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World Prose Portfolio #7: Dennis Walder

Dennis Walder was born and brought up in South Africa, and educated at the Universities of Cape Town and Edinburgh. Emeritus Professor of Literature at the Open University, he has published numerous books and articles on 19th and 20th century literature, including the best-selling critical reader Literature in the Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2003) and most recently Postcolonial Nostalgias (Routledge 2010). He has had several short stories published, was runner-up for the V.S. Pritchett Prize in 2009, and is currently working on a memoir.

THE SWEEPER

Luca first turned up during the siege. He was ragged and unkempt, like any morlach from the mountains. He came striding into our midst, his black hair brushed forward over his brow, deep lines on either side of his mouth, his eyes staring, like he was a little mad. He said the soldiers had attacked his farm, destroying the crops and killing the animals. And his woman had disappeared – raped and murdered, he guessed. He said he was one of us. How were we to know, one way or the other?

Old Judita the washerwoman took pity on him, and gave him a bed in her house in the Pustijerna. Then one day a shell dropped on the roof, and a piece of shrapnel sang down and cut her head clean off. They tried to put it back on when they laid her out in the coffin, but it didn’t fit properly. When they took her to the cemetery, they had to run with the coffin, Luca in front. The cemetery was being shelled at the time.

Maybe that was when Luca began to see things. Or maybe it was living in the Dominican monastery that did it. He was always there when we went to fetch water from the well in the courtyard, the town supply having been cut off. Sometimes he would ignore us, just look up at the sky and mutter. Padre Marko said he was a man of piety. There was a lot of piety springing up in those days.

One day in December when the shells were coming in like a swarm of hornets some of us decided to go to the beach over at Lapad.

‘To cool off,’ laughed Frano, ‘even if it is St Nicholas.’ The big man with the moustache was always worth having along, he kept our spirits up.

‘Do you know the Russian story about being a good neighbour?’ said Frano as we made our way through the old city gate. ‘One day God came down,’ he said, ‘and asked Boris what he would say if he was offered anything he liked, only his neighbour had to have twice as much. “Okay,” says Boris, “tear out one of my eyes.”’

As we made our way up hill, we could hear more and more shells exploding behind us. This was going to be a bad day for the city. Soon we reached Babin kuk, and the shelter of the trees and bushes up there. I knew the area well, I used to shoot guinea-fowl up there in the old days, even before the hotels were built, when it was still wild. Now there were hotels all over the place. They weren’t empty because of the war, they were full of refugees from the hills. But this didn’t stop them being targets: you could see the pockmarks from shrapnel on their walls as you passed by.

The guns up on the mountain suddenly fell silent.

‘It’s a holy day, after all,’ said Ivo, the taxi driver. He was a bit simple, Ivo. But even he knew they might start up again anytime.

We climbed higher up, towards the old monastery overlooking the sea. The pebble beach down below was where I used to go swimming with Ivana. I could still see her white body flash in the sun as she dived down into the dark blue water, her long black hair streaming behind her. The mermaid, we called her, although she came from the hills. Weekdays, she worked in one of the new hotels, in a white uniform, looking after the gym and the pool, keeping an eye on the kids, handing out and collecting towels. We used to meet up when she was finished, take time to go down to the beach. More often than not, we would just sit and look at the sea. I couldn’t easily forget her.

‘Who’s got the rakija?’ asked Frano.

‘Always funny,’ said Goran. ‘Where can you get it now?’ Goran was a fisherman, and he liked his booze.

‘No, the joke’s on you,’ I said. ‘I have some right here.’

We stopped beneath a clutch of holm oak. I took the bottle out of my pocket and passed it to Frano. ‘The funnyman first.’

‘Nazdravje!’ said Frano, lifting it to his lips. ‘To the Americans!’ He wiped his hand across his moustache, and passed the bottle to Goran, who took a good swig, and smacked his lips. ‘That is a real joke,’ he said. ‘You think they will come here? Nobody gives a damn, not the Americans, not the Germans, not the English, none of them. And why should they? They think we are some crap little country full of half-wits who can’t run themselves. Just right to go and visit for a bit of sun and drink, and maybe take in the Roman ruins. Only now they cannot.’

Nobody said anything. After a while we began to make our way down towards the beach. Suddenly there was a thrashing noise in the undergrowth. ‘What’s that?’ exclaimed Ivo, ‘a boar?’

But it was Luca, looking as wild as any boar, his hair sticking up, his eyes staring mad. ‘Go! Get out!’ he shouted hoarsely. ‘It’s coming.’

‘What?’ I said.

There was a whooshing sound, and as we fell to the ground a loud noise filled the air and emptied our heads, and then we heard the whistling metal fragments, and twigs fluttering down around us. Where we lay under the trees there was a smell of shit.

