QUIETER THAN WATER (fragment from the novel)


* * *

Digging into the memory is like any other digging – tedious and wreathed with a whitish halo of crystallised sweat. And if memory consists of scattering sand, as is the case with mine, then digging turns into a frustrating torture. How else to describe the discomfort and horror of the fact that even after two hours I was unable to remember Duško’s surname? And that very Duško and I dug trenches together! We lodged in the same shack or under the open sky, scooped tasteless portions with the same ladle, washed our faces with rainwater from the same bucket. The early evening when we met, mortars shelled us, while roar and panic filled our bones and ears quickly and imperceptibly, like earwigs disappearing into crevices of walls. Perhaps the circumstances of our meeting one another awoke a germ of my forgetfulness? Or are the main culprits the pills I have been frenetically stuffed with? I’m not sure. And actually, it’s not so important. Just as the surname does not matter. Neither Duško’s, nor anyone’s. A last name, whether inherited from the father or the mother, is still just a collection of letters necessary to bureaucracy, but also easily replaceable. It should have never been and must never have become a requirement for belonging, for inclusion here or there, and even less the reason that someone is loved or hated or put on the hit list. A surname does not say whether someone is a good or bad man, whether you are an engineer or a miner, whether you like basketball or soccer, whether you are perhaps a philatelist or a passionate lover of black wave movies. So Duško’s surname doesn’t really matter. It’s not necessary to confirm what I already know: that he was a good and smart guy, a great talker, a prankster, a lover of science fiction and Pink Floyd. In addition, very quickly another of his characteristics became apparent: he infinitely stood out from nature and one could see he did not belong there and that, as a warrior tool, he was as useless as a fang on a musk deer. On one occasion (which I happen to remember very well), he came in an improvised office in which I, completely isolated, drew the latest military positions on a map. In his hand he held a small battery powered radio that his girlfriend Mirjana sent him via a certain reservist. He was silent. He asked for a cigarette and played the tape. We heard the opening measure of the song „Us and Them“, led by the dominant saxophone:

… Us and Them
And after all we’re only ordinary men
Me and you
God only knows it’s not what we would choose to do
Forward he cried from the rear
And the front rank died
And the General sat, as the lines on the map
Moved from side to side … ¹

We looked silently at the floor until the end of the song. Then he told me he was a child born to a Serbian father and a Croat mother, that his parents were divorced and they were fighting so hard for custody of him. Laughing, he said that he was with us, on this side of the trenches, because of the court sentences. If by any chance the judge awarded custody to his mother, we would probably have each other over the barrel.

We talked about how exactly such decisions govern our lives. Decisions of judges, members of Parliament, a president, a military commander… Decisions that largely do not depend on us, decisions made by people of flesh and blood, people like us, people prone to errors. Of course, the problem is not in making mistakes, because they always occur and will be occurring as long as there are people. The problem is when mistakes cease to be isolated cases and when they multiply and become part of our reality so they turn into a pattern we live and work by. With a small mistake one can live: floppy ears, a chipped brick in the wall of the house, a mistakenly printed word in a book. But big mistakes that can so often happen here, they bring discomfort, irreparable harm and horror. Moreover, the local people have proven spiteful, and they almost never admit their mistakes. Not even small ones, and especially not big mistakes.
– Acknowledge the mistake, repent and ask for forgiveness, it is an undisputed Balkan taboo! – I said then.
– Our blindness, our biggest defeat and our quicksand – Duško added.
While we talked about it, I recalled Kharms and Druskin, their philosophy of „a certain balance with a small mistake“ and never invented „mode for troubleshooting.“ And just when I started telling Duško something about this, captain Petrić entered the room. We stopped talking about people, mistakes and questionable decisions. We stopped talking. And the music had stopped. And again we just heard gunning and the captain, annoyingly tapping his boot. The balance disrupted by a big mistake. Kharms was right – there is no equilibrium.

***

FREEDOM

Danilo: All our wars, at least so say textbooks, were liberating. So where is liberty then?
Kharms: Liberty? From whom? From what?
Danilo: From everything.
Kharms: The state in which you are currently, leads you near to absolute freedom. To be cut off from the madness of reality, to ridicule it, to exist beyond the beaten path of known and recognised reality – that is liberty.
Danilo: But if that is so, then why don’t I feel free, Daniil Ivanovich?
Kharms: Because you are a prisoner of your own mind, poisoned mythological past, prejudices and fatalism, construction and ideals embedded in you some time in the past.
Danilo: I was contaminated a long time ago?
Kharms: Yes, you are infected, just like everyone who fought for such liberty. You’re sick of the subsequent disappointment, of unwanted hangovers that always come with the realisation of the superfluity of such wars.
Danilo: Is there a solution? How to fight it?
Kharms: The solution is in faith, because without faith there is no hope. And the way? The struggle for liberation is led in our minds, not on the battlefield. If people fought for a bit of a visionary imagination within themselves, we would never have to resort to arms.

