The Days... Content
Back to Chapter 9

The Days of Unleavened Bread, Chapter 10

Tanks were crawling along the roads, those little Italian tanks with two narrow gun-barrels. An armoured train was slowly moving down the railway line with well-armed Ustasha inside. In the middle of the small line of waggons there was an engine, behind which there were two closed freight cars with loop-holes for guns, followed fore and aft by two to three low open freight waggons loaded with gravel. On the leading waggon, there squatted several Ustasha, with only their caps showing, and alongside the caps the barrels of guns and machine guns jutted out. On the engine there was a slogan written in big white letters: WORK HARDER - TO MAKE THE WAR SHORTER!
.... Spring had sprinkled the orchards and woods with the first signs of its arrival: tender buds and blossoming branches, covered with flowers as white as the recently melted snow. Farm labourers were moving cautiously over the fields, going about their first spring chores. Soldiers from the city launched "mopping-up campaigns" to clear the woods of Partisans more often. That spring, they said, they would get rid of the bandits in the forest. Sometimes they would spend the night in the village, to show that they had the upper hand. Then frequent nocturnal skirmishes took place. The Partisans seemed to be annoyed that the previous sequence of events had been upset: the day for the Ustasha, the night for the Partisans. More and more often shots would resound from the hilltop, and the Ustasha would respond from the village with bursts of machine-gun and mortar fire.
.... People fed their livestock while it was still day, because at dusk windows had to be blacked out and lights turned off as soon as possible. When the shooting started, a lighted window was a good target. Bullets often went astray as it was, the glass would crack, the bullet would hit a wall in the room, and plaster from the wall would spatter the backs of the family lying on the floor. People got used to the shooting, they would lie down on the floor and wait for the firing to stop. The members of the family would lie down beside a bed or underneath a table, because if something large landed, the rickety house might fall in, burying the people inside. The beds and the tables, old family heirlooms, were made of sturdy oak, and would bear whatever amount of bricks and mortar might come crashing down.
.... In the lull between two bouts of fighting they yelled insults and threats at each other. People who had formerly been neighbours, friends, or relatives found themselves on opposite sides. Some had gone to the woods as volunteers, or had been mobilized, while the Ustasha from the city also mobilized people for their side, and now they hated each other bitterly, because they had been taught to do so by the propaganda of one side or the other.
.... They would yell from the courtyard, "Yovo* , do you want a pair of boots, you Communist mother-fucker?" And "Yovo" would yell back from the coppice, "You'll get what's coming to you, to hell with your traitorous mother, you lackey of the occupiers, you won't last long!" The conversation would be followed by shots and bursts of fire, and perhaps by a groan.
.... ----------
.... *Short for Yovan, the Serbian form of the name "John" (the Croatian form is Ivan).
.... At the beginning of the war, for a time, the Partisans and the Chetniks had fought side by side against the Germans, Ustasha, and Italians. But they soon parted company, and became bitter enemies. The Chetniks would often join forces with the Germans, their former enemies, in order to attack the Partisans. The Ustasha fought against the Partisans and the Chetniks, but occasionally the Ustasha and the Partisans would join forces against the Chetniks. Add to this that people would defect from one army to another, and there was no way of knowing who was fighting for what and for whom. Had the war lasted a little longer, it would have been every man for himself, until they were all dead. It was an unprecedented madness.
.... The priest would conclude his sermon with the words, "Love thy neighbour as thyself." In the ears of the combatants the words seemed to echo, "Kill thy neighbour to save thyself."
.... At night the attacks from the woods became fiercer and more frequent. The Partisans would charge down through the vineyards, coming to grips with the Ustasha in the gardens and orchards. When this happened, guns would be no use any more: they would grab their knives and cut each other's throats mercilessly, mad with hatred and fear. A member of the Domobrani came across his nephew among the Partisans and grabbed him by his coat lapels; he seemed on the point of sticking a knife into him, but no; looking round to make sure no-one was watching, he gave the lad a hard slap in the face and muttered angrily through clenched teeth, "Get the hell out of here, you snot-nose, what do you know about all this?" The older man gazed after his nephew, and then someone came up behind him - it was dark so it was difficult to make out what uniform he was wearing - and stuck a knife between the old man's ribs. The tall man gave a start, his knees buckled, and he fell, his eyes staring up at the branches of a fruit tree that had just burst into blossom, as if in astonishment. There was some speculation that it was an Ustasha who had stuck a knife in his back because he had not dealt with that Partisan.
.... In the morning things would quieten down again. The Ustasha would strut about, bragging: "We gave them what for, fuck their bandit mothers." The more courageous farmers would go to their fields. The dead they had not had time to take away would be lying in the ditches. You could see by the pools of blood that there had been many more. On the path leading through the meadow and on the grass beside the path you would find splashes of human brains. A bloody trail in the grass would lead up the hill. On the hill, as noon approached and the sun got warmer, the Ustasha would be trying to get the villagers to finish burying the dead as soon as possible.
