Gateway to Dalmatia (Ghosts)
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A short story by Croatian writer Dalibor Šimpraga, translated by Tatjana Jambrišak.
On Monday, three days before Christmas, Katja got sick. As if. "Liars must have excellent memory", said the primary school math teacher. She might have got away with it, had she not inadvertently mentioned a month ago how she would take some vacation time before the New Year's, combine it with Christmas holidays and have full eight days off work.
So that would be ten, really; actually, with the weekend, it would be twelve!
And then the supervisor did the timetable and informed everyone personally that all former combinations and switches of shifts are out of the question and that everyone would work through their own shift, regardless of the religion or needs.
She did not explain. Not even tried to wiggle out as usual: "The boss said so ..."
It was, clearly, just a demonstration of power, a simple executive sadism.
There is no real reason to declare a moratorium on shift switches. The unwritten code said that newsreaders could switch "shifts", and since everybody was conscientious and fair, there were never any disputes. For, this was the only way to combine several days: work especially hard on the first three - and the other four days are free time.
Katja might have found out about the moratorium before others did. She and the boss lady "were close".
So she got intestine virosis.
This health problem has an alternative name in this country: "the perfect illness". You can get sick and get healthy again at will.
Katja was thus totally rude. Not to mention that the other five speakers would have to cover her shifts as well.
Tamara held back all the time. The plan for a Christmas trip home melted like butter, but she decided to accept her destiny. No anger. Fine, she thought, I will do it. When she pulled herself together and reviewed the shift timetables (Katja's shift replacements included), she realized she could arrive home on the Christmas Eve and stay for two full days. And then take the night bus and appear at work on the third morning.
However, when she finally decided to have Christmas holidays, there were no more bus tickets available. Students, workers, everybody else had bought them on time; she was the only one who strayed to the ticket counter like a dog and left empty-handed.
She came home and dialed a few numbers. It seemed luck did smile upon her after all. An acquaintance, Ivan, would pick her up; he was for some reason to be southbound no sooner than the Christmas Eve afternoon. Talk about coincidences!
Ivan was in her high school, only two years ahead, she only knew of him because he dated a girl from her class. Tall, somewhat hunched, somehow flat, vanilla. They met a few times at some college parties. Never mind, he would take her to Imotski much faster than if she took a bus.
Two years passed since the war and there was still no highway through the vast empty landscape towards the sea. The main road to Dalmatia, the state road D-1, between Zagreb and Split, which the two of them were going to take on that day, leaves the Pannonian plain and enters the mountains of Kordun and Lika, slightly rising only to reach the last, final obstacle, the Velebit mountain chain. It was winter and the Genovese cyclone had overcast thick, magma-heavy clouds over the whole country. Heavy snow was expected.
Although Tamara had read the latest news and weather report on the air that afternoon at half past twelve and half past one, she did it absent-mindedly without consciously noticing the sentence "possible blizzards, drivers through Lika and Gorski Kotar should be especially careful".
She worked until 2 pm, Ivan waited in front of the building at 2.05 sharp. They chatted while his old Opel caravan was conquering turns and the first hills. Cars coming from the opposite direction had some snow on the roofs, but the wheather was generally dry and cloudy, so they did not worry at all. They rushed towards their home town, "Sould arrive before nine", Ivan repeated several times.
Winter presented heavy and impressive scenes, landscapes of inverted chromatics, when the ground is brighter than the grey, smoky sky. They passed by the uninhabited area, vacated during the last military action; only an occasional café or a motel window would flash through the dusk.
In the Plitvice Lakes area they found the first snow in the woods, valleys and on mountain peaks. But, snowplows had already cleared the road and the tarmac was black under the whitened spruce branches.
"Do you have winter tires?", Tamara asked only to show off.
Ivan did not say anything.
"I do have some tires", he said finally. "Not sure if they're winter ..."
They stopped for a coffee after Korenica. It was getting dark already. The inn was full of murky guys; only a plastic Christmas tree flickered in the corner of the counter. They swallowed their coffee and took off. On the parking lot they met the first flakes storming under the veranda's lamps.
They continued on the black road between the obscure hills. It snowed occasionally, but nothing to worry about. The car's heating was busted, so he put on his leather gloves; she kept her hands in her pockets and covered her ears with a Peruvian cap which she had bought at a stall in Varšavska Street several days before. She pulled herself deeper into the seat and tried to warm up by imagining her parents' living room, somewhere far away in the South, where she would enter, well, in three or four hours. And her mom, brother and granny would sit there cheerfully at the table ...
