Divine Child

Published by


Part I.

those who ruled the country lied and stole without anyone punishing them for their “work,” although there were witnesses and evidence of their lies and theft, lying and thievery were indirectly legalized, so everyone whose conscience permitted it was able, and encouraged, to lie and steal. As such, they were valuable and useful to society because they acted in accordance with the most shining examples, and they were also at the top, so it was clear that only those high up could get away with wholesale lying, theft, and raking in the wealth of others, taking from everyone, who were fools because they allowed others to lie to them and steal from them.

The lowest was not illiterate, whose illiteracy and ignorance made them support those who lie and steal because they were impressed by their haughtiness and arrogance and thought it was proof of their greatness and importance. The lowest in society were those who believed in ideals and still fought for ideals—loyalty, goodness, truth, integrity, love, sincerity, reliability, trust—in a way that others considered good, upright, and considerate.

Deep inside, everyone believed others could defraud them unless they were naïve fools from the bottom of the pyramid who took the ideals literally, and no one knew yet if they stole and lied. In fact, most people knew that others stole and lied, and not only that, but they knew exactly who stole what, who they lied to, and when, but they pretended not to know. That knowledge connected them in a chain, as it were, in which everyone stood holding others by the reins, whose secret lying and stealing they knew about. In that way, no one was completely free to exempt themselves from the chain in which they stood, but that lack of freedom and authenticity was justified by the realization that others were not entirely free or authentic either, believing that one could not be completely free and authentic.

If there did really exist, people, who were entirely free and authentic in their thoughts and actions, or who strove for that in their lives and thoughts, they were removed in a peaceful way like crushed bugs that are swept under the rug, where they managed to linger on, taking short breaths through moth holes in the frayed weaves, but only enough that they do not wither up entirely.

There were many such people who deep inside wished to be free and authentic but believed it was not yet totally and completely possible, or who believed it was simply necessary to adapt to the lack of freedom and authenticity in order to remain on the surface and so as not to be swept under the rug. They had good adaptation skills and were equally convincing actors, traits they used to assure themselves and others that they had never been interested in being free and authentic for an instant, while at the same time believing deep inside that freedom and authenticity were things that inspired them the most of all and made their chests swell, and they were glad, if nothing else, about others’ courage to be free and authentic.

I reflected on that as the watchman sitting in his box at the entrance to the hospital grounds raised the boom barrier. It was sufficient to wave to him from the car, and he already knew who we were and whom we were coming to see. He would always wave back as if we were friends, and it seemed we were in a way, and that we understood everything about one another without exchanging a single word.

We understood the watchman and how it was for him to sit in the box there in winter above the glowing strip of warmth emit- ted by the small electric fan heater to warm his outstretched feet in thick woolen socks that one of the hospital’s patients had knitted for him.

We understood the creased newspaper on the wooden table scored by knife and pen, just as we understood the pervasive smell of salami and cheese from the sandwich he was meant to eat for lunch but ate early in the morning out of boredom and impatience.

Likewise, it was completely understandable for us that the watchman in his box, who raised the barrier for the cars and ambulances at the entrance to the enormous hospital complex, which was once the sprawling estate of great counts and land-owners, mostly watched TV during his long shift, on a small set fitted between two plywood shelves and the light switch on the wall.

The watchman was sleepy because he was eternally stupefied by the vacuous images he absorbed from the TV screen, but he could never muster the strength to switch it off. Besides, the worst could only come after switching it off, when faced with the question: What now?

And yet, the hypnosis of the screen did not cloud and lull his mind all that much. The watchman could see and understand our pain when we came to visit Mother. He was able to focus on gauging whether our pain was greater when we entered the hospital grounds or when we left, but ultimately he could hardly be sure of the constancy of the proportions he gauged.

What is reality, and what not

(a link to Charles Perrault and fairy tales, and to many kinds of doubts and adaptations)

there was a peaceful and pleasant time when no one could yet imagine anything nearly as baleful, black, unbelievable, entirely unnatural, dreadful, insane, sick, beastly, and depraved, as later actually took place, when people turned into wild animals overnight and started spilling each other’s entrails and devouring their organs, burning their houses, and raping women, their husbands, children, and old people, which altogether was wilder than the most bloodthirsty of animals. During that, still entirely innocent, complacent, and peaceful peace, when she got especially angry and flew into a rage for no particular reason—things which people generally get angry and fly into a rage about—Mother had the habit of yelling: “You’ll drive me to the madhouse!”

