Damir Karakaš was born in 1967 in the village of Plašćica in Lika, the mountainous region of Croatia. After attending university in Zagreb he was reporting for Croatian daily newspaper Večernji list, later becoming a reporter from war-fronts in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. He is the author of eight books, out of which there are three short story collections and two novels. His works were translated to French, English, German, Spanish, Czech, Slovak, Macedonian, Slovenian, and Arabic. He is putting up performances and exhibits conceptual art. In 2008 a movie made according to his short stories collection Kino Lika was released, directed by Dalibor Matanić, winning numerous awards in Croatia and abroad. He writes theatre plays and his play ‘We almost never lock up’ was directed by Paolo Magelli as a part of a play ‘Zagreb Pentagram’, the most awarded theater play in Croatia in 2009. His plays were performed at the theatres in Croatia, Serbia, Germany and Chile, and the last one called ‘Sniper‘ in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. He is currently located in Zagreb.
Bosnians are good folks (Bosanci su dobri ljudi), travel prose
Kombetars (Kombetari), novel
Lika Movie Theater (Kino Lika), short stories
How I Entered Europe (Kako sam ušao u Europu), documentary novel
Eskimos (Eskimi), short stories
Perfect Place for Misery (Sjajno mjesto za nesreću), novel
Colonel Beethoven (Pukovnik Beethoven), short stories
Blue Moon, novel
Damir on his novel “Perfect Place for Misery”:
"You should look for the reason my character ended up the way he did in that context. Although this isn't an autobiographical novel, but a fiction with autobiographical elements, I happen to have ended up in that hell so I know well what I'm talking about. It's a beautiful building that tourists like to take pictures of, and I passed by it a hundred times and admired it, but I never dreamed that some day I'd end up deep under its foundations, in the catacombs where during the French Revolution they kept people about to be guillotined. This is a novel about a different Paris, a novel about demystifying illusions."
A person I know, also a rockabilly, learned of his mother's death while he was at the hairstylist's, halfway through a haircut. I heard of Grandad's death when I had a brush in my hair.
I had just washed my hair and was working up a new pompadour in front of the mirror when the phone rang and wouldn't stop. It was Dad: he was calling from the post office, he told me about Grandad.
I asked: "When's the burial?"
He said: "Come tomorrow and help me with the burial."
Then he said: "And don't you dare come looking like that."
x x x
I called Eli to tell her about Grandad, that I'd be going back to the village where we're from; she went to her mother's yesterday, she'd be there over the weekend. Then back I went to the bathroom; I stood for a spell in front of the mirror; I thought a little about Grandad, I examined myself a little, the pompadour, actually, which could be said to be in full bloom.
While I was at my studies, or, to be fair, while I wasn't at my studies, the first thing I'd do at the dorm when I got up around noon: I'd stand in front of the mirror, moisten my hands with water, work up my pompadour.
Then I'd get dressed, pull on my leather jacket, work on the pompadour a little more, and then I'd go into town. Straight by tram to the Sava: there at the tram stop by the student dorms there was a mirror, a tall one, a little tilted: it suited me perfectly.
I'd stand; when the tram pulled into the stop I'd pretend to be walking toward the tram, but in fact I was walking toward the mirror. After the tram pulled away, I'd go back, and then do the same thing with the next tram, like a movie rewound a hundred times, enjoyable each time; when I walked toward the mirror it looked as if I were springing out of some other, much more attractive and interesting life.
I took Eli's compact mirror, and with it, standing in front of the wall mirror, I checked the pompadour on the right, on the left, from behind, on all sides: it looked like hotshit, especially in profile. This was definitely one of my best pompadours lately; I had the biggest pompadour, hands down, in town, everybody envied me for it; I could mainly thank my hair for that, lush, black, I was always especially proud of it.
Even when I was a kid, women from my village used to talk to my mother about my hair, their voices dripping with envy: "It isn't fair—a man with a head of hair like that."
I squeezed out a little more gel, rubbed my hands together, slicked it down on the sides, and then a little more hair spray, shut my eyes, sprayed; a little more hair spray, and cemented it all heroically in place.
Later I went to bed: a little pillow under the head, two larger ones firmly planted, one on each side: I wedged my head between the pillows: the huge ducktail, a gift from God himself, proudly jutting skyward.
x x x
I donned my Hein Gericke leather jacket, which I sweated for months to earn on gigs I got through the student job office, put on my leopard-skin creepers, tied a red bandana around my neck, tightened the belt on my pants with the brass buckle that had crisscrossed-pistols, smoothed my sideburns, the sharp edges of which reached almost to the corners of my mouth.
