About the Author

Dragan Todorovic

Books by this Author
Diary of Interrupted Days
Excerpt

Chatper One

An Der Schönen Blauen Donau

Return. April 22, 1999
Note: I
Most people believe that their endeavours define them. Their striving becomes a symbol of who they are. But that is only half of the picture. We search for some public grail to avoid a deeper, unconfessed compulsion. In some secret place in our memories, carefully covered, unlit, lies the truth about us: you are what you run away from.

Underneath he scratched the date and added “T.O.” in his hurried, slanted handwriting. He liked to locate his ideas precisely, to know where he was when they first came to him, and his notebooks read like maps that traced his every move – a geography of ideas.

The light in the plane toilet turned his skin into parchment. The man in the narrow mirror ran his long, bony fingers from the back of his shaved head down his forehead and face to pull at his goatee, sharpening it, then did the whole motion backwards, as if voiding his face, and then reshaping it. He had a silver signet ring on the index finger of his right hand. He took a closer look at the man on this side of the mirror and said, “You look like a ghost, friend.”

The captain’s voice interrupted him. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are beginning our descent to Budapest Ferihegy Airport. Please return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts. The local time is 9:11. The weather in Budapest is good. The current temperature on the ground is ten degrees Celsius, and the skies are clear. Thank you for flying with Malév. We wish you a pleasant stay in Hungary.”

Of course – he was not in Toronto, he was in midair. He crossed out “T.O.” and wrote “Hung.”, closed the notebook and put it back into the pocket of his black jacket. He washed his hands and returned to his seat.

From a plane most cities look like deserted beaches: the boulders of storage hangars and factories in the back, the tiny houses like pebbles that fell off the business monoliths, the hotels lined up near the water like sand castles. He watched out the window as the plane flew over the Danube, a spacious park, and then another stretch of pebbles towards the airport.

The passengers started buttoning up and putting their shoes back on. Some were combing their hair, or fixing their makeup, as if everyone on the plane had been engaged in an eight-hour debauchery and now needed to cover it up. Soon, they would all line up according to the money they had spent on their ticket: first class ahead, then business behind them, and the oh-shitters at the back. Then the door would open and everyone would be flushed into the city from this flying bowel. He gathered his magazines, folded them and pushed them inside the seat pocket in front of him. The same hysterical rant about the just humanitarian war was everywhere he did not want to carry any of it with him.

He put his right hand in the pocket of his black leather vest and took out two passports. He opened the blue booklet and looked at his photo, then flipped the red passport open and put the images next to each other. Two faces. Two men. Two worlds. He put them back, then touched the envelope full of money tucked in the inside vest pocket. He’d brought almost everything he had with him. He would need it all. For the funeral, for the posthumous meal, to bribe the officials so they didn’t grab him and put a uniform on him after the burial, to pay for the return tickets – or just in case, and there would always be a case.

When most of the passengers had departed, he stood up, opened the overhead compartment, and pulled out his old brown leather bag.

The customs officer was a young man with watery blue eyes. “Boris Bulic? What is the purpose of your visit to Hungary, sir?”

“I’m just passing through.”

“Where to?”

“Farther south.”

“Serbia? You won’t be able to get across the border with your Canadian passport. And it might be dangerous – your country is bombing them, too.”

“I have my Yugoslav passport with me.”

“Are you going there to fight? Because you should hurry up. Your side will be defeated in no time.”

“You don’t know what my side is.”

The blue eyes narrowed under the cap brim, regarding him, then flicked down and back, comparing the passport photo with the passenger. The passport picture showed softer features, framed with a dark untidy mane, eyes slightly amused.

“You don’t look like your photo.”

“I’m getting old.”

“You know I could ban you from entering?”

“Under the circumstances, that might be a favour,” Boris said.

The officer stamped the passport and handed it back to him.

The terminal was crowded. Boris noticed that the majority of passengers had children with them, which struck him as unusual. Most of the kids were well dressed but too quiet for their age, trailing behind their parents who pushed airport carts loaded with multi-storied piles of baggage. Bits of conversation wafting out of the crowd were mostly Serbian. Boris stopped to buy a coffee at one of the less busy stands before he went in search of the minibus to Belgrade. If it was still running.