That was her favorite phrase, which came true in the end, like the innkeeper’s wife’s exclamation in the fairy tale about the sausage that would grow out of her nose. In the end or actually before the end, Mother ended up in the madhouse. And through that firsthand experience, all of us, Mother included, convinced ourselves that a madhouse was also a fairly normal place and that there were often people in it who were a lot healthier and more normal than many of those “outside” in so- called freedom, and especially those “outside” in freedom who are considered people of importance, reputation, and power.

Mother, for example, was completely healthy and normal apart from being disturbed, and she was disturbed for entirely different, unfathomable reasons, which none of the people who should have tried to fathom actually ever did because no one re- ally wanted to come to terms with Mother’s fate and sympathize with her. In any case, Mother’s faculty of judgment was normal, except that, on account of being normal, it clashed completely with the outside world so that in a way it became unbearable for her to live in that world and interact with others since she was “too normal,” which to a degree bordered on the abnormal.

All of a sudden everything went through a warp, all reality and all truth became different, and in line with that people changed too, of course, because they were forced to adjust. Sometimes the adjustment went so far that they completely negated themselves, deleting their own past, name, origin, and occupation if they were not in step with the new course in every respect.

But it was actually sufficient to pretend that one thought and lived in step with the new course, and it was not necessary to truly think and live in step with it, just as it was not at all necessary to change one’s name if one lived and behaved entirely in step with the new course and did everything in order to constantly affirm from moment to moment, second to second, with all the gestures of one’s existence, that one lived in step with it. One had to constantly dispel every slightest suspicion that one perhaps did not live, breathe, sleep, and dream completely in step with the new course in every living second, so people’s gestures, words, and actions played a role, as did possible grimaces and ways of blowing one’s nose and covering one’s mouth when sneezing.

There could be all sorts of different suspicions, but undoubtedly the worst that could fall on someone was that they were of Eastern origin. Whether that possibly had some deep genesis and connection with original sin seems not yet to have been fully examined, but in any case, a whiff of an Eastern origin in the new reality largely purged of Eastern origin could be smelled a mile away. It was sufficient just to read a person’s name that embodied the suspicion of possible nefarious roots for all the worst pre- monitions to arise and become attached to it, because an Eastern origin by itself suggested that.

But if someone invested as much effort as mentioned to face their Eastern origin in the eyes of the collective Other in all possible, less possible, and yet likely ways, and if they constantly and wholeheartedly tried to prove that they had no living or nonliving connection with any Eastern origin and that they, moreover, on account of the particular shame they felt because of it, had never traveled anywhere in the East, not even as part of the most innocuous school excursion, they could be accepted in the new reality.

Mother’s problem was that she tried as hard as she could to adjust to the new reality, but equally, she did not wish to erase her Eastern origin, in view of the fact that it was hers and she could equally have been born in the west, south, or north by another stroke of chance, and considering it was ridiculous, of course, to demand or expect anything of anyone, and particularly ridiculous, as well as deplorable, to demand that someone erase and completely negate part or all of themselves, in other words of that which befell them in this life by luck or sheer chance, be- ginning with their name or the family they were born into, and anything else.

In any case, Mother had a strange illness, which especially sensitive people suffered from. Sometimes it made her overly happy, other times endlessly sad. Sometimes when she was overly happy she would walk along the street loudly singing songs she particularly liked, for example, “When the Girls Went Down to the Water” or “The Young Mowers from the Hills.” Mother had a wonderful voice and a good ear. As a young woman, she was a dancer of folk dances and a singer of folk songs. She wore traditional dress, which she changed into and out of depending on which region the songs and dances she performed were from. She often had a flower in her hair unless, as part of the costume she had to wear a kerchief with tiny dangling ducats, a turban, a fez, or thick, woolen headscarves with colorful appliquéd flowers, which often made her head sweat profusely. Mother’s singing and dancing continued later, too, and she excelled at singing and accentuating her voice at weddings and other celebrations, and later still, when the country her father helped create fell apart and when great wars began again, with killings, rape, arson, torture, and massacres, Mother switched to the church choir so as to be closer to God by singing hymns, to pray for peace and the souls of the dead and fallen, and as such, she used the beauty of her voice in a way for purposes that could be called socially useful and charitable.

On the other hand, Mother’s illness also had its other, extreme opposite, when she no longer felt at all like singing songs, celebrating life, and spreading love. Rather, entirely the opposite of excessive happiness, she would sink to the very bottom of the double bed and sleep there from morning till night, and so on without end. Those were periods when Mother turned into a sleeping beauty, sleeping a sleep so deep that no one could wake her. It looked very much as if that sleep would last for centuries, except for the fact that Mother did not resemble a beauty during that sleep. It was as if she really did not want to be beautiful at all, nor did she want anyone to love her, or she believed that she did not deserve to be loved.

