A House in Istria is a crazily comic novel about a man, his long-suffering wife, and his fixation with buying the abandoned house next door. But, in this Croatian region of Istria, the neighbors frown upon the husband as a Westerner who knows nothing about Balkan history or the area's deep blood feuds. "Forget that house," they tell him: "It's not for sale."
|Publisher:||New Directions Publishing Corporation|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.80(d)|
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A House in Istria
By RICHARD SWARTZ
A New Directions BookCopyright © 1999 Richard Swartz
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe moon, our fat moon of Istria that drives people and cattle mad, must have been the cause of my husband leaping up from the kitchen table so roughly that the empty bottles of wine on the floor crashed over, and he shouted I must see it at once, this evening, right now, I cannot wait any longer, and before I could calm him down he was gone, out into the night, clambering up the tall wall round the garden of the house next door, the one he talks about as our house, even though he has never set foot in it and has no idea who owns it.
That empty house!
I don't know who owns it either of course, only that just by being there, empty and abandoned, it has bewitched my husband, but that very night he was back half an hour later, it was almost midnight by then and he had cut the palms of both his hands badly, blood had been running from his hands over his bare forearms, doesn't matter, he shouted as I tried to soothe him and help him wash his hands under the cold-water tap, there's broken glass on the top of the wall, he shouted, every inch of the top of that wall is fucking crammed with shards of glass, but I must have it, he kept shouting, that house is like a dream; and I was thinking of how it was night-time, with the moon hanging in the sky, the fat Istrian moon that hadmaddened him so much that even cold water wasn't any use, his blood turned the water in the sink bright red and he just carried on shouting, no, no, no, that's the wrong color, it has to be rosso romano, he cried, at least that much Italian my sweetiepie knows, and I realized that he was talking about the empty house again; or rather, about the color of the paint on its walls.
This happened on Saturday, and all the following morning until noon he stayed in bed, lying on his back with eyes and mouth half-open. I thought he was asleep. It looked like another hot day. He didn't move, his arms and legs were quite still and soon the church bell would ring for Mass, but my husband stayed in bed and the whole morning passed. Only towards noon he tried to say something, but his lips were dry and almost as torn as his hands though surely he couldn't have cut his lips as well, but not before noon did he mumble something about how he had to get up, after all the sun stood high in the sky, but another half-hour went by before he actually got out of bed. There he was, standing in the bedroom wrapped in his bathrobe, saying nothing, just gazing at the mess of sheets that he always tells me must be aired and stretched before the bed can be properly remade. Every morning the window must be opened to air the sheets and blankets before the bed is made, and the bottom sheet must be stretched flat and tucked in tight, it stays clean that way, he says, the same goes for the top sheet, stale and sloppy sheets bring flith and vermin, he insists, and when the sheets and blankets have been aired and both sheets stretched and tucked in tightly, he covers the bed with the bedspread. Then it is left untouched for the rest of the day until it is time to go to bed again. To lie down on top of a bed during the day is for the lower classes according to my husband, a habit of the working class, those are his very words, if the bedspread is in place or not makes no difference, we never did that sort of thing in our family, in my home it would have been utterly unthinkable, he says, although I try to explain to him that I lie down on top of the bed because of my twisted spine; sometimes I'm in such pain I just have to rest.
But this morning my husband was so miserable and regretful that I decided to make the bed for him and while he was watching, I pulled the bottom sheet flat and tucked it in properly under the mattress, just the way he wants it. There you see, you get it right when you really try, he muttered before going to the kitchen where he got himself two cold beers from the fridge, the last piece of our Hungarian salami, a couple of slices of rye bread and the Krk cheese that my mother sent me, and all of it he wolfed while his eyes almost closed again, his drooping eyelids swollen, practically black, and afterwards he spent rather a long time on the toilet. All this took less than an hour and by one o'clock he was back in bed again, still wearing his bathrobe, but now lying on his left side, no longer on his back, and the radio had to be switched on.
Please put the radio on, he whispered.
On days like this he needs to listen to the radio. Its company helps him forget the things he has been getting up to, music is my husband's remedy for remorse, and I turned the radio on for him.
There was a piano concerto. Someone was playing at top speed, the notes were chasing each other across the keyboard.
Not so loud, he whispered.
I left him in peace and went to sit alone in the kitchen with nothing much on my mind. At about three o'clock I went to see if he was still asleep. He was lying in the bed, motionless, and I bent over him. His eyes were closed. He was breathing heavily and I caught the sour smell of beer from his mouth and all that wine he had drunk the night before, the night of the Istrian moon, glass shards and blood. My husband was sleeping and I switched off the radio. But as I turned to leave, I heard him whisper to me.
Is my house still out there?
