Bruno (Josip Novakovich)

1948

Hrastovac, Croatia

At the Kamenars, there was a festivity. Pero Kamenar had just returned from serving in the reserves of the Yugoslav Federal Army. He had been stationed on the Danube along the Romanian border; since Tito’s break with Stalin there was a constant threat of

Soviet invasion.

“I tell you, my dears, when I saw across the river hundreds of tanks aiming at us, and a green square lake of soldiers on the march, I was sure I’d never see you again. I’m amazed that I’m here!”

He drank the last swallow of pale brandy, rakia. Neda, his wife, brought out a jug of steaming milk, fresh from the cow, who was still mooing, perhaps from the surprise of being milked that late in the day. And along with the low moo, there was a high one – the calf was probably protesting being deprived of her afternoon meal. “Too bad we don’t have a lamb to roast for you,” Neda said. “We’ve even run out of chicken and geese. Nothing left to roast.”

“To tell you the truth, I prefer our milk. Beats the beans we had every day.”

He sliced a bundle of garlic and mixed it with cool white cottage cheese, poured paprika over it and salted it, and ate it. His dark eyes watered. His long, gaunt face turned red. The skin around his eyes glowed so that the irregular dry creases around them vanished for the time being. “That’s life!” he exclaimed and broke a thick slice of brown bread into pieces, which he dipped in the milk and chewed slowly. “And how are my boys doing?” He slapped Toni, an owly eight-year-old, with broad cheeks, and a little hooked nose – his and Neda’s son. Then he glanced at Bruno, a pale ten-year-old with a large cowlick and a wide nose. Bruno came from Pero’s first wife, who had died of typhoid fever. “You look mighty thin. You don’t like that cow of ours?”

“Oh, he does:’ said Neda defensively. “It’s amazing how much milk this boy can gulp down. Stand up, show your dad how tall you’ve gotten.”

Bruno didn’t say anything, but he stood up, aware of his big knees and thin bones. He was shy – this father of his, for whom he had been waiting for months, was now a stranger to him – much louder and somehow less genuine, less believable.

His father pinched him on the cheek and pressed a slobbering kiss over his eyebrows. Bruno wiped the kiss away with his forearm and blushed.

“This milk, that’s something else. If we sell our little forest and buy several cows and a bull, pretty soon we could have a big milking operation. That would be better than my lousy lumberjacking.” He stood up and pushed a split log into the brick oven. “But then, this wood has its uses too.” Smoke came out of a crack in the bricks before the fire caught on, and then no more smoke came out; the wood crackled in the flames.

Sitting next to the stove, Bruno sweated and coughed. His father looked at him critically and Bruno covered his mouth and suppressed another wave of coughing that was coming. “The smoke irritates you? Tomorrow we’ll cut some trees and chop them, so you’ll feel like a man, you’ll see.” He tickled his son under the ribs. “You’ve become all effeminate in my absence!”

“Let’s play chess,” Bruno said to Toni, and Toni said, “Tomorrow. I want to hear our dad’s stories.”

Bruno yawned and went to sleep under a thick down cover in the little room he shared with his brother.

At night, Toni woke him up. “Listen,” he said. “Our mom is having nightmares or Dad’s choking her or something.”

They listened. Their mother moaned, father groaned, the bed squeaked.

“They are having fun, that’s all,” Bruno said and laughed.

Soon the house was quiet again: Toni snored – an amazing snore for a kid. For a long time Bruno couldn’t fall asleep – the sounds of his father arid stepmother making love disturbed him and strangely exhilarated him, and he didn’t know whether it was because of that excitement or something else that he found it hard to breathe. He had to think of breathing, or else, he had the feeling the breath wouldn’t take place. He didn’t dare draw a deep breath and he trembled minutely. When he fell asleep, he had nightmares – he was hanging from a gate frame, on a rope, while soldiers sang a joyous hymn in a high pitch. With his hands he tried to free his neck, but the rope was too tight, and he kept choking while the pitch of the hymn rose into a prickly buzz.

“Get up. Milk the cow!” came a voice. He thought this was still the dream, and the oddity of the request that he, who was hanging from a gate, should milk the cow, perhaps more than the

fright of the nightmare, woke him.

“No time to waste!” said the stepmother.

But Bruno couldn’t get up. His musc1es ached, he trembled. Neda pulled him up, threw an overcoat over him, slid wooden shoes on his feet that dangled over the edge of the hay-mattress bed, opened his squeezed fists, and pressed the wire handle of a lantern into his palms. The flame in the lantern wavered, andfrom the side, Neda’s little eyes blinked hazel under her scarf, and her shadow darted jerkily over the whitewashed ceiling, like the profile of an eager and blinking eagle. Bruno gripped the lantern.