At the door, he had to stand aside and let a group of hurried people enter before he could come out. A red stroller pushed over his foot. As soon as he stepped out of the building, he lit a cigarette. The sky was cloudless as promised. “Clear days are the worst,” his mother had said on the phone from Belgrade. “When there is a storm, the planes don’t come at all.” He removed the lid from the cup and took a sip. An older woman in a green coat came up to him, confidentially asking, “Room, sir?” He ignored her.

The entrance to the departure hall was swarming with people. Cab drivers made short stops in front of the terminal, idling there as tired parents pulled out their offspring and their giant bags. All flights from Belgrade were suspended and Budapest was the closest airport for Serbs fleeing the war. Most people had someone drive them to the Hungarian border, then took a train or a bus from there.

Several big buses idled in the parking lot across the road, but no minibus that he could see. His friends in Belgrade had told him there was only one still making the trip between the Budapest airport and Belgrade, and that one was grey. It was up to Boris to find it: the driver didn’t have much in the way of return fares and would not hang around for long at the airport after delivering his load of refugees. He’d simply refill the tank, take a short break, and drive back before nightfall.

As Boris turned back towards the main entrance, he noticed a person sitting on the pavement, leaning against one of the big pillars. His face was hidden by a baseball cap, and a cardboard sign was propped in his lap – “Budapest—Belgrade.” Boris knelt beside the man and said, “Can you drive me?” In response he received a short snore. Boris decided to let the man sleep. He could finish his coffee in the meantime. There was an empty bench a few steps away. The seat was still warm.

The flow of people continued in one direction: into the building and towards the departure hall. Away. He was going back to Belgrade, but Belgrade, it seemed, was leaving. For a moment, he let a thought of finding that woman in the green coat and taking her up on her offer flutter in his mind – maybe a night or two here would help him get over jet lag and arrive fresh in Belgrade – but then he dismissed it. He knew what it was, and there was no time for weakness. Swimming against the tide, again. Good.

Boris finished his coffee and another cigarette. He couldn’t wait any longer. He bent down and prodded the man, who raised his cap, wiped the saliva off his chin with the back of his hand, and looked around, confused. His dark eyes had violet shadows underneath them. Boris figured he was probably in his mid-thirties, but he looked so tired that it was hard to be sure.

“I need a ride to Belgrade,” Boris said, slipping into Serbian.

“I need a coffee. Wait for me.”

Boris stared after him as he entered the terminal. He thought he recognized the man. Another circle was closing. Boris liked that feeling. When circles close in one’s life, when small parts of private history are repeated, it brings a sense of order and comfort. A moment when one could almost believe that there is some harmony in this cacophonic, screaming world.

The driver remained silent while manoeuvring through the busy streets of the capital, and Boris did not feel like talking, either. Sitting up front in the passenger seat, he watched the street names through the windshield, trying to remember them. He had been to Budapest several times in the old days, mostly to attend rock concerts. He and his friends would drive to the centre of town, spend some time on Váci Street, eat quickly, get high, and go to the stadium. He had once known the promenade by the Danube well, but it too had faded. Everything had faded. He wasn’t even sure how Belgrade would look to him after five and a half years in Canada. Not because of the bombing. Bombs explode, but they are too big to comprehend. Devastation on a large scale never affects you in real time, even when you watch it live. Your brain refuses to take it in. You do know that something horrible is happening, something that will change you forever, but you shut down in the face of it, and just watch it, and eat, drink, sleep, fuck. Later, when your brain realizes that you are still alive, your emotional space opens and the pain comes.

He wasn’t thinking of the bombs dropping on Serbia now, blowing holes in the fabric of his past, but of how different home was bound to be. That is the trouble with home – step out of it for even a second, and it will hurl itself towards other people.

