PARTS OF TOWN
“Put the leash on me so I can take you out for a bit,” Hans told me. Hans is a perfectly groomed German shepherd. He and I have lived together for five years now. My friend doesn’t really speak, of course, but I recognize his every glance, twitch, and movement of his ears as precise orders. Sometimes I myself give orders in German. If he starts bounding toward the traffic lights and I fear he won’t patiently wait for green, I yell “Halt!” and he turns around perplexed, quivering, his tail slapping against his flanks. Hans still remembers his language from when his owner, a German, perished somewhere high up in the Durmitor mountain range.
Milena and I didn’t like dogs. The fierce, powerful creatures in our suburb, Zabjelo, always scared us. We believed they could bite a person to death. But Milena’s death was different. It went roughly like this: we got out of the car after a trip around the city. Stefan, our neighbors’ son, was standing at the front entrance of the block with a baseball bat over his shoulder. Visibly drugged-up. When we came closer, I gave a laugh. He wanted to know why I’d laughed. I asked him to move aside and let us through, but he just stood in the doorway and was persistent: “What are you smirking about?” he said. “C’mon, what’s the joke, you fudge packer?” Sensitive and eager to learn everything she heard, Milena repeated “fudge packer.” That echoed several times in Stefan’s head and was enough to put him into a skull-splitting frenzy . . .
When Milena and I first moved to Zabjelo, it was different. We didn’t notice the children become violent until one of the boys stood in front of her and spoke in a slow staccato: “You’re gonna suck my cock”. The girls jeered “deaf Milena” at her. She read their lips and smiled. But then the boy broke her skull and ended up in a home for delinquents. His father started to call me “fudge packer.” The woman at the tobacconist’s near the front entrance refused to sell me cigarettes. I went to the store at the other end of the block, but the tale about the “fudge packer” was soon heard there too. The other tenants gossiped that I’d sent a child to jail. Two months later I had to move away. I sold our apartment and chose a smaller one for the same price in the Block Five housing project at the other end of the city.
I soon got used to the noise of the children playing down below the building. I watched them and thought of Milena. It was in those days that I saw Hans in the newspaper. His owner had died while mountaineering and the German shepherd ended up here in Podgorica, in a cage with local mutts and mongrels. Still thin-skinned after Milena’s death, I went straight to the animal shelter and came back with the dog.
And so I became Hans’s owner in Block Five. Everyone knew his name. Whenever we went into a local bar, the waiters would say “Achtung, Achtung!” and laugh as Hans went and lay under the tables. They didn’t know that some people actually have good reason to be afraid of my friend. He loved every peaceful passerby and every child, and he never once punctured a ball on the grass in the park. But Hans had been strictly trained and was loyal. Doctor Kaluđerović, who lies tied up in our basement, is a witness to that.
Dr. Kaluđerović is an otolaryngologist—or rather he was, now he’s just a tangle of bone and fiber on a filthy bed—who operated on Milena and made her hear again several months before her death. He compared her deafness to having a balloon in one’s head. He perforated that balloon with a team of surgeons and let in the sound to Milena’s brain. When she woke up after the operation, I asked her “How do you feel?” and she started to cry. Later that day she said I had the voice of a little girl. I called the doctor. He laughed and explained that everything was fine: Milena’s brain was just getting used to the new frequencies like an eye adjusts to the light after being in the dark. Soon everything she heard would sound natural to her ears.
After leaving hospital, Milena went to see Dr. Kaluđerović every day. The main part of the recovery was familiarization with the words she heard for the first time. During one of the exercises, as he was reading her the days of the week, she started to cry at Wednesday. He said that almost all patients reacted to the new words with tears. He went on from Thursday, but Milena was already sobbing again at Saturday. This worried me greatly. The doctor emphasized that her reactions were as expected and asked me to go and wait out the front. Through the door of the surgery, I heard him reading out the days of the week and the months of the year again. Half an hour later Milena came out in tears. She was silent as we drove home. When we got back to the apartment, she said she needed to have a sleep. It struck me that she was speaking more distinctly than before.
Her recovery progressed well. After the days and the months it was time for everyday items. She listened to the words spoon, knife, table, and stove, learned slowly, and cried at the surgery. Then the cities began, and that was the hardest for Milena. When Dr. Kaluđerović spoke the names of cities to the north of Podgorica, she burst into tears after the first few. She never lasted longer than Kolašin, Mojkovac, and Bijelo Polje. The weather forecast on television at home was particularly torturous. Here the host would sometimes mention a month, a day, and a series of cities in the south, north, and central part of the country all in one sentence. Milena sat in the armchair and cried, unable to unglue her gaze from the three-dimensional map. I tried to persuade her to turn off the television before the forecast began, but she wanted to practice and be tenacious, as Dr. Kaluđerović instructed.
