Blesok no. 110, October-November, 2016
On Omnivores and Cannibals
On Omnivores and Cannibals
Translation to English: Milan Damjanoski
He laid his hand on the earth-stained surface of the stone, softly as if cupping a little chick that has fallen out of its nest. Gently. He had just recently ripped that stone out of the ground with that very hand and laid it on top of a pile, on top of a barrow. Perhaps he's hoping that one day he wll be able to identify the grave with the help of that pile of stones. Perhaps, at least for a moment, he's hoping that that day will trully happen one day.
– They’re cannibals. The ones that are coming. You know that?? – he asks. As if the stones could ever answer him back. As if the person lying beneath the pile of stones could still answer back. – I could never really understand painting. I guess, it’s because I would always try too hard to understand it and never allowed myself to just feel it. Yet, the painting of the Raft of the Medusa has always been completely terrifying to me. Whenever I’d see that painting, always, even if I saw it now, a certain sense of horror would creep down to the depths of my bone marrow. The more I would understand that painting, the more I would be frightened of it. A wave is coming from the side, towering over the raft ready to submerge it, while hundred and forty-nine people are crammed on it. Some are standing upright, waving with rags to the sky. All in vain. As if they could be saved. The bodies of the dead are lying in the embrace of the living. The living who themselves can’t be sure that they are not dead already. The wide-open sea is all around the raft. Yet, the edges of the planks set a boundary. Out of the hundred and forty-nine who tried to save their lives jumping onto the raft, only fifteen survived. Just imagine that. Imagine the horror of trying to survive floating in the open sea for thirteen days on the raft of the frigate Medusa.
On a raft full of cannibals, only the cannibals can survive.
They’re cannibals. You know that? The ones that are coming, the ones we fled to the woods from. The ones we hid from. These are your woods. Your father fled to these woods, too.
The young man grasps the stone as if it is the shoulder of a boy, not some dead piece of nature. He stays silent and listens to the sounds coming from his surroundings. It’s as if he is expecting a guest to come knocking on his door at any moment. The woods are silent, though. Full of life, but they can be quiet. It’s also autumn. So, you can hear the rustling of every little leaf, every billow of the wind. He just sits and listens. Judging every sound. Waiting to hear the one that he is expecting.
– They’ll come, I know. And I know, there’s no point in running anymore. Let them find me here, by your side. There’s no point in leaving these woods. There’s no escaping. They are everywhere. The world is gone. At least, the world as we know it. We’ve had it with running. Coming back to this woods can be considered a success. Thank you for that. Thank you for bringing me back here, just like your father brought you here once. Only, I would rather not talk to myself. Not talk to this pile of stones with which I marked your grave, as if there shall be someone left to come and visit it in the future.
They say that home is where your graves are, where the bones of your ancestors are resting. That’s what they used to say. I never thought about it before. Now, I remember it. And I wondered where that home is. I remember, when I was young I thought that your home can be wherever you shed your blood, tears and sperm. As if we use these bodily fluids to mark the location of our home. I’m not saying that I was dumb back then. Nor am I saying that there is not some truth in what I was thinking. There is. Yet later in life, I thought that my home will be where my child shall live. There is some truth in that, also. Even more truth, I would say. Now, while I sit by your grave which I have dug and buried with my own two hands, while I sit next to your grave, the grave of my father, now I remember that people used to say that your home is where your graves are. Somehow, now, I feel as if I should come to terms with that and accept it. That I should at least die at home. When I didn’t know how to live at home.
I will not run anymore. Enough is enough. I hear sounds in the distance. They are coming. But, we still have some time left.
The young man is calm. Completely. He takes out a wallet and a pack of cigarettes from the inside pocket of his windbreaker. He takes one cigarette out and puts it in his mouth. He makes a sound with every move. You can hear he is not from here. The creatures of the woods would know how to move without making any sounds.
He searches through the pockets of his jeans. Looking for a lighter. He gets scared for a moment that he has lost his lighter and he won’t be able to light his cigarette. Thankfully, he finds it. In the right pocket of his pants. In the small pocket within the pocket.
You can even hear the sound of the lighting of the cigarette. First the sound of the flint, then the crackling of the spark followed by inhalation. He sits and smokes. He looks for a moment at the pile of stones that he put together, then he turns his gaze in front, deep into the woods.
