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Predrag Ristic: Pianino in Mud
("Prometej", Novi Sad - "Mi", Bec, 1997)


At one o'clock in the morning, on an August night when you couldn't sleep because of the heat and mosquitoes, the telephone rang in an apartment near the center of Belgrade.

"Hi kids. Sorry to wake you. Must be asleep already, huh?", Petar's mother was apologizing in a low voice.

"Doesn't matter mom, what happened?" Petar asked rubbing his eyes. He had just fallen asleep. "Is Pa all right?" he trembled.

He was whispering in order not to wake little Sara up. Mirjana listened tensely, her upper body lifted in bed, supported by her elbows, poking the pillow. She looked at the alarm clock and immediately thought the call had something to do with the mobilization.

"They just left a few minutes ago. From the army. Looking for you. Wanted to hand us the draft notice. Said we had to take it - we had to!"

Although it was late and although it was urgent, she was reluctant to get to the point. She felt uncomfortable.

"So, did you take it?" his head cleared quickly. "At least it's not dad!" he thought, relieved.

"We didn't, but Pa got confused. You know what it's like when they wake you up, in the middle of the night..."

"What do you mean confused?" he said in a dry voice. Cold sweat crept down his spine. He knew what she was about to say and he felt her pain. He was scared and waited for the final sentence. "Why don't you come out with it? Gees, say it!" he thought, rushing her in his mind.

"Well, they were pushy: where are you, we should take the notice, you have to go... It is the army, you know son... In times like these we shouldn't take that light..."

"Wait a minute now, I don't get it. Did you take the notice, or what happened?"

"Pa told them you don't live here any more." she spilled out.

"And? He didn't give them this address, did he?" flashed through his head. He didn't want to believe it.

A short pause and then she continued. "They pushed us really hard, where are you, how can they get in touch, we are the parents, we should know where our son is... so Pa gave them the address." She had to make another brief break, to hear, to feel his reaction. "That's why I'm calling, so you know. They may burst in any second now..."

Another pause followed. A deep, wet, greasy and sticky pause. It contained a mixture of love for his parents, patriotism, anxiety, bravery, fear for pure survival, an itch for hazard, respect for the elderly, memories of mosquitoes during the last military drill, pictures of the drunk corporal with Tito's photo in one hand and a gun in the other, a stream of filthy language... The pause seemed to have lasted seven hundred years. Then consciousness began returning, slowly, from behind the Ural mountains, beyond the Carpathians, down form the Himalayas... He was barefoot in the anteroom and it was very cold there, minus fifty degrees at least, it seemed. Actually, he was boiling hot, steaming in his sweat, at over a plus hundred... Then humming in his ears abated and he said, with a tone from the graveyard, pronouncing each word slowly, as if speaking to an impaired person:

"God, mo-ther, this is why I was re-gis-tered at your ad-dress! And we said you are ne-ver to know a-ny-thing! E-spe-cially not where I am!" He accelerated a little: "nor when I will come. Now you've blown my cover!"

"I know, son. What can I say? Dad got upset and told them. He says it's not time to fool around. Someone may pronounce you a deserter and who knows what else..."

Mirjana and Petar stared at each other in the dark. Hearing only his side of the conversation was enough. Her head fell back on the pillow and her eyes began to water. Petar felt as if he had been hit by a sledge hammer, directly in the gut. He bent down and moved to a chair opposite the phone. He contemplated whether to press his mother or not. He was ready to explode, but contrary to his nature, perhaps because it was his mother on the other end of the line or because he was genuinely surprised, disappointed and scared, he decided to let it go.

"OK mom, go to sleep now. If there's anything, we'll talk tomorrow."

"Tell Mirjana, so she knows, if they ring the bell..."

That again almost made him explode. "Now she has advice for me!" his head was ready to burst but he said "OK mom OK, I know what to tell her" He couldn't hold it back fully, he'd blast if he hadn't said at least one thing he was feeling. "Tell dad this wasn't his best move! Good night!"

He was distressed, boiling inside: "Dad, of all people, to let me down like this!"

"Bye...", his mother was desperate as she hung up. "Dad, of all people! We really let him down!" pierced her as she strolled back to her bedroom.

Petar's father was lying in bed motionless, gazing at the darkness. He was thinking about what he had done and hoped he had chosen the lesser evil. In his time, he had heard plenty of stories of deserters being executed on the spot. He couldn't sleep. He was silent and staring into the void.

Petar lowered the receiver. He stumbled like a wounded bear, through the darkened room, back into the darkened bed. His dismal wife wanted to check if she had got it right and asked if his father revealed their address to the army. He shook his head, in the dark, on the pillow. She felt the motion.

