THE RED DEVIL
It is nothing new under the sun that some children are afraid of school, but no one was quite so afraid of school as little Mensur Ćeman from Hilbilovi near Darkovo.
Learned people who are knowledgeable about children’s fears could have written books and books about Mensur’s nightmares; the trouble was that, in the boy’s mind, school was a building where black monsters devoured men, women, and children. He had heard the grown-ups’ stories—he listened on long summer evenings when the men of the village told dark tales about the old school, and on his way home, his mouth dry with fear, he always made a wide detour around those ghostly ruins. Croatian forces burned down half the village when they pulled back during the war, and today, ten years on, the school building was the only one that remained much as Mensur’s Uncle Irfan found it when he entered the deserted village at the head of the 2nd Darkovo Brigade of the Bosnian Army.
A hundred yards further Mensur’s father, Imam Omar Efendi Ćeman, built a new, white mosque with donations from well-to-do residents of the village, and next to it a beautiful house for himself and his family. Here Mensur woke up every morning looking at the school with its gaping windows—a haunted house overgrown with weeds and wild bushes. “School” was the scariest word for little Mensur, and the day his father told him he was now a big boy and would be starting school on Monday was the most terrifying day of his life.
The imam, to be sure, had explained to his son a hundred times that there were no monsters living there that devoured men, women, and children, and that the building had burned down in the war; nor would he be going to that ruined, deserted school, but to a beautiful new one in Darkovo, six kilometers away.
But in vain, because when Uncle Irfan drove him into town in his big jeep on the first day of school, little Mensur thought he would die of fright. He’d heard stories from the other boys, and some other children were afraid of school too, but no one was quite so afraid of school as little Mensur Ćeman from Hilbilovi near Darkovo.
* * *
It was the last Friday of the year when Uncle Irfan drove Mensur to the birthday party of his best friend from school, Damir. For three days the boy had begged his father to be allowed to go. It was a slumber party, and the imam did not like the idea of his son staying over at Damir’s, though he did not tell him why. For Mensur this was like coming of age: he would sleep away from home for the first time in his life, and his father would not wake him for morning prayer. He was as excited as if he was going on a trip around the world, not just to Darkovo.
But that was not why he would remember that day. He would remember it because of the unusual big tree—a silver fir adorned with exotic decorations like little colored balls and gleaming light bulbs—that rose in the middle of Damir’s parents’ apartment. Mensur gazed at the spectacle in wonder. That was the day when he first heard of little Jesus, whose birthday was one day after Damir’s, and of the strangest of customs: children found presents under the decorated tree on that day. Several adults had gathered in the living room, and Damir’s father argued with them that the children’s presents would still be brought by Grandfather Frost, like in Tito’s times, and that Grandfather Frost would be coming on New Year’s Eve as he always had in their house.
Mensur did not quite understand Damir’s relationship to little Jesus, and to the Tito they mentioned, and which branch of the family old Frost was from. But that evening he saw Jesus’s, Tito’s and Damir’s Grandfather Frost for the first time. It was already late; they had long since eaten the big pizza and the cake in the shape of a soccer ball, and he was watching television together with his friends when suddenly the same kind of colorful fir tree appeared on the TV screen: a boy standing next to the tree opened the window and saw an unreal sight—a big red truck decorated with yellow light bulbs approached through the snowy landscape, and behind it another, and another, and soon a whole convoy of mysterious, big red trucks arrived at the boy’s house.
Mensur stared at the TV without blinking or breathing. The convoy stopped right in front of the house. A plump, jolly old man with a white beard and white hair, in a red coat and red cap, alighted from the first truck; he came up to the boy and handed him a big, colorfully wrapped present and a bottle of Coca-Cola.
* * *
“Pop, do I have any other grandfathers apart from Grandpa Fuad?” That was the first thing little Mensur asked his father the next day.
“You had Grandfather Šerif—,” his father replied, “the one who died in the war.”
“I know, but do I have any other grandfathers now?”
“No, why do you ask? Where did you get that idea from?”
“Pop, do I have a Grandfather Frost?!”
Now Efendi Omar understood the reason for his son’s sudden interest in family relations. Mensur told him where he had seen Grandfather Frost, and then his father began a long story: Grandfather Frost did not exist, he was just an invention of big international corporations and swindlers, infidels and bad people like those who had burned down the village. Mensur looked at him in shock.
“You mean Grandfather Frost… burned down the village? And the school?”
“No, not Grandfather Frost,” the imam explained patiently. “He doesn’t exist. Grandfather Frost was invented to estrange children from God and the faith, and to make parents waste their money on stupid toys.”
“But at Damir’s I saw…”
“You saw an ad!” the imam said, getting heated now. “You saw an ad for that American poison, that’s what you saw. Grandfather Frost is an invention of the infidels—the same ones who killed your grandfather in the old school!”
