Blesok no. 23, October-November, 2001

The Death of the Gardener

Živko Čingo

    Old Grulica rode a donkey early in the morning toward the gardens, smiling about something all the way. It was August, the most beautiful month of the year. It’s the time figs ripen in Paskvelija. There is really no month more beautiful than August, the old woman thought. But she also had a personal reason to think so.
    “Grul,” old Grulica said, “what a beautiful day!”
    “It’s August, girl,” old Grul said, winking with his big, bright eye.
    “It’s August,” old Grulica repeated, also winking.
    “When figs turn ripe,” Grul added. Then he took the donkey by its reins and went along the dry ditch toward the gardens.
    They went slowly along the ditch that took them to their garden, wondering why the soldiers were aiming their guns at their little fig trees. For a moment, Grulica was even afraid they would shoot. She called angrily: “Hey, are you drunk…”
    When they reached the fence the officer stopped them. The soldiers blocked their way.
    “Officer, what's with you this morning?” old Grul asked.
    The officer didn’t answer, and the others still held their guns as if they really wanted to shoot out the small, bright eyes of the figs.
    “These dogs are crazy,” old Grulica said.
    “No, really, soldiers, what's going on?” old Grul said, confused.
    The soldiers stood like statues.
    “You fuckers,” old Grulica swore. “Open your fucking mouths.”
    She leaned her head on her husband’s shoulder and in a cheerful voice said:
    “August is the most beautiful month in the year, officer… It’s when the figs get ripe… You want a fig, boy?”
    The officer stomped angrily as if he wanted to murder the ground under his feet.
    “I’m asking,” Grulica said calmly, pretending she wasn't understood properly. “I’m asking if you want a fig…”
    “Cut it out, you hag!” the officer said.
    She looked at him devilishly and smiled. Oh, how old Grulica knew how to put on an act. With a gentle smile she asked:
    “You really don’t want a fig?”
    “No,” said the soldier, swearing at old Grulica.
    “That's weird,” Grulica said, and she giggled. She could barely say:
    “Do you hear this, Grul?… A man who doesn’t want a fig…”
    The soldiers surely didn’t expect this. They showed their teeth and waved their guns. Finally the officer muttered:
    “That's the last time, you hag.”
    “She was just joking,” old Grul said. “Weren’t you?”
    “Of course, Grul,” the old woman said. “I always joke with men who don’t like figs. It’s damn funny…”
    Before she could finish, the other soldiers got her off the donkey and took her to the barracks, across from the garden.
    Confused about what was happening, old Grul ran after the soldiers.
    The commander of the barracks paced the office, waving his hands this way and that, as if he were looking for something he lost in the room's stuffy, heavy air. When the Gruls entered he struck a stern pose and gave an order in an unusually squeaky voice:
    “Here.” He pointed to the corner across from him.
    The Gruls had the habit of doing the opposite of what they were told. They had that feeling at this moment, and it kept getting stronger, pulsing in the veins of their old bodies. They didn’t even move, they just kept holding hands as they stood by the door. The soldiers shoved them in vain.
    “Fools,” old Grulica said to her Grul.
    The commander stepped toward the door, cursing. The Gruls waited for him calmly, wondering what they might have done wrong.
    Every year, every August, when the figs turned ripe, the Gruls would come to the garden to guard their small ripe figs. They protected them as if they were their own eyes, though they didn't do them much good. The people of Paskvelija knew about the grief of the old couple and didn’t try to convince them not to carry on with this game, which would last as long as they lived. And until the first autumn rains came and the rotten figs fell, the Gruls didn’t leave the garden. That was the time the boys came back from the army. They also expected their son, though they knew he would never come back. But the month of August, every August, lured the old couple. Maybe he will return, August whispered and the bright eyes of the figs promised.
    Sometimes they got drunk and would speak constantly about August, about the most beautiful month of the year. Grulica would stagger over to the guard of the barracks and talk to him endlessly about August, figs, and mostly about her son. The guards always kept silent as if they were mute. That made the old woman irate. She would say angrily:
