They spent the next hour in quiet conversation about anything and everything, sprawled across some old workers’ jackets with faux-fur underlay. The conversation was now relaxed; friendly bickering gave way to heavier topics, so a rascally tone was no longer appropriate. They couldn’t talk loudly, of course: they would be breaking the unwritten rules of the forest – you lower your voice when fishing, so as to not disturb the peace and quiet. They raised their voices in pronounced whispers at the loudest.
By now it was time to check the net again. They performed their check routinely, like before, this time with more luck. They caught an asp, a small carp and a grass carp – and they had only just reached the second half of the canal.
Just as Mika threw the grass carp into the boat, a voice boomed from the shore:
‘Hold it right there! Militia! Drop that!’
Mika and Mario froze. They looked back at the river bank where they spotted two shadowy figures.
‘The lookout?’ Mario asked Mika, his heart pounding in subdued panic.
‘He said militia…’ replied Mika pensively.
But then a loud chuckle came from where the figures were standing.
‘Militia my ass. It’s just some wise guys.’ Mario realized.
‘Row to shore.’ Mika ordered.
As the boat glided towards the shore, they both strained to see the men on the riverbank. It was only from a few meters’ distance that they finally recognized them. It was Ivica and Branko, guys in their late twenties who didn’t care much for the ways of the village. Most villagers considered them bums who spent their time drinking and wasting their days in bars – nobody really knew what they did with their lives. Even with their choice of clothing they stood out from the rest: they dressed in hysterical colors and wore eccentric sunglasses and sneakers you’d never catch anyone else wearing. Regardless, everyone in the village knew each other by sight, so nobody felt the need for formal introductions, even to people they had never spoken with.
‘We scared you shitless.’ Branko said when Mario reached shore.
‘You didn’t. But we can’t ignore someone yelling from the shore.’ Mika answered cautiously and quietly, pulling ashore the boat with Mario still in it.
Mario stayed silent, masking his excitement with overconfident body language. Ivica and Branko seemed to be on a weird high. Slight grins never left their faces, they maintained eye contact with them boldly and looked like they were capable of any unscrupulous act without fear of repercussions. This MO was very foreign to Mika and Mario.
‘Any luck?’ Ivica finally spoke.
‘We caught a few. It’ll make for a stew.’ Mika answered, still apprehensive.
‘Any to spare?’ Ivica added smart-alecky.
‘I wish! Slow day today…’ Mika politely replied.
Once the boat was secured, Mika and Mario no longer had an excuse to keep busy. They were now standing face to face with the newcomers. To break the tension Mika offered them a beer.
‘I only have two bottles. You’ll have to share because one’s for me.’
‘We can share.’ Branko said, accepted the beer and opened it with his teeth.
‘Why don’t you start a fire?’ Ivica asked as the four of them sat down by the river.
‘There’s a lookout, for God’s sake.’ Mika replied curtly.
‘What are you, chicken?’ Branko inquired smart-alecky.
‘No, but the last thing I need is to get a ticket and my boat confiscated.’ Mika explained calmly.
‘I’d like to see them try and take my net.’ Branko was cocky. Ivica joined in. ‘They can blow us!’
Mika didn’t feel like engaging in this conversation. He felt they’d never land on common ground. Mario remained quiet and observant, like any eighteen-year old faced with the strangeness and excitement of the unknown adult world.
‘Where is your boat?’ Mika changed the subject.
‘Over there, on the other side.’ Branko pointed at the other side of the island.
‘You came to Danube-Tisa with no boat?’
‘How do you plan to throw your net then?’
‘We don’t. That’s not why we’re here.’ Branko answered as him and Ivica exchanged cheeky grins.
Mika didn’t feel like engaging in this conversation either; his gut told him he didn’t want to know why they were there. Mario kept switching his inquisitive gaze from Mika to Branko. He felt like he was taking part in something completely unknown to him, so he observed in quiet anticipation.
Oblivious to yet another bout of awkward silence creeping up on them, Branko addressed Mika:
‘So tell me, are you the Mika Sonća from Liberation Street?’
‘I am.’ Mika replied.
‘Your wife is sick, isn’t she? Cancer? She’s about to die, right?’
Mika’s face clouded over as he regarded him closely. Branko exhibited a childlike excitement about identifying Mika.
‘That’s right.’ Mika finally answered.
‘She must be taking morphine then! Does she have any morphine?’ Branko followed up excitedly.
‘I don’t know… I only know she’s taking some medication.’