He looked over at the driver, who finally seemed to be waking up and was scratching some spot between his shoulder blades with the tip of a long screwdriver. He had removed his cap in the meantime and Boris noticed a scar high on his forehead. Yes, it was him. The stubble on his cheeks was on the edge of becoming a beard. He was dressed in jeans and a corduroy jacket that used to be brown but now was the colour of wheat. Boris felt a surge of gratitude to the man for bringing him home.

“I remember you,” Boris finally said. “You drove us out of the country in October 1993. But it was a different bus.”

“No, it’s the same one. It was red then, which was good for business. Now it’s better if it’s grey. To melt with the road. Us?” He glanced Boris’s way, checking out the silver earring that gave Boris’s shaved head the look of either artist or thug.

“My wife and me.”

“She’s not coming back with you? Too dangerous?”

“No, she’s not afraid. Sara’s . . .” Boris searched for the right words. “She’s dealing with some inheritance business.”

“Inheritance? That can’t hurt.”

“This one’s messy.”

They both fell silent for a while, watching the road. The last houses on the outskirts of Budapest were already behind them, and the factories, and they were driving by some small village. There were no hills in sight, and the highway appeared to curve just because it was a proper thing to do.

“My pickup point was on Slavija then, right?” the driver said.

Boris nodded.

“People loved it when I drove that one last circle around the square. I guess it felt good to leave home from the heart of the city. Now I park in front of Saint Marcus’s Church – any help I can get.” He laughed.

“How often do you make the trip?”

“Every day, rain or shine. Rain or bombs, rather. You’ve probably heard – they don’t bomb on rainy days. Some say it has something to do with the electricity in the clouds. Screws up their instruments. I think it has more to do with the locators.”

“Locators?”

“Their spies have placed small boxes close to the targets that send signals to the satellites. I think they’re trying to avoid hitting civilians. So when it’s cloudy, and they can’t receive the signal from the ground, they don’t fly.”

“Have you seen any of these . . . locators?”

“They’ve shown a few on television. Small black things, hard to find. The heart of darkness.”

A bus driver quoting Conrad? “What did you do before this?”

“I studied journalism at the Faculty of Political Sciences. Did some writing, too, before the war, mostly for some student magazines. Then it all went to hell. You left in 1993? Then you remember how it was: what Milosevic didn’t want, he destroyed. The whole profession started sucking, if you ask me. They dug trenches and disappeared into them. From time to time someone would run from one hole into another, and that was all.”

“ ‘Your hole is our target,’ ” Boris said.

“What?”

“I saw a truck in England once – it belonged to some company that specialized in drilling holes through walls. That was their motto.”

“Rats. It was the time of rats, when Milosevic came to power. Underground, negative selection, running in packs, bathing in shit. When the West imposed sanctions against Serbia in 1992, all flights from Belgrade stopped, as you know. Still, people were leaving this dump in hordes. That’s when I decided to do this for living. I thought what the hell, I’ll borrow some money, get a minibus, drive people to and from Hungary. I figured I’d make some money in the short term, because it can’t last forever. Here I am, still driving. Mostly to Hungary.”

He scratched his scar, then continued:

“Maybe this bombing will change something. The noise, if nothing else. They are dropping some large ones, you know. Every time a bomb explodes, I think, ‘There’s another wake-up call.’ Maybe after this I’ll go back to journalism – if people wake up and change something. What do you do?”

“In Canada?”

“Is that where you live?”

“Yes.”

“Doing what?”

“I’m an art director for an ad agency.”

“Nice.”

“Not bad.”

“And before you left?”

“I was a conceptual artist.”

“Really? Tell me something you did, maybe I’ll remember.”

“You won’t.”

“Try me.”

“Okay. The Ice Cream Idol.”

The driver pursed his lips. “Nope.”

“I made a statue of Milosevic out of ice cream. It was in a big cooler truck in the Square of the Republic in Belgrade for one day only. You could destroy the idol by licking him, but then you’d have to taste him.”

“Did you put a stick up his ass?”

“I felt something was missing.”

They laughed.

“What else?”

“Musical Gallows. I built twelve gallows and hung dummies on them, and the ropes were harp wires, all different lengths. They each played a different tone when plucked.”