I tucked earplugs into my ears, switched on the big light-blue Walkman from East Germany I'd picked up one Sunday at the Hrelić flea market, and blasted away with "Stray Cat Strut."
Finally I shot one more glance at the pompadour and set out with measured step toward the tram stop: but the wind, one of my worst enemies, began to tick me off. Luckily it wasn't gusting too hard, but when I reached the corner of the big building I first stopped, for tactical reasons, and then moved slowly out into the wind-swept open square, slowing the transition so the wind wouldn't muss my pompadour. This was one more of the tried and true methods, like the trick with the pillows, for how to keep a pompadour looking good.
I hopped onto the bus: people looked at me funny, I don't care. It used to bug me but with the years I've developed thicker skin, and I even started enjoying the way people on the tram look at me, laugh, point as if I am some sort of rare creature recently escaped from the zoo: there was a tinge of masochism to it all.
In the village where I'm from, people looked at me strangely: then, little by little they started getting used to it, they'd ridicule and sometimes at the tavern they'd threaten to beat me up, "so I wouldn't disgrace the village." Some of them, especially cousins, fled from me in a panic: believing I'd gone off the deep end.
There were drunks along the road who didn't even notice me: punks they noticed, but rockabillies, never. They probably thought I was a mirage or something.
x x x
I am sitting on the back seat; my long legs are stretched out in front of me. In the cloudy glass I keep an eye on the outlines of the pompadour, the city I'm leaving behind, the morning lights.
I think about Grandad and his death. He was recently saying: "When I can no longer live, I'll hang myself." As if he were preparing us for this.
The only thing that surprised me a little was that he didn't hang himself, he shot himself with his M-48; he sat on a chair, leaned the rifle barrel on his chest, and pulled the trigger with his toe.
When my Dad called to tell me about Grandad, he said, "This is the only smart thing he did in his whole life." Then with fury in his voice he added: "He bled all over everything in the house."
I immediately remembered the times I'd be in bed, down with a bad case of the flu. Mum would tie slices of cold beets to the hot soles of my feet so the fever would abate as soon as possible, so I could do something with Dad around the house because he never acknowledged the flu. Each time he walked through the yard he'd stick his head in and bark, angrily: "If you're not up for living, go ahead and die instead."
I started crying: I covered my face with my hand and cried silently: stripes of tears.
x x x
My granddad and father were always quarreling about something. For a time they squabbled because Dad was the first in the village to get a squat toilet, he dug the septic tank next to the house.
The toilet was in the outside hallway that we called the gank, and before the squat toilet we'd had a wooden latrine which was, in fact, just a hole cut out of a board in the shape of a heart, and the shit would fall through the heart and mound up right behind the house; sometimes, beneath the heart, the mound of shit was so big that the tip of it almost brushed your ass.
It was worst during summer when the whole house stank of the latrine, and while you were mid-shit, clouds of flies swarmed your ass.
It stank inside the house from manure, too, because the livestock were housed in the room right beneath us; there were only floorboards covered in linoleum between us; but that was not the same kind of stink.
Then Grandad decided to go and shit in the stable in protest after the squat toilet was installed. The other big quarrel broke out because of buying a TV set: one of the first in the village.
It looked more and more to me as if Grandad was looking for reasons to wrangle: he was out to spite Dad who was behaving as if he were the head of the household, and didn't bring him, Grandad, into his plans.
On television, Grandad hated soccer most: he stubbornly insisted that it was all a set-up, that the players were rubber figures that ran on electric power.
He despised the ads: if something is any good, there is no point in advertising it, he said.
From the first day I first showed up in the village with my pompadour he found it entirely unremarkable. A hairdo is a hairdo, he said, uninterested.
This further reinforced our alliance against Dad, and it was mostly Grandad grousing about Dad, and me agreeing with the occasional nod.
Grandad was small, bowlegged, always with his hands clasped on his back. If someone's cow strayed onto our grass, he'd pick up his ax, run after the careless young herder, hurl the ax at him: he was precise enough that he'd miss the man by three-four feet. He loved flinging his ax. Once he threw the ax after his favorite cow which had strayed onto someone else's meadow; the blade side sliced into her tendon, on the leg which, as she fled, was farthest behind her; she toppled over the leg, rolled, poor thing, like a big fleshy barrel, and this meant we'd have to slaughter her. He sat down beside her in shock and sobbed long and hard with no tears, his whole body shook.
