translated from Croatian by Graham McMaster
In the sky the wild ducks were leaving for the south in a flat V shape. As if someone up there had written a victory sign horizontally. Down in the meadow, the two of them were just crawling through the wire fence that surrounded the property of the Veterinary Faculty on the northern side of Sljeme. It was one of the nicest meadows on the mountain, just over Horvat’s Steps and from there one could see far off to the north, the mountains in Slovenia, and on nice days the bluish outlines of the Alps. The hole in the fence they were squeezing through was just next to the gate patched up with boards and locked with a great rusty padlock. He held her by the forearm, saying:
“Can you?” Or: “Watch out for the wire”
“I hate it when you’re a creep,” she said.
Then they were quiet for a bit. He made out he was looking at the towns at the foot of the mountain, while she observed his profile. The profile of a man who had had his nose broken as a boy. Some kind of sound came out of the air. Perhaps it was the calling of the wild ducks.
“I shan’t try again,” she said at length.
“We can try again in three months. When you’re better.”
“I shan’t again. Get it? Not in three months, or five, or a year. I shan’t any more, and that’s it.”
“There are other ways,” he said.
“I shan’t,” and she raised her voice. “I shan’t because you could hardly wait for this. Whenever I get it implanted, you’re always stiff with fear until I start to bleed.”
“You know that’s not the truth.”
“You think I don’t see it? Think I don’t see it on your face?”
When someone dies who hasn’t yet been born, he thought, it’s always like this. She’ll calm down in a few days and things will be like they were before again.
Then they heard some kind of sound. A car was coming up along the broad track for taking out wood that the loggers used. It was strange to see a car so far off the road in this unreal mountain landscape. It was an old Opel estate car, maroon, mud-spattered. It stopped in front of the door, and a man with a bandanna on his head got out and tried to open it. He jiggled the old padlock, but didn’t manage.
“What’s he doing?” she said.
He seemed to be doing it rather frantically. The whole of that rickety wooden gate shook, but the old Wertheim didn’t give way. Then he got back behind the wheel, and quite simply broke it down with his car. One side of it got smashed down to the ground while he was getting in.
“I can’t believe it,” she said.
He was somehow pleased now that she wasn’t thinking about what had trickled out of her that morning. The man in the car slowly went by them, avoiding the molehills and stones that poked out of the ground, weaving as if he were doing a slalom.
When they had come out of the hospital, she had cried out a lens. He watched her crying, and then taking them out of her eyes. She carefully took them out and placed them on tissue. As if her tears had hardened and she were saving them for a memory.
“Take me to Sljeme,” she said.
“Didn’t they tell you that you had to rest?”
“It’s nothing,” she said. “Take me to Sljeme.”
And now they were here, at the spot they had come just a few times, and she had always been delighted. There was something special about the meadow, something the two of them couldn’t quite fathom. The stones that poked out of the land, as if it were some landscape in the karst, the blueberry bushes, the dense pine forest that surrounded it like a wreath. The meadow was, quite simply, a place where one always felt good. But this business with the car was pretty weird. The young chap at the wheel, his orange bandanna knotted pirate-style, the big tattoo on the forearm that peered out the short sleeves of his t-shirt. Weirder still was that the young chap seemed not to notice them at all, though he had passed within a few meters of them. He looked in front of him like a sleepwalker or someone who was really high. At one point, they could see his eyes. They were light and glassy. The Opel moved off to the left, to the forest, while they went in the opposite direction, to the rise from which they had a great view of the whole valley. He felt somehow relieved at this, although in fact there was no reason at all. They went down the track towards Horvat’s Steps. They came to a great rock at which the steps started.
“Who was this Horvat?” she asked. “And why did he build steps at the top of the mountain?”
“Don’t know. Every time he came, he would add one stone.”
They stood at the top and looked down, but neither of them dared to descend.
As if something very uncertain were awaiting them down there.
“”Then, these stones,” she said, “they are his days.”
It struck him it wasn’t a bad idea at all to turn days into stones.
