Translated by Tomislav Kuzmanović
Nature is my natural enemy. Ever since I’ve known of myself, that’s the way it’s been and that’s the way it’s going to be. I don’t know how to say it differently or more eloquently without getting away from the truth so I won’t even try. Nature or wilderness, which is by far and long a more precise term for the inaccessible and truly wild spaces, makes a man ridiculous and helpless. Not every man, of course, but people like myself have no business going there without the company of experienced guides armed to their teeth. Chances of a pallid-complexioned, thin-skinned creature prone to every disease known to man, as I have always been, surviving on his own in the wilderness for longer than half a day are at the very start brought down to a minimum. In ninety-five percent of the cases something would kill me: a black widow, an alligator, a lesser spotted eagle, a bear, insects of this kind or that, leeches, snakes, lightning and thunder or, if nothing else, I would trip over, cut my forehead open on a sharp rock and die on the spot.
In lower grades of the elementary school, and that’s the last thing I’ll add, they enrolled me in boy scouts. As I was of puny physique and eternally pale in the face, my parents probably thought that spending some time in nature and in the company of others would not hurt. Not more than a few meetings later they took us camping. And even though I was very young, I felt that something might go wrong. We set up our tents, raised our boy scout flag on the pole, made our campfire in the evening, and the next day – a competition. The last and key discipline brought the most points and it consisted in passing several control spots on a terrain that for the most part, naturally, spread over some thick woods. At one moment, I have to admit, I too was overcome with a touch of enthusiasm and competitive spirit. That boy scout zeal could be felt on every step and I was not left immune to that, to be fair, completely irrational excitement. I didn’t know exactly what we were doing, but I followed others who fanatically hopped around completing all of the tasks that needed to be completed. One of the tasks was to use a rope, that was supposed to act as a jungle vine, and jump from one to the other side of a smallish river, a creek or a swampy puddle. I let go off the rope too early, fell down and rolled down the bankside into the water. It wasn’t a steep fall, nor was the water deep, and I wasn’t the only one who got stuck there, but I was the only one who, while splish-splashing up the hill, was attacked by a swarm of forest killer bees. To be fair, it wasn’t a whole swarm and they were not killers, there were perhaps only ten or fifteen of the most belligerent and angriest bees out of which three managed to sting me: into my neck, forearm and my forehead.
This last sting, right in the middle of my forehead, made my whole head swell. That very day they took me back to my parents with my face completely deformed. For three days no one could even look at me from all the horror – I looked like a tiny, skinny freak with a head three sizes too big. And so my boy scout career ended – too quickly and ingloriously.
For thirty years I kept to civilization as my natural habitat. The beauties of wild spaces can be seen on television or on photographs of friends who visit such places in an attempt to cure themselves from the city bustle, stress and other predicaments. For thirty solid years I never took one step out of the city transportation zone, and then, just like that, I accepted the invitation by Tanja Mravak and the CAWH (Croatian Association of Writers-Hikers) to join her and a couple of foreign authors and visit our colleague Blaž Petrović who, for the past few years, had been living in a log-cabin on Mt. Velebit. As the founder and president of this small association, Tanja, once a year, by the end of summer, in cooperation with the CWA-SS (Croatian Writers Association – Sector South), organized excursions to hills and mountains for the writers from Croatia, the world and the region.
She phoned me and said, “C’mon, dog, come with us, join us. We’ll take a couple of them foreign writers to see Blaž.”
“I can’t, I really can’t…”
“C’mon, don’t be a dick. It’ll be a nice, nice people too, c’mon, don’t be scared, nothing bad’s gonna happen, on my word.”
As if anything less than a Mountain Rescue Service with two helicopters, thirty men on the ground, and six well-trained German Shepherds could guarantee anything to anyone, I thought, especially up there in the wilds of Velebit where the great Blaž Perković arranged the stars in heavens with his hazel stick.
“I’ll be with you in the spirit, but my body must remain in Zagreb.”
“There you go again… don’t fight it, if Senko Karuza could’ve done it last summer – you can do it too.”
“You and Karuza are a whole different story…”
In the end, I don’t exactly know how and why, I accepted the invitation. Probably I thought well – I’ll do it, pick up some ticks up there or some exotic hill-mountain disease, and she’ll leave me alone. Wild mountain lynx lives on Velebit, I remembered right after our conversation, venomous snakes, and, I’m sure, wolves.
* * *
After a long and slow drive, during which I’d never once broken the speed limit, I finally pulled over by the shores of the Velebit Channel, in a small town marred by hundreds of ugly, mostly half-finished weekend houses that had sprouted out and, I’m sure, keep sprouting out of the ground without order or sense.