Sometimes he would tell me about his own father; how they hadn't loved him in their house because he flogged them for no reason; one day he pretended to be dead just to see if anyone in the house would be sad to see him go: he faked hanging himself.
When the members of the household began to make merry, he opened his eyes, climbed down from the noose and beat them all yet again.
x x x
I took out the ear plugs, stepped down off the bus, and set out on the winding road into the mountains. Along the way I ran into an old lady all in black with a basket on her head.
"Hello," I said.
She turned away from me and crossed herself three times.
After a while I stopped to catch my breath: apples were dropping off the trees, and as they fell on the red-tile roof they bounced off, rolled onto the concrete-pavement of the yard, smashed apart and emitted a powerful fragrance. I leaned over, stretched my hand through the iron railing, reached half of an apple, bit into it, and walked on.
I listened to dogs barking in the distance; beyond the hill the first gables of the wooden houses began appearing: my village was beyond the next two hills.
I arrived in the dark early evening; the clouds were black and low: they pressed down on my head.
I climbed up the wooden, freshly scrubbed stairs, walked in slowly, saw my Dad sitting pensively in the light of a bare light bulb by Grandad's bier; the kitchen was the largest room in the house so this is where they laid out my dead grandad.
When he saw me, he rose slowly to his feet and stared, wordless, at my hair. He looked me right in the eyes: he seemed capable of slaughtering me with that look.
A flash of lightning blazed outside, then another, the light bulb faltered for a few moments, flickered and then went out.
Then Dad finally moved in the dark, he pulled a flashlight out of the cupboard, lit me, then my hair, as if he still couldn't believe his eyes, he wagged his head, shook it, actually. He went over again to the cupboard, pulled out the kerosene lamp, lit the wick and cranked it up: the room swayed in the light.
I looked into the open coffin; Grandad was covered over his head with a white homespun sheet, his hands were crossed over his chest under the sheet; as if he was holding them in the hole left by the bullet.
I drew it back from his waxy face for a moment: under his mustache I saw a smile, light, almost unnoticeable, just in the corners of his mouth. I went closer: he looked as if he'd died happy; he was probably sick of life: maybe that's why he'd shot himself; he wasn't ill, as far as I knew, he minded the cattle every day in the woods above the house, twice a day, in the morning and afternoon.
He liked minding the cattle, he'd lie down under a bush, cross his arms under his head, and with a piece of straw in his mouth he'd say: "As long as I don't have to watch that idiot in the house."
I took another look at his mustache and then I covered him up. Because of the whiskers, he and Stalin always reminded me of walruses. Though he had nothing in common with Stalin, nor did he sport his whiskers because of Stalin, it was his mustache, plain and simple. And besides, he hated Russians. This was probably because one of his brothers was killed in the Ustasha units that fought at Stalingrad.
Grandad, too, had been an Ustasha; they all wanted to be Ustashas in the village, except one who suddenly decided to go off into the woods to join the Partisans: this was such a disgrace that his Dad hanged himself that same day in the hayloft. Grandad claimed he never killed anybody during the war: I believed him. But one of Grandad's brothers, the youngest, killed everybody he could: men, women, old people, children.
He especially hated Gypsies: he would usually mount them, horse-like, grab them by the hair, kick them in the sides as if spurring them to gallop at a hill: when he'd ridden them to a bottomless pit, he'd push them in.
x x x
"You take after my youngest brother," Grandad once said, looking thoughtfully at my hair. "When I look at you it's as if I see him standing there. Yours is just like the mane of hair he had."
"But, Grandad," I said and stopped playing, "he murdered people..."
Grandad shuddered, then looked off somewhere into the distance.
"Not his fault," he muttered. "That was Satan's doing."
x x x
Not long after this I took out the compact mirror from Mum's purse and went into Grandad's room. The door was unlocked; sometimes he locked it. He did not trust banks, so he preferred keeping the money he was paid out for his pension locked in the drawer of his bedside table. I went over to Grandad's bed with the mirror: above it there was a large, wood-framed photograph of five men, waist up: Grandad and his four brothers. All of them were in suits and ties, and they were lined up, crammed together, actually, so that you could only see both of Grandad's shoulders as he was the first one in the row.
I had a look at the last one in the row, hardly bigger than a boy; Grandad's youngest brother.
I stared first into the little mirror and then up at the photograph; at the pale face framed by lush, black hair. Then back at the compact; a ripple of fear shot up my legs.
Grandad's youngest brother and I were as like as two peas in a pod.
x x x
I rested my hand on the edge of Grandad's coffin. Dad came over, shoved my hand roughly from the coffin, looked up and stared again at the hair.