.... After a battle the Ustasha and the Domobrani would leave in the armoured train and in their little tanks, but their ranks would somehow appear thinned out, there would be fewer of them than had arrived in the morning. The villagers would peer out of their windows, hiding behind their curtains, gazing after the line of tanks, moving like a procession of tortoises towards the city. They would feed their livestock while it was still light enough to see and shut up their hen-houses, and then the family would sit down at the table, exhausted. As soon as they had started their meal, there would be a knock at the window.
.... "Open up, comrade, it's the people's army!"
.... The head of the household would open the door and in a jiffy all the chairs would be taken. Some of the Partisans would sit by the stove in the corner or on the small bench along the wall.
.... "Ha, we gave them what for, fuck their bandit mothers," the skinny Partisan Stevo would say proudly, holding out his hand to take a piece of scone from his host.
.... "Wasn't your uncle killed!?" his host asked Stevo.
.... Stevo lowered his eyes, wriggled a bit, and then he remembered to take off his cap, the forage cap with the five-pointed star. He looked round to see where he could put it down, then stuck it in his belt, and said hesitantly. "What did he join the wrong side for?"
.... They say they saw tears in Stevo's eyes, but you can't believe everything they say.
.... Stevo had loved his uncle. They would often be seen together. When Stevo grew to be a young man, they would plough the field together. His uncle would teach him how to hold the plough, and he would whet his scythe for him as they mowed.
.... They had each joined a different side, each of them believing he was doing the right thing, fighting to liberate the Croatian people.
.... Like the alternation of day and night, there was an alternation of power and authority in the village. No-one asked the villagers what they thought of it all; it's not for the "little" man to think about "great" matters. The villagers kept their mouths shut and went about their business, letting the two armies have it their own way; sooner or later one of them would win, and then the villagers would have to make the best of it. The winner is always right. That's what the little man thinks. During the day they welcomed one army into their homes, and at night the other army would come; a bit of bacon and a piece of bread would be found for everyone, and some would be left over for the villagers, as long as there was poultry in the courtyard and a pig or two in the pigsty. Crackling would sizzle again, pots would be filled with lard; as long as there was no shortage of lard and maize flour, you could always cook hard-boiled corn mush seasoned with crackling and fried onions, and "that's the best grub you could ask for," as the men from the woods would say.
.... The villagers would go to the city mostly to buy salt, because there was a shortage of salt in the village. They had been baking bread without salt for a long time, and other dishes were less and less salty. They would add a grain or two of salt to the last mouthful, to make it tastier at the end and to get rid of the insipid taste in their mouths.
.... People from the city would come to the village, too, some to visit an uncle, some to visit an old grandmother, aunt or a fond godmother. Then the villagers would bring a rasher of cured bacon down from the loft, and even a small pot of snowy white lard: "Here, take this with you, I know there's none to be had in the city." And there wasn't, food in the city was rationed and the shops were almost empty. A black marketeer might be found selling something here and there, but then the goods would be extremely expensive.
.... The armoured train moved slowly, we were waiting for it to pick up speed, but it seemed reluctant to do so, and it crept along slowly, hardly moving at all. There was an expectant silence, as if a great explosion was imminent.
.... Aunt Maria met us at the station. We walked down the path to the village. The houses were even more dilapidated than before and the facades were riddled with bullet-holes. The mortar on the facade of Marishka's house was cracked and the fence was rickety, with a gap here and there where a plank had fallen out. The thatch on the roof was even blacker than before, and the chimney was crooked. A starved cat crouched in front of the door. The window-panes were dirty, some were broken or had bullet-holes in them, and the holes had been patched with pieces of yellowed paper.
.... "Marishka's mother died," Aunt Maria told us as we were passing Marishka's house. "Soldiers of all colours used to come and visit Marishka. Sometimes she's gone for days, and then she turns up unkempt and bleary-eyed. There's a light in her window long into the night. Ever since they cut her officer's throat, she's been drinking and going about like a tramp. If you need something, thread, a needle, even salt, you can find almost anything at Marishka's; the soldiers bring her presents, and she sells what they bring her on the black market."
.... We were helping Aunt Maria in the garden. My mother pulled up a blackberry bush carelessly and the thorns tore into her leg. Her shoe was soaked with blood.
