Since you intend to kill yourself anyway, why don’t you fit your death into our plans? We need heroes, and it’s all the same to you, he thought about a character from the novel as he rocked to and fro in the packed streetcar.
“Slow down, why don’t you. We’ll all be killed!” yelled a fat woman with a bun on her head, and Matija’s ears rang painfully from her piercing, shrill voice.
One of his reasons for being an avid reader was to detach himself from his vacuous clerical job. So he also read on the way to the office, fifteen stops from the building where he lived. He was standing in the stuffy streetcar once more, hemmed in by puffy-faced people and trying to focus on the print of his paperback. And then, as if he suddenly remembered something, he looked out the window. There’s the “Three Brothers” bakery, so it’s the fourteenth stop, he realized, and then he noticed a familiar female figure among the passengers. Maybe I should try to write some short stories, he mused and made his way to the door, which opened with a hiss. Big, melancholic eyes watched him as he descended the metal steps. Once I used to drown in those eyes, he thought and nearly stumbled. Yes, I’ll try, he resolved, and turned to look back into those black vortexes, as if to thank them for their silent encouragement. Their owner stared at him, holding on to the bar in front of her with both hands, as the streetcar moved away from the fifteenth stop.
The day he decided to write, he collected his pay and went to the front of the main railroad station, where there was a flourishing trade in dollars and deutschmarks. Every month he got less and less hard currency, although the pile of freshly printed dinar banknotes he took there was ever thicker. “I’ll have to make it from the bank to the station faster,” he told himself, trying to laugh at the absurdity of 1990s Belgrade reality.
“Here you are, pal, I’ll have marks,” he said in a voice that sounded unlike his own. The stubble-faced guy with a leather jacket and bulging pockets was to be found at the same spot every month.
“Hey bud, I’m out of marks. But you can try Vaso over there—the short fella in the red jumper. Hurry, before he runs out too. There’s a real damn throng this morning.”
A harsh wind blew as he walked toward Vaso, who was busy thumbing through wads of money. He remembered that this guy had once tried to convince him that the war, which he had scraped through alive, would spread here as well. Vaso now lifted his head and said in the chummy tone of a country bumpkin:
“They’ve cooked up a real mess. If you’ve got kids, make for the hills!”
Matija replied with a tired smile, clenched the little hard currency he’d been given, and hurried home. When the full streetcar lazily moved off, a commotion began among the passengers.
“A fire! Look, a house is on fire,” he heard an anxious voice, and there came the siren of a fire engine.
“Serves them right, the bloody Albanians!” a square-headed fellow in the streetcar declared. It sounded like a slogan at a rally. Matija would have liked to stand up to him, and his heart was racing with anxiety, but he restrained himself.
At the fourteenth stop he saw a column of black smoke billowing up through the windows of the “Three Brothers” bakery.
“Serves them right, the bloody Albanians!” a square-headed fellow in the streetcar declared. It sounded like a slogan at a rally. Matija would have liked to stand up to him, and his heart was racing with anxiety, but he restrained himself. No, I can’t. Everyone thinks that way—they’ll flatten me, and then Ana will be sad, he concluded and bent over to look at the house in flames once more. A man emerged, carrying something on his shoulders, but then the scene was gone, concealed by the other buildings.
“Darling, what’s wrong?” Ana noticed her husband’s unease as soon as he came into the apartment.
“If only I could take you far away to a desert island so we didn’t have to see all this.”
By the time he committed his first lines of writing to paper it was winter. Blackouts were frequent, so he would work by candlelight in the cold room, wrapped in a blanket. One night he was woken by voices out in the corridor. He got out of bed, went to the door, and looked through the peephole.
“What did you see?” Ana whispered.
“Military police have taken away the neighbor’s son.”
“I’ve got goose bumps all over. I don’t know what I’d do if they took you away.”
“You know they won’t. I’m too old.”
“I don’t know . . . this is a lawless time.”
“Calm down. Let’s take it easy for a bit.”