"What did I tell you over the phone?" he asked.
"Where is Mum?" I said, trying to avoid answering.
Dad said: "Didn't I tell you not to come to the funeral looking like that?"
I looked at Grandad, as if momentarily seeking his support.
Dad said: "Good-for-nothing, you failed at the university, you fail in life. Better kill yourself."
Again I said nothing.
"Freak," he said. "People mock me because of your hair. I can't go to the tavern because of your hair. I can't live because of your hair. And you have no respect for the dead, coming like this to the funeral."
"Grandad loved me," I snarled. "He hated you."
Dad's eyes bugged out sharply.
"And I hate you!" he shouted.
Then he punched me in the head.
The blow was unexpected; it seemed to come from a great distance. I snapped back, straightened up, watched him in surprise.
He used to beat me often enough, with an open hand he'd slap me on the head, on the legs, flog me with a cane, with a belt, but never with his fists. Maybe he figured he could have killed me with his fist when I was a child. His fist would be up above me in the air, but he'd slap my head with his open hand: someone watching from the side when he was shutting and opening his hand might have thought that he was trying to impress upon me very important thoughts.
He came a half-step closer and swung again: I ducked and his huge fist swung through the air. Now he lunged forward, as heavy, massive as he was, and his hip jostled the coffin with Grandad who wobbled a little, pressing me into the corner. He grabbed me quickly by the pompadour and a triumphant expression flashed across his face, as if he had finally trapped me.
"Eh, now you will pay for everything in life!" he swung from above at my head: I ducked, he punched me anyway; quickly my hands tightened into fists. Teeth. Eyes. When he swung again I kicked him with all my strength in the balls. He groaned, stepped back, his eyes bugged, and then, mustering all my strength, so much so that the pompadour came completely undone, I punched him right between the eyes. Like a mechanical toy he swayed to the left, to the right, but stayed on his feet.
He stared at me, appalled, even more appalled than when he first set eyes on my pompadour. He clenched his teeth, and countless red veins branched on his neck, bulging to the point of bursting. He said, unusually softly, "Degenerate, you raised a hand against your own father."
Then he went at it again, kicking and punching; we exchanged blows, grappled around the coffin, over the coffin, nearly tipping it over; we looked like drunken boxers.
Then he stopped and shouted: "Now you're done for, I'm going for the ax!"
I popped him once more right on the chin, then kicked him in the legs, he staggered and fell down by the door; when he hit the floor, groping for a handhold, the house shook to its foundations. Outside the rain had just started. He lay there, bloody, moaning aloud. Then I began kicking him with my left foot, my right foot, I stomped on him until he was flat on the floor, I was barely able to make myself stop.
Out into the rain I went, down the road, and started crying wildly. My hair hanging down, my arms hanging down, I walked along the road toward town like a sort of monster.
English translation: Ellen Elias-Bursać
MILJENKO JERGOVIĆ ON BLUE MOON by DAMIR KARAKAŠ (Jutarnji list, 22.12.2014.)
I share nothing with Damir Karakaš. Towards the literary community from which he comes I feel the same as I do about the bau-bau oral culture of West Senegalese natives (I just made this up, so perhaps it's even somewhat closer to me), I'm perfectly indifferent to the cult of the barbarous genius from Lika and Parisian busker, and all that superficial mythomania into which the man fell, probably because he likes it that way. I'm cold towards Karakaš, I've never met him, and something tells me I can't even meet him, because it's an illusion that we're contemporaries and that we walk the same streets. He belongs to Croatian literature and culture, and I'm here more by accident. True, it's been going on for twenty or so years, but not all cases are brief and succinct like in Kharms' stories. There are epic, multi-decade coincidences. I don't, therefore, have any personal reason to write this text.
But yes, I do read Karakaš' books. You know, I read all sorts of things. True, lately those all sorts end up being the first couple of pages. I dedicate at least five minutes a day to modern Croatian literature. This, on the other hand, means I’ve read it all, and several times at that. „Blue Moon“ very carefully, from the first word to the last. With pleasure, and after the first two thirds of that very short book, also with respect for the author.
The second part of the great and true theme of the long novella or very short novel „Blue Moon“ is even more sensitive and dangerous. The Ustasha Satan, appearing over the pits on a white horse – as it happens in Balkan myths, when the savior, hero, Marshal or Poglavnik rides in on a white horse – returns in 1991 in the form of a kindly old man in a sputtering little car. The story about the vanishing and transformation of Zagreb's Serbs – which the bastards would never dare mention, not even if „Blue Moon“ were given every Croatian literary prize there is – Karakaš has told with extraordinary care, poignantly and with a sense of responsibility.