They bought some gas in Gračac, where the road forked towards the Velebit overpass and, to the left, towards Knin. Ivan turned left to the Knin road:
"It's shorter this way. At least for an hour."
Tamara said nothing, pulled her coat tightly around herself, her cap down over her ears and stared into the pitch black road ahead of them.
Gusts of snow were falling from the sky. This local road had much less traffic. Actually, only an occasional car from the opposite direction.
The road was winding, the Opel droned heavily ascending an endless series of turns, while the blizzard got even thicker.
And then, after a good half hour, as if everything became lighter: the road, still winding, started to descend, so although the white-gray snow shower narrowed the view to amorphous molasses, her heart danced at the thought that the worst had passed. Here we are, already in the southern Lika, she tried to orient herself. She wanted to imagine a map of the country, but geography had never been her forte.
"Now we are already descending slowly towards Dalmatia", confirmed Ivan, as though he had read her mind. "That was some fucked-up overpass, but now we're in the clear! And this snow will stop, hell and damnation!"
However, the bliss did not last. Shortly after they had passed some gruesomely empty, burned-down houses and a sharp turn, red lights of some car appeared suddenly out of the sleet and squall. Ivan pushed the break hard and the Opel stopped dead, a meter away from the lights.
As it turned out - that car was the last in a long line, invisible in the snowstorm.
They exchanged glances. "What the fuck?!", Ivan whizzed more to himself, nervously.
"Fuck it, gotta smoke one", he said after a short pause. He took a box from an inner pocket and offered her a rolled joint. "Here, take one", he added. "Got enough till spring if I want to!"
She accepted. The car filled with smoke. Cannabis soon started to work its magic and everything began to waggle. The cars, however, remained still, but the smoke from the exhaust pipe of the car in front of them danced erotically around the red lights surrounded by the falling snow.
They each smoked another joint and then, after two dull moments of endless waiting, Ivan suddenly opened the car door. "Wanna see what's happenin', I ain't camping here ...! Gotta be in Imotski till nine!"
He strode briskly along the line of cars and disappeared in the storm.
Although she seemed calm, he obviously lent her some unrest. She was smoking and biting the skin around her fingernails. A new song was on the radio, beginning with a few introductory mandolin measures, so she turned up the volume enjoying the short, sweet string notes. She would come home, got into her bed and, under a night lamp, leaf through magazines she had meticulously collected all through high school. Let herself drown in nostalgia. Revel as in an uterus.
Ivan was gone for a long time. He finally returned, hunched to protect himself from the blizzard with snow heaped on his shoulders and hair. He got into the car and brushed off the snow from his head and ski jacket.
He informed Tamara that somewhere far ahead, an UN trailer truck overturned and that they were waiting for the snowplow and a towing truck to get it off the road.
"So, what do we do now?", she asked, but not as desperately as she would have normally be at such news. This shit's good, she concluded. Actually, all this was rather funny: an UN trailer truck from overseas to capsize in this godforsaken backwater.
Ivan took an old, messed-up map from the glove compartment. He switched on the light above the rear view mirror and began to study the map diligently.
"Is it too far to go back through Zadar?", she asked.
"Forget it", he said. "Here, there is a shortcut. I think I once took it, in the nineties, during road blockades, this was the way around them ... We'll be in Imotski in two hours one way or the other"!
With a skillful maneuver Ivan turned the caravan around and headed slowly back, watching closely the left side of the road.
After a few kilometers they reached the crossroads.
"There it is", he cheered and turned suddenly, like a fugitive. "You'll see, we'd be over Knin in no time! And then, easy as pie", he emphasised even more to convince himself than her.
After some ten meters of a wide access road, the road turned into a rather narrow path, buried in snow and additionally squeezed in by fences and shrubbery on both sides.
This was not the brightest of ideas, she thought but kept if for herself. We will arrive, sooner or later!
"Fuck, really heavy snow", said Ivan steering the car along the road covered with snow which seemed even thicker as they moved along.
In an essay, Mihajlo Pantić, a writer from Belgrade, described what he called the "Mediterranean impact". It is a moment when you travel south, whether by car or train, when you cross from the continental area to the seaside. You may suddenly experience a positive unrest and elation, the joy of unknown origin.
