How long a heart attack takes over three hundred feet, how much a spider’s life weighs, why a sad man writes to the cruel river, and what magic the Comrade in Chief of the unfinished can work
Grandpa Slavko measured my head with Granny’s washing line, I got a magic hat, a pointy magic hat made of cardboard, and Grandpa Slavko said: I’m really still too young for this sort of thing, and you’re already too old.
So I got a magic hat with yellow and blue shooting stars on it, trailing yellow and blue tails, and I cut out a little crescent moon to go with them and two triangular rockets. Gagarin was flying one, Grandpa Slavko was flying the other.
On the morning of the day when he was to die in the evening, Grandpa Slavko made me a magic wand from a stick and said: there’s magic in that hat and wand.
If you wear the hat and wave the wand you’ll be the most powerful magician in the nonaligned states. You’ll be able to revolutionize all sorts of things, just as long as they’re in line with Tito’s ideas and the Statutes of the Communist League of Yugoslavia.
I doubted the magic, but I never doubted my grandpa. The most valuable gift of all is invention, imagination is your greatest wealth. Remember that, Aleksandar, said Grandpa very gravely as he put the hat on my head, you remember that and imagine the world better than it is. He handed me the magic wand, and I doubted nothing anymore.
It’s usual for people to think sadly of the dead now and then. In our family that happens when Sunday, rain, coffee and Granny Katarina all come together at the same time. Granny sips from her favorite cup, the white one with the cracked handle, she cries and remembers all the dead and the good things they did before dying got in the way. Our family and friends are at Granny’s today because we’re remembering Grandpa Slavko who’s been dead for two days, dead for now anyway, just until I can find my magic wand and my hat again.
Still not dead in my family are Mother, Father, and Father’s brothers—Uncle Bora and Uncle Miki. Nena Fatima, my mother’s mother, is well in herself, it’s only her ears and her tongue that have died—she’s deaf as a post and silent as snowfall, as they say. Auntie Gordana isn’t dead yet either, she’s Uncle Bora’s wife and pregnant. Auntie Gordana, a blonde island in the dark sea of our family’s hair, is always called Typhoon because she’s four times livelier than normal people; she runs eight times faster and talks at fourteen times the usual speed. She even sprints from the loo to the wash basin, and at the cash register in shops she’s worked out the price of everything even before the cashier can tap it in.
They’ve all come to Granny’s because of Grandpa Slavko’s death, but they’re talking about the life in Auntie Typhoon’s belly. Everyone is sure she’ll have her baby on Sunday at the latest, or at the very, very latest on Monday, months early but already as perfect as if it were in the ninth month. I suggest calling the baby Speedy Gonzales. Auntie Typhoon shakes her blonde curls, says all in a rush: are-we-Mexicans-or-what? It’ll-be-a-girl-not-a-mouse! She’s-going-to-be-called-Ema.
Or Slavko, adds Uncle Bora quietly, Slavko if it’s a boy.
There’s a lot of love around for Grandpa Slavko today among all the people in black drinking coffee with Granny Katarina and taking surreptitious looks at the sofa where Grandpa was sitting when Carl Lewis set the new world record in Tokyo. Grandpa died in 9.86 seconds flat; his heart was racing right up there with Carl Lewis, they were neck and neck. Then his heart stopped and Carl ran on like crazy. Grandpa gasped, and Carl flung his arms up in the air and threw an American flag over his shoulders.
The mourners bring chocolates and sugar cubes, cognac and schnapps. They want to console Granny with sweet things, they want to comfort themselves with drink. Male mourning smells of aftershave. It stands in small groups in the kitchen, getting drunk. Female mourning sits around the living room table with Granny, suggesting names for the new life in Auntie Typhoon’s belly and discussing the right way to put a baby down to sleep in its first few months. When anyone mentions Grandpa’s name the women cut up cake and hand slices around. They add sugar to their coffee and stir it with spoons that look like toys.
Women always praise the virtues of cake.
Great-Granny Mileva and Great-Grandpa Nikola aren’t here because their son is going home to them in Veletovo, to be buried in the village where he was born. What the two have to do with each other I don’t know. You should be allowed to be dead where you really liked being when you were alive. My father down in our cellar, for instance, which he calls his studio and he hardly ever leaves, among his canvases and brushes. Granny anywhere just as long as her women neighbors are there too and there’s coffee and chocolates. Great-Granny and Great-Grandpa under the plum trees in their orchard in Veletovo. Where has my mother really liked being?