"Gees! They could be here any minute!" he mumbled in a low voice.

"What should we do? Do you want to go sleep somewhere else? Bane told me today he's been sleeping out for a week! Every night at a different address. That's why we couldn't get hold of him the other day."

"Where should I go, this time of night? And what if they're already out front, just waiting for me to try to run." He was thinking fast. "No. You know what? It is good that she told us. If they come you open the door and say I'm not here. Tell them I'm on a business trip, somewhere abroad. In Italy or something, you don't know when I'll be back, haven't heard from me for a few days..." The humming in his head started again. "Or, why not? You could say we're separated, I'm with a lover?"

"Oh, please, don't overdo it! What if they burst in and find you?"

"You can't let them! They won't break the door down, I don't think. They'd need a warrant for that. It's not like I'm some kind of serial killer they're after. Just keep the door closed, no matter what. Talk through the peephole, if you have to. It's not even logical for you to open the door! A lone woman, with a baby in the middle of the night?"

"I'm worried sick!"

"I know. So am I. We're gonna have to make some changes tomorrow!" They embraced in anticipation. There was no place for sleep, nor for sex in their bed that night. They simply held each other tight in an attempt to keep the terror away.

The pinnacle was reached at a quarter past three, when the doorbell rang. They looked at each other in the dark. Mirjana stood up slowly and tiptoed to the door. The manic ringing sounded again.

"They couldn't care less for the child, or for the neighbors. What manners!" streamed through her head as she reached the anteroom. "Who is it?" she asked in a broken voice. She was standing in the dark, her ear on the door. Their family name was written on the other side.

A boyish voice asked "Is Petar home?"

"No, he's not. Who are you? Do you know what time it is?"

"We're from the military, comrade. Open the door! You have to accept a document for Petar." Another much deeper and older voice grumbled. It had echoes of interrogation experience.

She didn't expect this and didn't know how to react. Had she not expected the visit, she would have been even more frightened and insecure. She would not open the door. It seemed that would be the correct reaction, something they wouldn't mistrust.

"Wait a minute, I can't open the door just like that! It's the middle of the night, I'm alone, with a baby. Show me some ID, at least. I'm watching you through the peephole." She lifted the cover on the little hole in the door and looked outside. The magnifying glass showed a young man and another one in his forties, both in plain clothes. They could have been cab drivers or drug dealers or anything...

"What IDs are you talking about, comrade? Jus' open so we can hand you this paper. Nothing's gonna happen to ya."

What now? She endured and insisted on a law-abiding attitude. "It doesn't work that way! You can't go around knocking on people's doors middle of the night and demand they open up!", she was encouraging herself, trusting Petar was still safer with the door closed and those two men outside. "I can't open the door. No way! We have a mailbox downstairs.", she remembered, "throw it in there. I'll pick it up first thing tomorrow."

"Are you absolutely sure Petar is not there?" asked the younger voice again, probably trying to show dedication in front of his superior.

"No, I told you already, he's not home. He's traveling, somewhere abroad." She felt the pressure yielding slowly.

"And when d'ya expect 'im back?" asked the interrogator. She saw him scribble something in a little notebook. Then the light went out in the hallway. They whispered briefly and then she heard footsteps going down (or up?) the stairway.

"I've no idea. It's like that with him, you never know." She felt there was no one behind the door any more to hear her.

No "Thanks", or "Sorry", not even a "Good night"... Simple silence. For a while she could not be sure if they had left or were creeping around behind the door. The light didn't go on again. "They must have gone down in the dark... If they had gone down! Maybe one of them has his ear glued to the other side of the door, waiting to catch us when we say something... Maybe the other one is looking in from across the street, with binoculars!"

"Too many American suspense movies", she concluded and returned to bed. Speechless they lay, listened and felt very happy.

"We screwed them again!"

In the morning, the mailbox was empty. A draft notice had not been delivered to Petar's parents either. Nothing came in the next few days and no one came again. A few weeks later a regular mobilization summons arrived at Peter's parents' house. It seemed that his father hadn't broken his cover after all. The army still had the old address. The scheme had functioned perfectly. Mirjana went to the magistrate and informed them that he was on the road again, not able to come. Petar didn't know if he should feel good or bad about the whole issue. It had become obvious that the men who were at his home that night were not at all from the regular army, JNA.

"How did they get my address in the first place? Who were they? Where did they want to take me? Was I supposed to go and fight as a volunteer, all of a sudden and against my will, in some cleansing outfit in Croatia?" All the question remained unanswered.

Petar's patience was running thin. Mirjana's was close to running out, too.

Borut's Literature Collection
Created: 1998-06-02 Modified: 2000-07-31