Serbians are a deeply religious people devoted to their Christian orthodoxy, but this devout nature is also deeply steeped in superstition which dates back to pre-Christian paganism and a culture of mythology, local folklore and superstition, linked together with customs and an oral storytelling tradition. Some of these traditions still live on today and have become incorporated into daily rituals of this country of believers.
Made curious by the various superstitions, rituals and non-religious beliefs practiced by locals, we decided to explore this realm further, and look into our metaphorical crystal ball in an attempt to perceive what local mystics, seers, fortune tellers and psychics claim to see.
Superstition and belief in the unknown, the supernatural, and the seemingly irrational, goes deep into the national psyche.When swine flu hit Serbia last year, instead of lining up like other people world over for inoculations, locals instead put their health and faith in natural remedies and the sale of garlic rose drastically, raising prices of the powerful bulb.
Maybe this is also why, before the wars of the 1990s, thousands of Belgraders tuned-in to to watch and take heed from an eccentric cross-dressing transvestite and self proclaimed prophet on national television. She was known as the mysterious Kleopatra, and became famous predicting the future of anyone who would call, covering issues from marriage and problems of finding a mate, to the possible times, places and dates of NATO bombings during the conflict in Kosovo.
In many ways, things are no different now. An even more famous soothsayer, ‘Milan Tarot’ regularly appears on national TV shows and has a horde of fanatic followers who hang on his every word. He takes calls, and only answers if the caller repeats the word ‘Tarot’ several times when greeting him. Cheeky and slightly macabre, his advice is impulsive, terse, and almost always ironic and he hangs up on callers after giving his ‘reading’ and the advice he gleans from magical tarot cards he scuffs around a velvet clad table.
He will often offer up the names of famous people the caller might not know, but savvy TV viewers might. A woman asks “Who will my daughter marry? He answers: “She will travel to Istanbul, meet a guy named ‘Cristiano Ronaldo’ and be happily wed”. Now any football fan will get the cruel joke, but the middle-aged mother calling from Krusevac might just be in the dark about being the but of his joke.
Other ridiculous advice he has given callers wanting to get rid of curses is to run around their houses three times and then urinate on the yard facing north. Or to break eggs on their head while whistling. He has become such an icon of the dramatic, that a local film production company ‘Red Productions’ made a documentary on the fellow called ‘Tarot Srbija’. The film premiered last week at the Beldocs film festival in Belgrade to positive reviews. The film follows ‘Milan Tarot’ – real name Milan Radonjic – around the country, as he attempts to heal the locals and solve their numerous and sometimes unbelievable problems. The cult following throw money at him, as he parades around in the guise of his alter ego as a way to calm, reassure and console rural populations who are his most ardent viewers.
The film advances a theory that local people, still unsure about their future, cling to superstitions to feel reassured about change, to take control of their destinies and to get a handle on the uncertainty that has been a large part of their recent lives.
What is tarot? A simple example would be a set of 22 playing cards which have allegorical images representing various objects, animals, forms or influences that affect and represent human life and conditions. Its most popular use is for divination and fortune-telling. To think of it as a card game is to be greatly mistaken. The tradition of Tarot has endured many centuries and has passed through many cultures and interpretations. Though the origin of tarot is cloudy, the cards were first documented in Italy in the fifteenth century as a popular card game among the wealthy. It was later in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that the cards were used by a number of influential ‘scholars’ of the occult and magical arts.
They connected images on the tarot cards to Egyptian figures, hermetic philosophy, the kabbalah, freemasonry, alchemy, and other mystical and secret systems. This continued into the twentieth century, until tarot and tarot readings were incorporated into the practices of popular culture.
At the ‘Tarot Skola’ in Belgrade, the head teacher, Snezana Loncina, disagrees with the popular approach. In Serbian, she explained that “Tarot and Runes are not just for telling the future that is the lowest form of its function. They are tools for self-actualisation and realisation, and to connect the conscious mind to the higher powers of the universe”.
The General Manager of the school, Sava Kovacevic, agrees that Tarot should be used more as a transformational tool and not for exploiting the gullible and innocent for the sake of cashing in. “People are in spiritual chaos and tarot is a method and means to a goal, which is self-discovery and actualisation, Money is not the goal,” he assured us.
Snezana explained that a reading should be based on the belief that the cards can be used to gain insight into the current and possible future situations of the person being read. She believes the cards help her commune with the Divine. Snezana says that her approach differs greatly from the ranting and raving of most tarot readers seen on television or online.
Serbia has a wonderful range of superstitions that locals observe. Especially when it comes to family, Serbs have a whole set of unwritten rules they follow to stave off the infamous ‘evil eye’ and protect their loved ones. There are no ‘baby showers’ in Serbia. Etiquette demands that one should never buy a baby gifts until it has been born. And when it is, make sure to call the newborn baby ugly. If you say anything good, the infant will be vulnerable to the evil eye.
Women that want to get married should never sit at the corner of the table otherwise they will remain single. Women who also want babies should beware of the draught: the Serbian word for it is ‘Promaja’. And if the promaja doesn’t get you, exposing the stomach or backside to this cold air will inevitably lead to frozen ovaries and infertility. The same goes for female feet and the obsession with slippers – in fact it’s a surprise any children are born in Serbia.
Going on a trip? Make sure that nobody washes your clothes whilst you are away or you might never come back. If someone visits you and you don’t want them to come again, just clean the floor immediately after they leave. And the broom you just used, place it in the corner where it can be seen, as it brings good luck and keeps bad spirits away. But never let somebody sweep that broom in your direction or you will never find a spouse. Still keeping up?
So now that you’re thoroughly wrapped up, you’ve insulted your friend’s children and there’s a pile of dirty washing next to kitchen broom you’re covered, right?
Well, that all depends on the omens because if your nose itches you’ll either be getting into a fight or drinking soon. And heaven forbid that your right hand should itch, for you’re going to lose money. Of course, if your left hand is itching in the centre of the palm, you’re going to get money soon or meet someone new.
Your spoon falls to the floor. That’s fortunate because the next person to enter the room will be a sweet, good woman. If it’s a fork it will be an angry one, and if it’s a knife, it indicates a man’s arrival. If you’ve forgotten something at home, don’t go back! It’s very bad luck, especially before a long journey. If you really need to go back, make sure to look in a mirror before you leave the house again to reverse the luck. If someone sneezes while you’re speaking, you’re likely to hear “Istina, Istina” (True, True). This omen is proof that you’re speaking the truth. Blame it all on Serbian logic.
Even Ana Ivanovic, famous Serbian Women’s Tennis Player apparently can’t resist. She won’t step on tennis court lines before a match.We could go on and on, but suffice to say that Serbia and Serbian’s have attached a portent, an omen or a folsky saying for almost every aspect of daily life.
Some Well-known Serbian Supersititions:
Hiccups are caused by people talking about you.
If you whistle while in someone’s house (or your own), you will attract mice and rats.
If you put on a t-shirt inside-out unwittingly, it means that someone is missing you.
If you put on underwear inside-out by mistake, you’ll be followed by good luck.
A loaf of bread must never be upside down, it brings misfortune.
Leaving a bag or purse on the floor will cause you to lose money.
Sitting at a corner-seat at of a table means you’ll remain single forever.
Having long fingers means you’ll probably become a thief or that you’ll steal something.
Having a v-shaped hairline on your forehead means you’ll be a widow (widow’s peak)
If you bite your tongue or cheek by accident, your granny is planning to bake for you.
Having your right palm itch means you will spend money soon, while having your left palm itch means you’ll be getting money soon
Always look into someone’s eyes when clinking glasses, failure will result in 7 disasterous years in the bedroom.
Never say “Ziveli” (Cheers) with something that isn’t alcohol, i.e. water.
Always take a sip from the glass after toasting before putting the glass back on the table.
(There are two pieces by Obreht you might like. “The Blue Djinn,” a short story is in The New Yorker 20 under 40 fiction August 2, 2010, issue, the other in Harpers Magazine. Unfortunately I can print neither on our Web site or in an email. They are both in PDF form and not at all amenable to copying and pasting.
The only way to to read either if you don’t have a subscription is in the library. iIf you have a subscription but don’t have the magazine any more, you can sign on to the magazine’s site.
“Twilight of the Vampires, Hunting the Real Life Undead,” is the title of the article speaks about in the interview above. It t is in the November 10, 2010 issue of Harpers. We thought it was personal, entertaining and informative. You can read the first paragraph on line at the Harpers Web site even if you don’t subscribe.If you know someone who has a subscription, they can print it out. I thought it was an excellent essay and said a great deal about vampire stories in the Balkans as well as the history and presence of superstition in the culture.
The following two stories are by Tea Obreht. “The Laugh” was in The Atlantic , Sentry in The Guardian.They are not at all for the faint of heart so if violence bothers you, don’t read them. Both are dark and have frightening and threatening animals important to the action. The Tiger’s Wife has dark places but there are lovely places too. So read these if you’d like but be forewarned. HLS)
By TÉA OBREHT
THEY WERE TALKING about the funeral when the lights went out. They had been sitting on the porch for almost two hours, and Neal, still on his first gin-and-tonic, was telling Roland about the priest he had found in Longido to do the services. He was telling Roland about how the priest, Father Abasi, had once been watering the garden in shorts and clogs when a man came by from the village and asked to see his boss, and how Father Abasi said “I’ll go get him,” and turned off the hose and went inside and changed into his cassock and came back out and then went to bury the man’s daughter.
