EVERYONE WAS NERVOUS in those days, attacking each other on the street, in a café, on television, like a raging pack of wolves stirred by the smell of blood. While there was dancing and appealing for peace in front of the local radio building, the river Sava, in her lazy flow, spread the rapturous scent of gunpowder, whose source was somewhere upstream. The adults were cleaning rifles and oiling pistols and I was finishing Lundval’s book No Time for Heroes, which I did not fully understand, and getting ready for night fishing: torch, vest, bait box, reserve hooks, line, ‘Detroit Pistons’ hat; I adored them back then.
It seemed that our neighbour Rudo, a passionate fisherman and clandestine alcoholic, along with my best friend Mario and I, were the only ones who weren’t interested in everything that was happening around us. We were interested in whether the fish would bite tonight, down there in the fish world. I’m quite sure that Rudo was also interested to know if he’d manage to smuggle out a flask of plum brandy without being seen by his wife.
- I must be out of my mind allowing you to go, my Mum said, as I was putting on my shoes. I stole a glance at her, noticing how her skilful fingers and a knitting needle turned nervousness into a small piece of art. She stared at the images of the main news on TV, but her hands, unlike other peoples’, knew what they were doing even without the active participation of her brain.
- Don’t worry, and don’t stay up waiting, I said as I went out.
We walked two steps behind Rudo because his breath, soaked with alcohol and garlic, almost made us vomit. My boots were too large and I barely kept pace with our half-drunk neighbour, who was heading for the river without turning back to check if we were still following him. Mario and I were relieved when we finally stepped onto the slippery, muddy shore. That feeling under the feet – of mud that glues up to your ankles and turns your legs into lead – it was familiar to us. Last summer, all us kids from the block had played there, in the bushes of the Sava riverbank, until late at night. We made shelters of cardboard, brushwood and nylonplastic sheets, and covered them with weed and willows. We played ‘Cowboys and Indians’, ‘Cops and Robbers’, and ‘Partisans and Germans’. We had bows and arrows and we cooked stolen corn and potatoes, and the fish we caught, in improvised stones-encircled fireplaces. The fish smelled of oil, but life smelled of joy.
We did not talk. We set out the chairs, baited our hooks and threw them into the greyness in front of us. Rudo sat in the middle, so Mario and I could learn, watching his masterful handling of a fishing rod. It was almost completely dark when I managed to catch Mario’s eyes behind Rudo’s back. He was looking at me the way you normally look at the fishing float, or the way he looked, I assume, at Javorka last summer, the very first girl he kissed. I stared back at him, shrugged my shoulders, trying to signal that I did not understand what he wanted to tell me.
- Look at the water, kids! yelled Rudo and took a good one from his hipflask. As if following a military order, we both stared at red-yellowish styrofoam, swinging on the river waves.
Time passed; the fish were obviously fed and did not care for our bait. Rudo was drinking, thinking God knows what, while me and my friend were getting bored. When the darkness finally got into our nostrils, and I thought it was about time for all of us to go home, there was a hollow roar from somewhere in the distance.
- Thunder! Mario said, as if someone had just awakened him.
- It’s going to rain. Shall we? I asked, getting up.
- They’re shooting, Rudo said under his breath. He put his empty flask into the sack.
- Are they close? asked Mario.
- Who? I asked back.
- Damn ’em, that’s why they won’t bite: they’ve scared off all the fish, Rudo mumbled, justifying the fact we did not catch anything.
- Who, uncle Rudo? Mario asked, with fear in his eyes.
- Is this shooting close, uncle Rudo?
- Damn ’em, if they’re going for their prey tonight, we shall catch something too. Kids, I have an idea. To the boat, quick! He seemed too carried away to pay attention to our questions.
We climbed into the boat; me first, then Mario. Rudo joined us after untying it. The tarred hull swayed manically in the first few moments, and I thought we’d soon be thrown into the river, where we’d cry in vain for help. Then Rudo started a small engine with two jerks and the swinging stopped. We headed towards the middle of the river, almost at a right angle to the bank, for couple of minutes, and the roar of the ‘Tomos’ engine covered all other sounds, including the detonations. Mario and I looked at each other silently and I knew we were thinking of the same event. We’d experienced such a noise only once before. The finals of the football tournament: we were playing against another fifth grade class in our school and, just as the last penalty kick was to be taken, everyone began shouting and kicking the metal fence on the crowded school playground. Mario closed his eyes and struck the ball into the bottom right corner of the goal. We were the winners, unchallenged heroes of the neighbourhood and rulers of school playgrounds. Younger ones admired our success, and the girls looked at us with different eyes after that. Although that champions fever lasted no more than ten days, I was sure we would remember it for the rest of our lives.
- Neighbour, where are we going? I shouted, hoping to out-loud the engine.
- We’re going to fish for those that have what you still do not have – Rudo said over a smile.
- And what is that, uncle Rudo? Mario asked.
- Fish! said Rudo, correcting the boat’s route.
- What kind of fish? said Mario.
- Sheatfish, you idiot! I said proudly. The sheatfish has a moustache, and we still don’t.
The boat stopped and Rudo showed us how to tease the sheatfish. As he was splashing the water with a wooden paddle he explained us how the sheatfish is irritated by the sound and compelled to explore the source of it. Rudo prepared the bait and we started the monotonous splashing on the water. The roar was loud again, and since the river Sava was carrying the sound downstream, it seemed closer and closer.
- Here come the moustaches! Rudo yelled suddenly, and the two of us moved to the corner of the boat, out of fear and to give him space for struggling with the giant from the deep.
We were quite disappointed when we saw it was a little one of some twenty centimetres, wriggling on a large hook.
- That’s it? Mario asked.
- This one has as much moustache as I do, I added.
- Well, sometimes the young ones get caught, Rudo replied, expecting a lot more himself.
- Now I know why they say ‘stupid as a sheatfish!’ Mario said.
- My children, it doesn’t matter how big the fish is. Fish is good for you. The doctors say it’s brain food. You get smarter eating it, said professor Rudo.
- How can something stupid enough to get caught on a hook make me smarter? I asked.
Rudo looked at me and started the engine. We were going through thick fog that had surrounded us in the meantime, guessing where the shore was. The roar of the engine was again louder than thunder. We stepped out onto the shore, tied up the boat and set off home. Behind our back, someone turned the salvos on again.
- Good night, uncle Rudo, we said.
- Good night, kids, he replied quietly.
- I’ll see you tomorrow, I whispered to Mario and clasped him by the shoulder.
- At nine, in the yard, he replied.
Mum wasn’t asleep when I came in. I wasn’t sure if she was looking at the door or the clock above it. All the same, the suitcases were ready, lying in the lobby, as neatly arranged as the catch of some pedant fisherman.
This story is set in 1991. The war in former Yugoslavia started in Croatia, and the author, who was twelve at the time, lived in Bosanski Brod, a small town on the Bosnian side of river Sava (the border between Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina). From here, the war could be seen just over the river in Slavonski Brod.
Story © Berislav Blagojevic
This translation © Branislav Blagojevic
‘Childhood Fragments’ was first published in the Serbian in Ključ je pod otiračem [The Key is Under the Doormat] (an anthology of short stories edited by dr. Petra Raymond and Dominique Geslin, TKD Šahinpašić, Sarajevo, 2011). It was recently published in Revolucionar [Revolutionary] – the author’s collection of short stories (Rende, Belgrade, 2012).