Zoran Pilić – No Harm from Them

Read a short story by the Croatian writer Zoran Pilić, one of Literary Europe Live’s “New Voices from Europe”.

Posted by Luka Ostojic on 6 October 2016 Literary Europe Live, Literature Across Frontiers


Written by Zoran Pilić

Translated by Tomislav Kuzmanović

***

I need no sorrow getting its grip on me, not now, I think, and it’s already too late. I fall into the trap of my own mind, which recognizes the favorable conditions and materializes on its own into a demon that has no problem finding the shortest path to my heart and then opens the first few wounds with its sharp claws.

I snap out of it and grab my black bag with four poorly sawn white lines, which, even a fool could tell, show that it’s an Adidas knockoff; it too has somehow withdrawn into itself, broken in two as if there’s nothing valuable in it nor could ever be. Yet the bag is not to blame, but the misery, hundreds and hundreds of years of pain and misery that for generations deposited in our blood like oil under dead layers of soil, under skeletons of mammoths, of princes and of paupers, under the skeletons of Gastarbeiter in Germany.

I walk slowly on the black asphalt, between thick, yellow lines, I follow the same path that countless columns of my quiet countrymen followed as if, each and every one of them, going to the scaffolds and not into a completely different, better life. And when somewhere up there, through the ancient domes of Hauptbahnof, my first dawn in the foreign land is slowly breaking, my father comes to my mind. Is it possible, father, could it be, that all this was destined for us a long time ago?

The world has changed, it no longer looks like itself, but we, well, we’re still running away from something: from misery and wars, from small, overcrowded countries, towns and villages, where everyone knows everyone else, we’re running away to a place where a man can hide from others and from himself, we’re running away from injustice and despair, but not only from that, we’re running away from our friends and from our foes, from the dead and from the living, from thievery, we’re running away from hatred as much as from love, from insomnia, debts, revenge, knives and concentration camps, from stinking bars where we spend our every God given day and night drinking coffee by the gallons so our blood too must have gone black, and if you at least run away from all that coffee, you’ll get a feeling that you’ve done something with your life, we’re running away from indifference, from madness that’s so contagious in our midst and it emanates left and right, except that its rays are invisible, we’re also running away, it seems to me sometimes, because it’s in our blood to run.

You, father, grew up in the world without colors. You say it isn’t so, but even I remember that the first colors appeared in the early seventies, maybe back in 1974 when Katalinski, in Frankfurt, scored a goal against the Spaniards, before that people lived in a black-and-white world. I’m sure it was better than it is now, in color. I remember it well, the sun was glisteningly white, the river transparent or, come winter, as murky as a plowed field, and the pearl was black and that was its name – Black Pearl. It stood on that rickety table, and somewhere to the side or perhaps on the bottom shelf of that slim-legged table, which today, well, reminds me of sad creatures from Somewhere I Belong, the video by Linkin Park, we kept a heavy wooden box with a switch. The stabilizer – that was its name. You turn on the stabilizer and in some ten minutes a black-and-white image appears. A miracle, a miracle of television.

At the time of your youth, the sky was closer to the earth, and the wealthier gentlemen wore sable fur hats, heavy, ribbed gabardine coats, and they kissed the ladies’ hands and addressed them with “madam”, or all that belongs to some other time and space?

Germany didn’t sit well with me from the very beginning. I’ll admit that to you. It didn’t, by God it didn’t, and as I walk slowly through this giant station, my own steps terrify me. They echo as if I’m in a cathedral, everything is, you know, ominous, and at the same time clean, polished, oiled. And if you happen to find a crumbled scrap of paper or something, there comes a guy with a waste cart, slinks in from somewhere silently as a snake, picks it up in a blink of an eye and moves on, simply disappears. Spotless, all of it, no question about it, but only on the surface. When I look a bit deeper, when I peer into that darkness yawning at the farthest corner, at the place where, if this were a real cathedral, beautifully carved confessionals would stand, it appears before me, I see someone’s yellow eyes glaring in the dark, I hear a whisper, as if the leaves or Necromancer’s cape is rustling. Ah, no harm from them, I comfort myself, these are all carnivores whose nature is not to heedlessly pounce upon their pray, they wait until it wanders into their cobweb on its own, and this always happens, sooner or later. The strategy of a spider sitting in the dark. Not even the cleaners venture there. That’s a country unto itself, a land of ancient hunters, a waiting room between two worlds – that one that’s vanishing and this one that’s only just showing itself in the distance.

