1. I leave the church at nine sharp. Outside it is a clear, winter night, the church steps are slippery, the cold air slices my breath. I move slowly; I grab for the frozen shrubbery. Next time, I say to myself, wear high-topped shoes. Then I spot the Indian. He is standing by a round traffic sign. He has on a leather jacket with long fringes, and he is wearing boots decorated with Indian symbols. As I am walking by him, I see his eyes are closed. “Hey,” says the Indian, “what’s the rush?”
2. Fridays I go to church. I do not go to pray; I hold classes in the Serbian language for the children of emigrants. The class starts at 7 p.m. for the little ones aged six to nine. It ends at quarter to eight, and the class for children between nine and sixteen begins at eight. There are no sixteen-year-olds among these kids; the oldest is a thirteen-year-old boy. There are twenty boys and girls in the first group; in the second the most I ever get are seven or eight students, but only three come regularly. One six-year-old boy stays on for the older class because his sister is in it. She, however, never comes to the class for the little ones, though their parents probably drop them off together at 7 p.m. The children in the first group like singing, while the children in the second group don’t like anything. I think they hate me; I do my best to avoid looking at them.
3. A week later, right at nine, the Indian is standing in the same place. He has on that same leather jacket with the long fringes, but this time he is wearing sneakers. And his eyes aren’t closed: they gleam as he watches me walk toward him. Passing by him, I slip, stagger, and barely regain my balance. The Indian says nothing. When I turn to look back a bit later, he is still standing there. He could do with a hat, I think. The Indian raises his arm and waves.
4. The little ones are working at their Cyrillic. I print the letters out on a smooth whiteboard with a wide, blue, felt-tip pen. Then I dictate short sentences for the practice of Cyrillic: “Лела љуља Љиљану: Lela rocks Ljiljana. Ђак носи џак: The pupil carries a sack. And Ћира има чир: Ira has an ulcer.” The children lick their lips while their pencils follow the curves of the letters. There are reproductions behind them along the whole wall of frescoes from Serbian monasteries. I count the ones where I have been, and then the ones I have never seen. I believe I saw a peacock at Ravanica, but I am not sure.
5. During recess, while I am sipping some water in the kitchenette, I ask the priest about the peacocks. He had seen them somewhere, too, he says, but he doesn’t know where. And anyway, he says, he doesn’t think much of peacocks. Such a pretty bird, he adds, and such a squawking call. I try to remember the call of the peacock, but I can’t pin it down. The priest asks whether I know that the peacock’s tail, all those gaudy feathers, is not in fact its tail, but a kind of decorative mask with which the peacock conceals its real tail. I know nothing about peacocks, so I shrug. “The peacock does not like living alone,” says the priest. “If its mate dies, the male flies away.” “Where to?” I ask. “Somewhere it will be loved,” says the priest.
6. You have to take a zigzag path from the church to my house. When you leave the church and pass by the round traffic sign, then you should turn right, then left onto the first street, and then take the second right, and then again onto the first left. It takes about ten minutes to walk directly. The Indian is not standing in his place, but when I turn left, I have a sense that I can see him out of the corner of my eye. I turn. He’s not there. I keep walking, now certain he’s following me. I imagine moccasins on his feet, then I stop, crouch, pretend to tie my shoe, and snatch a glance over my shoulder. The street is empty. The yellow light on the stop light is blinking. When I stand back up, I feel lightheaded. I turn right, then left, I speed up as I walk and turn to look back more and more often. There is no one there. I enter the house, out of breath, lean pressing back against the door, flick on the light, cough. The parakeet watches me from its cage in the corner.
7. The next Friday, the priest stops me at the door out of the church. He says he’d remembered where he had seen peacocks. “Where?” I ask. “At a zoo,” says the priest, but then he immediately adds that he doesn’t know which city the zoo was in. All he can remember is that none of the peacocks-and there were at least three males with a dozen females-wanted to stop and spread its tail. “We hopped around by the railing,” says the priest, “flapped our arms, shouted all sorts of nonsense, yet none of it helped. A few of them squawked is all,” continues the priest, “and that call was so raucous that we doubled over laughing.” “Who is we?” I ask. The priest turns to the left and to the right. “Best not to get into that now,” says the priest and straight off asks me whether I am pleased with how the kids are doing. I answer in the affirmative, but I complain of the shortage of books and primers, and just at that moment some members of the church’s school council appear and the priest invites them to join us. Word by word, agreement by agreement, promise by promise, I only leave the church at about 9:30. The Indian is standing next to the round traffic sign, rubbing his hands. “You were in such a rush last time,” he says as I walk by him, “and now you are late: when will you make your mind up?” I take a few more steps, and then stop. I don’t turn around. I am not far from him: I can hear him breathe. When the breathing stops, I keep going, across the street, between the parked cars, all the way to my house.