.... We first covered the wound with moss from the roots of a crab-apple tree to stop the bleeding, then we put a compress of clay on it, followed by cobwebs and plantain leaves. Uncle Mato crushed the plantain leaves, rubbing them against each other "to make the juice flow", like it said in his book, which he swore was written by Kneipp himself. The binding had been lost long ago, and some of the pages were loose, but a cure could be found in it for any disease, which is why uncle Mato guarded it so jealously. Aunt Maria teased him that he slept less and less with her and more and more with the book, that he slept with it under his pillow to keep it safe from burglars.
.... "What do you know about it, you're just nagging, you've no idea why I keep the book under my pillow. In the evening I read all about the herb I need, I sprinkle a little salt on the pages and I put the book under my pillow. By morning everything I had read the previous evening and put salt on has passed into my head. Well, now you know why I sleep with the book under my pillow," uncle Mato said, coughing, and assuming an air of self-importance, the way he had seen the doctor do; he approached mother's wounded leg holding the crushed plantain leaves. My mother screamed:
.... "Mato, don't, please, don't put that on my wound, you'll give me blood-poisoning."
.... Uncle hesitated, baffled, and then, as if he had just thought of something, he put down the plantain leaves and took up his book, saying in a self-confident manner:
.... "Wait, now you'll hear what the book says. Here it is, listen: 'Isn't there a risk of blood poisoning? Not at all, it cannot happen with plantain leaves. A compress of plantain leaves is the first, but often the best remedy in need; underneath the compress, the wound heals very quickly. Plantain juice closes the wound, as if you had sewn it up with a gold thread, and just as gold never rusts, so there is no risk of putrefaction when plantain leaves are used.'"
.... Uncle Mato paused, looking at mother to see the effect of the words he had just read, because what the book said was the sacred truth and could not be doubted.
.... In the late afternoon, when it was time to go to the railway station, mother could not stand on her leg. We heard the locomotive whistle, and, looking out of the window, we saw the armoured train crawling slowly towards the city.
.... We went to bed terrified. What would happen if the Partisans came?
.... There were voices in the street, and soon we heard someone knocking at the window.
.... "Open up, Mato!" we heard a voice calling from the street.
.... The front door opened. We heard voices, but could make out only snatches of the conversation. They were talking about the railway line, we heard the words "action", "blowing up the railway line", "yes... at once... as soon as possible... The brigade is guarding the approach to the village, the railway tracks have been mined, and poplar trees have been cut down to block the line... The railway line must be blown up before dawn..."
.... We heard hurried movements in the house, and then the door of our room opened and Aunt Maria whispered:
.... "We're going into action. You just go on sleeping."
.... The moon peeped out through the clouds intermittently, as if a big lamp was being switched on and off outside. The village was deserted. The silence of the night made us even more frightened. We crept cautiously to the window, and each of us peered out at one corner. There was not a living soul to be seen outside; only a dog barked now and then, and then even the dogs seemed to go back to sleep, because they had no-one to bark at. Everyone had gone off in the direction of the railway line. I noticed a man standing at the bottom of my aunt's garden. He had his arms spread out like a policeman on point-duty. Numb with fear, I whispered to my mother, "Look, there's someone standing over there!"
.... I recognized my uncle's coat, an old one, which he didn't wear any more. On his head there was a battered old hat, long ago discarded. The clouds were moving across the sky, and moonlight and shadows played over the garden. A longish spell of moonlight lit up the figure in the garden. We could see it clearly now: instead of a head there was a bundle of old rags. I had been frightened by a scarecrow!
.... A little further away, at the bottom of the neighbour's orchard, the heads of a crowd of people could be seen moving along like a torrent, a big stick swaying to and fro next to each head. As the heads moved on, the sticks swayed in the same rhythm. After a time, the silence was rent by a cry of "Heave-ho!" A noise could be heard like a half-empty sack of walnuts being rolled along, then came a muffled crash, and after that silence again. A line of men was pulling up the railway tracks with long staves. They hurled long lines of rails and sleepers down the embankment.
.... "Did you volunteer to do this?" we asked uncle Mato when they came back.
.... "Volunteer, you say?" my uncle echoed our question thoughtfully, as if not knowing what to say, and then went on: "I don't know what to say, I never thought about it. They're called voluntary campaigns, but who would volunteer to get out of his warm bed in the middle of the night to go and pull up a railway track? They come and say, 'Let's go, comrades!', and nobody asks any questions."
.... In the morning we could hear the whistle of the armoured train far off, at the place where the tracks had been pulled up. Poplars from the century-old avenue had been cut down to make a barricade across the road. They had been planted a century earlier to adorn the roadside, to make the drive more enjoyable for the count and countess when they passed this way, and to impress their visitors from Vienna and Budapest.
.... The small Italian tanks moved about around the fallen poplars. They slung wire cables around the tree trunks in an effort to drag them off the road. Their engines chugged and throbbed, the wire cables grew taut, but the logs refused to budge. Here and there the top of a tree broke off, but the trunks seemed to have taken root in the road. The soldiers from the town vented their fury with gunshots and bursts of machine-gun fire.