Neal was talking, and Roland had his hat on his knees and was pouring himself another gin. They had brought Femi’s coffin back from Longido around noon, and Roland had been drinking steadily since then, except for the 20 minutes before dinner when he had gone upstairs to bottle-feed Nyah and put her to bed.
“I think Femi would have liked this priest,” Neal was saying. “I think she would have tolerated him.” Then the porch went dark.
Neal needed a moment to realize what had happened. He was already turning in his seat to call for Mrs. Halima, the housekeeper, to tell her she’d turned the porch lights off by mistake, when he realized that he couldn’t see the house behind him, couldn’t see the tourist bungalows or the gate lamps. The generator, he realized. The generator had blown in the heat. A bright half-moon clung to the side of the main house like something unfinished, and Neal could see the fever trees that lined the drive, thick with roosting vultures, bald-headed and silent, and the rolling tilt of the hills that clustered on the horizon and then dropped off into Ngorongoro.
The darkness, the sudden crippling of his senses, brought back his awareness of the wildebeest. They had been on the move since last week, and now the smell of them on the dry wind made the air rancid and dense. He could hear them on the plain beyond the lodge gate, hundreds of stragglers from the main herd spread out on the veld, swarming the dirt trail that led down to the water hole. The light, he realized, had given him the illusion of distance, and now that it was gone the night felt crowded with soft grunts, the insistent, rubber-soled scraping of their voices. Last night, lions had brought down a bull by the water, and the screaming before the windpipes gave way had been extraordinary. In the morning, Neal had found the red domes of the rib cage swarming with vultures. In large part this was why he had relocated his tourists. He was glad, more than ever, that he had.
Roland hadn’t moved at all, but now Neal heard him say, “Where’s the dog?”
“Upstairs,” Neal said. “With the baby.”
“I sent him home,” Neal said. “We don’t have any tourists to guard.” He heard Roland lower his feet from the porch railing and push the chair back. “Let’s wait for the generator,” Neal said. “Let’s wait and see what it does.”
Roland was leaning forward in his chair. Neal could hear him drinking the gin, the ice in the glass clinking. Neal’s eyes were adjusting now, and the moon seemed brighter. He was beginning to make out the slope of the trail leading down from the lodge, the grass shuddering over the hills, the distant glassy surface of the water hole. Roland groped for the end table and put the glass down. Neal heard shuffling footsteps, and then Mrs. Halima came out onto the porch, carrying a large square candle. She put it on the table, picked up Roland’s empty glass, then reached for the gin bottle beside the chair. She was a thin Swahili woman with a serious face, a widow. She had been working for the previous owners of Harper’s Lodge when Neal bought the place three years ago, and the first day he met her, she’d said to him: “Breakfast is at seven, and I told the staff they’ll be turning the sheets down same as they always have.” He’d realized then she wasn’t going anywhere.
He was more grateful for her than ever now. Mrs. Halima had carried out all the preparations for Femi’s wake herself. All morning he had allowed himself to be mesmerized by the methodical necessity of what she was doing, the way she boxed up the tinsel and ribbons that had been up around the fireplace, the velvet mistletoe above the door. She found some comfort in taking last week’s celebration out of the house, some quiet reverie he could not find for himself. He had sat in the living room, watching her prepare the table for the casket, watching her line up candles on the mantelpiece, trying to absorb some of that stoicism until it was time for him to go and pick up the coffin. She had shown emotion only once, briefly, when he had been halfway out the door. She had grabbed his sleeve and said: “You tell Mr. Roland everything’s ready, you tell him we’ll take good care of him and his little girl.” He had promised to, and then she’d looked at him with something he couldn’t name in her eyes and said, “Do you think it will be terrible—what’s in that coffin?” He hadn’t been able to answer.
But now, on the porch, in the darkness, she was back to her old self. “Nyah’s still asleep,” Mrs. Halima said. “Egg sandwiches are in the kitchen.” She stood there, behind them, for a few minutes, while the sounds beyond the gate rolled up the slope and across the porch: a zebra’s yelp, the wings of some large bird passing by, the sandpaper hum of the cicadas in the long grass. Mrs. Halima said, “I think the electricity is out down in Longido, too.”
“We may be the only ones,” Neal said. “Our generator may be out. This heat is too much, even for January.”
“I think I’ll go down and check on it anyway,” Roland said.
Neal said, “Give it a few more minutes, it’ll come back on. This has happened before, it’ll come back on.” He didn’t want to mention that the last time they’d had a power failure, it had been the fault of some idiot teenagers from San Diego who had wandered out in the middle of the night and found their way into the generator shed with the brilliant plan of ruining the night for their parents back at the lodge. Neal remembered how they’d looked, those teenagers, after spending the night in the generator shed, afraid to cross back in the dark, their faces red with tears, when he’d driven out in the Jeep to find them. And Femi—Femi had a place in that memory. She had come in from Vibanda to look them over, to check for injuries, to give them sedatives. He remembered her bedside manner, the way she had smiled at them to make them believe she sympathized, when, in fact, she was furious. Then Neal remembered the hot-air balloon, felt the blood rush to his face, and he rubbed his forehead with his knuckles. “I can’t see anything with this on,” he said, and blew out the candle. Some melted ice water was in his glass, and he drank it down.
“I’m going,” Roland said, and stood up.
“Mr. Roland, I don’t think you should,” Mrs. Halima said. “These last few days have been too much. Just stay here.”
“Don’t worry,” Neal said to her. “We’ll take the Jeep.”
“I’m walking,” Roland said.
Neal looked at the bald outline of Roland’s head. “We should drive,” Neal said, after a minute.
“I’m going to walk.”
“Mr. Roland,” Mrs. Halima said, “stay here.”
But Neal could already hear Roland’s footsteps moving to the back of the porch, the sound of Roland picking up his rifle, the sliding sound of the strap going over his shoulder. Neal felt his way over to the porch bench and opened the seat. He rummaged around inside until he found two flashlights. He heard Roland go down the porch steps. “Don’t worry,” Neal said to Mrs. Halima. “Just stay inside. We’ll only be a minute.” At the bottom of the stairs, Roland was holding a rifle out to Neal.
The generator stood at the water’s edge, in a shed where the previous lodge owners had kept their boat during the rainy season, when the water hole, usually a turbid, red-brown dent in the plain, filled up and spilled leisurely into a small stream that fed the savanna. The shed lay almost a half-mile down the slope of the lawn, past the gate, in a long thicket of umbrella thorns, where the trail tapered out around the water hole.
Roland walked ahead, the rifle on his shoulder, and Neal followed him with a flashlight. They went down the trail along the twisting avenue of acacias, past the fire pit where the evening buffet was normally held, past the now-deserted croquet lawn. Neal was sweating. A film of moist salt gathered above his mouth, and he licked it off every few seconds. But it appeared and reappeared, and eventually he just gave up and let it run down his face. Femi would not approve of this, he thought, she would never have let the two of them come out in the dark without a vehicle, not with the herd roaming about just outside. Roland was drunk. He was being careless. But Roland, Neal thought, had the right to do what he wanted—just as he had the right to have the wake at Neal’s lodge, even though that meant losing a week’s worth of profits. Because the thought of Roland sitting over the casket alone the night before the funeral—rocking Nyah to sleep, and then, with the lights dimmed and the mounted heads in the parlor for company, sitting up with his wife’s coffin until he finally gave in and opened the lid to look inside—made Neal sick. It made him sick, and made him think of Femi in the hot-air balloon before she died, and he walked behind Roland wiping the sweat off his forehead.
“Slow down,” he said to Roland, but Roland said nothing. Halfway down the trail, still hoping that the lights would come back on, Neal stopped and looked back at the lodge, the moon crawling up the dim gables of the main house, the squat bungalows behind it. He could see a dim flicker of something—a candle—and he thought, Good, she’s gone upstairs to be with the baby. But the more he looked, the more he realized that the light was coming from the wrong place.
“Wait,” he said to Roland. “Where’s that candle lit?”
He heard Roland’s footsteps stop in the darkness ahead of him, and then Roland came back. He was breathing hard, and he smelled faintly of gin and sweat. Neal heard him take off his hat and rub his head.
“I think she’s still on the porch,” Neal said.
Roland was rummaging in his pockets. “She’s gone inside, she’s probably in the kitchen.” In a momentary flash of fire, he saw Roland’s face, and then the bright red tip of a cigarette.
“I’m telling you, she’s still outside,” Neal said. Bats were in the glade behind him, and he could hear the strange, persistent sound of their flight. He thought of the first time he had met Femi, the first time Roland had introduced Neal to her in the neon heat of her family convenience store at Vibanda. She had closed up shop, and the three of them had sat on plastic chairs in the dirt yard outside, sipping sweet tea, chickens scratching around at their feet, blue rain clouds filling the horizon in the east, until the sun dipped and bats swarmed out of the scrubland trees, rising like fog.
