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Authors: Miljenko Jergovic

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

Mama Leone

BOOK: Mama Leone
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Miljenko Jergovi
Mama Leone
Translated from the Croatian by David Williams
archipelago books

Copyright © Miljenko Jergovi
, 1999
English language translation © David Williams, 2012

First Archipelago Books Edition, 2012

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted
in any form without the prior written permission of the publisher.

First published as
Mama Leone
by Zoro in 1999.

Archipelago Books
232 3rd Street #A111
Brooklyn, NY 11215

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Jergovic, Miljenko, 1966–

[Mama Leone. English]
Mama Leone / Miljenko Jergovic ; translated from the Croatian by David Williams.
– 1st Archipelago Books ed.
p. cm.
ISBN 978-1-935744-71-9
I. Title.
PG1620.2.E74A2 2012

Distributed by Consortium Book Sales and Distribution

Cover art: Paul Klee

The publication of
Mama Leone
was made possible with support from Lannan
Foundation; the National Endowment for the Arts; the New York State Council on
the Arts, a state agency; and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

The translator wishes to thank Marina
ižmešija for her peppy linguistic assistance.


When I Was Born a Dog Started Barking
in the Hall of the Maternity Ward

You're the angel

How I started shouting in my sleep

Girl with a Pearl Earring

What will Allende's mom say


The kid never panics

That nothing would ever happen

My dummy dear

If you can see it's a car, tell me

When someone gets really scared

The sky is beautiful when you're upside down

You're funny, be funny for us again

When I die, you'll see how many better people there are

I beg you, don't let her jump

Mom sighed like Marija in the village of Prkosi

Would you care for some rose jelly?

The violet fig

A castle for Queen Forgetful

That we all have one more picture together

Where dead Peruvians live

Mama Leone

That Day a Childhood Story Ended

Here where squirrels die

Away, I'd rather sail away

Ho freddo, ho molto freddo

Like a little girl and an old dog

Bethlehem isn't far

It was then I longed for Babylonian women

Look at me, Anadolka

I want you to go, now

A Little Joke

Nora, like Ibsen's

Death of the president's dog

The second kiss of Gita Danon

When I Was Born a Dog Started Barking in the Hall of the Maternity Ward

You're the angel

When I was born a dog started barking in the hall of the maternity ward. Dr. Sre
ko ripped the mask from his face, tore out of the delivery suite, and said
to hell with the country where kids are born at the pound!
I still didn't understand at that point, so I filled my lungs with a deep breath and for the first time in my life confronted a paradox: though I didn't have others to compare it to, the world where I'd appeared was terrifying, but something forced me to breathe, to bind myself to it in a way I never managed to bind myself to any woman. Recounting the event later, first to my mother, and then my father, and as soon as I grew up, to friends, they brushed me off, said I was making stuff up, that I couldn't have remembered anything, that there was no way I could've started drawing ontological conclusions the first time I cried.
At first I was pissed they thought me a liar, and I wasn't above spilling a few bitter tears, hitting myself in the head, and yelling
you'll be sorry when I'm dead!
With the passing of years I calmed down, having figured that this world, of which I already knew a little and could compare with my experience and my dreams, was predicated on mistrust and the peculiar human tendency to think you a total idiot whenever you told the truth and take you seriously the second you started lying. This aside, relatively early on, when I was about five or six, I came to the conclusion that everything connected with death was a downer and so decided to shelve my threats of dying, at least until I solved the problem of God's existence. God was important as a possible witness; he'd be there to confirm my final mortal experience and he could vouch for me that I hadn't lied about the one in the delivery suite.

Does God exist?
I asked my grandma Olga Rejc, because of anyone I met in those first six years of my life, she seemed most trustworthy.
For some people he does, for others he doesn't
, she replied calmly, like it was no big deal, like it was something you only talked about all casual and indifferent.
Does he exist for us?
It was most diplomatic formulation I could manage. The thing was, I'd already noticed how my family placed exceptional value on my socialization efforts and loved me talking about stuff in the first-person plural:
when are we having lunch, when are we going out, when are we coming down with the flu
. . . at least at the outset I thought questions of faith would be best set in this context.
For me, God doesn't exist
, she said,
I can't speak for you though
. It was then
I learned about truths you only spoke for yourself and in your own name. I was pretty okay with all this, though less than thrilled I hadn't been able to resolve the God question off the bat.