The pebbled beach spreading to the left and to the right of the town’s pier did not look enticing. Nevertheless, temporary tenants of the camping-settlement and several nearby hotels – women, men and children of most diverse age groups – baked in the sun, others floated in the ripples not giving away any signs of life, while a group of older ones entertained themselves by retrieving sea-urchins from the sea bottom. They left those cursed creatures on the shore to die. In the air there was a scent of pine needles, mild desperation, and about a dozen different kinds of sun lotion. For a few long minutes I observed this second-rate, terrifyingly boring summer postcard and then drove down to the very edge of the town.
“Hey there, we’re here,” Tanja said and waived at me from a low stone wall in front of a local establishment of an ingenious name – “The Adriatic.”
And so she was sitting on that little wall like a bushwhacker siren exposed to UV-rays, and behind her, at a table in the shade of the terrace, gathered the rest of the writing-hiking expedition.
Wells Tower, an American accidentally born in Vancouver, the author of a collection of short stories translated into all major and several minor world languages, exhibited friendly and well-meaning attitude from the very beginning. The Velebit adventure, as he admitted later when we hiked to meet the mountain, did not fit into his two-month-long European tour, but he gladly accepted the invitation to visit Blaž Perković and spend a couple of days away from the civilization. In many things, Wells reminded me of one of Cartoon Network characters.
There were all kinds of rumors going around about Maruša Klemen, a Slovene poet of a younger generation. The best known was the one about a well-known Slovenian poet who, publicly, in front of numerous witnesses, at some poetry evening, declared that he no longer had a heart because she, Maruša, broke it, cut it into little pieces, coated it in flour, fried it in a pan with onions, bell peppers and some seasoning, and then hungrily ate it. After this he had to go to Switzerland where in place of his heart they installed a nightingale in a small, golden cage. During that little time we spent together I saw nothing heart-devouring in her. A golden haired girl with grey-blue eyes, funny, tolerably pretty and yes, very well built, no question about it, but there was nothing about her that I could link to the fatal girl from the legends that, as I said, were going around about her.
The last member of our five-member mountain-hiking-writing company was the Israeli writer Etgar Keret. A quiet, good-natured and always smiling, a guest welcomed everywhere. With his two books of short stories he conquered the whole world. Numerous awards, translations and films didn’t turn him into an eccentric prima donna as is often the case, especially in the world of literature. Etgar remained a humble, normal guy just as he had been when I’d met him, a couple of years before, in Zagreb when he’d been promoting his first book of short stories, the first one translated into Croatian.
“Soldiers, to your feet, it’s time to go!” Tanja shouted, grabbed her backpack, threw it on her shoulder and went.
We had to walk about a mile and a half to reach the last stone houses under Velebit. Not even halfway there, everyone had a walking stick in their hands, everyone but me. As they walked, they stabbed those sticks into the ground, waved them about the brush, and along the way pointed at this or that part of the landscape, so I too wished for one. I looked around but I couldn’t find anything suitable. In the end, Tanja found me an almost perfect stick. She just glanced to the side of the path and saw it.
“En garde!” I tested several fencing moves waving the stick about in the air.
The stick fitted my hand nicely, which for a couple of moments made me feel good.
* * *
Tanja leading the way, we trudged our way to the house made of white stone and surrounded by several tall cypress trees. Perhaps those were not cypresses, I’m no expert, nor is it that important. Friendly hosts met us, as the saying goes, with their arms wide open. They told us to sit down at a large table on the terrace and then hurriedly started bringing: prosciutto, cheese, olives, home-baked bread the size of a satellite dish, which they baked themselves in their old-fashioned oven, homemade wine, and, on top of that, a drink similar to kefir.
Our hosts, Lela and Jan, well in their sixties, seemed as if they had that very moment fallen out of Procol Harum’s or Jefferson Airplane’s music video. In other words, a couple of hippies past their prime that today one can see only in documentaries about the 1960s and almost never in person: their faces somewhat disfigured from all the smiling, with bracelets made of thin, worn-out leather and necklaces made of seashells or corals, who would know exactly what, she wearing a wide dress with Indian decorations, her graying hair free-falling to her waist, and he, dried from the sun like a cod, in a washed-out sailor’s t-shirt and jeans shorts, balding, but with a ponytail at the back of his head and a vein threateningly pulsing on his forehead. They survived drugs and civilization and then finally moved here, to the foot of Mt. Velebit, and, I suppose, found pleasure in this semi-wilderness in the ways I’d never be able to.
Not caring about prosciutto, cheese and that super healthy drink similar to whey or kefir, I decided to stick to bread, wine and olives.
“Oh, yes, yes…” in her broken English Lela explained to Wells. “This is prosciutto, you know, from pig’s leg.”
Jan added that they, of course, were not very much in love with prosciutto or any other kind of meat, but they could understand the pitiful love of an average carnivore for such a delicious treat.
