Swollen River

By Fikret Pajalic

The hand-written sign taped to the sliding doors of my local supermarket said Night-filler Wanted – Apply Within. I was transfixed by the name. A job that fills the nights is an important thing for an insomniac.

The store manager looked me up and down, not offering a seat. “Any injuries I should know about?” was all he asked.

I shook my head.

“Come tonight. Ten sharp. We’ll see how you go.”

***

That was a year ago. The mindless task of stacking shelves all night frees up my mind. I love the pet food aisle the best with thousands of cans of different sizes. A robot would envy my carton rate. The sound of the metallic cans being neatly stacked merges into a comforting monotonous hum, like a river swollen with melted snow, bursting its banks.

At the beginning of the shift, Marco the Narco and I are in combat mode. Our enemy—dog food cans. He is a bona fide narcoleptic, hence the nickname, who graduated from being an insomniac a long time ago. That’s where I’m heading. Sweet. Unexpected. Nothingness.

He starts whining about his sick dog. The mongrel is dying apparently. He can’t afford the vet who is asking $120 to put him down. I wait for him to inhale air between sentences and start with my story about how I came to Melbourne. Marco sucks in every word like a grouper fish sucks in its prey, but still at the end of my yarn he measures me with his suspicious eyes.

“Bullshit. You’re from fucking Footscray. You speak grouse Aussie.”

My indifference to his reaction provokes his curiosity. But I can’t keep quiet for too long. The moment Marco feels too relaxed he could fall asleep.

“I weighed less than two of those when I left my country.” I point at the 25 kg bags of kitty litter he was stacking on the bottom shelf.

“I get it. You looked like a prisoner in a concentration camp. Skin and bones,” he said, annoyance now visible in his jerky movements.

“I can help with your dog. Fifty bucks, cheaper than the vet.”

“Do what?” Marco is astonished.

06-396317_10101173317923353_428349516_n“I’ll send him to eternal hunting grounds. He’ll be chasing rabbits there forever.” I imitate the running dog with my tongue hanging out just to irritate him.

“Have you put down animals before?”

“Only one.” I say.

“Right. How’d you do it tough guy?”

I put my hands around the one-kilo dog food can and pretend to strangle it. The Labrador on the can can’t feel a thing and looks happy. His tummy is full and he’s got people that take care of him. Something my dog lost.

“Go on”, Marco urges me, aware that he needs my monologue to stay on his feet.

My mind flies back to the third year of the siege. I tell Marco that I knew by the whistling sound the bomb makes where it was going to land and what calibre it was. At the time I wondered, if I survive the war, would this be a useful skill in the future?

“Able to recognize the calibre, estimate trajectory and the level of devastation of any bomb, artillery shell, missile or grenade by using his ears.” It sounded like something Superman would put in his résumé. But that prig didn’t operate in the Balkans.

I describe to Marco the inevitable crawl through the tunnel under Sarajevo airport, the only way out of the city. The two-by-three foot nightmare that still haunts me. How I lifted my rucksack to check its weight. The handles were digging into my shoulders. How the war diet, tasteless rice and old potatoes boiled into oblivion, had weakened my bones and melted my muscles.

I told him of my dilemma. Should I drag or push my miserly possessions through the claustrophobic darkness? Should I crawl through the mud in my underpants and get dressed when out? Did I have enough money to pay off the guards?

Our collective suffering was intolerable and could not be relieved other than by dying or escaping. Or dying while escaping.

“There was more time when I was a kid,” I tell Marco, and he raises his woolly eyebrows. “When the war started, it felt like I’d lived a hundred happy years and it was just as well. Memories were all that carried me through, as I am the last one left.”

When my father was killed I washed his dead body with sand from the track-and-field sandpit at the local school, saturated with melted snow. We buried him on the school’s soccer ground, with the rest of the liberated souls, because there was no room in the cemeteries.