She learned to follow the voice on television. She still whimpered from time to time, but the possibility of mastering a word diverted her attention from the pain the sounds caused her. I watched her sitting in front of the screen and repeating. For the doctor, this was a perfect recovery.
She didn’t have to go to daily exercises anymore. She could do some of them at home with me. My task was to contrive games for her. One of my favorites was “parts of town.” I spoke the names of different districts and suburbs, and Milena said them after me. Then one day she wanted to go with me and visit all the places whose names she’d heard. She believed that would help her cope with the sound even better. It was a Sunday morning. We got in the car and set off.
I told her we were going up to leafy Gorica, where she could hear the birds. “Birds,” she repeated. We parked the car in front of the church, scaled the hill, and sat down on the meadow by the path. Tall residential blocks rose up from among the low buildings. Yellow, pink, and blue houses on the hill opposite glistened like huge plastic flowers. She was happy. I spoke: Brain Building, the Five Widows, Block Five, Tološi, the Old Town, Baston, Konik, Momišići, Zagorič, Pejton—everything I could remember. And she repeated my words. After the game we drove down to the city center. Children were having their photos taken with their parents in front of the fountains without water. Milena’s face went like that of a dull child. I told her it was time to head home. We bought the meat for our Sunday roast in the supermarket on the square, drove back to Zabjelo, and at the entrance to the building ran into Stefan, doped up and with a baseball bat in hand.
All of Dr. Kaluđerović’s exercises caught up with us the moment we were confronted by our neighbors’ son. The boy said “fudge packer,” and that word was like another new lesson for Milena. I grabbed her by the arm and begged her to stop, but her head had already been cracked. Her arm suddenly went heavy and slipped through my hand.
I don’t remember how many years passed before Hans said, “Let’s go and find the scum who operated on deaf Milena and torture him in the basement.” Hans considered that Dr. Kaluđerović was to blame and that Milena would still be alive if he hadn’t taught her to repeat words. I couldn’t imagine her living in an apartment with a dog. I reminded him that he and I would never have met if Milena were still alive. He would have stayed at the animal shelter, and I at the other end of the city. “But that doesn’t mean the doctor should get off scot-free,” he said. He was relentless. I asked how he planned for us to carry out the abduction. He pointed his muzzle to the newspaper on the table. In the corner of the page was an ad for Dr. Kaluđerović’s private surgery.
The next day, half an hour before closing time, we were out the front. We waited in the parking lot. The doctor came out, throwing a good-bye to the nurse. Before he could unlock his car, I bludgeoned him over the head with a stick. Hans gave a cheerful squeal and helped me get him into the trunk. An hour later, Dr. Kaluđerović woke up in our basement, tied to a bed. Hans had never been happier. He ate his dinner, had a good drink of water, and stretched his forelegs. “Now you’re going to get what’s coming to you, Arschloch. Repeat after me—,” he snarled. I turned the doctor onto his stomach and let Hans do the rest. It was rather painful, and he did it every, yes every, night.
I didn’t know how long Hans planned to keep torturing the doctor. It didn’t bother me that it had been going on for a while. He worked like an expert and no one in our building suspected we had a guest in the basement. For several days we heard about the disappearance of the well-known otolaryngologist on television. An anonymous patient told journalists about sexual abuse at Dr. Kaluđerović’s surgery. Even without this revelation, I would have hated him enough because of what he did to Milena.
Yesterday, while I was watching the evening news, Hans came back from the basement and told me the doctor had admitted everything: that he was to blame for Milena’s death, that he’d unnecessarily forced her to listen to and repeat the days of the week, the months of the year, and the names of cities, as a result of which she snapped and started pronouncing everything she heard. I replied that he could keep on enjoying the doctor, but Hans had also begun to tire of him. My friend talked more and more often about the neighbors who’d insulted me. The next on Hans’s list was Stefan’s father, then the woman from the tobacconist’s in Zabjelo. Because of her I’d had to buy my cigarettes at the other end of the street.
“Tomorrow we’ll kill that bastard, and then we’ll see to the others,” Hans said when I put the leash on him so he could take me out for a walk.
ILIJA ĐUROVIĆ (Podgorica, Montenegro, 1990) has been writing since he was a teenager. “Parts of Town” is taken from his second short-story collection Crne Ribe (Black Fish), published by Žuta kornjača (Yellow Turtle) in 2016. This story was one of three equal prize winners in the “Vranac—Best Short Stories of 2016” competition held by the Odakle Zovem festival in Podgorica. His story “The Five Widows,” translated by Will Firth, appeared in Dalkey Archive Press’s Best European Fiction 2016. Đurović also writes poetry, plays, and personal essays. He lives in Berlin.
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.