“It was in the Student Cultural Centre, right? There was a fuss about it.”

“It was banned. The gallows played the national anthem.”

“That’s why I remember it.”

As far ahead as Boris could see the road going their way was empty. All the traffic except their minibus was headed towards Budapest and away from Belgrade.

“Are these cars –?”

“Yes – all escaping to the north. Some Hungarians who live on the border are moving, too. The other day a stray bomb fell on some house in Bulgaria. It’s crazy back home, you’ll see.”

The cigarettes and coffee hadn’t removed that plastic aftertaste from the plane food in Boris’s mouth, and he reached for a piece of gum in his pocket. There wasn’t any. “Have you had any breakfast?” he asked. “If you want, we can stop somewhere and I’ll buy for both of us.”

“Then we’d better do it now. The closer you get to the border, the uglier the people you meet. Some Hungarians see our misery as their chance to get rich. Farmers have converted their stables into bed and breakfasts, and they charge an arm and a leg. You go to a gas station anywhere on this road, and you pay ridiculous sums for gasoline if your vehicle has Serbian plates. By the way, I’m Misa.”

Ten minutes later, Misa slowed to turn right onto a side road. They entered a village, and after taking the first left, they pulled into a parking lot in front of a small café. It was in a picture-perfect house, with white walls, green shutters, and flowers in window boxes. Misa switched off the engine and they went inside together, and took a table by the window. A petite brunette with large green eyes took their order.

“How did you find this place?” Boris asked.

“I had a flat tire once and limped in looking for a garage. The owner borrowed a spare for me, and didn’t even charge. The waitress – she’s the owner’s daughter.”

“She’s sweet,” Boris said.

“She is. But I come for the food. My wife hugs me each night when I get home safe, but I know that it’s also so she can sniff me. And she checks my clothes for hair. It’s just too complicated to stray and I can’t be bothered.”

Sunlight reflected on the white facades of the houses opposite the café, red and blue flowers on their windowsills. The food arrived and they ate in silence. When they were done, Boris offered Misa a cigarette.

“Which route do we take from here?” he asked as he extended his lighter.

“The usual: Szeged, Horgos, Subotica, Novi Sad, Belgrade. It’s about two hundred miles, give or take, and a little over fifty from here to the border. I always aim to get to Belgrade before five. They attack after sunset mostly, but sometimes they come sooner. In Hungary, I take it slow and steady – if the cops catch me speeding, I’m in for some serious money. After we cross the border, we’ll go as fast as my bus can stand.”

“Is that what you do if the planes come?”

“That’s what I do. Amateurs park on the side and hide under the trees. But mice don’t lie down hoping the cat won’t see them.” He suddenly remembered to ask: “Did your plane arrive on time?”

“No. We were an hour late. Why?”

“Fuck. Let’s go.”

Boris paid the girl and ran after Misa, who was already turning the vehicle around. “What?” Boris said as he closed the door and the bus veered onto the main street.

“You know how planes have to fly through certain corridors? There are roads up in the sky, just like down here. Some of those roads are in the way of the bombers. When a plane is late, it usually means that its normal corridor is closed and the bombers are coming sooner. We have to hurry.”

Sara had already been gone when the bombing of Serbia started, and Boris’s world had turned surreal. As an artist, he deconstructed reality and reinserted pieces intended to create a shift in perception in those who saw his art. But now nothing seemed real enough to deconstruct. He would turn up every morning at his job on the twenty-ninth floor of a building at the intersection of Yonge and Bloor, and he would try to work, concentrating on shapes and colours, lines and shades, and then find that hours had passed as he stared out the window at the CN Tower. A similar tower had already been destroyed in Belgrade. Sometimes he envisioned a giant condom covering the whole edifice, turning it into a colossal penis aimed at any deity allowing this nightmare to happen. Whenever he put his headphones on and inserted a music CD into his Mac, he ended up searching instead for radio news on the Internet.

