One who shall die - greets you!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Axe


Trees began to disappear at the end of November.

In parks.

The metal skeletons of park benches remained the rusted witnesses of the attack of tree-thirsty two-legged vultures. And the roots. Tiny. In craters. As if the parks had been under cannonade by a strange weapon that attacked only trees. All trees. With no exceptions. Pines, beeches, oaks, birches, plane trees, chestnut trees, etc. The cypress trees at graveyards were also hungry for warmth. For life.

“We’re running out of wood.”

“I know.”

“So what are you going to do about it?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know!?  What do you mean?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean?”

“Like I said, I don’t know.”

“And who is supposed to know then?”

He stared at the orange jumping game of raw energy through the blackened glass, the sight of it itself keeping him warm.

“It’d be best if you got up, went down to the basement, got the axe and went out to get some wood!”

He didn’t move.  It was as if the words had been ravenously swallowed by a huge white worm. His dark brown irises bathed in the reddish-yellow flame.

“Well?”

The stress on the question after the overly stressed l plunged into his gut and made him nervous. The palms of his hands began to itch. His nails dug into the palms of his hands. The fire slid away from his eyes.

“What is it?”

“Nothing,” he said, harshly stomping past her.

“What is it?” she shouted at his back.  “Am I supposed to go out in –20 degree weather and look for wood?“

“Since you know what the temperature is outside, maybe you could put on another sweater and burn less firewood!”

“I will wear what I want in my apartment, and not what some asshole intellectual who can’t even go out and find firewood tells me to! Do you hear me?!”

He slammed the door.

The door opened when he was halfway down the hall and she yelled, “Slam doors at home, at your mom’s and dad’s place!”

“I am home.  Unfortunately!”

“Then go to hell and don’t come back, you pathetic asshole!”

Slam.

The screw rolled towards the doorstep, bounced off, jumped over the shaggy brown doormat and hit the floor.  The nameplate on the door swung and then stood still. He put his hand on the metal doorknob of the stairwell door and looked at the white letters on the black background. His rage quickly vanished leaving a dusty whirlpool of sadness.

He recalled that, in the past, their arguments were mostly about other women. He would come home from work and make a comment about one of his female students: what she wore, what she said, that she had a lip piercing, how she posed a question, etc.

“Do you think she’s hot?”

“That’s not what I said…”

“What do you mean that’s not what you said? You just said she was hot!”

“That’s not what I meant…”

“Then what did you mean? That you’d fuck her? Is that what you meant?”

“Come on, what’s wrong with you!?”

“What’s wrong with me?! I know what you’re like! You’d fuck those little whores who blink their eyes at you and show you their boobs in the front rows! Isn’t that right? Professor. You jerk off to them, don’t you professor? You jerk off to them when I’m not home!” She would slap and/or smack him. “You perverted fuck!”

He would get up with the desire to slap her, she would jump on him and it would all end up in vicious intercourse with biting, scratching, licking, until they both came at the same time, screaming and bellowing.

Things would be peaceful for a while. Then they would do it all over again.

Now they fought over firewood. They found a replacement topic and they completely left out the orgasms.  The quiet flood of discontent crept in unnoticed like the autumn, dampening their love and stifling the heart.

The door lock clicked behind his back and he heard the squeaking of ungreased hinges.

“Godspeed, neighbour!”

“There’s no hope for me anymore. Not even God can save me,” he replied.

“Oh come on neighbour, don’t be like that. God sees all and knows all and he helps us when we need it the most. Would you like to come in for a hot cup of tea? I just made a fresh pot,” she said smiling, thus revealing her yellow plastic teeth.

“Come in, come in!” she said as she opened the door all the way and stepped aside trying to convince him to come in, her old body wrapped in scarves and heavy multilayered blankets.

“No thanks, I have to…well, you know, go get some firewood.”

“Come in for some tea, neighbour.  I’ll lend you some firewood if you don’t have enough. This winter won’t last forever.”

The thick cups kept the tea warm, guarded it, much like guards that guard a castle.

“Mmmm!  This is good tea.”

“It’s homemade.”

“Really?” he asked in disbelief.

“Yes, I picked it last summer while I was on a pilgrimage, then I dried it and here it is!”

He was fascinated by the tea. It tasted like summer.

“What kind of tea is this?”

“Thyme.  It’s good for the nerves,” she said smiling, her wrinkles folding one over the other.

“I should give a litre or two to my wife.”

“We all need some.”

The ceramic bottom of the cup scraped the saucer.

“Don’t be angry with her, she’s still young.”

“Yea.”