– You know, I’m scared. I would lie to you if I said I wasn’t scared. And I would rather not lie anymore. Who is there to lie to, anyway? There’s no one left. Who would’ve thought that the world would really come to an end? That the cities would be turned into wastelands in which no human can survive for more than ten minutes. That there will be no electricity, no internet, that the phones would turn silent… That everything will simply disappear. That we will watch people dying. That we will flee, that we’ll help in vain. There’s no one left to help, anyway. That we will succeed in prolonging the end until now. Who would’ve thought that? I don’t know if there’s anyone who has managed to prolong the end as long as you and I? I don’t think so. We were quite a pair, old man. Like two bears. Strong when needed. Hiding when needed.
I remember when I was a kid, I don’t know if you remember it too… I remember, you told me I had a guardian bear. Whenever I would get scared. A brown bear was following my every step. He was always nearby, in the nearest bush or grove. Ready to pounce and protect me. And then, when we were fleeing, the people from the bus, the refugees, saw a bear by the road. And everyone jumped on that side of the bus to get a better look. I was the only one remaining in my seat, knowing that what they thought to a be unusual sight was no surprise for me. The bear who caught their attention was the very bear you told me about.
True story. I would love if you could give me an answer. Do you remember, whether you, when I was a little boy, told me I had a guardian bear? I’m no longer confident in my memory. I’m no longer sure whether I have made it all up and I’m only remembering my own fantasies that I have taken a fancy too or did it really happen as I remember it. I’m not sure whether I really had a guardian bear as a child. Did you really tell me that? And I can’t be sure whether there really was a bear by the road and whether all the refugees jumped up to see it, and I was the only one who didn’t. I can’t tell the difference anymore between what I have imagined and what I do really remember.
I would love if I haven’t imagined that. I would love to believe in everything that I remember. Because, I am still scared, and these woods have so many places where my bear would know how to hide and watch over me.
They are really coming. The tremors of their steps are fighting their way to the barrow, to the pile of stones forcing them, almost imperceptibly, to slightly vibrate. Even the young man raises his head. He can hear them coming closer. It sounds as if they are coming from all directions. And they are noisy. They don’t care. The let the noise announce their arrival.
– They know that the world is theirs.That’s why they are so loud. There’s nothing that can stop them now. And they know it. But, don’t worry dad, you have managed to escape them.
He enjoys the taste of the cigarette. He is in no hurry. He is young, yet he smokes like an old man.
– I’m glad … I’m happy that you managed to escape them, but I’m sad that you are in no shape to give me an answer. That you are not able to dispel my doubts. Are my memories really and truly memories? Or just lies that I once told myself just because I could?
I don’t even believe my own memories. I remember thing which are impossible for me to remember. I remember events that I took part in, but they are just in my head… As if they have happened to someone else. It’s obvious I remember things that other people have told me, not the ones that I have experienced.
A bigger problem than other people’s stories are the stories I have been telling myself. Those are the ones that I can’t distinguish.
I would love if I could check this with you. Is it true, did you tell ne, when I was a little boy, that I have a guardian bear?
The young man has come to the end of his cigarette. He is already taking out the next one. The woods are getting louder. They are really coming.
– I could try to tell you all the things I remember? Maybe that will help. It can’t do no harm, anyway. Maybe there someone else in the woods besides them. Maybe that bear is lurking around here, too.
I remember, it was July. The month of July. Later, I learned to call it the month of Srpanj But, then I still called it July. And later, in that apartment over the Evangelical church, I remember listening to the pop song “When You Forget About July”. And I cried, was bawling like a small child.
I remember, you told me that I was going away just for a short while. Until things settle down. That I’ll be back for my birthday in August. That I have to, I couldn’t really understand what at the time, that I have to escape from something for just a couple of weeks. At then end, it turned out to be six years. Even afterwards, I never really returned. Though I was a returnee. I was a returnee to a city I had never been before. They stick strange words on your forehead, while you are trying to discover who you are. It is written on your forehead, but you are not able to see.
I should hurry up. They are getting closer to us. I don’t have much time to tell you everything. And ask you, are the memories of the bear real or just an odd form of comfort.
The woods around the young man and the grave are dresses in autumn colors. The worms are pushing up through the ground to the surface. They can sense the rain. The worms would often hide under the stones that are now the building blocks of the grave. They would rest under there. Just exist. Now there is a dead man’s body under the stones. The body of the young man’s father.
– I remember, I ran up the tree with the backpack on my back. When it was time to leave. I wasn’t really trying to avoid becoming a refugee. No. If I remember well, I was saying goodbye to the tree which I climbed every day. Where I set the record for the fastest climb in the neighborhood. Out of all the kids, I was the fastest climber on that tree. I took me just five seconds to get on top of it. You and my sister shouted at me to come down. You warned me that we mustn’t be late for the bus.