The place where it happens most often on the road to Dalmatia is on the state road D-1, between Gračac and Knin. The "Mediterranean impact" here is very sudden: in only a few hundred meters the fir and pine trees are replaced by low shrubbery, juniper and Mediterranean trees, such as pubescent oak or hornbeam. In a few moments you witness a climate belt change while you are absentmindedly staring through the window ...
The convergence of the continent and the Mediterranean, Lika and Dalmatia, happens on an overpass, which is interesting also as a historical locale. This has been a borderland since forever. In ancient times between the two Illyrian peoples, the Liburnians and the Iapodes, later between the Habsburg Monarchy and the Venetian Republic, that is, the Kingdom of Italy. This pass divided the Austrian from the Hungarian half of the Empire and it has remained so until the modern times: for some good two hundred years this has been a bordering area and even today, if you take this road, there will be a farewell sign of one and a welcoming sign of the other local governmental zone.
The "Gateway to Dalmatia", as some call this area, due to one conveniently located fortress guarding the pass, was a site of many fierce battles. The invasions of Avars, Slavs, Tatars went by here, the crusaders passed twice on their way to Jerusalem. During the Turkish wars there were several violent clashes here, because seizing that fortress meant a great strategic advantage. Finally, in 1809, the Austrian and Napoleon armies fought a brutal battle here. That is to say, this small area reaped a lot of soldier bones over a very long time span.
The car bumped into something soft, the engine coughed and stopped. Having recovered from the shock, they both got out of the car; the car had hit a snow covered pile right in the middle of the road. The headlights revealed a weird form under the white mass.
Ivan shoved off some snow with the top of his booth. There was something dark underneath the surface, covered by a thin and coarse ice cover. The blizzard was quickly covering the ice with a new layer of snow.
The booth stroke again, breaking the ice and reaching something slimy.
"What's this?", said Ivan, honestly baffled.
Once more he dragged his heel over the top of the large, soft heap, which burst under pressure like a balloon and the headlights flashed off three huge ribs. Large, white, curved ribs of some animal lying in the middle of the road.
Tamara shivered with fear, but Ivan went on. He brushed off snow from a branch, broke it off and shoved some more snow from the carcass. - A dead cow! In the late stage of decomposition! Between the ribs and in the hollow of the intestines the remains of the rotten flesh were black.
"Shit, what now, for fuck's sake?", Tamara cursed for the first time that day.
Ivan stood gloomily in the snow up to his ankles and watched this black wound with protruding cow ribs gaping in the all present whiteness. Then he returned to the car and tried to start the engine. The ignition was, however, helplessly whipping the engine.
He was cursing the car, the snow, winter and yet persistently attempting to start the car. For at least ten minutes. In vain.
She was freezing outside, in the snow, refusing to go back inside - as if she had to guard the cow, as if this would somehow aid his efforts.
Ivan opened the car door on her side.
"It's not wise to leave the headlights on", he said, "power is weak already. Could drain the battery. Come on in and we'll think of something."
When she crawled into the car, he switched off the lights and lit a cigarette in the dark.
"I'm lost", he said. "No chance I could fix anything in this weather. Best we leave the car here and go back to the main road to hitchhike, so we might make it home until midnight. No way we'd find a towing truck tonight, it's Christmas, even if there's somebody on call, he'd sooner be at the nearest bar."
She thought about her two heavy bags on the back seat. Who'd drag those now through the snow?
"Wait, wait a second", Tamara said. "Who knows how far we are from the main road?"
"Well, far", said Ivan. "Yes. Not much of a plan. Could freeze on the way."
So they sat for a while, he tried the engine several more times, but it was getting even colder. The windshield was completely covered with snow. Ivan switched on the wipers and, after a couple of swishes, they saw the road which was disappearing in the dark right in front of them.
Way beyond any hope. Cold, dark outside, even more smoke and less oxygen inside.
She opened the window to let in some air.
The blizzard subsided in the meantime and they saw a faint light to the right in the night.
"What could that be ...?", she said surprised.
"Possibly a house ..."
"How about checking it, since we're freezing over here?"
An old man in a thick sweater with a camouflage vest over it opened the door They explained what had happened so the man invited them inside. Near a white log furnace and the rusty chimney which disappeared in the wall, an old woman sat in a wrecked armchair, knitting a blue wool sock. The whole room was lit by a single gas lamp above the furnace, but it was heavenly warm.