Grandpa Slavko in his best stories, or underneath the Party office.
I may be able to manage without him for another two days. My magic things are sure to turn up by then.
I’m looking forward to seeing Great-Grandpa and Great-Granny again. Ever since I can remember they haven’t smelled very sweet, and their average age is about a hundred and fifty. All the same, they’re the least dead and the most alive of the whole family if you leave out Auntie Typhoon, who doesn’t count—she’s more of a natural catastrophe than a human being and she has a propeller in her backside. So Uncle Bora sometimes says, kissing his natural catastrophe’s back.
Uncle Bora weighs twice as many pounds as my great-grandparents are old.
Someone else in my family who’s not dead yet is Granny Katarina, although on the evening when Grandpa’s great heart died of the fastest illness in the world she wished she was and wailed: all alone, what’s to become of me without you, I don’t want to be all alone, Slavko, oh, my Slavko, I’m so sad!
I was less afraid of Grandpa’s death than of Granny’s great grief crawling about on its knees like that: all alone, how am I going to live all alone? Granny beat her breast at Grandpa’s dead feet and begged to be dead herself. I was breathing fast, but not easily. Granny was so weak that I imagined her body going all soft on the floor, soft and round. On TV a large woman jumped into the sand and looked happy about it. At Grandpa’s feet, Granny shouted to the neighbors to come around. They unbuttoned his shirt, Grandpa’s glasses slipped, his mouth was twisted to one side . . . I cut things out in my mind, the way I always do when I’m at a loss, more stars for my magic hat. In spite of being afraid, and though it was so soon after a death, I noticed that Granny’s china dog on the TV set had fallen over and the plate with fish bones left from supper was still standing on the crochet tablecloth. I could hear every word the neighbors said as they bustled about, I heard it all in spite of Granny’s whimpering and howling. She tugged at Grandpa’s legs and Grandpa slid forward off the sofa. I hid in the corner behind the TV. But a thousand TVs couldn’t have hidden Granny’s distorted face from me, or Grandpa falling off the sofa all twisted sideways, or the thought that I’d never seen my grandparents look uglier.
I’d have liked to put my hand on Granny’s shaking back—her blouse would have been wet with sweat—and I’d have liked to say: Granny, don’t! It will be all right. After all, Grandpa’s a Party member, and the Party agrees with the Statutes of the Communist League, it’s just that I can’t find my magic wand at the moment. It’s going to be all right again, Granny.
But her grief-stricken madness silenced me. The louder she cried: leave me alone! flailing around, the less courageous I felt in my hiding place. The more the neighbors turned away from Grandpa and went to Granny instead, trying to console someone obviously inconsolable, as if they were selling her something she didn’t need, the more frantically she defended herself. As more and more tears covered her cheeks, her mouth, her lamentation, her chin, like oil coating a pan, I cut out more and more little details of the living room: the bookcase with works by Marx, Lenin and Kardelj, Das Kapital at the left on the bottom shelf, the smell of fish, the branches of the pattern on the wallpaper, four tapestry pictures on the wall—children playing in a village street, brightly colored flowers in a brightly colored vase, a ship on a rough sea, a little cottage in the forest—a photograph of Tito and Gandhi shaking hands, right above and between the ship and the cottage. Someone saying: how do we get her off him?
More and more people came along, one taking another’s place as if to catch up with something, or at least not miss out on anything else, anxious to be as lively as possible in the presence of death. Grandpa’s death had been too quick. It upset the neighbors, it made them look guiltily at the floor. No one had been able to keep up with Grandpa’s heart running its race, not even Granny: oh no, why, why, why, Slavko? Teta Amela from the second floor collapsed. Someone cried: oh, sacred heart of Jesus! Someone else immediately cursed the mother of Jesus and several other members of his family. Granny tugged at Grandpa’s trouser legs, hit out at the two paramedics who appeared in the living room with their little bags. Keep your hands off him, she cried. Under their white coats the paramedics wore lumberjack shirts, and they hauled Granny off Grandpa’s legs as if prizing a seashell off a rock. As Granny saw it, Grandpa wouldn’t be dead until she let go of him, so she wasn’t letting go. The men in white coats listened to Grandpa’s chest. One of them held a mirror to his face and said: no, nothing.
I shouted that Grandpa was still there, his death didn’t conform to the aims and ideals of the Communist League. You just get out of the way, give me my magic wand and I’ll prove it!