“What’s the matter with you?” the stepmother said. “It’s cold.”

“No, it’s not. I put wood in the stove.” She pushed Bruno out of doors into the chill of the fall twilight.

In the cow pen Bruno put the lantern on a log and sat on a three-legged chair; one leg kept sinking through the soggy soil. As he couldn’t support his weight, he leaned against the taut and warm belly of the cow. Past the cow’s side, he saw a worried calf-a beautiful dark red animal with a white forehead-peeping through wood planks from another stall. Bruno relaxed and stretched his hands to the cow teats, and pulled, alternating, now one, now the other. Milk squirted with a shush into the wooden bucket, and the steamy smell of rich fresh milk climbed between his chin and the cow’s belly. He usually loved the smell-sometimes even squirted the milk directly into his mouth- but now it made him wretchedly and retchingly nauseated. He slid below the cow’s belly and knocked down the bucket of milk. He thought that he was passing out – he hoped that he was because he couldn’t stand this weakness and nausea – but as he stretched in the steamy and stale hay, he realized that he was terribly lucid, the way one is supposed to be before the moment of death, while falling, or just before being hit by a train. Now he could be squashed by the huge cow, shifting above him in her disenchantment and irritation that her teats had been teased and left full to the bursting. The cow mooed a slow moo, and this moo, Bruno imagined, spoke – I’ve had enough feeble human hands, give me my calf, with her strong mouth, to free me from all this milk. The famished calf yelled out and tried to climb the fence.

Bruno crawled from beneath the cow gingerly.

His stepmother shouted from the door. “Oh Heavens, you spilled the milk! How could you? How will we buy bread?”

“Those are good questions,” said Bruno. “I fell. I don’t know how. ”

“And how do you think we’re all going to feel if we starve? Get up! Back to the cow!”

“Don’t torture the boy!” his father shouted on the porch beneath cracked gray wooden beams, blowing out the haze of his morning pipe. “He must be ill.”

He came over and carried Bruno back to bed. “Some milk?” he said.

“Where would we get that?” Neda said.

“How, where? There’s more in Milkitza. ”

“And who’ll milk her?” Neda said. “I’m sure it won’t be you.”

“How come you’re always right?” said Pero and laughed merrily although this didn’t seem to be a happy occasion, but almost anything was bound to be better than a new eastern front.

“No, I don’t want milk,” Bruno said. Seated in the house, leaning his elbows on the table and supporting his head with his palms, he declined rose-hip tea.

“Milk is life,” repeated the stepmother. “Only if you drank more, you wouldn’t be so thin.”

Bruno burped up some milk and groaned in bed, unable to vomit.

When he felt better, he drew tiny drawings in pencil-since he couldn’t get much paper – realistic and precise pictures of cats, dogs, horses, and the village faces.

“That’s wonderful,” said Pero, “but it would be even more wonderful if you ate.”

Bruno was surprised that now he could draw better than usual, as though his illness had given him endurance for painstaking concentration.

Later in the day a doctor from the nearby town visited in a yellow ambulance with red crosses. Bruno saw the car from the window. A tall thin doctor without ears – they had been cut off in the war – showed up in his room, took off his hat, and placed it on the bed post. He felt Bruno’s temperature on his forehead and then insisted on taking it anally. Neda pinned Bruno down. Bruno kicked the doctor, and now they were trying it again, when Pero came in. “What’s the ruckus?”

“He won’t let the doctor take his temperature!”

“What kind of temperature taking is this?” Pero asked. “Any- body would be feverish under this pressure!” He laughed. “Isn’t it good enough to put the thermometer in his armpit?”

“No,” said the doctor. “He’s running a high fever, and the most precise measurement, unfortunately, can be obtained from the anus.”

“Isn’t temperature only a symptom, and you already know that he’s got it?”

“Temperature, of course, is an accompanying symptom but it can also be the cause of all sorts of troubles – even death.”

“He’s not dying. The two of you can’t subdue him.”

The doctor looked into Bruno’s throat with a flashlight, depressing his tongue with a light aluminum spoon. He pressed one finger on Bruno’s back and knocked at it with another. “Hm, no hollow spots, that’s good, but perhaps the sound’s too dull; hopefully the lungs aren’t filled up.” Then he listened with a stethoscope and asked Bruno to breathe deeply.

“Bronchial disturbances. Now can you cough? Cough!”

Bruno did.

“Do you have a white towel, a sheet?” asked the doctor and turned around toward the kitchen.

“Of course we do!” said Neda, as though this question insulted her. She brought out a white bedsheet.