8. While I am sitting in a restaurant, drinking coffee with milk, the Indian stands on the sidewalk across the street. Later, when I go to the supermarket, I see him over by the fruit and vegetable counter. While I stand in line at the bank, he sits in an armchair and studies the instructions for taking out a loan. At the playground, where boys and girls are chasing after a soccer ball in the snow, I don’t see him at first. Later I notice him: he is crouching behind the shrubbery.
9. The priest comes into the room where I am holding class. The boys and girls look up from their books. The priest comes over to my desk, leans toward me and whispers in my ear. His breath is warm and smells of mint. I get up and leave with him. I stand at the door and tell the children to behave themselves. The children acquiesce, they nod, but I know they know I don’t trust them. I close the door and hurry after the priest, I am almost running as I enter his office. The priest is standing by the window. He beckons to me, and when I am right next to him, I see where he is looking. The Indian is standing on the path leading to the church. He is dressed in his ceremonial gear with all sorts of fringe and gaudy baubles, he is wearing moccasins, and he has an eagle feather and bison horn headdress. “I asked him what he is doing here,” says the priest. “And what did he say?” I ask. “He is waiting for an answer,” says the priest. “From whom?” I ask. The priest shrugs. “Maybe he meant the church,” I say, “or God?” “I already asked him that,” says the priest. “So what did he say?” I ask. “Nothing,” says the priest. Both of us look out the window a bit longer. The Indian does not move. Children’s voices can be heard far off, giggling and shrieking. I tell the priest to see to the children, and then I go out. My eyes smart from the cold. “It’s time,” says the Indian when I go over to him. He puts out his closed hand to me, then he opens it slowly. I don’t see anything in his hand, but I know what is there. The Indian turns and leaves, and I go back to the church. I find the priest sitting on the desk, reading the children a poem by the poet Uncle Jova Zmaj. One of the little girls has put her head down on her desk and fallen asleep. When the priest turns the page, she opens her eyes.
10. I am not surprised when I see the Indian waiting for me out in front of my house. The day is bright, sunny, and the cold air only nips at the face. The Indian is a head taller than me. When he offers me his hand, my hand is swallowed by his fist.
11. We sit in the front room of the City Museum, near the door that leads to an exhibit dedicated to the Blackfoot tribe. “The Siksika,” says the Indian, “not the Blackfeet.” “White people talk about the Blackfeet,” he adds, “but the real people speak only of the Siksika.” “You are a Siksika?” I ask. The Indian says yes, he is. “Maybe now,” I continue, “you can tell me your name.” “Maybe,” says the Indian; then he says nothing. After a while, just as the woman at the cash register yawns, the Indian says: “Thunder Cloud.”
12. Thunder Cloud is patient. While I look at the paintings and objects, he leafs through the catalogue. Now and then he comes over and peers past my shoulder. When one of the captions gives a word in his language, he says it a few times. Then he urges me to say it, but when I finally do, he clicks his tongue and shakes his head.
13. “I saw you yesterday with the Indian,” says a blond-haired boy. The other children stop writing. “I once had my picture taken with an Indian at a rodeo,” says a little girl with her hair done up in pig tails. For a moment we all look at her. “The sun was so hot,” says the little girl, “that I had to wear dark glasses.” “His Indian,” says the blond-haired boy, “is at least six feet tall.” Now they are all looking at me. “Today we are going to read a new story,” I say. I pick up a black, felt-tip pen and write at the top of the board: “The Dark Land.”
14. The priest is vexed. Ever since the Indian has started standing in front of the church, women have been complaining and they say they fear for their safety. “Yesterday,” says the priest, “Mrs. Vidosava was here, the one who has that fur coat, and she said she shakes from head to foot whenever she thinks of that Indian, and when she sees him, then her knees knock and her heart jumps to her throat. She showed me,” says the priest, “how she shakes.” The priest spreads his arms and legs, rolls back his eyes, sticks out his tongue, and shakes. “Something along those lines,” he says when he stops, “though she is better at it than I am.” “But,” I reply, “Thunder Cloud is not dangerous. I am sure he’d never even trod on an ant. And besides,” I add, “he has no interest in white women.” The priest looks at me suspiciously and asks how I know. “I know,” I say, “because he is a traditional Indian and the only thing that matters to him is preserving the purest possible legacy for his tribe.” “What tribe?” asks the priest. “The Siksika,” I say. “Who are they?” asks the priest. “They used to be called the Blackfeet,” I say. “Didn’t there used to be a comic strip,” muses the priest, “back in Serbia, with Indians from that tribe?” I know nothing about a comic strip, so I keep my mouth shut. The priest scratches his neck and behind his ears. “First the Indians killed some newcomers and took their children into slavery,” says the priest, “and then the English soldiers came, or was it the French, and killed all the Indians, but they didn’t find the children… or did they find them after all? I don’t remember,” says the priest, “but one of the Indians was a Blackfoot, I’m sure of it.”
