Cactus

She was always afraid of missing the beautiful and important things in life. She traveled a lot, but more often she panicked because she was stuck at home. For some reason she always imagined that real happiness and pleasure lay elsewhere. As a result she was forever thinking up new ways of stopping time and grasping that crystal moment when life becomes a dream or a fairy tale.

Suddenly, at the end of December 1990, she told me she longed to spend New Year's Eve on the island of Hvar with a bunch of people I didn't know. In her enthusiasm she managed to present her longing in terms of it being just a good idea. I was somewhat taken aback, but my objections only made her depressed, so I finally accepted the plan as if it was a joint one. We got together at Marijindvor the day before New Year's Eve. It was early in the morning; the trams were not yet running. I was introduced to some rather decadent men and women in evening dress, which I tend to associate with late nights and drunken parties. A dozen of us, plus a load of suitcases and a more or less hyperactive boxer dog, squeezed into three cars. The convoy set off, with two VW Golfs in front and a wreck of a Citroën 2CV following behind. In the old banger were the two of us, a bald engineering student, his ugly fat girlfriend and the boxer dog. The car seemed to be held together by the sort of brown tape used to wrap parcels. Not surprisingly there was an icy draft blowing from all sides and our feet almost sank through the floor. As we crawled agonizingly along the road toward the south, the fat girl talked about French perfumes and the dog kept farting noisily. On each occasion I smiled fondly at my girlfriend and made some lighthearted remark, trying as hard as I could to make her think I was enjoying myself. The 2CV inched up the Ivan mountain at about ten miles per hour until Konjic, where it spluttered a couple of times and then finally came to a standstill. The flatulent dog broke wind once again and started to bark excitedly. We got out of the car and waited for the others who were in the Volkswagens to come to our rescue. Then we began to discuss strategy or, at any rate, how to redistribute the extra passengers among the two vehicles that were still on the road. Who was going to go where? It was impossible to decide. No matter which combination of humans, suitcases and flatulent animals was proposed, my girlfriend and I always ended up being the odd ones out. And so when at last it had been decided who would continue the journey by train and who by car, I put my hand on her shoulder and whispered, "Why don't we just go back?"

Unexpectedly she didn't look at me in a reproachful way. She merely shrugged and heaved a weary sigh.

I said, "Who'll tell them?"

"You do it. After all, you're the man."

"It'll sound better coming from you. They're your friends. Besides, if I say it they'll only get the wrong idea and think we're annoyed about something."

I was right, of course, and in the end she made the announcement. She just said that we were going back to Sarajevo. It's funny, I always had the knack of entrusting unpleasant tasks (and pleasant ones!) to somebody else.

We had to wait another two and a half hours before the train was ready to depart, and so we huddled together in the cold and empty hotel lounge, watching each other and swapping playful embraces.

"What a pity!" I lied.

She blamed herself for ruining my New Year's celebration, but with my kisses and with other masculine trickery I somehow managed to convince her that nothing had been ruined.

"I'm sorry about the presents."

I always like receiving gifts, so I insisted that we perform the ritual in Konjic. At first she resisted because the circumstances did not seem festive enough. She was still hoping for that crystal moment. But I've already told you about my powers of persuasion.

She carefully opened her backpack and even more carefully pulled out a box displaying the logo of a well-known brand of cognac.

"Open it!" she said.

The box was light so it obviously didn't contain a bottle. That would have been a dumb kind of present anyway. Inside the box was a mysterious object wrapped beautifully in white paper. She gestured with her hand and so I unwrapped the gift, only to reveal a common garden pot holding a tiny cactus about the size of a newborn baby's thumb.

I had never told her that I hated indoor plants, mostly because they demand attention and routine. You have to think about them all the time and I can't even think about other people, let alone plants. I remember that when grandmother died all the plants in my room withered. I felt sad even though I hated them.

I smiled and kissed my girlfriend, uttering a few sentimental words. As soon as I had convinced her that I was sincere, I gave her my presents, a bottle of Chanel No. 5 (which, of course, I'd bought thinking of Marilyn) and a collection of essays by Susan Sontag about photography. I had to give her the perfume as well because she was always suspicious of my taste in literature, no doubt believing, and perhaps justly, that I was usually thinking of myself, instead of her, when I recommended a book.