Ten years later I still wasn't straight with God, but I'd figured the moment Grandma decided he didn't exist. It was early spring, everyone was out somewhere and I'd stayed back at home alone. As usual I started rummaging through their wardrobes. I never knew what I was looking for but always found something, something linked to the family, Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, something they'd tried to hide from me from some reason. Their private histories were so dark, or at least they thought them so, and my investigative spirit so very much alive, that after a few months' work on their biographies I knew way more from my secret sources than they ever told or admitted to me in the rest of my life put together. My starter's curiosity soon turned into an obsession, and then into a mania. I'd be disappointed if I didn't turn up something juicy or dirty. I wanted proof my father was a homosexual, my mother an ex-tram driver, Grandpa a spy or at least a gambler who'd lost half of Sarajevo in a game of Preference. I loved them all, you have to believe me, but even more I loved the little testimonies of things they'd wanted to hush up so they'd make it into heaven – if only in the eyes of their son and grandson.

But that was the day I discovered the false bottom in the big bedroom wardrobe. I lifted up the base and found a carved wooden box, a round glass container, and a green folder full of documents. I laid
everything out on the rug, heaved a sigh, and opened the box. It was full of dirt. Regular brown dirt with little stones and blades of long-dried grass that disintegrated to the touch.
They won't be planting flowers in this dirt
, I thought, and then, not without some trepidation, sunk my fingers into the box to explore. But there was nothing there, just pebbles, grass, and all this dirt. You wouldn't believe the amount of dirt that can fit in a wooden box. Much more than you'd think. You want to picture what I'm talking about, then tomorrow grab a cardboard box – I mean, I doubt you've a wooden one at hand – go to the park, and fill it up with dirt. You won't believe your eyes!

I moved on to the glass container. It held a pocket watch, a ring (it was too big for my ring finger, I tried it on), this miniature metal figurine of some saint, a tie pin, and a little booklet by Anton AÅ¡kerc, printed in Slovenian, the pages the thinnest I've ever seen. The only other things were these two green army buttons with spread-winged eagles, which gave me the heebie-jeebies because I had the feeling I'd seen them somewhere before.

Before opening the folder I stopped to think of all the stuff you're not supposed to know about in life. I wondered about the secrets that have to stay secret so the world makes some kind of sense, but since I couldn't remember any, I decided to push on. The folder contained three bits of paper. A birth certificate in the name of M.R., a baptism certificate in the name of M.R., and a telegram that read: “We hereby inform you that private M.R. perished in battle against a Partisan band on September 10.”

M.R. was my uncle. I knew he died in the war, and I knew he wasn't a Partisan, but I'd never dreamed that he was the enemy.

I put everything back in its place and closed the wardrobe. Closing it, I knew nothing in my life would ever be the same as before I discovered the false bottom. I also knew my investigations into the family were over. Now it was time for asking questions, but only of those who questions wouldn't hurt and who could answer them without leaving a bloody trail in their wake.

I waited for days for my chance, but it never came. Grandma almost never left the house, and when she did Mom wasn't there, and Mom was the only one I could ask. She didn't know her brother. She was born four months before he died, and although he never saw her, he gave her her name. Grandpa had wanted to call her Regina, but M. wanted his sister named after a tree native to Bosnia. The tree's native to other countries too, but we didn't care about other countries because they were just places Grandpa, Uncle, my father, and everyone else went to war.

I went to see Mom at work.
Can we have half an hour alone?
She frowned, and I could already tell what she was thinking:
he's going to admit he's a druggie, he's got some girl pregnant, he got his fourteenth F in math, he's a homosexual
. . . I wagged my index finger left-right, though we hadn't yet said a word. I sat down.
Everything's fine, just give me a second
. But Mom just got more wound up. I had to get it out before she jumped out the window and broke her leg. Me:
I opened the wardrobe
. Mom:
It had to happen sometime
. Me:
I found something
. Mom:
. Mom:
Even the dirt?
From the grave, right?
Please, just one thing. Don't ever tell her
. Me:
I know. I came to you

BOOK: Mama Leone
6.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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