My father’s assistant Nenad used to tell us stories while hammering nails into the wood to pinch the leather so no water would leak into the clogs he was making. The hammer punctuated his stories like a gusle, the instrument of singers of tales, but more sharply, less melodiously.
Nenad told us about Tzarevich Marko, who sucked his mother’s breasts for seven years and for seven more ate nothing but honey. Marko could squeeze water out of a log dried for nine years. His horse could jump the length of nine lances and the height of three. On hot summer days a hawk in the sky shaded him with its wings. Marko slew Musa Kesejiya, the Albanian giant, in whose breast, beneath three rib cages were three hearts —the first working, the second dancing and the third nesting a sleeping snake. When the snake awoke, the dead Musa leaped over the barren land.
Twenty years after Nenad had told his stories to my brother Ivo and me, I rushed to Weeping Willow, the village in Slavonia where he now worked as a clog maker on his own. Where once horses ploughed the fields along a din road, tractors oozed green oil in puddles along a paved highway. A cracked wooden shoe still hung from a pole on Nenad s whitewashed house to advertise his trade.
After an hour of talking (mostly his), I interrupted him,“You are such a good talker. Do you mind if I record you?”From my shin pocket, I pulled out a micro cassette recorder I had bought in an electronics store in New York’s China Town.
Nenad’s clear eyes looked at the cassette recorder as if it were a time bomb; his forehead showed its new creases, his graying
eyebrows made tall arches, and he didn’t talk until I turned off the machine.
“Nenad, where did you learn how to tell tales? At the hearth, on your grandfather’s knee?”
“I went to the library, read them, and I told them as I’d remembered them.”
A myth fell apart right before my very ears.
“Of course,” he said, “I added a thing here and there.”
“But. .. . I believed you to be an epic story teller reared by the spoken Word!”
“After every story you said. More! More! So what could Ido? I went to the library on lunch breaks to find more.” He opened his calloused hands as if to show me that he hid no weapons in them.
I had thought that, instead of going through a writing work shop back in the States, I would simply listen to him for a couple of days and nights and find the formula for triggering a wellspring of storytelling within me, from our common ground. And now this! “Still, who taught you how to tell stories? Grandmothers?”
“No. Why are you so stuck on this? It’s easy to tell a story,what’s the big deal? You have to start from somewhere right here and lead the listener farther and farther away, or start from far away and get us here.”
“It’s easy to say, but do it!”
“Well, you have the beer mug in your hand. You give yourself a bit of time and go —A long time ago there was a beer mug, and it lived in a tavern. Of course, it was not the only mug living there. It lived with its twenty-three siblings.And many a dry lip .. . and off we go, see!”
“But, how would you continue it?”
His wife nudged me to eat one more walnut strudel with honey, though I must have had half a dozen already. I still wanted him to tell me a story, and I wouldn’t let him give me a ride home until he did so, just as —though it’s not worthy of such an archaic comparison —Jacob held fast to the Angel of God until he obtained a blessing.
“All right, I’ll tell you as we drive,” he said and I followed him into his Fiat.
We were silent while he cranked the ignition. The forests and fields around the dark village breathed out damp and cool air straight into my nostrils.
“See that tall house? It rests on the foundations of our old house of baked clay.”
I couldn’t discern anything.
“At the beginning of the war, the Germans barged in there,seized my father and grandfather from the dinner table and shot them to death against the barn.
“Several years later half a dozen Germans walked into our yard, and I had no time to run and hide in the woods, so I hid in bed and shivered under a thick goose down cover. A pair of boots stamped over the floor boards towards me, louder and louder. The cover was pulled off, and a huge soldier loomed over me. An agkhh broke out of my throat, my eyes bulged.The German lowered his hand, I thought to strangle me.Instead, he placed his cold palm on my forehead and held it there. Then he poured a glass of water from the bucket that was on the chair in the kitchen, put some white pills into the water, crushed them with a spoon and pressed my lips with the edge of the glass against my teeth. I could hardly swallow.The liquid was shudderingly bitter —I thought it was poison.I would keel over and die.
“He took a paper sack out of his black leather bag—I guess he was a military doctor —and out of it, a honey cake. Where he’d got it I’ll never know, but I am sure he hadn’t baked it himself. He gave it to me, and I had never chewed any thing sweeter before nor after. He looked sternly at my mouth as if to make sure I was chewing. When I finished, he handed me another, and I chewed it slowly, savoring its honey. After swallowing the last of it, I wanted more, but didn’t dare ask
him. My eyes shifted in the direction of the paper sack.
“The German raised his forefinger and shook it sideways in front of my aching eyes and said, Nein!’ That was the only word that was said between us.
“He stood up and walked into the yard, his boots crunching gravel, less and less. He shouted something to the soldiers,and they all marched away, raising a screen of dust.
“Eh, my brother, you can’t imagine how I felt right then.First he —for me it was one and the same German —kills my father and then gives me the sweetest cakes I could ever have! ”
“Humm,” that was all I was able to offer in the way of comment.
“I could tell you hundreds of war stories, for three days and three nights, and we still would not be done.”
But when I visited him a week later, he said, “I shouldn’t have told you any war stories. Since then, almost every night I’ve been having nightmares. Would you like to help me gather our plums? Last night the wind shook them off the trees.”
“Will you make plum brandy?” I asked, skeptical, since he was a pious Calvinist.
“I’m afraid so —just to sell to taverns. The money’s so short these days.”
I put more plums into my mouth than into the basket —they tasted like pineapples.
From nearby came a loud braying. I had never seen a donkey in the region, so I couldn’t trust my ears and asked him what was making that noise.
