prose

Amir Alagić: A Hundred Year Childhood

Amir Alagić was born in 1977 in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Hercegovina, but has resided in Pula, Croatia since the war broke out in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. He has written a collection of short stories, Pod istim nebom (2010) (Under the Same Sky), and two novels Osvetinje (2017) (The Revengers) and Štogodišnje Djetinstvo (2016) (A Hundred Year Childhood). He has also written and directed a short film Poigravanja ili pokvareni bojler (2012) (Fooling Around or the Broken Boiler).

In the passage below from his novel, A Hundred Year Childhood, Alagić paints a poignant description of a child's love for an animal and the eventual loss of innocence that ensues. He invites the reader to examine more closely how powerful events and moments of realization in our formative years can shape our emotional landscapes and have long-lasting consequences for years to come.

Read an excerpt from Alagić's novel, A Hundred Year Childhood, below
Translation by Vesna Marić



 

 

A Hundred Year Childhood by Amir Alagic

A long time ago around Chritsmas, someone gave their father a goose as a token of gratitude. No one knew what he had done to deserve the gift, nor did anyone think about it much, but it was on that evening that a man and a goose stayed in the watchmaker's shop by the name of Second, to stare and wonder at one another.

Father tied a piece of string around the goose’s neck and walked it home. The bird yanked at the string, dug its heels in like an ass and pulled away, stubbornly craned its neck and flapped its wings. In the end, it surrendered to its fate and obediently followed our father. People in Pula recalled this unusual event for a long time, talking about how, on that clear, cold, windy night, while the moonlight rippled across the white feathers, the watchmaker Ivan Tidic walked through town with a goose on a leash. Some thought they were hallucinating, others approached him with a worried greeting, looking into his eyes to see if he’d lost his mind. Some laughed out loud, and others merely sniggered to themselves like cowards, rushing either home or to a bar so that they could tell everyone all about it and laugh with them because laughing alone felt uncomfortable. No stopped to ask, Dear Ive, what on earth do you need a goose for, and why are you taking it around town like that? And if someone had asked him, it is uncertain that Ivan would have had an answer to their question. It might be that he realised it was Christmas soon, and the goose would do well instead of a turkey. Until then, he’d keep it in the yard.

But, it was still a fortnight till Christmas, just enough time, as it turned out, for the children to get used to the bird and adopt it as a pet, especially Ivana. From the moment she saw the goose, the two became best friends. The girl fed the bird and embraced its long neck, groomed its wings with her toy brush, kissed the top of its beak and until the goose’s very end, she insisted that the bird share her bed. No way, her parents said. Well, if that’s not allowed, then the girl would sleep with the goose in Bobi's old dog house, now passed on to Gertrude. No way of that happening either.

She crept out of bed at night, went to the window and watched Gertrude, the glass misty from her breath. The animal's long white neck would soon emerge from the dog house and the bird would look at her, too. The goose never bit, scratched or pecked the girl, although it jabbed everyone else, like d’Artagnan, accompanied by a loud screech, as if it was angry at the whole world for not leaving anyone, not even the geese, in peace.

Tomislav was grown up, almost coming of age. He had a fluffy moustache and was more interested in football, music and girls, than some boring old goose. Except for naming it Gertrude, he didn't pay much attention to the bird. Yet he too would get out of bed after his sister at night and gaze at the large white feathery creature from the window, as it wandered around the yard like a lost angel. Yes, Gertrude was their secret angel.

Two weeks went by quickly and one morning the dog house, which had been home to Bobi for thirteen years, and only a fortnight to Gertrude, was empty. They told Ivana that the bird had flown away. From that day, the girl looked up at the sky every day, lest she might spot the big white bird flying over. To this day, whenever she sees an airplane in the sky, she thinks of Gertrude.

That day, the Tidić family filled up their fridge and that same afternoon the table was laid with chunks of steaming meat and potatoes. Ivana had no idea what she was eating. Mother and father had talked to Tomislav earlier, warning him to keep quiet. They hadn’t thought that the boy himself would be so disturbed by it. He decided that they had slaughtered an angel and wouldn't touch a single piece of meat until it was all gone. He never mentioned Gertrude to his sister again. She still gazed at the sky.

Years went by until one day, at school, Ivana learned that geese don’t fly. Her pencil froze in her hand. Wordless and petrified, she stared blankly at the teacher as if what she had just told her meant that her parents were not actually her parents, but some complete strangers. She went pale, and a strange tremor started rising from her toes. The teacher panicked. She ran around the classroom flapping her arms and screaming, like a chicken whose egg had been stolen. The poor woman did not know what to do, so she took some sugar out of the cupboard, which was supposed to be used for a class experiment, and diluted it with water originally intended for the plants. The sugary water brought back some colour into Ivana’s cheeks.

Fearing another bout of weakness, as soon as the girl felt better the teacher sent her home with a friend, thus removing the burden of responsibility from her shoulders. Half way home, Ivana had an even more horrific realisation than the one at school. To this day, so many years later, she still remembers the exact place, the corner of a building where it happened. It is the exact spot where she begs people for change now. Ivana realised that Gertrude was not in the sky, but rather in her stomach. Leaning against a wall, threw up the contents of her whole tiny life.

She didn't talk to anyone for a long time after that. Dark circles appeared under her eyes and her cheeks were permanently pale. It was as if laughter had completely forgotten to visit this child’s face. It is hard to see a child who never laughs. And that's how it was, for months. Ivana cried several monsoon seasons worth of tears, then calmed down and seemed to forget about Gertrude. Except when a plane flew over. Even now.

"I think that was the day I became a junky", she whispered to her brother inside the rushing ambulance, "even though it would be fifteen years until my first hit."

 

Translation: Vesna Maric

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