His shirt was soaked with sweat, and he shifted around in it. He suddenly realized that Roland was looking at him. The light from the cigarette tip was spilling out over the creases under Roland’s eyes, the big bridge of Roland’s nose. Roland looked haggard, more haggard than he had looked after he came back from volunteering at that malaria hospital in Zimbabwe, where he had first met Femi.
“I don’t like this,” Neal said.
“I don’t either,” Roland said. Then he turned around and kept walking, out from under the acacias and toward the gate.
Neal stood there for a few moments, while Roland’s footsteps receded away and away, the trill of the cicadas following him in waves of silence and sound. The widening darkness tugged at Neal’s gut. He put his flashlight between his teeth and brought up the rifle from where it rested against his thigh. He lifted the bolt pin, opened the chamber, and looked inside. The chamber was empty.
“Roland!” he said. “This gun’s not loaded, we have to go back.”
But Roland said nothing, so Neal shouldered the gun and pressed on after him.
SINCE FEMI’S DEATH, Neal had found himself thinking about her more often than usual, but most often in the long moments before sleep. The nights were quiet then, and he would find himself in a kind of waking dream, subdued by the mosquito net draped above him, the rhythm of the savanna sounds and the fan, and the dull thumping of Baviaan’s tail on the rug under the bed.
He would think about her as she was at the Christmas party. He would think about that because he tried hard not to think about anything else, about how his memories seemed stupid, pointless, wasted, because he had not known that they would be memories. He thought about the white dress she had worn and the stew she had brought from home, about how she had sat on the couch with Roland’s arm around her, glowing with enjoyment and wine, laughing with Mrs. Halima in Swahili. He thought about how he’d gotten drunk and drifted off only to wake up hours later, the house still, the lodge staff gone, and Femi awake and smiling at him from where she and Roland had fallen asleep on the rug in front of the fire. He thought about that: he and Femi, the only ones awake, even the tourists in the lodge bungalows sound asleep; and he thought about how they had stolen away into the kitchen and made cucumber sandwiches together.
Or he would think about other things, about when he went to visit her for the first time at the convenience store at Vibanda—but in those memories everything was vivid, except for Femi herself. He could remember the number of meat cans he dropped off, the price of the gas, the feel of the paper bills in his hand. The paraffin stove in the corner where she made coffee. How he’d realized she was probably just being polite, but how he had sat down anyway on the mattress in her one-room bungalow behind the store. How Femi had talked about the weather and the crops and the low number of kudu out on the plains, and how he had looked around, feeling sheepish. He remembered how Femi had told him not to worry, that he had done a great job fixing up that little lodge, that the money would come soon enough. He remembered the spice rack and the steel mini-fridge, the chest of drawers, the desk where several binders were neatly stacked against the rear wall of the hut. Nyah, much smaller then, dozing in her crib by the bed. The fact that Roland wasn’t there.
He remembered that the bed was small but clean, and he remembered thinking about Femi lying there with Roland, even while she was handing Neal a plate of fruit and making fun of him for his inability to cope with what she called “real coffee.” He remembered wondering, while she talked about the tourists who had stopped by on their way to Kilimanjaro, what she had been like before she’d met Roland.
He would remember all these things, and then he would begin to drift. He tried not to, but he found himself doing it anyway, drifting into sleep and watching Femi walk home across the plain in the yellow hush of twilight, dust-filtered air rising slowly, and his eyes on her from some place low to the ground. He would watch her for what seemed like a long time, and then, slowly, without even realizing it, move closer and closer to her, until he started awake, sweating, almost on top of her, flush against the hem of her skirt, and then he would sit up and rub his face until the blood came back to it, the hum of the fan above him useless and far away, Baviaan’s tail on the floor steady and uninterrupted. He wondered, in those moments, whether Roland ever had the same dream, and if he did, whether he got up to check on Nyah, asleep in her crib, padded with pillows on either side.
For hours after those dreams, while he made breakfast or did paperwork, going over bookings in the study overlooking the yard, Neal would think of Roland: Roland on the veld when he got the call, Roland in the Jeep on the way to the police station. He had known Roland for years. He had seen Roland stand his ground and fire, systematically and without flinching, into a charging male hippo. He had seen Roland help a mother whose baby had been half-eaten by a rogue baboon bury her child. But the image of him arriving at the coroner’s office, hat in his fist, refusing to take Nyah from Mrs. Halima, would stay with Neal forever.
BY THE TIME Neal reached the gate, Roland had already opened it and was walking into the herd. Neal brought up the flashlight, which blazed a trail through the grass, catching eye-shine from the wildebeest. They turned away from it, opening and closing around him. He could see the dim outline of Roland’s back, his legs lost somewhere in the grass. The air was thick and humid, moist with the privacy of savanna darkness, the smells of birth and death and shit. Neal was running now, and all around him the herd was making its low, incessant calls, the night as resonant as the inside of a shell.
“Roland, stop!” Neal shouted. “Don’t be an idiot—slow down.”
He swung the light back and forth into the confused, black faces of the wildebeest. He couldn’t see Roland anymore, but he had a strange and terrible sense that the two of them had walked into some infinite kind of closed space, and that out here, with the night on them, with Roland drunk and half-crazy, they could no longer rely on even themselves. And Femi’s face, the last time he had seen it—perhaps the last time anyone had seen it—in the hot-air balloon, her eyes wide and soft. The heat, the closeness of the herd, was suddenly overwhelming. He stopped and put a hand to his ribs in the dark and just stood there, the useless weight of the rifle on his shoulder and the sound of Roland’s labored breaths filling the air to his right.
He could smell something dead close by, or maybe far away. He raised his flashlight again. He could see the first of the umbrella thorn trees that made up the little grove where the shed stood, opening up some 20 yards ahead.
“My gun is empty,” he said to the darkness.
“Mine’s not,” Roland said.
Neal’s scalp felt strange. “It’s all right,” he said. “The shed’s only a little way. We’ll make it back with just one.”
“I know,” Roland said.
Neal let the silence stretch between them. Then he said, “I’m sorry.” He realized a moment later that he shouldn’t have said it, so he said: “Don’t—don’t do that anymore, please. Don’t run off like that. I don’t know what you were thinking. It’s so dark, and we only have one gun. Please.”
“My wife is dead,” Roland said.
“I know,” Neal said. “I’m sorry.” Then he said, “But you still have Nyah.” Roland didn’t say anything, so Neal said, “You have to tell Nyah about her. You loved her very much, everyone loved her.”
“I know,” Roland said. Neal rubbed his hand over his mouth.
“We have to go forward or back,” Neal said. “We shouldn’t just stand around here.”
“With your gun empty,” Roland said, in what sounded like agreement.
“To the house?”
“To the generator.”
“I don’t know,” Neal said. “I think we should go home.”
Silence, then chortling from the zebras somewhere on the endless plain. Roland said, “I need a minute.” And he heard Roland crouch down in the grass. Neal stood by dumbly, with his hand in his pocket, waiting for the thump of the rifle butt hitting the dirt. It didn’t come.
“Are you throwing up?”
“What are you doing?” Neal said.
No answer. Neal fumbled for his flashlight. He turned it on again and found Roland with it. Roland was crouching in the trampled dirt of the trail, his bald head clenched in his hands like some kind of buffed fruit. The rifle lay across his knees. He looked up at Neal, and Neal turned the flashlight off.
“I’d want you to take Nyah,” Roland said suddenly, “if anything happened.”
“Don’t say that,” Neal said. He felt a new wave of heat on his face, and he put his fist up to his forehead and pressed it there.
“I keep thinking,” Roland said. Neal heard him thrum his fingers on the rifle butt. “I keep thinking about that coffin.” The sound of him dusting the hat off, putting it back on his head again. “It’s light.” Standing up. “The coffin—don’t you think it’s light?”
Neal said, “I don’t know.” He didn’t want to think about it.
“I keep thinking maybe I should have had her cremated,” Roland said. “Maybe she would have liked that.”
“Maybe,” Neal said. He wanted to say something comforting, something generous, something that would have meaning. But he couldn’t think of anything to say.
Suddenly Roland said: “Do you hear that?”
“No,” Neal said.
A warthog family was rooting around in the dirt somewhere nearby, snorting softly—the sound, like everything else in the bush, muted by a coarse layer of dust. Wildebeest grunts. Somewhere far behind them, a heron was calling from the riverbank, a strange, echoing cry that made Neal feel exposed.
“I don’t hear anything,” Neal said.
Roland was still listening, so Neal listened too.
The cicadas went quiet, and then came back in again, louder than ever, hissing like a current through the grass. He heard the muffled clamor of the herd, the indistinct click of hooves in the dirt. Moments later, he heard a low moaning rumble over the hills, a sound like a foghorn.
“Lions?” he said. “They’re miles away.”
He suddenly realized that he had underestimated his own anxiety. He wanted a cigarette, water, something to calm his nerves, anything, because Roland was saying, “No, not that—listen,” and Neal still couldn’t hear what he was being told to listen for.
He closed his eyes and thought of Femi. He listened. Then he heard it, a high-pitched singsong, melancholy, almost human, almost too indistinct.
“What is that?” he said. Again. Low, then rising.
