Fall and winter 1991
Fritz, a gray, wolflike German shepherd, howled so terribly at some intruder that his owner, Igor Lovrak, went into his larder and greased his great-grandfather’s rifle and thumbed gunpowder and bullets into the barrel before he dared walk out into the yard. Even then, he trembled, expecting to find bears or a band of thieves closing in. Just as Igor stumbled outside in his wooden clogs, Fritz leapt so violently at something that he tore out of the ground the thick pipe to which he was chained and, with a terrible din, jumped over a hedge. A cat scrambled up the lamppost, barely escaping the dog. The cat climbed to the tilted and capped light fixture, placed its paws over the edge, and, once settled, didn’t move at all. Although usually obedient, Fritz wouldn’t listen to Igor’s shouts to heel, and continued leaping toward his aloof enemy. Igor, who was built like a weightlifter, dragged Fritz back by his chain, but lost almost as much ground as he gained. Finally, Igor hauled Fritz into the basement and locked the door — the dog knew how to open unlocked doors — but that didn’t prevent Fritz from howling his ugly song of hatred all night. Unable to sleep, Igor marveled at the power of Fritz’s voice. After so many bursts of wind from the lungs, you’d expect the dog’s vocal cords to snap. Instead, it was lgor’s nerves that snapped; he took up his ancestral gun and headed for the basement, but his frizzy-haired wife, Dara, stopped him. “Hey, leave that gun alone,” she said. “What good could you do with it?”
“Shoot the devil.”
“Once the cat goes, he’ll be all right.”
“Maybe I should shoot the cat, then.”
They sat up on the edge of their bed with their feet on the cold cement floor.
It was almost dawn. Against the paling sky, the lamppost was stark black, and on it was silhouetted the cat, in the same position as before.
“The damned cat hasn’t moved an inch!” Igor said.
“Are you sure it’s alive?”
“Maybe not. Maybe it died of fright. Cats are such cowards; most of them probably die of heart attacks.”
“I wouldn’t call this one cowardly. Perhaps he got himself electrocuted on the wires.”
In the slanted, streaking sunlight, the frosted branches of the hedges sparkled, and the bark of beeches glistened in the hills. Loud sighing and intermittent snoring from the basement could be heard through the drains in the bathroom and the kitchen. When Igor turned on the faucet, the water seemed to carry with it the sleepy sorrow of Fritz’s groaning. Igor was exhausted, and wondered how he would stay alert at his job. He was a plumber for the spa hotels, where women from all over Croatia and Hungary came to improve their complexions by soaking in iodine mineral water. They coiled languidly in oval pink marble pools, and while adjusting the pipes, Igor sometimes caught glimpses of them, like embryos in opened, steaming eggshells. Now he worried that, if he wasn’t alert at work, he might burn his hand on a hot-water line.
Igor walked outside and called to the cat, but the cat didn’t budge. Its turquoise eyes glowed with their own light. Igor whistled like a bird, but the cat’s ears were unmoved. He didn’t want a dead cat suspended above his house: if a black cat crossing your path spelled bad luck, surely a cat crossing your wires and looming lifeless in your window spelled doom. Would crows eat it? Owls? Igor got a ladder and climbed shakily up the cracked post, which smelled of oil and tar. At the top, he reached for the cat, but in a sudden blur the cat’s claws and teeth lashed at his outstretched hand. He lost his balance, let go of the cat, and gripped the post. The cat fell, and the ladder followed it. Hugging the post, splinters sliding underneath his skin, Igor slowly descended to the ground. The claw marks on the back of his hand looked like a fragment of sheet music, browned with age; and two bloody bite marks, like disharmonious notes of fear and hate.
“What happened to the cat?” Dara asked when Igor walked into the house.
“Who do you care more about — that cat or me?” Igor said, pouring plum brandy over the back of his hand and wincing at the pain. He began pinching splinters from his palms. The splinters hadn’t drawn blood while under his skin, but once they were removed, lines of red flashed in the emptied wounds like a shower of comets.