The responsibility of the Writer before a story that has to be told, although its telling costs one dearly.
Something obscure is happening to Karakaš, although equally repressive in spirit and expression: his book is talked about, but in a way that keeps its topic secret. As if they published „The Gulag Archipelago“ in Brezhnev's Soviet Union and wrote that the book was about the Beach Boys and riding the surf.
In one of his recent interviews, Damir Karakaš said he felt he was a better writer than his books. That's about what he said, and his interviewers, nor the lovers of exotic Lika and Parisian busking, the people who didn't read him seriously, never understood what he was really talking about. He wrote a novel that will bring him nothing good. If they don't read it, it'll be as if he never wrote it. If they do read it, his life will become more difficult, there'll be more of those with the need to insult him, attack him, turn him into an insect, and in his literary community of Croatian bau-bau witch doctors, there will be less and less of those who adore him. Either way, he's in for loneliness. And what would a true writer – better than any of his books, which is why he's writing the next one, the best of the lot – possibly be if not lonely, in a country where it's a disgrace to be Serbian and gay, but an even greater disgrace to know the blood of one's great grandfathers on your own hands.
Damir Karakaš: It’s me
Philip was standing by the window in white long johns. From time to time he sighed through his nose, blew on the glass to melt a misty layer off the window, and then looked through that little hole, as if through someone else’s eyes, at the row of tall willow trees covered with so much snow that their limbs sagged under the weight. What Philip liked, almost obsessively, was the moment — he once called it the moment of true feeling — when the willows, with almost stylized movements, cast off that weight, shaking off the snow, and the branches slowly sprang back up, releasing themselves, as if growing again.
As he watched that scene of liberation, everything seemed to Philip to separate from what it had just been connected to.
* * *
“Please, honey, fix that cotton on the Christmas tree,” Philip’s wife said in a tender voice. “You might pay a little more attention.”
Philip turned around slowly; she was mixing dough, rolling it out, sprinkling flour onto it. Her arms were covered in flour up to her elbows.
Philip went slowly up to the Christmas tree in the corner of the room, where the afternoon shadows were thickening: he looked at it. Then he spread out the fluffed cotton on its edges, which was supposed to imitate snow.
Philip’s wife stopped kneading the dough for a moment, looked straight at the tree, tilted her head, and then moved back, trying to find the right angle.
“Good, now it’s much better,” she said.
Shortly afterward she stopped what she was doing again.
“Did I hear something?” she asked.
Then she said: “Please, go take a look.”
Philip got up and went to the little room whose door was painted blue, with little golden stars scattered over it: inside, two children were sleeping next to one another. They had pacifiers in their mouths and their little noses twitched like rabbits’ snouts. Philip covered them a little better with the blanket, went up to the window of the room, and continued looking into the white, at the cars that passed at regular intervals.
A truck came down the street with its turn signal on, as if it were winking. Philip thought that someone was mocking him. He returned to the living room, went up to the window again, and stared, motionless, at the willows.
The two of them had come here to Canada, to this city that some still call “the Chicago of the north,” when the war had started in their country. His wife’s older sister had already been living here. They’d been here for a long time, now, snow and icebound.
His wife had been trained as an elementary school teacher. Now she worked as a cleaning lady in the neighboring houses. He had an electrical engineering degree but worked in a bus factory, screwing in screws. He focused on the last twist of each screw. His boss, a wire-haired Dane, constantly repeated the same thing: “Concentrate on the last twist! Concentrate on the last twist!”
Philip, not wanting to think about anything, would just nod.
The house that they’d rented with the help of his sister-in-law was a simple, one-story house. His wife dreamed of having her own house or apartment, someday. Philip just nodded. Even before she would finish what she was saying, he nodded.
All he’d cared about was avoiding conscription, but now he regretted it. Leaving. He would have rather been in a war than here.
A child was crying in the little room. His wife said: “Please, Philip, go take a look.”
He went back to the room. The pacifier had fallen out of one child’s mouth, and then its crying had woken up the other child, whose pacifier had been lost as well. He restored the pacifiers to their places and waited a little for the children to fall back asleep.
“You know what occurred to me?” his wife asked when he sauntered back out. He sat down on the couch to leaf through some newspaper advertisements and nodded to signal that he was listening.
“Did you know that the Indians here can get free credit?” she asked, kneading the cakes, putting all of herself into those movements. “And you have that Indian friend.” She stopped, looked at him, and blew a lock of hair from her brow. “Why couldn’t he find one more Indian, so they could affirm that you’re an Indian, too? I asked around — actually my sister asked around. It’s a great idea, isn’t it?”