She never spoke about that later when she finally emerged from her sleep, and she would not remember even a fraction of what happened during those long days of sleep. In particular, she did not remember whether she wanted anyone to love her, or whether she considered she did not deserve love, just as she did not remember that she had not washed or bathed during the long days of sleep, nor cut her nails or hair, changed her nightgown or the bed linen, nor wanted to wake up at all, no matter which prince appeared by her bed, although it was well known that there had always only been one prince for Mother from the beginning, and, as everyone knew, that was Father.
But Father too, Mother’s prince, was completely helpless during the sleeping beauty phase, such that Mother’s dormancy also passed to him. It seemed as if they were both covered by a gray shroud that fell upon them like a tarpaulin, and they sank into a deep slumber quite forgotten and forsaken by everyone else, there in their kingdom, a great manor, over which a mantle of notoriety fell on account of Mother’s sleeping illness. Its very mention would cause other people to turn their heads like Mariolino, the inquisitive boy from the Italian cartoons, whose head would hop up and down on his shoulders every so often, and his eyes would pop and roll, and afterward, he had one hell of a time sitting back down in his place, or anywhere near it.
In any case, people did not know that Mother had an illness that many of the world’s greatest artists, composers, and writers suffered from, such as Ludwig van Beethoven and Georg Handel, or Robert Schumann, Edvard Munch, Virginia Woolf, and Ernest Hemingway, and Mother ranked with that illustrious figures, although she could never have dreamed that she herself was, in one respect, an artist.

Wherever she appeared she took things into her hands (Mother really was a born leader)

now and then in Mother’s mature years, usually because lying around at home became irksome to her, and on account of the existing circumstances, it was good for her to have a change of scene and go to the hospital. Whenever she went, her stay there, and she herself, gained importance in a way, because the very fact of a person being in a place like a hospital made her something of a hero to them. No longer was she anonymously battling her demons at home.

Mother felt like a hero in the hospital, and that made itself noticeable in her behavior. Soon after arriving in the particular ward and being assigned a bed, all the other women in the same ward wanted to buy Mother a coffee from the vending machine. Some of them wanted to go for a walk around the hospital grounds specifically with her—only those, of course, who had permission to go out—and so Mother did not have enough time, in the end, to fully satisfy them all.

Mother spent most of her time in the hospital waiting in the corridor near the phone because someone could call for her at any minute. Besides, it was crucial that someone take on the task of being a telephone operator, and Mother performed the job most devotedly, which involved her calling this or that person from room number whatever to come to the phone, considering- ing that Mother knew the names and room numbers of all the patients by heart. It was a fitting task for her, given her character and her memory, which had always served her in an exemplary manner, and which contributed to her extraordinary memory for numbers, and when great generals and statesmen were born and died, along with other facts and figures.
From time to time, Mother was also in the habit of reading books in the hospital lounge. The news on television did not interest her, particularly because it lacked an extra-temporal dimension and was overly mundane and dark, which always made it seem too boring for her. And in movies, there was always shooting, or constant charging about, so Mother preferred to go back to the room, lie in bed, and reminisce about pleasant days when the sun shone warmly, the fruit was ripe and begging to be picked, and she could enjoy the sky, the flowers, and meadows.

Why the all-encompassing political turnaround overturned everything to do with Mother and she ceased to be a popular social phenomenon

Mother would go without lunch on Fridays when she was in the hospital because she could not stand the smell of fish. That was because, when she was a little girl, she lived under military discipline. Her father was an army man, who, along with the military discipline and other measures, insisted that Mother and her sisters take cod liver oil in order to be forever healthy and robust, just like the toughest soldiers from ancient Sparta. So, Mother hated fish because the cod liver oil made her hate the smell of fish, but at the same time, she loved order and discipline because they had become ingrained in her bone and fiber, so she did not find it difficult, for example, when the patients had to leave their beds at seven-thirty in the evening so the nurses could air the rooms. Other elements of stringency did not bother her either, nor missing out on lunch on Fridays, although one lady made up for it by giving Mother some pieces of the cured cheese she concealed in the small drawer by the head of her bed. It was a salted, cured cow’s milk cheese, which is hung in string nets to dry—the kind of cheese that Mother liked most. In return, Mother would buy cigarettes at the hospital canteen for the cheese lady because she preferred to smoke than to eat fish or cheese. Since Mother never smoked, she could not distinguish the different cigarettes that were sold at the canteen, but the lady with the cheese told her that her favorite brand was called LM.