Roland’s voice was quiet. “Hyena.”
“Are you sure?” he said. The cry sounded like something else to him, something closer, like the creak of the porch swing at the house, or the wind, maybe, the wind whining in the branches of the jackalberry trees outside his window. He could feel the sweat gathering on his back, the coarse feel of his shirt where it clung to his skin in wet patches.
Roland’s breathing in the darkness had grown fast and shallow.
“Where’s it coming from?” Neal said.
“I’m not sure,” Roland told him, and started walking back up the trail through the grass. He could hear Roland’s boots on the dirt, and he ran to catch up. They entered the thick of the grove at the bottom of the hill and started up, through the trees, toward the gate. The smell of the wildebeest was sour. At the top of the slope, the house was still dark. He wanted to see candles, he wanted to see that Mrs. Halima had gone back inside. But now he saw nothing, and that empty feeling, the empty feeling of the house and the dark and the long drive winding up the slope, jolted him, and then he heard it—up ahead of them, somewhere close, certain and loud: the laugh.
ONE LATE AFTERNOON, a year after Neal had bought the lodge, while he sat on the wicker swing with a book across his knees, comfortable in the knowledge that his first group of tourists was out on safari somewhere with Roland, he had seen Baviaan stand up, apparently unprovoked, and trot out to the gate, where the dog stood perfectly still for a long time watching the plain mist over. Mrs. Halima had come out with the laundry, and she, too, noticed Baviaan there.
“Kingugwa,” she’d said.
“I’m sorry?” Neal said.
“Kingugwa,” said Mrs. Halima, resettling the laundry basket on her hip. “Hyena.”
Neal remembered taking offense at this. “He’s a bloodhound,” he told her gently.
But she only laughed at him. “No. It means hyena,” she said, and pointed. “He’s standing at the gate to listen. You can’t hear them, but look—they’re calling his name.”
It had taken him a long time to get used to almost everything: strangled lion cubs by the gate at dawn, drowned wildebeest damming the river, baboons in the kitchen stealing dog food and granola, scattering coffee grounds, making off with cans of Pringles and, when they could get their hands on it, toilet paper, which he would afterward pick out of the acacia groves for days.
But he had never gotten used to the hyenas. He hadn’t seen them when he first came to Africa. He had been a photojournalist then, charged with the unhappy task of filming the mating rituals of hippos. He had often thought since that if he had seen hyenas he might not have bought the lodge and moved out here in the first place, not the way he had, anyway, or the way most people did: on a romantic whim, like a fool. He got to know them during the first migration he spent at Longido, when they followed the wildebeest up from Ngorongoro and onto the plain. He remembered mistaking them briefly for wild dogs—he was still picking animals out of the manual he kept in his pocket at the time—but then he had recognized, even at a distance, the stooped haunches and the low-slung head with the mane curving back over the rift between the shoulder blades. Like everyone he had ever known, he had been perfectly happy to believe the myths he’d heard about them. He believed they were cowards until he saw them fight, scavengers until he saw them kill, and after the first few times they cornered him in the Jeep while Roland was out tagging elephants in the bush, he began to take more notice of the local stories about them: their big-eyed curiosity and unnerving persistence, the relative ease with which they let themselves into gated villages and made off with children and young mothers.
What he noticed most was not the eyes or the hunchbacked lope, not even the smell: it was the sound they made, that whining yelp, like a child’s voice rising. It was the laugh that made his stomach turn, and they laughed all the time, every night they were there, as if they knew their laugh made him wonder, made him want to come outside to them in the dark, or, otherwise, put a gun in his mouth. Whenever he heard it he remembered those stories Roland had told him about ancient travelers huddling in their camps while the wailing night rose around them, until they folded to the sound and drifted from the fire, one by one, into the range of the stilling gaze.
He had been thinking about the laugh while he was ignoring the warning signs the month before Femi’s death. Afterward, he blamed it on transportation limits, the postboy, the fact that the newspapers were three or four days old by the time he read them over toast and coffee. But he’d been aware, all along, of the attacks that had started just 90 miles away in Ngorongoro and moved slowly toward them, following the herd east—he had read first about the teenage cowherd who had been found at the bottom of the mountain with most of his abdomen missing, and then about the daladala driver and his companion who had stopped at a watering hole to cool off in the unseasonably hot weather, and finally, about the rhino poachers who had risked arrest to bring one of their own, torn open from the midsection up, into an Arusha hospital—so that, when the call came a few days after Christmas, he knew, felt in the deepest part of his gut, what had happened even before Mrs. Halima handed him the phone.
ROLAND WAS RUNNING, the sound of his footfalls frantic, pounding through the darkness ahead of him. Neal tucked the gun into the crook of his arm so he could hold up the flashlight, and the wildebeest, dumb-eyed, bearded, startled by the light, darted across the trail around them and bellowed. They jumped the gate and ran on, up the path toward the sound. A hundred yards from the house the smell was unbearable, the garbage-heap stench of hyenas, and he felt it tear into his lungs. And then he saw her, Mrs. Halima, running toward them across the plain, and Roland stopped instantly. Neal swung the flashlight up, streaking the field behind her with light, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Roland raise the gun to his shoulder and aim, and he thought, My God, not really?, unable to imagine Roland taking the shot with Mrs. Halima in his line of fire. But seconds passed and nothing happened, and he watched the distance between them close as she ran, her skirt wrapping around her ankles, her face drawn and desolate. At 20 yards, he saw the baby in her arms, and by the time she reached them, Roland was already holding his hands out for Nyah, and Mrs. Halima was shrieking: “It came in! It came in! It came in the house!”
“Kingugwa,” Mrs. Halima said. “It came in, it came in to take her!”
He thought of the coffin, and it hit him all at once—the dark and the stupid helplessness he felt. The plain fell silent, and his knees felt strange. The light he held up shook with the force of his breath where it fell on Roland and Nyah, and on Mrs. Halima, who was bent at the waist and sobbing.
“I knocked it down,” Mrs. Halima was saying. She squatted in the grass and began to rock back and forth, sobbing with her head in her hands. “I knocked it down, I knocked it down, I’m so sorry, I knocked it down.”
“What?” Roland said. “What?”
“Her,” Mrs. Halima said. “I knocked it down—I knocked down the coffin when I ran out.”
Roland put an arm around her, and Nyah, pressed between them, began to whimper. Neal rubbed his eyes, his stomach wadded up against the bottom of his ribs.
“I’ll go,” Neal said.
“You mustn’t,” Mrs. Halima said, grabbing his leg. “It came in to take her, it’ll kill you.” Her eyes were wide.
“I’ll be all right,” Neal said, and he turned the flashlight on the dark porch of the house.
“You shouldn’t,” Roland said, but he didn’t move. Nyah’s shrill, throbbing wail rose like a siren. “I’ll do it.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Neal told him. “The coffin fell—think of what you’ll see.” He turned and strode through the grass, the sound of Nyah’s screams fading behind him and the light ahead shifting in lines over the carved banister of the veranda, the throw cushions on the swing, Baviaan’s bowl and plastic chew toys underfoot as he climbed the stairs, the porch swing creaking.
Neal stood near the door for a moment, resting the muzzle of the gun against the handle, and then he pushed it open.
SHE HAD BEEN walking home at twilight. The ranger who found her told Neal what he could read from the ground, that she had cut straight through the herd, a terrible mistake, because the topi antelope were nearing the end of their rut and the hyenas, there to pick off the weaker males as they collapsed from exhaustion, were waiting for her at the crest of the hill. There had been a chase—she was small enough, and the whole clan had been on the hunt. They had her within 40 yards of the convenience store. Then they dragged her out onto the open plain, where the matriarch and her daughters fed first, and the jackals waited their turn for more than an hour before a ranger on patrol found her. It was at that moment—while the police captain was giving this gravely overdrawn narrative, before Roland arrived at the station—that Neal thought of his tourists and the safaris he had led, and remembered, in absolute detail, the outspread ring of blood that tinged the top of the grass, the reddened jowls, eyes that looked straight ahead while the jaw descended on bone, and he turned in place and threw up all over the police captain’s desk, which he afterward volunteered to clean, but was dissuaded by a mild-mannered deputy who escorted him outside before he could do any more damage.
At the mortuary that morning, the coffin had already been closed.
NEAL STOOD IN the doorway for a minute, then two.
He called for the dog. “Baviaan,” he said, then louder: “Baviaan!” There was no sign of him.
The flashlight beam darted around the room and caught the edges of furniture—the table legs, the vintage telescope and tripod they kept in the parlor for the amusement of guests, a broken lamp and, several feet later, its rose-printed shade. The tabletop was empty, that much was certain, and when he swung the light onto the floor and followed the dim outline of the wood he found it, the coffin, upturned and resting on its half-open lid in the middle of the room. The moment he recognized it, he thought he saw something—a hand, a piece of cloth, anything that may have been left of her—and his stomach lurched forward. He stumbled back against the wall and dropped the flashlight. It rolled away from him and the beam settled on the hallway leading into the kitchen, the bags of flour, delivered that morning, standing in rows by the oven.
“God,” he said, and waited for the laugh.