“But you told me there were no monsters in the old school!” the lad protested. “Just like you’re telling me now that Grandfather Frost doesn’t exist!”
That evening the imam read to his son from the Koran and told him about the war. Little Mensur learned the truth about the haunted house and the black monsters that made him so afraid of school, the old building where the Croats had set up a camp for the local Muslims during the war; here they tortured men, women, and children, and killed his grandfather Šerif. In the end the boy had to write the message in his primer that the Prophet Ibrahim—peace be upon him—had sent via his father. The large, rickety letters read: “I go whither my Master goes, He will set me on the right path.”
But from that night on, the black ghosts of the school were displaced from his winter dreams by that mysterious, magic red convoy full of presents for children, among which the fat, gray-bearded old man also had a gift for him—the little imam’s son from Hilbilovi near Darkovo.
* * *
After the birthday party Mensur’s father forbade him from having anything to do with Damir. He never explained why.
A whole year passed. It was exactly one year to the day, and Mensur could hardly wait to get to school and hear from his best friend Damir how the birthday party on Saturday had been. Fine snow was falling, and Mensur hurried along the path to the old road to Darkovo in his tight, yellow boots. Like every winter morning, he imagined getting to the road and seeing that convoy of red trucks winding its way toward his house.
He had been walking for almost an hour when he heard the sound of engines, like Uncle Irfan’s jeep, coming from beyond the forest. The noise grew louder, and now it seemed there were several of them. Mensur stopped, powerless to move or breathe; then he dashed along the path as fast as if he had wings instead of a schoolbag. He ran and fell, and ran and fell again, until he came to the edge of the forest, and there it was, the most wonderful sight he had ever seen: a big red truck decorated with yellow and red lights was coming round the bend in the road beneath Mount Vuča, plowing through snowdrifts, crunching over frozen ruts. And behind it came a second, a third, and a fourth. The convoy of red trucks disappeared briefly behind the big white hill and then reappeared on the road right in front of him.
He stood by the side of the road, enchanted, and gazed at the convoy. He was breathless with happiness and excitement. The first truck drew nearer… and pulled up right next to him. He thought he would faint when the truck’s door opened and out clambered a stout old man with a gray beard, all in red, and wearing an unusual red cap.
“Hey, kid!” Grandfather Frost said, coming up to him. “Where’s the turnoff to Hilbilovi?”
Mensur just stared, paralyzed. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out except little white puffs of steam.
“Hey kid, I’m talking to you!” The old man bent down and looked him in the eyes. “Are you from around here someplace?”
The boy still stood speechless.
“Do you know Imam Omar from Hilbilovi?” Grandfather Frost went.
Mensur’s whole body burned with an indescribable happiness that came out through his eyes in two small, warm tears.
“How do I get there?” the old man in red asked again and turned to look up the road. A little further, behind the forest, it forked and went off in different directions. “Which way to the imam’s?”
But Mensur just stared at him in silence. His chin trembled, and tears rolled down his cheeks.
“Oh shit, boy!” Grandfather Frost gave him a pat with his leather glove and swung himself back up into the cab of his truck.
The engines roared again and the convoy of red trucks soon disappeared behind the big white hill. The lad stood frozen for a few moments longer, gazing at the empty crossroads. For an instant he almost wanted to go back to the village after the convoy, but he knew his father would be furious if he found out he skipped school. Finally he turned and ran, following the tracks of the heavy trucks down into town, where they had come from. He prayed that God would skip that morning so he could return to the village sooner and see what Grandfather Frost had brought.
And to see the expression on his father’s face when he asked him if he still thought Grandfather Frost did not exist.
* * *
Mensur could hardly wait for the final bell. The pangs of impatience were like the cramps he got when he ate too many of Aunt Alma’s filo pastries. He dashed out of school and was soon racing up the road out of town, hardly touching the ground. Again he had wings on his back instead of a heavy schoolbag; he rushed over the icy brown mud of the old road, gathering up his schoolbooks that spilled out onto the snow, and ran again, clearing ditches he had never been able to jump before, and then took the path that disappeared into the forest.
As he approached the village it was clear that something big had happened. People were gathered around the mosque, and he ran toward them calling his father and trembling with inconceivable happiness. When he came up closer, he saw Uncle Irfan in a camouflage uniform, and next to him his father. He turned round and Mensur realized that something was wrong. Father’s eyes were red with tears.
“Come on, Mensur—,” he called in a weary voice, “we’re going to Uncle Irfan and Aunt Alma’s.”
“What’s up, Pop?” the boy asked in confusion, looking toward the mosque. “Did Grandfather Frost come?”
“What damn Grandfather Frost?” his uncle grumbled.
“Come on, Mensur,” the imam said, removing the schoolbag from his son’s shoulders. He took him by the hand and pulled him along.
