Grandpa went around the house, to the garden. Behind the barn. You could still hear the shot, though. I unwrapped my bandages and said I was going to school tomorrow. In the morning, I took down the beware-of-dog sign from the front gate.
My best friend Renato didn’t come to school today. And I wanted to show him my new red glasses with yellow butterflies.
I also got 3 medical referrals. I have to go to a doctor for my head as well.
Mom and Dad don’t talk about it. They just look at the test results and referrals and drink coffee in the kitchen. Other kids at school are not sick like me.
I am often absent from school. But, here I am today and Renato is absent. Joža says that Renato has a cold. We won’t be playing football today.
And I’m always sick and I keep playing football.
When Joža asks what kind of illness I have, I tell him I don’t know and that they haven’t told me yet. They’ve already hooked my head once to cables going into a big machine which draws lines, wavy ones, like that earthquake machine. Now I have to go again.
Joža doesn’t believe me about the machine, says there’s no such thing.
When Mom and Aunt Mara talk about illnesses, they talk quietly so I can’t hear them. But on her way out, Mara always says, listen, Roza, it’s all God’s will.
It was also God’s will not to have Renato at school today, and that means there’s no ball and we won’t be playing football.
God’s will, I hate it.
More than five
Grandpa used to say he kept the guns at a safe place. Away from children. On the first floor of their house in a small room with the ladder leading up to the attic. Rifles were lined up on the wall just like in the movies.
The door of the small room was locked. When Grandpa unlocked the door and cleaned the rifles, we’d loiter in that room. They let us fire sometimes. They’d leave us alone sometimes in the yard with targets pinned to the barn door. We had regular targets, with circles, and the ones with a drawing of a deer and numbers over its body.
It never crossed anyone’s mind to point a gun at a human. We were too scared to do that. In between shots, we’d hold the rifle tightly, with the muzzle to the ground.
Once, we aimed it at a hen just for the hell of it, but moved it away quickly, because Grandma would strangle us if something happened to the hen.
We’d shoot birds. No one takes care of them and no one cares about them. No one yelled at us, unless we shot too many birds, for example, more than 5.
Grandpa killed our dog because it bit my leg. He said no one could attack his grandchildren. He also shot the one we had before, but that’s because it was sick, so it wouldn’t infect us.
Maybe it will be like with the birds, after 5, it will be too many for him.
God bless Croatia
“If I give my life for my country, does that mean that I die?”
“Yes!” teacher said.
“Then I’d rather not.”
Teacher said, on the contrary, it was a noble thing to do and after that, I would definitely end up in heaven. The Zrinskis gave their lives for their country and that’s why the plaque in the castle reads: “He who dies an honorable death lives forever.”
We have to memorize that sentence, he said, and said it again out loud while writing it on the board.
I was quiet.
I wanted to tell him how it wasn’t fair, me dying in second grade.
And what’s the tally now there’s a war? Are Serbs also being taught at school they should die for their country and do we go to the same heaven? Or do we go separately, not to have a war in heaven as well?
After school, I wrote a poem with questions I shouldn’t ask my teacher. I hid it in the chest, that is, that cupboard that’s in my room, but it used to be in the living room. It’s kind of falling apart, so we put it in my room. That’s where we used to put schnapps and amaro. Now it’s for my underwear and poems I write in secret.
The one-eyed priest did not know that priests and nuns avoided our house.
While doing his rounds, he came to our house by chance. He came in and paced in the hallway in front of a photograph of Tito dressed in a hunting suit. I ran through the balcony to borrow a cross from our neighbor while Mom offered him a seat. On my way back, I broke the INRI inscription and I was scared of what the pastor was going to say, what the neighbor was going to say, what Mom was going to say and if she would even know it was missing. Mom gave a 100 kunas for the new church bells and he left. He didn’t even notice the cross on the kitchen cupboard.
The new priest doesn’t even know that Ivan used to be Jovica.
And Ivana said she might have a crush on Jovica, because now they have the same name. And I will have a crush on Renato because everyone says so and because it’s really cool. I didn’t want to say I might like Milan, too. It didn’t make any sense, because he came and went just like Martina, who was a refugee, they said. That’s how the cross appeared and disappeared, we glued INRI back on with wood glue. It came back to us for Christmas, Aunt Mara says she won’t miss it because she has plenty of those around the house, and we could use one.
When we showed up to handle the baptism paperwork, the priest wanted to know how we managed not to pay anything to the church for so many years. No mention of our family in the parish register. He shook his head, wondering, blushing. I hoped everything was all right and that he wouldn’t say we were refugees or communists, because they will make fun of me at school again if I don’t get baptized. Yesterday Francek said I was a chetnik, but he only said the word once, as well as motherfucker, when ink spilled out of his pen, then the teacher grabbed him by the ear until he yelped. The priest says he will take care of everything. He fixed the register, we paid for the last 5 years instead of 10 and he said he’d work around it. He gave me the Catechism and told me to learn all the prayers and Hail Mary and Our Father and some others that I didn’t know. We said goodbye and made the sign of the cross quickly to camouflage which hand goes where.
Tito soon disappeared from the wall in the hallway. The hunting suit in the photograph now had my Dad’s head sticking out of it.
Dad watches a lot of movies on TV. Mostly westerns.
That’s where men in hats shoot guns.
We the kids often play Cowboys and Indians. Renato once said let’s play Serbs and Croats.
But no one wanted to be the Serbs.
Really by accident
When Dad cleans a rifle it’s very interesting to us kids. Dad was cleaning a rifle once in the hall, and Mom told him not to do it in the house.
Dad said not to worry because he knew what he was doing.
Now we have a hole in one of the tiles in the hall. The rifle went off and we all got scared.
Dad put in some kind of mixture so that the hole wouldn’t be too big and we wouldn’t fall into it. Now we have a carpet in the hall and you can’t see it, but we often tell that story.
Dad is cleaning a rifle outside the house and double checks to see whether it’s empty.
He says that time was really by accident.
By Željka Horvat Čeč
Translated by Una Krizmanić Ožegović
Željka Horvat Čeč was born in 1986 in Čakovec. She has published two collections of poems, a collection of short stories and a short novel titled 4 Locks, which she will read from. It is a novel about growing up during the war, in the social turbulence of the 1990s, in a village in northern Croatia close to the Hungarian border, where there were no direct military actions. Željka Horvat Čeč has been praised and awarded as a poet of minimalist expression, while recently receiving more recognition as a prose writer. She holds a master’s degree in Croatian language and literature and lives in Rijeka.