It didn’t come. He couldn’t see the hyena, but the stench of it was there, the stagnant reek of meat and sweat and piss. He thought he felt it move closer, but minutes went by, and the faint sound of Nyah’s distant shrieking receded. He got up slowly and, with his eyes on the floor, inched to where the flashlight had fallen and picked it up. He aimed it at the shadows of the fireplace and sideboard, and finally at the screen door, which had been wrenched open and now hung precariously on its hinges over the stairs leading to the back porch. He got to his feet and went over to it, tried to close it, but it just shuddered and creaked, and he eventually gave up and moved back toward the middle of the room, where the coffin was.
He touched one corner of it with his foot, and it made a hollow sound. He raised the light again and passed it over the room one more time, searching for eye-shine. Then he squatted and, with the thought of Femi—bright-eyed and smiling, brewing sweet tea with her glasses high on her nose, rocking Nyah to sleep in the porch swing before the Christmas party, the jasmine in the window box in bloom—pushed to the forefront of his mind, he pulled up the coffin and turned it over. It was empty.
“Oh my God,” he said, and turned, but there was nothing, just the empty room and the staircase leading up to the landing, and the big African moon in the window. He put the gun and the flashlight down on the end table. The yellow ring of light trembled against the back of the brick fireplace.
He tried to remember how heavy the coffin had been that morning, the weight of it spread out over his left shoulder as he helped Roland carry it up the stairs and into the parlor, the shape of Roland’s back, hunched in front of him when they set it down on the table. How heavy had it been, the coffin? He thought of Roland’s hands, patient and calloused, clasped around the waist of the little white dress that was laid out for Nyah in the guest nursery, the little white dress and the little white shoes sitting on Roland’s lap at the funeral tomorrow, and the empty velvet in the pine box going into the ground; Mrs. Halima’s words, It came in to take her, no blood anywhere, anywhere at all, and the stagnant heat of the African night coming in through the windows and doors and the cracks in the floor. He went into the kitchen and dragged one of the flour bags out.
That was when the light came back on. He heard, almost felt, the distant hum of it pulling through all the wires and cables in the house, and when it blazed on, illuminating the chandelier above the parlor table and the yellow sconces in the kitchen, he stopped and covered his eyes with his hand, the weight of the flour bag resting against his leg. When he finally looked up, he noticed the face in the window.
He knew what was there even before he looked at it, and he leaned forward and reached for the gun. The gun. The gun was empty. He’d come in with an empty gun. His gun was empty, and Roland had watched him walk in with it empty—even though he couldn’t have known, how could he have known any of it?
Femi had never been in a balloon before, and Neal had offered to take her up that evening—because the wind was pleasant, because he had just brought the tourists back and the launching crew was still there to help, because Mrs. Halima had the baby and Roland had gone on a game count and wouldn’t be back for days. Femi had stood aside and watched him pump up the burners before the canvas envelope filled and the blue-and-white drape lifted out of the grass, swollen with air. It was late afternoon and the sun was melting into the red haze over the savanna when he helped her into the basket and fired the jets and tossed the sandbags over the side. He wondered if she had been afraid at first, going up in that little wicker basket with the hills falling away. He wondered if the sight of the crowded rivers of wildebeest below had instilled in her the same feelings of exhilarated panic he had felt on his first visit there, that vitality of the cradle he had searched for all his life, the push and pull of the wind, the birthing grounds and killing grounds, endless and unyielding, that allowed him to somehow reassemble himself. He couldn’t remember quite what had happened, but he knew he had reached for her. He had put his hand on the small of her back, or pressed himself against her where she stood holding the ropes, and she had indulged him, for a moment or two, perhaps out of kindness, or because it was unexpected and she didn’t quite know how to react. But then she had stepped away with a forgiving smile, the laugh that came with it embarrassed, and she had stayed against the opposite end of the basket while they sailed on and eventually came down in a stretch of grassland where the antelope were in summer rut. She had climbed out by herself and walked home.
He finally made himself look through the window at the face outside on the porch, and when the lamplight eyes caught his look, the black lips pulled away from the teeth, grinning, and the hyena laughed. For a long time, Neal stood there thinking he would raise the empty gun, turn it in his hands, reach for a knife from the block. But the face that stilled him did not move, and the hyena did not come back inside.
He would think about it afterward, at the funeral, and then again after the service in the parlor, where Mrs. Halima would put out pictures of Femi and serve wine and tea until everyone was finished and had gone away; he would think about it that night, as he took Roland and Nyah home. He would think about the flour bags and how he had laid them there, in the coffin, and he would think about the coffin, with earth smoothed over it, lying near the church in a plot overlooking Mount Longido, with the flour bags inside. And when he set off that evening from Roland’s place, the lights disappearing behind him, the gun over his shoulder, all the forward-facing eyes in the darkness coming on, pair by pair, while the moon came up over the wind-rubbed plain, the laugh—her laugh—would follow him all the way home.
The big face came close and the air around him drew in and out of the wet muzzle. The year Bojan turned 10, his father was assigned a sentry
mastiff called Kaiser, and when his father came back from the front that summer, he brought the dog to live with them.
Bojan had never had a dog. He had spent the duration of his father’s military service living with the housekeeper on the northern outskirts of the city, on a shady linden-lined avenue in a house that had belonged to his family for three generations. The housekeeper, Mrs Senka, was a tired woman with dry yellow hair resembling frayed rope, and she kept mostly to herself, except on Sundays, when she prepared a feast for the women of her congregation. Something about Bojan’s excitement concerning the dog’s arrival had struck a chord with her, and she had taken him to study the breed catalogue at the library, and to the butcher, so that Bojan himself could pick out the bones he would give the dog.
The mastiff came in a crate with bars on the front. Bojan remembered it being lowered from his father’s train, remembered the darkness inside the box. The dog was much larger than he had expected, almost three feet at the shoulder, with a broad skull, wide feet, and a squashed, painted black face. It had flabby rings of skin that rounded out the bottom of its jaw, and the moment it stepped out of the crate Bojan realised that the experience he had been preparing for – the excited, slobbered greeting; interested eyes peering into his plate at the dinner table; a companionable walk in the park after school – had nothing to do with this behemoth. He slid instinctively behind his father, who reached around and pulled him forward by the sleeve so the dog could smell him.
He remembered thorough scrutiny when the big face came close and the air around him drew in and out of the wet muzzle. He remembered it for years afterwards, the sensation of being uncovered, even though, at that time, he wasn’t covering anything up at all, wouldn’t know for years that there was anything he should be covering up.
Confined to the yard, the mastiff still dominated the neighbourhood. The family’s property stretched from the brick wall along the avenue to the hill behind the house, where the creek cut through a small glen before disappearing into the woods, and here the dog had free rein. It made a show of patrolling up and down the grounds and bounding to the fence whenever the neighbour’s widow made her daily appearance. Kaiser had a bark you could hear all along the street, and made use of it often; so often, in fact, that the paperboy made his deliveries from across the road and the local children started taking the longer route to school. Within its first month at their house, the dog had killed two of the neighbourhood’s alley cats, communal pets for whom the ladies sometimes left out saucers of milk. Mrs Senka would find them under the front porch, necks wrung, spines stiff and twisted, and she would scramble to pull them out before Kaiser clued in to what she was doing and came to interrupt her disposal of his trophies.
In July, he jumped the fence and made off with the widow’s champion pug; two weeks later, an old gun dog that lived at the rest-home two blocks over was seriously injured. People complained, but always indirectly, with reluctance, usually at church and in ways that made their concerns seem more like observations than actual grievances. They knew Bojan’s father; they seemed to know better.
Around Bojan’s father, the mastiff was keen but subdued, like a retired cannon in a museum. Bojan could picture the two of them on sentry duty: his father, tall and heavy-set, the dog growling like a rusted grate at his side while they performed manoeuvres, or, in some of Bojan’s more daring fantasies, searched for mines. This was years before newspaper reports surfaced, years before photographs of barbed-wire compounds and starved men herded into lines. When he saw the two of them together, when his father lowered his half-empty plate on to the floor after dinner, or gave the wadded skin under Kaiser’s jaw a firm tug before heading upstairs for the night, the sense of something earned that had passed between them was obvious to him.
Bojan tried, in those early months, to stay out of the mastiff’s way, but they inevitably crossed paths: at mealtimes, usually, and every morning when he walked from the porch to the gate, and every afternoon when he walked back, fighting the frantic urge to bolt under its eyes. In the early evenings, when they were alone, the mastiff would follow him inside. It would corner him in the hallway and pin him to the wall with its big, wet face pressed against his, and smell and smell him; then it would take a step back and bark until one of the adults came to call it off: measured, even, ground-shaking barks that made Bojan feel like something inside his chest was going to shake loose, buckle under that sense that he had done something and that the mastiff knew, it knew, it knew, and it was trying to sniff him out.