“May I tear the edge of it?” The doctor asked, and without waiting for an answer, tore a foot-wide strip and cut it in half.

“All right. Cough again, clear your throat, and spit in this sheet.”

Bruno did as he was told.

The doctor inspected it. “No blood in the sputum.” He folded the sheet and placed it in a metal box that he brought along with his black bag.

“Now, can you blow your nose?”

Bruno did.

The doctor stared at the green snot with streaks of blood in the shiny sluggish pathways. He folded the sheet too, and put it together with the other one in the box.

He drew blood from Bruno’s forearm into a little vial.

“We should know in a week what it is. But for now, since it’s most likely a bacterial infection, we need a shot of penicillin.” He took out a large syringe and fitted a thick needle on it. “It won’t hurt. Now, bare just a bit of your behind.” Even Pero helped to hold Bruno and stripped his threadbare pajamas down. The doctor slid the needle into the left buttock while Bruno screamed. “We’re almost done,” said the doctor and slowly kept squeezing the liquid into the flesh while grinding his teeth. When he withdrew the needle, he placed white gauze soaked in pure alcohol over the bleeding skin.

Bruno drank a glass of water with two aspirin tablets. The tablets got stuck in his throat and melted there, becoming bitter chalk powder. Through tears he saw the disfigured features of the assembly of adults closing in on his body. He tried to kick them, but as his foot flew in the empty space, he realized that the adults were not as close as they had appeared through his tears, and their features were not even disfigured, for they were neither frowning nor smiling but looking at him intently.

The doctor was one of those people who couldn’t whisper, so while he was attempting to keep his voice down, it still carried through the walls, and Bruno heard it. “He’s got pneumonia. Whether pneumonia is a secondary illness here, I can’t tell yet, but for now, don’t let him go out and mix with people. I’ll need to draw your blood samples too.”

“What could it be?” said Neda.

The doctor didn’t say anything. Nobody said anything anymore, but even Bruno, though only ten years old, knew the feared unspoken disease, and “could it be” echoed as “TB.” TB or not TB.

With that consonance in his ears, he coughed loudly with paroxysms, as though he had just got the license to do so. He shivered with pride as he coughed-self – important, for he partook of the terrors of fate, despite his youth. He wished the wind that rasped through his throat were even louder, and that like a gun the blasts of air could kill at least the doctor. And then he understood that they probably could kill.

At night Bruno heard his father’s radio – he listened to the short waves, Voice of America in Slavic languages and various German radio stations, because he was obsessed with the movements of the Soviet army.

Bruno fell asleep and woke up at night with the same nightmare of hanging, surrounded by singing soldiers, and in the soldiers’ uniforms were his father, the doctor, and many people with mustaches. Trying to fall asleep again, he buried his face in the down pillow and muffled his coughs.

Bruno woke up before dawn in wet pillows that were sticky with his coughs and droolings. Though he didn’t like to be seen in his misery, he waited for company. In twilight he walked out to the cow and leaned against her warm belly to get some heat. The cow sighed, steam came out of her nostrils, and she gently rubbed her side against him, perhaps wishing that he were the calf, who was separated from her. When Bruno was leaving, she looked at him with glassy and liquid eyes calmly. He walked back and coughed into the feathers in the dank down pillow – he coughed his sorrow into the plucked sorrows of geese.

Pale and disgusted he waited for hot tea, made bitter by aspirin. His stepmother woke up after him, and she understood it to be her duty to impale him with the long and oval mercury thermometer stick. He refused the first morning, but the second he felt particularly weak and willingless, and he let her roll him over and push, and even though it hurt, he didn’t object, but waited for the trouble to pass. That pain was minor compared with his chest pains and worries.

Later that second morning, he sat up in bed and looked out the window. Toni was out on a grassy slope (the grass was green and young with a second life) – in Bruno’s overcoat, which dragged on the ground, in the mud – cowherding Mi1kitza and her calf. Milkitza grazed slowly, while the calf, her head tilted, nudged the teats with her wet and pink nose. She pushed so hard that the cow’s large belly swung.

In the afternoon, his father brought him a box of watercolors and brushes with a lot of paper.

“Thank you, Dad,” he said. “This must be expensive.”

“Not too bad. I just won’t smoke for a month.”

“Can that be done?”

“You should have clean air to breathe anyhow. Maybe we’ll figure a way to move to the Slovenian Alps or Gorski Kotar.”