15. “My father died from drink,” says Thunder Cloud. “My mother died from drink. My brother died from drink. My sister died from drink.” He looks at me: “Who died from drink in your family?” “No one,” I say.
16. It is cold, but the Indian is standing by the round traffic sign and he is not moving. “How much longer can he keep that up?” asks the priest. “Until morning,” I answer. We are standing in front of the window, partially hidden by the curtain. We watch an elderly woman, short and wearing a hat, as she reaches the street corner. When she gets to the Indian, she stops and looks him up and down. Her eyes travel slowly, as if she wants to see, maybe even commit to memory, every single spangle, every shred of fringe, every bead and every feather. The Indian stands and doesn’t breathe. “He has to breathe,” says the priest. “There is no living being that can last with no oxygen.” The woman says something and the Indian leans over the better to hear her. Then he flings back his head and laughs. He guffaws, everything reverberates, and the old woman taps her foot merrily all the while. White fluffy snow wafts up into the air.
17. There are only four children this evening in the second group, counting the six-year-old boy who is here with his older sister. None of them says anything, and since I’m not asking, we sit there, silent; various sounds reach us. The thumping from the floor below is from members of the folklore group practicing the steps for circle dances. A restrained murmur, somewhere from beneath our feet, comes from the banter of the parents who wait in the room by the bar for the kids working on their Serbian language and folkdances. Marica is at the bar, and on the board behind her is a list of all the available items: beer, hot brandy, juices and sandwiches. Unfortunately, there are no pastries. There are times when the parents regret that the lessons finish so soon, and that they can’t stay longer, to have at least one more beer. I watch my little group and wonder who will be the first to speak. Then music can be heard downstairs, and then the thumping in search of the rhythm. I tap the rough surface of the table with my index finger. “I hate that music,” says the girl to her little brother. My index finger freezes mid-air. Her brother giggles.
18. When we get closer to the panel with the large photograph of an Indian chief, Thunder Cloud says: “My great-grandfather.” I look at the picture, I look at Thunder Cloud: those prominent, highly raised cheekbones are the same, that narrow, crooked nose, the deeply set lines that run from the nostrils to the corners of the mouth. It reads below the picture: An unknown Indian chief, the Siksika tribe, around 1860 (?). I draw Thunder Cloud’s attention to the caption. Thunder Cloud snorts derisively. “If there’s something a white man doesn’t know,” he says, “does that mean no one knows it?” “Absolutely not,” I say. “Don’t you think I’d know my own great-grandfather?” says Thunder Cloud. “Of course,” I reply. “His name was Black Otter,” says Thunder Cloud. “Black Otter,” I repeat. “One night,” continues Thunder Cloud, “he dreamed he was battling a group of Shoshones, and when he faced the fact that he would be unable to fend them off any more, he leaped into a river, where, instead of drowning, he turned into an otter. When he woke up, he was wet from head to toe. He left the tent and said to his mother: ‘I am Black Otter.’ ‘Fine,’ said his mother, ‘but first get out of those wet clothes.’ ‘I will draw an otter on our tent first,’ he said, and then he sketched a black otter on the four sides of the tent, so it could protect them from every danger, no matter which direction the danger was coming from. Then he drew circles that were the stars in the night sky, a little cross that was a moth who brought good dreams, a wriggly line that was the hilly countryside where they lived. His mother waited patiently all that time, holding dry clothes. Black Otter put down the paint and changed his clothes, and a little later a photographer just happened to turn up.” “And this is the picture?” I ask. “This is it,” says Thunder Cloud.
19. “And now,” I say, as I finish reading the story, “any questions?” The girl with the pig tails raises her hand: “Why,” she asks, “do they call the Indians Blackfeet?” “Because they don’t wash their feet,” says the boy sitting in the front row. I wait for the giggles to subside, and then I say, “That’s not used for all Indians, only for the ones who belong to the Blackfoot tribe, and in their language it’s called ‘Siksika,’ and that’s where they got the name. It was given to them because an ancestor of theirs had moccasins that turned black after he walked over land that had burned in a prairie fire.” No one is listening any more.
