Today’s translation continues the theme of childhood we’ve had for several Tuesdays now. Zoran Pilić’s story depicts a young man struggling with how to emulate masculinity: admiring the great male chess champions, trying to build the biggest biceps, competing for the affections of a woman. And the memory of a beloved pig, a sacrificial animal whose fate echoes tragically in the conclusion. For more stories that explore the conflicts of childhood, check out the fiction from the Spring 2018 issue of Asymptote.
I loved that pig. Unlike all other pigs that I’ve seen until and since then, Lucky had that something—personality. In the late, late fall of 1975, Misho and I were chopping pumpkins, and Lucky watched us from his pigsty, grunting with satisfaction.
I know that’s for me, as if he wanted to say, there’s no one else here, oink-oink-oink!
“What are you doing?” my old man asked as he walked by distributing tobacco on his rolling paper.
“Chopping pumpkins,” I said. “For Lucky’s breakfast.”
My old man licked the cigarette he had just rolled, took out his brass flint lighter and gazed into the heavens so pregnant with rain that the chimneys were already cutting into the lowest, black clouds.
After who knows how long he came to and said, “Tomorrow Lucky’s going to meet his maker.”
Misho and I were standing in the mud. I peered at that axe stuck deep in the block of wood and the pumpkins that lay around chopped into cubes. The clouds traveled silently not even two meters above our heads, well, perhaps it was more than two meters, but that’s what it seemed then and that’s the image I still see in front of my eyes: the sky within the reach.
My old man, his coat thrown across his shoulders, stood in front of us like Comrade Tito, smoking and regarding us from above. Perhaps he wondered—are these kids ever going to grow up or will they forever remain this little and skinny like two rats. He woke up from his reptilian nirvana and spat to the side.
“Get back to the house, quick!” he said. “Your ma’s looking for you.”
At the time I had already hated it when someone, anyone, reached after the word ‘ma’. I recognized it as a very rude form of mother or mama, as a curse.
I opened my disheveled copy of One Hundred Greatest Matches of All Times, took out my chess set, and started assembling pieces on the board. First the black pieces, then white: the rooks, the heavy artillery, the bishops, the knights, the queen, the king, and, finally, the pawns, the infantry.
José Raul Capablanca was and still is my number one chess champion. The greatest of the greatest. Officially, he sat on the throne from 1921 to 1927, invincible and lonely the way only great champions get to be. Great champions or clever pigs waiting for their nemeses to come get them.
Capablanca won the title of the world chess champion in Havana, his hometown, in 1921 when he wiped the floor with the great Emanuel Lasker. Four wins, ten draws and no defeats. In the next eighty years no one won the title without a defeat.
On that long gone morning in nineteen seventy something, while Lucky was minutes away from a violent death, Capablanca’s convincing triumph seemed like a feat no one would ever repeat until the end of the world. Not even the eccentric Bobby Fischer during whose reign all this with Lucky took place.
“Bobby, who?! What are you talking about?!” said old Junuz, the best chess player in the neighborhood and one of the best in town. “No capitalist punk can dominate a communist man in the field of mind.”
I made a couple of moves trying to focus on a game, which gave Capablanca a 2:0 lead over Lasker.
The sun was not even up when almost carnival-like commotion settled on the yard. In the sty, whose shape I could barely make out, Lucky was living the last moments of his life. There was no one who could help him. So many people in the yard, so early at dawn—Lucky knew this could not end well.
Behind two tables, scrubbed to perfection and pushed together at the entrance to the garage, our neighbor Roso, his hands lightning quick, was at work sharpening his thin, special knife that had killed dozens, maybe even hundreds of pigs in the neighborhood. Everyone was best at something: Misho’s old man could bring the oldest television sets, not to mention transistor radios—he dealt with them with his eyes closed—back to life, my old man knew what was wrong with a car by its sound, old Junuz killed in chess, and that Roso, he was called when a pig needed to be slaughtered. Slaughtering was his specialty and everyone praised him for it. “Man, when Roso gets his hands on it, the pig doesn’t even know it’s already dead. It has no time to even blink,” people said.