‘Listen, would you mind selling us some morphine? She must have some to spare. We’d pay good money too.’
But then Ivica barked at Branko:
‘Dammit, Branko! You don’t ask a man for his wife’s medication while she’s using it! You wait for her to die, then you propose a deal.’
‘Fine, that works too. Is she gravely ill? How long does she have?’
Mario was smoking a cigarette, his eyes wide open in disbelief. He felt completely stunned and disoriented by the direction their conversation was taking. Mika lowered his gaze, swallowed and said:
‘I don’t know… The doctor says she doesn’t have long.’
‘Good. In that case we’ll stop by when it’s all over. How is that?’ Branko asked, happy that he arrived at a solution he felt suited everyone. He offered his hand for Mika to shake.
Mika was scared. He accepted his hand; he just wanted the unpleasant exchange to end. Branko and Ivica happily lit their cigarettes. They finished their beer, stood up and took their rucksacks.
‘Well then! Now that we’ve exchanged pleasantries and made our deal, the two of us should be on our way.’ said a jolly Branko.
‘Bye.’ Mika quietly answered.
‘Cat got your tongue, kid?’ Ivica turned to Mario.
‘No. I’m just listening.’ Mario replied with his head down.
‘He knows better than to butt in when grown-ups are talking.’ Branko explained, making himself and Ivica laugh. He checked with Mika once more as they were leaving: ‘Do we have a deal then?’
‘Yes.’ Mika managed to squeeze out.
‘Take care, boys. Good luck fishing.’ Ivica bid his goodbye.
‘Take care.’ Branko repeated, ending the exchange.
Mika raised his arm in goodbye and stared after them as they left. Mario looked at the pair, then at Mika, dying to comment on the two companions that could still be heard talking loudly in the distance, all the while chuckling and yelling, disturbing the peace and quiet of the forest.
‘Morons…’ said Mario in a somewhat jolly tone.
Mika sat there for a while longer, immersed in thought. When he finally got up, he addressed Mario as he headed towards the boat.
‘Time to pull out the net.’
‘Already? It’s not even past eleven yet!’ Mario objected.
‘Quit complaining and get in here!’
Mario took his time getting up in protest.
‘Move it!’ Mika shouted.
Mario stepped into the boat and started to row towards the net slowly and silently.
‘Go faster! No need to fuss.’ Mika grew more restless by the moment as he glanced repeatedly at the river’s mainstream.
No sooner had they reached the net they’d tethered to a willow tree, than Mika took out his knife, cut the rope and started to pull the net into the boat hastily, fish and all. He started glancing downstream more and more often. As they reached the halfway point of the canal, from a hundred meters downstream a muffled explosion could be heard mixed with the sound of water colliding with water – like the sound of something heavy breaking water’s surface. The explosion was followed by the shrieks of a startled forest and birds taking flight, leaving their hiding places.
‘What was that?’ Mario asked, afraid.
‘They threw dynamite.’ Mika replied, proceeding to pull the net out even faster.
Mario stared in the direction of the explosion, baffled, stabilizing the boat, and asked:
‘How on Earth will they collect their fish without a boat?!’
‘They didn’t come for the fish.’ Mika replied.
They hurried to reach shore and quickly packed their things. The boat they left tethered to one of the trees by the river. They took a narrow path to the other side of the island. Their belongings kept getting caught on the dense brush and trees. Suddenly, Mika came to a halt so abruptly that Mario bumped into him from the back. No farther than a meter and a half away, on the path before them, a deer was standing, adorned with a tremendous pair of antlers. A chance encounter with two panicked humans made the deer stop in its tracks. They all stood there looking at each other. Then, the deer’s entire body shivered like a frightened child’s and it disappeared swiftly into the forest.
By Ivan Vidak
Translated by Sandra Juzbašić
Ivan Vidak was born in Sombor in 1981. He graduated in Dramaturgy at the Academy of Drama Arts in Zagreb. He lives and works in Zagreb. In 2015 he published a short story collection Ugljik na suncu (“Carbon in the Sun”) which was shortlisted for the regional award „Edo Budiša“, and from which he will be reading at the Festival. The stories inside the collection are partly interconnected by their location – the rural setting with a distinctive dialect of a Croatian minority in Vojvodina region in Serbia. The ethnical element is not present in the narrative of these stories, while the rural world depicted is very basic and interpreted by mixing a very familiar point of view and a perspective of a literary surveyor.