20. Thunder Cloud and I are sitting together at a library. There is a pile of books in front of us about the Indians of North America. Thunder Cloud shows me a photograph of Crowfoot, the greatest chief of the Siksikas, and Crowfoot’s family. In it we see Crowfoot, a woman, probably his wife, and eight children. The photograph was taken in 1884, the caption says, and over the next six years almost all of them died of tuberculosis and other diseases, including Crowfoot. I imagine all those plagues, all those fast and slow deaths, words sputtered in delirium, the loss of hope, the absence of comfort, the vast prairie that suddenly has no shelter to offer anymore. “You could mount the fastest horse and ride it until it dropped from exhaustion,” says Thunder Cloud, “and still you couldn’t outrun the sickness. And that,” he says, “was the most awful plague the white man brought with him, that kind of killing both near and far, when he was there and even when he wasn’t. We weren’t afraid of death,” says Thunder Cloud, “but what we meant by that was an honorable death, a death in battle or from wounds, or old age, when the body goes back to its maker, and now we had to face a kind of death that killed for the sake of killing, as if they liked it.” Thunder Cloud stops talking, sets the palms of his hands on the table. Snow is falling outside.
21. “Who knows,” says the priest, “what he believes in, and whether he believes in anything?” Thunder Cloud laughs when I translate the priest’s question for him. He laughs for a long time, his head flung back, until tears come to his eyes. Then he asks the priest what the priest believes in. “In a community of freedom between God and man through Jesus Christ,” says the priest. “What does that mean?” asks Thunder Cloud when I translate the priest’s words for him. “A community of freedom is a community of love,” answers the priest, “because without love there can be no faith.” Thunder Cloud considers this for a while. “So,” he says, “you love in order to be free?” “No,” says the priest, “first you have to become free, and only after that can you begin to love.” “And before that,” asks Thunder Cloud, “could it be that before that there is no love?” “Love is not an emotion,” says the priest. “Love is community with someone else.” “So that means,” Thunder Cloud glowered over him, “that you can be with someone you don’t love, but that it still counts as love?” The priest huffs. “I have a headache,” he says. “Me, too,” says Thunder Cloud. “I could do with a strong cup of coffee,” says the priest. “Me, too,” says Thunder Cloud. “Marica,” calls the priest, “let us have two cups of Turkish coffee!”
22. Thunder Cloud sits in a chair and watches the kids. The kids watch Thunder Cloud. “What’s this now?” I break the silence, “isn’t there anyone with a question for our guest?” The girl with the pig tails raises her hand: “Does he know Serbian?” “He does not,” I say. “He is an Indian.” “Some Indians know Serbian,” speaks up a boy who is sitting at the back of the room. “How do you know?” asks the boy sitting next to him. “My father said so,” says the first boy. Thunder Cloud doesn’t move. From where I’m standing, right by the door, it looks as if he isn’t breathing at all. “Your father doesn’t know from shit,” says the other boy, “Indians speak only English.” “They speak their own languages, too,” I interrupt. Then I ask Thunder Cloud to say something in his language. Thunder Cloud says a short sentence in which the consonants and vowels follow in rapid succession. “What is he saying?” asks the girl from the first row. “I was telling,” says Thunder Cloud, “how the moon and a wolf meet every summer night on a hill by Yellow River.” “How do you say ‘wolf’?” asks the little girl. “Makoiyi,” says Thunder Cloud. “And moon?” “Kokomikisomm,” says Thunder Cloud. “And ‘summer’?” “Niipo,” says Thunder Cloud. The little girl with the pig tails raises her hand again: “May I ask him something in English?” I nod. The girl gets up, coughs, and asks: “Why do Indians live in those round, tall tents, and not in a house?” “Because,” answers Thunder Cloud, “the devil can chase you into the corner of a house, but in our tent, which we call a tipi, there are no corners, so the devil stays away.” “OK,” says the little girl, and sits down. The parents start appearing at the door. “Practice your Cyrillic,” I say to the kids. “Next week we’ll have a test.”
23. The jangling of the phone wakes me up in the middle of the night. I poke around on the bedside table, knock a book to the floor, the alarm clock flies after it, but I do manage to find the receiver and pull it to my ear. “I can’t sleep,” says the priest. “What’s up?” I ask. “I don’t know,” says the priest, “maybe it’s the full moon.” I looked out the window: the moon is, indeed, full and is suspended above the city like a bloated squash. I ask the priest whether he has drawn the curtains. “I have,” says the priest. Had he had a cup of mint tea? Yes, he had. Had he counted sheep? Yes, but in vain. Had he tried thinking of nothing? “What do you mean, of nothing?” asks the priest. “You need to focus,” I say, “and breathe carefully until your mind is all empty.” “Is this Eastern heresy?” asks the priest. “That depends,” I say. “Then it is,” answers the priest, “and in that case I would rather stay awake.” I shrug. “Good night,” says the priest. “Good night.”