Mother immediately memorized the name because it was quite easy to memorize, consisting of just two simple letters, nothing like all of the identification numbers, telephone numbers, zip codes, and birthdays Mother had stored away over the years, along with the long series of numbers she recorded, add- ed, and subtracted in huge ledgers with impressive dark green wooden covers, when she worked.

Mother also bought a soap container at the canteen because she washed in the hospital more than at home, where she had a lot of soap and towels. But wash as she would, no one apart from Father would accept her the way they used to.

People once accepted her well because Mother was mostly kind. She loved to help everyone, even beggars and those whose houses had burned down, or those who had collapsed on the road from being dead drunk and passersby ignored. She would go to them, lift them off the road, and help them home if they could not walk or walked with difficulty because their legs were weak and wobbly.

With those who begged for money, Mother would buy them a burek, some bread, a cake, or a poppy seed bun, and Mother knew most of the names of all those who did not need anything, so when she was out and about she always greeted everyone she met or those who were selling things by the roadside or in street-corner kiosks, from the florist to the butcher, the key cutter and the goldsmith.

Mother greeted them all with a loud Hello and then their name: Beki, Branko, Robert, or Marija, and they greeted back Hello Lili, since Mother’s nickname was Lili, just like the popular brand of nylon stockings that Mother most liked to wear in the time she still wore nylons and dark-colored patent leather shoes, or black ankle boots with a delicate zipper at the side. But then the turnaround occurred, when everything was suddenly overturned and everyone became full of suspicion and fear.

Everyone was eyed and scrutinized in that state of suspicion and fear, and those who were suspicious were eyed and scrutinized most of all. Almost anyone could be suspicious, particularly those who might have some connection with that dreaded Eastern origin. It all came down to that because a lot of hatred was sown among people for the needs of war, and the war was needed so that those who judged it necessary could earn wads of money, piles of precious furniture and gold, and after the war lots of cheap land and heaps of cheap labor and obedient subjects, and there were rumors in some places of massive oilfields, that is masses of oil wells, which were particularly essential for the war. It was necessary to sow hatred in order that it could come to war in the first place because war needed to be begun between people who thought they were not enemies, but brothers, some of whom happened to live farther east than others. Since a de- gree of the old hatred had been preserved from back before the big old war between the easterners and those who were less eastern, it was not at all difficult, not in the slightest, to reignite that hatred, and it soon wrought perfect havoc and turned all suspicions and scrutiny overnight into deadly weapons, bullets, bombs, and fires, gouged-out eyes and spilled entrails.

During the turnaround, everything to do with Mother was also overturned. She was no longer the popular singer and dancer in Lili stockings, but now became a maligned murderer and hideous, bearded butcher—a wild rider from the Russian steppes, a crude Turk with a rusty scimitar, a Serb dogface from the Salonica Front.

The origins of Eastern origins

There are many different sorts of knives, but the most suitable for cutting throats in war are slightly longer ones like hunting knives brandished to kill wild pigs. They have a broader blade and can even be curved at the tip, like the Turkish scimitars that were used for slashing during the conquests five centuries before that in which the story of my mother and our family origins takes place. They can be considered rather specialized knives, and, as we know, in the war there was no opportunity to obtain state-of-the-art equipment. People, therefore, made do with whatever they could find, including divers’ knives for catching and killing large fish, or for cutting open, gutting, or scaling fish. If there were no knives, other tools and implements were an option: axes, saws, robust scissors, and knitting needles. For those who deserved to be killed, even the most ordinary can opener would do, and there were usually plenty of those in almost all houses and farmsteads, and can openers could also be an integral or rather accessory part of a regular, soldierly meal. In terms of knife wounds, it seems an old woman was unsurpassed—the wife of an old friend of Mother and Father’s—who the records say was stabbed a total of twenty-seven times, and, as unbelievable as it sounds, by some miracle she survived, un-like most during the great killing spree of the World War II. As is fairly well known, that massacre was followed by a lot of smaller but no less assiduous ones, of which the carnage that the wife of Mother and Father’s friend survived was surely one of the more impressive, since it occurred in a place of “spiritual,” or rather sacral significance, that is in a church, which in the context of the war certainly had a special, far from negligible value.

But that was nothing especially new or innovative, bearing in mind that the cold, stone spaces of churches had invited such actions and activities centuries before, and people respond- ed especially gladly, and quite often, in almost mathematically admeasured intervals. We can only speculate as to the reasons. In any case, there were some quite fanciful deeds here, where those less encumbered by routine and restraint built towers of human skulls, for instance, but such exploits were rare and are really not worth mentioning because they only interrupt the uninspired series of monotonous massacres during long, boring, and predictable lessons in history and geography, where history is constantly being tailored and geographic definitions likewise are constantly being made over, mostly with the aid of scattered human bones and skulls—an open-air ossuary of remains that are dug up, moved around, piled, counted, and marked, leading to more searches, findings, and exhumations. So, no one returned Mother’s greetings on the street any- more, and everyone stood mutely looking at her as she went along the first, second, and third streets of the town, carrying her bags with bread, parsley, celeriac, and carrots.

