NEWLY TRANSLATED: Read 'All That', a short story by Ognejn Spahic, the award-winning Montenegrin writer.
By Ognjen Spahic, Montenegro
‘Danilo shouldn’t go,’ I said. ‘Rituals like that aren’t good for a child, they shouldn’t have to go there. They don’t really realise what it means when someone dies. Death!? – it’s just a word which confuses and scares them. So why should we try to explain it in such a brutal way?’
You’re right,’ answered Marina. ‘Let him miss us all going to the house. On Sunday he can visit the grave. That’s enough. But can you believe it, this morning he was looking for a black shirt. Mummy, I want to wear a black shirt, he said. Why? I asked. Tomorrow I have to look sad, he said.’
‘Today at school they’re only going to work half a day. I don’t think he should go. He’s going to have so many upsetting feelings.’ Marina said.
‘We’ll ask him what he wants. That’s the best thing to do,’ I replied.
‘Come here a minute.’
‘Would you like not to go to school today?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Well, think about it. If you don’t want to go, that’s fine.’
‘It’s not fine.’
‘Why do you think that?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘We could go to the lake if you want. We’ll roast chestnuts and do some fishing. Mummy will make us a packed lunch…’
He had never refused a trip to the lake. He looked at me with a big smile and said,
‘OK, can we go straight away?’
‘Right this minute, little man.’ I replied.
We filled up the car and left. It had been raining all week, and I imagined it would be the same today. But I promised we’d do some fishing, even though in this weather there weren’t usually any fish. If the fog is low on the water, it’s risky to go far from the shore. We’ll just sail around the islands and then make a fire on one. Our favourite thing to do: I was glad he wasn’t going to school today.
‘Dad, have you ever been to the cemetery?’ he asked as we were driving.
‘Of course I have.’
‘And what did you do there?’
What seemed like a simple question called for a well chosen answer.
‘I walked around.’
‘You could say I needed a bit of peace and quiet; you and your sister can be really loud sometimes.’
‘You went to the cemetery because of us? Just to have some quiet?’
‘Weren’t you afraid? So many people lying there without saying a word…?’
‘What do you mean: lying there and not saying a word?’
‘Well, when someone dies they don’t talk anymore.’
‘Yes, among other things,’ I told him, trying to end the conversation.
His ideas of death and dying were forming inside of him. We’d never spoken about that, perhaps we should have done. But this wasn’t the moment. He told me that at school they wanted him to carry the wreath and walk with Maria and Ana.
‘Dad, they’re not going to carry anything; I’m the president of the class’ he said, looking at the village ahead, at the roofs getting redder as we came nearer.
‘Danilo, do you know what happens there?’
‘Dad, can we go first to visit Peter,’ he said, avoiding the question.
‘No. We’ll go home. We’ll phone him when we get there.’
That was a mistake, I thought. The wrong words. It’s difficult to talk about death. And even more difficult to explain to a child the ceremony and rituals which go with it in this rotten country. I was six when my father was killed. Just like him, their words hinted at the tears to come. And sighs. I only just remember it, my sister was crying, my grandma holding me on her lap, enough chocolate and cuddles to last the whole year. Mother died seven years later. Her death was worse. Three months she lay in a hospital bed and finally passed away in silence. If she’d have died like father – in a car crash, unexpected, abruptly, disappeared – I think I would have handled it better. As we held vigil over her in the house, over her coffin, that first day, I stood there with sticky palms and above her head I saw Uncle Peter coming. He was my father’s oldest brother. ‘What the hell are you acting like that for’, he said angrily through gritted teeth. ‘You mustn’t cry. Go to the bathroom, I’ll take your place. Wash yourself. I don’t want to see any more tears. You’re head of the house now! You mustn’t cry!’ he shouted at me.
People flowed past like a river, and I was a small white pebble that didn’t dare go with that flow. I held in my tears the whole time. After the funeral, silence was the only escape. I think I still hate Peter to this day. I’ve never said a word to him about that. Now he lives in the village near our weekend house, and rarely comes to town.
‘Peter!’ I called when we got out of the car. He didn’t answer. He was probably in the forest, collecting wood. I wanted to ask him to lend us a couple of logs.
‘Dad, maybe he’s not home. Or he’s sleeping.’
‘Stubborn old git.’
‘Don’t call him that, Dad. He’s all right, and he’s old. He told me he’s seventy years old.’
He’s all right and he’s old. He told him he was seventy, when he’s exactly sixty three. Not a year more. The last ten years of his life father didn’t speak to him: a banal family argument over inheritance. When I was a child I used to meet him at grandma’s house. Mother used to like me to spend Sundays there. Peter, Grandma and I would eat lunch together. And everything was all right until mother’s funeral.
‘He’s my best friend in the village’, said Danilo looking at the red roof in the cleft of the hill.
There really is something special about the old guy. When we get back from fishing I’ll let him go to visit. He loves the child. And I’ll send some cigarettes; he’s poisoning himself with that home-grown tobacco.
‘Danilo, get the oar.’ I said. ‘Hey, young man, it looks like it’s all here: bait, ground-sheet, sandwiches, matches...’