No one took any notice of me. The lumberjack-paramedics put their hands inside Grandpa’s shirt and shone a flashlight in his eyes. I pulled out the electric cable, and the TV turned itself off. There were loose cobwebs hanging in the corner next to the power socket. How much less does a spider’s death weigh than the death of a human being? Which of her husband’s dead legs does the spider’s wife cling to? I decided that I would never again put a spider in a bottle and run water slowly into it.
Where was my magic wand?
I don’t know how long I stood in the corner before my father grabbed my arm as if taking me prisoner. He handed me over to my mother, who hauled me down the stairs and out into the yard. The air smelled of mirabelles mashed to make schnapps and there were fires on the megdan. You can see the whole town from the megdan, perhaps you can even see into the yard in front of the big five-story block, practically a high-rise building for Visegrad, where a young woman with long black hair and brown eyes was bending down to a boy with hair the same color and with the same almond-shaped eyes. She blew some strands of hair off his forehead, her eyes filled with tears. No one on the megdan could hear what she was whispering to the boy. And perhaps no one could see that after the woman had taken the boy in her arms and hugged him for a long, long time, he nodded. The way you nod when you’re promising something.
On the evening of the third day after Grandpa Slavko’s death I’m sitting in the kitchen, looking through photograph albums. I take all the photos of Grandpa Slavko out of the album. Out in the yard our cherry tree is arguing with the wind, it’s stormy. When I’ve fixed it so that Grandpa Slavko can come alive again, for my next trick I’ll make us all able to keep hold of noises. Then we can put the wind in the cherry-tree leaves into an album of sounds, along with the rumble of thunder and dogs barking at night in summer. And this is me chopping wood for the stove—that’s how we’ll be able to present our life proudly in sounds, the way we show holiday snaps of the Adriatic. We’ll be carrying small sounds around with us. I’d cover up the anxiety on my mother’s face with the laughter she laughs on her good days.
The brownish photos with broad white rims smell of plastic tablecloths, and show people with funny trousers that get wider at the bottom. There’s a short man in a railwayman’s uniform standing in front of a train, looking straight ahead, upright as a soldier: Grandpa Rafik.
Grandpa Rafik, my mother’s father, died for good a long time ago—he drowned in the river Drina. I hardly knew him, but I can remember one game we played, a simple game. Grandpa Rafik would point to something and I’d say its name, its color, and the first thing that occurred to me about it. He’d point to his penknife, and I’d say: knife, gray, and railway engine. He’d point to a sparrow, and I’d say: bird, gray, and railway engine. Grandpa Rafik pointed through the window at the night, and I said: dreams, gray, and railway engine, and Grandpa tucked me up and said: sleep an iron sleep.
The time of my gray period was the time of my visits to the eye specialist, who diagnosed nothing except that I could see things too fast, for instance the sequence of little letters and big letters on his wall chart. You’ll have to cure him of that somehow, Mrs. Krsmanović, said the eye specialist, and he prescribed drops for her own eyes, which were always red.
I was very scared of trains and railway engines at that time. Grandpa Rafik had taken me to the disused railway tracks, he scratched flaking paint off the old engine; you’ve broken my heart, he whispered, rubbing the black paint between the palms of his hands. On the way home—paving stone, gray, railway engine, my hand in his large one, black with sharp scraps of peeling paint—I decided to be nice to railway trains, because now he had me worried about my own heart. But it had been a long time since any trains had passed through our town. A few years later the first girl I loved, Danijela with her very long hair who didn’t return my love, showed me how silly I’d been to protect my heart from being broken by trains.
Peeling scraps of paint and the gray game are all I remember of Grandpa Rafik, unless old photos count as memories. And Grandpa Rafik is absent from our home in general. However often and however readily my family like to talk about themselves and other families and the dead over coffee, Grandpa Rafik is very seldom mentioned. No one ever looks at the coffee grounds in a cup and sighs: oh, Rafik, my Rafik, if only you were here! No one ever wonders what Grandpa Rafik would say about something, his name isn’t spoken with either gratitude or disapproval.
No dead person could be less alive than Grandpa Rafik.
The dead are lonely enough in the earth where they lie, so why do we leave even the memory of Grandpa Rafik to be so lonely?
Mother comes into the kitchen and opens the fridge. She’s going to make sandwiches to take to work, she puts butter and cheese on the table. I look at her face, searching it for Grandpa Rafik’s face in the photos.