“Didn’t this guy have a family, someone to look after?”
She had never once gone down those steps. He had. When he was little, his father had taken him down on his back. He had carefully felt out each stone with his foot so that the two of them didn’t go headlong. And only at the bottom had he understood why Horvat had made that massive stone staircase. He was a child, but it was clear to him. The beauty of the landscape entered by these steps consisted of one’s not feeling one was on Sljeme. It gave a nice feeling you were somewhere else: on the Isonzo, below Vršić there, even at the source of the Sava. This something different, which could not even be seen from the meadow of the Veterinary Faculty, lifted the whole space and gave a quite ordinary mountain the charms of the Alps. It would have been hard at that moment to explain to her.
They set off back, by another track, over the clearing. Then they saw the car again. It was standing in a valley below them. A muddy old Opel estate. There was a net between the passenger’s compartment and the load area. She got visibly agitated. They stopped for a moment and then saw the young man with a bandanna on his head. Quite close to the car, he was digging a hole with a shovel. They stopped and watched him as he dug. A fairly big, deep, hole.
“I don’t like this,” she said.
“Why do you think he’s digging?”
“Let’s go,” she said. “I don’t want to watch this.”
It struck him that you can often see things like this in films. A man digging by a car. She rushed on a few steps, almost ran, as if fleeing from something. When they turned round the path so that they could no longer see the man digging, she said:
“When I think it might have been alive, and now it isn’t, I could bite these stones.”
At that moment he realised he could be without her. Just like that. All at once. After fifteen years of living together, it struck him that he could be without her. And that was freedom. Freedom from love, from duty, from fear. Freedom that was sometimes brought by the death of someone who hadn’t been born and the freedom of a man who turned days into stones.
“Really,” she said after some time, “why do you think he was digging?”
Obviously, curiosity had got the better of her.
“Well, never mind,” he said, “let’s go back.”
“I don’t know?” she said hesitantly.
He took her by the arm and they went back.
The man had made a fairly long, fairly deep hole. He was in it up to the waist, and was still working the edges. To make the pit nice. He was sweaty, he wiped the sweat from his face with his handkerchief, and he had pulled the sleeves of his shirt up to his shoulders. His right arm was patterned with a tattoo with some red details. They were close enough to see. He didn’t pay attention to them
When he had tidied up the pit, he went to the car and opened up the luggage platform. They couldn’t see what was inside. Then he went into the front, took his cigarettes and lit one up, played some music. Something very loud suddenly filled the valley. The sound quickly appropriated the space, climbed over the edges of the valley, entered the forest, drove the birds from the tops of the pines. Now he was standing over the luggage compartment and smoking. He listened to the music and looked unblinkingly into the luggage compartment.
“What’s that music?”
She seemed to be surprised.
“Dunno. Mozart’s Requiem.”
Now they just stood there a bit. He was over the luggage compartment, smoking, they were by his side. Listening to Mozart. It was weird a young guy who looked like that should be playing the Requiem.
“What’s he looking at?” she said.
She was still afraid, but now curiosity had completely got the better of her. She could not longer tear her eyes away from the man, just as he could no longer take his away from the trunk. In the air, together with the music, the quacking of the wild ducks could be heard. He suddenly said:
If the shapes of the stones, the trees and hawthorns had been letters, they would have written death. The man tossed down his cigarette end, ground it out in the grass as if stamping on a loathsome bug, and then bent down to take something out of the trunk. It was something fairly big, wrapped up in a white sheet. But it didn’t look big enough to be a grown person. Perhaps a child. The man with the handkerchief bore the bundle in his arms, to the sound of the music, the way a bride is carried over the threshold.
“Jesus,” she said.
The sheet fell away, and two hairy paws were to be seen. Yellow. Must have been a fairly large dog. The man placed it in the grave. He stood over it a bit, and then started to fill it in. He filled it in rapidly and energetically, as if he were having a set-to with someone. He was young. Who knows, he’d probably grown up with this dog.
The mallards called from on high.
She cried again. It was as if the man were burying their child.