Snow fell early that evening and it snowed all night in slow, large, and blue flakes. The next morning, Toni, who now slept in the room with his parents for fear of catching Bruno’s disease, went out sledding with other village kids. Bruno watched, his head leaning against the window of old glass that in places elongated and thinned images and in others fattened them, in waves. He rolled his forehead over the window, enjoying the undulating changes in his view. His forehead bumps left grease spots above his eye level. With his breath he hazed up the image of children sledding so that for a while the scene appeared as though the children were up in the clouds falling through with the snow. He was tempted to envy the children, but realized he had no desire to sled; the thought of snow melting behind the collar of his shirt onto his back sent a violent shudder through him. He preferred drawing the scene in watercolors, against the background of a Catholic church, which he saw, and of a funeral procession, which he imagined,

with red horses drawing a sled-hearse through a sparse alley of bumpy-limbed and trimmed lindens. Each tree had a couple of thin soldiers hanging and dozens of crows pecking on them.

The doctor was back four days after his initial visit. He talked to Pero outside, but again so loudly that even Bruno heard what he knew must be the case with him anyhow, that it was TB.

He gave Bruno another penicillin shot – in a ceremony of violence, sticking the needle in the buttocks. “It’s not the perfect medicine but it will prevent any secondary infections from developing. Americans have developed a great n1edicine, streptomycin, but we don’t have it here yet, and it would be very expensive.”

“How about the rest of us? Are we ill too?” asked Neda.

“No, he’s the only one. I think he’s vulnerable because he’s so thin. Even now, the best therapy for him is to eat a lot of protein. You have milk?”

“Jesus, do we have milk! You want to see our cow?”

“Actually, I do.”

They walked to the sty, and the doctor picked up an aluminum bucketful of fresh milk and cheerfully drove away in the yellow ambulance.

Pero sought streptomycin in Zagreb, but he couldn’t find it. At home on the short waves, on a Swiss radio station, he heard that the Swiss government had offered a supply of streptomycin to

Tito, to help curb TB, but Tito replied that Yugoslavia had everything and that it needed nothing. Pero was enraged. He went to a bar and got drunk and reported the story to the drunken patrons.

As a consequence of that, several days later, three policemen came to the Kamenar house and arrested Pero. He was sent to a penal colony, the Goli Otok (the Naked Island) in the Adriatic, for malicious spreading of false information and for undermining the Proletarian Revolution. In climate, the island may sound much better and balmier than Siberia, but in practice, with brutal guards and heavy labor, it was a match for the Soviet penal colony – and one’s saying that openly warranted one’s being sent to the island colony.

One morning as his stepmother was about to take his temperature, Bruno got a hard-on while she undressed him and with her cold hands pressed his buttocks aside and squeezed one thigh. He lay on his side. Neda laughed. “At least he looks healthy. Do you play with him?”

He covered his penis, and said, “What do you mean?”

“Big boys often do. They squeeze it and pull at it.”

“What for?”

She pulled the thermometer out of him and rolled it around in her fingers against the petroleum lamp. “Hum, it’s at 41 Celsius again. Poor boy.”

Another time when he got a hard-on, she asked him whether he’d played with it. He said he still didn’t know what she meant by playing with it, and she said, “Well, I’m not going to show you. You’ll figure it out soon enough.”

She leaned over him to get the teacup on the other side of the bed, and her breasts came out of her poorly buttoned shirt, and brushed over his face. On her way back, her breasts stroked his cheeks again. He felt warm in her bosom. Even when she stood back with the cup, he sat up and tremulously leaned his cheeks onto her breasts, listening to the beating of blood in his ears or in her, he couldn’t tell, and after that he’d be pleasantly dizzy for several minutes. From then on, she let him lean like that many times. On such occasions, he loved being weak and sick and cared for, like a baby and, illicitly, like a man, but not like a young boy. Though his illness, he was everything but himself

Bruno’s health grew worse. Fresh bright-red blood appeared in his sputum. By the end of January he had wasted away and was close to death.

One day, a grim and tall doctor, with a high forehead, thin lips, and sad, heavily eyelidded lightless eyes, came accompanied by a short French UNICEF doctor. “Could we see your son?” he asked Neda.

She showed them in. “Where is our old doctor?” she asked.

“Oh, he came down with TB himself Actually, he’s already dead.”

“You think he picked it up here?”

“It usually takes a while for the disease to kill you. Anyway, there are so many places with TB, it’s almost a plague. But everything is possible; he may have gotten it here.”

Bruno was drawing pictures and muttering to himself, sunken with bulging eyes. Everybody in his pictures was emaciated and elongated, like in El Greco’s paintings. He was drawing a picture with several altars, and at each altar, there was a thin and tall Abraham look-alike, not with a customarily thick beard, but with a goatee, and with his bony hand up in the air to stab a goat but the Abrahams had no knives in their hands, and some, instead of goats, had calves spread out on wood piles. The angels, instead of holding the hands back to prevent the slaughter, were rushing down from the sky, and some were already at hand, passing large

daggers into the hands.