When he pulled into the big underground garage in his apartment building at night, he judged its merits as a shelter from air raids. On the supermarket shelves, he only had eyes for canned foods. He returned from a trip to the drugstore to buy shaving oil with band-aids and antiseptic cream. He melted sedatives under his tongue several times a day, and took Saint John’s wort before he climbed into bed, but slept only a few hours each night.

He was safe in Toronto, far from the fury of metal that was happening in the Balkans. He also knew that his parents would be fine. His father was a retired general, after all, with access to the best shelters. Still, he felt that everything was being destroyed. He had been abroad long enough to start perceiving his homeland as an idea, not a set of particular people and buildings – still it was an idea buried in the foundation of his being. Each building the NATO bombers hit was part of the idea. Every time he heard of another bombing, he felt physically ill. His neck and shoulders turned to stone.

Boris thought of going back to Belgrade, but he knew he would be drafted immediately. He talked with his mother almost every day on the phone – he always expected to hear bombs exploding in the background, but never did. They had moved to their cottage an hour south of Belgrade for the duration. They had enough food and his father had brought his whole collection of weapons and ammunition with him, even a sniper rifle he obtained through channels. His mother sounded upbeat and he had no doubts about his father’s mood, although, of course, they never spoke.

For the first time in years he made a steady stream of phone calls to his old friends in Belgrade, who all talked fast, describing crazy things – how terrific all-night parties were taking place in several of the larger shelters, how people brought drugs with them, and booze, how people had sex and made jokes about the bombing, how everyone had a badge with a target drawn on it. How everyone prayed for their enemies to come on foot, so they could give vent to their frustration.

In the beginning, the bombing victims were just people, somewhere, just numbers. Then, during the second week, they were people with names, people friends of his friends knew. By the third week, they were colleagues.

Boris’s mentor died. The old artist was staying with his family in a city that had not been bombed at all. One night, the raptors finally came to destroy a factory on the edge of the town. The artist was three days short of his ninetieth birthday, and during his lifetime had seen both world wars and the Balkan wars. He was almost completely deaf and mostly blind and did not hear the first few explosions. But then they dropped a large one, and a trace of that horrific sound reached what remained of his hearing. Jolted out of his silence, he asked what the noise was. “It’s a bomb, Grandpa!” his granddaughter replied.

“Not another war,” he said, and died.

At his funeral the air-raid sirens sounded, and everyone abandoned the coffin except one man, himself old enough not to be afraid of dying.

Boris knew that his mentor’s name would not be added to the list of victims, he knew that the cynical NATO spokesman would not be apologizing for this death, the way he ironically apologized for other blunders.

Then came the fourth week, and in the chess of death a move that found Boris on a bad square.

The border was close now. Misa switched the radio on and fumbled with the dial, checking for news bulletins. When all he could find was music, he relaxed a little bit.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” he said, “why are you all in black?”

“I’m going to a funeral. My father died.”

“From the bombing?”

“Not directly, no.”

His father, ever vigilant, had got into the habit of borrowing a horse from a neighbourhood farmer. It was a workhorse, rarely used for riding, and the animal hated having someone on its back – but that’s precisely what had attracted the General to it, his mother said. The owner did not mind lending the mare: he thought that it was the rider who was in danger, not the horse. The General would mount the horse, avoiding its teeth as it tried to bite his leg, and take it for a slow ride among the vineyards on the hill above the village. He would carry his binoculars and his old shotgun, and put on the jacket of his old uniform, claiming that it was the only thing that could protect him from the wind up there, on the hill. The villagers started addressing him as Marshall.

On a sunny afternoon, the General rode uphill some time after five. The horse returned home alone just before six. While they were gone, a huge formation of bombers from Italy had flown over, going south towards Kosovo. The planes may have scared the horse or some animal had run out of the bushes to startle it. The villagers found the General lying under a pear tree. He was alive, but semiconscious and breathing with difficulty. It took the ambulance an hour and a half to get to him, and almost three hours to drive him to the military hospital in Belgrade – another group of bombers had started attacking the capital in the meantime and the roads had been closed. The General was pronounced dead on arrival. The autopsy showed that a broken rib had punctured his lung and caused internal bleeding.

