|Table of Contents||Previous Chapter||Next Chapter||Bookshelf|
CHIKA PERA and I come down to the fence at the top of the backyard, and Chika Pera whistles. Immediately, a dog starts howling and snarling in the darkness of the yard, a fearful racket that would wake the dead. This is a dangerous dog, liable to bite without respect of political opinions, and it is wiser to wait until young Slobodan or Mother Darinka's daughter-in-law has come out and chained it up. We do not have to wait for long. It is very unhealthy to have one's dog barking in the yard at night; people are inclined to be suspicious and to ask questions next day. "Darinka's hound was howling all last night ..." "Well, you know what she is. Always has partisans hanging around. I'll bet you she's got a house full of 'em at this very moment."
People are friendly, but one never can tell. With the enemy at Vrdnik, three miles up the road, gossip can lead to curious misunderstandings.
There is a noise of someone moving in the yard. The dog stops howling and a chain rattles.
"Who's there? Who is it?"
"It's Chika Pera. Slobodan, is that you?"
A little man with a broad grinning face comes abruptly out of the darkness. He peers at us, and smiles even more happily when he sees that it really is Chika Pera. This is Slobodan-from-Jazak.
"Come on, come on," he says. "There's no-one here. Not a soul. Who'd have thought you were coming to-night! I'd gone to bed."
We go down over the yard. The house looms up out of the darkness: large, rambling, two-storeyed, its outline faintly seen against the blackness of the night sky. "Wait a minute, wait a minute," Slobodan whispers. He disappears and a door shuts quietly. Chika Pera and I begin to kick the clods from our boots. "Maiku! What weather," says Chika Pera cheerfully. A woman's voice comes out of the darkness, whispering in shrill excitement and laughing all at the same time: "Here, it's Chika Pera and Nikola! " She is very pleased to see us, seizes our hands though we can scarcely see her, pulls us stumbling into the house. A faint glow from a lamp which Slobodan has lit in the next room shows us her face, shy and smiling. "Nikola!" she says, taking my hand again in both of hers. "They said you'd gone down to Bosnia. Well, well, now you're here. You're hungry, eh? Are you hungry, Chika Pera? Of course you're hungry. Here, go in there and I'll bring something to eat. Slobodan, you'll have to draw the wine: Prenta finished the flask at supper-time."
"Now then, Nikola," Slobodan comes out of the room with the lamp in his hand. He is a small compact man with a broad red face that is always smiling. "Now then, take your boots off and we'll get some hot water. That's what you want, wash your feet. And you too, Chika Pera. I always do. Come on, now. And I'll go out and draw some wine. Lucky we've still got some. It's simply unbelievable how much we get through these days, what with everyone calling as they do...." He patters along, running to and fro between the hall and the kitchen with basins of hot water, and a towel, and a lump of yellow soap. Chika Pera and I take our boots off and Darinka's daughter-in-law takes them away to dry them near the oven.
By this time Darinka has woken up, too, from her bed in the kitchen. She comes croaking out to see us, a little old wisp of a woman wrapped in shawls and skirts that have seen long service. "Nikola, Nikola," she sighs to herself, confused a little with sleep and the heat of the kitchen. "Is that you, Nikola?" She is very small, perhaps under five feet high, a small round bundle of black shawls and skirts. Her feet in carpet slippers peep out from under her skirt-hems. She sighs quietly to herself and clasps her tiny wrinkled hands together. "Bozhe, bozhe!" she murmurs, and peers up at Chika Pera and me. "Nikola, Nikola! " she croaks, and her face is old and wizened like a monkey's, pale as old parchment. Her voice is little more than a whisper. She stands swaying in front of us.
"Now then. Mother," Slobodan comes bustling in with a two-litre flask of wine red and gleaming in one hand and a large iron key in the other. "You sit down and have some wine with Nikola and Chika Pera."
"That's right," Chika Pera beams, wiggling his toes with pleasure. "And how's life, Darinka?"
Maiku! Darinka whispers, sipping her glass of wine. "Such a time I've had. They say the Germans—Nikola! the Germans, you know—they say the Germans are sending all the Serbs in Ruma to the front there, what's it called, Slobodan, to the Eastern Front."
"Mother's been down to Ruma to-day to sell a pig," Slobodan says with justifiable pride. "All the way to Ruma and back."