Etgar kept breaking the bread into pieces, smelled them and then threw them into his mouth pouring wine over them. He declared that he’d never tasted bread of such quality, which was met with general approval.
“Why don’t you try this…” Tanja took a slice of prosciutto and offered it to the Israeli.
“Ah, no, no, thank you, I don’t want any, really,” Etgar declined politely, but then Wells joined in.
“You must, at least a bite, I insist.”
“Ah, not even a morsel, but I’ll try an olive or two…”
A possibility of all of this escalating into an international kosher-incident was brought to an end by a grotesque figure that was coming down the path from somewhere on Velebit and approaching us. A spectral figure of an old man bent under a huge bundle of sticks and branches seemed to have just come down from the cover for Led Zeppelin IV. As he walked down the path towards us, the voices at the table died out. We observed him as if the whole day we’d been waiting for nothing else but that bundle of branches and sticks and now finally it was here and we impatiently cheered him on to cross those remaining thirty or forty feet. From the way Lela and Jan helplessly stared at the man, I realized that they’d never seen him before. An old man, however, paid no attention to us, his eyes fixed straight ahead, his step not faster than that of a turtle, which is, truth be told, slow, but it always reaches its goal. And when it already seemed he would pass by as if none of us were there, neither us nor the house, as if we were just part of the landscape – brush and rocks – he paused, took out a large handkerchief and wiped the sweat off his forehead.
“Hello, would you like some water…” This was Maruša Klemen. She gave out a shot that tore the silence wide open and she was already grabbing the jug from the table in order to, in an act of purest mercy, water the chance traveler.
“Aaah…” the old man croaked and gave the finger to Maruša and the rest of us. “Go fuck yourselves and the one who brought you here!”
“Just a crazy old man, you know…” Lela twirled her finger around her temple, which is an internationally recognized sign that someone is just not all there.
The foreigners understandingly nodded as if trying to say – ah, what can you do, we have those too, they’re crazy but you just have to let them live. As the old man, mumbling angrily under his breath, slowly continued down the path toward the village, restlessness of some kind snuck into my bones. I interpreted the man with the bundle of sticks as a warning, as a sign to simply say goodbye to everything and coldly turn around and go where I had come from – back to the civilization. Ah, screw it, I thought, there’s no point in bailing out now. No one pressed the gun against my forehead, I could have easily said: Thanks, but no thanks. Dear Tanja, you and your hiking-writing association may have a nice stay on Velebit, but I’ll stay here, that’s just not for me.
It’s too late to change your mind, I concluded. With the whole mountain that had been sitting here for a million years preventing us in Zagreb from having a Mediterranean climate, I could no longer go back, only forward – up, way up high, to meet the skies. If only someone, but not for real, just a little, got poisoned from that whey, I’d volunteer in a second to accompany him to the nearest hospital and I wouldn’t have to come back here again.
The finger that the branch carrier gave us so rudely drilled into my already fragile self-confidence. The old man cursed us – something would go bad.
Something will go bad, I kept repeating, something will surely take the wrong turn.
* * *
And it did, but not right away.
“With such loads in your stomach you won’t get far. You didn’t think about it, right? Tanja, you hold all the blame. If someone starts falling behind on me, you’ll carry him on your back, are we clear?”
“We took a little bite and had a glass of wine, that’s nothing, it’s just a little something so that they don’t get dizzy from the mountain air.”
Blaž, a man who’d exchanged the safety of a city for an untamable wilderness, appeared before us as a ghost. No one saw where he came from.
“Let’s skip the formalities, we’ll get to know each other along the way, and now listen: cell phones, laptops, iPhones, iPods, and all those gadgets, you’re leaving all that here! Capisci?! Is there someone among you who cannot separate from their ‘precious’ for a few days?”
That was the moment. I could’ve stepped out or raised my arm and said – I, I’m the one, I can’t separate from my cell phone. The opportunity offered itself, but I kept quiet like everyone else.
“Ok, Lela and Jan will look after your valuables. You’ll collect them on your way back, let’s go, chop-chop,” he said and clapped his hands to make us hurry.
Some forty minutes later, I had no idea where we were. Wells wondered how would he write in case he got an inspiration – and he would, for sure.
“We’ll get you some paper and a pen,” Blaž replied without turning back.
Wells glanced at Keret as if wanting to say: Paper and pen, what the fuck?
“You don’t have to write every day, think about things,” the Israeli said and patted the American’s shoulder.
“What things?” Wells asked.
“Think about your super-laptop you had to leave with the hippies, think about the rotisserie chicken, how can you be so whiny in the middle of all this beauty? Look at this!” Maruša said and spread her arms showing the Velebit landscape.
“I’m not whining.”