Mama, do you look like Grandpa Rafik? I ask when she sits down at the table and unwraps the bread. She cuts up tomatoes. I wait and ask the question again, and only now does Mother stop, knife blade on a tomato. What kind of grandpa was Grandpa Rafik? I ask again, why does no one talk about him? How am I ever going to know what kind of a grandpa I had?
Mother puts the knife aside and lays her hands in her lap. Mother raises her eyes. Mother looks at me.
You didn’t have a real grandpa, Aleksandar, only a sad man. He mourned for his river and his earth. He would kneel down, scratch about in that earth of his until his fingernails broke and the blood came. He stroked the grass and smelled it and wept into its tufts like a tiny child—my dear earth, you’re trodden underfoot, at the mercy of all kinds of weight. You didn’t have a real grandpa, only a stupid man. He drank and drank. He ate earth, he brought earth up, then he crawled to the bank on all fours and washed his mouth out with water from the river. How that sad man loved his river! And his cognac—a stupid man who could love only what he saw as humbled and subjugated. Who could love only if he drank and drank.
The Drina, what a neglected river, what forgotten beauty, he would lament when he came staggering out of a bar, once with the frame of his glasses bent, another time after wetting himself, oh, the stink of it! What a messy business old age is, he wept when he stumbled and fell, trying to hold tight to the river in case he took off. Oh, how often we found him at night under the first arch of the bridge, lying on his belly with his fingers clutching the surface of the water. Swollen, blue hands, half-clenched into fists. He’d be holding flowers in the river, stones, sometimes a cognac bottle. It went on like that for years. Ever since they took the railway out of service, so that there were no more trains running through the town with that sad man switching the points for them, setting the signals, raising the barriers. He lost his job and never said a word about it, he had nothing to do now and nothing at all to say. He was sent into retirement and he drank day after day, first in secret up at the railway station that wasn’t a station anymore, though the old engine still stood there, and later by the river and in the middle of town, overcome by sudden, stupid love for the water and its banks.
You didn’t have a real grandpa, only an embittered man. He drank and drank and drank until he was tired of life. If only he’d loved chess or the Party or us as much as he loved his trains and then his river, and most of all his brandy! If only he’d listened to us and not the deep, unfathomable Drina!
One evening he scratched a farewell letter into the river bank. He had drunk three liters of wine, and he used the broken neck of a bottle as his pen. We pulled him out of the mud by his feet, and he whimpered and cried out to the river: how am I to save you, how am I to save something so large all by myself?
To think that something so sad can stink like that! We were called when his shouting and his songs got to be more than anyone could bear. Papa carried him home in his arms and put him in the bathtub, clothes and all, and in the bathtub your drunken grandfather threw up twice, in a fury, cursing all anglers: may your weapons turn against your own mouths, he said, prodding the river’s belly like that with your hooks, tearing the fish’s lips—ah, what silent pain! May your skin be flayed with blunt knives, you criminals, may the depths take you along with your boats, your filthy gasoline, all your weirs, all your turbines, all your mechanical diggers! A river: a river is water and life and power and nothing else.
Around midnight I washed his hair and his tortoise neck, I washed behind his ears and under his armpits. He kissed my hands and said he knew exactly who I was. In spite of his tears he knew whose knuckles he was patting, he remembered everything: what a jewel Love was, and Fate such a bastard!
I’m your daughter, I told him three times, not your wife, and on that night, his last, he made me three promises: from now on, he’d wear clean clothes, he’d drink no alcohol, and he’d stay alive. He kept only one of them. His railwayman’s cap was found under the first arch of the bridge, his cognac bottle was also found, but he himself was never found. We probed the water near the banks of the Drina for him with pitchforks. Why had he gone out again? What was there left to love on that May night? The bars had all been shut for ages when I tucked him up after his bath, after he’d made his promises. An angler, of all people, found his body in the reeds downstream. His face was under the water, his feet were on the bank—his beloved Drina was kissing him in death, marrying that sad man who kept only one of his promises. He had smartened himself up for the wedding and was wearing his uniform with the railwayman’s badge. He had spent so many nights looking for death, but until then he didn’t have the courage to find it; he didn’t keep his head under water long enough for the Drina to be the last and only tear he wept.