Two years passed, and Matija was still at it, leaning over the old typewriter and thinking: Men are away dying in vain for imperial borders, while I sit at home writing irrelevant tripe—stories about stale emotions. What a sham. He asked himself if his writing was of any worth at all, but he remained persistent, and with every rereading he discovered some shortcoming or stylistic flaw to be ironed out. And what am I going to do with this? he wondered, reaching for a draft scene he hadn’t yet used:
Reverend Niko arrived late for the funeral. He had fallen asleep after a good lunch, and now he had to hurry. This wasn’t the first time, because he had an aversion to boring pastoral duties. Long, draining services were unbearable for his restless spirit, and he cut them short whenever he could. The Sisters of Saint Matthew didn’t blame him. On the contrary, they liked him for his minor derelictions of religious duty because he more than compensated for these shortcomings with his sincere humanity. “Old Danica isn’t going to run away—she’s lying there and waiting. Besides, no one ever went unburied in my parish, and that shows a degree of order and devotion,” Reverend Niko practiced his irony in the muggy heat as he went in through the gate of the Grabovo churchyard, puffed and sweaty. The bell tower and the cypresses rose toward the sky. And just as the small procession set off along the path between the graves, faster than usual at funerals, a summer shower broke loose. It was so heavy that the roar drowned out the ringing of the bells. When they came up to the open grave, Reverend Niko saw that the bottom was filled with water. Several women were gathered around the grave, cowering beneath old umbrellas and looking expectantly at him, their shepherd. He spoke the last prayer for the deceased and sprinkled the coffin with holy water, but the sacred droplets were lost in the cascading rain. Of those present, only Sister Silvana was crying; she wept as if she had lost the dearest person to her in the world, but it was a fact that old Danica hadn’t strayed near the church very often, so Silvana couldn’t have known her well. But she knew how to cry and her eyes were big and ever moist, so Reverend Niko had asked that she attend all the inhumations of his flock.
“I’ve heard that she left behind a little chest of gold,” an elderly woman with a round head said in a secretive voice, leaning close to another, who was thin, with angular features and a large, aquiline nose. “And her clothes are embroidered with silver.”
“They say she never bathed,” the thin woman squeaked.
“Well, she’s having a good shower in this cloudburst,” said a third woman, short and goggle-eyed, as she joined in the gossip about the dead woman.
“When they put her in, will she sink or float?” the thin woman wondered as the gravediggers raised the coffin.
“If she floats, that will be a sign that the earth doesn’t want her because she’s a witch,” the short woman sermonized.
“Shame on you, tongue-waggers, for not letting a poor woman rest in peace. She never did you any harm,” a pale, elegant lady burst out angrily, who until then had stood silently with her head bowed.
Just at that moment, one of the gravediggers slipped, his hands loosened on the rope, and the coffin fell crookedly into the grave. Splashed with muddy water, the women shrieked as if they had been touched by the devil himself . . .
“Hmm, a fragment of an unwritten story . . . Ironic, with atmosphere and a good setting . . . I guess I’ll keep it, and I’ll see.”
Finally, one summer afternoon, Matija got up from his desk and exclaimed victoriously, brandishing the manuscript:
“Ana, I’ve finished!”
“I don’t believe it.”
“That’s it, my love, I’ve typed the final keystroke and don’t plan to add or delete a single letter. Let’s go out—this needs celebrating.”
And now all this carnage . . . all this pathos isn’t good for literature. It turns out insipid. What will those victims mean in two or three centuries?
They walked for a while through the half-empty streets and couldn’t decide where to stop in. She said she’d like to have a drink somewhere, and he remembered a restaurant famous for being a haunt of bohemians and artists. They located a table for themselves there, and as they were going up to it an elderly man spoke to them. He had gray, untidy hair and a high brow. He looked at Matija with bleary eyes and raised his glass:
“Welcome, Mr. Writer. I can tell you’re one by your nose. Am I right, lady?” he said, turning to Ana and breathing in her face. “Ah, bingo, right again. Just make yourselves comfortable. . . . I used to scribble around a bit too, you know, but I didn’t get very far. The characters just wouldn’t come alive. They were dead, paper people. It just didn’t work. But it doesn’t matter in the end because everything turns out the same. And now all this carnage . . . all this pathos isn’t good for literature. It turns out insipid. What will those victims mean in two or three centuries? Rains wash the blood into the river of oblivion, only one or two names are passed on. Maybe in the future anthropologists will dig up my skull and it will become an artifact, if I don’t decide to have myself cremated instead,” he blathered. He laughed and coughed loudly, then nodded in the direction of a white-bearded man who had just come in. “Here is His Highness, always at the same time. I’m sure you’ve heard of our great poet and dissident. Some say—,” he continued sotto voce, moving close to Matija, “that he isn’t a dissident at all, but a spying Deep Throat. But both words begin with d, I grant you that. Just look at the elegant movements of his hands and how he removes his white gloves.”
As Ana and Matija were listening to the gray fellow, the air-raid alarm sounded and they cast uneasy glances at each other.
“No, that’s not it yet, they’re just rehearsing. Go ahead and enjoy the wine as long as there is any. . . . If things start we’ll have to be ready for a scrap with the whole world—and, God willing, we’ll come out on top!” and he laughed and coughed again.