He looked at her, and then looked away, at some point beyond the wall. His wife spread out the dough as far as the ends of the table, then sprinkled flour on it in wide motions, as if she were sowing a field.
“I know it’s immoral,” she said, “but think of our children a little. We can’t let a chance like that slip by.”
He still didn’t say anything. He was thinking about that Indian, George Welcome; what a strange surname, he’d said to himself when he’d met him. He’d thought that the man was joking about it, at first, but George was always dead serious. He always had his arms folded over his chest. Once Philip had even seen him walking like that.
He lifted his gaze to her and sat up on the couch.
“My sister is coming in half an hour. She’ll explain everything to you. And I forgot to tell you, she and her husband are inviting us to a New Year’s Eve party. That’s nice, right?” she said, removing her apron and throwing it carelessly over the nearest chair.
“It’s at some fancy hotel,” she added.
They heard a car outside. Its muffled sound was drawing nearer. He stood up and slid his feet more firmly into his slippers.
“Please, just go change out of that underwear,” his wife said from the door.
He went to the closet, pulled a pair of jeans over his long johns, sat down in an armchair, and played with the slippers on his feet.
“Philip…?” his wife said. She sat down on the couch and stretched out her legs. “You knowwhat I think? You should start thinking about taking some vacation and going to your brother’s place when the weather gets a little better there, so you can get that house of yours sorted out. Enough time has passed, and we need every dinar we can get. It’s time to divide up the property. And then we’ll figure out about that free credit. I’ll take a look at plane tickets tomorrow.”
When the plane landed, he took a taxi to the bus station.
He bought a ticket for the bus to Brinje. He was lucky; he would catch the only one leaving that day.
The bus was old, with paint peeling off its sides. It was almost empty, but it moved so slowly that it seemed weighted down, or as if it were dragging the road along with it. Philip sat up front near the driver, who wore a cap and drove with one hand while he switched radio stations with the other.
After two hours of driving they arrived at Brinje. There was no one on the main street except a man hauling sacks of cement on a wooden wheelbarrow, weaving back and forth. In the middle of the town, up on a hillock, stood the ruins of a medieval castle. Wooden scaffolding had been erected all around it. It occurred to Philip that he’d never actually seen that castle without the scaffolding.
Philip turned off the main road, onto a side road that went up toward gray, jagged mountains, their peaks piercing the sky. He walked with his rucksack on his back, looking at the straggling villages. He breathed in the air and recognized the smells of his childhood. Around him people were dressed in a mixture of civilian and camouflage clothing. The houses cast elongated shadows across the road.
In the yard of an old farmhouse he saw a Gypsy who’d knocked a sorrel horse down onto its side. The Gypsy was sitting on the horse’s head and smoking nonchalantly. A different, older Gypsy was picking at the hoof of the horse with the tip of a knife blade. Philip could hear female voices inside the farmhouse, and the crying of a small baby. Both men greeted him with a nod. He nodded back. He knew most of the Gypsies here; he’d gone to school with many of them. But he didn’t know these men. They’d probably settled here after the war.
Farther on, the houses near the road disappeared. Philip continued walking, passing reddish-yellow pools, the choruses of frogs resounding in the air. He marched through denser and denser woods, the birds in the trees droning like a well-tuned orchestra.
He used to walk to the cinema through these same woods, in spite of the sinister howling of wolves. Strangely, his father hadn’t forbid him to go to the cinema. It was only drawing that he’d hated. Whenever he’d seen something Philip had drawn, he’d gone wild, tearing it up and thrashing Philip good with a switch.
His father hated sketching and anything that reminded him of it from the depths of his soul. He would say: “You should eradicate bad things from a man while he’s still young.”
Andrija, Philip’s older brother by four years, took this advice to heart. Whenever he caught Philip drawing, he’d tear up his sketch and beat him up. Then he would report it all to their satisfied father. He was his father’s little soldier. Once Philip saw him literally saluting their drunken father as he reported having torn up two of Philip’s sketches. Andrija had slapped him, that time.
Their father approved of all this; their mother didn’t get involved. Andrija had even gone as far, once, as to undress Philip and toss him naked into a bed of nettles. Another time he’d walked on top of him, furious; Philip had begged him to stop, but his brother had just stepped on him harder, and added in a few kicks and punches.
