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Luka enters the world with a soft, half-hearted cry then grows quiet as he feels water sluice over his skin. The year is 1959, in Makarska, a small, peaceful harbour town in Croatia. Anka, the midwife, is also a neighbour, so it didn’t take her long to respond to the expectant father’s panicked calls. She checks three times to make sure the baby is healthy and in good shape, and thinks, What an unusual child. She shakes her head gently. What will become of him, this baby who’s as quiet and thoughtful as if he were eighty years old and had already seen the world? And yet, he’s as blind as a kitten. Luka’s exhausted mother, Antica, asks anxiously if everything’s all right with the baby because he’s not crying anymore. The midwife composes herself, and tells the mother – with whom she’s drunk countless pints of strong Turkish coffee over the years – that everything’s just as it should be, that she just needs to recover, rest and gather strength for later, for her little son’s sake. ‘What a sturdy lad he is, we’ll be hearing about him someday,’ she says. The mother asks for her son. She wants to hold him. ‘He’s going to be called Luka,’ she says proudly and a little shyly. The midwife knows this already and nods agreement. ‘You can see at once that this here is a proper Luka,’ she says, placing the silent boy – whose eyes are wide open, as if they were his lone window onto the world – in his mother’s arms. A blind kitten, she thinks again. In a moment both of them fall asleep. Mother and son. It’s a warm November day. Windless and fair. A winter that is not yet winter.
Luka is three years old. His father, Zoran, takes him fishing for the first time. He has a small boat, which Luka calls his own. That always makes Zoran smile and wink at Luka’s mother. Then she smiles, too. The father takes Luka’s hand in his own and they go to the harbour. With his right hand, Luka holds tight to his father. In his left hand he carries a small bag that holds many coloured pencils and a sketchbook. Luka loves to paint and draw. He doesn’t go anywhere without this bag. Today he wants to fish more than anything. But also, to paint. On the way, they run into many people. On Kaèiæ Square, everyone greets them, everyone knows them, everyone smiles at Luka and asks him what he’s got planned. Luka can hardly speak for pride. ‘Going fishing,’ he says, too loudly, and hides his art bag behind his back. People laugh. Some of them ask with exaggerated concern if such a very little boy should be allowed to go fishing. Luka wavers between fear that he might be forbidden to go and anger that anybody would dare question his father’s judgement. But his father just makes a serious face and squeezes Luka’s sweaty hand. Everything’s fine, no need for him to worry. They go farther. Then farther still. As they walk along the Riva, Luka walks closest to the sea and looks into the water. He greets every fish with a soft cry. And so they continue, all the way to the boat. It’s not a long distance for his father. But for a three-year-old, it’s a major expedition. His left hand already hurts. His bag is heavy. So many pencils! The little boat floats peacefully between other boats its size. MA 38. That’s the red licence number. Almost all the boats are white with a thin blue stripe around them. Or else they’re completely white. Luka can already spot his father’s boat. He’s already been on the boat a million times. Maybe more. He’s just never gone fishing. Luka loves the sea and the boat more than anything. ‘When I grow up, I’ll be a sailor,’ he says. Or a fisherman. His father steps lightly into the boat. He hoists Luka high above the water and sets him down next to him. The boat isn’t all that big, but it has a small cabin. Luka sits down. He watches his father as he expertly steers the boat out of the harbour. Luka will be like his father one day. They head out onto the open sea. Between the Saint Petar and Osejava peninsulas. In the distance, he can make out the stones of the Church of St Petar, the stones that remained after the earthquake. The earthquake was awful, the whole house had trembled, and Mum had cried, and Dad had taken them all to the basement, and it had lasted a long time, longer than anything Luka could think of, and he had been scared, very scared, but they had made it through all right, and nothing much had happened, except that his stuffed animals got all jumbled, Dad had seen to everything – and then his father turns off the motor. The boat drifts in the water. ‘What’s the name of that island over there?’ his father asks. Luka likes this game. He’s good at it. ‘Braè.’ Luka’s voice wavers, though he knows he’s got the right answer. ‘Good. And over there?’ ‘Far,’ Luka says quickly. His father smiles. ‘Yes, almost right. Hvar. That’s a hard word, sometimes I don’t pronounce it right myself.’ Luka grows pensive. He hopes he hasn’t ruined everything. But his father is holding a fishing rod. So everything’s okay. Luka swallows with excitement. He leans over the edge of the boat looking for fish, and calls out to them that they’d better hurry up and get ready, because he’s coming. He dips his little hand into the sea. ‘Here, here, little fishy,’ he whispers. Then he raises his glance and meets his father’s eyes. Today is the best day of my life, Luka thinks, and closes his eyes. Sea creatures nibble on his fingers.
While Luka’s hand teases fish in the sea, Dora enters the world with a cry so shrill that it makes Anka, the midwife, burst out laughing. It’s the delivery room of the Franciscan Cloister Hospital, the year is 1962. Such a strong, vigorous girl, Anka says. The exhausted mother, Helena, can say nothing. She can’t even smile. She can only think to herself that, at last, it’s over. Finally. It’s the first and last child she’ll have, she thinks. She closes her eyes and falls asleep. Dora’s loud cries don’t rouse her. The midwife marvels at the vitality of the tiny creature. She looks at her lovingly. She strokes her little head and her trembling little body. The midwife is old – though, of course, compared to this little creature, anyone is old – and has had much experience. She has delivered countless children. She’s seen them all. But this little girl! The baby’s tireless, deafening wails pierce her heart, with faultless aim. Not once do they miss their mark. No detour. Quiet tears fill the midwife’s eyes. She has no children of her own. She never married. Her fiancé died in the war. Shot by Italians. After that, there were no other men in her life. That’s how it was back then. And now, since the big earthquake in January, which left only the west wall of her cottage standing, she’s had to move in with her younger sister, and put up with her sister’s husband, who gets drunk too often, and likes to make jokes about her single life. Nasty, coarse jokes. She curls her index finger and touches the baby’s small round mouth with her knuckle. Surprised and distracted, the baby falls quiet. Her nearly blind eyes find the midwife, catch her gaze and hold it. She will be called Dora, but everybody knows that already.
Dora is two years old and a lively girl. Her mother says she’s a wild thing. Dora doesn’t understand why, not that it bothers her. Because her mother smiles when she says it. And her father sets her on his shoulders and runs around with her like he’s her horsey. ‘When Dora laughs, the whole city shakes,’ her mother says. At two, Dora talks like no other baby. As if she were five already. ‘And she understands everything, too,’ her mother says, not without pride. Dora can never have enough. She has to touch everything, see everything, go everywhere. In town, on Kalalarga Street, along the Riva, by the waterfront or on Kaèiæ Square, she calls out to the people hurrying past, and the ones who stop, forgetting their hurry, smile at her uncertainly and curiously, and say hello or answer her questions. Dora is very sure-footed, she never falls, she never runs, she just walks very quickly. She takes big steps, and it can be strange, and sometimes even a little funny, to watch her speed along. Dora never jumps either. She steps down from a wall with one giant airborne stride. ‘Are you afraid?’ her mother asks. Dora avoids her mother’s gaze and doesn’t answer. And doesn’t jump.