| Distributed by CroatianWorld
- JosipNovakovich -
Large snowflakes floated in the wind like dove feathers.Mirko leaned his head against the windowpane and gazed up the hill into themountains shrouded in the pale clouds and snow, and he grew joyfully dizzy.
He stumbled to the basement, and waited for his eyes to get used to thedark, with a few streaks of light hitting a sack of sprouting potatoes. His skisemerged out of the dark and shone seemingly supplied by an independent source ofbeige light from within, from the soul of the old wood. Mirko gingerly touchedthese smooth ghosts of former winters and took them up the stairs while theyclanked and fenced with each other. He waxed them with beeswax and shined themwith his woolen socks. He walked to the yard gate, an old rusty squeal-makingcontraption on loose hinges.
Where are you going? You have to do homework and get ready for school!
Mommy, look at all that beautiful snow.
Yes, I understand that. But you got math to do.
I am good at math.
You won't be if you don't keep up.
Mirko ran into the yard and skied between the wood shed and the formergoat stall. The town ordinance no longer allowed keeping goats within townlimits. Just two blocks away, one could keep goats.
The moist chill on his cheeks and the snow behind his shirt collar gavehim a delicious shiver.
Soon, Boro, his younger brother, joined him, and they enjoyed a snowballfight until their fingers turned red and sore. Mirko laughed at Boro because hisface had turned into a semblance of a red and green apple--green chin and lipsand red cheeks and nose.
Later, Mirko walked to school, with his fingers itching even under hisfingernails in the gloves. The first class was his favorite, geography. He knewall the highest peaks on every continent, the longest rivers, the deepest oceantrenches. The topic was Antarctica and the global warming effect. The teacher,Medic, an elderly woman with gray hair and small eyes which gleamed from areddish darkness of swollen eyelids, kept talking about how western industrialnations had been trapping heat within the atmosphere.
Does it mean the highest peak will go down? Mirko asked. Now it's 4987meters high.
That's an interesting question, she said. We'll have to figure it out.
But it's made of rock, unlike the North Pole.
Bravo. So it won't go down with the melting.
Maybe it will, he said. How many feet that make the top are made of iceor glacier?
We'd have to look it up.
And if the ice melts all over the world, the sea level will rise, and sothat'll cut down the space above the sea level, too, won't it?
You are right about that, she said. Brilliant for a ten year old. I amgoing to give you an A for this.
She opened the grade book and with her trembling and swollen hand shewrote a large A in red.
But that did not make Mirko happy--the world was melting away; what was agrade compared with the world? He gazed through the windows and watched thethickly falling snow. Tree branches were covered with it, the top half white,the bottom brown--darker than usual because it was wet--divided like a flag. Hewondered whether there was a flag in that color combination and couldn't thinkof any. And why wouldn't there be a flag, half white and half black? What wouldit symbolize? Peace and death? Peaceful death? Deadly peace? Surrender and go tochurch? None of it sounded appealing.
The evergreens, white and green, made the right color combination for aflag, but not the right shape, with snow-laden branches bending.
The bell rang for the recess. He hopped down the wooden stairs, whichsqueaked and thudded and sang, as though his feet were fingertips bouncing onworn and untuned piano keys. In the schoolyard, he kneeled and hugged snow intoa little heap, which he then squeezed with his palms and rolled. The wet snowmade a quickly growing ball after which the cobbled pavement was laid bare, inan ever larger trail.
Suddenly an iced snowball hit him on his right ear so that it rang with abrimming pain, and a high pitch, like that of a struck tuning fork, remained inhis ear. He got up to see who threw the ball, but he couldn't. A boy grabbed himfrom behind, and pulled him down to the ground. Another one punched him andshouted, That'll teach you, you nerd, to show off in class.
Is that what you do, just read books? No wonder you re so weak!
He wiggled to get out from under them.
The bell rang to signal the end of the recess.
The boys got up. Mirko ran after them and tripped the slower one, whofell right in front of the math teacher, a chubby, red-faced man with whitehair.
The teacher scrutinized the boys, lit his grainy cigarette with a match,waved the flame quickly out of its life after which a trail of thin sulpheroussmoke remained and he went on his way to the classroom without a word. The boysfollowed, inhaling the incindiary and unfiltered aroma of his anger.
Stand up, you Marich, the teacher called, and blew out thick white smoke,which seemed to make his white hair expand, while his red face diminished almostto the red center of an enlivened cigarette tip.
Is that the way to behave?
The boy who fell sobbed and wiped his cheeks but there were no tears onthem.
Teacher, the two of them attacked me during the recess and I tried to getback at them.
That's a fine way to go. Let me see your homework.
I forgot my notebook at home.