And when he was to be laid out for the funeral, twelve hours after I’d washed him into making his three promises, I was the one who took the loofah again, the hardest I could find, I was the one who scrubbed his thin torso the way you scrub a carpet, rubbed soap into his yellow, wrinkled belly and brushed his flabby calves. I didn’t touch his fingers or his face. Your sad grandfather had dug his hands into the bank, and what kind of daughter would I have been to scrape the earth out from under his fingernails? After he had said: when I die I don’t want any coffin? How that sad man loved his cruel river, how he loved the willows and the fish and the mud! You didn’t have a grandpa, Aleksandar, only a naive man. But you were too little to remember his naivete. You liked the way he said gray, gray, gray to everything, for some reason you thought it was funny. It was only for his river that he thought up the brightest of colors, he saw the detail of nothing but the Drina, that sad man who could laugh only when he saw his reflection in the water. You didn’t have a grandpa, Aleksandar, just a sad man.
I look at my mother with a thousand questions in my eyes. She has sung me the song of the sad man as if she’d been rehearsing it since the day he drowned. She has sung as if he hadn’t belonged to her, as if someone else had written the lines, yet with such loving anger that I was afraid a mere nod of my head might disrupt the song. Now she shakes her head over something I can’t see and lays slices of bread out in a row on the table.
I ask only two of my thousands of questions. What did Grandpa write on the bank? And why didn’t any of you help him?
My mother is a small woman. She runs her fingers through her long hair, combing it. She puffs in my face as if we were playing. She unwraps the butter. Unwraps the cheese. Spreads butter on the bread. Puts a slice of cheese on the butter. Puts tomatoes on the cheese. Sprinkles salt on the tomatoes with her thumb and forefinger. Takes the bread on the palm of her hand. Puts another slice of bread on top of it. Presses them firmly together.
The cherry tree withstands the storm, whipping its branches about. At first the tapping on our front roof comes like a few coins dropping into a cash register, then it goes faster and faster; it’s a hailstorm. After my mother has silently left the kitchen I open the window and put a photo of Grandpa Slavko and me on the sill. The cold wind reaches out for my face, I close the window. In the other brownish photos people are standing about in bathing suits with vertical stripes, ankle-deep in the Drina. There are no such bathing suits anymore; the dog and her four puppies probably aren’t around either. My young Grandpa Slavko, with his hat on, is patting the puppies, enjoying himself. Which is the last photo of him? How long do dogs live, and do I know any of the puppies? A time comes when there are no new photos of dogs or people because their lives are over. And how do you photograph a life that’s over? When I die, I’ll tell everyone, photograph me in the ground. That’ll be in seventy years’ time. Photograph my nails growing, photograph me getting thinner and thinner and losing my skin.
Everything that’s finished and over, all deaths seem to me uncalled-for, unhappy, undeserved. Summers turn to winter, houses are demolished, people in photos turn to photos on gravestones. So many things ought to be left unfinished—Sundays, so that Mondays don’t come; dams so that rivers aren’t held up. Tables ought not to be varnished because the smell gives me a headache; holidays shouldn’t turn into going back to school; cartoons ought not to turn into the news. And my love for Danijela with her very long hair shouldn’t have turned into unrequited love. And I should never finish making magic hats with Grandpa, but go on talking endlessly to him about the advantages of life as a magician in the service of the Communist League, and what might happen if you season bread with dust from the tail of a shooting star.
I’m against endings, I’m against things being over. Being finished should be stopped! I am Comrade in Chief of going on and on, I support furthermore and et cetera!
I find a picture of the bridge over the Drina in the last photo album. The bridge looks the same as usual except that there’s scaffolding around its eleven arches. People are standing on the scaffolding, waving as if the bridge were a ship about to sail away down the river. Despite the scaffolding the bridge looks finished. It’s complete; the scaffolding can’t spoil its beauty and usefulness. I don’t mind the gigantic completeness of our bridge. The Drina is fast in that photo and rushes along, the broad, the dangerous Drina—a young river!
Flowing fast is like shouting out loud.
Today it rolls lazily by, more of a lake than a river; the dam has discouraged the water so much—the slow Drina, with driftwood and dirt near the banks as if it’s fraying at the edges. I carefully take the bridge out of the photo album. The surface is cool and smooth, like the once wild, untamed river is today. I put the photo in my trouser pocket, where it will get crumpled and dog-eared.