“Waahhh-waahhh,” Keret teased and grinned.
“Waahhh-waahhh, you fuckin’ crybaby,” Maruša joined it.
“I’m not a fuckin’ crybaby!”
Tanja hugged Wells around his waist. “Leave them alone, they’re just fuckin’ around with you. We’ll go pick flowers together later, huh? Just the two of us?”
“Wait, what? Why?”
Climbing up the hill, walking along a flat path through the sharp blue-grey rocks among which, here or there, grew plants I knew nothing about, we reached a plateau under a steep cliff.
“We’ll rest here, for twenty minutes, not longer. We have a climb to make, this one in front of you. It’s not difficult, but you’ve got to be careful,” Perković informed us briefly and then stretched out on the ground.
“I have to pee,” Maruša said. “But where?”
“Wherever you want, there, you can go there behind those rocks,” Tanja said and pointed at a couple of rocks at the end of this plateau, pasture, whatever is the expert name for a place such as this one.
The Slovenian took something from her backpack and headed to the other side in a leisured pace as if walking along a fashion runway. Keret, Wells and I watched as she went. Tanja and Blaž didn’t. He was watching the sky, and Tanja was entertaining herself by throwing her hunting knife into the ground – every time it hit the ground only a fraction of an inch from her left or right foot.
Just as she disappeared behind those rocks, Maruša screamed and ran towards us pulling her pants up along the way.
“What the fuck…” Wells shouted.
The distance the poetess had to run was slightly shorter than a football field, but she never made it. Like in a child’s nightmare, a monster some nine or twelve feet tall jumped out from behind the rocks, leaped upward and in two swift jumps caught up with our companion cutting her off.
“The wolfgoat!” I heard Blaž scream.
“Shoo, shoo, shoo!” Tanja shouted.
Wells and Keret said nothing or if they did, I didn’t hear them. I had my own problems, big problems.
It seemed, well, that I had lost my mind. So, that’s how it happens – monsters break into reality and you go see how you are going to deal with it. The creature called wolfgoat never once wondered what and how. Before our very eyes it grabbed the poetess Klemen, pressed her under its arm as if she were a baby or a loaf of bread and, with speed and agility you seldom see, disappeared behind those rocks and away wherever that ‘away’ of its may be.
“Quick, after them!” Blaž Perković barked his order, grabbed his stick and ran.
Everyone else started running too, and so did I, although, on my word, I saw no particularly intelligent reason for us to play heroes and run after the monster that, even with Maruša under its arm, ran three times faster than any Jamaican or American sprinter. We responded in accordance with the complicated human psyche, which, among other things, from time to time makes us do absurd, senseless things. It would’ve been much more logical to call the legendary Mountain Rescue Service and say: “Hello – hello, a group of writers here, we’re calling from somewhere on Velebit and, as you can guess, we have a problem. A wolfgoat, you see, grabbed our colleague Maruša Klemen and took her with it. What does a wolfgoat look like? Have you seen Predator? Any Predator, right, well, that’s what a wolfgoat looks like, more or less, it just doesn’t have dreadlocks, it’s a bit sturdier, and it has a protruding snout of a wolf, elongated, that’s right, and a couple of horns like a goat, only bigger, yes, about nine feet tall, maybe even twelve, its body is covered in red and black fur, let’s call it black with an occasional fiery red patch, it walks upright, yes, it walks upright and it is terribly quick, as nimble as a spinning top, that’s right…”
That would be ideal, yes, but our cell phones were left far away at the foot of the mountain. Those were the orders of Blaž Perković, the son of Velebit, and we fools obeyed him. The union with nature wouldn’t have been possible had we dragged our technological devices along. Well, some nice union this is, I thought. We ran up to those rocks and stopped.
Keret clambered up the highest rock and looked into distance.
“Can you see anything?” I asked, catching my breath after the spring.
“Not a thing,” he replied and came down.
We looked at each other for a couple of moments.
“Can anyone tell me what in Jesus’ name is going on?” Wells interrupted the silence.
“That’s the right question,” I said.
“The wolfgoat,” Blaž replied. “You know, half a wolf – half a goat… an ancient monster.”
“Are you for real?”
“Yes, Wells, I’m for real, we have an ancient monster from hillbilly legends. Deal with it,” Tanja snapped at him.
“The man has the right to ask, and why would anyone simply accept that monsters exist?” I jumped in.
“You shut up too!”
“Enough, stop it!” Blaž shouted and got between me, Tanja and Wells.
Keret stood aside and pensively nibbled on a leaf of grass.
“This is some serious, serious shit…” Blaž went on.
“You’re right,” I interrupted him. “This is some serious shit and those cell phones we left down there would come in handy now. But you, Gandalf, insisted that we leave them behind…”
“There’s no point in accusing each other,” the Israeli said. “We need to see what we should do.”