.... We took advantage of a lull to do what was most pressing. When the fighting started, even calls of nature were a problem. The toilet was not in the house, as it was in the town houses of the gentry. In the village, the toilet was a small outhouse about a yard square, made of old planks, some distance from the house, somewhere behind the cowshed. No-one dared go so far when there was trouble brewing, as you never knew who might spring out of the maize field, brandishing a big gun. But there was nothing for it, you had to slink out, darting from tree to tree, across the yard to the garden, and then behind the cowshed. I managed to reach the toilet, I meant to open the door as quick as I could and dart inside, disappearing from view as soon as possible, but the door refused to budge, as if someone was holding it shut. Hanging on just one hinge, the door had got stuck in the grass, and had to be lifted. I was so scared that my need got even more urgent. I got in and sat down in the nick of time. Relieved, I sat on the narrow bench made of two boards, but the bench creaked ominously, and a swarm of flies rose, buzzing, and filled the room. What if everything fell into the brimming cesspit? On the left side a board had come loose. You had to be careful not to touch the spikes of rusty nails sticking out of it. The roof was made of sloping laths covered with cracked tiles, and when it rained, water would drip on your neck and down your back. A bunch of dried plants was stuck behind the laths. On the board on which you sat there was a pile of various pieces of paper. Among them there were old letters and court orders. I read a solicitor's letter informing my uncle that his claim on the Insurance Company for the haystack that had burned down had been rejected. Mr Petrovich, a well-to-do businessman, had been reimbursed when, just before the war, his cowshed had burned down, even though he had been seen on the night of the fire, lurking near the cowshed just before the fire broke out. The police had beaten up Imbro, a pauper who lived at the end of the village, and who was always beaten up and led through the village with his hands tied together whenever someone in the village was robbed, because the policemen's duty was done once they had found a suspect, whether he was guilty or innocent. It was a matter for the court to decide whether the man arrested would be found guilty or set free. It was rumoured that Petrovich had set fire to his cowshed himself in order to get the insurance money. The policemen sat eating and drinking in front of Petrovich's cellar until late in the afternoon. They had tied Imbro to a tree. People say they did not even give him water to drink. He might not have fared so badly, had he not had the Croatian colours on his hat. When the police saw that, they lost their temper. One of them hit Imbro on the head and yelled, "I'll knock those crazy Croatian ideas out of your head!" Nothing was ever proved against Imbro.
.... There were also some paperbacks in the toilet, mostly romantic novels, with a page missing here and there. You would pick one up and read a page or two out of boredom, using your imagination to fill in the missing parts. There were also old newspapers, yellowed with age, with torn and tattered corners. The dried plants stuck behind the laths were uncle's medicinal herbs. Thus, much that was needed in the daily lives of these people was gathered together in that little out-house: literature, medicine, politics - catering for the needs of the flesh and even of the soul. When he was angry at "them at the top, the bigwigs in power", my uncle would say, "What have they got to be so big-headed about, no-one wipes their arse with my photograph!" Because that was what newspapers were usually used for in the village, as well as for wrapping up bacon when you were going into town or to the fields.
.... The walls and the door of the toilet had been riddled by bullets. Where a bullet had entered there was hole so small you could hardly see it, but where it had gone out, a piece of board had been torn away, and the hole looked like a withered flower. A hole in the door was quite useful, because you could see someone coming a long way off. You would wait for them to come closer, and then you would cough to indicate that the toilet was engaged.
.... My uncle came down the path, and I coughed.
.... "Oh, it's you, Lisa; never mind, I'll come back later."
.... We passed each other near the haystack. I gave him a shy smile, and he rushed off, as if he could hardly wait. Hardly a minute passed and there he was again, hurrying down the path, carrying the herbs from the toilet roof.
.... "We'll take care of it," muttered my uncle, speaking to himself as he rushed past me.
.... When I came into the house, he was already shoving the dried roots into a pot of water boiling on the stove.
.... "Tomorrow, my dear, you'll be dancing the polka. This will take away all the pain, and there'll be hardly a trace of the wound."
.... He had not even washed the roots, but had stuck them straight into the pot after taking them from the toilet. As if reading my mind, he explained his method: boiling destroyed all that was harmful, and doctors, too, boiled their instruments.