Philip had tried to run into his mother’s arms, once. But when Andrija came over to beat him, his mother said only, “Don’t hit him on the head, just don’t hit him on the head.” Her breath stank of slivovitz. “Whoever deserves a beating should get it,” she would say. She thought he wasn’t sufficiently obedient to his father, who, to her mind, only wanted what was best for him.
With time, Philip stopped drawing. In art class, at school, his hand would tremble so that he couldn’t make a straight line.
After he’d finished eighth grade, Philip’s father called him in for a talk. He told him that he would go to school to be a precision engineer, to be someone who repairs televisions. That was the future. His father said that Andrija would repair cars and Philip would repair televisions. Philip simply shrugged his shoulders.
He ended up studying electrical engineering in Zagreb. He remembered how, on his first day in the big city, he saw a graffito on a wall: they won’t give alex a piano, it said. He averted his gaze quickly. He felt pressure in his chest for two days afterward.
Later he met his wife, and had children. Sketching and the desire to sketch had long since left him.
He arrived in the village after nightfall. Ten or so old houses, nestled in a valley between two mountains. Someone’s dog started barking, followed by all the others, as Philip approached. He stopped in the middle of the village, beside a wild apple tree with forking branches. Lights were on in a few of the houses, but it was dark in his family’s home. After a while the dogs stopped barking, as if they had finally realized he belonged there. He adjusted his rucksack and followed the winding trail down to the house.
There were junked cars scattered around the property. Awhite car was parked by the front door. Philip took off his rucksack, stood for a while motionless in front of the door, and then finally knocked.
No one answered. He knocked again.
* * *
They sat in the kitchen, in a thin mesh of light. On a glowing burner on the stove hissed a battered tin pot, something inside of it simmering. There wasn’t anything on the walls except a Catholic calendar, smeared with traces of dead houseflies. Andrija was telling Philip that his wife had left a month before. She had taken their two children and gone to her parents.
“Bitch,” he said.
He repeated his sentences when he spoke, as if stressing their importance. The older he got, the more he reminded Philip of their father. Philip mainly listened, glancing around and nodding. Andrija crushed out a cigarette in the ashtray, then got up and went to stoke the stove. He dragged a low table with squat legs along with him, the same table their mother had sat on when she milked the cows. Now Andrija sat down on it, opened the metal door beneath the burners, and pushed in one more piece of wood. Some red-hot coals fell out, but he knocked them back in with his hand.
“Tomorrow there’ll be vegetables and meat on the stove, so help yourself,” he said. “I’ll be gone all day. I have to go repair a truck.”
“Bitch!” he hissed once more over the pot. Then he came back to the table, sat down, and passed his palm over the plastic tablecloth. He looked at Philip.
“The old man really loved you,” he said, turning his eyes back to the stove and gazing at it for a long time. “He admitted that to me before he died. He said that he was afraid more than anything of you becoming an artist, and then turning into a faggot, like our uncle. He was really afraid of that. You can imagine how he felt when it came out that our uncle had been living with some other faggot in Belgium,” he said, turning toward the wall. “What a shame that was for our family!”
Philip said nothing. He could barely remember Uncle Mile. All that came to mind were black-and-white photographs in which their father and uncle were mowing hay and smiling at one another tenderly. He knew that his uncle had studied to be a stonecutter: he’d made portraits, and various ornaments on gravestones. Later he’d gone abroad and never come back. Only rarely did they mention him at home, even when word came that he’d died of a stroke. He was buried somewhere in Belgium.
“And then, when you went to Canada,” Andrija was saying, “Papa always boasted: ‘I made a man of him! I made a man of him!’ And he did, when you think about it.” He got up and leaned with his palms on the table. “If there had only been someone to beat me like that, who knows what I could have been,” he said, and looked away, lost in thought.
Then, little by little, Andrija began to talk about the war, in which he’d taken part from beginning to end. He said that he expected the police to burst in and take him away at any moment, because someone in the village had accused him of having thrown two old women into a well during the fighting in one of the neighboring Serbian villages.
“That tells you what kind of people live in this wretched village of ours,” he said. “They live just to make your life hell…”
He fell silent, and started toward the stove. He grabbed the pot by its handles and moved it to the edge of the burner.
“And how long are you thinking of staying?” he asked, moving the pot a little more. “Did you have some reason, or did you come just because?”
Philip started to say something but stopped. He didn’t want to start talking about selling the house — at least not yet.
“I’ll be here for a while,” he said.
Andrija looked at him curiously, then glanced at the clock and gave an audible yawn.
“Let’s go to bed,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow. I’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow, and you must be very tired.”