24. We stop by a photograph of an Indian woman drying meat. “The dried meat was mixed with dried berries,” says Thunder Cloud, bison fat was added to it, and this mixture, called mokimaani, was the staple during wintertime. Wrapped up in blankets, with kerchiefs tied around their heads, the Indian women did not look noble the way the men did. “You are wrong,” says Thunder Cloud. “The women of the Blackfoot tribe were as powerful as the men. The tipi belonged to the woman,” he says, “because the woman built it and kept it, and if she wanted to separate from the man she had been living with until then, all she had to do was to leave his things out in front, in a pile.” “And what would he do then?” I ask. “He would look to find himself another woman,” says Thunder Cloud, “and another tent.” I imagine an Indian moving around among the tipis early in the morning. His arms are full of his things, some of them roll off and drop to the ground, but he isn’t able to pick them up. The tipis stand so their entrances face eastward. The sun comes up slowly on the edge of the prairie, the entrance to the tipi opens and the morning prayers move skyward. “If I keep walking like this,” thinks that Indian, “I will leave the camp and I won’t stop until Milk River.” Then a hand appears at the entrance to a tent and beckons. The Indian stops, puts down his things, and waves back. The hand waves to him once more, and then disappears. The Indian lifts his things, not noticing a string of beads that still lies in the damp grass, and walks over to the tent. “I will bring my horse over later,” he thinks as he gets to the entrance. Then he steps into the gloom.
25. The kids who come to the church, regardless of age, speak only Serbian with me. The minute they stop talking to me and turn to talk to each other they switch to English. It is enough for me to turn my back for a moment, to start writing something on the board or to look for something among the books and papers, and the room where we work is filled with English words. “But, why?” I ask them. “How can it be that you are unable to speak with your friends in your native language?” They look at me, say nothing, blink. “Come on,” I say to the boy with the curly hair, “ask your friend something, but in Serbian!” “He is not my friend,” says the boy with the curly hair. “Ask him something anyway,” I say. The boy with the curly hair stares at the boy next to him. “How are you,” he finally says, in Serbian. “I am fine,” says the other boy, also in Serbian. Both of them look up at me, as proud as if they had been reciting Hamlet. “Now you ask him something,” I tell the other boy. The other boy stares at the boy with the curly hair. “And how are you?” he says, finally. “Not bad,” says the boy with the curly hair. Again the two of them turn to me. “Excellent,” I say. “Should I try something else?” asks the other boy. I look at my watch: quarter to eight. “Next Friday,” I say, “and for your homework, write out a conversation with your best friend in Cyrillic.” “My best friend is in Osijek,” says a little girl with bangs. “Imagine that she is here,” I say, “that she has come to visit you and that you are telling her about the things she will see.” “She will never come here,” says the little girl with bangs. “Maybe you will go there,” I say. “I’ll ask my mother,” the girl with bangs says, gets up and goes out with the other kids. They are speaking English, of course, but whispering.
26. When I leave the church, the snow squeaks under foot, puffs of breath rise and disperse above. For the first time in four weeks Thunder Cloud is not standing by the round traffic sign. I lean over, and, just in case, I kneel and search for footprints, but the snow around the sign has not been tamped down. I carefully brush away the top layer of snow: perhaps someone was standing here before and then left, for whatever reason, and then new snow fell and covered the older footprints, but no matter how deep I dig, I don’t find anything. The concrete sidewalk surface soon appears and I feel my fingers freezing. I start to put back the snow, fill the hole carefully, and when I understand the pointlessness of what I am doing, I straighten up suddenly and stomp on the snow surrounding the metal pole that the round traffic sign is attached to. The blood rushes to my head, and I get dizzy and feel I might keel over. I grab the pole and let it go just as fast, because my fingers burn from the cold. I stagger, take a step or two back, and all around me patches of light shimmer in the air. “Breathe deeply,” I say to myself, then I take a deep breath, hold it and count to ten and then I let it out slowly through my nose. The flashing lights stop, night returns, the round traffic sign is where it always was. Someone had tamped down all the snow around, but new snow is starting to fall, and quickly, faster than anyone can imagine, it will look just as it did a few minutes ago, unblemished and smooth, like a secret.