“Wise words, my friend, there’s no good in arguing. We need to organize a rescue operation. That’s only correct and honorable thing to do. I have a two-way in my cabin, but it takes at least an hour to get there. It would take us about an hour and a half to the foot of the mountain, so that’s out of the question, I don’t know… we’ll have to separate. Tanja knows the way to the cabin, one of you should go with her, and the rest of us will go after the monster.”
Wells spat to the side and mumbled something under his breath.
“Come on, speak up,” Blaž encouraged him.
“Ah, it’s nothing, it’s nice that you think we need to organize a rescue operation, but, man, what sense does that make? What are the chances that she is still alive?”
“I’m afraid Wells is right,” I said. “The wolfgoat has most likely eaten Maruša by now, and even if it hasn’t because, let’s say, it wants to take her to its lair and make her its mate, like King Kong did with Jessica Lang and then later with Naomi Watts, let’s say she’s alive. How are we going to find that lair? And even if we did – how are we going to set her free from that terrifying wolfgoat?”
Keret asked to speak: “What you say is true, I myself am not filled with optimism. Maruša’s chances with the monster aren’t great. I agree, however, with Blaž – this is a matter of honor and I’m all for going after the monster. I spent two years in the army and I know a thing or two about tracking. Let Tanja and someone else head for the cabin and contact the rescuers. I’m going after the monster, who’s with me?”
“I am,” Blaž Perković was the first to reply.
Our eyes fixed to the ground, Wells and I raised our hands almost simultaneously.
“You go with Tanja, I was a boy scout,” I hear myself say as if these were someone else’s words, not mine.
“I was a boy scout too,” Wells said.
“Nice, if this were Oregon or some such place, I’d be glad to give you my place. You go get help with Tanja, the wolfgoat is my quest.”
“And why wouldn’t the two of you go to the cabin, it seems I’d be more useful in the hunt. After all the wolfgoat is the creature of hillbilly legends and, as you know, I’m a hillbilly gal…”
“No, no way,” Blaž interrupted Tanja. “You know the way to the cabin and you’ve operated the two-way.”
“It’s not rocket science…”
Keret put one hand on Wells’ and the other on Tanja’s shoulder. “Go, the two of you go together,” he said. “We count on your swift feet, the three of us go after the wolfgoat.”
The Israeli’s calmness and resolve did their thing. We exchanged hugs with Tanja and Wells and headed each in our direction.
“Hey, motherfuckers!!!” Wells yelled after us. “Go kick the wolfgoat’s ass and bring us the poetess alive and well!”
Keret, Blaž and I raised one clenched fist into the air which meant something like: Yes, no problem. That’s what we’ll do.
Deep in our hearts none of us had much faith in a happy ending.
* * *
We followed the wolfgoat’s tracks. Actually, Keret was the one doing all the tracking, while Blaž and I followed him. Every couple of steps, the Israeli paused noticing broken blades of grass, cracked twigs and other tiny things the two of us would never even register.
“It seems it has a clear course,” Keret concluded.
“At one moment it’ll reach its goal or it has already reached it,” I said. “And then it’s time for a showdown. Do we have a plan or we’ll think about it later?”
“We’ll launch a full-blown attack,” said Blaž, being heroic.
“We each have a knife and these sticks. I’m afraid that’s too little, the wolfgoat’s gonna eat us like when an orphan eats an Oreo, it’ll throw us around Velebit without a problem,” I moaned like an old woman predicting we were all in for a heroic death.
“Direct attack is not the smartest option. We’ll see where it’s nested and then we’ll decide on the tactics. If Maruša is still alive, maybe we’ll manage to save her without engaging into a fight with the wolfgoat,” Keret said.
“Well said, my Israeli friend, a direct attack would lead into a certain death. When we’re at it, Blaž, when you saw it, you said it was a wolfgoat. How come?” I asked.
“I’ve heard stories, legends about a creature that could live somewhere on Velebit. And, as you’ve seen, it seems it really does live here. But I’ve never seen it before today. Incredible.”
At one moment Keret read the footprints and concluded that the wolfgoat had abandoned that track and headed for one of the peaks. “It’s only logical, I expected its lair to be somewhere high.”