“She’ll learn in time,” she said, closing her eyes, images from the past coming back to her.

“Yes…” remained unspoken as the old lady nodded her head.

They sat in silence.

He stared at the greenish-brown liquid, observing the precious heat as it disappeared forever into the cold air of the living room. That’s when he noticed that it was noticeably colder than in his apartment and that it was impossible to open the windows because they were wrapped in curtains, cloths, towels, and taped with self-adhesive tape. There were blankets at the bottoms of all the doors. It seemed that the old lady ate, drank, slept, and lived in the living room. The fire was barely burning.

He wrapped his hands around the cup more tightly.

Sip.

The comfort of the heat trickled down into his stomach.

“Isn’t it a bit cold in here…?”

She smiled and replied, “I’ll put on some more firewood for my guest.”

“Oh no, no…that’s not what I meant…”

The doors squeaked and a log was placed in the fire.

“You didn’t have to…” he said uncomfortably staring at the floor.

“It’s fine, neighbour, it’s fine… I should probably keep a better fire going in here anyways to warm up my old bones, but instead I’m frugal as though I’m going to live to be 150 years old!”

They smiled at each other.

“Does your family come visit you?”

“Do you visit your folks?”

He blushed.

“It’s already much warmer, isn’t it? These old fireplaces are great. You throw in one piece of wood…” She took a sip of her tea.

“You know,” she said in a grave voice, “I wasn’t the greatest towards my daughter when things were still alright. I didn’t like her guy and I so I told her that. Maybe a few too many times. And so they stopped coming over. Lydia and I never fought, you know? I would talk and she would remain silent. Then I would repeat myself thinking that she didn’t understand what I was saying or that she didn’t hear me. And so, they stopped coming over.”

“I’m sorry…”

“No need to be. It’s my own fault. I realized that when it was too late. Lydia had phoned me to ask if I needed anything. I told her I was fine on my own and that if they hadn’t bothered keeping in touch until then, that there was no need for it in the future either. I hung up the phone. Two days later my phone connection died. It started snowing. You know how it was…”

He looked forward to the snow much like a little child does. The snowflakes. The white carpet that grew higher and higher by the hour and covered the roads, the sidewalks, cars, garbage containers, kiosks. The silence that it brought with it and the way in which it calmed the city down. Forever.

“That’s when I realized that I was a stubborn old woman, but it was too late. The phone lines were dead.  We were snowed in. We couldn’t budge.”

They both took a sip of their tea at the same time.

“Are you bored?” she asked suddenly.

“No, no! Not at all! Please, do go on!”

“Long story short, her guy came by a few days later when the snow had stopped and brought me bread, milk, flour, water, salt, and brought up some firewood from the basement. I didn’t say a word to him. I couldn’t, you understand. I merely shook his hand as he was leaving.”

She fell silent. It seemed to him as though she was struggling not to cry, but the old woman smiled, her eyes closed, and said, “I prayed for them at the pilgrimage. I picked some thyme for them. They come by almost every week.”

He took the last sip of his tea and stood up.

“More tea?”

“No, thank you.  I really should get going.”

“I won’t keep you then! I’m glad we got to have this chat. Come by again. And don’t worry about your young wife…she’s still…well…young. If your love is strong enough, everything will be fine.”

He unlocked the lock. He reached behind the door and felt the handle of the axe. He wouldn’t turn on his flashlight – he had to be frugal. How much firewood was left over? He thought they had burnt two thirds of the five meters of wood, but he knew that they had used up more. Once upon a time, five meters of wood would have been enough to last them the entire winter, with leftovers for the following winter. They would wear short sleeves around the apartment and walk around barefoot.

The hard and frozen snow that shaped the path towards the building resembled a bobsled trail. He climbed up the round embossed steps onto the street, which was asleep under a thick white blanket. It was quiet.  No movement. He breathed in the cold and set off. His large heavy boots led the way.

The axe on his shoulder shone, as it was brand new, since he only used it to chop up the five meters of wood they received. He never used it to cut down trees. When parks and tree-lined streets were being butchered, he stood aside and watched. Groups of people would alternate in beating the old poplars with their axes. At first, they would all talk amongst each other and joke around, even sing, but as the trees began to run low the atmosphere would become more and more excruciating. They increasingly reminded him of their hairy ancestors. When the one-hundred-year-old giant would succumb and hit the ground much like a mammoth, they would jump on it, tear it apart, divide it up, and drag it to their caves. Splinters would remain in place of blood.

He was disgusted by such scenes.

When the last caveman would leave, he would approach the place of massacre and collect any twigs that had been left behind.