Those people welcomed them cordially and offered them to sit at the table.
"Are you hungry, children?", asked the old man and ordered without waiting for their response: "Woman, take out some cheese and bread."
The old woman went into the completely dark side room and brought out two tin plates. She also produced two thick glasses and some cutlery from the table drawer.
"We'd only wanted to ask if you had a phone?", said Ivan.
"No phone", said the old man. "There's no phone here, sonny, no power, no phone, no TV. Wires cut, TV taken."
He took a bottle of brandy from the cupboard, poured some into their glasses and said:
"Anyway, some brandy? We have no tumblers, only these."
They did not protest. They drank up the brandy in one gulp and to the health of the old couple.
The old man found a glass for himself and filled the glasses up again.
"Nothing but to wait till the morning. Warm yourselves here by the fire. It stopped snowing, but will start again. If anything, there are beds around the house, so spend the night and in the morning find somebody on the road."
Drink after drink, cheese after bread, and the conversation flew. Suddenly Ivan looked around the room. There were no signs of Christmas anywhere in the room!
He shivered but showed no surprise. He chose some general topics for the conversation, winter, hard living and so on.
At some point he explained he needed to go back to the car to fetch another pack of cigarettes.
"As long as you go, bring my cosmetics bag, it's right on top of the suitcase ...", Tamara yelled after him as he was already at the door.
The blizzard had started over in the meantime, even stronger then before and Ivan had hard time pushing through to the Opel. First he looked under the upholstery of the left side seat for the parcel he was supposed to deliver that evening and then he pulled a handgun under the seat. Carefully, he checked that the bullet was in the barrel and shoved the gun beneath his sweater and under the belt. Then he rummaged through her suitcase to find the fucking cosmetics bag. Is she gonna fuckin' brush her teeth now?!, he thought resentfully.
He had already locked the car and started towards the house, when he remembered he had forgotten the cigarettes.
Through the door Ivan stormed white as a snowman. He brushed off the snow and sat on another chair, his back to the wall.
The three of them were chatting and paying no attention to him:
"Is there anyone but you in the village?", Tamara was asking the old man.
"Noone, sonny", said the old woman instead. "We live like hermits."
Brandy was poured. The night went on. The man took a third plate from the cupboard and a small knife with a curved blade. He took two onions and a salt container from a shelf. He was cutting onion and cheese and gobbled them between the words.
"Before the war I worked here in the forestry, and just before retirement a tree fell and broke my leg, so the war found me in a hospital in Zagreb, sonny. And then I thought where to go, couldn't leave gran here in the village, alone among the vanished people, so instead of taking her with me to our son's place, I escaped from the hospital and returned here! I thought what to do, where to go and blah, blah, blah ..."
The old lady was already drowsing in her armchair beside the furnace. Midnight neared, the old man went to the bed. There he lay on his side and continued the story of why they "stayed when nobody else had":
"You know, I have a son in Rijeka, sometimes he visits, he was gonna take us in, but I thought what to do, where to go at this age, me and her both. He said what'd you do in an empty village. And I said, you know yourself the village was empty even before the war, what's the difference, sonny, there've always been more dead then living people here. Neither do I like going anywhere, sonnor are we any good at all. Old and weak. Nothing for us but to sit here, waiting to die and ask God there'd be somebody to bury us."
The old couple had already slept tightly when Ivan asked Tamara where the toilet was. She said there was none.
"They explained, I guess when you went for the cigarettes, that if you need to go, you just go behind the house."
He shook his head in disapproval, but stood from the table and took his ski jacket off the coat rack. "Oh, fuckin' misery ...", he said putting on his gloves.
He went out into the freezing night.
The snowfall subsided again, only a few flakes were hitting his face. The silence was absolute. Somewhere up in the sky, even the clouds broke up and the moon shone through the hole.
Ivan turned back to the house and uneasy over the possibility that Tamara might come out and find him urinating, he walked several dozen steps into the white wasteland.
He was alone. His boots trod the deep snow with difficulty, but the embarrassment was stronger.
He had just unbuttoned his pants, when they appeared.
At first he had no idea. He thought they were a gust of snow, or several smaller gusts, but the air was still and there was no wind. It was endlessly cold and clear: no, these were no gusts.