“Well, that’ll teach you to pick up a strange cat without gloves,” Dara said. “Where is it now? It must be starving.”
“I’ll go get the dog and let him run after the cat.”
“Let him stay down there — I’ll feed the cat.”
She prepared a bowl of milk and walked out. Pouring plum brandy down his throat, Igor glanced after her and saw a gorgeous tabby with thick black stripes — a veritable black-and-gray tiger — rubbing up against Dara’s thin ankles in their thick wool socks. The cat lapped milk, its tail straight up and fluffed out, perhaps due to static electricity from the wool. The tail’s tip waved joyfully above round testes. Dara picked him up and scratched his tummy, and the cat licked her palm and put his paw pads on her cheek. They remained this way for a whole minute, gazing sympathetically at each other.
“He’s so thin,” Dara said later as she poured more milk into the bowl. “We should take care of him.”
“What about Fritz?”
“Fritz will just have to get used to it. When he realizes the cat is here to stay, he’ll accept him, and maybe even love him.”
But Fritz couldn’t get used to it. At night he barked mercilessly. During the day he chased the cat up drainpipes and into the hills. Once, when the cat fled up a thin birch, Fritz peeled away the layers of bark with his teeth, and then gnawed on the wood like a beaver until the tree fell. The cat barely touched the ground before he bounced away and up a huge beech. Fritz dug and tore at the beech roots as if intending to bring down that tree, too. And maybe, after a month of labor, he would have succeeded, if Igor hadn’t found him and chained him up again.
Fritz’s hatred for the cat — whom Dara had named Bobo — grew legendary. There were many cats and dogs in the town, and they were all mortal enemies, and fights among them frequently entertained the Serb and Croat inhabitants. But the hatred among the other cats and dogs was amateurish compared with the hatred between this German shepherd and this gray tabby. Fritz chased Bobo all over the hills and treed him many times, but each time, when Fritz dragged himself home, exhausted and disenchanted, unable even to draw his hanging tongue back into his mouth, he’d see Bobo strutting across the yard to his bowl of milk. Fritz would collapse on the ground while Bobo lapped at his white liquid nirvana.
Once, after a day of chasing, Fritz fell asleep, and Bobo came up and cuddled with him, licked his nose, purred in his ear. After Bobo had gone, Fritz awoke with a howl and sniffed himself all over and even bit himself, trying to get rid of the feline odor; he sucked and chewed his fur as though he were infested with fleas. Another time, Fritz cornered Bobo, who had been absorbed in the joys of tossing a dying mouse back and forth over his head. Fritz flew at Bobo with predatory certainty, but Bobo flew faster, and tore Fritz’s ear on the way past his face. Before Fritz had time to grasp what had happened, Bobo was high in the barn’s rafters, ostentatiously ignoring him. Fritz would have a V cut out of his ear for the rest of his life.
Who knows how much longer this would have gone on if people hadn’t begun to behave like — no, worse than — cats and dogs? Lipik was one of the first towns to be surrounded by the Serb armies. Shortly beforehand, rumors reached the town that Chetniks were approaching with their knives bared. When a mortar shell shattered the Lovraks’ roof tiles, the couple rushed away. They couldn’t find Fritz and Bobo in time to take them along — and besides, how could two such enemies ride in one little car? Many drove their cars, tractors, and trucks out of town — Croats north to Bjelovar; Serbs south to Banja Luka.
In Bjelovar, Igor and Dara stayed in the basement of Igor’s brother. Igor was afraid to walk the streets, lest he be drafted and forced to charge Serb tanks armed with only a rifle. His male pride was injured, for he saw himself as a brave man. In his youth he’d been notorious for fighting in bars. He’d met Dara when she’d worked as a tavern waitress: a drunk giant had followed her out of the bar and attempted to rape her, and Igor had jumped the giant and nearly strangled him. Now Igor was reduced to living in the dark with a bunch of onions and potatoes. Even these old, shriveled fruits of the earth sprouted offspring; but what could he produce? He tried to do some good — he fixed all the plumbing and rewired the house — but once he was done, he sprouted only bleak moods and cynicism. Dara couldn’t take much more of his bile. She was a Serb, and though she abhorred the Serb army for attacking, she also detested listening to the Croats — Igor included — spew venom at the Serbs. When Croatian bands began to burn the houses of the Serbs who had left (presumably to become soldiers in the Serb army), Dara could take no more and boarded a train to Hungary.