“Wow, that’s marvelous,” said the grim doctor. “And where are the Isaacs?”

“They are the angels.”

“Does that mean that they are already dead or that they are saving themselves from death like this?”

“I don’t know. ”

“Hum,” the doctor said and studied the painting, with his finger pressing against his canine. He turned to Neda. “Mrs. Kamenar, your son is an unconscious genius, the only kind there is. I’d like to buy this painting from you, young man. What do you ask for it?”

“Streptomycin.”

“You know everything. That’s why we are here. We have brought it for you.”

“Really? Is that true?” Bruno cried. “Does it work?”

“Yes, we’ll give you your first shots in a minute and then an even better drug, PAS; a Swedish miracle. Together the two drugs will cure you in two to three months, I am sure. And what do you want for the painting?”

“Are you serious? I can’t believe it.”

“Of course, of course.”

And he turned to the Frenchman, who watched the paintings with admiration, and exchanged several sentences in French.

“I asked him whether the paintings would work for UNICEF and he says that they are a bit too morbid for that, but he, too, would like a painting from you. How much do you want?”

“I’ll give you all of my paintings. I don’t want to look at them.”

The doctors looked through his collection. The grim doctor handed Bruno a bundle of banknotes in the color he had never seen in money before, purple. “Enough to buy yourself buckets of paint and bushels of sausages!”

Bruno, who usually hated injections, welcomed them. “In order to keep up with the treatment, we’ll take you to Zagreb. You are one of the first people in the country to get them.”

“How did you choose me?”

“We can’t tell.”

In the hospital, in Zagreb, by February, Bruno had almost fully recovered.

Neda and Toni visited him. While he drank tea from Neda’s hands he blushed. They didn’t look each other in the eye; he was himself again, a nearly healthy boy, who no longer had the privileges of stepping over the boundaries between boyhood and infancy and adulthood. Neda had a story to tell him. “You know, the calf died. It got thin and just wasted away. It had all sorts of diseases, and the vet says it didn’t die of TB. He tested the calf for TB, and she had the TB bacteria, and so does the cow. The vet thinks you got it from the cow’s milk. ”

Several days later, Pero showed up in the hospital, his head shaved, with a big knife cut over his face, but glowingly happy. He had a letter of pardon from Tito, in which Tito thanked him for drawing his attention to the need for obtaining new medications for TB from the West.

Pero had heard that TB is often spread through cows. He asked the grim doctor whether that was true, and the doctor, surprised, said that of course it was. “What, you haven’t had your

cows tested before? Why, I thought that all the villages tested their cows and destroyed those that had the bacillus!”

“Well, now we can see just how far behind God’s back our village is, I guess,” said Pero.

That summer solstice, the Kamenars, in their festivities, did this. They tied the cow in chains in the pen. Since the hay and the dung and the very ground in the pen was thoroughly infected by the TB bacillus, Pero wanted to purge everything on the ground. He filled the pen with hay and poured gasoline over it. From a distance he flung a torch, and the pen burst into an explosive flame. The old creature bellowed, its flesh hissed and cackled, the beams fell, and when the night fell, there were only glowing embers and ashes left, and among the ashes, white bones with black hollows where the infected marrow had lodged.

Bruno had watched, smelled, and listened with horror-there was the unconscious creature who had comforted him so much and so often, who had fed him since his infancy, who had raised him, who had warmed him in his weakest moments. Who had nearly killed him. He had thought that he had loved the cow, that he would be sorrowful, but as the flesh hissed and shushed in the flames, he shivered, and it was not from fever that he did, but with relief. In the morning, when all the ashes were out, he was so filled with strength that he felt he could fly over the village in his muddy overcoat on the warm smoke of the burned-out cow.

Discussion Questions

1. The story places much importance on Bruno’s relationship to Milkitza, the cow. Why is Milkitza so important to Bruno during the time of his illness? How can our relationships with animals heal us?

2. What role does the political situation of the country play in terms of Bruno’s health?

3. What insights does this story provide in terms of the child’s experience of illness? In what ways do children make sense of illness differently from adults?

4. Comment on the doctor figures in this story. There are three: the tall, thin man without ears who sees Bruno at the start of the story, the grim doctor, and the French UNICEF doctor. What distinct role does each of them play in Bruno’s life? What strikes you about their behaviour towards Bruno?

5. What do you make of the ending to this story? Is it upsetting? How, if at all, does Bruno reconcile his relief from being cured of TB with the loss of his beloved animal companion?

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