Thursday, January 14, 2010
Rale Damjanovic is a graduate of the University of Belgrade, majoring in the Yugoslav and World Literature, he has written numerous books of short stories, novels, and essays, awarded with several prestigious literary awards. He has been translated into English, Spanish, Chinese, Greek and Slovenian. One of the most outstanding radio reporters and editors, he published numerous works treating linguistics, cultural, social and political issues during the tumultuous years in Yugoslavia and the Balkans. Translated and published on two continents and the Internet, R. Damjanovic has a large number of followers, and admirers both with his generation and the younger ones, due to his good-natured (at times o’henry-esque) and sometimes dry humor born out of everyday situations, combining a well measured emotion with wisdom, traditional values with courage for new ideas and magnanimous dreams in the “small”, least expected people and characters. His texts read easily and with great satisfaction because the love for life and people illuminates all he touches. A master of mood and atmosphere, his knowledge of great literature, music, art and culture as a whole, as well as the grandeur and beauty of nature, makes the reader feel directly and personally addressed while embraced within the human family. His message is positive, enlightening and subtle."~Mira N. Mataric
The Ascension Day
or Snake Brandy
Translated from Serbian into English: Mira N. Mataric
The last sounds of the Cathedral bells fade away. The chanters are heard at the same moment when the man with the suicide intent straddles the bridge fence. A coincidence. The Ascension Day procession is starting its walk through the streets of Belgrade, but the man is not aware it is the Ascension Day. A tippler sits in front of the wharf buffet like on any other day; I am here because I enjoy this view of Belgrade. Never before have I seen either the tippler or suicide perpetrator. The latter, with his action, disturbs the landscape below the Kalimegdan Fortress, above which the chanting and the church bells cross in reverberation. Even the coincidence may be part of His will; it belongs to another earthly course of events in which He has no part.
“God, save our city, Lord, save its rivers, Almighty, save its reflection in Thy light and suffering…” The centuries-old prayer sublimates historical memory of the city whose catacombs still echo with detonations, in the night reflection of its rippled rivers shivering with the ancient engulfing flames. From their ashes the city has been born, changing its names and faces. As if the hidden meaning of the whiteness from the Revelations of John has been poured from the celestial river into Belgrade’s foundation, out of which, after each war, it ascends into the God’s whiteness.
The man on the waterfront, sitting in the quay cafe, along the Railway Bridge, is not paying attention to the other chap, intending suicide, until he climbs over the fence. Then he takes a long gulp, holding the bottle in front of his face, as if examining his own doubts. Facing the abyss, the suicide intender jerks his body back, lifting his head toward the sky; only then the tippler gets up heading toward the middle of the bridge, unenthusiastically and quite leisurely, all the way tipping the flask to his lips. Whenever he removes it, a dark, ascetic face emerges, more distinct with each step. The day is clear and brilliant, a bit breezy; he wears a “ski” faded jacket, its collar turned up, revealing a black neck roll- shirt.
In Belgrade, the Branko’s Bridge, is more often chosen for the suicide, although the Railway Bridge is safer: there are no pedestrians, and the street cars and automobiles rush as if the devil chases them through the bottle neck, so the “jumper” stays unnoticed.
The European bridges also have their death race. Suspension bridge in Budapest, Mirabeau’s and King Alexander’s in Paris, Charle’s Bridge in Prague, Vasco de Gama’s in Lisbon, and Tower Bridge in London are the most popular. In Budapest it has become a tourist attraction. People come from all over the world to leap into the beautiful, blue Danube. On the Suspension bridge a tally remains. That is the last chapter of the ritual. There are over 200 signatures on the bridge wall turned east. On the north, up the river flow, there are fiftyish. Four by four horizontal marks with one vertical, connecting them into some kind of a score chart, are the only trace of the drama preceding the mortal salto. Next to some marks there is a year, initials or even the name of the victim, sometimes one more, mostly female, insinuating a love story. In my own hands, I had the book by Karoly Egresi The Flight, in which the well-known actor and author of his time writes about the suicide victims of the suspension bridges, researching the causes for that decision. Chance, the comedian, by Milosh Crnjanski, a Serbian writer, who sang about the “foreign bridges” and who, certainly, have been more than a few times “on the bridge”, has arranged for his hero, a theater star, to end his career in the style of his romantic roles. Only one newspaper has an unpleasant testimony that puts to question the dramatic aura of their last role. Royally drunk, after stepping over the chains onto the edge of the bridge, Ergesi slipped when he only wanted to piss into the Danube. The others preferred the romantic story. They are right. There is something romantic, mysterious, and poetic in the dig from a bridge. And something of gambling, of course, because with that act a man leaves his life to the fortune and destiny.