Drunks, swindlers, pickpockets, shoeblacks, hookers and beggars do what they do and they’re easy to recognize, but there are others. Those who talk among themselves, or who appear to be waiting for someone, who stare into passengers’ faces, get up on their toes, crane their thin, pale necks careful not to miss on even the farthest carriages, and who then slink back into their coats and scarfs not hiding their disappointment because that someone hasn’t come and they’ve been waiting for years, but one special day will dawn and at that precise hour – that someone will come and they will be there to meet him. You see, the thought flutters through my mind like a frightened bird, you see that life is unrelentingly passing by these people who are all waiting in vain, you see that they are turning their heads away from the truth; nowhere on this whole earth of ours you can better feel the relentless arrow of time than at places such as this one, so vast and sad.

Come on, drop that foolishness, apparitions and empty words. There, now, after I’ve made this, as people say, the most radical move, perhaps things will really get going for me. So, father, could this be the meaning of life, to start from scratch, here at the heart of Europe, in the land of milk and honey, get a good German car, perhaps a two or three years old Audi, and then, come summer, head down to that seaside of ours, and what fucking sea it is, as if other countries don’t have a sea, they do, all of them do, the Greeks, the French, the Italians, even the Germans have it, except that theirs is cold, good for nothing. I’d love to see the Caribbean once. Visit Jamaica, relax and such. I’m not the worst man in the world, am I?! Maybe the sun will shine on me once too.

Sure thing, it crosses my mind, you’ll see a lot of sunshine here. I better get one of those sunscreen lotions, with good SPF, so that I don’t burn in this German sun of kindness.

I don’t want to remember, I want the opposite – if only, father, I could forget it all, but it takes time, half a life maybe, or maybe less. I finally step out into the open, and it’s pitch dark everywhere. Thick Bavarian clouds have run over the dawn, the icy wind is whistling, flinging first drops of rain into my face, and that thin line of light has remained somewhere far, far away in the east.

For the first couple of days it’s raining non-stop, first it pours, then slowly it recedes, loses its breath, and finally it turns into a dull, numbing drizzle; it’s going to drizzle, just like this, I imagine, when the world comes to its end. On judgment day, the rain is not going to paint rainbows in the sky, it will just quietly sprinkle the earth. Soon after, as all the books say, darkness will descend upon everything.

I found my first refuge in one of the heims, homes. In rooms with four, five or more beds, misery shows itself in its full splendor and glory, at that moment you know you’re standing one step away from hopelessness and if you don’t get yourself out of there as soon as you can, that feeling of infinite doom blinds you, shreds your soul to pieces. If I take for granted that the eyes are the mirror of one’s soul, what I saw when I looked deep into the soul of an old man from Greece, some poor wretch sitting at the edge of his neatly tidied bunk with his hands in his lap, was a barren wasteland.

Christos is my name, he said.

We exchanged a couple of words, that broken man, the Jesus taken down from his cross a long time ago, and I. There’s a man, I thought, the son of God, who could have thought I’d see him right here in this Munich heim so old, so broken. The devils thought of a more horrible punishment than dying an agonizing death: let him live.
Stay away from our people, he said.

Our people, our man, be he a Greek, an Albanian, a Croat, a Serb, a Bosnian, a Turk, is difficult, as hard as the black soil, so blinded by the castles in the sky that he sees nothing else. This phantom gets a hold of him, the idea that one day he’d go back, and then when he does go back for a couple of days and sees what he has left behind – he runs back into that other life, into the country he will never feel anything for just as it will never feel anything for him, and then again, after a while, he begins dreaming that one and the same dream: I will go back, if only to die back there, if I couldn’t live a decent life, here comes the great conclusion, let me at least die like a man.

Stay away from our people. Some work, slaving day in day out, others want it all and they want it now. Such will lead you into crime, and there, trust me, you are doomed. And that’s why I tell you: when you see one of our people on the street, turn around and run because, if nothing else, he will unload his misery, his sorrow and loneliness on you, such are our people, difficult.

The apartment in the ausländer district does not feel like home, not at all. It doesn’t look like me nor do I do anything to change that. I hear voices of women, children and men through the walls, I hear whispers, cries, screams, moans, on occasion a sharp bark or yelp of a German Shepherd when one younger Turk, his head shaved, takes it out for a walk. One evening I caught him tugging at the dog’s leash and screaming something at it. When he kicked, the devil wouldn’t leave me alone.