‘All present and correct, Captain,’ he said happily.
Maple leaves were scattered across the water, as smooth as a mirror. A fog was falling. I planned to sail around the little islands then stop on one to make a fire.
As we slid across the silence, he leant out of the boat and tried to pick the water lilies. With sleeves rolled up and hands dragging through the water. There was no wind and the air was warm. The shore line of the island came into view.
‘We’ll land here and make a fire’’
‘Fog. I don’t like fog’, he said.
‘Where did that come from: I don’t like fog? You don’t have to like it, you know. But why do you let it bother you?’
‘It doesn’t bother me. I just don’t like it. Just like I don’t like eating runner beans’, he said.
‘O.k. Danilo, Strange Prince of Darkness. Let’s row a little bit faster to that deserted island.’
‘I don’t like it when people die...and all that,’ he said.
I don’t like it when people die and all that: the generalisation was worrying. All that? Yet I knew exactly what he wanted to say. On the tip of my tongue are hundreds of words which could explain everything. Or hundreds of forms, hundreds of secrets, fears, hundreds of unarticulated feelings tied into one. Into one? I felt all that at mother’s funeral, with a dry face and eyes, my attention split between the dark mahogany coffin disappearing into the earth and the trembling forms of the mourners. On the left (I realised later) was Aunt Marta; diagonally to her left, near the white gravestone: a man with a hooked nose chewing on piece of straw; straight ahead: the Cypress trees obscuring the face of a woman, right: wrinkled hands wringing a handkerchief. On the priest’s chest, a cross swinging…
‘Danilo, the rope,’ I said.
It wasn’t necessary to tie up the boat. The lake didn’t have a current that took things away. I just do it for him. A pretence at adventure: a small harmless attempt to escape from reality, I think to myself: Mutiny on the Bounty.
‘We’ll sit here, and make the fire over there.’
‘It’s damp. Dad, it’s better to make the fire here and sit under a tree.’
We put out the things on the ground sheet.
‘Bait, sandwiches, matches, chestnuts, bait. It’s all here,’ he confirmed.
‘And now, let’s hunt for beasts.’
He brings the box of worms; very carefully, like he’s carrying an ancient relic. The red box looks so much bigger than the childish hand. He smiles to himself and with a look of concentration he rummages inside in order to find the one he feels is best for the lake fishes. An experienced fisherman; an old sea-dog.
‘There we are,’ he says proudly, ‘a tasty little worm.’
‘God choice, you old sea-dog.’
We cast our lines and make up the fire. To the soothing sound of the lapping water behind our backs, we wait for the fish to bite. The fog is thicker. The lights from the village are getting dimmer. We should have bought a gas lamp so they can see us clearer from the shore if we miss the dock, but it usually clears in the evening.
‘Dad, I’m going to carry the wreath,’ he suddenly says.
‘Nothing. I’m just going to carry it. And Maria and Anna will walk after me.’
He’ll carry the wreath, and Maria and Anna will walk after him. He said it as if he didn’t have any idea what he was supposed to do. Like he’s going to carry the wreath on his back and walk around the house. Cruel. It seems cruel to bother children with that kind of stupidity: introducing them to death through a morbid ritual which has lost any meaning.
‘And where are you going to carry the wreath?’
‘Please, be a little more precise. You don’t speak like that to your father. Admit that you don’t know where you’re going to carry it. I want to help you!’
‘But I know! And Maria and Anna know what’s going to happen there. Once they went to a funeral to give..con..dol…ses….condolences.’
‘O.k. What I wanted to say was: do you know what it looks like? I mean, when you go to give condolences. Do you know what it will be like and where you should put the flowers?’
Suddenly his line shook. Concentric rings spread out across the water then disappeared into the mist.
‘Pull it in, boy. It’s yours!’
‘Dad, it’s enormous! Look! But…’
A rotten log floats to the surface. The springs at the bottom of the lake collect the sediment of mud and debris. If you fish near the shore, these things happen. Disappointed, he laid the line aside and threw the branch on the fire, watching it crackle. It caught alight, smouldered and turned to ash. His little revenge: the execution of a ruthless cheat. We cast our lines again.
‘Maria said we would see some strange things. But we don’t need to get upset, because it’s all normal. I mean, it’s normal for grown-ups to act like that. That’s what she said. I asked her what she had seen there. She saw a woman in black with a black head scarf who was kissing a dead body and screaming. And crying. And then everyone stood in a circle, and everybody cried. And they put the wreaths down. Lots of tears. She said we have to go up to the people in the circle, shake hands with them and be sad. She didn’t know how to do that, but she watched other people..’
He told me this while I stared at the thick fog above the lake. The blue of the sky started to appear. In half an hour there will be no fog. You could feel the silent movement of the tiny particles of mist. Movement: the fogs creeps like a python after the slow process of digesting its prey, I thought.
‘The fog creeps like a python after the slow process of digesting its prey.’
‘What did you say Dad?’
‘Nothing. We have to get back. It’ll soon be night.’
‘Are we going to Peter’s?’
‘No, you go and see Peter. I’ll wait for you in the shed. I’ll roast some chestnuts.’