This will be a dive into the middle of the river. Less deliberate stay closer to the shore. The bridges of Belgrade offer at least some kind of hope, as opposed to other European capitals, where the water space is wider, the soar longer, the fall stronger and the rivers more sinister.
Such is the heavy, grey, endless Panchevo Bridge, below which the Danube spreads its banks far apart so that, if the victim survives the current under the bridge, near the columns, there is no chance to swim over to the other shore.
The life savers also mark scores. They appear in the newspapers, give testimonies, and participate in the questionnaire “Heroic act of the year”. Their boats, equipped with ropes and life rings arrive at the last minute, but they arrive. It has never happened that the drowning individual ever refused to take the hand. If someone is taken out of the sure death, the papers venerate the life-savers, writing about the unsuccessful suicide victims dryly and disinterestedly, almost accusingly. These continue living with a stigma of shame in their souls, reassuring themselves that the God’s providence had its fingers in the case and they should not be guilty for surviving. They have fulfilled their imaginary debt.
The suicide-intending individual is observing the drunkard with a corner of his eye, but is not showing in any way that his approaching is disturbing him. He lightly moves his head when their eyes meet, and continues to gaze at the river. The man from the shore stops several meters from him, without a word. “This one will not even last to reach the water”, he thinks when he looks at him closer, leaning forward to better see his face. The outer look does not show a desperate man. In fact, he looks quite decent, almost collected. The only thing that mars that impression is the ice-cold stare of his eyes. Obviously, he is not pretending. The ones who act have least luck. An older man, small and scrawny, as if unaware of the alcoholic’s presence, is waiting for the right moment to jump into the void, concentrated only on that.
The drunkard is rhythmically moving the one-liter flask next to his thigh waiting for any signal from the future victim. He takes a guzzle and waits. “Good”, he comments loudly, above the racket of the street car passing by. With a light move of his hand holding the flask, he offers it to the old man. Almost a full minute passes before he shows that he has heard him.
“For bravery?” he asks bitterly.
“Oh, no. Not that…Take a communion, sip a little…”
“Just for conversation?”
“Not at all. Just so.” And after thinking it over a bit, he adds simply. “For the brandy.”
The suicide guy looks at him, then at the bottle, and almost laughs.
“For the brandy! That’s original! Hand mi the bottle, only…”
“Don’t worry,” says the alcoholic, “this is not my business. Although, you have ruined my day. When you climbed over the fence, I thought: Here is why all this morning I have not felt like drinking. A premonition.”
“If that is so, I am sorry”, the old man says a bit confused with the alcoholic’s somewhat offended tone.
“Oh, well, never mind”, the other waves bigheartedly and places the bottle between himself and the suicide-minded guy who takes hold of the fence and folding himself alongside it, stretches the hand to the bottle like an acrobat. Still, some ten centimeters are missing. He repositions himself back to the previous pose, moves two-or-three feet to the right, folds himself carefully again and grabs the flask by the neck. Then, like quenching the thirst, he takes one long swig, and ungluing the bottle from his lips, exhales loudly.
“A potent shot,” the alcoholic remarks in awe.
“A potent plum brandy” retorts the suicide-candidate, shuddering, “a real dynamite.”
“It is a good slivovitz, too, but also right for you, that is the point.”
“It shook me, really.”
“That’s why we say ‘let’s shake a shot each,‘ remarks the alcoholic accepting the flask readily, after the suicide-considering guy, this time with more consideration, once again refreshes himself. He takes a good look at the old man.
“Where do you get this slivovitz from”, asks the future suicide victim, shaking the bottle and attempting to catch the bouquet in the middle.