I want to make unfinished things. I’m not a builder, and I’m rather bad at math except for mental arithmetic. I don’t know how you make bricks. But I can paint. I get that from my artist father, along with my big ears and his constant cry of: not now, can’t you see I’m busy! I’m going to be the artist of the lovely unfinished! I’ll paint plums without stones, rivers without dams, Comrade Tito in a T-shirt! Artists have to create pictures in a logical series; that, says my father the spare-time artist, is the recipe for success, he told me about it in his studio. As well as his canvases and paints there are tubs of sauerkraut stored there, boxes of old clothes, and the child’s bed I’ve grown out of. My father spends entire weekends in his studio. A painter must never be satisfied with what he sees—painting reality means surrendering to it, he cries when I knock at the door to say the air’s leaking out of my soccer ball again, or the inner tube of my bike tire. Artists have to reshuffle and rebuild reality, says my father in his beret as he pumps up the soccer ball. He isn’t really talking to me, he doesn’t expect any answer. There are French songs playing in the studio, Pink Floyd late in the evening, and the door is locked.
Logical series are the answer. Other people can fly planes and delouse the pelicans in the zoo, but I’m going to be a soccer playing, fishing, serial artist of the Unfinished! None of my pictures will ever be painted to the end; there’ll be something important missing from every one of them.
I get my painting things, my paint box; I borrow paper from my father. I put water in a jam jar and soften my brushes in it. The empty sheet of paper lies in front of me. The first picture of something unfinished must be the Drina, the mischievous river before it had a dam. I put blue and yellow on the plate where I mix them; I make the first green brushstroke on the paper, the green is too pale, I darken it carefully and paint a curve, I lighten it, too cold, I add ochre, green, green, but I’ll never get a green like the green of the river Drina, not in a hundred years.
The dead are lonelier than the living ever can be. They can’t hear each other through coffins and the earth. And the living go and plant flowers on the graves. The roots grow down into the earth and break through the coffins. After a while the coffins are full of roots and the dead people’s hair. Then they can’t even talk to themselves. When I die I’d like to be buried in a mass grave. In a mass grave I wouldn’t be afraid of the dark, and I’d be lonely only because my grandson will be missing me, the way I miss Grandpa Slavko now.
I don’t have any grandpa now, and the tears are building up behind my forehead. Everything important in the world can be found in the morning paper, the Communist Manifesto, or the stories that make us laugh or cry, best of all both at the same time. That was one of Grandpa Slavko’s clever sayings. When I get to be as old as he was I’ll have his clever sayings, I’ll have big veins like the veins on my father’s forearms, I’ll have my granny’s recipes and my mother’s rare look of happiness.
On the morning of the fourth day after Grandpa’s death Father wakes me, and I know at once: it’s Grandpa’s funeral. I dreamed everyone in my family was dead except me, which felt like being suddenly very far away and unable to find my way back.
Pack your things, we’re leaving.
My father wakes me up only when there’s some kind of disaster; otherwise Mother comes to kiss my hair. Father doesn’t kiss me on principle. It’s awkward between men. He sits down on the edge of the bed as if to say something else. I sit up. So there we are now, sitting. Papa, I look at you the way you look at someone when you’re listening, look, I’m not getting up, it’s a good thing for you to tell me everything I already know, explaining what I already understand, because the thing isn’t complete until a father has told his son and explained it all. But I don’t say that, and Father doesn’t say anything either. That’s the way we talk to each other. We often talk like that. He goes to work, then after work he goes into his studio and spends the whole night there. He sleeps in late on weekends. If he’s watching the news there’s a ban on talking. I’m not complaining, he talks to other people even less than he talks to me. I’m content and my mother is happy that she can bring me up on her own, without interference from Father.
Sitting there saying nothing today, my father looks as if he doesn’t have any muscles. He’s been staying with Granny since Grandpa died. Granny phoned late yesterday and asked how the boy was doing. She thought it was my mother who’d picked up the phone, so I said nothing. We’re going to wash Slavko now, she added, and said good-bye. I imagined Grandpa being washed and dressed for his own funeral. I didn’t see any faces, just hands pulling Grandpa about. The hands threw all the bed linens out of the bedroom and boiled the sheets, you do that when there’s a dead person in the place. Little veins in your eyes burst from washing your dead father; your hands get smaller and you have to keep looking at them. My silent father sits on the edge of my bed with his red-rimmed eyes, hands on his knees, palms turned up. When I’m as old as Father I’ll have the lines on his face. Lines show how well you’ve lived. I don’t know if lots of lines mean you’ve lived better. Mother says no, but I’ve heard the opposite too.
