I said, and that was our last conversation of that kind – after that everything became dry hugs in the summer and at Christmas, days when on the whole we passed by one another and when, as though by some command from above, there would be a truce, a long, uncertain silence.
While you were growing up in your little room in Kumrovec, I travelled, among other things. I don't know whether I ever told you, but one summer I was working in Spain and some acquaintances took me to a little town, famous for its small and already somewhat neglected museum. It was the bequest of a local naturalist, a world traveller who had built up his collection at the end of the nineteenth century all over the globe. There were rooms full of archaeological finds, plant and animal fossils, books about herbs and soils – we passed quickly through these – there was nothing special there, nothing for which it would be worth interrupting our enjoyment of the café beside the river. My hosts began to smile enigmatically only when we began to look through the rooms containing the naturalist's stuffed exemplars. After the birds, the wild animals, and even a dusty lion, the last room contained what was probably the reason for the exhibition's fame: in a glass case, dressed in a couple of colourless rags, armed with a quiver of arrows and a slender spear, with marbles instead of eyes and a necklace which was vainly concealing an ugly, wide scar on his neck – a dark-skinned man, four and a half feet tall, with shaggy hair, met our gaze. The case contained a few branches and a thin layer of red earth that was supposed to conjure up his natural habitat, there was a little label there as well with data we peered at until one of my hosts shrugged his shoulders and said: 'There, you certainly won't see things like that at home', and then fell silent, probably because he had remembered television and radio and satellites and all kinds of items that confirmed that I actually could. He felt awkward, the museum was closed after that and I left the country, but the story remained. The story about the soul and the cage: animals behind bars acquire one, while people behind bars lose theirs, but I'm not here to tell you about that, the sun is still high, a pygmy-otter is turning somersaults along its path, it dives, passes right beside me, looks at me and I return its gaze, we are alive, we have to talk about us.
I'm thinking: however rarely it comes to the surface, all that we experience is determined by it – our past. Your stories and mine, woven together, on the couch, after work, as we come out of the cinema, in the evening by the television, after making love – it would be good to be free of them, at least for a short time, but how? For instance, you sometimes talk to me about your grandmothers. About your mother's mother who did not leave Vukovar until the middle of '92, who stayed there with your grandfather after the city fell, until they were forced to make the house over to someone else and driven out; they broke your grandmother's arm, your grandfather had already taken to drink, but that needn't have been because of the war, just like her broken bone, you say, these things happen, people break things in peacetime too. But still, it was because of the war that you had to search for them through the Red Cross, and they arrived in the birthplace of our former president-for-life at the same time as you – and your grandfather died there, and your grandmother stayed with you, that story seems to make you smile, in your reports, your grandmother is a fixture in your mother's apartment, she prays by the radio and she misses her teeth, she often makes your mother roll her eyes, and, although she can't hear you, you laugh at her under your breath, but that laughter seems to hide something, but that laughter doesn't seem real, but it's trying, there's always some kind of 'but'. Your other grandmother found you a bit sooner, and she died somewhere else, in Split. She didn't want to go to the birthplace of the former president, she would rather die, she said, and, as always, in the end she had her way. She was a tough Hercegovinian woman, she wanted you to call her nan, you were never close, she adored your brother, a new male in the house, once she even thrashed you, you say, you were black and blue for days, and you tell me that she came to Zagreb through Vojvodina and Hungary and told you that they killed your grandfather in the yard of their house and raped the old woman who was hiding with her in the cellar, you tell me that you used to visit her after the war in that little apartment that she was allocated on account of her dead husband and son, that you came to admire her and that she told you before she died to be whatever you wanted in life, only never to marry a Serb – which we laugh at particularly loudly, more than at the stories about your first grandmother, more than at anything up to then, because I had already told you my story, the story of my grandmother who ran off to Serbia following my grandfather at the beginning of the war, who only contacted my father from the airport, and then for several years we heard nothing, and whenever he called them he said nothing about the shelling or the dead, you couldn't talk to them, he said, all you could do with them was listen – he was forty years-old and he was afraid, as in the fairytale: mum and dad had gone away and weren't coming back, I looked at him and thought, people could be a thousand years old, but with their parents they're always lost, him just like me, all of us apart from you, all of you who don't have any parents.
Everyone lacks something, for some it's a father, for some it's a town, that's what you say sometimes, as though you were justifying yourself, while I always lack words, the courage to answer anything at all. And that is why I go to the zoo. That's why I get up from the pool with the otters and feel uneasy, and as usual in such situations I try to think only about here and now, about their stunted muscles and dull gaze, about their wet fur in the rain, about all the madness in a little space, to write you a letter about them, and not about disappearance and the soul, not about people in glass cases and outside them, about everything that separates us and everything that holds us together, day after day, despite everything.
I bring all our stories into this garden and let them out to breathe in some air, because there is sometimes none between us, I write. I write: I would like to tell you something that you haven't yet heard, something that will heal you from all disappearances, from the unspoken, but there aren't the words for that. You sit at home studying, I have been writing you a letter for weeks now, forgetting to hand it to you for weeks now. Instead, I usually end up thinking about them, those two foxes from the beginning. Alone on the first few inches of the earth, Adam and Eve without the serpent, but surrounded by people, stuck on the earth, leaving the sky to the owls, I imagine them living and dying, and leaving nothing behind them apart from the stark note on the board at the entrance to the zoo. The dog from your street is still with us, but where are those foxes? I write: this mass of cages, this mass of souls, could easily be a town, but it's as though it lacks a past, it lacks children. I stop writing and close my eyes. Every time I go home from here, you bury your nose in my collar, you sniff it, but you don't say anything. The evening passes quietly, more quietly than usual, and when at night we lie down together, I press myself against your warmth silently and listen to you not sleeping. Where are those foxes?, I don't say. Not one street, not one square is named after them. Where is the place where they were born, where is the place where they died, where are their stories, the effort they left behind them? Where are their children? I hug you and turn onto my side, and watch our russet ears and bushy tails quiver in the snow, the breath rising from our damp muzzles, the ice and sun shining on our coats, we dare not be alone, I whisper into the warmth of your fur, your neck as we breathe in the world outside the bed – the cage and the forest, I repeat, without that we disappear, without that we do not exist.

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