    “Listen, boy… I also have a son who’s a soldier… But he was never as dumb as you.”
    “Yeah,” old Grul repeated with pride. “My son never got angry. It's like you weren't born of woman.”
    “Shut up,” the guard ordered.
    “Easy, soldier, easy,” old Grulica said to calm him. “I still have something to say. If you really want to know, the czar himself ought to talk to me.”
    “The czar himself, for sure,” old Grul chimed in. “Even he should know. My son was really a good boy. Meek as a lamb.”
    “Are you listening, soldier?” old Grulica said, a quiver in her voice.
    “He was our only child,” old Grul said.
    “And now we don’t even know where his grave is,” the old woman said.
    “He died in a foreign country,” old Grul said.
    “You hear, soldier?” the old woman whispered. “I’ll even tell your czar this. One day my Grul and me, we’ll get drunk, and he’ll see!”
    “He’ll run away without his crown, that czar,” Grul said. “Without his crown, him and his queen, and they'll have nowhere to hide.”
    “I swear to God,” Grulica said. “One day we’ll get drunk and he’ll see…”
    Satisfied, they would return to the shade of the small fig trees. And he would once again be in the garden, they would hear his whistling, his damn good whistling, carrying the water through the furrows, from one tree to another.
    The commander’s voice startled them.
    “Do you have any children?” he asked.
    It was becoming unbearable in the office. Grulica wiped her damp forehead with the palm of her hand, looking at her Grul. He smiled at her sweetly, taking her towards him as if he wanted to embrace her.
    “We do,” the old couple said with one voice.
    “How many?”
    “His name is Spasko,” Grulica said quietly.
    “Where does he live?” the commander strained to ask.
    “Here, with us,” old Grul said.
    “In the gardens,” the old woman said.
    “You’re lying,” the commander said. “You bastards!”
    “It’s true,” Grul said calmly. “That… and that we are bastards.”
    “You're bastards,” the commander said.
    “You're a bastard,” old Grulica said. “You and your czar.”
    “You’re not drunk now,” the commander said through clenched teeth. “You’re not drunk now, are you?”
    “No,” Grulica said. “We’re not drunk now.”
    The commander swung his arm toward the defiant face of the old woman. Before he could reach it, Grul grabbed it in his hands.
    “No you don't,” Grul said. “As long as I live, there'll be no …”
    Grul didn’t finish. The soldiers had knocked him to the floor. Grulica calmly knelt down next to him and took his head in her hands. She didn’t scream, she didn’t talk, only her lips quietly mouthed Grul’s name as if she wanted to wake him up so they could go to the gardens.
    The commander ordered the soldiers to remove him before the people started gathering in the gardens.
    “Through the back door,” he ordered.
    A soldier opened the back door. When he looked out, on the road he saw all the gardeners, as if they had crawled out of the ground. They were approaching the barracks. And they didn’t walk very fast. When they came quite close, the guard remembered procedure, but it was too late, and he remained frozen on the spot. The other soldiers looked like children crazed with hunger… They firmly gripped their guns in their hands so they wouldn't fall on the ground. And the people came closer and closer…
    “Dogs. There've never been so many of them,” one of the soldiers said very quietly.
    The heroes’ hearts were in their throats. The people were coming quietly. Nobody could stop them. They understood each other without words. They stopped before the door, and men, women, and children pressed together as if they were one great tree, the tallest tree in the valley.
    The officer, standing at the door, was dropped to his knees by the advancing people, and he was hit by the hot breath rising from their bare throats. He looked toward his soldiers, but he couldn’t see them, they had melted under the gardeners' bare feet.
    “He cursed the czar,” the commander said in confusion. “He threatened to kill him.”
    The people didn’t even look at him. Pressed together, they took old Grul’s body. Then they slowly moved to the Paskvelija cemetery.
    It was August, the most beautiful month of the year. August, when figs turn ripe in Paskvelija.

Translated by: Elizabeta Bakovska

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