I placed the cactus in a reasonably sunlit corner of my room, next to the icon of St. Vlach and a pebble with a hole in the middle which I keep because they say it brings good luck. A few months later the war in Croatia broke out; the film about Spegelj, the conflicts at Plitvice, Borovo Selo . . .

I watered the cactus regularly at five-day intervals and was careful not to move it. Perhaps I remembered something that my grandmother told me a long time ago. She said that you should never move a cactus. It has to stay in one place--and only one place--not that it really matters what kind of place it is, or even whether it's the best place available, just as long as it belongs there. In other words, I really looked after that cactus, which is to say, it kind of surprised me that I didn't harm it in any way.

Instead of dying, as you'd expect of your average cute plant that is brought out by shopkeepers for special occasions, the cactus began to grow, spreading its spikes, which were soft like a baby hedgehog's, getting fatter and tilting at the sun. The heliotrope was no longer the size of an infant's thumb, and so whenever my girlfriend came to visit me in my room, she was pleased to see that the cactus had not suffered from my usual negligence.

"It's beginning to look like you!" she said.

"The cactus?"

"Well, not like you exactly, but like a part of your anatomy."

I must admit that such a comparison had not occurred to me. But from that moment onward I couldn't help seeing things from her point of view. The cactus became a pleasurable detail in our lives, the sort of detail that makes a love affair worth remembering.

In the days when Vukovar was being destroyed, I felt something like icy breath down my neck. Life became a very serious matter, different from anything that I had known before. I felt that any mistake could prove fatal, although I didn't know how or why.

At the end of April I moved into the cellar. A mortar bomb had struck the crown of the apple tree. My windows were shattered, a piece of shrapnel, no bigger than a grain of rice, smashed the Austrian antique mirror on the dressing table next to the cupboard. The glass cracked in a pattern that was as regular as the lines of longitude and latitude on a map of the world. But the phones were still working and so I tried to tell my girlfriend. She didn't understand what had happened. She probably thought I'd gone a little soft in the head.

Every five days I would go upstairs to water the cactus. It was now leaning toward the Chetnik positions. I often glanced nervously up at the sun, expecting a bullet at any moment. In the cellar, however, it felt safe and warm, even though it was damp and, let's say, intimate. There was always a smell of rotting potatoes, and the coal dust made your eyes smart. But I couldn't have been cozier in the womb.

My girlfriend came to believe that death only happened in Sarajevo. She became increasingly sentimental and almost distant. She asked me if I wanted to emigrate with her to New Zealand. I replied that I was happy in the cellar and that, in any case, New Zealand was a long way away, and I didn't think I'd be happy Down Under. She never asked about the cactus. I didn't like to mention it.

People change when they're alone in the dark. It happens imperceptibly. I heard a story about a man who went to bed as usual one night and by the morning his hair had turned completely gray. Yet he didn't remember having a nightmare or bad dream. At the time I lived in desperate fear of the cold.

One morning--it was day five--I woke to discover that all the water in the flat had frozen up. Only then did it occur to me that cacti have difficulty withstanding the cold. I took the plant downstairs and placed it in the cellar opposite the stove that we used to stoke with coal dust. Not too close, not too far away. In the precise spot that I reckoned would suit both a cactus and a human being. The next day it was drooping over the side of the pot. How was it drooping? Well, put it this way, the tip was pointing downwards as if the sun was under the ground. I watered the cactus for the last time but I realized that it was too late. The end was nigh!

The war has taught me how to calm my emotions and nerves artificially. Nowadays, in conversation, whenever somebody raises a topic that I find upsetting, I have a sense of this tiny red light automatically switching on inside me, not unlike the one you press to remove the background noise on a tape. And after that, I don't feel anything. But when I think about that cactus, the light refuses to come on, and nothing else helps. It's a minor consequence, like a bitter cyanide capsule. But--do you remember?--many years ago lots of people got upset because they found out horses died standing up. By contrast, I get sad just thinking about the way a cactus dies, like the boy in Goethe's poem. It's not important, mind you, except as a warning to avoid detail in life. That's all.

From Sarajevo Marlboro, published 2004 by Archipelago Press. By arrangement with the publisher.