When he turned 11, Bojan developed his own avenue for dealing with the mastiff. It was an accident, really, something he never would have thought of on his own; he came home one afternoon in late August, the thunderstorm outside bending the willow and shattering branches against the fence, to find the house empty and the dog already inside, waiting for him. He was wet and cold, and the moment he stepped through the door the animal started a low growl that rose in pitch as he stood there, shaking, with his satchel over his shoulder. He wasn’t sure what happened. His nerve broke and he bolted: he ran for the servants’ room under the stairs. Mrs Senka slept there, kept her pistol in the dresser drawer in case somebody came into the house while his father was gone; as he reached it, he could see the mastiff in the mirror, clumsy on the rugs and hardwood floor, bursting through the door behind him.
The pistol felt tiny in his hand but he gripped it and turned, and the dog skidded to a halt with a dumbfounded look of recognition. Then Bojan, his outstretched hand shaking, said, “Sit.” The dog continued to look at him. The alabaster clock on the mantelpiece chimed quietly. Bojan said, “Sit” again, and the dog – an army dog, obedient to a fault – lowered itself reluctantly on to the rug. He could have killed it, at that moment; he would have, he was going to, but when he squeezed back on the trigger the gun gave a sad little click like a lighter out of fluid and he realised it was empty. The mastiff’s reaction was surprising: Bojan saw the sound ripple through its body, and the head ducked back, braced for impact, and the dog, finding itself alive long moments later, started to whimper.
That was how it started. His father collected guns – Colt pistols and Winchesters mostly – which he kept in a cabinet in the parlour. The key lay in the bottom of the Chinese porcelain vase in the corner. From that day on, whenever he was alone, whenever the dog confronted him in the yard or coming through the door, he went into the parlour and took down one of the revolvers, the one he had learned to shoot. Then he would say, “Sit” and the command would stretch between them in the silent house until the dog, shaking from head to foot, sat down.
He’d unload the bullets one by one, into the palm of his hand. Then he would point the gun at the dog’s head and fire the empty chamber – click! – at two feet, just like that, between the eyes. The sound died in the hallway. More often than not, the dog pissed itself. At other times, it would shudder as though he’d hit it in the heart, and then it would stiffen up. It was quite a sight, the mastiff – a hundred pounds, black square jaws tight with concentration – starting, splitting inside out with confusion. Sometimes he thought it might die like this, he thought he might scare it to death, but it always continued to stare at him as he reloaded the gun and carefully put it back in the cabinet. He was always careful to do it when his father was out of the house.
He would wonder for years whether everybody knew how he would turn out, whether there was something about him that revealed itself to people who could just feel those things, and even to people who couldn’t, something about him that made itself obvious to everyone around him. Bojan was 11, shy, and even then he loved music, the only boy at his school eagerly learning piano.
On the way home one afternoon, some boys from a few blocks over wolf-packed him in the park. There were four or five of them, boys he had grown up with, and they knocked him down in the soft mud and pushed his face into the daisies. Some of them wadded handfuls of dirt into his hair. Between their fists and the blades of grass and mud flying everywhere, he saw one of the boys empty his satchel – all his school things, his half-eaten lunch, pages and pages of music notes – on to the ground, then unzip his pants and piss on the papers. For any other boy, it would have been about his name, his father’s military rank; or else about money, the new shoes and the car in his father’s driveway, redolent of something old and entitled. But with Bojan, it was different.
He went home with his shirt torn and his nose bloodied, the pissed-on pages of his schoolwork abandoned on the ground in the park. Mrs Senka was in the kitchen, fixing dinner. As she was wiping his face and knees clean, beside herself, half-scolding, he put his arms around her and rested his head on her shoulder and held the frayed end of her hair between his fingers. Behind her, afternoon shadows slid across the polished mahogany of the house, and, in the foyer, his father, stooped with something more draining than disappointment, more palpable than rage, stood looking at him from the hallway stairs.
His one coherent thought in the park had been a silent longing for the mastiff, the huge, defensive hulk of it, the alliance he still hoped might shift if the mastiff saw him under attack. This need made him angry. After dinner, when the whole house was still, his father asleep in front of the study fire, he opened the door and let the mastiff in. The night was warm, and the dog’s coat smelled of lindens. He led it into the parlour.
“Sit,” he said.
He opened the cabinet and took the pistol down, unloaded the bullets. He turned his back to the mastiff while he did it, but he could see the big folded-over squares of its ears, reflected in the glass of the cabinet, rise at the sound of the shells clinking on the wood. He turned around and pulled back on the hammer, and then fired three times in rapid succession – click! click! click! – while the dog shook convulsively where it sat on the carpet. Then he lowered his arms and stared for a long time at the rancid stain spreading over the tassels and ornate trees and Persian birds. When he looked up his father was standing in the doorway.
“Is that how it’s done?” his father said.
His father had blue eyes, and a sort of glazed stare that went through you and out the other side. He wore khaki pants and a crocodile-skin wristwatch that had passed to him from Bojan’s grandfather, the colonel. The tips of his shoes were like glass.
His father came into the parlour and stood over him. Then he pulled out a chair.
“Sit,” he said.
Bojan sat. Across the hall, the mastiff stood to attention, its punched-in face dark and alert. Behind it, Bojan could see the arm of the grandfather clock swinging to and fro, potted ferns sitting on a row of painted elephant stands, the varnished stairwell winding up into darkness. It was one o’clock.
He heard his father’s slow, hollow breathing somewhere behind him, above his head, near the cabinet. Bojan heard him pick up the gun – the smooth, metallic scraping as it slid across the sill of the cabinet and into his father’s calloused palm – and begin to reload the bullets, one by one. Bojan’s head felt heavy and his neck was stiff. The sound of the bullets falling into the chambers was slight and stifling. The french window was open; wind rippled the curtain. His father smelled of wood-smoke.
He heard the last bullet settle, and then the compacted sound of the gun snapping into place, then the hammer falling back. In the hallway, the light was dim and some of the pictures were crooked. Kaiser’s tail was wagging.
The blast went off right by his ear, and for a moment his heart felt punched, like someone had swung a hammer directly into his ribs, and the deafening contact of it went through him. The mastiff folded up and fell. It looked almost asleep, lying there, the black face rumpled into the carpet and the stain, darker now, spreading around the big forepaws.
Bojan would wonder, years later, whether his father looked anything like this when they shot him, somewhere by some fetid pond, in an unnamed battle; whether they made him kneel there, in the mud, and whether his face, puzzled for a moment, collapsed on itself when his body did. When he watched Mrs Senka take the folded-up flag, he remembered the mastiff outspread in the parlour, and his father dimming the lights as he went along the hallway until he reached the staircase and went up.
Obreht Wins the Orange Prize
The winner of this year’s Orange prize for fiction is Téa Obreht, a first time novelist and, at 25, the youngest author to take the award in its 16-year history.
Belgrade-born and New York-based, Obreht was given the £30,000 prize for women’s writing at a ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Judges praised her debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, as evidence of a “truly exciting” literary talent.
Historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes, chair of the judging panel, said the novel more than fulfilled the Orange prize criteria of being original, accessible and excellent. “It is a very brave book,” she said. “We were looking for a book that had some kind of alchemy, that changed us as readers and changed the way we thought about the world and The Tiger’s Wife certainly does that.”
Obreht’s publishers have had the manuscript, written while she was on Cornell University’s creative writing course, since 2008.
Obreht said the award was a “tremendous honour” which would take a while to sink in. “I really did not expect to win and so when they called my name I had a very surreal moment of incredible happiness and just numb joy – I think later it will be followed by crying.”
She said she started writing the novel when she was 22 and finished it aged 24. “To some degree I’ve always been the baby of everything because I skipped two grades when I was little – I’m used to the questions about age. I was in an emotionally difficult place with the death of my grandfather and I was asking a lot of questions and they resonated with readers, which is incredibly gratifying.”
Last year her wunderkind status was cemented when she was the youngest member of New Yorker magazine’s top 20 writers under 40. Her victory meant defeat for Emma Donoghue – bookies’ favourite for the bestselling Room – and Nicole Krauss for Great House. Many had also fancied the chances of Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love.
Hughes said it had been a difficult decision – the final session lasted more than four hours – and was not unanimous. “It was an incredibly exhilarating and very positive meeting and although judges were arguing very passionately for particular books, without exception everyone was delighted The Tiger’s Wife won.” The other judges were publisher Liz Calder, novelist Tracy Chevalier, actor Helen Lederer and broadcaster Susanna Reid.
Obreht’s book is set amid the horrors and aftermath of Balkan civil war, mixing magic, myth and folklore with intense, tough realism.
Hughes said the novel “opened the doors and allowed us into the houses of people who have lived in the Balkans and suffered generations of chronic conflict and it asked what do you do, as a society, to deal with that? One of the things you do, to deal with that level of suffering, is you tell stories. For a prize which is a celebration of fiction and literature, it seems good to be honouring a book that puts storytelling at its heart.”
Obreht was born in what was Yugoslavia in 1985 and grew up in Belgrade until her family moved to Cyprus then Egypt after war broke out. When Obreht was 12 they emigrated to the US. This year’s prize has seen difficult themes explored by the six shortlisted writers. Donoghue’s Man Booker-shortlisted Room tells the Josef Fritzl style story of an imprisoned child and mother while Forna tackles Sierra Leone’s civil war and Krauss weaves stories of loss and suffering. Kathleen Winter’s Annabel is about a hermaphrodite child in Newfoundland and Emma Henderson’s Grace Williams Says It Loud is about love and abuse in a home for disabled people.