“A donkey. Ten years ago a boy wanted a donkey, and his father got him one from the coast. The boy grew up, his father and mother died, he went to the army and came back, and there he is, unmarried and living with his donkey. People say all sorts of things about him, but he is a good soul.”
An old peasant walked by, galoshes flopping, on the way to Nenad’s well. He turned the wheel and the rings of the chain crunched around the spindle. “By the way,” the man shouted, noticing Nenad’s mutt, who, with the courage of a fly, had just attacked a muffler less truck on the road in front of us. “You should chain your dog.”
“Why? The poor soul enjoys his freedom.”
“Forget freedom. Yesterday he chased Petkovich’s sheep into the creek — lucky thing he didn’t drive them over the cliff.
Hasn’t Petkovich come over here to complain yet?”
“No, Uncle Petar.”
“Well, chain the bum if you don’t want trouble.”
As the old man carried his bucket away, tongues of water splashed left and right into the dust.
“He’s been to America too,” Nenad said. “You’d never be able to tell it by looking at him.”
“Well, can you tell such a thing? I’m sure you can’t see any change in me.”
“I can. You’ve got more of a swagger than before. You know, quite a few people from Weeping Willow went to the States between the world wars.” He counted them on his fingers, pointing to the houses obscured by trees, barns, stacks of hay. He ran out of fingers and started another round. “About a half of them came back, not much better off than before. But Uncle Petar had won ten thousand dollars on horse races— at least that’s what he said. I think he’d exchanged his lungs for the money in Montana mines. Ten thousand dollars was a lot in the early fifties. Visiting home, here, he spent a thousand a day. If somebody wanted a bike, he bought him one. Radio sets, hats, ploughs, vodka, phonographs, sun glasses, guns—anything the peasants could think of, he bought them. People from other villages came and asked for presents. On Uncle’sway out of the village a long procession accompanied him,longer than a doctor’s funeral, longer than Tito’s crew of Mercedeses and military policemen on this road paved just for Tito’s visit. Two months later. Uncle Petar was back from America. He said he didn’t want to make any more money for presents. I think he was scared of those coal mines. Now he’s one of the poorest people in the village.”
The air was so clear —a powerful wind blew the night before—that I could see to the south, over Nenad’s wheat field,above the red roofs of a village on a hill, a funeral procession with a horse pulled hearse snaking its way up a din road and beyond it, some fifty miles away, the blue mountains of Bosnia, flattened like wet shins on a drying line. To the east the approaching black clouds trapped the light from the setting sun, so that the beech forest beneath them glowed. We took baskets full of blue plums into the workshop and placed them among wooden soles stacked in pillars near a round wood burning stove. “Does the stove look familiar?” he asked.
“Yes. It used to be in my father’s workshop, in the winter the iron glowed. ... ”
“I love that stove. But once in a while I look at it and get a fright. I see your dead father rubbing his hands above it. You know what your father was like — strict. One winter morning I heard his footsteps and just then I mishit a nail. The point of the nail poked through into the insole. I didn’t want him to see my mistake, so I put the shoe into this stove.
“He comes in and says, ‘It’s freezing!’ He stamps the snow off his clogs on the din floor, rubs his blue hands and dashes to the furnace. I freeze, my hand with the hammer up in the air, nails between my lips, like some worker’s monument. He grabs a log, opens the furnace, and his arm freezes. He leans his stubbly face almost all the way into the furnace, and he has something to see: flames dance on his wooden shoe in all the rain bow colors, wood crackles, the leather hisses.
‘So, Nenad, is that how you work for me?’
‘Agh, sorry .. . it was no good, a mistake.’
‘A mistake? Sabotage I Vandalism!’
‘But Meister — we always used German words in the trade —the nail stuck outl’
‘So? You should hammer better. You could have pulled it out and rasped the crack.’
‘But the crack was a little too big.’
‘You could have waxed it!’
‘But that takes time. I heard you coming. I feared your strictness.’
‘Strictness? I’m so lenient! . . . You are fired!’
‘Agh, please, don’t. What will my Mother say? Where can I find another job this time of the year?
‘You should have thought of that earlier. If you had at least spared the leather.’
‘I didn’t have the time.’
‘You’ll have enough time now. Out!’
I begged him, but he again said, ‘Out.’ I kicked off my clogs and walked barefoot out into the snow. He caught up with men ear the post office. I hastened my pace.
‘Hey, it’s all forgiven and forgotten. I put myself in your shoes. It’s all right.’
I was embarrassed. It was Saturday, a market day, and crowds of people stared at us —two sawdust covered men, one pulling the other by the sleeve. When we were past the square,I said, ‘You fired me. How can you go back on your word?’
‘I was too rash.’
‘But, Meister, we aren’t Gypsies —to be ready to kill each other one minute and to kiss each other the next. If you say something, mean it, yes-yes, no-no.’
‘So, if in a fit of rage you say you’ll kill a man, later when you’re sober you’ll kill him?’
He laughed and put his arm on my shoulder and said, ‘Eh,that’s no good.’
‘I’d just watch out not to say something like that.’
‘When you are mad, you can say such a thing. Think about it. It’s good to forgive quickly. If that’s what Gypsies are like,let’s learn from them. Come on, let’s go back.’
‘No, I can’t change my horses like that —so quickly! At least let me stew for a while!’
‘All right, you can come back to work tomorrow, but please take my shoes.’
“I refused, he insisted, and I accepted one of his clogs. To get my shoes, we hopped back to the workshop —he had the right shoe, I the left. I remember that because it was awkward to hop on my left foot. For a bet we raced, and I slid over a patch of ice where kids had poured water over the packed snow on the pavement and smoothed it with their feet, to skate. All the streets were iced, and the old people didn’t dare walkout side.