Philip got up, and Andrija patted him softly on the shoulder. “You know what?” he said. “I’m very proud of you.” He began slowly twisting the various buttons on Philip’s shirt. “You live in the West, you’ve had success. Papa would be very proud of you if he were alive. Papa would be very proud. Now be good and go to sleep. You’ve had a long trip, you must be very tired.” Andrija paused. “If you happen to hear someone walking around up in the attic, don’t be afraid, that’s our old man stopping by. You know how he always liked rummaging around in the attic. I went to the priest, and he said it’s normal, that it will stop with time, and there’s no reason to be afraid. And besides, Papa always leaves peacefully.” He ran his hand across Philip’s back. “Good night,” he said. “Tomorrow or someday soon we’ll go to the cemetery.”
Philip nodded and walked up the stairs.
He dropped his things in the little room that their deceased grandma had used. After she died, Philip had begun to sleep there. Before that he’d slept with Andrija on the couch in the kitchen, where Andrija still slept now.
Philip turned on the light. He put his rucksack into the dry, brittle closet, pressing down on it with his knee so that he could close the door. Then he opened the cobweb-covered window to ventilate the room a little. He sat down on the edge of the bed and lifted his head. His gaze passed slowly around the room. Everything was as it had been before. Sagging walls of indeterminate color, a woodstove, a tattered blanket on the bed, across which Philip ran his fingers nostalgically. He turned out the light, listened for a bit, and then slipped under the warm blanket, feeling the familiar indentation in the mattress, which had a bad spring.
In his dream Andrija told him to go to the cemetery. Philip got his shotgun and put in two shells for bears: one red and the other blue. He slung the gun over one shoulder and hoisted a pickax over the other. When he reached the cemetery he walked up to a fresh mound of earth, set the shotgun down, and started digging a grave with the pickax. After a while he struck something hard. A coffin. He deftly opened up the lid with the tip of the pickax.
His father was lying inside, wearing a white shirt with a starched collar that didn’t suit him at all. He was smoking a cigarette and smiling.
How are you? his father asked.
Good, said Philip. And you?
A coffin is the best bed. Never makes you sore, Philip’s father answered cheerfully.
Why did you beat me? Philip asked him quietly.
Because you turned out better than me, his father said, and laughed.
Philip’s eyes rolled back in their sockets. Eyeless, he took the shotgun and pulled the triggers, firing both barrels at his father at the same time.
A light flashed.
Philip awoke, bathed in glistening sweat. He got up and sat on the chair for a while, with his head in his hands. Afterward he fell back asleep, and didn’t wake until noon.
Later he slowly went down to the kitchen. Andrija wasn’t there. Philip strolled around the house for a bit, and then went back into the kitchen.
He sat at the table and looked out the low window. He had no desire to take a walk through the village and talk with the neighbors. He had no desire to talk to Andrija. He had no appetite, and no desire to go to the cemetery. He didn’t feel like doing anything.
He sat the whole afternoon by the table, leaning on the plastic tablecloth with his elbow. Now and then his elbow slipped, and once he almost banged his head on the table. At one point he thought it might be best to kill himself; nothing made any sense anymore.
A phrase repeated itself in his head: Merciful bullet.
He left the table and pulled open a drawer mechanically. Inside was a screwdriver, cellophane tape, stress tablets. His gaze stopped on a stonecutter’s pencil.
He looked for a long time at that pencil and its dull point. Then he took it in his hand, went to the dresser, and pulled out some brown, oily packing paper. He tore off a rectangular piece and went back to the table. He began turning the pencil in his hand, lost in thought.
He stood up, grabbed the paper, and went up to his room. Darkness fell. He turned on the light. He sat on the edge of the bed and looked through the window. Then he went into the hall, carefully lifting his feet from the floor as if he were walking on the rungs of a ladder, and grabbed a board from the attic. He brought it back to his bedroom and put it on his knees. His pulse quickened, and he felt the paper trembling.
He began to draw.
The moon hung outside the window like a giant white animal. The tip of the stonecutter’s pencil stubbornly followed its long shadow. Philip’s eyes gleamed as he drew, as though they were emitting moonlight themselves. He drew the Gypsy who’d been sitting on the horse’s head, and the other Gypsy who picked at the horse’s hoof. After he added the last few lines, he decided that he was never going back to Canada, not alive nor dead.
He went down to the kitchen and found some tape. Then he went back upstairs and taped the sketch onto the wall above his head.
In the morning Philip heard the noise of a car outside. Someone was revving the engine. He looked through the window.
Andrija was standing next to a yellow car and