.... My uncle was very proud of his herbs and was very touchy about them, getting upset if anyone questioned his healing arts. He would say he had healed lots of people, even those the doctors had given up. And always free of charge, since he didn't want to make a fortune out of the sufferings of others. "Boil that for a couple of hours, then drink it several times a day, but without sugar," my uncle would tell his patients. The warning about sugar was hardly necessary, since sugar was so scarce. Sometimes, if my uncle considered his instructions to be more complex than usual, he would make the patient repeat them over and over again until he could rattle them off flawlessly by heart. If a patient asked him what his fee was, my uncle would say, "Never mind, just you try it, and then make up your own mind." He hoped to get a small present, but farmers are reluctant to part with anything, especially if they don't have to. His customers would almost always reply, "All right, Mato, I won't thank you, because it would bring bad luck, let the medicine show its own worth."
.... Sometimes my uncle would mention mead, recommending it with special enthusiasm, especially to patients who owned bees. He, too, liked mead, but it was difficult to come by, so he hoped he might be given a bottle by a patient. But they just said, "Thank you, Mato, I'll try some mead, I have some, thank God, and you say it's good for me, that it has a good effect on the blood and that it calms you down, that it purifies and strengthens the stomach. Well, thank you very much," and they would leave it at that. They would leave without even saying good-bye properly, carrying on with their monologue about mead until they reached the door.
.... When the elder bushes burst into blossom, the season of fried elder-blossom cakes set in. You would dip a blossom into a thin batter and fry it in fat or, if you had any, in oil. In my uncle's house they never missed a season. And how delicious elder tea was, especially tea made from the root, which acted as a diuretic.
.... "Listen to what Kneipp says about elder," my uncle would say and read: "'Even birds, before they migrate to distant lands in the autumn, look for elder berries to purify their blood and strengthen their bodies for the long flight ahead.'"
.... My uncle was always ready to discuss his herbs whenever he could get someone to listen.
.... When he was given a pair of shoes made of home-tanned leather, he was very proud of himself. They were not brand new, although the donor claimed they had not been worn yet. My uncle had treated him for a stomach ulcer, but the pain would not go away. "Mato, give me some of the herb you gave my neighbour Martin. Here, take these shoes, perhaps God will pay me back through your herbs." The shoes were big and clumsy and the leather was hard, stiff and unyielding, but during the war shoes were scarce and much sought after. My uncle was delighted and very grateful. "Come again any time, there'll always be herbs for you," he shouted after his patient and hurried back to the shoes he had been given. He tried them on. They were rather stiff and pinched his feet, but never mind, they would soften with wear, they were still new. True, the soles were a little worn, but so what, what did it matter if they had been worn a little after all?
.... My uncle walked with greater difficulty and limped more and more from day to day, but he refused to take off his shoes. It was the first material profit he had made by his healing. He told us proudly that people would soon realize the true worth of his herbs and would start bringing him valuable presents.
.... Peering through a crack between the boards of the barn, I once saw my uncle digging in the manure heap, the shoes lying on the ground beside him, discarded. When he had dug a hole he looked right and left to make sure no-one was watching, then grabbed the shoes, shoved them in the hole and covered them up. I ran into the house, so that he wouldn't see me.
.... Marishka came up to me, threw her arms around me and kissed me on both cheeks. Her face was sticky with sweat, and I felt the grasp of her sweaty hand. She was glad to see me. She had seen us coming from the train, but she hadn't been able to come sooner, she had only just managed to get rid of a soldier.
.... "How we used to play in the ditches and in the barn, didn't we, Lisa, and now look at the evil that has befallen us. The boys we used to play with have taken different sides and now they are shooting at each other, and it seems like it was only yesterday that we were all sitting together in school, copying one another's homework."
.... Marishka looked around the room, as if she wanted to note every detail.