"Good heavens, do you dare to go down to Ruma these days?" "Oh, they wouldn't touch an old woman like me," croaks Darinka in excitement. "Mind you, I wasn't so sure. My God, there was a moment when I wasn't sure. Ha, ha! I didn't know what to do." She bends forward, unclasping her hands. "I was putting the horses to, down there in the market-place. I got rid of the pig all right, a chap from Golubintsi took it off me—I let him have it cheap 'cause he was a Serb—and then I was putting the horses to. There's nothing to buy in Ruma these days, the Germans have taken it all away—my God, you wouldn't believe what they've taken away, simply everything, and people down there—Serbs, that is—have scarcely got rags to cover themselves with, though the Croats don't suffer, though——" she pauses for breath.
"Some Croats are all right," puts in Slobodan, having regard to the importance of my understanding the right point of view.
"Yes, yes," Darinka hurries along again, "of course there's some that's all right. The chap who took my pig told me he knew of three Croats who'd saved his daughter from the Ustashe—they wanted to rape her, you know, the scoundrels. Well, there I was in the market-place, and putting the horses to, and then all of a sudden up comes a man, a huge man he was, in some sort of uniform—1 expect he was a German, though he talked Serbian well enough, one of our Schwabs, I expect—and he says, 'Now then, old woman, what are you doing here?'"
"'Nothing,' I say, 'I'm putting my horses to."What's your name,' says he, 'where do you come from?' "—Darinka sways to and fro in the excitement—"And I take no notice. I just go on putting our chestnut into the shafts, and I say, 'I'm Darinka Militich, that's who I am, Darinka Milititch from Jazak, if you know where that is.'
"And then says he, says he, 'Let's have a look at your papers. Come on, now! "Here you are,' I say, 'you won't find anything wrong with those, not if you're Bauer yourself you won't!' And then he says, 'Well, I'm not Bauer, and less of your lip,' he says, 'and don't loiter about here any longer, or we'll make short work of you. Fit for nothing, you aren't, you Serbs.' And off he goes," croaks Darinka in triumph. "Off he goes, the great bully, with a great gun on his shoulder and pistols all over him. Ha, ha! says I to myself, you can't frighten me, young man."
"That's the way," Chika Pera says encouraging, drying his feet. "Never show them you're afraid. They're like dogs in that respect. Just like dogs."
A little later we are sitting round a table in the inner room, a paraffin lamp throwing out a good light, hot paprikash and white bread and wine on the table. We are just finishing our supper when the dog in the yard lets out a howl, and then another, and then a volley. Slobodan jumps up and runs out.
"That'll be Koya," Darinka says. "He's been slaughtering all day."
The door opens again and Slobodan comes in. "Koya," he says briefly, sitting down again to his supper. He is fearfully pleased about something he has just heard, but he won't say. "No, no, Koya will tell you. He's just coming. Here, Nikola, have some more wine. Of course, you must. It's good wine. Though we had better before the war. Maiku! d'you remember that Ledintsi wine we used to have before the war? That was wine, really wine. But this isn't bad." He bustles round the table, smiling broadly all the time, and fills our glasses.
"Here's Koya," Darinka croaks with excitement as the door opens again. A tall, thick-set peasant with a square, close-cropped head and a red smiling face, comes in. He is obviously very pleased and very annoyed at the same time.
"Bozhe maiku\" he swears, greeting us all. "I'll shoot that dog. It's silly to have a dog like that. A dog that barks, well, that's all right. Let it bark. But it doesn't have to bite your hand off. That's going to help nobody at all." He throws his shubara into the corner and sits down with us. He is red with indignation. "And look here, Mariushka, where in the name of God did you put that stuff, that ammunition, you know, the stuff that we got last night? Here's me," he explodes with annoyance, "here's me chasing all over the village looking for Paya 'cause I think he's got it—and you know that Dule's sending for it to-morrow—and I can't find Paya anywhere. He's not at the slaughterer's, and he's not over at Kosta's, and Prenta hasn't seen him. Well, where is he?"
"He's gone over to Remetits to shoe a horse," Slobodan put in, standing up with the wine flask poised in mid-air. "Anyway, what's it got to do with Paya?"
"Nothing to do with Paya—nothing at all! That's just what I was saying." Koya helps himself to wine: he is feeling better already. "Nothing at all. 'Cause I found Marko at Kosta's and he tells me that you've got the ammunition." "That's right. It's in the baza."
"Well, we'll go out and get it afterwards, and you can take it over to Remetits to-morrow morning, and Vlaiko's got a man there who'll take it up to the Odred."