We began to climb. Goodbye Zagreb, goodbye civilization, we’ll never see each other again. Most likely I’ll die in this wilderness. I just hope my death will not be slow and too painful. It wouldn’t be fair. I have, after all, exhibited a degree of heroism when I signed up for this meaningless pursuit. Does the fact that I’ll perish in this heroic feat offer any consolation? I thought a little and concluded: Nah, there’s not a grain of consolation here. The wolfgoat is going to slaughter us like pestering flies. It’ll slay us all: Gandalf Perković, that brave tracker Keret, and me too. Maybe I’ll be the first to perish so I won’t have to witness their suffering and imminent death. The members of the Mountain Rescue Service will find our mutilated bodies somewhere among the rocks. Maybe, who knows, maybe one day some poor little school somewhere in the suburbs will be named after me. Sebastian Shamsky Elementary. Children, the teacher will ask her first graders, do you know who was Sebasitan Shamsky? Our school was named after him? Do you know, my dear children, who he was? We don’t, the children will say. Sebastian Shamsky was a lesser-known Croatian writer, he will be remembered after his heroic death on Mt. Velebit. Do you know, my dear children, how he died? You don’t, do you, well, I’ll tell you: he died when attempting to rescue the Slovenian poetess Maruša Klemen from the claws of the ruthless wolfgoat.
“Fay Wray, are you listening?”
“What? What are you talking about?” I came back to grave reality.
“Fay Wray,” Keret repeated. “King Kong’s first bride to be. Before Jessica and Naomi, back in 19 Fay acted in the first King Kong.”
“A Canadian, one of those movie divas that lived to a very old age,” Blaž Gandalf Perković added. “You got lost there for a second, Shamsky, what were you thinking about?”
We climbed over rocks as if this were a video game with platforms. The sun scorched the rocks, bounced back from them and wrought gallons of sweat from us. We had water, but none to waste.
“I was thinking that most likely we’ll all be dead before sundown. It’s all your fault, Perković, you know that, don’t you? You made us leave our cell phones behind!”
I stood up feeling the rush of anger.
“It’s all your fault because you abandoned civilization and came to live in this inhospitable shithole! It’s all your fault, Perković, because you’re pretending to be some fucking Grizzly Adams!”
At one moment Perković too stood up straight and, all read in the face, roared, “I’m no Grizzly Adams…”
Wanting to turn around toward me, with his right foot he searched for a firm foothold, but he didn’t find any – a piece of rock the size of a cabbage head came loose under his weight and he tumbled downwards. Blaž flayed his arms twice trying to regain balance and then he simply slipped into the abyss. We heard a dull thump and nothing more.
* * *
Etgar Keret and I stood above Blaž’s motionless body. He hit a rock with the nape of his head and that was his end. The extinguished eyes of the son of Velebit remained open and fixed onto clear blue above the mountain. The spark of life had already extinguished in them, but the Israeli nevertheless knelt down and checked his pulse.
“He’s dead,” he said.
“I can see that for myself. I killed him, I’m to blame.”
“I don’t see it that way. You got into an argument, our nerves are tense, and our friend stepped on a wrong rock. That’s all. That rook stood here for hundreds of years waiting. Today Blaž Perković finally kept his appointment.”
“Eternal rest grant unto him, o Lord,” I added.
We got up and stood in silence for a while. It seemed as if we were praying silently or something, but during that time I thought about Keret’s words. The man’s right, I thought, I mustn’t blame myself. When you’re clambering up and down the mountain, you have to watch your step, and Blaž didn’t. And so it happened he stepped on that very rock. It’s Velebit’s fault, it killed him, in the third place is, of course – the wolfgoat, and only then, somewhere in the fourth or fifth, it’s me. My blame is negligible. That’s right, I kept saying to myself, I hold no responsibility for the death of Blaž Perković, none whatsoever. In the end, he didn’t have to move to these gorges.
“Oh, my dear Perković, my wretched Perković,” I added out loud and quickly crossed myself.
“We’ll cover him with rocks so that birds and some such animals don’t get to him and eat him,” Keret proposed.
“And we’ll mark the grave with his stick, so that the Mountain Rescue Service can find him.”
We took Blaž’s canteen and got down to business. Very quickly we covered his body with rocks and positioned his stick above his head.
“This temporary grave is not half bad.”
“True,” I confirmed Keret’s thought. “Like in westerns.”
The Israeli fished out a joint from somewhere in his vest and suggested we light one before we continue our pursuit. We sat down above the grave and lit up.
“You’re not much of a nature lover?”
“I’m not, and this thing with the wolfgoat is the last jewel in the crown of distrust I have for wild regions.”
“The wolfgoat is the icing on the cake. Do you think it’s alone or there are more?”
“I think this is the only wolfgoat in the world.”
“Then it must be damn lonely.”
“It sure is, this monster is lonely here in the mountain.”
“Maybe that’s why it snatched Maruša.”
“No doubt, desire makes it do such things.”
For a while we stood in silence, looking somewhere into the distance and puffing smoke. Wilderness is all around us, I thought, and once we’re gone, it’ll crawl in and cover what’s left of civilization. Everything will be as it once was. We’re destroying rainforests, killing whales, drilling earth, but all of it is nothing. The battle is long lost. We live in our illusions.
