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Words Without Borders is an inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winner!
from the January 2016 issue

Sunset in August

They usually went out at sunset, as the sun and reflections were losing their power of revelation, so they walked along the meadow more confidently and breathed in the air saturated with floral scents. That year the sunsets were blood-red; each evening the sun died from its wounds and that death, which repeated itself from one evening to the next, was probably the most beautiful sight they had seen in their colorless lives. The grass lawn stretched for miles, only here and there held down with a haystack like a weight that kept it from flying into the sky under a gust of wind. It was the time when bugs went to sleep, the air became still and negotiable, like roads before night. They walked for a long time and for a great distance, circling on their way each stack seen from the porch, slowly, silently, as if performing some task important for the survival of the household.

I never ventured after them, but I watched them from the porch as they shrank and grew against the bright-red backdrop.

The four of us ate dinner in silence. Jaro would occasionally say something about a neighbor’s calf he had delivered or a stray dog whose wounded paw he had bandaged. They ate as if speech had never crossed their lips, gazing with the same expressionless face into their plates whether they contained broth or a piece of meat. Then they would mumble a thank you and go back down there, and Jaro would lock the door behind them.

In the morning we were more careful about getting up, putting on our clothes, brushing our teeth. Jaro had given them each one old shirt and a pair of trousers. They took them without a word, looking neither at the clothes nor us. From their bowed heads I was sure that they would not know what to steal even if they wanted to. I washed their clothes on weekends together with the rest of the laundry. The summer progressed slowly, and the month of August dragged on like an old dusty truck. It was the longest month of the year, a period of one hundred thousand days. After our house, the road did not lead anywhere and passers by were rare, but I did not put their clothes out to dry in front of the house.

When they knocked at our door one month ago, it was pitch dark. Jaro got up from the bed, drowsy, and, swearing, grabbed an oak bat that was kept behind the door. Under the porch light, he saw two thin and dirty men.

They were travelers and were looking for accommodation for the night. They would leave early in the morning.

How did they get here? The closest town was seven miles from here.

They got lost.

Jaro looked at them askance. They were not carrying anything.

Peering from behind Jaro’s back, I said they could sleep in the cellar on the pallet if that did not offend them. Jaro turned to me, surprised. They just nodded. He silently showed them the way, and when they lay down, he quietly locked the cellar door. For a moment he stood in front of them frozen, then approached me and stared furiously at me with eyes that bulged beneath bushy eyebrows. I took a step back. After a few seconds he turned and went back to bed. We fell asleep each on our own side.

The next day they asked if they could stay another day. The countryside was beautiful, and they would like to get some rest from work. Jaro was silent. They would pay us for the accommodation. Those shaved heads, faces that had felt hard wind, and worn out, clumsily matched clothes refuted everything they said. Another day became two days, and two days became a week.

 

When Jaro and I got married sixteen years ago, we were practically kids, newly-graduated veterinarians who wanted to save all the animals in the world with the help of endless energy and will. Whatever idea came to our minds back then, it seemed perfectly authentic and justified. So when the idea of visiting India occurred, we went for it. We had heard and read about the miserable conditions of the country, about its illnesses, famine, high unemployment rate, and the shortage of housing. We had also heard about its tea gardens, green, rising over hills, about coral atolls by the southwest coast, about the Indo-Gangetic Plain where rice and wheat spread out to infinity, about great rains carried by monsoons and native monkeys and frogs. We planned to take some money we had earned as interns, hop into Jaro’s twenty-year-old Dyane and take off across Budapest, Bucharest, Veliko Tarnovo, and Ankara to Isfahan in Iran and Hyderabad in Pakistan, and then to Bombay. We expected to feel the spirit of life over there, become one with nature and sense our real work. We did not know whether we would find a job or where we would stay, but we hoped that with the abundance of Indian fauna we would not only cure pets, but also investigate the lives of antelopes, Bengal foxes, and gray langurs. We made tons of preparations. We got hold of the maps of Indian states, regions, and cities, and marked them with stationsplaces to sleep, purchase gas, and get fresh water. We got vaccinations against malaria, diphtheria, and typhus. Despite our parents’ objections, we took off one foggy morning toward the border with Hungary. Two days later, the Dyane drew her last breath on some road just past Budapest, amid yellow fields. It was probably her biggest adventure. We came back to Zagreb abashed and lay low for a few months, pretending to look for a job. Then, suddenly, we again affronted our parents with a bold plan: to open a private veterinary clinic. It was 1990, the beginnings of private ownership in Croatia. The city saw an increase in private clinics for treating people, but a veterinary clinic was something unheard of and bold. Through an advertisement we found a place on Selska Street and used the money we had borrowed from our parents to set up a biochemical laboratory, an operation room, an X-ray machine, a sterilizer, and a waiting room with a little shop for selling animal food and medicines. We spread the word and our friends helped. Jaro and I got down to business. We found clients among acquaintances, distributed leaflets, and worked nights. In the beginning we had quite a few patients, there were frogs, terriers, Labradors, Siamese and ordinary cats, Angora rabbits, and a cockatoo. But time was not on our side and animals in Croatia did not get ill so often. Less than a year passed before we had to close down the clinic because we could not afford the rent.

A few more months went by and Jaro got a job in a state-owned veterinary clinic in Zlatar, a small town fifty miles from Zagreb. “You’ll get a job there too. People don’t apply for jobs there because everybody wants to work in Zagreb. Come on, when we earn enough, we’ll open our own clinic again.” Although it was not a dream destination, Zlatar was nice. As if it were touched by something transcendental so as to be constantly fresh.