.... "Lisa, what's that thick notebook on your bed? Di-a-ry. I read like a schoolgirl in the first form. Since I finished the fourth form, I haven't read anything. From time to time one of those snotty-nosed boys writes me a letter, but I never read it. I can sign my name, and that's enough for me. I can read too, especially print, but I don't need to, the boys tell me all the news. You know, Lisa, I've always wanted to write a novel about my life, as long as I can remember, since the days when we played at a wedding in the barn and on the threshing floor, when Kata, Marich's daughter, and Lyuba, the swine-herd's daughter, taught us how to do 'it'... You're writing down something like your memoirs, aren't you? Please, write a few words about me and my dear deceased Yura. Write at least about Yura, he deserves to have his memory preserved, since I can't put up a cross for him. There are few men like he was. There was nothing he couldn't do. He could drink for three, and do everything else for three, too. What a pity it is, a man like that, and there you are, he was stabbed and now he's gone, as if he'd been nothing but a soap bubble... Ah, I'd better not think about it, it only makes me cry. My whole life is just a long tale of woe. Sometimes I wish I could die. If only I knew I would find Yura there, I'd follow him at once. If I could only end it all, maybe they'd bury me somewhere close to him, outside the graveyard, where they bury suicides. Only it wouldn't make much difference, since, as the priest says, the soul goes to the next world alone, leaving the body in the ground. And what good is a soul without a body? They say that on Judgment Day the dead will rise up, and all the souls will go back to their bodies. Tell me, Lisa, will the resurrection of the dead really happen on that day - the Judgment Day? You don't know, and who knows whether...? I'd like to tell you at least the most important things, so that you can write them down, only I don't know where to begin. I don't know whether I told you about my father, how he happened to come into the room while I was undressing, and he was drunk. He locked the door, pushed me onto the bed, and when I struggled, he slapped me, and I burst into tears, and then he slapped me on the other cheek. I felt terrible, I thought I would die of fear and shame. I turned my head away and shut my eyes, I was too terrified to look, and there was my mother, screaming like a madwoman, 'What are you doing, you animal, leave my baby alone!' She was standing outside the window, beating on the windowpane with her fists. The glass cracked, my mother's hand started bleeding, and she just stood there, begging and crying. There, write that down in you Diary. And you can also write about how they used to send me to Mr Pero, the one who had the shop and the pub. I was hardly fourteen. My mother used to go when she was younger, she would get a few pounds of flour and sugar, and a bottle of brandy. My father would send her there because of the brandy. 'Just send your little girl along whenever you need anything,' Mr Pero used to say, 'We're all human, I'll help you as much as I can. These are hard times for us tradesmen too, but I'll find something for you, just send her along.' He would give me flour and sugar for nothing, because we never had any money for food anyway. My father would spend all his wages on brandy, and I would often see my mother swigging from a bottle as well. At first I felt awful when Mr Pero took my clothes off and fondled me, but in time I got used to it, so I thought, the hell with it, I don't mind, and it's useful, too. I would run home happily with a full bag, because he used to give me a bar of chocolate for myself every time. That's my life, Lisa... Then one day the tank engines started rumbling and the caterpillar tracks came rattling along. The war came, and all those armies with it. I had grown by then, all the men found me attractive, but I didn't care for them much. Then my Yura came along, and it was the first time I felt the real thing. At first my Yura was madly jealous. Sometimes he used to run into the soldiers who were leaving as he arrived. At first I lied to him and said they came only to have their fortunes told by my mother. Once we got really drunk, and I confessed everything. I boasted, silly fool that I was, about how many soldiers I had had. He yelled and threw everything he could lay his hands on. I thought he was going to kill me, that that was the end of me. I cringed in a corner and begged, 'Don't, Yura, you're the only one I love, I swear it, they mean nothing to me, you're my only true love.' He would never raise his hand against me, but that time I was numb with fear. He came towards me, grabbed me by the shoulders, then he put his hands under my knees and behind my back, lifted me up like a doll and carried me to the bed. What happened then can happen only once in a lifetime. He tore my clothes off, and his own, too. He started kissing and biting my neck and shoulders, so that I was all wet, and black and blue, and I, got roused as well, and started moaning, 'Bite me, Yura, crush me, tear me apart!' The harder he bit, the more I shouted, 'Bite me, bite harder,' and my old bed creaked and swayed. I don't know how long it might have gone on if the bed hadn't given way, the boards fell apart, and the straw mattress with the two of us on it crashed on to the floor..."
.... Marishka sighed as she talked, and her eyes strayed more and more often towards the table, where there was a blue tin jug of wine. The jug was patched in a couple of places with pieces of galvanized sheet metal fixed with rivets made of nails beaten into the middle of the patch. People couldn't buy new tableware, there was none available, and there was no money. Therefore old tableware had to be patched up: two pieces of sheet metal, one on the inside and one on the outside of the jug, a shortened nail instead of a rivet, and a few thumps with a hammer. My uncle did it himself. One of the patches had turned quite dark. That was the old one, rusty in places, while the new one was still a little shiny.
.... Marishka's eyes were shiny, too, and when she couldn't bear it any longer, she whispered, "Give me half a glass, my mouth's dry... Well, thank you very much, I didn't come for the wine, I wanted to see you, but since it's here, why should I die of thirst?"
.... She would interrupt her story to cry a little, then after a few sentences she would start laughing, then she would start crying again. She wanted to tell me about her Yura, who, she said, was the only man she had ever really loved, while she had been with the others reluctantly, since she had to make a living, and there was no money to buy bread.