27. “If a wife is unfaithful,” says Thunder Cloud, “they cut her nose off.” I cringe as I look at the photograph of an Indian woman with no nose. “Why,” I ask, “do they cut off the nose?” Thunder Cloud looks over at me. “And what else,” he asks and shakes his head, “could they cut off?” “I don’t know,” I answer, “fingers, perhaps? An ear?” Thunder Cloud sighs. He has probably just about had it with these ignorant white people who want everything explained to them. “When you cut off a woman’s ear,” he says, “she can hide the wound or scar under her hair or a kerchief; if you cut off her fingers, then she is useless; but if you cut off her nose, then everyone can see what she has done and it will never occur to her to cheat on her husband again. The Indian woman in the photograph is staring straight at the camera and she does not look chagrined. “What did they do with the nose?” I ask. Thunder Cloud shrugs. “Well, they didn’t drop it on the ground,” I say, “for the dogs.” I picture a scrawny, spotted dog carrying a nose in its muzzle, racing among the tents while after it, barking furiously, scamper a pack of other dogs and little children. “Did they keep it,” I ask, “as a totem against curses?” “They buried it, maybe,” Thunder Cloud replies, “so no one can ever find it, people or dogs.” That I can see, I think, a little burial ground with tiny mounds, where someone, despite the secrecy, leaves a fragrant wild flower now and then. The sun slowly sets over the edge of the prairie, the shadows get longer, dark creeps down the stems, and then all is dark. The leaves rustle when the wind blows and that is all.
28. My eyes snap open, but there is no one at the window. My eyes shut, and then open again. Nothing happens. I must have been dreaming, because just a moment earlier-I am sure of it- by the lower right hand corner of the window frame, I saw Thunder Cloud’s face. He was shading his eyes with his right hand as if he was trying to get a better look into the room, to spot me in the shadows. His lips were moving, but you couldn’t hear anything. He had two feathers in his hair, both of them white, with black tips. A thick shock of hair smeared with grease and cut straight across falls over his forehead. Drops of liquid appear on the windowpane, making a white circle, and Thunder Cloud collects them on the tip of his tongue now and then, as if he were licking ice cream. I could get up now and go over to the window, to see whether the corner of the pane is smudged, but I don’t move. Sometimes it is better to do nothing.
29. After class, while I sort through my papers and books, a woman wearing a long coat comes over. It turns out that she is the mother of the little girl with the pig tails. “How is my girl doing,” asks the woman.” Is she keeping up with her assignments?” I answer that she’s fine, but that she isn’t doing every homework assignment, which isn’t so bad, I add, because this is not obligatory schooling, it is just an extra class. “She has to study,” says the woman. “Otherwise how will she go back if she doesn’t even know her own language?” I nod, push the books into a drawer, put my papers into a plastic bag. I notice the woman watching everything I do. “Those are their assignments,” I say. “Tonight I have to go over them and grade them.” Now the woman nods. “I, too, used to work with kids,” she says, “but littler ones, at a nursery school.” I don’t know what to say to that. I say nothing and listen to the crinkling of the plastic bag. “I wanted to ask you something,” says the woman, “but perhaps this isn’t the best moment.” I look at her. She has blue eyes. The woman suffers my gaze, and then raises her hand and touches her fingers to her neck. “Don’t,” she says, “we are in a church, after all.”
30. “Another unfaithful woman,” says Thunder Cloud, “whose nose was cut off. Not her whole nose,” he adds when he sees the shadow of horror on my face, “but the tip of her nose, just enough so that everyone can see that she was unfaithful.” He pushes an open book across the table, pushes it toward me until it touches my fingertips. The image is fuzzy and it is hard to see the disfigured nose. It is easy to see, however, that the woman is squinting, perhaps from the sun, or maybe because she feels uneasy. Her squinting eyelids and the lifted corners of her mouth give the impression that the woman is about to cry, that she is on the verge of tears. She is wearing a necklace with two strings of beads. The picture is black and white, but I assume that the two strings of the necklace were in different colors. The hair is definitely dark, parted in the middle, and tied in braids thrown back behind her. “Sometimes the braids,” says Thunder Cloud, “went halfway down the back, or to the waist, or even further.” I hand him back the book. I push it across the table, back the other way, until it touches his fingertips. “What are you thinking,” asks Thunder Cloud. “Whether it hurts when they cut off your nose?”