Excerpt from Daily Beast Interview
Last year you were named to the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list, you also had a story included in the Best American Short Stories, and your debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, is getting a lot of advance praise. ……….
….You spent the first years of your life in Belgrade, but now live in Ithaca, New York. The Tiger’s Wife is set in an unnamed Balkan country. Is it easier to write about a place when you’re away from it?
It’s definitely easier for me. I did no writing while I was visiting the Balkans. I do no writing while I’m in Belgrade visiting my grandma. There’s a way you think about your experiences and process them after the fact that makes it much more organic. When you’re in a place, the details you focus on are different than details you focus on when you’re writing about it. For instance, when I wrote about the tiger’s escape from the zoo, I wrote about the zoo I remembered from my childhood, which has since changed. I’ve seen the new zoo, but I wanted to describe the zoo of my childhood.
“I’ve always written about animals. I’m still trying to process why that is.”
Can you talk about your childhood?
I left Belgrade when I was 7. My family moved because of the war. I lived with my mother and her parents. My grandfather was an engineer. His job took us from place to place, so my childhood happened on the move. I grew up in Cyprus and Egypt, these fantastic places I remember fondly. In a way I was raised with newness. Going back to Belgrade after 11 years, there was a newness to it, so the experience of it was familiarly exciting. That newness and familiarity combo was unique. Then my mother and I moved to a suburb of Atlanta, where a whole slew of my family members lived, and then to Palo Alto, California. I did my undergrad at the University of Southern California and I got my MFA from Cornell.
The Tiger’s Wife contains stories within stories within stories. Did you write it linearly, or write each story and then break them apart?
I didn’t write it linearly at all. Very early on it became clear there were three story lines that needed to be interwoven. I wrote the parts that interested me the most first, then tried to develop the parts that were necessary but I was not as emotionally invested in later. I wrote the tiger story first—it came from a story for a workshop. The deathless man character had been creeping around in other things I had written, so he came next. Then the present day part with Natalia I wrote last, and I wound up rewriting it almost entirely after I went on a research trip to the Balkans (for a nonfiction magazine piece on vampire legends). I was there in small villages talking to people about something they weren’t comfortable discussing. I was knocking on doors saying, I’ve heard this story about vampires, will you talk about it. It was a clear window onto small village life. It gave me a lot of insight into particulars and details of the region.
In The Tiger’s Wife we read about a lot of superstitions that might, from an American perspective, seem ridiculous or bizarre. When you were writing this, did you become aware of American rituals or superstitions that seem equally bizarre?
I guess some of the traditions surrounding holidays here might seem strange. During one of our first Thanksgivings here we had people over and we served ham, which was obviously not right. We thought, what’s the big deal?
The descriptions of the tiger—not just what it looks like, but what it smells and sounds like—are incredible, and are one of the things that ground the book in reality despite its fantastical elements. Did you spend time with real tigers?
I spent a lot of time at the Syracuse zoo (in New York), which has a fantastic Siberian tiger exhibit. I never was in close contact with the tiger. I watch a lot of nature documentaries, I’m sort of a nerd that way.
The book has many animal characters, including some who are imbued with human qualities, and humans who are perceived as having animal qualities. In addition to two tigers there is the elephant, the dog, the bear, an ibis. Zoos also figure prominently in the book. Can you talk about your use of animals to reveal human motivations?
Obviously a lot of cultures anthropomorphize animals in their myths and stories, but there’s a real history of that in Slavic myth, so it happened naturally. I’ve always written about animals. I’m still trying to process why that is. I think animals can end up being symbols, but I’ve never begun a story using an animal as a stand-in for a theme or as a metaphor. With the tiger, for instance, I was interested in his character’s journey. Whatever he came to represent to the people of the village, the origins of the tiger in the context of the narrative. Animals have a way of tapping into human emotions and strife as well.
I read that you wrote this as a way of dealing with the death of your grandfather. What was he like? The grandfather in the book is a very proper man, who shines his shoes before going to help fight a fire.
He definitely shined his shoes. He was a very polished man. In the casting of the character in the book I ended up incorporating a lot more of my grandfather than I thought I was going to. Your work runs away with itself. We were very close, we did go to the zoo, he was this very tall imposing man who everyone was afraid of. My memories of him—there are no absolute autobiographical anecdotes, but the essence of the characters is more autobiographical than I intended. It had to do with the way I was processing the loss of him.
Have you been writing all your life?
I have. I wrote a story when I was 8 and we were living in Cyprus. My mother had this laptop and I wanted to hear the keys click, so I wrote a little story on it. When I was done I went in the kitchen and said I wanted to be a writer and that was the plan from then on.
Your favorite writers include magical realists Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Your book incorporates magical realism, but is also very grounded in the concrete, here and now.
In trying to write about several generations, I wanted parts of the story to have a voice that was contemporary and to perhaps not be as fantastical. The way the fantastic ended up working in the novel is as something that is very much sharpened by war. I wanted to have a contrast to that. That’s where the contemporary parts come in.
Are you working on another novel?
I am. I took a while to get attached to another project. Without going into any specifics of what I’m working on, there comes a moment in the process with every piece I’ve felt satisfied with where it’s like a trancelike state and the world you’re trying to create becomes real. If I don’t reach that state it crumbles. I’ve learned, painfully, there’s no artificial way to get there. It happens or it doesn’t.
So have you reached that trancelike state with your new novel?
I’m almost there.
Conversation: Tea Obreht and Jeffrey Brown
Posted by Jeffrey Brown , April 1, 2011
JEFFREY BROWN: The horrors of the Balkan War and strange encounters with a “deathless man”; the love a young woman for her dying grandfather; and the magical, almost surreal, story of a tiger terrorizing a European village. The mix of realism and fantasy is all part of “The Tiger’s Wife,” a new novel — and first novel — by Tea Obreht, a 25-year-old writer who was born in the former Yugoslavia and came to the United States at age 12. Welcome to you.
TEA OBREHT: Thank you, Jeff.
JEFFREY BROWN: This is set in a particular place and time — the former Yugoslavia, as we said. It’s a place that is in part yours, but not really in a sense, right?
TEA OBREHT: True. Very true. I grew up in Yugoslavia for the first seven years of my life, and we left and moved to Cyprus and Egypt and that’s where I sort of grew up in a very nomadic way. A lot of this based on vague childhood memories and then things that I have reabsorbed since going back to visit my grandmother, who still lives there.
JEFFREY BROWN: Was it a way to connect or did you desire reconnecting in some ways?
TEA OBREHT: I did. A lot of writers that I know have told me that the first book you write, you write about your childhood, whether you want to or not. It calls you back. And that definitely ended up happening. My grandfather died, so it was a very difficult way to get called back to writing about childhood, but it would have been impossible to write the book without reconnecting to the place.
JEFFREY BROWN: I did want to ask you that, because I had read that. So there are some — it’s a novel, but there are some autobiographical elements to it?
TEA OBREHT: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: In terms of the personal story between the daughter and the grandfather.
TEA OBREHT: Yes, absolutely. I think it’s almost inevitable that some autobiography sneaks in. A lot more of the relationship between the grandfather and the granddaughter snuck than I anticipated or really had any control over and didn’t realize until afterwards, but none of the plot lines are autobiographical. It’s about doctors in the Balkans; I’m not a doctor, my grandfather was an aviation engineer, so it’s sort of off in its own imaginary world in that sense.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, this balancing of realism, the story of people living through a
very harrowing time, and the fantastic, the mythological — was that hard to pull off as a matter of structure, as a matter of writing, to keep them together somehow?
TEA OBREHT: The structure was interesting, and dealing with structural problems, you know, it was my first time writing a novel, so when you start you really have no idea what you are doing, and when you write a short story you can see the whole thing right away. You write it possibly in a space of two nights and you see it from beginning to end and then you can restructure. And with a novel —
JEFFREY BROWN: That was your background.
TEA OBREHT: That was my background, yes. Yeah, I wrote short stories exclusively. And then, a novel you realize you’re not going to see the end until like a year has passed. It’s a very long time to wait for structure, but I think that —
JEFFREY BROWN: That means you did not envision the end when you started.
TEA OBREHT: I had an end outlined, but it was not the end it came to. It sort of did that on its own, and I think that with a novel you have to be a lot more — what I learned, at least — is you have to be a lot more open to the work taking on a life of its own and going places where you didn’t expect. But in terms of the fantastical elements and the real elements, I thought that they ended up complementing each other really well in the writing process, because I think that myth-making is something that people really do in strife, and when dealing with reality, fantasy comes in so much as a coping mechanism, and I think that the magical realism aspect of that really made its way in very naturally.
JEFFREY BROWN: In the realism parts, you talked about going back and doing research and memories and talking to people. In the fantastic parts or the magical realism parts, there are two major stories here. There is the deathless man and the tiger’s wife, and they’re complicated to go into, but take one — the deathless man, because that’s an easier one to grasp. One of the main characters — the grandfather — keeps running across this character who tells him that he himself cannot die.
TEA OBREHT: Right. Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now where does this story come from? Is it folklore, is it mythology? Did you make it up?