But you did the homework? All right, then you know how to do complexdivision, expressing the remainder in decimals. Come to the blackboard and let'ssee whether you ve learned anything.
Mirko stood in front of the blackboard, trying to ignore the incessanttuning fork pitch in his ear, and perhaps because of the pitch, he had nostage-fright. He solved the problem accurately.
Nerd, nerd! shouted the boys in the class.
Just ignore them, said the teacher and slid his yellow fingers intoMirko's uncombed curly brown hair, and he ruffled his hair in this nicotinedblessing so much that Mirko felt static in his scalp, a manifestation of pride,which traveled down his spine and decayed into revulsion low in his abdomen.
Mirko looked into the rows of kids, and saw his favorite girl, Bojana,smile at him. He was blissful as he looked into her green eyes framed by blacklashes.
During the break, he followed Bojana outside.
Let's see who can swoosh a better angel, she said.
She fell backwards in the snow and closed her eyes, and flapped her armslike a bird.
Her long lips slightly parted and revealed snow-white teeth, so it lookedas though the snow around her was also in her, especially when she opened hereyes; the whites of her eyes were purely white. There was a wonderful icinessbout her.
Your turn! she said. Close your eyes and imagine you are flying to theLord.
He gladly obeyed, and kept splashing the snow, when suddenly he feltmoist tingling on his lips. He opened his eyes, and she leaped away.
I told you to keep your eyes closed! she said. She was flushed in herface.
He wiped his lips and looked at his hands as though there should be bloodor honey on them.
It would have lasted longer if you had kept your eyes closed.
Did you kiss me? he asked.
Yes, did you like it? I bet you've never kissed before.
No. Have you?
Yes, just now. I thought it was high time that I have the first kiss.After the age of ten, it's almost too late. You'd have to be embarrassed not tohave done it.
She shoveled snow with her open palms onto his face. Now no matter whathappens in our lives, we'll always be the first, you know that? We'll neverforget it.
Do you want to do it again?
No, not today. It's too early for the second kiss. That can wait for ayear.
And she ran away, laughing.
Mirko rushed home, skipping steps through flurries, a richer man thanbefore, with more world around him, and a better and greater world it was, justas an orange is bigger unpeeled than peeled. It was as though the world, apeeled orange that had dried and grown bitter, had got back its skin andfreshness, a chance to be juicy again. He savored the crunching sound, and triedto make a melody out of it, by crunching the snow slowly and quickly, gently androughly. He picked a little snow from an evergreen branch, and ate it. He buriedhis face in it. Snow, heavenly snow.
That evening his father, Zvonko, arrived from Germany. Business at homehad been so bad that nobody wanted mechanical watches and everybody got cheapquartz ones from China at street markets, and so he went to Germany once a monthfor a week, to sell old watches and clocks at antique fairs.
It took me ages to get here, Father said. So many roads are blocked,Serbs had taken so much land, that I felt like a fly entering a bottle through arotten cork. But you all have been fine?
Thank God, said his wife Neda. People here get along pretty well. Wearen t like those madmen in Eastern Bosnia; we don t care who s who.
Zvonko gave Mirko's brother Boro various coins--several 10 Franc pieces,with yellow brassy circles and nickel insides, from a fair in Strasbourg; a fiveGerman-mark coin; five Swiss frank coin with a thick cross on a shield, Italianliras . . . Now Boro piled them up into little towers and asked how much eachwas worth in dinars.
You can't do that in dinars, Mirko said. The dinar is worthless. Do it inGerman marks.
Good advice, said Zvonko. A German mark is worth 3 francs and onethousand liras.
Are Italians the poorest if their money is worth so little? asked Boro.
No, they just like a lot of zeros. In Italy everybody is a millionaire.
After supper, the father and his sons went outdoors, and built a snowman.Zvonko used two old irreparable watches as the snowman's eyes.
The following morning, Mirko was awakened by his father's kiss over hisear. That kiss triggered his inner tuning fork. The lights were on. Mirko jumpedout of bed to see whether the snow was still there.
Don't worry, the snowman is going nowhere, Zvonko said.
The previous year, Mirko had cried when his snowmanmelted, and he still kept the shrunken snowman the size of an Egyptian mummifiedkitten in a ziplock bag in the freezer. Death of his snowman had grieved him fordays. The fact that snow everywhere had melted was bad enough, but that hisfriend, whose soul was made out of snow, would also melt and vanish, and had,hurt him. But this time, Mirko was not getting attached to the new snowman, evenif his watch-eyes had stalled the time perhaps from before Mirko's birth,perhaps from before the real global warming effect, when winters were continuoushowling snowstorms, and the world a pattern of shifting snowdrifts. Oh, howlucky my great-grandparents must have been, he thought, but then remembered thatthey had been slaughtered by Serbs in the Second Balkan War, in the winter.