‘Let’s go, young man. Untie the boat and raise the anchor. Set the sails.’
Let loose the sail, I said, with my face turned towards the hill, which looked unusually tall. The fog had transformed into a mist. The mist into an old church with a broken bell tower. There is the cemetery. Ashen fragments of broken tiles. The stoney silouettes of rituals and paths among the empty graves. Please accept my condolences, one must say mechanically, shaking hands. And then boney, sweaty hands grab the hand of a child. Throaty sobs as an answer. And again: accept my condolences. And again. And again. Accept my condolences, they will say.
‘Shall I go?’
‘Wait a minute’
‘Peter! I’m sure he can’t hear. I think I can see a light’
‘Yes, it’s the lamp. Can I go now?’
‘Wait,’ I say. ‘Take the cigarettes. And take a paper and pencil. If he’s not at home you can leave a note.’
‘What shall I write?’
‘What the hell do you think you should write?!’
Thursday afternoon, he stayed alone at home. On Thursdays we go to visit Natalie and Simon for cooking day. We spend a few hours preparing a new dish together. We’ve been doing that for months. On Thursdays Danilo goes to his English lessons and comes homes from school at three and leaves the house again at five. We come back at six and we don’t find him there. On the dining-room table, usually, there is a neatly written note:
Mum and Dad. Hana died. She lent me her History book. She has black hair. When I gave it back she got angry because I put a sticker of Spiderman on it.
I love my mother and father.
Your Danilo, says the signature.
Usually he wrote: Dear Mum and Dad. I went out. I’ll come back at seven. I can’t wait to see you.
Or: Today we are learning a new lesson. It’s called Mary and his brother Marfy. See you later.
She had Leukaemia, but till the final day she came to school in a wheelchair. When he came back we didn’t want to remind him of all that. Until he said: Mum, I have to wear a black shirt.
‘Tomorrow I have to look sad,’ he said.
‘You have to look or you really are?’
‘I don’t know,’ he answered, starting to sob quietly as he sank into sleep.
And why was he taking so long at Peter’s? It was almost forty minutes since he left.
Days after mother’s funeral I wanted to go to him and cry, just out of spite. But the anger I felt didn’t allow tears. I didn’t manage even in front of the mirror. Later it passed. I felt lighter. The images from her funeral passed through my mind less and less. Whenever I met Peter or went to the cemetery.
‘Peter?’ I call, knocking on the door. ‘Danilo,’ I say and turn the handle.
The smell of cooked quinces fills the place. They’re not there. There’s an icon of St.Nicholas next to the window. There’s a window next to the icon. And in the window frame two lights float through the darkness.
‘Hi, how are you?’ he asks from the doorway.
‘All right. Where’s Danilo?’
‘Just in front. He’s got the lamp. Are you staying?’
‘No. We have to get back,’ I say, heading towards the door. He thanks me for the cigarettes while filling the stove with logs.
‘Well, see you then,’ he says, and slams close the door of the stove. ‘Take the lamp. It’s dark. Leave it under the water bucket when you go.’
Narrow paths meander up the hill and down to the lake and the old fish ponds, then back to the village.
‘Dad? Can we go through the cemetery?’
I’ve never liked to go there without a reason. I’ve taken flowers for the anniversaries of mother’s and father’s death. Once or twice a year, I’ve come to the funerals of cousins and distant family. Condolences. Funeral. The third morning. Forty days after death. Morbid decorations around death. Deformed quotes from the Bible. Jesus?! Because, when after three days you arrange the vigil above somebody’s grave, you do nothing else but wait for resurrection.
‘Can we go through the cemetery?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Look at you. What’s wrong with you? You don’t know anything today!’
‘I think that I will know when we get there.’
‘Please, don’t complicate things. What do you expect to happen if you manage to turn-off your fear and visit some old graveyard?’
‘I’m not afraid. Peter took me there tonight. And we sat on a stone. And…’
‘What are you talking about? Peter took you to the cemetery?’
‘He told me to imagine he was dead. He laid down, crossed his arms and closed his eyes. He told me what to say and how to behave at the funeral. He’s all right.’
‘Let’s go. Turn out the light,’ I say.
We should do something. On Sunday he’s going to the cemetery. When we get back to town I’ll suggest releasing him from his obligation to do these unpleasant things. He doesn’t have to go. We’ll come to the lake again – fish, roast chestnuts. And I won’t let him visit Peter.
‘He said he was going to die very soon, Dad.’
‘Oh, don’t you worry about him!’ I say as we are driving back, towards the motorway.
As the lake sinks into darkness, the fog lifts from the wide road. White lines mark the centre. It’s clear. It’s soothing. Marina must be making diner now: something good. I can just imagine her hands covered in flour.
And Danilo has fallen asleep. I’ll drive slower. His face is lit up intermittently by the passing headlights, and his hands are crossed across his chest. His eyelashes flutter. Beneath his eyelids, his pupils move wildly. He’s dreaming……he’s dreaming….He’s dreaming?
As we drive towards the town, hanging beneath the murky glass of the rear-view mirror, the cross dances mutely.
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