“The old reserve. An aged batch left in the cellar and forgotten. My wife asked me to clean the space for her preserves. The other day, looking for something else, I found it. You can imagine how happy I was.”
“I can imagine. And your wife?”
“My wife. God bless her soul, she expects me one day not to return from the river. She deserves to be in heaven, a righteous woman. I take Jaffa cookies to her, sometimes, the one that she liked, and drink to her soul. I would like to ask her something if I could: is slivovitz banned in heaven or in hell.”
“We may find out the answer today already.”
“What do you mean find out” – the drunkard is surprised.
“Well, I will know and will try to let you know, somehow, if I can. Through the water.”
The alcoholic waves his hand in resignation and points to the suicide entrant to give him back the flask. “You have to hurry now. See those two on the shore? They probably believe we are fishing, but soon they will understand. Unless, you intend to give interviews. The café owners have an agreement with the television to report immediately a case like this and, in return, they advertize them. Prepare something catching, about your reason and the life…”
“I have fallen into some kind of a hole,” the suicide aspirant murmurs like to himself. “There is nothing else, nothing spectacular. Some kind of loneness and deafness. Like I don’t know who I am and who those around me are. Understand? Just that, a one way street, no turn around. A terrible hole in the head, for a long time. And getting deeper.”
The drunkard clicks his tongue disgruntled: Tisk tisk tisk.
“I understand, but in this case, I may just kill myself as soon as I wake up. Every morning I get muscle inflammation pulling myself out of the emptiness and that hole in the head. I have all kinds of thoughts but I make sure I don’t do something in haste.”
“It would be a shame because of the slivovitz”, says the old man-suicide-trainee, mockingly and snatches the bottle again.
“That too. Like a brandy- Sisyphus I start every day from the beginning.”
“You are leaning but not falling over onto the other side.”
“Just that. We are, actually, quite alike. Solo drinker is, in fact, a born suicidal trainee type of person. Except that his death is prolonged.”
I am starting to understand you. And this brandy is mighty good. Good aroma, good fragrance, good color, and good bouquet.”
“I made it myself”.
“The Snake Brandy.”
“Bites the tongue?”
“No. There is a part of the vineyard in the village of Resnik. It is desolate and overgrown with weeds…with only some hundred trees, but the plums fall off already rotten, nobody picks them…so, you know why?”
“Because of the snakes.”
“Yes. They had moved in just on that spot. The owner sold me the plot for peanuts. A fine spot, by the river, but the snakes are bountiful like chaff. We pick plums in fishermen’s boots, high up to the waist. And with rubber gloves reaching up to the elbows. First, we cut the grass and the vipers hiss and slither under the trunks and roots. We get fifty liters of “muchenica” the “sufferer” kind for personal use. Only last year the yield was ruined. My neighbor died, the one with whom I picked plums and cooked the brandy. And my boots are full of holes. But this year I am going back to the vineyard.”
”Muchenica” is a good name for a good slivovitz”.
“Well, if you do not jump, you could help me pick…”
“Don’t…don’t start about it…” – the still-suicidal man cuts in and knocks back that specially prolonged swig.
“Hey, slow down with that slivovitz,” the drunkard cannot hold anymore, motioning with fingers as if calling the dog, to return the flask. “If you don’t care for life, all you need is to enter the vineyard barefoot and you are done…”
‘In another life, maybe…”, the suicide-philosopher casts a glance toward the river.
“Have you decided how to leap?” replies the tippler.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, will you jump on your head, feet, frontally or backward? Perhaps the bomb leap?
“I have not thought about it.”
“For me, the best is one of Tarzan’s leaps which I still remember from my childhood. The one from the New York Bridge, when he is running away from the city-jungle. The head-first leap, when he soars… soars… soars…then is missing…missing…missing…, and then he appears again, takes in the air and swims powerfully.”
“I know that scene quite well, Tarzan and I are, so to say, the same generation, “the about- to- execute- the-suicidal-intent old-man jumps in lively. ..”Johnny Weissmiller and Bela Lugosi are our neighbors, Rumanians, and the mother of the latter one, whose real name was Bela Ferenc, was a Serb, Paula Vojnich.”