Mother called out “Hello!” as usual and thought she could rouse her acquaintances from their frosty silence, but she did not receive anything in return because she did not deserve it, or rather, if she did deserve anything, then it was certainly not

anything good, but bad and worse than worst, because everything had changed, and in the context of those changes it was nothing short of miraculous that Mother was still alive at all.

In any case, it was just as well for Mother that she did not re-cover because her illness was a trifle compared with how she could have ended as a suspicious person of Eastern origin, as, after all, many ended, but about which it is not particularly appropriate or wise to speak, or even whisper.

In the hospital, at least, everyone could be what they really were (thief, scrounger, drunkard, or gambler)

Fortunately there existed the hospital, where everyone could be what they were. It was like that, at least, at the hospital where Mother went roughly once a year at fairly regular intervals. It was always after days when Mother could not wake up or get out of bed, and when Father managed to drag her out of bed she would immediately be taken to the hospital, to ward number such and such and room number such and such. All the rooms in that hospital were constantly full, and whoever was able to get a bed in one of the rooms was genuinely lucky, and why Mother took some pride in returning to the hospital. Mother and Father were lucky because they almost always managed to get a bed for Mother. There were a lot of beds and a lot of women in each room, and air became scarce at night because the women did not like the windows above their heads to be opened after the nightly airing.

Mother would wake up early because she felt the air was used up, so she sat on the edge of her bed and waited for morning and the time when they were allowed to go and shower. Some- times she was woken up by “poachers,” women who snuck into the rooms and stole cookies and candies from other women’s bedside cabinets. One night, a woman was caught stealing, and another pawed through the lockers in the corridor. One young woman got hold of some alcohol, and when she was drunk she smashed a window with her bare hands. It took three orderlies and four nurses to tie her down with leather straps to stop her from getting away.

“The woman was from the war zone and carried those traumas inside,” Mother explained on the phone. “We all have that, all of that is still inside us, and that’s why we’re here. Plus all that we’ve been through in life, even without the war. Some women suffer violence at home, one is bashed by her husband when he’s back from work, and now she just lies in bed with her face to the wall and doesn’t speak to anyone. Another woman was discharged from the ward and was back a few days later. She had slashed both her wrists. ‘How’d you do it?’ I asked. ‘A kitchen knife,’ she said.

“Otherwise all the women are nice, they’re all kind-hearted. We sit in the room and chat in the evening. There are quite a few women from our area, who come from neighboring areas, and most of them are young, so I’m almost the oldest. It’s terrible to see how many young people are ill. I’ve been through my share. The girls are real dears, but mainly very quiet. I strike up a conversation, and they open up.

“I usually ask them how they are, what their name is, and where they’re from. I ask: Did you have a job when you were well? Are you married? Do you have children? They then gradually open up and we talk, but no one has to if they don’t want to. Most of the women want to talk, and there are quite a few who you can chat with about people we know, who lived in the same town and worked in some firm there.

“The one thing I can’t stand is stealing. Stealing and scrounging. There are those who are constantly scrounging for you to give them something, and there are also those who steal. That’s why I lock everything away in my bedside cabinet, and I also put my nightie there because if I leave it under the pillow it could get pinched. In one hospital they stole my new outfit, and one woman stole my travel bag. Not that she didn’t have one her- self. It’s an illness, kleptomania.

“There are those who are obsessive scroungers, and mostly they scrounge for cigarettes and coffee. I walk up and down the corridor because I don’t want to put on weight here. They feed us here like in a hotel, the food has got a lot better since last time. When we had an open meeting of the ward, I stood up and said what I like here and what bothers me. They asked me how I found it at the previous hospital, so I talked about that too, and they asked who the staff were and if they might know any of them, and it turned out they know the nurse Barbara.

“I said I was sorry and didn’t want to seem a tattletale, but I had to bring up the case of stealing from last night. I told it all over: I heard a rustling behind my back at three-thirty and Žana taking a Honey Heart out of Malina’s locker. Malina couldn’t run after her because she was fat, but Azra ran, having woken up, and I also got up. And afterward, I couldn’t get back to sleep. Now the thief will be moved to a stricter ward, maybe to a room with bars, or maybe she’ll be put in an isolation cell, who knows? “I’m not here because I drank and gambled. You know yourself about my operation when they took out my everything, and they didn’t give me any analgesic afterward. Plus the war and all I’ve been through, and hey presto—my illness! What can I do? I’m glad that all of you are there for me and that your dad never forced me to get out of bed when I couldn’t. Other women have their illnesses as well as problems at home, but I don’t have any problems with you.”