Weeks later, she sent Igor a postcard from Belgrade, telling him she hadn’t felt safe in Croatia. He was enraged: he had worried about her for weeks, and now she said she hadn’t felt safe! And who had been responsible for that, if not the Serbs in Belgrade, the murderers to whom she now served bean stew in a fast-food dive? He read the card while watching newsreel pictures of his hometown.
During the war, only a dozen or so elderly people remained in Lipik. For weeks Serb soldiers lobbed mortar shells into the town, which was defended only by Croatian policemen — there was no Croatian army at first. The old Austrian spa had been hit by rockets many times. Large holes loomed in the ruins like the empty eye sockets in skulls; bricks and tiles lay scattered like broken teeth. Trees cut in half by stray howitzer hits resembled the broken legs of tubercular patients, yellow bones sticking out of crusty skins. Shards of stained-glass windows lay in the gardens, and the blue-tiled swimming pools were filled with heaps of dead crows and weeping-willow leaves.
The people at least understood what was going on, but the animals could not comprehend war. They trembled as though a natural calamity were taking place: thunderstorm, earthquake, forest fire. A Lipizzaner stable —from which Lipik got its name, and where for more than a century one of the original lines of the famous Austrian white horse had been maintained — was firebombed. A white horse was seen running into the hills, its mane and tail ablaze. Another stepped on a mine and flew into the sky, a geyser of blood, iron, and hooves.
When, that Christmas Eve, Croatian soldiers broke the siege and took over the town, they searched house-by-house for snipers. A unit approached the Lovraks’ house, but on the threshold sat a wolflike dog, and, next to the dog, leaning against it, a feral-looking tabby. The dog’s paw lay gently and protectively over the cat’s shoulders. When the soldiers came near, the dog growled threateningly and the cat arched his back and hissed. The soldiers, who typically would have had no qualms about shooting a stray dog, were touched. They didn’t force their way into the house. The captain of the unit decided that it was highly unlikely Serb snipers were crouched inside, for the house had a large tank hole in the middle. (On their way out, the Serb tanks had blasted holes in many houses, as if to say, “If we can’t have this, neither will you.”)
Later, when Igor returned, Fritz wouldn’t let him into the house either.
“Don’t you know me?” Igor shouted. “I’m your master!”
But Fritz didn’t acknowledge him. And when Igor went to pet Bobo, Fritz growled jealously and nearly bit Igor’s hand. Igor backed off while Fritz washed Bobo with his tongue.
With the help of the United Nations, Igor built a cabin in his yard. He was lonely: not even his dog liked him. He took photographs of Fritz and Bobo lying beside each other, and sent the pictures to his wife in Belgrade, along with a letter, in which he wrote:
During the bombardment, the two shellshocked creatures forgot to hate each other. Who knows how many nights they spent together, embracing? Who knows how they survived? I imagine the cat hunted pigeons and mice, and shared them with the dog. And when the cat couldn’t catch anything, perhaps Fritz hunted rabbits. Or maybe they ate horse carcasses, or even human corpses — I don’t want to imagine it. No, I am sure they hunted; I see Bobo hunting in the yard in the morning. But the strange thing is, now they won’t let me approach them. They won’t even let me into the house. Anyhow, all I want to say is: if Fritz and Bobo can get along, why can’t we?
It was a rhetorical question. Igor didn’t expect an answer. But three weeks later — not much longer than it took a letter to reach Belgrade — Dara walked in the squeaking front gate and hugged her husband. Fritz and Bobo came out of the house and growled at them.