He was disgusted with himself.

He looked around searching for splinters of wood or any forgotten branch or log, but he knew he wouldn’t find anything. This was a city without any tress, much like most cities today. He called them cold concrete graveyards. This made him happy because his brain hadn’t rusted over the past few months of chaos. When it first started to snow, he considered this a good opportunity to finally get some rest during the days that followed, or perhaps the entire week! He just wanted to read next to the warm fireplace.

Passers-by with greenish plastic bags clutched to their chests led the way to delivery point 17. He came across a long line of silent people, introverted much like oysters, who were hopping and shivering, their hands tucked deep inside their pockets. There was only the sound of the cold metal speaker on the roof of the armored personnel carrier that called out names in alphabetical order, “Cucic!” “Cukovic!” “Delbjanko!”
As their names were being called out, the people approached the carrier, grabbed their bags and quickly left, without a sound.

“Dragozetic!”

“Dragozetic!”

“Is Dragozetic here? Dragozetic? Next! Dukic!”

From day to day, the list of people grew shorter.

A soldier in a combat suit lazily signaled with his head for him to come around.  He walked around delivery point 17 while the pipe of the heavy machinegun followed him from the dome of the APC.

He aimlessly dragged his feet as his agape stare into the past finally began to make out familiar images in front of his frostbitten nose. Memories of the sunny park, the slide, the swings, the teeter-totter, and the dusty brown sand where he played with his toy soldiers had a hard time making their way through the snowdrifts.  The old five-storey building seemed abandoned. There was no doorway. A few of the windows were broken.

He entered the gate that was buried in snow, and climbed up to the first floor. Both of the apartments had been abandoned, robbed and destroyed. He sped up, grabbing onto the barren metal handrail from which the wooden railing had been removed. Apartment number 5 gaped open. The hallway was dark and scattered with glass splinters and broken ceramic tiles that crunched beneath the feet like cockroaches. The lack of doors and sills made it clear as to what had happened here. The dead, toppled over television floated on its turgid belly in a sea of splinters, leftovers and dust. A few centimeters of snow managed to find its way in through the drawn blinds. The kitchen tiles were covered in metal. Pots, lids. Blankets, sheets and out-of-fashion clothing were spread all around. Torn up mattresses and pillows. The pillow down and the snowflakes fused together. Piles of documents, letters, postcards, books, old magazines and newspapers were scattered and frozen.

Photographs.

He knelt down among them, put down his axe and took off his thick gloves.  The first photo he picked up made his throat clench and the salty liquid spilled down his frostbitten cheeks.  The tears flowed as he thought about the family trip they all went on a long time ago.

He allowed the streams of tears to wash away the sediment of fatigue, tension and uncertainty, disguising them with the loss that was nothing more than the reason for his initial departure. He had left never to come back.

The sound of the lock clicking in the apartment above made him jerk.

He quickly stood up and yelled, “Hey!”

“Hey!” replied the empty stairwell.

He heard quick little steps.

“Stop!”

The echo was overcome by the slamming and the quick locking of the door.

He fled up the stairs and banged on the first door, yelling, “Hey! Open up! I have to ask you something!”

No response.

He went on to the next door, “Hey! Open up!” he yelled, banging on the door.

“Go home, there’s too many of us here already!”

He paused.

“Did you hear me? Go away! Go home!”

“Are the Vukovic’s with you?” his voice quivered with hope.

“They are, they are! They’re all here!"

“Tell them their son’s looking for them!” a smile spread across his damp face. “Tell them I’ve come back!”

“Go home!”

“Tell them their son is back!”

“Go home!” screeched the voice. “We know your kind! Go home!”

“Tell them I’m here!”

“They don’t want to se you! Go away! Get lost!”

“Mom!” he yelled through the crack that had been sealed with silicone between the edge of the door and the sill. “Mom, it’s me! Come out! I’ve come to get you!”

“Go home or I’m gonna shoot!  You hear me?!  I’m gonna shoot!”

“Let me see the Vukovic’s! I’m their son, Strahimir Vukovic. Let me see them!”

“There are no Vukovic’s here! Get lost or I’m gonna shoot!  I have a rifle!”

“But you just said…”

“I’m gonna shoot!! You hear me? GO HOME! GET LOST!”