We eat our bread and paprikash, and then Mariushka brings us kolache, sweet Serbian cakes filled with marrow, or with jam or fruit or honey. She puts a plate of them diffidently on the table. "You'll have to excuse me, Nikola, but there simply isn't any sugar."
Koya looks up, indignant again. "What d'you mean, no sugar! Dule said he'd send us over some from the Odred."
"Well, he did. But that's all gone. You know how many chaps we had in yesterday."
"Ah, yes," Darinka puts in, shrilly whispering. "There was Paya and Kosta and Slobodan, and Prenta, and then seven men from the Odred. My, what a time we had! " She clasps her hands together and smiles encouragingly at me.
"We had the Fascists through the village as usual to-day," Mariushka says, not to be silenced.
"My God," Koya laughs loudly. "Did you see them, Nikola? Did Nikola see them? Did he have to go into the baza?" Koya rocks with laughter.
"No, no," says Mariushka, laughing too. "Nikola's just come back. He's been away, haven't you, Nikola?" "Oh," says Koya, disappointed. He is particularly attached to this baza, having made it himself; and sleeps in it every night from sheer pride and affection. The danger at Jazak, as everyone knows (and, indeed, the condition is almost universal), is at dawn; the night belongs to the partisans but the enemy has a habit of creeping out of his stronghold half an hour before the dawn and sweeping down the road to Jazak to catch any of us who may still be about at that late hour. That is the time at which he does all his searching and stealing; the dawn is the hour of maximum danger, and the day grows safer and safer as it wears on until, by the afternoon, you can reckon almost with assurance that nothing will possibly happen until the following dawn. Koya knows this as well as anyone, but he goes on sleeping in the baza just the same.
In the early days people made bazas wherever they felt inclined, without much skill or forethought, and they learnt better only after the enemy had shown that he could find them unless they were well hidden. With the passing of time experts in their construction would be called in to give advice before the work began, and great pains taken to avoid publicity. There are, of course, an infinity of ways in which bazas may be built; it all depends on how you propose to solve the main problems of concealment, access, and air supply. You must choose a place that you can get at in a hurry, preferably concealed, too, from the farmyard gate, a place that inquisitive people are not likely to trample over until they hear their footfalls sound hollow and guess there may be a baza underneath; you must arrange for the door to be easily opened and yet appear to be anything except a door, and this, in the view of some, is the most difficult problem of all. One school of thought favours a door that can be opened also from the inside; another maintains that a door of that kind is less easy to disguise. Then again, some people are convinced that a baza is safer when built inside a stable; others that you are better off in open ground, for a stable can always be burnt over your head—and for the same reason practically everyone is agreed that a baza must not be made inside a living house. There are, as anyone can see, a multitude of problems to be faced before a really sound baza can be made.
Koya's baza is very nearly the ideal thing. The only disadvantage is that, to reach it, you have to go right across the farmyard gate, ten yards of open ground that may well cost you too much time. But once there you can afford to feel safe. The door consists of the little wooden floor of the privy—a sentry-box arrangement placed over a sewage hole—a platform one foot wide and two feet long raised a few inches above the level of the yard, just out of the mud. This platform is easily lifted up. Beneath it is a narrow hole some four feet deep, at the bottom of which there is a shaft running away from the privy for a few feet, and then a large chamber which Koya, with his miner's technique, learnt by digging coal in the working at Vrdnik, has shored up with timber props. This baza was made especially for the Odred, and contains in normal times an old Belgian machine-gun for which nobody can find any ammunition, various sacks of material belonging to the Odred, and any valuables Darinka may prefer to keep out of sight. I daresay they are there still. The air is not bad, though it does tend to stink a little from the nearness of the privy.
It is rare nowadays that the enemy can find a baza, however sure he may be that one exists in a particular house and yard he may be searching. So true is this, in fact, that when they burnt Prnjavor for the first time in the summer of 1943 (the White Russians burnt it again in October) they had to torture people in order to find where the few partisans who had stayed in the village were hiding, and even then, because people would not talk no matter how much they were tortured, they caught only two or three. There they were, burning and looting and killing from one end of the village to the other, and nobody would show them where the bazas were, though many people (as always happens) knew perfectly well that a dozen partisans were hiding underground in the village, and exactly where. The people behaved like heroes. After that, it was almost an accepted thing that the enemy would find only those bazas which were betrayed to him.
The people lived, indeed, from one day to the next. Their lives had narrowed down to the simple and essential problem of survival. Nothing else really counted except this, except the perpetual struggle to remain alive. The shell of society had cracked and broken apart; the familiar structure of behaviour was destroyed; and the individual found himself suddenly alone, with the world as it seemed against him.