Don’t do that, I said, it’s not the animal’s fault, and he grabbed the dog by the hide, threw him through the door into the building, and then approached me, poked his bald head at me and yelled: What is your problem, huh, what is your problem, man?

I almost told him something. Something about my problems and the problems of all of us. But I saw, luckily, that he was so beside himself that he wouldn’t be able to understand so I just put my arms in the air and said: It’s your dog, brother, do as you please.

That’s right, my dog – my problem! My dog – my fucking problem!

He had to repeat it all two or three times as if he himself didn’t believe what he was saying.

I hear people through the walls, our people, as Christos said. People I obviously belong to. Sometimes they break into a loud laughter too, they talk to each other, shout, change moods, and all that to escape apathy. Exaggeration is the only thing that keeps a man above the surface: great outpours of happiness, sadness, love, anger or jealousy, affection, hostility or the desire to reach the impossible – that’s what makes you alive.

Apathy makes life quietly fade away.

It’s spring, father, but you wouldn’t be able to recognize it. Everything happens in just a few days and nights, you don’t have enough time to raise your head and the sun is already scorching the earth, even the perfect German asphalt turns into dough, and the air flickers distorting the city’s image. Some moving company hired me. Munich and its surroundings: Čabo is driving, Vladimir and I carry furniture, boxes with children’s toys and books, sometimes even musical instruments. Pianos, cellos, guitars, drum sets, old synthesizers that look like barbecues, and speakers, big and small, mountains of speakers.

Vladimir, he pronounces his name more like a Russian – Volodimir, he has thin, pale arms and unusually large hands which could, so it seems, move hills if he chose to do so. He grew up in former DDR, he never complains, and the moment you set your eyes on him, you know his life hadn’t been nice. The Germans don’t do such hard, physical jobs – I’d dare say, more fitting for a rat. Actually, maybe they do, but I, except for Vladimir, never saw one.

Those born here, in Germany, Čabo says, will rather sit and do nothing than dig canals, lug wardrobes, hey brother, you’ll never find a Kraut wiping asses at those wards where old folk go to die. We do all that and that’s why the Kraut puts up with us, isn’t it so, Vladimir, my dear friend, isn’t it true?

Vladimir just blows a cloud of smoke, smiles and says: “It’s true…”

While I’m working, I’m calm, those heavy thoughts do not haunt me, and what you said, father, about idle hands being the devil’s workshop, you know – that’s true too. Weekends are difficult to bear, a day is a year, and at night, the ghosts of past come back again. Sometimes I sit on my bed, and talk to them.

You know, Pop says in the dead of one of such nights, how horrible it is to die when you’re as innocent as I was?
I can only imagine, I reply.

Believe you me, you can’t even imagine it, there’s no greater horror than seeing yourself dead. You’re screaming, but no one hears you, you’re crying your eyes out, but there are no tears to be found. My friend, why did you kill me, huh?

I didn’t recognize you, Pop, you asked me the same question a hundred times over, why don’t you leave me be?
Damn you, why didn’t you wait a second longer?

I can’t go back in time, it’s too late now…

And, my friend, how do you live with it on your soul, huh?

It’s not easy, how else, you see it for yourself. And even if I wanted to forget – I can’t…

You thought I wouldn’t find you? Ah, what a fool you are, going to the edge of the world is nothing for me, if need be. Why are you on your own, why don’t you find someone? Loneliness makes a man go mad, especially here.

Sometime by mid-July people began leaving the city. The Germans went on their vacation, to the Adriatic or some other seas, Čabo went with his family too. I have to, he said, dip my toes in.
And all of our Gasterbeiter jumped into their cars and hit the road. Not all, some don’t take vacations, they have their reasons. Vladimir and I stayed behind, we hung about for a couple more days and then they sent us on Urlaub too.

Listen, Vladimir tells me, next Sunday come to my place, it’s my sister’s thirty-fifth birthday, we’ll throw something on the grill, have a couple of beers, no excuses, be there.
But, I said, I don’t even know the woman. It’ll be strange.

Elsa doesn’t even want to celebrate, that’s why I always fix up a little something for her. So, we’re clear, no excuses, you better be there.

If it were anyone else, I’d think of a reason why not to come, but I couldn’t say no to the good man Vladimir. He’s, father, just like that Slovenian of yours from Maribor, the one you worked with for all those years and once brought him home. He’ll never make your head hurt, a real cure of a man.