“Do you think we’ll make it back alive?” I asked.
“We can only guess. It’s key we remain calm and don’t do anything rash.”
The wolfgoat has a home field advantage. We’re just intruders here. Our place is in cities, see what happened to Blaž. He lived here for a while thinking he belongs here. A man must stick to cities and villages, and leave the wilderness to savages, wild creatures that feel at home here.”
“There’s truth in what you’re saying. We distanced ourselves from nature and we understand it less and less.”
“Eh, if we had two machine guns and a couple of grenades, oh, wolfgoat, I’d ask you a question or two…”
“What question would you ask it?”
“It’s just an expression. But, listen, my Israeli friend, you haven’t met Maruša before?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Me neither. So – she’s nothing to us, neither kin nor relative. The real question is then why do we even put ourselves to risk trying to rescue her? Here, we’ve shown our good will, we’ve lost a man along the way, and she most likely is no longer among the living. Why don’t we simply climb down and wait for the reinforcements?”
“Heh, good question. Unfortunately, from the very beginning this is the question of honor, and after Blaž’s death we practically have no choice. His sacrifice cannot go in vain. If now we gave up on our search for the poetess Klemen, it would be like we pissed on his grave. Look deep into your heart and you’ll see I’m right.”
I obeyed and looked. There were all kinds of things in my heart, I dug and I dug, and really – deep down, under layers upon layers of all that crap, I found a smallish clot of responsibility and honor that made me feel alive. I was surprised by this discovery, surprised and somewhat saddened. I wasn’t aware that under particular circumstances I was ready to die for nothing.
“Let’s go, we have a case to close.”
“This way, please,” Keret said and led the way.
* * *
Step after step, stone after stone and we’d already climbed to the first peak. It wasn’t particularly high, but when I finally dared to look down, I felt a lump in my throat. The Israeli gave me a sign to be quiet and started sharpening his stick with his knife.
“Just in case,” he whispered.
I sharpened the point of my stick too. All we had were those two pitiful spears and a knife each in case of a close encounter. Hand to hand combat with the wolfgoat – I didn’t even dare to think what would be the outcome of that clash.
“You stay here, I’ll look around.”
“It’s a deal,” I whispered back to him.
I wasn’t complaining. Let the man go, I thought, reconnaissance is the mother of success. I hid in the shade of a massive rock and sat down. The sun had already reached its highest point and it slowly began descending westwards. Are there any mountain vipers here, nervously I wondered, or giant spiders? I didn’t feel like sitting anymore. I stepped out of the shade anxiously expecting something to come crawling out of one of million cracks. Life in the city has its flaws: the air is polluted, it’s noisy, people sit in buildings and watch television so that they don’t go crazy, yet every minute someone goes crazy nevertheless, thousands of cars crawl down the streets, trash stinks up the pavements, in summer it is incredibly hot, and in winter cold sneaks up in your bones, children scream in parks, parents scream after them, dogs piss and shit all over the place, and owners follow them and collect that shit, or they don’t and when you add it all up – I understand people who at one moment, just like Blaž, lose it and move somewhere else.
But not here, by God, not in the middle of nowhere. A life in the mountain is definitely not a solution.
I heard something and took a couple of steps back. I clutched the knife in one hand and a smallish spear in another. The Israeli. I felt relief.
“I’ve found tracks, I think I know where the monster lives.”
With a heavy heart, I stepped onto a narrow plateau above which rose new, even steeper cliff. I somehow hoped we wouldn’t find the wolfgoat’s lair. To my regret, Keret truly read those tracks like a seasoned Cheyenne. I followed him. He walked without making the smallest sound. I wasn’t as successful – I made enough cracking and rustling noise for both of us. Some sixty yards further he paused and pointed upwards.
“I can’t see a thing,” I whispered as quietly as I could.
I squinted trying to draw an imaginary line from the tip of his index finger. Caught on a sharp rock, a small piece of orange fabric fluttered in the wind.
He nodded. “She had an orange shirt tied up around her waist, don’t you remember?”
“Unfortunately, no, but yes, this could be hers.”
“Let’s go,” he said and went.
“Wait a minute… how about I wait here, just in case.”
I didn’t feel like climbing up a steep, narrow little path suitable for wild goats, wild cats and agile monsters. Nevertheless, I somehow mustered my courage and followed the Israeli. This still wasn’t a climb that an average amateur climber couldn’t master without pins, ropes and other equipment, but it wasn’t far from it. A quarter of an hour later we reached a plateauish, protruding rock.
“I’ll sneak up all the way to that plate,” Keret whispered. “When I give you a sign, grab a rock and throw it up there. Aim above me, so that it lands on the ledge.”