From all the sharpening the knife grew thin and the thinner it got the more quickly pigs fell. A moment before the murderer would give a sign to go get him, Lucky started crying for help. I covered my ears and closed my eyes, but to no avail. I could still hear the squeals and the cries. Lucky was screaming for help. Of course, he was calling me, when great trouble is at hand—you call your best friend.
And then everything went quiet, I opened my eyes—the chessboard was upside-down, the pieces scattered all over the place. Goodbye, Lucky, goodbye, my dear friend, I told myself, I’ll avenge you, sooner or later.
I remember the never ending days of dull boredom. Misho and I were fifteen and bored to death. Just to break the monotony we would go to another part of the town and just for the sake of it beat up some kid; hidden behind a dike we would throw rocks at old, worn-down Zastava 101s, Skodas and heavy trucks; we would take our bb gun and shoot pigeons, lonely fishermen, or peasant women passing by on their bicycles. But this last was rather difficult because the peasant women were unusually quick and were always wearing several extra layers of clothes, so often not even a well-placed shot could produce the desired effect.
That summer the dark-haired Emilia, whom no one called Emilia, but Emma or Emily, grew into a real beauty. Every afternoon she would step out into the yard, sit down on a bench under an old mulberry tree, read and, from time to time, write something down in her notebook. I would hide behind the thick hedge growing between our yards and watch her, sometimes losing all sense of time.
I lifted weights and grew muscles: biceps, triceps, quadriceps, stomach, chest and back. Those were not real weights, but improvised contraptions made of concrete poured in large metal containers of motor oil or mixed pickles. I don’t know how it happened, but a summer before I had stopped growing, halting at measly one meter sixty. I’d hoped that in the next couple of years I would stretch to at least one meter sixty-five. At the same time, deep down, I knew this would not happen. I would remain a dwarf among the giants—it was my destiny. And so, I lifted weights, did abs, punched the boxing bag as if I were possessed, and jogged a couple of kilometers every day. In a way, I had to compensate for what I lacked in height. Determined in the intent to turn into a pocket version of Lou Ferrigno, I trained fanatically, not skipping a day.
“Hold that bag,” I would instruct Misho and then punch it with my right and my left. I gave it everything I got.
Of course, he outgrew me, everyone was springing like willows from water leaving me a full head behind. As I said, Misho was my best friend. Since we were six, when his folks moved to the neighborhood, we were inseparable. Our parents or, more exactly, our fathers were not that close; you could say they merely tolerated each other. For some reason, my old man thought he was better than his. At the mention of my old man’s name, Misho’s father would just wave his hand, not wanting to spend words on him, and all of that, as we later learned, had begun back in Novi Sad, where the two of them had served together. What exactly had happened there, in the army, we never learned, and it wasn’t even important, because no one kept Misho and me from spending time together. He was allowed to come to our house, just as I was allowed to come to theirs.
The summer after which I was supposed to start high school entered its final third. My fanatic training had born fruit. I turned into something lumpy that made people feel uneasy to be around. Not even my parents could look at me. I read somewhere that it was good to drink milk and take as much meat as one could to grow muscles. I adapted my diet and continued with my training sessions, which I, more or less, invented myself. By the railroad I had found a big ass piece of rail and dragged it to my garage. The old weights no longer presented a challenge. Now I lifted that super heavy rail that opened bloody blisters on my palms.
Right about then, Emma and Misho began spending more and more time together. What bothered me the most was that she was the one who started it—with my own eyes I saw her invite him to her yard. They sat under the mulberry tree, drank rose petals juice and giggled. He didn’t even have to make an effort. She came up to him on her own without even knowing that I, who adored her from afar, existed. I felt like a monster from a swamp. Ugly and unsightly. Lonely, pumped-up dwarf with his hands wrapped in dirty bandages.