In the days before the movement grew strong enough to offer an alternative structure of social behaviour, it was therefore every man for himself. The pleasant world of pre-war Jugoslavia, tolerant and easy-going in spite of the dictatorship and its corruption, when within certain bounds a man could do or say pretty well as he pleased, was abruptly turned into a savage beastliness, unheard-of in its ferocity. To be Serbian in Srem at that time was to qualify for a concentration camp or a grave. Unrecorded numbers of Serbian peasants were taken into Mitrovitsa and other centres and shot down in heaps; and neither age, infirmity nor innocence were spared. Terrible things were done. It was clear that the old society was gone, and could scarcely return; but it was not yet clear what would come next. The accepted values had been turned upside down. And this fearful disintegration of a social system which no-one in living memory had seriously questioned—however much they might grumble at its inefficiencies and weaknesses—laid the psychological foundation for the coming revolt.
The old society had gone and could not return, for too much blood had flowed. The German-Fascist-Ustashe imposition which took its place was intolerable, unthinkable, the flimsiest expedient. The people saw this and were in a mood for revolt. Only it was not immediately clear to them—the realization came at different times in different parts of the country—what moral force could claim their allegiance, could bind them together, in the establishment of a new society. The early days were a time of individual revolt, of action by small groups not always sure of their aims and loyalties: only later did their integration in the movement of resistance become complete.
The only member of the family who never, whatever may happen, takes refuge in the baza is Darinka. "Ah, they wouldn't touch an old woman," she says, unclasping her hands in horror at the thought and sudden wonder that they might: "and what would happen if we left the house empty? I don't think of it! They'd steal everything." She puts her hand on my shoulder, and whispers in her aged voice, which crackles like paper: "That's what it's come to, Nikola, you see what it's come to. Only the old women are left to keep house." Later on the enemy would begin to kill even the old women.
"Ah, they're scoundrels, Nikola. There's nobody like that where you come from, I'll bet?"
"Has he got a father and mother, Koya?" Her face is like parchment, old yellow parchment. She croaks: "Nikola, have you got a father?"
"And a mother, too?"
"What, and a wife? Nikola, have you got a wife? Have you got a picture of her?"
They put the picture on the table and bend over it. "Well, I like the look of her——"
"Here, let me look, let me look at Nikola's wife"—Darinka shoves them out of the way, a tiny figure amongst them. "Here, Nikola, is this your wife? Hm, might be one of ours almost. Oh, dear me! Oh, dear me! ..." and Darinka is overcome with the misery of Nikola and his wife being parted.
"Does she come from your village?" Koya asks.
"How many children have you got?" Mariushka takes a feminine point of view whatever the political situation. They are kindness itself as they strive to measure me against their own standards, and, finding me a foreigner and not really one of them, fail and are puzzled. Never can people have been more kind.
"Slobodan," says Koya, after the fuss has subsided. "You'd better get that stuff and we'll count it." He pours out wine all round. Darinka takes away the lamp to trim the wick, and leaves us for a moment in darkness; only our cigarette ends glow. We sit there in the darkness, our cigarette ends glowing, and then Koya begins to laugh quietly to himself. "You know, Mariushka, you've no idea the trouble we had with the second pig ..." and he embarks upon a long description of the way the pig fought, and then was taken again, and escaped and ran round the sty, and was finally held by three men sitting on it. He turns to me in the darkness:
"You'll think it funny that we slaughter so many pigs. I daresay they don't do it in your parts. You'd keep 'em for market, eh? Well, of course you would. We used to. But what's the good of keeping pigs nowadays when the Fascists take 'em off you as soon as look at you! No, no,"—he slaps the table—"it's an unnatural thing, but the fact is, you know, the fact is that we live better now than we did before the war. We eat more, and we work less. Everyone eats as much as he can, and doesn't save. He's scared he'll have it taken from him otherwise. Isn't that strange! And people being killed all round you so fast that you can scarcely count them."
We sit in silence, our cigarette ends glowing a little against our faces. Mariushka says suddenly: "That's how we ought always to live. There's no sense in pinching and starving when the land's rich like ours." She pauses in embarrassment, but Koya lets her go on: "We ought to have a better life, somehow. What's the good of being rich if you can't enjoy it? What's the good of working your fingers to the bone if you've never learnt to read—and, I don't know, perhaps I'm being silly—and if, well, if you've never seen beyond the end of the village street? What's it all lead to? Here, now, everyone's killing each other and hating each other, and, and —well, not really living at all...." She trails off in confusion, shy of the excitement in her voice. Koya still says nothing.