That night, Matija tossed and turned, trying to dispel his dark thoughts and get to sleep. I’ll have to go in search of food again tomorrow. I’d really like some meat again. It’s been ages since we had that piece of old cow that the farmer took apart down at the front entrance, he thought, recalling the repulsive sight. Then he was beset by doubts as to whether he had really completed his stories. The composition bothers me here and there, the narrative is too linear, and there are probably still redundancies, he thought. Should I tweak things a bit more or ask someone’s opinion? I know in advance what Ana would say. Love makes you blind. . . . Hey, what about M. R.? He wouldn’t refuse me the favor. Why didn’t I think of him before? He’d give me some good, honest feedback. Yes, I’ll give him the stories to read, but I mustn’t say a word to Ana or else she’ll lose her temper. I can hear her reproaching me already: “Why are you so unsure of yourself? Didn’t you promise me you wouldn’t add one letter more?” I’ll call him from the office.
They had got to know each other studying literature together. Matija still remembered some of the debates initiated by Professor Petrović at his lectures. Both of them were lively participants, and afterward they continued to polemicize on various issues for years. M. R. had a broad, direct approach and always showed an interest in others. He was ever crew cut and clean-shaven, with sunken eyes and a withering gaze. Now they met in the same restaurant where Matija and Ana had celebrated the final keystroke.
“I’ve written some short stories. Here, I’d like you to read them and tell me what you think,” he said to his friend.
“Hmm, you’re writing. Good on you!” M. R. replied, surprised. “You didn’t tell me at all.”
“A recent development. I plucked up the courage.”
His friend looked at him with a smile and began to leaf through the manuscript, and Matija waited with bated breath to hear his first impression.
“Rains,” he pronounced the title with an air of importance and mystery. “I think that kind of natural symbolism might be rather obsolete. You know what happens with frequently used metaphors: they get hackneyed and become commonplace.”
“If you see it that way, the rains can fall from the same sky but each of them can be tied to a different destiny. I guess I don’t have to tie them together with the title.”
“Yes, from the same sky, but each tied to a different destiny. . . . How about you leave the manuscript with me so I can give it a good read?”
“Of course, that’s just what I wanted. I hope it won’t take up too much of your time.”
“Don’t worry; you’ll get my opinion and a few comments.”
“Thank you, old friend.”
“You know,” M. R. started on a different tack, “these are hard times. I don’t know how you and Ana are getting by. If you need anything, just tell me and I’ll organize it for you. I’ve found a good connection. You know: care packages, tinned food, and the like.”
“I’ll bear it in mind. Thank you for the offer by all means.”
“Ooh, two writers at the same table having a tête-à-tête. It smacks of conspiracy, it stinks,” that gray regular said, swaying up to them full of alcohol.
“No, mister,” M. R. replied brusquely, and his mood changed abruptly, “it’s you who are stinking up the place with your cheap drink.”
“No, no, I don’t drink any old swill, just brandy. Ever heard of backwood moonshine rakia, chum? No? That was nasty hooch, and no mistake! You should know how brandy is made because you’re a writer. Hey, don’t be angry, I’m just giving you some well-meaning advice.”
Matija signaled to his friend to end that pointless dialogue, and the gray fellow tottered away to the next table. They said goodbye outside the restaurant, and M. R. left with the manuscript; he seemed a little irritated. Matija watched him go, smelled rain in the air, and felt an undefined fear. The words of the drunkard came back to him—It smacks of conspiracy, it stinks—and he rushed to get into the streetcar.
Completely empty, that’s the way I like it, he thought to himself happily and sank into the nearest seat by the window. Yes, why don’t I arrange a stock of food through him so we don’t go hungry, he resolved, and then he absentmindedly started watching the lit-up shop windows glide past and asked himself for the umpteenth time whether his stories still contained the odd error or a hidden flaw in their inner logic. “He’ll point out those things and I’ll correct them,” he tried to calm himself. All of a sudden, he felt a powerful rocking. The streetcar sped down the steep street as if the brakes had failed. He knew a tight bend was coming and yelled out to the driver to slow down, but too late. There was a screech, sparks showered in all directions, and then the streetcar lurched with a bang and a crash. A dull pain shot through him as if he had been shoved by a mighty hand, and he was flung out and across the asphalt. The road was wet and warm. A drizzle fell from the dark sky. He felt unusually heavy, but with effort he raised himself a little and saw a white dog ominously looking at him and licking something on the ground next to him. The streetcar overturned and came to rest further down the hill after demolishing a few billboards and a set of traffic lights. He smelled the suffocating stench of burning cables, and then he heard voices around him and a muffled humming as if a squadron of bombers was approaching. “Damn it, Ana will be sick with worry,” he thought, and sank into darkness.