As they walked toward his uncle’s house, Mensur looked back. He saw their house behind the mosque—and a terrible scene that cut him to the quick: black triangles of soot mounted the walls above the empty windows, and wisps of smoke curled up into the gray sky from blackened beams where the roof had been.
“Everything went up in flames, Mensur,” his uncle told him, laying his huge hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Who… how…?” the lad stammered.
“It was the new stove,” his father said. “It must have exploded. No one was at home at the time. Everything went up in flames.”
Mensur turned, struggled, and tore himself away from his father’s hand. He stared at what remained of their house, and then he realized.
“It wasn’t the stove, Pop,” he announced with a sob. “You were right, it was Grandfather Frost. Grandfather Frost burned down the house. Like he did the old school. That bloody asshole…”
Before he could finish his tearful tirade, his father’s right hand came sailing down and gave him a resounding slap on the back of the head.
“What damn Grandfather Frost?! What’s the boy on about?” his uncle grumbled again.
* * *
That New Year little Mensur Ćeman learned that Grandfather Frost really did exist, but that he was not the kind old man from the Coca-Cola ad bringing colorfully wrapped presents for the children—he was an infidel arsonist, and it was because of him that he now lived at his Uncle Irfan’s and had to go to school in Darkovo, six kilometers away. From that New Year on, little Mensur dreamed every night of a grimacing red monster with a white beard steering his ominous red truck into their village.
Learned people who are knowledgeable about children’s fears could write books and books about Mensur’s nightmares; the trouble was that, for the boy, Grandfather Frost—also known as Santa Claus—was a Catholic devil who brought great misfortune in his sack and set fire to Muslim villages. Mensur listened on long winter evenings when his father told dark tales about Grandfather Frost who deceived children and estranged them from God and the faith, and on his way home, his mouth dry with fear, he always made a wide detour around the big Coca-Cola advertisement. The evil old man sneering down diabolically from the billboard was the same he had seen in the red truck that day on the way to school, oblivious to what the fiend was bringing in his sack.
The imam, to be sure, explained to his son a hundred times that there were no red monsters that set fire to houses and schools, and that the problem had been their new stove; it had exploded and set fire to the carpets, curtains and wooden floorboards, and then the whole house; he also explained that Veljo the Veteran, the oldest firefighter in all of Bosnia, had come rushing from Darkovo with his brigade of volunteers. But they were too late, because no one had been able to tell them which road went to Hilbilovi and where Imam Omar lived, so they went the wrong way at the crossroads behind Mount Vuča and headed for Golija; they only arrived at the fire when the imam’s house was already gutted.
His father explained everything to him in detail a hundred times over, but in vain, because that morning when the teacher, Mirna, took her class to visit the Volunteer Fire Station in Darkovo—a ghastly, dilapidated building that looked like a home for terrifying, red old men like Damir’s grandfather, little Mensur thought he would die of fright. He’d heard stories from the other boys, and some other children were also afraid of fat Grandfather Frost, who they said always smelt of mud, but no one was quite so afraid as little Mensur Ćeman from Hilbilovi near Darkovo.
BORIS DEŽULOVIĆ was born on November 20, 1964, in Split, where he almost finished a degree in fine art and art history. After escapades in football, rock ‘n’ roll, comics, and alternative theater, he strayed into journalism in the mid 1980s as layout artist of the magazine Omladinska iskra, where he published his first articles and edited the satirical feuilleton Le Spizd. From 1988, together with Predrag Lucić and Viktor Ivančić, he edited Feral, the satirical supplement of Nedjeljna Dalmacija and Slobodna Dalmacija; in 1993 they established it as the independent weekly Feral Tribune. Since leaving Feral in 1999, Dežulović has been an ongoing columnist for Globus (Zagreb), Slobodna Dalmacija (Split), Dnevnik (Ljubljana) and Oslobođenje (Sarajevo), as well as a regular contributor to a wide range of media in the region. Since 2007 he and Predrag Lucić have been staging the poetic/satirical cabaret Melodija Bljeska i Oluje (The Melody of Flash and Storm; a reference to two controversial Croatian military offensives in 1995) in the countries of ex-Yugoslavia. He lives and works in Split.
Dežulović’s publications include the novels Christkind and Jebo sad hiljadu dinara (Who Gives a Fuck About a Thousand Dinars Now) as well as story, column and essay collections. “The Red Devil” comes from a 2007 collection of short stories Poglavnikova bakterija (The Führer’s Bacillus).
About the Translator:
WILL FIRTH was born in 1965 in Newcastle, Australia. He studied German and Slavic languages in Canberra, Zagreb, and Moscow. Since 1991 he has been living in Berlin, Germany, where he works as a freelance translator of literature and the humanities. He translates from Russian, Macedonian, and all variants of Serbo-Croat. His website is www.willfirth.de.