(No more)

– We have nothing more to talk with them about. Simply, they do not care. What am I to do, Nata? – asked doctor Borković while observing how the coffee foam lazily moves to the cup’s brim.
– You really care about that, Danilo? Why? – Natalija retorted with a question, looking at him suspiciously.
– I don’t know. Honestly. Something happened… I am disgusted with this enormous arrogance, this obsession with themselves, which hopelessly intoxicated them –
– Oh, if you only had got sober earlier, we wouldn’t have drunk coffee in a cafe of some sort, but at our home – she concluded in a somewhat plaintive tone.
– I know … Forget it; anyway it’s too late to ask for forgiveness from you… But I want a friendly piece of advice. I hope I can still count on it –
She observed as a miniature spoon quivered between his thumb and forefinger. And she once, in anticipation of encroaching a tidal wave of passion, so quivered when he touched her. But tides do not last forever. And when the tide comes, she sees all the imperfections and sharp rocks on which we walk through life and love. The very rocks that relentlessly tear our skin and convert each new step in painful agony, in deep permanent scars that stay as reminders and warnings. The ebb has long been between the two of them; she remained on the coast, while the current pulled him away to the sea, until he became an unrecognisable stain on their once shared horizon. Is it possible? Can this point again take human form? The transformation from man to stain is well-known and is paved with innumerable destinies and examples of those who have fallen and fallen in order to reach new heights. But, is it possible to reach the basics again, almost forgotten virtues of humanity? It seemed to her that it is possible and right now while looking at her ex-husband’s worried face, she witnessed a miracle of a kind. Because every birth is a miracle, even this one, the rebirth of man. True, it is not the man she once loved, maybe he will never be like that, but he will still be human. Humane …
– I think you should help him. In any way. Pay no attention to what they will say those nits from the hospital. And be sure they will do everything they can to make your life bitter.
– I know … I’ll do everything I can. And I think it should be that way. Thank you for talking to me and for the warning. It was nice to see you …
– Well, you’ll have us cry – said Natalija and grinning she added – go now and do something useful for a change!

There are no photos of our wedding. At that time, just war reporters had a job. One could even say that, in a way, many of them profited from the chaos, suffering and horror, just like some other war profiteers. Honored be exceptions. But who am I to point the finger at anyone, to criticise anything? And who cares, anyway? Who cares if I keep memories of my own wedding in my mind and not in the photo album? Who cares about such trivial things, irrelevant to people like Danilo and me? For the country and the world around us we are nothing else than the statistical determinants of the census, air through which, with a terrifying wiz, some future historians will throw their spears at one another, just a line in the database of the tax administration or eventually, when the right time comes (which happens often) we will become expendable and cheap cannon fodder. Then why should I worry about such a world around us? Why be considerate, why submit to the norms and the rule of the majority? After all, isn’t it hypocritical to ask me to act as a responsible citizen, here, where nobody sees me as a citizen and where nobody is responsible for anything?

Nothing has changed. And more and more, I’m convinced that nothing ever changes. And now, as then, there are two parallel realities confined to the same area – there are them and there are us. The two of us. Only we matter. So it was the day we got married. As if there wasn’t a shortage of everything, misery, despair, gloomy news and even darker forebodings of the future. Ah, the future … With it, all started. In 1993 Danilo, who knows how, got hold of the album “The Future“ by Leonard Cohen. We listened to it often, along with a bunch of inevitable grunge bands. It was a sort of counterweight to the then current music fashion. I remember how we flipped dictionaries trying to decipher the lyrics of „The Future“ and the powerful „Democracy“, and how we laughed pretending to dance a mediaeval dance along the funny „Closing Time“. But when the elegiac „Waiting for the Miracle“ played, everything would go quiet. For less than eight minutes, we didn’t merely listen to the lyrics and music. It seemed to me that we had a tacit agreement that in those minutes we keep our ears pricked and listen if there are hints of a miracle able to dispel that madness, sharply, as quick waking up makes a nightmare headless.