I get up. Father straightens the sheet and plumps up the pillow. Do you have anything black to wear?
Not: Grandpa’s dead.
Not: Aleksandar, your grandpa won’t be coming back.
Not: Life can never be as quick as a sudden heart attack.
Not: Grandpa’s only asleep—I’d resent that even more than the way he opens the window now and hangs the blanket out to air.
I take a black shirt off its hanger. Suddenly I realize that my father is counting on me. He understands that magic is our last chance. We can start right away. I say, I just have to fetch something from Grandpa’s apartment first. Something important.
On the way in the car he says: Granny and your uncles have gone ahead. Hurry up, everybody else is already there. “There” he calls it.
Not a word from him about the funeral, and I don’t say that I’m the most powerful magician-grandson in the nonaligned states. Don’t worry, step on the accelerator and I’ll get my grandpa back for me and your father back for you. I don’t say anything because suddenly being a child seems so difficult.
Grandpa’s apartment. I take a deep breath. The kitchen. Fried onions, nothing left of Grandpa. Bedroom. I press my face against the shirts. Living room. I sit down on the sofa.
That’s where Grandpa was sitting. Nothing. I go into the corner behind the TV set. Nothing. The cobwebs are still there. I look out of the window into the yard. Nothing. Our Yugo with its engine running. Father has got out. My magic hat on the glass case. I climb on a chair, carefully fold up the hat and put it in my rucksack. The rucksack! I search it for the magic wand, and voilá! I was going to show the wand to my best friend Edin, I remember, and for demonstration purposes I was going to break some unimportant bone in our history teacher. He skips almost every lesson with Partisans in it, even though there’ve never been better battles than the fighting of the People’s Liberation Army and Red Star Belgrade’s matches. Red Star Belgrade is my favorite soccer team. We almost always win and when we lose it’s a tragedy. Grandpa’s death has saved the history teacher for now.
Like all the others I wear black, but wearing black can’t be all you have to do at a funeral, so I imitate Uncle Bora and my father in turn. When Uncle Bora bows his head, I bow mine. When Father exchanges a few words with someone, I listen to what he says and repeat the words to someone else. I scratch my stomach because Uncle Bora is scratching his own big belly. It’s hot; I unbutton my shirt because Father is unbuttoning his. That’s the grandson, people whisper.
Auntie Typhoon has caught up with the pallbearers and has to be called back. She asks if she can help. Oh-this-slow-creeping-about, she says, it’ll-be-the-death-of-me.
Great-Grandpa and Great-Granny walk behind the coffin. Great-Grandpa isn’t wearing a hat on his long white hair. When I get to be as old as he is, mine will be even longer. I’d like to tell him about my magic plan because he’s a magician himself, but I can’t find a good opportunity. Grandpa Slavko once told me that long ago Great-Grandpa mucked out the biggest stable in Yugoslavia in a single night because in return its owner promised him his daughter’s hand in marriage—today she’s my Great-Granny. Grandpa wasn’t sure just when it all happened. Two hundred years ago? I suggested, and Uncle Miki tapped his forehead: there wasn’t any Yugoslavia back then, midget; those were the royal stables after the First World War. I liked Uncle Miki’s version because it made Great-Granny into a princess. Grandpa said Great-Grandpa didn’t just muck out the gigantic stable; on the very same night he helped two cows to calve, he won an immense sum of money against the best rummy players in town, and he repaired an electric lightbulb in his father-in-law’s house—which I thought was the most difficult task of all, when you remember that nothing in the world is deader than a dead lightbulb. None of it could have been done without magic. Princess Great-Granny said nothing about it, but smiled a smile full of meaning. You should have seen his arms, she said; no one ever had eyes of a color that suited his arms as well as my blue-eyed Nikola.
I stand beside the grave and I know it can be done. After all, I magically made it possible for Carl Lewis to break the world record. So not all Americans are capitalists; at least Comrade Lewis isn’t because my wand and pointy hat work magic exclusively along Party lines. I stand beside the grave where Grandpa, formerly chairman of the Visegrad Local Committee, is going to be buried, and I know it can work.
Great-Grandpa climbs down into the grave and tears roots and stones out of the earth walls with both hands. Oh, what a sight! he says. My son, my son!
It’s hard to imagine Grandpa Slavko as anyone’s son. Sons are sixty at the most. In fact, almost all the people saying goodbye to Grandpa today are around sixty. The women have black scarves over their hair and wear perfume because they want to drown out the smell of death. Death smells like freshly mown grass here. The men murmur, they have colored badges on the breast pockets of their black jackets, they clasp their hands behind their backs and I clasp mine too.
