prose

Zoran Žmirić: Beardy (excerpt from the novel "Blockbuster")

Zoran Žmirić (1969) is a writer and musician from Rijeka. His publications include two short story collection, a book of essays and a novel. He was a finalist for 2008 national Best Unpublished Manuscript with the novel Blockbuster (published 2009) and a finalist for the national "roman@tportal.hr” Prize (2010) for the best novel. He has been awarded with "Literary Pen" for the Blockbuster by the Croatian Literary Society (Rijeka), and The City of Rijeka Award (2011) for special achievements in culture. His works are translated into Polish and Italian. He plays bass in three-decades lasting rock group Grč from Rijeka.




Beardy (excerpt from the novel "Blockbuster") 

 

 

After breakfast, the commander introduced us all to beardy, who arrived that morning as a replacement. I noticed everyone disliked him at first. He said his name was Knez. I didn't want to remember his name, as if I felt we wouldn't spend much time together. We shook hands and he immediately became repulsive to me. A limp grip and sweaty palms. Nervousness came out of his every pore. Obviously he had some issues that had nothing to do with coming to the unit, because he already spent two months in the field. Whatever it was, it didn't interest me at that moment.

The distance towards him was increased by the fact he came in from the antiterrorist unit, so initially we expected the usual showing off. Luckily, the new guy was the quiet type, for which we were grateful. The nervousness he couldn't hide was evident in his every move. He acted like he was waiting for something, or someone. At first we thought the worm eating him from the inside was the cause of the excessive pedantry with which he rearranged the equipment at his bed. But later the guys from his old unit told us he was like that to begin with. He looked like someone was secretly ironing his uniform. Every piece on him was perfectly neat and clean, like he was ready for a military parade. He slept under the window, in the corner which he turned into a mathemathically arranged habitat where everything was brought to perfection. His blanket looked like a flower patch with a white, low picket fence, grown on a garbage dump. He would disassemble and clean his rifle an infinitely long time, lubricating every part with surgical precision, to which the commander reminded him that it's better to clean your rifle quicker but several times a day than once thoroughly. The reason was simple, if you do it quickly, there's less chance of an alarm catching you with your weapon disassembled. I didn't get into that theory, because even without it beardy would annoy us with every gesture he made. Even with the neatly arranged rifle parts, whether he was cleaning it fast or slowly. But, however he may have annoyed people in the bunkhouse, there was something positive there. It's always good to have someone who annoys everyone, because that sort of person keeps the rest of the men together. If we ever divided amongst ourselves, beardy definitely changed that.

Considering the men went through irregular waves of dismay and hysteria, and that some of us had through their behavior become a threat to themselves and others, the commander decided to bring in a priest to give us a few words of comfort and encouragement. After blessing the bunks and the Army, it was time for confession. The priest looked at the men and noticed beardy was getting natsy. They left the bunkhouse together. An hour later a shot was heard from the latrine. It was an odd sight. His uniform neatly pressed, his boots polished, beardy sat in the cabin in a puddle of blood. The front was neat, with a combed and perfectly trimmed beard, and on the rear he was missing half his head. Later we met the guys from the antiterrorist unit where beardy had been before he came to us. They said he volunteered for reassignment, not knowing what to do with himself. A few days before that he came back from home, where his wife let him know she wanted a divorce. Since he met her he hadn't thought about any other woman. She was his life, the reason for which he drew breath. Few women will ever have the love and attention he lavished on her. When she told him it was over, at first he mutely stared into the distance. Then he started skipping meals, even stopped taking fluids.

They say he'd lie for days, with his head in his palms, weeping without a sound, cramping on the bed from invisible pain. Few understood what it was about, but those who did tried to console him by saying time heals all wounds. Beardy understood the boys weren't giving him advice just out of courtesy, and he was grateful for every word of encouragement. He realised all support was valuable because these boys had made an effort to give him their time and try to relieve his sorrow. There was no doubt there, it was present only when they assured him that one day it'll all be okay. He was aware of that, but the pain he was going through was too powerful for him to last the next minute. In that condition "tomorrow" seemed inconceivably distant, and at that moment utterly useless.

In the end he volunteered into our unit, apparently because the word about us was that we had the biggest losses in the field. But the bitterness was unbearable. He didn't manage to go on one of the missions, for which I was grateful to him, in a sense. Maybe he'd rashly reveal our positions during action and risk the lives of some of us. If he'd decided to go, he did it in the best possible way. I'm sure that the last great love story died along with beardy and although I never got to know him, today I feel like I knew him better than anyone from the bunkhouse. With his silence he revealed the story of himself, teaching me that a man can say a lot with one pull of the trigger, if the barrel is pointed in the right direction. He can be a great creator, point events in different directions with countless possible plots and resolutions. To kill or not to kill a man, that decision changed the whole flow of things that unfolded into eternity. Like a domino lightly pushed over with a finger, whose fall starts an unstoppable destructive sequence outside all control, beardy changed the lives of God knows how many people with only one move. I was convinced of this system of laws in a couple of days.

 

A few years later, purely by accident, I met beardy's widow. I heard she was terribly shaken by his death. It wasn't easy facing up to the fact that you were someone's only reason to live and that you accidentally took that reason away, becoming a reason for death. Later she introduced herself as the widow of a fallen defender killed in action. Full of rage and hatred, she spat on everything that wasn't ours from the bottom of her soul. She probably convinced herself it was true, in the end. But free stocks, an apartment as a gift, a car with privileges and a high pension were, after a while, a decent comfort, I think. She never gave them up in favor of his parents, who never got over the pain over the loss of their son. They died a few years later, as old folks say, of grief. If grief ever was a natural cause of death, then in the Knez household it must have been a hereditary disease.

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