Finally he breaks the silence: "Well, there you are, you see. She's quite right. People are changing. And perhaps when the war ends, and we get rid of these Fascists, perhaps we'll have a better chance than we got before. Anyway, I never saw you reading a book, Mariushka."
"It's not that, it's not that," Mariushka says quickly. "I can read, though: I can read as well as you can. And I can write...." she trails off again, not knowing what to say, embarrassed, even a little angry with herself for saying as much and with us for hearing her say it. "But you men only think about yourselves. You gad about and leave us to do the work."
"Maiku! Who's been working to-day?"
Darinka comes back with the lamp, and Mariushka goes out to the kitchen. Then Slobodan comes in with a sack in one hand. He is more pleased with himself than ever, and bounces the sack up and down.
"Pour it out, Slobodan, and we'll count it."
"Well, what's the sense of pouring it out, Koya? It's all in boxes, just as I got it from them." He empties a dozen cardboard boxes on to the table; each is a carton of twenty-five rounds, Mauser .792. Then he empties out of his pockets a few dozen clips of a kind that I have not seen before. The clips take five rounds each, but the rounds slip into the clip at an angle of about 75 degrees, not at right angles as with standard ammunition.
Koya opens all the cartons and pours the rounds ringingly on the table. Then he picks them up in handfuls and lets them slip through his fingers. "Doesn't matter, you never can be sure." Slobodan shakes his head cheerfully. He is enjoying himself very much. "There you are, Nikola, that stuff you're looking at is Hungarian. Used to be issued to our gendarmes before the war. Here, wait a minute!" He runs out of the room and comes back a minute or two later with a short-barrelled carbine. "That's Hungarian, too. The cartridges fit that one. Madjaritsa." "And what do you do with this?" "How d'you mean, what do I do with it? Use it, of course." He puckers up his face in astonishment. "Well, I daresay I don't look like a partisan at the moment. No, I can see that you might not guess. Still, I'm in the village reserve, and I may get called up any moment. Oh, yes, any moment. I spent six months of last year in the Frushka Gora, up in the woods, chasing the Fascists. Maiku! how we chased them. And then, of course, they chased us a bit, too." He breaks off, laughing.
Koya is counting: "Three hundred and fifty German, ninety-three Madjaritsa. That makes, that makes ... four hundred and forty-three." He sucks at a stub of pencil and writes down this total on the tablecloth. Slobodan goes on talking.
"I was in the King's Guard, King Alexander's blooming royal guard—though the king was dead, of course, and we had Prince Paul. Maiku! How smart we were! ... Everything polished and shining. Only lads who could handle horses they'd take. Bearskins and red jackets and swords: you've no idea what a fine lot we looked."
"You know, we peasants aren't such fools. Jugoslavia was a good country, a rich and prosperous and peaceful country. We had simply everything in Srem. And such a life it was! You should come back in October, after the war is over, when we go up into the vineyards to get the grapes: and the boys and girls go up together, and picnic up there in the shade of the vineyards, and stay up there all night if they want to, singing to each other and drinking sweet wine." He sighs sentimentally. "Nowhere in the world was like the Srem that we had. All of us were pretty much at peace. We got on famously with the Germans and the Hungarians and the Slovaks that lived amongst us: never had the least trouble with the Germans—they're industrious and work hard. We had everything: only ..." Slobodan has a way of screwing up his eyes and squinting at the ceiling: "... only nothing seemed to be honest. You could work as hard as you liked; and there'd always be someone a bit more clever than you who'd work half as hard and got his hands on twice the money. It was bound to lead to trouble in the end. We saw that perfectly well."
He turns to Koya: "What did they say about it to-day? I mean, up at Vrdnik?"
Koya shuffles the ammunition back into the sack. "Bacon's what they wanted this time. Last time it was tobacco. Maiku! how those Germans eat! It simply had to be bacon. So you'll have to let me have those three sides you've got: we've got that one I slaughtered to-day." He draws sums on the tablecloth. "But I won't give them three sides for this lot. I told them so. They say they'll bring twenty-five grenades to-morrow evening, and then I'll give them three sides." Koya is enormously pleased with the bargain. He looks slyly at Slobodan and at me. "You can't afford to have the peasants against you. You simply can't, you know."
|Table of Contents||Previous Chapter||Next Chapter||Bookshelf|