I didn’t know what to do with myself until Sunday. I took some book in German, I said, why not practice the language a bit, but the thoughts kept running to all sides, you couldn’t bring them back to their place, not a chance. One night, the police came too, they were looking for that young Turk – they didn’t find him in his apartment. I hadn’t seen him for days. His mother took out the German Shepherd, but you could see the woman didn’t care about it much, the dog ran here and there, jumped, yelped, wanted to play, roam freely, but she had other things on her mind.

There are days when I try cooking something for myself, but I’m no good in the kitchen, I don’t have that feeling. I order takeaway or go to a restaurant, they are all over the place: Italian, Chinese, Greek, Indian, Dalmatian, Bosnian… I don’t know if it were like this back in your day. The city is the same, but the times are different and the people have changed.

As I didn’t know anything about Vladimir’s sister Elsa, and it’s not polite to show up empty-handed at someone’s party, I spent the whole Friday afternoon searching for a gift no knowing what I was actually looking for. And as it usually happens, my legs took me right into Mr. Keßler’s bookstore. I found him there sitting at the large desk, surrounded by heaps upon heaps of books, smoking his cigarette without filter, polishing his glasses with the edge of his shirt. At first I thought it was strange that a man smoked with so many books around, but something is the old man’s posture canceled the strangeness of the tobacco smoke as if with the very act he wanted to say: Children, I’ve spent my whole life among the books, and let me tell you, until you throw them into the fire, the smoke is the last thing they’re worried about.

“I’d like to look around a bit, if that’s okay…” I said, but the old man waved his hand and interrupted me mid-sentence. “Have a seat, young man, take those books off that chair, put them on the floor, just put them down there on the floor, that’s right, would you like some brandy?”

Without getting up, he pulled a bottle and two glasses out of somewhere and poured the brandy. We said cheers.

“Where are you from, wait, don’t tell me… ex-Yugoslavia?”
“That’s right.”
“Which part?”
“Bosnia,” I said and the word dropped to the desk like a coin and clanked strangely, then disappeared in the smoke.
“Eh, Bosnia, Bosnia…” he said and a shadow crossed his face.

We sipped our brandies in silence.

“Are you looking for something for yourself or perhaps for someone else, as a present?”
“It’s a present.”
“I see, a present for a lady, if I’m not mistaken?”
“A present for a lady I’ve never met, a German woman, my friend’s sister.”
“Don’t say, well, that won’t be a problem…” he said, reached somewhere again and pulled out a book with red covers. “Here it is, Wegzeichen, an ideal present, you heard about Andrić and you read him at school, didn’t you?”

While I leafed through the pages, the old Keßler silently placed the old Yugoslav edition of Signs by the Roadside on the desk. I knew the book well. “This one’s my gift to you, to bring up old memories…”

Vladimir’s house on the city’s periphery and its surroundings reminded me of village ways and yards in Vojvodina. Sure, there were no raven black stallions, gaggles of geese, haystacks on the horizon, curs barking on long chains, or big gates protecting the yards from foreign eyes, but there was definitely something there – maybe that zen of the plains, the peace and steadiness of life that keeps its pace regardless of what we do and what evil we inflict upon each other.

On my way there, it crossed my mind that even though Elsa didn’t care much about her birthday, I could have brought her a flower instead of the German edition of Signs by the Roadside. Andrić is good, far from it, but I feared that it might be a bit rude that I, the Bosnian gasterbaiter, brought her a book by a Nobel Prize winner. Ah, when all is said and done, what do I care, it’s just something you do, I was not going to rack my brains about it too.

At that very moment, when I first laid my eyes on her, she was sitting at a large table in front of the house, all alone under the parasol, moving her hair from her face, with both hands like when you open the curtains on the window, she glanced at me with that green eyes of hers that, I guess, find everything interesting, eyes that smile even when she is not smiling, and I, what a fool, looked away and just stood there like a child.

Alles Gute zum Geburtstag…” I said and offered her the book but I dared not come any closer, as if there was an abyss between us, and so I had to stretch and mind not to fall into that bottomless pit, which, I thought, perhaps wouldn’t be all that bad.

She was pleased, so it seemed, and I was pleased that she was pleased, she also said something, and then invited me to sit down at the table, but as I was still in that strange, foolish state, I just stood there, and so finally she approached me, took my hand and led me across the abyss.