“In case it’s here, the wolfgoat will, if we’re lucky, come to the edge.”
“I’ll stab it with my knife and with a little bit of luck – it’ll plunge down.”
“Etgar, my brother,” I whispered.
“Don’t get mad at me, but this is not the smartest plan I’ve ever heard about.”
“You have a better idea?”
“I do, let’s go back and wait for Tanja, Wells, and the Mountain Rescue Service.”
He dismissed me with a wave of his hand and climbed exactly as he had planned – right under that ledge. I waited. He turned toward me and gave me a sign to cast the first stone. They were everywhere. I picked one, aimed and threw. It fell to the right spot. We waited. Keret had his knife ready, leaning with his other arm against some runty tree that grew slanted among the rocks. He motioned me to throw another rock. I did, hitting almost the exact spot. Before we expected it, the wolfgoat appeared on the edge of the rock, looked somewhere into the distance and then, probably smelling the intruders, it threw itself down, its stomach first, and punched Keret right in the back of his head. For a moment, it seemed that the Israeli writer would stay where he was, but then his body gave up, his hand let go of that puny tree and with his arms flayed he dropped into the abyss. The wolfgoat rose to its feet, glanced once more at the horizon and then left. Me it hadn’t seen. Probably it couldn’t have. I eagerly wanted to believe that. I waited until my heart stopped beating at the rate of two hundred beats per minute and then began my descent. Not daring to look back, I blindly went one foot after another, looking for a firm footing. I felt my strength was slowly abandoning me.
God, if you do exist, now is the right time to convince the miserable me into your existence. Demonstrate your immense might and save this pitiful infidel. It doesn’t matter if I don’t deserve it – save me just for the sake of it, just for kicks. Out of spite. I don’t want to perish in this godforsaken land. Lord, you allowed the death of two writers in one day. There’s no need for my demise too. If we count Maruša into it – that’s already three. That’s a lot, dear God, so many writers have not perished in a single day ever since that war. The Second World War. Who knows if there ever was such a plague among the literati. Oh, great Yahve, who art in heaven where you sit in a white suit like Morgan Freeman and watch our misery and our earthly woe, let me reach civilization, and then you don’t have to do anything for me ever again. Or you may – as you please. But make this that I ask happen now, because now I need it. I beg you!
Climbing down blindly among those rock, at one moment I stepped into something that wasn’t a stone. I turned around and saw Keret covered in bruises and blood lying on some bush.
“Move your foot,” he cried.
I moved my foot from his knee.
“Better if I weren’t…”
“Listen, I don’t know how to get you down, kill me – but I don’t know.”
“How far is it?”
“Some forty-five, sixty feet.”
“Leave me, go, run away…”
Wise words, my friend, I thought. Both my mind and my heart were absolutely for leaving him here, because anything else was simply impossible, but then from somewhere conscience called: it would be an asshole move to leave the wretched bastard lying here like a towel left on the beach to dry in the sun. I looked up. Of course, the wolfgoat was elegantly coming toward us.
“There it is, the wolfgoat, go,” Keret wheezed.
“Ah, let it come.”
I could care less. My strength drained away anyhow.
The wolfgoat came towards us and bellowed: “Roaaaar!!” It was as if it wanted to say: “You motherfuckers! Now you’re fucked!”
I thought I was getting dizzy and about to faint, but there really was something beating behind us. The sound grew mightier.
* * *
The soldiers in the Mountain Rescue Service helicopter fired their machine guns. The wolfgoat screamed. Seeing that things were about to get serious, in one swift leap the wolfgoat scrambled up to the ledge and disappeared somewhere in the gorges of Velebit.
Three large search operations for Maruša Klemen were undertaken but none of them bore any fruit. Above that ledge there truly was a cave and the wolfgoat, no doubt at all, dwelled in it. However, no proof was found that it ever dragged the poetess there. The only clue was that piece of orange shirt. Nothing more.
Blaž Perković’s remains were laid to rest in his family tomb at Mirogoj Cemetery. It rained during the ceremony. Fittingly. Tanja, Wells and I said goodbye to the man who spent his last earthly hours with us. The Israeli ambassador and his wife came to the funeral too. Keret, of course, couldn’t. At that time, and for the next six months, he was confined to a bed in an army hospital in Tel Aviv, where he was recovering for multiple bone fractures.
From time to time, there were unreliable testimonies of sightings of the Velebit wolfgoat. We saw it here. We saw it there. People want to see miraculous creatures and phenomena, at least once in their lifetime they want to see something beyond imagination: UFOs, Loch Ness monster, Yeti and its cousin Bigfoot, fairies and elves, or the wolfgoat – that lonely monster.
We who really saw it do not crave for a new encounter. Wolfgoat, let your home in the mountains stay far and clear from us.