TEA OBREHT: It’s based on Slavic and German folklore, and it’s usually about a man who somehow tries to deliberately or on accident ends up cheating death. And it doesn’t end well for him often, but I wanted to explore — the character had made its way into some of my short fiction, and it had never really panned out that way and then he ended up, again, naturally — I realize I keep using this word, natural — but it made its way into “The Tiger’s Wife” because I knew that the doctor, that the grandfather as a doctor, had to be confronted with this notion of death, and that was something with which I was also coping — again, related to the death of my grandfather. So he ended up being a lot more complex and interesting of a character to deal with than in the folklore, and I had a really fun time expanding him. He was supposed to be sinister, but he ended up comforting. It’s weird.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, ultimately, his story, the tiger’s wife story, the grandfather telling stories, I can’t help but think this is sort of a story about story telling in a way.
TEA OBREHT: Yeah.
JEFFREY BROWN: The grandfather carries in his pocket throughout his life “The Jungle Book.” Did that mean something to you? Is that an important book to you? Or this notion of storytelling? Where does that come from?
TEA OBREHT: The notion of storytelling is an important one to me, I think, again, as a coping mechanism. But also, I grew up in Egypt and the former Yugoslavia, and those are all cultures that have a very rich oral storytelling tradition. Everything becomes a story, whether it’s your everyday marketing or the story of your own great-grandfather. I had read the Jungle Book as a child, but it wasn’t such a key book in my life. Initially it was just a way for the grandfather as a child in this isolated Balkan village to understand what a tiger is, but then like so many other parts of the novel, it ran away with itself and became so much more, and it’s this talisman of his life so it really became important.
JEFFREY BROWN: It’s funny to listen to you talk because everything sort of took on a life of its own —
TEA OBREHT: It did.
JEFFREY BROWN: — and was not expected, reminding me that this was a first novel for you. What are the most important lesions you learned about writing a novel?
TEA OBREHT: In its difference from short-story writing. It’s very important at least for me now — obviously everything is different for different writers; perhaps some writers feel that they have more control over a novel — but it’s surprising how much you lose control over the different threads. It’s important to have the whole thing in front of you so that it can be restructured in a controlled manner, and that then you can work through the things that come up continually and sort of maybe give the themes like a nice wash so that they make some sort of coherent sense. But, yeah, I think that the lack of control was really a big thing to deal with, coming from a background of short-story writing where you just have a handle on the whole thing.
JEFFREY BROWN: Finally, no story review is written without pointing to your impossibly young age of 25, so there wasn’t a whole lot of background in terms of experience of writing. Are you surprised now by all of the attention? Are you daunted by the pressure it now puts on you? Or are sick of talking about your age at this point? All of the above?
TEA OBREHT: I’ve been talking about my age for a long time because I skipped grades when I was very, very young. In the mess of moving from place to place, I skipped two grades in the space of one year. So I was always two years younger than everybody else, so the talking about the age is not a new thing for me. And I went to college at 16 and grad school at 20. But I always wanted to write. So the fact that this is happening now is just incredible to me. I still get floored by the fact that there is an actual book. You know, it has a face. It’s like meeting a stranger. It has a face. And people read it and know the characters and talk to me about aspects of the plot, and it’s just amazing. I’ve wanted to write my whole life and now people are reading what I’ve written. It’s wonderful.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the new novel is “The Tiger’s Wife.” Tea Obreht. Nice to talk to you, and congratulations.
TEA OBREHT: Thank you.
Interview With Tea Obreht
Who are your biggest personal influences?
In terms of writers, I definitely have to say I am greatly influenced by writing that I love. Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita), Gabriel García Márquez, and Hemingway. In terms of people that I know, my grandmother and my mother are huge influences on my writing life because they are both massively supportive and always have been of my career.
What do you want to explore with your writing? What themes do you find yourself coming back to?
I am very interested in place, and the influences of place on characters. What inspires me most to write is the act of traveling. I like to explore the idea of common conflict in perhaps a more amplified environment in my writing. Human conflict is human conflict I guess anywhere, but I like to explore the interactions of people with place and how place influences characters’ decisions, and their conflicts with one another, and also with the place itself—that’s something that I enjoy exploring.
What is your relationship to Africa in particular? Had you ever been there before writing “The Laugh”?
I grew up in Egypt, but I had never been to sub-Saharan Africa. It was a huge dream of mine, and continues to be a huge dream of mine, to actually go to Kenya and to Tanzania. But I guess the way the story came about was I had moved to Ithaca, New York, and I had this long-standing, very distant love affair with the African wilderness and it was winter and it was a very cold, horrible winter and I was inundated withNational Geographics, both the magazine and the channel. They did a series on the great migration and I was sitting in the snow thinking about Africa and that’s how it came about. I did a lot of research to make sure it was as reasonably authentic as possible, but I had never actually been to Tanzania, or to Ngorongoro, where it takes place.
Do you have any rituals related to your writing? Superstitions you fall back on?
When I hit a block, regardless of what I am writing, what the subject matter is, or what’s going on in the plot, I go back and I read Pablo Neruda’s poetry. I don’t actually speak Spanish, so I read it translation. But I always go back to Neruda. I don’t know why, but it calms me, calms my brain.
I also have Dali’s print The Ghost of Vermeer. It’s on the wall in front of my desk, and it acts like this little window, so instead of looking out of an actual window I look through the window of the picture—the picture is framed like a window as well. It’s this little figure who is looking off into the distance, so I tend to look at that to center myself. And then I feel like the plot will even out once I stare at the picture for long enough.
If you were not a writer, what would you do?
I would definitely teach. I came out of the Cornell MFA program, and I had the tremendous fortune to be able to teach creative writing for a year, and it was really spectacular, wonderful. It was an undergraduate class, introduction to creative writing, so it was a combination of poetry and fiction. It was amazing. Both semesters I taught it the kids were all very enthusiastic about it. They were just thrilled to be doing it. At Cornell especially, the college tends more toward engineering and pre-med and pre-law, and there were a lot of students who had not had the experience of writing creatively before, and they were just jazzed about it. Which made it really wonderful to teach.
What would you say are the most overrated books?
I will say two writers. I have never been able to appreciate their styles fully, and I have been told before that they’re wonderful and they are very celebrated writers, but at the same time I have never been able to quite get into them. I don’t have enough experience with them to answer the question, but Thomas Pynchon and Samuel Delaney. But I don’t think it’s a matter of them being overrated as much as I don’t enjoy the styles as much. I didn’t connect with them.
And who would you say are the most underrated writers—writers who you wish would get more attention?
Well that one is easier. Definitely there is an old book from the former Yugoslavia by Ivo Andri?, he won the Nobel Prize for literature, and unless I am mistaken he was the only Yugoslav Nobel prizewinner for literature. He wrote a book called The Bridge on the Drina. I am originally from the former Yugoslavia as well, and I don’t know that he is known here, but that’s a wonderful book. I know that there are translations of it, but he is not very well known and it is a wonderful book.
I also like Raymond Chandler. He wrote hardboiled detective fiction, but it was really literary and he wrote amazing stuff. The Long Good-Bye, which is interesting. He does wonderful social commentary in the context of a detective mystery. And the mystery sort of fails, but the social commentary works.
And another book that I love that I think might be underrated is A Prayer for the Dying, by Stewart O’Nan. It’s a weird book, and sort of very heavy, but wonderful and wonderfully done. It is written in the second person, which is just so strange, and it works. I normally don’t like literature in the second person, but it really works in that book.
What children’s book would you still pick up?
Anything by Roald Dahl. Period. I love Roald Dahl. I grew up with Roald Dahl. And actually his short-story collection for adults, Tales of the Unexpected, I think is underrated, it’s loads of fun.
I actually have gone back to children’s books a lot because my baby brother is eight years old, so it’s my job to keep the books coming. And someone that I loved as a child and I find not a lot of people read in America is Dick King-Smith. He wrote Babe. But he also wrote a bunch of other children’s books that I don’t think get read. I guess he was a farmer forever, and I might be completely wrong about this, but at a relatively old age he started writing children’s books based on his experiences as a farmer. And they’re lovely.
What book is most essential to you? What book do you read over and over?
Love in the Time of Cholera. Also, I absolutely love—and I love them for different reasons, and continue to go back to them—The Old Man and the Sea. It is short and wonderful. But Love in the Time of Cholera is for me the perfect novel, it just does so much for me. I read it for the first time when I was 12, and I have read it basically every year since, in some way or other. And The Old Man and The Sea as a story just works brilliantly for me.
What is the first thing that you wrote that made you realize that you could be a writer?
I was eight years old, we were living in Cyprus, and my mom had this computer that was very old and just enormous and heavy and I was playing around with it and I ended up writing a two paragraph story about a goat. And I remember printing it out and going to my mother and saying, I want to be a writer. And my mother was fixing something in the kitchen and she turned around and said, That’s nice, you go ahead. And obviously it wasn’t really anything. But at the same time, that was the plan ever since then—to write. And then I wrote consistently over the years after that. It wasn’t a particularly good story about a goat by an eight year old. And actually I don’t even have a copy of it, or know what it was about except there was a goat in it. But that was the first thing I wrote.