31. Thunder Cloud and I go to a saint’s day party. While we are on our on a bus, on our way to the northern part of town, I explain to him what a saint’s day party is about, and how you are supposed to act at one. Ever since I’ve known him, ever since he entered, in the literal sense of the word, my life, this is the first time he is nervous. He asks me three times how his new leather jacket looks, are the fringes tidy, whether the beads are tangled, whether his part is straight. I tell him not to worry, that he has never looked better. “You should have seen me ten years ago,” says Thunder Cloud. “You should have seen me ten years ago,” I reply. “The whole world was way better ten years ago,” says Thunder Cloud. Except for him and me the only other person on the bus is an old woman. She is sitting in front of us and turns around to look at us from time to time. The bus driver looks at us, too, not directly, but through the rearview mirror. Thunder Cloud pays no attention to them. “Maybe I should have brought my tobacco and other things with me, so that I could smoke a peace pipe with the host.” I imagine priest, pipe in hand, his cheeks puffed with biting smoke. “Next time we smoke the peace pipe,” I say to Thunder Cloud. “Now we will eat sweet, cooked wheat and drink brandy.” “I don’t like brandy,” says Thunder Cloud. “You don’t have to drink it down,” I say. “It’ll do for you to lick the rim of the glass.” Thunder Cloud turns to look out the window. The driver’s eyes appear again in the rearview mirror. The old woman coughs. The bus stops, the front door opens, a group of teenagers tumbles in with cries and laughter. The boys are wearing wide, baggy pants; the girls, despite the cold, have short tops on that don’t even cover their midriffs; they have locks of hair dyed in all different colors. They drop into the seats as if they’d been doing hard labor until then, put their feet up, lean their heads back on the windowpane, rub their eyes. Then they all start talking at once, even the old woman; leaning forward, she starts telling the driver something. The driver answers, but the woman doesn’t hear, and she props a hand behind her ear. A little later, everyone stops talking.
32. “Adam, the first man, refused to enter into a community with God,” says the priest. “And so it was that though it looked as if he were winning freedom, in fact he was embracing death. And he wasn’t just embracing death for his own sake,” continued the priest, “but for all of nature. All of nature,” says the priest and spreads his hands, “is mortal thanks to Adam’s choice. Because, with his denial, Adam was preventing nature from overcoming its own mortality. But God is good,” smiles the priest, “and instead of turning his back on man and consigning him completely to oblivion, he created a community through his son, Jesus Christ, who became a man and thereby made it possible for nature and people to achieve immortality in community with him.” Thunder Cloud waits patiently for me to finish my stuttering translation of the priest’s words, and then he says: “I know a different story. This is how it was: one day Napi, whom you call the Old Man, fashioned the world from mud, including a woman for himself. Napi and his wife made people, but they couldn’t agree on everything. Napi, for instance, wanted people to have ten fingers on each hand, but his wife felt it would be better for them to have four fingers and a thumb, and that it is how it was in the end. One of the things they could not agree on was death. They argued, and argued, and then Napi said, ‘I will throw a piece of bison manure into the water; if it floats on the surface, then man will be dead for four days and then come back to life again. If it sinks, then he will die for good.’ He tossed a little chunk of bison manure into water and it floated. His wife, however, objected. She said, ‘Manure is no good for these things; I will toss this stone into the water; if it floats on the surface, people will be dead for four days and then come back to life again, and if it sinks, they will die for good.’ The stone sank, and death arrived among people, but Napi and his wife weren’t sorry, because if people had lived forever, then they would never have felt compassion for those near to them.” Now it is the priest waiting patiently for me to finish my jerky translation of the Indian’s words, and while he listens, he shakes his head from time to time. “The mud is the same as it is in our story,” says the priest in the end, “and their death, too, is eternal because they do not embrace a community with God, although it isn’t easy to decide between a piece of bison manure and a piece of stone.” “Should I translate that for him?” I ask. “No need,” says the priest. He takes Thunder Cloud’s hand in his and slowly enunciates, word for word, in Serbian: “The doors to eternal life open through God, do you understand?” Thunder Cloud nods and grins. “Hallelujah! he says, “hallelujah!” Then he turns to me. “I should have brought the peace pipe,” he says.
33. The kids sitting at the first desk slide over and make room for Thunder Cloud. Squeezed between them, Thunder Cloud looks like a giant. “I am Vladimir,” says the boy sitting to his right. “And I’m Ru_ica,” says the girl sitting to his left. “I’m Thunder Cloud,” says Thunder Cloud. “We know,” answer the children in a chorus. “Who,” I ask, “is going to show our guest Cyrillic?” They all raise their hands, some stand up, one boy climbs up onto his chair, another leans on the Indian’s back. Thunder Cloud also raises his hand, trying to calm them, and when he sees that they are paying no attention, he throws his head back and lets out a long, trembling cry. They all stop talking. Thunder Cloud grins. “That is part of a song,” he says, “that we used to sing before we scalped our enemy after we conquered him.” “What does it mean, to scalp,” asks Vladimir. “That’s when you chop someone’s hair off their head,” says a boy in a striped shirt, “but along with the skin.” “Ow, that hurts,” says Ru_ica. “It doesn’t hurt,” says Thunder Cloud, “because the enemy is usually dead before that.” “Who killed him?” asks Vladimir. “Our guest has come for us to show him Cyrillic,” I say, “and not to discuss the art of warfare. “Maybe next time he can bring a tomahawk,” says the boy in the striped shirt. “OK,” I reply, “and now why doesn’t someone write out a sentence using Cyrillic letters on the board.” No one moves. “They don’t have to write anything,” says Thunder Cloud. “Why don’t they tell me a story about Cyrillic letters.” “What sort of story?” I ask. “When we want to learn about a thing,” says Thunder Cloud, “they tell us the story of how it came into the world. Everything has its own story,” he says, “every living and non-living thing, and when you know its story, then you know the thing the story is about.” “Yeah,” pipes up Vladimir, “so how did Cyrillic begin?” “Once, in the olden days,” I say, “many, many years ago, there was a man on the muddy shore of a lake who saw the tracks of marsh birds and thought that these tracks, which told him what birds were here and what they were doing, could be used for writing down other things, too. He took a stick,” I go on, “and on the soft earth he first wrote the letter ‘A;’ later he made up the rest of the letters, the period, comma, exclamation point and question mark, and that is how Cyrillic first began.” “I didn’t know that,” says the boy in the striped shirt. “Me neither,” says Vladimir. “Me neither,” said Ru_ica. They all look at Thunder Cloud. “Were those the tracks of a heron?” he asks.