What happens when a person is full of excessively normal ideas

During her recreation time in the hospital, Mother chose to play Ludo, which here goes by the name of “Man, Don’t Get Angry.” She had not played it for years, although she had once loved it. Now it came back to her again by chance. The game is simple: a die is thrown and the player moves their token for-ward the number of spaces shown on the die. The main thing is that no one gets angry when another player lands on their token and kicks them out, it is just like one animal eats another, or a person eats a plant or animal. No one is allowed to get angry—that is the gist of the game.

That is what women have been taught from time immemorial. Women have to put up with things, and every woman puts up with a lot because there is a lot of suffering in her life that she has to endure. It is best not to try and change things but to put up with them. A woman must not show others she suffers and must not cry, she must be as hard as a rock. She has to be tough to put up with everything and bear it all with a smile and serenity, for only then will she be a proper woman worthy of admiration. A woman has to be serene and contrite, as cold as a stove with no wood in it.

Her hand did not caress anyone because no one caressed her, and no one taught her that caressing and affection are good. She thought coldness and restraint were good, and softness and warmth were bad because they created weaklings, and life was about struggle and strife, and too hard to be warm and soft— that is what this woman thought in her inner program about how women ought to be.

Only when we learn how and what a person wishes to be can we say we know anything about them, a wise man with a white beard once said. A woman sees life as suffering, not as pleasure and joy. For her, love vanished after the first years of marriage, and now it is only a memory for her. Physicality is not pleasure and fulfillment, but suffering and sin, and the body is a stranger. It is better to have a son than a daughter because women have a harder lot in life.

Father had a problem with acceptance, and Mother with recognition. All his life, Father felt unaccepted, and therefore all his life he wished to be accepted. Sometimes he would show that desire by pretending he did not wish to be accepted and did not want to be part of anything. That was mainly when he was young and liked to fight and argue because he had a lot of energy and testosterone.

When he grew old, he no longer cared for contention and proving himself; now he wished to hide behind someone’s skirts. He wished to do all he could to become part of something, but he was unable to do enough to become part of anything. Besides, there were no skirts he could see himself in, which he could sneak behind, and which he could say suited him entirely, because he did not quite fit in anywhere, or rather he always stuck out a little in one way or another.

In that respect, Father’s inclinations made him more of a scientist, but in terms of his worldview he could have been an artist, and a scientist as well because he was an idealist, but he was tormented by his strict upbringing, which did not give him the freedom to be what he was. Father’s hard upbringing made him into a man who had to be like all the others, but he was not like all the others. His hard upbringing made him a sturdy man, but he had fine bones. It made him a harsh man, but his soul was soft. It made him a dissatisfied man, but he never needed a lot to be happy.

It made him a man who strove to be part of the tribe, quite the opposite of the individual and self-effacing creative, who, despite everything his hard upbringing did to obliterate, ultimately came to the surface and baffled everyone, Father himself most of all.

In contrast to Father, Mother felt accepted most of the time, except when everyone began to reject her and turn their back on her, but that, after all, was a completely different story. It was not a problem of Mother’s but a problem that others had. She was inoculated against those problems because she had the spirit of a universal person, for whom all people are equal, independent of their origin, language, or religion. Father, incidentally, thought that way too, but he had to pretend to be more straight and narrow than he was in order to be accepted in that environment, so he tried hard to hate and despise those who were not of his religion and nation, especially those of Eastern origin. Mother, of course, did not belong to them, although she was undeniable of Eastern origin because Father could not bring himself to hate her since they shared a bed and table.

That was a very sensitive issue, of course, and it put Father in a most awkward situation. He was now meant to hate and despise his own wife, which seemed almost impossible, especially because he did not hate and despise her, quite the opposite. At the same time, he could no longer be part of the majority because he had a minority that was undesirable or, at the very least, stood out. He also could not become part of the minority that Mother belonged to because he did not feel that was him. His own tribe did not want him, he was branded, and he was given that mark because of his wife, who came from a different tribe, which she did not really belong to at all, because together with Father, and even before him, she had lived all her life belonging to his tribe.