Have you done your homework? his father asked.
We had none.
Is it all right if I go to school on my skis?
But, do you have a place to hide them?
I'll bring them into the classroom and keep them behind the stove.
Mirko put his ski shoes on and clipped them onto the skis, and with theschoolbag at his back, he started toward the school, but as he rounded the firstcorner out of Father's sight, he went on, up the hill, through the park, overthe trails where he had played Robin Hood during the summer. He found it awkwardand painful to go up the hill waddling like a duck, so he took off the skis andcarried them, but they separated from one another and dangled and resumed theirold fencing match. To handle them better, he got rid of his school bag, which hehid in a bush. He climbed high into the hill, reaching the dazzling line ofdaytime, a storm of light of the rising sun, capping the dark blue below, and heslid down back into the slumbering morning on his skis. He kept his balance, androde in terror, delicious terror, that he would fall, shatter his bones, fly . .. and he did fly over uneven spots. The cold moist air and granulated snowsmarted his face and chilled his ears. To stop, he deliberately fell into asnowdrift, and he climbed the hill again. This time he would go to the top, intothe mountain, and he'd ski down for more than a kilometer. He panted as he wentup, and ate snow because he was thirsty.
Stoj! a voice shouted. Halt!
Mirko looked around but saw nothing.
He rubbed his eyes, and when he opened them again, he faced several menin camouflage, which visually merged with the sickly evergreens behind them,with patterns of green and brown, as though the men too had been eaten by acidrain, or as though the acid-bitten trees had begun to move and chatter andthreaten behaving like mirage soldiers.
What are you doing up here? a soldier said. You got me so startled Ialmost shot you!
Really? Mirko said. Why would you do that?
Nice skis, where did you get those?
From Germany. My Dad works there.
For those Nazis? Let's make a deal, I'll give you my gun, and you give meyour skis and boots, how is that?
No way, said Mirko.
What do you mean, No way? I can take your skis if I like. You are ourprisoner, a POW, don t you know that?
Prisoner? That s exciting, Mirko said.
We ll make sure it s exciting.
I don't mind that if you let me ski.
But if we let you, you'll ski all the way down to the village, and you'lltell everybody we are here.
No, I won't.
All right, we'll let you go if you come back with a flask of plum brandy.
What if I don't come back?
Let me show you something. The soldier led Mirko to a cannon on wheelsand slid a missile-like bomb into the pipe. See, it even has a telescope sostrong that you can see the rings of Saturn at night if you like. You want totake a look? Show me your house in the valley. When you look at it, it'll feellike you are right there.
That one, with the green roof, Mirko said.
All right, we'll have to adjust the scope angle. There. So now when yougo back down there, if you tell anybody we are up here, we can blow you up, isthat clear?
You tricked me.
You are a good boy, I have one at home just like you. Nothing will happento you, just remember to bring the brandy.
Mirko took a magnificent glide down the mountain,splashing snow left and right; the snow clouds that burst up from under himfilled with sunlight, refracting fleeting rainbow fragments.
The following day, it rained, soit was not a good day to ski, but looking up the mountain, Mirko imagined thatit snowed up there. Yes, for every 100 meters, you lose one degree Celsius. Yougain snow. He wanted to go up the mountain, but not today. He longed to seeBojana, to smell her cheeks. As he walked, he looked over the minaret and achurch dome into the mountain, and for the first time ever, he felt guilty thathe was going to school. That was truly irresponsible of him; what if thesoldiers up there got angry that they had run out of brandy and bombed the town?They could kill his parents, his brother; their bomb could strike any moment inthe streets, and tear him to pieces. For a moment, he hesitated; of course, heshould rush home, and save the town. It would be terrible if they all diedsimply because he wanted to look at Bojana s face. But it would be almost asterrible not to see her face.
At the beginning of the mathclass, he was tempted to tell everybody that they were encircled by a Serb army,that any moment the bombing could start, that they were all in mortal danger,and that the only way out of it was to collect plum brandy and haul it up intothe mountain. He enjoyed the power of his knowledge. He would not tell them,just not yet.
He gazed blissfully out thewindow. Having missed a day, he also missed homework. The math teacher checkedhomework, and Mirko tried the old maneuver--he'd forgotten the notebook at home.
Awfully forgetful at your age, that's no good, said the teacher. Now, atmy age it would make sense. All right, prove at the blackboard you did yourhomework.
He gave Mirko the assignment, to divide 44.29 into 682.91.
Mirko was hesitant. He'd never done a division like that, and didn't knowwhat to do with the decimal points. He remembered the buzz in his ears, butthere was none. His knees shook, and to steady them, he tightened his legs andstood up straight and stiffened. The class laughed. They all seemed to relishthe fact that he couldn't do the math. He looked for sympathy in Bojana, butshe'd joined in the mob lynching by laughter.