Like every other bit of news about the General from the past ten years, Boris had heard this from his mother. Boris and his father had stopped talking to each other in 1989, and there were a few years before that when they hardly talked at all. After Boris had moved to Toronto he’d rarely even thought of his dad, and when he did, it was always as the General. The General who went into politics after retiring. The General whose party was directly responsible for his son’s leaving the country, like tens of thousands of others, all young, educated people, artists, doctors, engineers. The General whose political convictions were more important to him than his only son.

“This grandpa from my building, he’s been through the big war,” Misa said. “He told me he’d prefer to die than see enemy soldiers on our streets again.”

“They will never come down from the skies.”

“I don’t think so, either.” Misa sighed. “That’s frustrating. Or maybe that’s good. Perhaps our dicks are not as long as we think they are.”

The music on the radio was some Croatian song, recorded before the war.

“They’re playing that now?” Boris asked.

“It’s as if nothing ever happened.” Misa paused. “People are trying hard to forget that there was a war at all. As if all of it was just an incident caused by the drunken guests in a Balkan bar. I know some people who were in Bosnia and Croatia – they all claim they shot in the air or they didn’t aim. Who did the killings, then? Maybe they’re not lying, maybe mujahideen came, and mercenaries, such scum.”

“We wish,” Boris said. “My best friend was in Croatia for just a few weeks. He saw some ugly stuff that our boys did.”

“What happened to him?”

“Deserted one night. Then left the country.”

“He must have seen something he shouldn’t have.”

Boris didn’t answer. My best friend. Johnny. It came so naturally.

They rode in silence. Half an hour later, they saw the customs sign on the side of the road. There was only one car ahead of them, and they were soon at the booth. The single duty officer nodded at Misa, looked curiously at Boris, and stamped their passports. The same procedure was repeated on the Serbian side, and they were through.

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The Book of Revenge
Excerpt

Slaughter Time

It is early morning in the late fall of 1963. The fog is lifting slowly. The light is the color of bad steel and the air is cold.

The pig lets out ­high-­frequency cries that hurt my ears. A universal sign for help in the world of sentient beings.

The animal is heavy, more than three hundred pounds, or so I heard this morning. I don’t know what it means and if it’s good or not, but now, watching this rushing mass through the fence, I can see that the five hundred pounds means power. I don’t quite understand why it will all happen to the animal that was a pet until last night, when my uncle went with my aunt to feed it one last time, murmuring quiet words of approval and love. I know only that the men will kill the pig, but I don’t know how death looks or what it is.

The lower yard is closed from all sides: the gate towards the upper yard, the narrow passage next to the stable, the one that leads to the orchard, and the big wagon entry from the dirt road. Through the laths on the upper gate I am watching the men slowly close in. The sow that runs panicky inside that narrowing circle is huge, and not because I am five years old. Ten or so dark, tense silhouettes are coming closer and closer, their hands spread wide to fill the space between them. The animal speeds up and changes its direction frequently, but every time it comes close to a gap that looks like an exit, another human figure jumps in to close the passage to freedom.

Two knives and a sharpener rest on a transverse beam near where I stand. The knives are long, with wooden handles, narrow and so old that their dark blades look ragged after years of sharpening against stones. Miladin has left them there after finishing his coffee and rakija, so he could fetch them quickly when the time comes.

I feel an unknown fear. Not of what I see but of what is yet to come. I can understand – by the seriousness of men and the rush of women – that this is important business. We all got up before dawn, even we children. Water is already boiling in the big cauldron on the bonfire, and the damp air pushes the smoke low, creating a long, slow curtain that delineates the stage. And, although I’m too young to be in that circle, hunting an animal, I am part of it all. They let me watch on purpose, to harden up, to see how death looks.

Someone is the first to throw himself onto the sow, which loses speed and stops for a second. Others follow and the huge ball of flesh is suddenly on the ground, its legs tied with ropes, two men kneeling on its side, several others holding its snout. The pig is fighting desperately. Miladin, a big, slow, stern man whose hands are huge and the color of soil, and whose face has lines so deep that one could sow wheat in them, picks up his knives.