She didn’t fall asleep until the sparrows started their dawn chorus, and then the old alarm clock rang. Bewildered, she could only think of Matija. She arrived at the hospital just as a group of doctors went into the intensive-care unit.
“This patient has been comatose for a month already,” Doctor Lazarević said, as if something was not quite clear to him, and proceeded to read aloud from the file. “Hematoma removed, internal bleeding staunched, the fractures are healing . . .”
“Doctor, will he wake up soon?” Ana’s trembling voice interrupted.
“We’re monitoring his condition, so we’ll see.”
“Oh, if only he would come back to me,” she wailed inside, pressed her handkerchief over her eyes, and sat down again beside the bed, where her husband lay as motionless as a wax figure, his head and body in bandages.
All at once, Matija’s friend M. R. walked briskly into the intensive-care room, wearing a gray suit.
“Hello, Ana; how is he?”
“What the . . . Who gave you permission to come in? He’s not well; he’s in a coma.”
“I came as soon as I heard. What actually happened?”
“A traffic accident. You know, the one with the streetcar—it was in the paper.”
“Oh, yes. But that must have been . . . that was just after we said goodbye that evening.”
“What do you mean? So you saw him that evening?”
“Yes. Didn’t he tell you we were meeting?”
“No, he didn’t,” she pronounced dryly. . . . Why would he lie to me, she thought, and looked at her beloved husband again.
“What are his chances?”
“They still don’t know.”
Then they fell silent because M. R. had run out of questions, and she didn’t want to talk.
“All right, I’ll be going then,” he said stiffly.
“Goodbye,” she heard her icy voice, and he went out.
In the long corridor, which smelled of iodine, the doors were open. Casualties from the front lay in the rooms together with the other patients. M. R. loitered there for a while and then disappeared.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were going to meet your old university acquaintance? I find him quite odious, but I would have understood,” she whispered in Matija’s ear.
And so, day after day, she came to see him and spoke to him, convinced he could hear her. She would tell him what she was doing, whom she had met. . . . She pined for him, but her hope that he would wake up was dwindling.
Once, while she was whispering to him, a siren howled. She heard a clamor and went out into the crowded corridor. A voice ordered that everyone go to the shelter and that the serious cases should be taken too. She tried to go back, but the river of patients and medical staff in the corridor was already carrying her with it. A crush formed in the hall near the lifts. She heard the dull rumble of explosions. They’ve promised not to attack civilian targets, she recalled a rigid general stating on TV. At that moment, a mighty blast shook the walls and the windowpanes shattered. Panic set in. She was squeezed by bodies on all sides and couldn’t breathe. It’s started, she thought in terror, and then her legs failed her and she fell unconscious.
“Can you hear me, madam?” she heard a distant voice. A young nurse was trying to revive her.
“Where am I?” she asked quietly when she opened her eyes.
“At Internal Medicine. I have to give you an infusion because you’re exhausted.”
“Matija,” she spoke his name, closed her eyes, and a tear rolled down her pale cheek.
One day the shooting stopped, the great leader capitulated, and the defeat was declared a victory. . . . Ana was holding a class at school when they told her that Matija had woken up. A mixture of sudden happiness and disbelief overcame her. As if he was just waiting for the war to finish, she thought.
Ana was holding a class at school when they told her that Matija had woken up. A mixture of sudden happiness and disbelief overcame her.
He smiled when he saw her cheerful face:
“You’re . . . I’m . . .”
Matija’s head injury had erased the past from his memory, but with effort he was able to remember a few things. After two months of recuperation, she encouraged him to stand:
“Come on; try it again.”
“Look at those useless legs—how skinny they are,” he joked as he put the crutches under his arms.
“Thaaat’s it,” she exclaimed delightedly when he managed to stand up straight.
“Ana,” he said, looking at her warmly, “I’d like to read. Can you bring me something—a novel, maybe?”
“Sure. And we’ll be back in our apartment before you finish it.”
Finally, she was able to take him home from the hospital. He moved about with ease now and was able to take care of himself. The familiar environment was like medicine to him. He could take books off the shelves and read, and then one morning, while Ana was at school, he discovered his diary in a drawer of his desk. He opened it at the last entry and read the description of everyday life against the backdrop of the war, and then the description of the day when he decided to write stories. Images and voices began to mix and multiply: “So it was wartime, we were cold and went hungry, and I worked on the stories,” he summarized for himself, and his head began to hurt badly. The return of his memory dispelled any semblance of peace of mind, and he felt the whole gravity of his experience. He kept rummaging around on his desk, in the glass cabinet, and in the chest of drawers until Ana came home, carrying bags of shopping.