All right, do it without the decimal points, the teacher said. You getthose out, and the proportion stays the same. Do it now.
Through tears, Mirko couldn't see very well. The class still jeered. Hegot so flustered that he forgot which way to go, from left to right or right toleft.
Get lost, said the teacher. Before you fight with boys, just get lost. Gohome and do your homework. No wonder we have wars here, when you all grow uplike thugs. Why can't you boys get together to do math? Or play chess? Just tenyears ago, kids played chess everywhere, and now, I never see a kid with achessboard.
Till the end of the class, Mirko stared at the low drifting clouds, hisface still brimming and hot. He imagined washing his face in the snow, coolinghis cheeks off.
He was sitting close to the tile furnace, in which coal burned; there wasa large weaved basket full of coal in front of it. The side of his face closerto the stove was hot, and the slight smoke stung his eyes. The tiles crackled,and he wondered whether the heat did it; he knew that it made some thingsexpand, and others shrink. He wondered what the heat did to the rocks, and howglobal warming would affect the mountains. Would they all grow? Wasn't it truethat the tallest mountains were close to the equator? Or was that because of therotation of the globe? Or both? And why was it that Mars, which was a littlesmaller and rotated faster than earth, had a mountain twice as high as Mt.Everest? Was that mountain close to the equator of Mars? He got so absorbed inhis thoughts that he did not notice when the class was over.
Look at our genius, said one of the boys. What do you think goes on inhis head now?
He's probably figuring out what two times two equals.
Mirko heard that but did not bother to answer the provocations.
During the break, he walked by himself. He looked around for Bojana, buthe couldn't see her in the crowds of kids.
What are you looking for, my friend? Toni, the best soccer player in theclass, asked. Your little girlfriend? Come, I'll show where she is.
He looked where Toni was pointing, to the old chestnut tree. Bojana wasleaning against the tree with her back, and Stevo, the class goalie, was kissingher.
Toni jeered. So, what is two plus one?
Bojana saw him over Stevo's shoulder, and then closed her eyes and kissedmore strongly than before.
Mirko did not know how to respond. Should he go and fight Stevo, defendhis honor and love, defend her? But she clearly was not reluctant; she put herarms behind Stevo's neck and pulled him to her. When the bell rang, Stevo walkedahead of her, not looking at Mirko, clearly not wishing any fight. She walkedbehind him, smiling, her lips scarlet, her cheeks and eyes full of light,viciously beautiful so that even at that moment Mirko marveled at her and lovedher.
You know what? she said. We didn't do it right. We just lip-kissed, whichdoesn't count. You got to tongue kiss, deep-French kiss, that counts. You justsaw my first real kiss! It's wonderful, so much better than lip-kissing, you gotto try it one day when you grow up.
Mirko did not respond. He did not walk on, but continued standing andstaring at the tree as though he could still see what he should have been doing.He did not go back to the classroom. He left his books there. On the way home,he was out of breath although he walked slowly.
In the streets, soldiers drove in regular cars, mostly VWs. That wassomething new by the flags some displayed on their uniforms, it was clear thiswas the new Bosnian army. Did they know about his friends in the hills? Wouldthere be fighting? He hoped there would be.
At home, he stole a bottle of plum brandy from thepantry, from among the jars of plum jam and pickled peppers. The bottle clankedagainst the jars but nothing broke.
His father caught him outside.
You are too little to be interested in brandy. What do you think you aredoing?
I need it. If I hurt myself skiing, I can clean my wound with this.
Don't lie, you little thief. I'll teach you to steal!
And his father, who had not spanked him in years, twisted his arms,nearly breaking them, and then beat him with his thick western belt, which hehad pulled out of his blue jeans. His blue-jeans fell back to his knees, and hestood in his white underwear, belting his son s back, sprawled over unsplitfirewood beech logs which smelled of oyster mushrooms and soil, the smells beingenhanced in the snow through Mirko's gasps and steamy breath.
Cry, you little bastard.
But Mirko would not cry. He ground his teeth; he'd rather die thansurrender. It struck him as immensely unjust that he was being punished by theman he was about to save. His father could not know that his son was saving him,but now Mirko would not tell him, out of spite. If Father could not suspect goodintentions, if he needed to talk and accuse, the hell with him. Mirko did notcry, but tears blurred his vision, and the silvery logs and the snowman withwatchful eyes and the whole sun-struck yard broke apart in shafts of light inthe diamond splendor of his pain. The beauty of it all surprised him, and so heeven welcomed the scorching licks of ox leather on his skin.
His Mother shouted from the house door. Stop it, you old beast! Stop