“I didn’t know that”, the tippler responds, “but Johnny’s jump I do remember…Johnny was the best Tarzan” and he slaps his lips with the hand, like Tarzan before letting his famous elephant call. Then he calms down and shrinks, handing the flask to the fellow with the suicide-still-on-his-mind.
“Do you know all of them have passed away except for the monkey Chita” that one continues equally animated, rolling the bottle in his hands, ”With Weissmiller, and Lugosi, and Jane – Maureen O’Sullivan, Chita is now 76 years old and spending her retirement days in Palm Springs, in a hotel for rich animals. Once, like all other famous movie actresses, she lived a high life, smoked the best cigars and drank the best beverages. Now she does not drink, although I don’t believe she could refrain from tasting your Snake Brandy. They say she has never recovered over the death of Johnny Weissmiller in 1984, therefore to his funeral in Acapulco, Mexico, went her double, so Chita would not undergo stress. You see, I have also read recently that soon her memoirs will be published, entitled “I – Chita”.
“One could read that,” cuts the drunkard softly in and looks in my direction. “human monkeying is an endless inspiration…”
“This is all lasting too long,” the suicidal man suddenly awakens, as if reproaching himself for getting carried away with the story. Absently handing the flask to the tippler, he too lifts his head toward me.
“Yes…It is a bit awkward now…not to jump,” replies the other. ‘They come to us, at the wharf, two men who changed their minds. I always shudder when they tell about the leap. After the testimony, usually there is a round of free drinks, and that is the only good thing in all of it. But, I have noticed, they are troubled by what happened. Honestly, I would never dare to jump.”
“One never knows.”
“I do. Fear of height is stronger than anything else in me.”
The tippler again hands the flask to the other man. He holds it on his mouth, then, wiping the spout, gives it back. He laughs, heartily in good mood, when he notices his trick is successful. “Congratulations, maestro, black humor at the moment of death,” the tippler responds sourly, left with dry lips. Then he looks into the flask through the neck and almost jerks back when he sees his own image in the bottom. He swings like a javelin thrower, steps one step and throws the bottle over the fence. They both follow its short flight and fall into the water, then floating like a duck down the stream, silent as if being on two different sides of the bridge.
“Well, then, I am going to have some beer,” the tippler fidgets, when the silence stays prolonged. “Cold beer is the best medicine for all. Slivovitz leans best upon the cold beer. Construction kind. It is my most favorite part of the day, pouring the concrete. I understand all. I know all. What has been and will be.”
“When you pour the concrete?”
“Yes. Five for one concrete, then slivovitz again. Slivovitz is a magic, you see yourself. You had two choices, to jump or not to jump; now you have three.”
”And you’re for the third now?”
“No. I am always for that third. That’s the difference.”
“Going for the cold beer…” dedicated-to-the-idea-of suicide- man stretches it, looking at the tippler. “Construction kind?”
“Aha. A small one. The small goes fast, bottom up, so it doesn’t get warm. And it’s cold like a snake. Sneaky and cold. Beauty of God.”
“What d’ you mean sneaky and cold…” the suicide man is taken aback and carefully starts turning his face toward the fence.
“Well, it’s working on you and you don’t feel it. The time passes. Suddenly, it is night, one more hard day is gone. You feel relieved. You wait for the dawn to have a drink.”
“That sounds rather strenuous, but if you say so… and if it is cold…” the past-suicide- man completes moving his other leg inside the bridge.
“Toooo leeeeeaaave”, stretches the tippler the TV commercial and heads toward the shore. The other man stops to shake the dust from his clothes, then after turning to look at the river, follows him. The Ascension procession now is passing over the highest spot at the Kosancich Venac, leaving behind the sounds of the chanting drowning in waves between the old houses, sinking down toward the mouth of the river, crawling to the bottom of the walls and back, ascending above the Kalimegdan, changed, fuller, as if only the depth of water gives it the right meaning and tone. One more glance at the landscape which is the most vivid in my terrestrial memory, just as the tippler and the suicide man turn into the buffet with the inscription:”Angels Not Admitted”.
Translated from Serbian into English: Mira N. Mataric