34. The phone rings late at night. “What’s this about a heron?” shouts the priest. “What is this nonsense, what was he going on about?” I hold the receiver away from my ear, and then bring it back when the priest’s voice dies down. “He didn’t say that the heron invented Cyrillic,” I repeat. “It was me telling a story about how Cyrillic came from the tracks of birds on the shore of a lake, and that is when he brought up the heron.” There was silence at the other end of the line. “Hello?” I say. “What lake?” asks the priest. “Excuse me?” “Where was the lake,” asks the priest. “”I don’t know,” I say, “maybe Ohrid?” “Do herons live there?” asks the priest. “There must be birds,” I say, “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a heron.” The priest coughs. “I was worried sick,” he says, “now I feel better.” “Me, too,” I say. “Good night,” says the priest. “Good night,” I say and hang up the phone. A moment later the phone rings again. “It’s me,” says the priest. “I know,” I reply. “Do you have any idea,” asks the priest, “what a heron looks like?”
35. The first, the smallest, of the rooms has displays on the earliest North American Indians. Then you go into the next, slightly larger room, dedicated to the history of the Blackfoot tribe. That room leads into a third, the largest hall, brightly lit, which is full of displays and scenes from everyday life, including a tall tent, a tipi, raised in the middle of the room. We go over slowly, as if we are creeping up to it. There are deer drawn on the tent. Their hoofs rest on a wavy line that goes around the whole tent, while their horns are touching black circles. “Those are stars,” says Thunder Cloud, “and the lines are mountain rivers, so that the one who lives in this tipi is as valiant as a deer on a cliff and will not stop until he touches the stars.” One of the tent flaps is raised and, when I peer in, I can see clothing hanging on a string, a bed covered in blankets, two pairs of moccasins, an empty kettle, a bow and a quiver. “Come in,” says Thunder Cloud, and touches my shoulder with the tips of his fingers. I bend over, take a step, enter, and straighten up. I hear Thunder Cloud lowering the tent flap. For a moment I’m frightened: nothing’s easier than getting lost where no one gets lost. The light in the tent is gentle, thick, almost milky, and when I turn to the middle, it seems to be following me, as if I am entering a glowing cocoon. I look up and through the opening at the top of the tent I see the stars. It is night. A coyote howls, then an owl hoots, then everything is still. Then a branch snaps under someone’s foot and fear creeps into my throat, my forehead beads with sweat. I drop to my knees, lie on my side. The stars move faster and faster across the rim of the opening, leaving a pale trail behind them. I shut my eyes and I’m gone.
36. Someone taps softly and persistently at my window, but I do not get up. I pull my head under the covers, curl into a ball, press against my ears with my hands. When I drag myself out of bed in the morning, there is nothing to see, and there are no footprints in the snow. I look into the mailbox, just in case someone has put a message in there for me, but the mailbox is empty. I walk all the way around the house, peer into the garage, poke a finger into the little birdhouse: nothing has changed. Only later, under a bush, I find a dead mouse.
37. On Friday, exactly at nine, I leave the church. There is a warm wind blowing and the snow is melting underfoot. A fire truck siren howls in the distance. When I pass by the round traffic sign, it creaks, as if it is remembering something. I think of stopping, of inspecting it up close, but I know that the priest is standing at the window, behind the curtain, and that he is watching me. I don’t stop, I keep going, all the way to the crosswalk. I wait for the light to change on the traffic light, and when the green letters invite me to walk, I start to walk until I find myself across the street.