.... "It's a sad story, Lisa, sad like my whole life. That day Yura came by with a bottle of brandy in his pocket. First we took a good swig, and then, well, you know what a lady-killer he was. If he were alive now, may God forgive me, I'd give him to you for one night, so that you could see what a real man is like. I never slept a wink when I spent a night with him. Come on, don't frown, I was only joking... Well, when we had emptied the bottle, my Yura tried to get up, but his legs gave way. 'Marishka, I'm drunk,' he said. He fell down and couldn't get up again, all from a litre of brandy. I couldn't believe it. I had been drinking, too, but less than usual, because I wanted to leave more for him, and the brandy was a bit stronger than usual, it was old and double-distilled, unluckily. If only I'd drunk more of it, my Yura would still be alive. He would have stumbled back to his armoured train as usual. Sometimes I would help him along, as far as the old plum-orchard, and then he would stand up straight, push me away gently, so that his mates in the armoured train wouldn't notice I was helping him, and he would march on by himself, stiff as a ramrod. That day he simply couldn't do it. His legs would not obey him, and he was as sober as you or I now, I mean as far as his head went. He could speak perfectly well, he was even better-spoken than usual, and his words were soft and warm, like goose-down when you hold it against your face; I could have listened to him all my life... And so my Yura sat on the edge of the bed, wearing just his shirt; his underpants had slipped down to the floor, and his uniform and that big gun of his were lying on the chair. He stretched out his hand towards his uniform, but he couldn't reach it; he swayed back and forth, then fell back on to the bed and started snoring instantly. I shook him, terrified, thinking of what would happen if he was late and the men from the woods came during the night. Yura snored so hard the windows rattled, and the whistle of his armoured train could be heard coming from the railway line, as if it was calling him. I looked out of the window and saw the smoke from the locomotive, I heard the chugging and the hiss of steam, and through the branches of the plum orchard I could see the armoured train, crawling slowly towards the city. By the time Yura sobered up, night was falling. We went into the barn, pushed aside a few stacks of maize stalks, Yura settled in and I covered him up with the maize stalks. I went back to the house and had lit a lamp, my old oil lamp with the chipped cylinder, when the Partisans came, knocking at my window. They burst into the house and started sniffing around at once, as if they were looking for something. 'Whose underpants are those beside your bed?' a young whipper-snapper asked me. All the men in the woods are young whipper-snappers, they're all just children. People say even their generals are greenhorns. How can those children compete with he-men like my Yura? I started stalling, and if only I hadn't got so muddled, perhaps it might have been all right in the end. But, stupid fool that I was, I got all mixed up, I was so scared I didn't know what to do, as if they had already found Yura. This made them suspicious, or maybe they had heard something from the neighbours, and they started looking under the bed, into the wardrobe, then up in the attic. 'Tell us where he's hiding or you'll get this,' a tall, skinny fellow said and brandished a knife close to my throat. I was terrified, I dread a knife more that anything. I was trembling like a reed, and they, the bastards, seemed to enjoy my fear, and pressed me harder and harder: 'Is he in the garden, is he in the cowshed, is he in the hay?' and I kept shaking my head no, and when he shoved the knife closer to my throat and asked whether he was in the barn, I gave a start, and he thought I was saying yes and yelled, 'Let's go to the barn!' They put their bayonets on their guns and went off towards the barn. I trembled with fear and watched them sticking their bayonets into the bundles of maize stalks, and each time they pushed a bayonet into a sheaf of maize stalks I felt as if they were sticking it into my body, making my flesh creep. I watched and waited, straining my ears to hear if there was a moan, and when they left the barn and set off towards the plum orchard, I was relieved to see they were not taking Yura with them. I sat and waited for the dawn to break, to see what had become of my Yura. It started to get light and I crept slowly towards the barn. I was silent, I didn't want to speak for fear of being heard by someone. I slowly pushed aside the bundles of maize stalks and saw Yura standing there, leaning back against the side of the barn. It was still not quite light, but I could see him staring at me with his eyes wide open, open wider than usual, and his mouth was open, too, as if he wanted to say something. I came closer, and he stared at me glassily, and then I screamed when I saw there was blood everywhere. I grabbed his hand, but it was cold. I pulled at his hand, and he fell face down on the ground."
.... Here Marishka burst into tears, went to the table, poured herself a full glass of wine and drained it.
.... "I'm sorry, Lisa, it'll make it a bit easier for me. I have to tell you the whole story. I ran off to Tomo, the grave-digger, we'd always been friends, and he agreed to bury Yura before it was daylight and before the Ustasha came. Tomo was digging the grave, when a Partisan came along and said, 'No, you won't bury him in the graveyard, where honest people are buried, bury him outside the graveyard, where they bury bandits.' They buried my Yura, but we were not allowed to put up a cross, the Partisans wouldn't allow it. 'The graves of traitors mustn't be marked,' the Partisan commander said. And so my Yura lies outside the graveyard, where they bury murderers and suicides. His grave is overgrown with nettles. Sometimes I visit him, but I don't dare go too near the grave for fear of being seen by the men in the woods. You know, Lisa, I feel very bad when I come home in the evening. That shack of mine is so damp, the room's cold, the oil lamp empty, and my bed is cold and damp, too. I lie down with my clothes on because there's nothing else I can do, the straw mattress makes me shiver; you know, I haven't any sheets, the old sheet was torn, and we buried my Yura in it."