Now they were nowhere, and they could not go anywhere. It was a typical stalemate for people who were too old to sell up and migrate with the storks and swallows to Africa because everything here where they lived was so idiotic and infinitely stupid. Besides, they did not want to admit even to themselves that everything was so stupid and sick. They pretended everything was normal, but nothing was normal, although it turned out that everyone was normal apart from Mother, who went to a hospital for the abnormal. This was not because she was abnormal but because she was excessively normal, which of course was abnormal, worthy of condemnation and contempt of the highest order, so, therefore, it was certainly necessary for her regularly to be removed from the environment so she would not have too much of an abnormal impact on it with her excessively abnormal ideas.

Official report from the hospital

(God is always with those in hardship and who suffer)

“Hello, yes, how can I help you? Ward Number 5 here, who are you calling for?”

Mother always answered the phone that way. Like Dr. An- drey Yefimich, the hero of the short story “Ward No. 6” by An- ton Pavlovich Chekhov, she was confined to a hospital for the mentally ill, and, just like that doctor, she was healthier than most of the people in freedom, outside the hospital, who walked around as if they alone were the way one has to be.

“Most of the women here are smokers, so they go to the smoking-room and sit there and smoke. It stinks of cigarettes and smoke so badly—it’s ghastly. I can’t bear to even go past. Today I went about the rooms with a nurse and a piece of paper and wrote down the phone numbers of the women I like so I can call them when I get home. Most of the women are here because they have problems with their husbands. That’s why they go to the room to smoke, so they don’t have to talk. They don’t want to go to the lounge because they’d have to chat with others, everyone talks there about what’s tormenting them, but they don’t want to. It’s better to talk than… you know… to sink into all sorts of bad thoughts.

“They feed us like in a hotel. We had tomato sauce, mashed potatoes, and a frankfurter for lunch, and for dinner, there was carrot and potato stew. Tomorrow I’m on duty, I’ll be by the phone all day.

“The doctor told me that if your dad dies first I’m entitled to a share of his pension. But I wouldn’t want to be left alone after him, I’d rather be the first to go to the pearly gates. I’d never take my own life though, I’d never do that to you. You’d be marked afterward if I killed myself.”

Each time they raised Mother from bed using drugs, she would talk like that on the phone. She had so much to tell about all that happened in Ward Number 5 every day. It seemed as if there was nothing nearly as interesting in the outside world as the goings-on in Ward Number 5, or Mother was able to tell such interesting tales that everything seemed so important and good, so it really was essential to call her in the evenings be- cause otherwise I might miss something special. What, I asked myself from time to time, but I knew the answer. I might miss a good story, and that would be a shame because Mother was there to collect good stories and tell them to me on the phone when I rang, and I was on the other end to listen to them and write them down after she told them to me.

And so everything took on a higher and wider meaning, nothing was halted but spread and grew with the aim of acquainting as many people as possible with Mother’s story and for them to become aware of the real truth about her and the world she lived in. Because everyone wishes to learn the real truth, and that desire is nothing other than the desire to become closer to God, and that God is nothing other than what is true, majestic, and noble in each of us. Thus spoke a philosopher, and I would endorse it on the spot in my capacity as Mother’s certified interpreter.

Besides, I think Mother would also have endorsed that because she spent so much time with God. When no one else was at her side, when she sank so deep into her dark dreams that no one could follow her into those depths, and no one dared to either because they recognized from a safe and respectful distance how terrible that was, God was with Mother because He is always, especially with those who suffer great misfortune.

If God had not been with Mother, today we would not know the whole truth about Father, her, her illness, and the war. But we know it, and it dawns before us as a bright morning comes after a great and terrible night, which seemed it would never end. Morning breaks, pale and tender dawn. And everything comes back—the trees, the houses, the sky, the people. Even the squirrels, which hastily gnaw at the round berries on the thorny bushes by the roadside, and the birds of colorful plumage.

How fate forced Father, although completely innocent, to become an exemplary homemaker

In the evenings I would reflect on Father and Mother. Mother got into bed in Ward Number 5 of the hospital. Two patients had been discharged, but new women had arrived and the bed linen had just been changed. Mother lay down and reflected on the day that had passed. She was happy because she was well and would soon be going home. She was looking forward to it, there would be pleasant days, and it would soon be Christ-mas. Father was happy too, although a little frozen because the stove in the workshop did not heat very well. It had also grown old and no longer heated like it once did, and it used to heat his workspace so well that he had to keep the door open when he was doing his woodwork there.

During the difficult years, that stove served him not only for heating but also for cooking on top of it. He, who had hardly even boiled eggs before, now made hearty stews, creamy soups, and casseroles. He was always talking about recipes, what he was going to cook the next day, and what he and Mother now liked to eat. He had no choice, because Mother slept constantly, or more or less constantly; she only got up to eat. All the order, all the stringency of her formerly organized and disciplined life was gone. Roles suddenly became variable, and hard molds cracked and crumbled into tiny pebbles. Everything became distensi- ble and permeable, and what was once terribly important now became insignificant. Difficulties existed in order to be lessons for us, but the new knowledge could only be gained through ef- fort and pain.