Frano was the first to get up. ‘Nazdravje!’ he said, dusting himself down, still holding the bottle. ‘The JNA cannot aim straight. But I can,’ he said, upending it and opening his mouth.
‘Where’s the prophet of doom?’ asked Goran.

But Luca had disappeared. Maybe after a near miss, you knew when it was coming, like an animal in the woods.

When we finally got to the beach we sat there for a long time, watching the sun setting over the darkening sea. It was flat and secret like old lava.

The next time we saw Luca was when the Old Port got it. He seemed to be connected with bad news. They were using wire-guided missiles. Black smoke was twisting up into the clouds hanging over the city. Soon the harbour was full of wrecks. Goran’s boat was one of them, you could see the stern sticking up out of the water, the name Judita in black letters on the side of the bow. Boxes and nets floated around on the oily water. ‘No more fish for us,’ said Goran. We stood with our backs against the old city wall as we surveyed the mess. ‘Well, we’ll turn Turk, then,’ he continued, ‘and not bother with Friday fish, eh?’

Then the explosions started again. We turned and ran, right up to the other end of town. Maybe they would stick to the Port this time. Soon we reached the Placa. The big round fountain was encircled with sandbags. It looked like an old woman in heavy skirts, squatting. There was quite a crowd there, too. And then a mortar bomb landed down the street, and there was a bit of panic. Some people crouched down beside the fountain hugging the old stone sides. Some ran into the convent. Others ran back down the Stradun. I yelled to my lot to follow me as I made for the Franciscan church. The saints at the entrance looked sadly down at us as we ran through. It was cool and dark inside, and we made a lot of noise with our boots on the worn stone flags. I turned into the Mala Braca next door. I could hear booming outside, but we felt safe in the still cloisters. The plants in the garden were dry and brown for lack of water. The monks’ pharmacy was still going, after six hundred years. The old pharmaceutical instruments hanging up on the walls reminded me of things I did not want to think about.

‘Look!’ exclaimed Ivo. ‘It’s Luca.’ There he was, all right. He was kneeling in front of the cabinet of relics. St Ursula’s little metallic head looked down at him from behind the glass. I always thought the head was too small. Maybe she had been a midget. She seemed to be smiling a silvery smile down at Luca.

‘Hey, Luca!’ cried Frano. ‘It’s too late, the Huns are coming.’

Luca shook his head. ‘They will not come.’

‘What?’ said Frano. ‘How do you know? Ustashe bastard, are you praying for them? Or just for one of the eleven thousand virgins?’

Frano knew a lot. He used to be a teacher in Zagreb. Later that evening, when we had all gathered for coffee in his house – our first coffee in six days – he said, ‘You know Ursula only had ten virgins with her. It’s a misunderstanding of the Latin M in an old inscription that gave the church the idea of the thousands of virgins.’

‘There isn’t a virgin left here anyway,’ said Ivo, grinning like the idiot he was.

‘Just as well,’ I said. We sat down on the low stone wall. There was nothing to be done, but wait. I thought of Ivana, and her long black hair like a river down her back. I had not heard from her for months. Her village had been in peace when I left her there, but soon we heard that it was neighbour against neighbour in the hills. I thought she would get out. A of them came down from the hills in the first weeks, but there was no sign or word of her. Then I heard there was going to be a roundup, so I went back to find her. I was stopped at a checkpoint by a couple of militiamen in combat fatigues and boots. One of them came up to me. He had long black hair tied back with a red bandana, and he held a Zastovo machine pistol in his hand. He leant down and put his head close to mine. I could smell the liquor on his breath. ‘Where do you think you’re going?’ he asked. I told him. ‘Get out,’ he said. He took my arm in a firm grip, and walked me to a farm house some distance off the road. There were men inside the farm house, lying tied up on the floor, or sitting against the wall. Some of them seemed to be asleep. Others were just looking down in front of them. They had been roughed up. They were not a pretty sight. A uniformed soldier sat behind a table in a large, leather-backed chair, smoking. He had cropped grey hair and a big jaw, and there were some metal instruments on the table in front of him. He tapped his fingers on the table, and then beckoned me to approach him. Red Bandana released my arm. ‘What are you doing here?’ asked the soldier. I said I was searching for my woman. ‘Who do you think you are?’ he said. Before I could say anything, somebody knocked me down from behind. Then I felt boots kicking me, and I blacked out. It must have been a long time before I was found. My rescuers had pulled me out from under a pile of bodies. They said they heard me gasping for breath. I was lucky, they said.

As spring approached, and the swifts began gathering in the skies in the evenings, the shelling stopped. Maybe enough people had been killed. Maybe Luca’s prayers had worked something. The whole thing had been pointless, anyway.