Father helps Great-Grandpa out of the grave and stands behind me. His hands press down firmly on my shoulders. The speeches begin, the speeches go on and on, the speeches are never going to end, and I don’t want to interrupt anyone making a speech with my magic spells, that would be rude. I’m sweating. The sun is blazing down; cicadas are chirping. Uncle Bora mops the sweat off his face with a pale blue handkerchief. I mop my forehead with my sleeve. Once I secretly watched a funeral where there weren’t any long, boring speeches, just a short incomprehensible one. A bearded man wearing a woman’s dress sang and waved a golden ball about on the end of a chain. Smoke was coming out of the ball, and death smelled of green tea. Later I found out that the man was a priest. We don’t have priests—the people who make speeches at our funerals are sixty years old with badges on their breast pockets. No one tells any jokes. They all praise Grandpa, often saying exactly the same thing, as if they’d been copying from each other. They sound like women praising the virtues of cake. As the dead can’t hear anymore when they’re in the ground, the last thing they hear up here ought to make them feel good. But correct as my grandpa was, he would always put anyone who tried sweet-talking him right. No, Comrade Poljo, he would say, I have not been busy reforming our country every single day, last Friday I did nothing at all to lower the rate of inflation, I slept in late on Saturday instead of going ahead to implement the plan in our regional collectives, and on Sundays I go walking with my grandson the magician. We always go a different way and think up stories, that’s the great thing about Visegrad, you never run out of new ways to walk and stories to tell—little stories, great ones, comical and tragical, they’re all our stories! And where else would you find a place where a grandson knows more stories than his grandpa? When he was this big, Grandpa would say, raising his thumb, forefinger and middle finger, he thought up stories about the later life of Mary Poppins. Comrade Poppins gets tired of her silly queen, changes her name to Marica, moves into our high-rise building in Yugoslavia and marries Petar Popović the music teacher. He’s already married, and allergic to umbrellas, but he plays the piano so well that Marica can’t resist him. She enchants him with her singing and her tightly laced boots. Marica flies over the town with her umbrella, she doesn’t want to be a children’s nanny anymore, she gets a job on the assembly line of the Partisan machine-tools factory, whereupon it exceeds the planned production quota twice over, month after month.
But I’m straying from the subject, Grandpa would say, snapping his fingers, I really had something else to say: I don’t always have good advice for everyone. For instance, for young people—I really don’t know what to tell them to do, except perhaps to trust us less and listen to Johann Sebastian more. It’s also not true that I carry coals down to some old widow’s cellar for her, Grandpa would say, dismissing the notion, I’m not particularly fond of old widows! In one thing, however, you are right, Grandpa would have said, taking Granny’s hand and running his thumb over the back of it. I help my Katarina do the dishes, I vacuum the apartment, and I love to cook. Katarina has never had to spend all day on her feet, not as long as I could stand on mine! And why shouldn’t men cook? Best of all, I like cooking catfish for my grandson and my proud wife Comrade Katarina. With lemon, garlic, and potatoes with chopped parsley. And there’s one thing I treasure above all others, Comrade Poljo: Aleksandar is the best angler from here to the Danube, his grandpa’s sunshine, that’s what he is.
I don’t know how long I stood, deep in thought, beside Grandpa’s coffin. I don’t know when I freed myself from my father’s heavy hands and ran around the grave with the smell of summer rain rising from it. Or when I put on my hat with its blue and yellow stars turning around the crescent moon, although on the day of the evening when he died a death that proved stronger than any magic, Grandpa had told me that stars didn’t turn around moons, moons turned around stars. How long did I point my wand at the five-pointed star at the head end of the coffin? How often did I hit out when people tried to carry me away? What curses did I utter? How much did I cry? And will I ever forgive Carl Lewis for using up all of my magic power on his world record, leaving none for Grandpa? All of it went during those 9.86 seconds on 25 August 1991, the day before the day before the evening when someone on the megdan might not have heard a mother whispering to her son: you had a loving grandpa, and he will never come back. But his love for us is never-ending, his love will never be gone. Aleksandar, you have a never-ending grandpa now.
We made a promise about stories, Mama, the son said, nodding, and closed his eyes as if he were working magic without his hat and magic wand, a very simple promise: never to stop telling them.