… Ah baby, let’s get married,
we’ve been alone too long.
Let’s be alone together.
Let’s see if we’re that strong.
Yeah let’s do something crazy,
something absolutely wrong.
While we’re waiting
for the miracle, for the miracle to come …²

The expected miracle never arrived, but something equally important happened. It is important for us and our microcosm. After these lyrics, in a slow and seemingly already seen and lived afternoon, Danilo proposed to me. And the future had begun. Our future, for which we naively believed a tornado of history raging around us, would leave outside its wildly destructive dance. Our future, which is now particularly unpredictable and uncertain. But despite this, I know that this is for me the only possible future. I do not need photographs. All I need to know and need to remember I have within myself. Photos are just excess baggage, the legacy of what was once. And I have to take care of what will be.
For his sake. For our sake.

There was no indication that day would be different from the previous one. And the one before it. And the one before … Contours at gunpoint, the zing of an occasional grenade to wish us good morning, cursing and drinking, playing cards and telling dirty nationalist jokes, and for lunch tasteless and watery beans with the smell of burning. Captain Petrić went to the main member of a signal-corps unit, and Duško used his absence to fire more bursts from his musical arsenal.

… What the hell we fighting for?
Just surrender and it will not hurt at all
You just got time to say your prayers
While you’re waiting for the hammer to hammer to fall … ³

Lucky for us the captain did not understand a single word of it. Because of this „surrender“ Freddie mentions, we both could end up in a military court. Thus, he just looked at us and yelled:
– What is this howling shit, you disbanded punks?

Unusually well I remember the itching I felt upon my tongue at that moment. I had an irresistible, hard restraining desire to tell him who Farrokh Bulsara was, alias Freddie Mercury. To tell him briefly about Bohemian Rhapsody, of the vocal range of four octaves, about AIDS. About that how the “Howler“ was born in the faraway Zanzibar, about how he became part of Tanzania, Zanzibar, about the Swahili who live there, native tribes’ rebellion, similar to the Hutus and the Tutsis who exterminated one another for years in Rwanda. But in the end I won the itching and satisfied with the imaginary picture: the extremely dull expression on the captain’s face caused by a mixture of confusion and amount of data and suspicion because of the word Faruk and Tanzania (in his interpretation – Tarzan-land), tribe and extermination.
– What are you laughing at, monkeys? Turn that shit off and come here! We have a job to do… Tonight we are having an offensive! – he screamed with his distorted face and brandishing arms as if he was driving cattle.

– Ms. Mišić?
– Yes.
– Doctor Borković here. I am calling you in connection with Danilo. I think we need to meet.
– When can I get to the hospital?
– No, not at hospital. It is better to meet somewhere we will not be interrupted. The cafeteria in the hotel lobby. At quarter past five. OK?
– Okay … Although I do not understand why there and not in …
– Believe me, this is better. We’ll be able to talk in peace and make a deal.
– How much money should I take?
– What?
– How much money is needed to make a deal?
– No, ma’am. You don’t even need to bring money for coffee. It’s my treat. Then, I’ll see you there?
– I’ll be there. Are you sure you do not need …
– I’m sure. I have to go, people are waiting for me … At the hotel, quarter past five!

***

IN CASE OF WAR

Danilo: They taught us once in school, how to behave in the event of war.
Kharms: And? Did you learn anything?
Danilo: I did not. I plodded through lessons, skipped classes … I found it completely unnecessary and stupid.
Kharms: Well, it is our misfortune! And your example confirms how stupidity is underestimated! Stupidity should be studied, taken as a very serious phenomenon. Because, our stupidity always gets back at us. We should not fear good people and smart invention.
Danilo: I thought we should not fear the war. That’s why I did not pay attention at lessons, that’s why I didn’t listen to my grandfather when he talked to me about how to behave in the event of war. That was stupid on my part, I admit. However, I think that no story and no lessons could prepare us for what happened.
Kharms: Sometimes, unfortunately, knowledge doesn’t help, not even a prophecy. I believe that in 1937 I wrote: If the state is similar to the human organism, then in case of war I would be happy if I lived in the heel.
Danilo: You want to say, Daniil Ivanovich, that one’s fate cannot be escaped?
Kharms: No, not at all! And if there is fate, I’m quite convinced that we can turn the tables on it. Since stupidity is impossible to turn away. It is everywhere around us, within us and it (haven’t I already told you?) always attempts at us …

( No more )
* Translated by Petar Penda

¹ Pink Floyd, “Us and Them”, album: “Dark Side of the Moon”

² Leonard Cohen, “Waiting for the Miracle”, album: “The Future”

³ Queen, “Hammer to Fall”, album: “The Works”

** Published in: Heart of a Bird And Heart of a Man – A Selection of Contemporary Literature from the Republic of Srpska (Supported by the Ministry of Education and Culture of the Republic of Srpska for the Thessaloniki Book Fair 2014), Narodna i univerzitetska biblioteka Republike Srpske, Banjaluka, 2014. (pages 13-20).

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