Mother and her famous charitable streak

Mother was reprimanded in the ward. She had taken too much into her own hands, they said. She had tried to organize a collection, which she called “A kuna from everyone to buy a rose for the birthday girl.” In the end, she became very sad, twice wounded. She was hurt by the women in the ward because not one of them wanted to support her drive. They all came up with the same excuse: that they did not have a single kuna on them. They turned their backs, and precisely those who had been amicable and smiling the day before suddenly became cold and distant. “They don’t care, although the woman whose birthday it was brought cakes for everyone,” Mother said

But what hurt Mother most was the reprimand from the nurses. She had to submit to their will and admit that her wish to collect money for a rose was a transgression, and she was made to feel as if she deserved to be punished, although she had not done anything wrong.

“We’ve lived with others in humanity and kindness all our lives, but that’s gone now,” Mother said. “There’s no warmth, neither between the women nor the nurses. There are nurses who holler around and are bossy. They have the power here and have to be obeyed. I don’t like that.”

Father respected the authorities in a slightly strange, not overly consistent way. On the one hand, he despised and constantly criticized them, but on the other hand, he needed them in order to feel secure. He thought the smartly signed official papers with a purple stamp at the bottom were a symbol of the state’s concern and a guarantee of security. He liked it when a public official occasionally dropped in and would be his guest: a person with papers in their bag, who asked him to fill in his particulars—year and place of birth, education, etc. He thought the official was part of a broad, communal entity that watched over everyone and did not permit anything bad to happen, although behind the mask of general welfare many bad things did happen that did not lead to prosperity, but to dissolution, hostility, and death.

And yet the dapper impression of the attentive and serious public official with a new ballpoint pen that left no blotches on the white paper was so strong that it overlaid all other experiences and memories, and that really was a very good thing.

“There are all sorts of people, and when a lot of people come together in one place they mix and a lot of things happen, and least of all good,” Mother said. “And you can’t help to make things turn out for the best if others don’t want to support you. You have to withdraw, and that’s it. You have to accept that’s the way things are because no one wants to talk about what really torments them.”

Mother was not normally so morbid. But they’d lowered her mood with drugs because she had “gone over the top” with her kunas and roses initiative. Therefore the dear, nice, and likable women turned overnight into cold, clammy walls. Her enthusiasm for all things to come gave way to resignation, and comfort and amenity gave way to severity and punishment.

It all depended on what came from within. When things were alright inside, the outside world could be just as bad or hard, but it did not seem that way. That is the truth. But it is also true that no one wants to talk, not only about what torments them but also about the nice things. Mother was right: no one wants to talk. Everyone just wants to exert their will and expects others to go along with it unconditionally, through guilt and fear. They do not even want to talk about what they want to happen. They want it to be done exactly their way, aided by fear of punishment and a feeling of guilt because too little of what they want ever comes to pass.

“One woman wanted to kill her husband. She stabbed him several times. She went to jail for four years, and now she’s here for treatment. I wouldn’t dare to stab your dad. Just think what he’d do to me if I stabbed him. He’d take the knife and do me ten times! Besides, how could I stab him when I can’t even bear to kill a chicken?”

Translated by Will Firth.

Author Profile
Tatjana Gromača

Born in 1971 in Sisak. She graduated in comparative literature and philosophy from the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb. Poem book Something wrong? published in 2000. A selection from the book was translated into German (Sttimt was nicht?) and published in 2003 as a bibliophile edition in Thanhäuser Edition, Austria, Linz. The book was published for the second time in Croatia, Serbian and Slovenian. Some poems from the book have been translated into almost all European languages ​​(Swedish, Hungarian, English, Italian, Czech… to Greek, and Turkish), included in several Croatian and European poetry anthologies, and the author was awarded a scholarship by the Berlin Academy of Arts...
The novel Crnac was published in 2004; Slovenian and Polish 2005. She was awarded a scholarship by independent publishers of the Croatian and Austrian Cultural Centers and was nominated for two Croatian annual literary awards. The book of documentary prose texts White Crow (2005) is a selection of reports published in the weekly Feral Tribune, to which she has been a regular contributor since 2000 and where, in addition to reports, she publishes essays on foreign literary production. Her prose texts and essays have been published in Croatian and numerous European literary magazines, and she has been a guest at many literary meetings in Europe.