From the deep darkness, from the right, there appeared a row of dark figures crossing the field with a barely audible murmur. They were too far away to see any details clearly.
He stood mesmerized.
Where did they come from in the middle of the night, he thought, in this empty village.
He still held his hand on his fly and - only to feel safer - he reached underneath his sweater and jacket, where he felt the serrated safety catch. He wouln't attack them and he was hoping they wouldn't either ...
The apparitions were moving uniformly, like a line of prisoners or pilgrims, through the whiteness, all in the same direction. Sometimes laughter or conversation could be heard through the murmur, but then again the unspeakable silence would cover everything.
They were walking by for a long time, some of them stopping, gathering in groups, then separating again only to walk on. They disappeared behind one tree with some shrubs around, so it was not visible in which direction they continued their march.
He starred. Time passed. The parade did not stop. Hundreds of them moved onward, here, over the field, in front of his eyes.
He stood motionlessly for more than an hour, stiffened with cold, face and hands turning to ice, but he did not want to miss the scene. Never had he seen anything like that.
"Hey, Ivan ...", suddenly he heard a voice behind his back.
Tamara was coming through the snow, carefully stepping in the holes he had made with his boots. "Where're you, man?! I thought you fell somewhere and froze."
"Look", he said when she came nearer and tilted his head towards the ghosts.
They were still passing by. Slowly and continuously, like a procession.
"What is this?", Tamara whispered. "Who are those people?"
"I thought I was hallucinating. So, you can see them, too?"
"Of course I can see them!"
"Can you hear them murmuring?"
"No. Nothing. I hear nothing."
They looked at those phantoms calmly, as if it had been some natural phenomenon. It often happens that people who scare easily, react to some really frightful sights without a hint of fear. Tamara and Ivan stood there, as if watching polar lights, as if completely sure that those spectres meant no harm to them.
Some apparitions broke rank and four of them moved away from the others. Across the field, towards Ivan and Tamara. They came close enough that some kind of uniform was clearly visible, belts crossed over their chests.
One held a hand in their direction, actually, a bit to the left, towards the house.
"Regardez là-bas! Regardez là-bas!", he exclaimed.
The other three watched closely with their palms over the eyes, as if protecting them from the sun glare.
"La maison! Regardez là-bas, la maison!"
"Je ne vois rien", said the other.
"Moi non plus", said the third. "Je ne vois rien."
They stood there for some time, looking at the house.
Dawn found Ivan and Tamara at the table. The old woman was snoring in her armchair, chin on her chest and the man was sleeping peacefully in the bed, with a cap on his head and a hand under his cheek.
Ivan stood up with difficulty, holding his numb thigh. "Ready?", he asked and limped towards the door.
They exited into a pink morning and headed spiritlessly between the fences and shrubs, towards the car. He looked at the field where the ghosts moved during the night; now it seemed as a normal, snow covered meadow in some godforsaken backwater. Tranquil, spiked only here and there with small, leafless trees, as on the paintings of Pieter Bruegel.
The car was waiting where they had left it last night, wedged in the gulch, with a white snow cap on the roof and hood, stuck in the snowy heap on the road.
Near the car, at one spot, both the field and the road were cut off by a snow trail. No footsteps, just a horizontal rift in the snow, where someone had been walking, its edges smooth and rounded by new flakes of the previous night.
"Was it them?", Tamara showed the trail which disappeared in the field.
"Don't ask", he said. From his pocket he took a bundle of clinking keys. "What'd you know, I've just remembered I have an old spare battery in the trunk. Should have thought of it. I might even start the car."
In the car Ivan took a brush and a box of tools. "Would you sweep some snow off while I replace ...?"
"Sure, sure ...", Tamara replied. He tossed her the brush over the top of the car. A humming sound got his attention so he looked over his shoulder.
Not so far away, on the other side of the field, a truck with yellow tarpaulin and the motto "Fanta - Taste Life!" was driving by at full speed.
"Look", she said. "All this time we've been so close to the road! Actually, this path runs parallel with it!"
"Not worth much now ..."
"Oh, if we had only known ... Could have walked over there. Someone might've stopped for us, we might've got home."
"We'll be home soon anyway", gasped Ivan while leaning under the steering wheel to pull the handle and open the engine hood. "Be there in two and a half, three hours tops, this time for real. Here, I'll just replace the battery."