Religious tradition and the necessity of living in a besieged city dictated that he was buried within a day from departing. My father, a boy-partisan and life-long communist, was buried the way “God” prescribed and not the way he wished. What would he think about this? A joke or an insult?

“An insulting joke,” Marco frames it for me, “a dead man’s wish should always be respected.”

“A sniper shot him,” I continue, “while we were eating rice soup. His brains spattered the dish and added some colour to it, like a garnish.”

At the funeral it was just the gravedigger and I. Not even the shyster-in-a-robe, my father’s term for clergymen, came.

The gravedigger said a quick prayer and I helped him lower the body. Then I gently lay a plastic bag with our dog’s remains on top. The feel of his matted, dirty fur on my palms stayed with me for years. I look at my hands as I twirl the can so that the label faces the front.
I approached our dog from above while he was in a hunger-induced sleep. He remained faithful till the end, his body refusing to struggle, letting go of life like one lets go of a balloon.

I tucked some money into the gravedigger’s pocket before he was able to refuse. We shook hands and I left. I ran to the nearest building and turned around one more time. The gravedigger worked furiously and half the earth was already inside the shallow grave.
When I crawled from under the airport tunnel I was covered in mud. I was on all fours catching my breath, my eyes adjusting to the blinding snow when someone from behind pushed me and ordered me to run.

I didn’t stop running until I reached the outskirts of the deserted, bombed village where I dropped the rucksack and counted my money. The truck driver was punctual. He had a tiny moustache on his chin that we called the upside-down Hitler. I handed over the money and he nodded at the back of the truck where I hid amongst the furniture.

Marco’s ears prick up like a Kelpie staring down sheep, and I resume my tale.

The radio in the truck cabin was playing folk music. The chorus of the wailing tune about a man losing his love by being a drunkard, a gambler, and an adulterer was still in my head.

We drove for some time. Stiffness gripped my bones. The drone of the river surging with melted snow from the surrounding mountains filled the air.

The bridge was an old Ottoman stone structure that straddled the riverbanks for centuries. There was a gentle climb toward the middle where the lookout tower was located.

“The check point,” the driver yelled after turning down the volume on the radio. “Quiet now.”

The rumble of the thunderous river was deafening and I could no longer hear the truck tires clacking on the bridge cobblestones.

We stopped. The river drowned out all sound. My mind was racing. How cold was the water? Would I survive the jump?

The truck suddenly jerked and started chugging down the slope of the bridge picking up speed. The vibration of the river receded.

Marco is saved from a sudden stupor.

***

I park my hatchback behind Marco’s Kingswood in his driveway.

“Dog is in the garage,” he tells me and walks into the house. I find the dog on his back, bulging lumps on his belly. He looks lost in his own space of discomfort. I put the gloves on, kneel down and gently pat his belly. The dog lifts his head and looks at me. He pleads for help, not a release.

I lift him into my lap and whisper in his floppy ears “Hang on to your balloon mate”. He tries to lick my face but there isn’t enough strength in him.

I wrap him in a blanket and put him at the backseat of my car. I walk over to the house to let Marco know that I’m leaving, but I hear snoring coming through the screen door. While I drive I try to remember where the nearest vet is. The dog’s taking long gulps of air.

His breathing is a heavy throbbing, like a river swollen with melted snow.

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Fikret Pajalic came to Melbourne as a refugee and learnt English in his mid-twenties. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Meanjin, Overland, Westerly, Sleepers, Antipodes,Etchings, The Big Issue, Writer’s Edit, Regime, Verity La, Gargouille, Verge Annual, Seizure, Tincture, The Minnesota Review (USA), Crack the Spine (USA), Bop Dead City (USA),Fjords Review (USA), Sheepshead Review (USA), Bartleby Snopes (USA), Bird’s Thumb (USA), The Red Line (UK), Structo (UK), Paper and Ink (UK), JAAM (NZ) and elsewhere. In December 2014 he completed a short story collection funded by Arts Victoria.

Photograph by Michelle Johnsen, Magic Pavillion