When the next morning, tortured by nightmares, I woke up transformed into myself again, father, there’s no need to lie, it was yet another heavy defeat. Once again the same I from the day before. One day closer to death. As I watched from close by the scenes of a family life, I must have thought for a moment – I could do that too. I could mock all that vanishing, if in no other way, then by imitating other people, doing what they do.

Elsa, who carried her own scars just as everyone else did, had patience with me. At critical moments, when I’d sink under the surface, she wouldn’t run away from me as fast as her legs would carry her. I told, not once, go, woman, and don’t look back. You don’t understand, I kept repeating, you don’t understand.
“Maybe I don’t understand, but I’m here, see.”

On one of those nights, I woke up with a start and she really was lying there, on that narrow bed. I heard voices from the hall. They came again to get that Turk, this time he didn’t run away, he surrendered peacefully. Before they took him away, he came to my door.

“Well, neighbor, I’ll be going now, don’t hold that thing against me and take this dog and look after it, please, Sultan is his name.”
“What about your mother?” I asked.
“She’s gone, we parted ways.”

The Turk and me exchange these couple of words in German with a thick Balkan accent. Two officers in their civilian clothes behind his back and Elsa, who’s woken up in the meanwhile, let us take our time. They don’t interfere. The three Germans and the German Shepherd that’s standing between the two of us and wagging its tail are politely waiting for the dialogue to come to its end.

“Alright, Sultan, did you take your things?”

As if it really understands what I’m talking about, the dog takes two steps back, sits by the green plastic bag that is standing in the hall and stares at me.

“Here are his treats, his bowls and a couple of toys,” says the Turk.

Early in the fall, Elsa, Sultan and I moved to Theresienstraße, close to her work at Neue Pinakothek. She changes the way I see the world around me. I’m already imagining a time when it will no longer be important where I came from, how I lived and what I believed in. On that day, in the future that I dared not even think of for such a long time, I will come to understand that I don’t have to carry that heavy cross. I’ll toss it somewhere by the road, let it lie there until weeds grown over it, let it rot, what do I care.

In the evening, Sultan and I go out for a walk. We meet other people and dogs in the park. Small dogs are nervier than big ones. Sometimes they attack Sultan too, and they bark, you’d think they’re mad or something, and the good Sultan just watches them in surprise. He’s not of the quarreling type. On other occasions, there’s no one there, so the two of us patrol the park on our own.

On one such evening, some wind comes from somewhere, not a soul in the park. Not a man, not a dog. The whole day that strange feeling of the most ordinary happiness of life has been choking me. It troubles me. Where has this come from, I think, how could such misery befall me of all people, and happiness is a misery and nothing else, because once it’s gone, everyone knows that, clouds begin to gather. One part of me would gladly give itself up to it, but from experience I know that that’s not good, and so I’m fighting against myself. And it goes like that until the evening and the time when Sultan and I go out for a walk. We come to that meadow of ours, I sit down on a bench, light a cigarette and throw the tennis ball in the middle of that large circle delineated by benches, wastebaskets and trees that on the other side turn into a forest. Sultan follows the ball’s flight and starts running. And, logically, there’s no chance he won’t find it, so it’s not much of a game. What matters is the sprint, and finding the ball, that’s the least of his problems. On the third throw, I get up, walk almost to the middle of the meadow, and only then throw the ball and immediately lose sight of it in the dark. Sultan sees me and starts running, and I follow slowly behind. I make out his shadow in the darkness. As I approach the forest, the feeling of happiness abandons me as if it has never existed. The dog sniffles the grass, goes left and right, and then comes back to me.

“And where’s the ball, buddy, huh?”

Sultan who already knows both Turkish and German, has no problems understanding our language.

“What are we going to do?”

Sultan doesn’t make a sound and watches the darkness spreading from the forest. We’re approaching it slowly, I don’t feel like it, but we’re nevertheless going. Now we’re close. And that’s where we stop. I peer into the darkness, but looking at it like that, directly, I see nothing. When I glance at it from the corner of my eye, as if trying to look away, it seems, I see yellow eyes, glowing in the dark.

“No harm from them,” I whisper.

I grab Sultan’s collar. There’s a bench in front of us, behind it is the forest, and there in the darkness, between two worlds, something is lying. Maybe it’s our ball, I can’t tell. The dog growls quietly.