He withdrew from the crazy screeching behind the thick doors. He stood on the landing and stared bluntly at the door, his mouth gaping open in silence. His eyelids suddenly seemed to be covered in coarse wool that scratched his dry eyes. The void in place of his heart could not be filled.  He left the building. After wandering the empty streets for half and hour he began to feel the harsh bites of the cold on his bare hands.  His shoulders and head slouched, he went back to get his gloves and axe. The walk back and nightfall chopped up his foggy thoughts into strands. He realized that he wouldn’t be back at his apartment until later in the night. The irrational feeling of terror forced him to hurry up.

The rhythmical sound of axes on a quiet street caused him to go off course. Two bundled up men were trying to cut down the hard, frozen wooden telephone pole. Splinters flew everywhere with every swing of the axe.  He stopped and watched them. Vultures. The chopping suddenly came to a stop. The two men exchanged looks.  Discomfort crawled up his back leaving chills up his spine. The man on the left signaled with his head and both of the axe men headed towards him.

He took a step back and put his hand up in the air, “Wait…” but his words became a commodity that no one wanted anymore.

He turned around, tripped, and dropped his axe.  He tried to regain his balance.

His lungs frozen and his stare watery, he came across an APC and the patrol. His exhausted sweaty body desperately stumbled, mimicking running.

“Help!” he managed to shout.

The soldiers stopped next to the APC and pointed their machineguns at the stammering image.

“Stop!” echoed the PA.

“Help me!” he gasped, stumbling towards them.

“Stop!”

He stumbled.

Pressure in his ears.

Needles in his lungs.

Shaky legs.

“STOP!”

The enormous machinegun spat out warnings of lead almonds.

His knees gave out and he fell flat to the ground like a blanket.

“Spread your arms and legs! Don’t get up! No sudden movements!” echoed the voice through the megaphone on the empty avenue that was covered in a frozen milk-like carpet.  

The boots walked over to him.

“Don’t budge!” he heard the distorted voice behind the helmet say.

The cold pipe made a round mark on his hot, glowing cheek. He was being frisked by the palms of the soldiers’ hands. They turned him over onto his back roughly. His eyes were firmly shut.

“He’s clean!” The words were robotic.

He sat up, crying.

“We apologize, sir, but you didn’t stop when we warned you. What seems to be the problem?”

“My axe was stolen.”

Silence.

The dark visors exchanged glances.

“Sir, we can’t do anything about that. Get up and go home,” they lifted him to his feet by his armpits.

“My axe…”

“We can’t help you. Go home. We’re sorry. That’s all we can do. Can you walk?”

“Y-yes…”

The armored gloves were already pushing him on his way.

“The sooner you get home, the better you’ll feel. Hurry up, it’s almost curfew!”

“What about my axe?”

Their backs were already turned to him and they were walking away.


The view of his building was salvation to him.

He fell down the frozen slope and slid into the building entrance on his back, bruising his tailbone on the stairs. Pain. He pulled out his keys, which hung around his neck, and unlocked the door. The light coming from the basement attracted him like a butterfly. He heard someone hurriedly stacking wood. He moved closer.

The flashlight on the floor shone on the pile of blankets under which limp arms and legs stuck out. The embroidered shawl with fringes that covered the skull, which was wrapped in scarves, was heavy with blood. The pool of blood was quickly cooling down, but the stench still made the stomach turn.

The sadness cut him like a knife, with a sharp bloodless move.

He stepped over the flashlight and picked up his neighbour’s axe. The man that was rearranging the wood from one partition to the other was startled by the scraping of the axe on the concrete floor.

“Hold on, neighbour! It’s not what it looks like! There were two other men! Get it? They ran away when I walked in! They dug up the snow and got in through the window! Look! Look! Over there! Take a look, for Christ’s sake!”

He shifted his gaze. The window was open. The reinforced glass was broken just enough so that an arm could fit through it.

“You’re stealing firewood.”

“Look, neighbour… she won’t be needing it anymore… she’s dead. Get it? I mean… you know…” he smiled, “We can work something out…”

“You vulture!”

“Hold on! Hold on!”

He raised the axe.

“For God’s sake, I have kids… No! NO! NO!!!

He continued chopping even when the cries stopped.

He knocked on the door, his pockets filled with photographs, his new axe on his shoulder. He heard quick footsteps on the tile floor. The knob turned.

“Where have you been?! I’ve been worried sick! Did you get the wood? Why are you standing in the door?  You’re just letting the cold in! Get inside! It’s not as if we have wood to spare…”

He stood in silence, his pupils moist and vibrant. His chin quivered like a small child’s before bursting into tears. He slowly hung his head on his chest. He looked meek, as though he was waiting for his punishment.  But all he wanted was to get a bit of rest, just for a few days… to read next to the warm fireplace…

The axe swung in the air.

Translated by Petra Pintarić

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