“Hello, darling. I’ll fry us some fish for lunch,” she said and came up to give him a kiss. She noticed he was sweating and pale. “Matija, are you all right?”
“I don’t know; you tell me. I can’t find the stories. Do you know where they are?”
“Aren’t they in one of the drawers of your desk? You know I never touch your desk.”
“They’re not here.”
“How on earth . . .”
“They just aren’t. . . . I can’t even find copies of them. Just drafts and excerpts . . .”
“There was no carbon paper at the time, and the print shops were shut. . . . I offered to type-copy them all because we had the paper, but you didn’t want us to use it for that.”
“Just one copy, then. . . . And tell me, what did I write about?”
“About rains. I think that was the title too.”
“Rains—yes, now I remember. . . . Where can I have mislaid them? They can’t have flown away.”
“They have to be here somewhere. We’ll find them.”
“Ana, let’s go for a walk in the park. I’m getting sick of these four walls,” Matija said out of the blue, after several days of silence.
“I guess we could. You’ve recovered well enough for that,” she agreed, pleased that he had finally spoken. She was looking through an old copy of the daily paper. “Oh, look, our neighbor Zoran has died, and we didn’t know. The obituary was published almost a month ago.”
“Zoran, the lawyer from the second entrance?”
“He was a good man. He defended me well in court.”
“So you remember that too—good on you. Perhaps we could go and pay our condolences to his widow.”
“Yes, we should.”
She was a slightly younger woman, with wide hips and a pretty face, and she seemed surprised to see them. A long-haired white dog whisked around her legs.
“How can I help you?”
“Hello, Ruža. We’ve just come to say how sorry we are. We only found out now,” Ana began.
“Please come in, it’s very kind of you to call by. People are so estranged these days. I’ve only just got back from work.”
As they were going down the hall to the living room, the dog barked.
“Don’t be frightened, she won’t hurt you. Jacky! Jacky, down! You know, Zoran deserved the lavish funeral. I even called a priest, although he wasn’t religious. He deserved it all because he was so faithful to me. I didn’t let them put those funny burial slippers on him but gave them his dearest leather shoes that he wore at our wedding. Jeez, how handsome he was, but he put on a lot of weight toward the end. He loved everything I cooked for him, and he simply devoured my cakes. I made him everything he wanted, and we gradually replaced ‘pie’ with pie and sweets, if you know what I mean,” she chuckled. “He left me all of a sudden, after our lunch one day. He had a stroke, but I still wanted to get as much of life as I could. During the war, others went without. But not us—we had everything. He made sure we didn’t go hungry. . . . Oh, I forgot to ask, you had an accident. I see you’ve recovered.”
“I’m better now.”
Ruža kept talking a mile a minute, while Matija and Ana listened. They were sitting at a stylish glass coffee table with a crystal dish full of candies and a book with its back cover facing upward. After a whole river of words, she remembered:
“Oh, yes, would you like coffee, tea, juice, or maybe something a little stronger?”
“No thanks, Ruža, we won’t.”
“But in memory of Zoran . . .”
“All right, juice then,” Ana accepted, and Ruža headed off to the kitchen, swaying her hips in a tight stretch skirt.
The dog lay on the rug, watching them. Matija reached out to look at what was probably the only book in that room full of expensive furniture. He opened the front cover and saw the name of the author, M. R., and the title, Rains. He frowned and began turning the pages. There was a photo and a biography of the writer, a review penned by an eminent poet and dissident, and at the back he read the name of the publisher and the year of publication—the same year as his accident. Here were his stories, and he recognized them down to the last one. The book was a real deluxe edition, with a cover designed by a well-known artist. When he discovered the dedication on the first inside page, “For Ruža and Zoran, more than just friends,” his hands began to shake, he felt his cheeks glow, and his heart was beating fast and hard.
“Matija, what’s wrong?” Ana whispered and took the book from his hands.
“Whaaat?” she couldn’t restrain a cry of amazement. The dog lifted its head and pricked up its ears.
“Here’s some nice blueberry juice for us. Blueberry’s my favorite, you know,” Ruža babbled, coming back with a tray. “Oh, yes, those are some stories I’ve started to read. The author is a dear fellow and a great friend of mine; he was by my side when things were hardest. And now the book has been short-listed for a prize; I forget its name, but perhaps you’ve heard of it—it was in the paper.”
Translation from the Montenegrin
By Will Firth