I also remember, you cried. My sister and I sat on the bus. I saw you crying. At the bus station. You are standing there and a friend is standing next to you. You are waving at us and crying. Your friend has his arm on your shoulder. Not trying to hug you, so he won’t steal from you even a second of the chance to watch your children depart.
I remember, I started crying, too. And I cried until I fell asleep. Just staring at the worn out headrest of the seat in front of me or looking out of the window at the dying towns that we were passing through.
I didn’t believe you when you told us that we were only leaving for a couple of weeks. If I had, I wouldn’t have cried so much. Or maybe I would have? I don’t know. But I do know that all the other children were talking that I would leave. Not like I was leaving for a couple of weeks, but for good. Them, I did believe.
A large drop of rain broke its fall and shattered on the young man's head. He looked up in the sky as if in prayer to be granted just a few moments more.
– I wonder if my bear exists at all. And who made him up. Mom and you or me? If it was the two of you, if it was just you, than this time I’ll believe you.
We drove through the darkest night that I ever remember, along a narrow, miserable country cobblestone road. That I do remember. I don’t remember the faces of the other passengers. I don’t even remember my sister’s face on that bus. I do remember, she sat next to me. Serious and calm. While I was crying my eyes out. And she held her arm on me at all times, as if she was afraid that I might disappear. I know today, she was just a teenager who was given the task to look out for her little brother. But, I don’t remember her face. At least not the one she had on that bus. And I do remember the darkness. All around us. Towns in the dark. Or villages. Houses with no lights on. We drove slowly. That I also remember. And the dead body on the side of the bus.
In fact, I don’t remember the dead body. Not all of it, anyway. Maybe just the leg. But I do remember hearing that there is a dead man’s body on the road.
Who would’ve thought that later, when this end of the world came, we would see hundreds of them? What d’ya say, old man? Who would’ve thought that that single one by the side of the road, just the legs of that one, seem something quite acceptable, just an everyday occurrence?
But, I do remember that. I don’t remember the armed checkpoints that we passed through. And we passed through many. I know that from your stories. How you called friends and acquaintances to find out if your children came out safe and sound. How you feared that we might get taken of the bus at one of those checkpoints. But, I do not remember them. I don’t remember whether I saw even a single armed man. Even though there must have been tons of them. There must have been.
But, I do remember that we stopped … Sometimes we would sit for a long time in that tin box , breathing and keeping silent, waiting in the oppressive heat and silence. I don’t know what we were waiting for. No one left the bus. No one would come out or come in. No one would turn on those little reading lights. And everyone was awake. And silent.
They are very close to us, now. I can feel their presence. Dad, it’s the cannibals. These things around us. I can feel them behind my back. They love to sneak up on you from the back. So we won’t see them or watch them as they attack.
I do remember, finally, that we stopped and that everyone rushed to one side of the bus. In my memory, that is the right side of the bus. Though, in my memory of the thing my seat was also on the right side of the bus, next to the window. Yet, I do remember, everyone hurried to one side of the bus, while I was the only one who remained on the other. Almost the entire bus wobbled and rocked because of the weight of all the people who leaned against the windows to see the bear.
And I knew, that was my teddy bear. My guardian bear. And none of it was odd to me. That is how I remember it. And I didn’t rush to the window with all the others to see the bear, and yet I still remember that he moved gently like a bear skin and powerfully like a bear attack. He wasn’t afraid of all the scared people on the bus. He just walked by, as if he wanted all of us to see him, for me to see him.
Sometimes, I would also remember the version which my sister told me: “It’s just your bear”. And, then again, I sometimes remember how everyone jumped to the windows to see the dead man’s body lying next to the bus, while my sister didn’t want me to see the corpse, so she told me it’s just my bear.
I don’t know what the truth is. What really happened? Did you ever tell me that I have a guardian bear?
One of them is right behind my back.
One of the creatures appeared behind the young man’s back. Like a shadow, coming out of nowhere. The young man is not turning around, even though he knows the end has come.
– Maybe it was me who made up my guardian bear. Maybe I have made up all of this. Still, it seems to me as if something is moving around these woods. I don’t mean the cannibals. They are already here.
No, I think I see a brown fur glistening in the rain and big muzzle beneath the mild kind eyes of my bear. I can see him artfully approaching in secret.
1. Translator’s note: The Croatian name for the month of Julу, whereas July is the name of the month in Serbian, the presumed nationality of the main character.