“Hold it tight,” he says as he kneels down on the animal’s throat and holds its snout with his left hand. With a quick movement Miladin raises the animal’s head, stretching its neck, and plunges his knife into its throat. A stream of dark, thick blood bursts from the wound. I see the knife cutting farther, led by the short, jerky moves of the man’s hand. The wound behind the blade has white edges that quickly turn red. Drops of blood cover everyone, and it seems to me that, under that turbid light, everything is dark blue except the pink skin of the animal and the red that shines. Steam is coming out of the cut throat and the pig’s screeching slowly turns into a death rattle, going deeper, deeper and quieter. That sound is horrible. I cover my ears tightly with both hands but I can still hear it. The body of the animal is twitching, strongly at first, then slower and slower as the pressure of life runs out of it. Blood gets into Miladin’s eyes and he wipes it off with his right hand, still holding the knife, smearing dark red into light pink that doesn’t mean a thing.

The animal dies slowly, it lasts maybe two or three minutes, and then it’s still. The men are standing up, wiping the blood off their hands and faces.

“It seems to be easy,” I think, measuring myself against the grownups. “I could do it all, save for that sound.”

1
GAME: BETWEEN TWO FIRES

The rules
Players separate into two groups, facing each other. The distance between groups is about thirty feet. One person stands in the middle. A player from one group throws the ball at the one in the middle, trying to hit her. If she dodges the ball, it goes to the other side, who does the same. If she catches the ball, the person who threw the ball replaces her in the middle.

The reality
The groups keep coming closer, so the ball hits harder, and it’s more difficult to dodge. Some contestants take pride in being able to throw really hard and they usually aim at the head. The weakest person in the game cannot throw the ball powerfully enough, so she quickly becomes the target, and then everyone hits her.

The game usually ends with the person in the middle, already beaten and bruised, tripping over and falling.

THE OFFICE OF HIDDEN TREASURES
The courtyard was long, narrow at the entrance, widening into an area paved with cobblestones in the back, where we lived. A wooden gate with missing teeth was the only thing signaling to those outside that someone lived there. For many years the gate wasn’t equipped with a lock, and the travelers from the central bus station in Kragujevac – right in front of our home – would come to drink water from the brass faucet protruding from a concrete box close to the entrance. Some­times they would shit or vomit right next to the faucet, so my father decided to install a cheap, ­old-­fashioned iron lock with one of those medieval big black keys. He was a locksmith in Zastava, the car factory, and he knew everything about locks, so he personally chose that one. And he personally kept fixing it.

To the left of the entrance was the accounting department of some trading company in which only women worked. Sometimes they would let me stamp their documents, and that was a great pleasure for me: sinking the rubber stamp into the dirty tin box containing a thin pillow soaked with dark blue paint, the smooth lacquered wooden head of the stamp in my hand, the short and strong blow of the stamp on the paper and – always the same miracle – the square blue imprint in the ­upper-­right corner of the page. As if I knew how to write. As if I had power.

The job these women did was inspiring to me: they kept entering – in their tidy, miniature handwriting – long lines of letters neatly packed between ­hand-­drawn lines, with numbers at the end of the line. When every line of the page was filled in their ­black-­and-­blue hardcover notebooks, they would take the wooden ruler and make more lines for more numbers and signs. It looked like a secret plan, like a map of hidden treasure waiting to be decoded. I never drew, maybe because I was curious and wanted to see everything around me from very close. I loved seeing the smallest details of every structure: the relief of the bark, the first leaves of plants in the early spring, the dust particles on the stone, tiny metal parts inside the lock. I could never draw the outer lines; I could never catch the contours of the object.

I kept asking my parents for cheap small sketchbooks from the paper place on the corner, and when they would bring one, I would draw lines inside and fill the pages with signs that just looked like letters and numbers. I was three years old, and I was very frustrated, because my notebooks never looked like the big ones from the Office of Hidden Treasures.

From the Hardcover edition.

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