Something foul began to settle down in me.
Every day, be it summer or winter, our neighbor Roso staggered down the street, drunk as a skunk. In the past couple of years, the image had become a regular part of our lives and no one paid much attention to it. He stumbled along, stopped and paused, argued with the invisible demons, cursed their dear mothers, cried, waved his hands, and then staggered on, all the way to his shabby little house that stood at the very end of the street, at a distance from all the other houses as if not wanting to have anything to do with them.
In all honesty, Roso was not as old as he looked, it was the brandy that wrinkled his skin, bent his back, and cut furrows into his face, which made him a ruin of a man. Devil knows why, but a year or two after he had killed Lucky, he started drinking and he never stopped. From time to time, our parents warned us that we would end up like that, like the worst of drunks, if we didn’t take our studies seriously.
Misho and I sat on the fence between our two houses. A crow flew down on one of the poplars across the street, it cawed several times. Then it grew quiet. The end of summer could unmistakably be felt in the air. Misho started saying something about Emily.
“Forget that,” I cut him short, gazing at a dot in the distance that would soon take a well-known shape.
“Before all this ends,” I said, thinking not only about our summer break and the summer itself, but about our friendship that was also approaching its imminent end, “we should do something to remember.”
“Absolutely, let’s do something big,” Misho agreed although at that moment he himself couldn’t think of anything we could do.
“Here’s what we’ll do . . .”
And as I laid out the details of my devilish plan, the dot slowly grew bigger and finally took on a human shape of our neighbor Roso.
“Are you putting bread on my table . . .” he was yelling at someone invisible. “I drink on my own expense, so . . . Please, listen, why do you give a fuck, just pretend I’m not here.”
That night, just after ten, we did it. We snuck up to the window. It was wide open. Lying on a dirty couch, still in his clothes, Roso was sleeping his heavy drunken sleep.
We went inside. The TV was on, clothes everywhere, ashtrays filled with cigarette butts, plates, pots, pieces of stale bread, empty wine bottles and more cigarette butts in them, two pictures on the wall—Roso as he once had been and a young, pretty woman that had long gone from his life, and another one showing the Blessed Virgin, Joseph and baby Jesus.
We set fire to the house at the end of our street and then went down to the lake that everyone called a swamp. Misho lit one of Roso’s cigarettes.
“Here, you should have one too.”
I refused, just like any bodybuilder would, but seeing that his hand was slightly shaking, that he was about to break down and collapse as if he too was made out of brushwood, I took one.
He was sent to one and I to another juvenile hall even further away. Knowing him through and through like I did, I was sure Misho would confess everything. He never once gave anything away, out of all idiotic things we did—he never said anything to anyone, but this with Roso was just too much.
I don’t know what they did to him at the juvie. Nasty things. They found him on one winter morning in the boiler room. He hanged himself. I learned about it after I had gotten out. No one had called to tell me about it, no one wanted anything to do with me. In the facility I built office furniture. That last, third year, we made chess sets and that was really good.
It was only in the year 2000 that Vladimir Kramnik beat Kasparov with two wins, thirteen draws and no defeats, but no one cared about it anymore. Except for Kramnik, maybe his closer family and a friend here or there. The world today could give a rat’s ass about chess.
Translated from the Croatian by Tomislav Kuzmanović
Zoran Pilić has published two collections of short stories, Doggiestyle (2007) and Nema slonova u Meksiku (There Are No Elephants in Mexico, 2014), two novels, Krimskrams (2009) and Djavli od papira (Paper Devils, 2011), and a poetry collection, Dendermonde (2013).
Tomislav Kuzmanovic is the translator of The Death of the Little Match Girl by Zoran Feric and (with Russell Valentino) A Castle in Romagna by Igor Stiks. His translations have appeared in Granta, Ugly Duckling Presse’s 6×6, Drunken Boat, The Iowa Review, Absinthe, New European Poets Anthology, Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction, and elsewhere.
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