.... There was a knock at the window.
.... "Mato, open up!"
.... The window opened. A brief conversation, and then my uncle went and opened the door.
.... "Mato, please, look after my little girl for a day or two, until I find my feet. Those bandits have taken away my Yela, they must have taken her to a concentration camp because I'm in the Partisans, and maybe they found out she was working for the Partisans, too. You're a Hun family, the little one will be safe with you. I'll pay you back well."
.... Uncle and Aunt were glad to take in little Anitsa. They had no children of their own, and the three-year-old girl often used to come and visit them. How could they refuse to help a neighbour, in these times when the future was so uncertain? The common people never hated each other, regardless of differences in religion and nationality, but evil was always brewed up by the politicians at the top.
.... In the villages the Partisans were setting up People's Liberation Committees, which organized supplies for the Partisans. Yela was in charge of rations and she would make the rounds, accompanied by two armed Partisans, first visiting the wealthier farmers who owned several head of cattle, taking one, or sometimes two, beasts from them. Carts, bicycles, and anything else the Partisans might find useful was taken away, too. She gave the farmers receipts and promised they would be paid when the war was over. The Partisans would bring her a bag of flour in the middle of the night, saying, "Find a woman to bake bread by morning!" Who could she wake up in the middle of the night? She would bake the bread herself. There was neither yeast nor time for bread to rise, but flat round scones would be waiting, piping hot, before dawn.
.... One night we heard the noise of glass breaking and wood splintering. In the morning we saw the rich miller's radio set lying in the ditch, broken. There were also books scattered about, many of them in hard covers with gold lettering.
.... The locomotive whistle was heard from far off, then thick black smoke appeared, followed by a locomotive gliding along in a cloud of grey steam, pulling a motley train of freight cars and passenger carriages. There were passengers in the former as well as the latter, since there were insufficient passenger carriages. We had a difficult time getting in. We pushed our way along the corridor, jumping over luggage and passengers, who were squatting, exhausted, on their bags, some dozing, some sleeping soundly and snoring lustily. The black marketeers from Slavonia were taking food to Zagreb, where they would sell it at inflated prices, and go home with a pile of kuna notes which were worth less and less each day. A cow cost up to thirty million. Our lodger, the customs officer, used kuna notes to light his cigarettes.
.... Not far from the door of the train there was a group of passengers from Sriyem. They were chatting, and from time to time they would take a swig of brandy from a canteen. They took out a slice of bacon a couple of inches thick, as white as cheese, wrapped up in a newspaper. It had been sprinkled with ground red peppers and chopped garlic, and the odour spread through the railcar. On the white side of the bacon you could read the newsprint: VICTORY, but in reverse, as if you were reading it in a mirror. They scraped the newsprint off with a knife, then cut thick slices, so massive that a single slice would have been enough for an average mid-morning meal. They crammed the slices of bacon and chunks of bread into their mouths, so that one side of their faces swelled up, munched audibly, talked with their mouths full, and when they burst out laughing, spraying scraps of bacon and breadcrumbs through the air. There was a scrap of greasy newspaper on the floor, with a clearly legible headline: WE SHALL WIN. The subtitle referred to a secret weapon of the Reich, which would be perfected any time now, and which would bring final victory. The Axis powers were withdrawing to secure and fortified positions, because there was no need to expose their soldiers to danger when it was only a question of a day or two before the enemy would be beaten on all fronts and the Reich would celebrate its final victory. Many passengers were glad to have escaped mobilization; the Partisans would come at night and take away all the younger men.
.... An Ustasha patrol was making its way down the train, inspecting documents, identity cards and passes. You had to be careful not to produce the Partisan pass by mistake, because both sides issued passes and demanded to see them. The Ustasha authorities were increasingly reluctant to issue passes to people from the countryside, because they were afraid that saboteurs would be infiltrated into the cities, where officers were being ambushed and shot at more and more often in the city centres.
.... Almost every household had a bottle of ink eraser called Tintentod. Old dates would vanish from passes and a new date would be written on the yellowish patch left after the ink had been erased. Then you would smear the pass with a bit of bacon-rind here and there to make it seem spotted with grease. At the main railway station in Zagreb, at the exit, there would sometimes be arguments over these greasy spots, the police were suspicious, but what could they do, the people were already there, and the prisons were full up anyway. The black marketeers would rub their hands in satisfaction, and their faces, pallid with fear just a moment before, would relax into a grin of relief once they were outside the exit.

Next: Chapter 11