“We’ll be OK,” Jaro said. “The house is practically new, the furniture is new, and the owner says he’ll sell it to us cheap.” The house was really beautiful, with spacious bedrooms on the second floor and the kitchen on the first. I’ll start my life here, I said to myself. Nature spread all around, the green, white, and yellow colors mingled on the ground and in the trees. The fields went so far that it seemed you could go around the world traveling them and come back at the other side.

I soon acquainted myself with Zlatar shops, hairdressers, the market, and clerks. The groceries were cheaper than in Zagreb and people were kinder. Jaro worked during the day and returned in the evening, spent. I made friends with neighbors at the beginning of the road where we lived. The wife, Jana, started coming over for a cup of coffee, bringing along delicious homemade cheese. There was no excitement, but there was some appeal in the calm that enveloped the days. The stress that had accompanied our early enterprises was gone.

After a while, I realized I would not find a job in my field. I told myself it was not important anymore. The landscape, which changed its colors methodically throughout the year, became interesting enough for the time being.

 

Now I spent mornings watching them come out for breakfast silently and wait to be served fried eggs and bacon. They never looked around or asked questions, the house they slept in did not interest them. Their rough-skinned hands rarely showed upon the table before the food arrived. Their faces were expressionless, without any hint that underneath the coarse features there might be emotions; as if they wanted to forget they were human. Jaro would finish first, move to the corner, and observe them from there. They sat, not looking up. When they were done eating, they would return to the cellar the same way they had appeared -without a word. Jaro would then go to work. The afternoons went by like morning, hour after hour, pressed by nauseating silence. Washing the floor, I would kneel in front of the cellar door and listen attentively. But no sound came from down there.

Then one afternoon Jaro returned from work with a newspaper whose cover blared “Two Lepoglava Jail Fugitives Still on the Loose. Jaro did not even look at me, he just left it on the chest of drawers where it would constantly be in sight. Throughout the day, we both passed by it without a word and each time our gaze stumbled upon the black letters. Finally, I took the paper, folded it, and put it on the shelf above the chest. Jaro took it, spread the front page, and returned it to the top of the chest. I reached for it to put it back on the shelf, but Jaro cut me off.

“I want it seen!”

“I’ve had enough of seeing it. Besides, they’ll be coming for dinner any second.”

“Exactly, let them see,” he shouted.

“See what? Are you mad?!”

“I want them to know!” he yelled.

Soon enough they climbed up the stairs carefully and, without a word, took their places at the table. I put bowls in front of them and poured them bean soup. We all ate in silence. After the third mouthful, the one facing the chest saw the newspaper. For a moment his eyes rested on it, then dropped to his plate and, after a mouthful, went up to our faces. It was a calm, seemingly unperturbed look. Jaro’s large shirt hung on his bony shoulders. Jaro returned the look. He painstakingly chewed every piece of the sausage. The spoons rose and fell evenly. The big hand on the wall clock struggled to go forward. Swallowing the last mouthful, the one in Jaro’s shirt looked at us again and thanked us for a delicious dinner.

Stories about the police combing nearby areas, thickets, and forests began to circulate. They searched the brook banks and knocked on several doors. People said the fugitives could not have gone far because there would have been a report of a stolen car. The town bars became sites of speculating about their hiding place. Many wondered why police dogs had not found them already. Jaro visited the town less and less, he avoided neighbors and left our house only when friends explicitly asked for help with animals.

 When he got a call from Šimun from Donji Breg, whose mare was about to foal, Jaro sullenly sat at the table and scratched at the black cigarette burn on the tablecloth.

“Aren’t you going?” I asked.

“Mind your own business,” he snapped.

“It could die.”

“You think I’m doing something wrong?” he looked at me spitefully.

I left the room and sat down on the porch. The porch was the boundary of my world. Although nature and its vigor amazed me, I had stopped going to the forest for walks. I had nothing to see around the house anymore. The sun was probing the earth; on the crimson background, in the distance, I saw two silhouettes slowly walking through the grass, as if checking that the flowers were properly tucked into the grass on that vast space populated with mice and grasshoppers. The sky was again aflush with the blood of the day. The sun committed a new crime with each sunset.

Another week passed. The police searched the surrounding forests and slowly narrowed the circle. They announced an imminent discovery of the fugitives. Once they almost caught them when Kata from Kardaševec called them in the middle of the night because she heard some shuffling outside her house. Unfortunately, they arrived too late and found only rabbit turds in the kitchen.

That evening the table showcased a roast chicken and loads of potatoes. Jaro was telling us about Šimun’s foal he had brought forth, white with a black spot on its snout. The two of them ate, listening. The story was interrupted by the doorbell. Jaro and I looked at each other and then at them. They just kept eating quietly. Jaro slowly got up and went to the door.

Later stories said that Sergeant Slavek could not believe his own eyes seeing the two of them relaxed, feasting in our home. They said the police stood at the door at least a minute and stared at the scene and that Jaro invited them to join the dinner since it was the biggest chicken from our coop. I will say only that they did not put up any resistance, they let themselves be handcuffed and taken to the police car. As they were walking out, one of them gave me a look that summed up all the meaning of a hopeless life pressed between four walls.

"Suton u kolovozu" © Ivana Rogar. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Ivana Rogar. All rights reserved.

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