The city recovered. Sandbags were removed, roof tiles replaced, boats repaired; walls, churches, houses patched up and in some cases rebuilt. A Memorial Room was set up in the Dominican Monastery, with photos round the walls of some of those who lost their lives. At first I thought they were all men. But then I saw her. It was an old ID picture, and she was looking sternly out at the camera, a slight frown on her brow, her lips parted as if she was short of breath. I remembered seeing photos of women rounded up by the Nazis. All that was left of them was these paper images. I looked at the picture for a long time. Then I took a walk around the room. There was a TV set against one wall, and on it you could watch a video of the shelling of the Old Port. I couldn’t believe I’d seen the real thing. It was like watching some old war movie.

Soon the people of the city he people came out of their homes, and sat at tables having coffee, or strolled down the Stradun in the bright sun, eating ice cream. After a while, the tourists returned. Things were looking up.

We didn’t see Luca about the place for a year or more. Then one day he turned up again, his head shaven, but with the same old wild look. I had opened up a bookshop in the Od Puča by then, and was not doing too badly. Maybe the loss of all those books at the Interuniversity Centre made people think they needed some replacements. I even sold a copy of Plato’s Republic.

Luca walked in, and greeted me, just as if he hadn’t been away. I asked him what he’d been doing. He said he’d seen angels in the sky, bearing swords. He said what had been formed out of clay was easily broken. I guessed he was talking about the war. I asked him if he remembered the time we met on Babin kuk.

‘Sure. To forget is impossible,’ he said.

‘I’d rather forget,’ I said. ‘But there are killers and rapists and torturers walking the streets. What will happen to them? Nothing.’

‘God is merciful,’ said Luca.

‘But is he just?’ I asked.

‘It is difficult to forgive.’

‘Maybe. Anyway, I will not forgive,’ I said. ‘Are they sorry? I do not think so.’

‘The war lies deep in our bodies,’ said Luca. ‘So it is difficult.’ And he walked out.

Not long after that a uniformed man came into the bookshop. He asked me did I know where Luca could be found. He had an American accent. ‘What do you want him for?’ I asked.

‘We need him,’ said the American.

‘What for?’

‘He was a witness.’

‘So was I. So were lots of people.’

‘I know. But this was something special, a war crime.’

‘Try the Dominican monastery,’ I said. ‘Maybe they know where he is.’

We watched some of the trials on television. Goran said they should have tried the men in their own country, not somewhere else, with a foreign judge.

‘Then they would’ve got away with it,’ said Frano.

‘Here, everyone forgets what he saw, said Ivo. ‘Even me, I forget.’

Then I saw the soldier with the cropped hair and big jaw. He looked relaxed, and his arms were folded over his chest. I felt sick inside.

Then Luca appeared, and we hardly recognised him. But it was him, all right. His hair had grown, and it was combed neatly across his head, and he was wearing a dark blue suit with a yellow shirt. But even at this distance, and with the wavering image on the TV, we knew him. It seemed that he wasn’t a witness, although he had witnessed things. He told the court he’d lost his family and his farm, otherwise he would have left the country before things got so bad. Then he joined up, and one day his unit was sent to a field, and told to wait. After a while, a group of civilians were led out of a farm house. When he saw them, he knew what was going to happen, because the civilians were thin, many in rags, and they were blindfold. Some of them were being carried or dragged along, he thought they were unconscious. He made an objection, he said, but the commander said he would be shot like the rest if he did not obey. So he took up his Kalashnikov, and did what he was told to do. Yes, he regretted it. He would never forget that day, it had changed his life, he was a different man now.

Later we heard that he’d been given six years, reduced to two on appeal, on account of duress. Two years is not much.

Today we call Luca The Sweeper. He works in the square with the bronze monument to our famous poet, Ivan Gundelic, standing on a high pedestal decorated with scenes from his great poem, ‘Osman’. The north side of the pedestal shows King Vladislav on horseback, victor over the Turks. I like to sit there in the square on a sunny morning, and take a coffee, and watch the market stall-holders hold up their fruit and shout out their prices. Then, if I stay long enough, until about noon, when the market stalls are cleared, I will see Luca. He has oilskins on, and big yellow rubber boots and gloves. He screws a fire hose onto the hydrant in the square, turns the handle, and sweeps away the crushed fruit and vegetables with gush after gush of fresh water. The tomatoes make the water red, so it looks like thin blood. Sometimes he lets the stream wash right up to the plinth of the Gundulić, where the tourists sit and rest their feet. He lets the water sweep over the hot white flagstones and just touch their toes, forcing them to jump up and walk away. He pretends he does not see them, he carries on washing the stones of the square with his hose until they gleam white in the bright midday light.

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One Response to World Prose Portfolio #7: Dennis Walder

  1. Darling January 9, 2012 at 4:26 pm #

    Oh my.  This is so powerful.

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