Only towards the end of the afternoon did he finally get up and dress. He was calm and did not speak much. For the rest of the day he sat in the shade of the pergola, staring at the empty house on the other side of the wall, or at what we can see from our side at least, not more than the roof and the two shutters covering the only window on the gable that faces us, a narrow window, closed behind almost black shutters, and his hands, both wrapped in white bandages, were resting quietly in his lap. The sun was almost setting before he started moving them about cautiously, observing his bandaged hands with a look of distrust as if they did not belong to him but to some other body. I had to busy myself with the chores, doing the dishes and cleaning up, so I didn't notice him sneaking out into the kitchen and coming up close behind me, but suddenly I felt his breath on the back of my neck and then his bandaged left hand on my shoulder. I turned around.
There's something I've got to tell you, he said and my sweetiepie was as pale as anything and kept licking his lips-once again, I had to think of the moon, for heaven's sake, I thought, not again, what will he hurt himself on this time-but he just looked straight into my eyes and said I've got to have that house.
Are you feeling a bit better now, I asked.
I've got to, he said. Do you understand?
That he was speaking about the empty house and not about something even worse, at first set my mind at rest, but then I remembered all the empty bottles I had just carried out of the kitchen, too many bottles for one single evening, and I thought of our heavy Istrian wine and how I myself drink only a glass or at most two in the evening, and I recalled the wine stains on the kitchen floor and on the tablecloth as well as all the blood pouring from his lacerated hands into the sink, and realizing how recently all this had happened made me feel nervous and once more my mind filled with worry.
We don't even know who owns it, I said. Nobody ever stays there.
Ask Beppo, he said and licked his lips again. Go and ask him. Beppo knows everything that's going on in this village.
But we don't even know if it is for sale, I said.
Ask Beppo, he repeated, and by now he was hissing the words between his ulcerated lips in a way that almost frightened me, and for the very first time I regretted having bought a house here in Istria instead of buying something in Slavonia or Primorje or on one of the islands, how much better to own something on, say, Krk or Cres, before the war I could even have got myself a house on the Dalmatian coast; almost anywhere in this country I could at the time have bought a house without having to regret it afterwards, even in Zagorje, a little house in the mountains near Zagreb, anywhere would have been better than Istria. This house in Istria was a mistake from the very beginning, my little Istrian house that had been just right for me as long as I was on my own, but without enough room for my husband, far too small a house for two people, and separated only by a garden wall from the great empty house that has enchanted him.
Promise me that you ask Beppo, he said, and before I'd decided what to answer he explained that in spite of the heat a walk would do him good, even though a long walk of course would be impossible, not in this heat, but now he felt a whole lot better and his hands no longer hurt so much, thank godness, he said, hardly anything is as painful as cuts on the palms of one's hands.
So, he said, don't worry, I'll just take a short walk down the slope and have a look at the empty house from the other side, from the olive terraces below the house, close to the bottom of the valley, and I wanted to tell him that no one cuts the grass down there any more, not even Bruno, and that in my sweetie's present condition he might well stumble and fall and hurt himself again. But in his present condition he would not have listened to me, so I said nothing and he seemed content, looking forward to his walk, and before he left he told me the grounds that the empty house stands on must once have been part of a larger estate; at one time the olive groves and vegetable plots on the sloping land below the empty house must have belonged to it, to our house, and it was a complete disgrace that no one in this village can be bothered growing olives any more or even collect the figs, but that doesn't really surprise him as there's nobody round here who's prepared to take responsibility for anything whatsoever, and that's why Istria has no future according to my husband, no future whatsoever, and every time he takes Istria's future away I feel that he is making me responsible for everything that happens here, not to mention everything that doesn't, and that this Istria without a future is his way of punishing me, his own wife.
Olive trees all over the place, he said crossly, but can I buy any olives anywhere? No I cannot, and as for the figs, well, why even discuss them; round here nobody except the birds takes any notice of the figs, he said.
It takes Istrian people to keep growing figs for the birds, anywhere else in the world it would be impossible, everywhere else mankind uses nature and not the other way round, he said, but Istria's got to be different, of course, and at this point my sweetiepie was getting quite worked up, here the birds have their own fig tree plantations, he scolded, and when I tried to object he explained how it was just like me to step into the breach and defend everything in Istria, not just the birds and animals, but the people too, all of them without a future according to my husband, something he had actually realized a long time ago, and also that I was one of them, no better and no worse, my own wife but still a person completely without future, he said, even though I come from the other side of the Ucka mountain, that is from Rijeka and not from Istria, but at that point he stopped talking, licked his lips and left.
It was one of the hottest days in July. I dried the last plates, changed the tablecloth and decided that it was too late to visit Beppo. It was getting on to six o'clock and Beppo has already wrapped himself in a blanket by then and gone to sleep on the kitchen sofa until the next morning. Outside, the sun was no longer so burning hot and the air was very still. Not a single leaf moved on the trees and shrubs; from underneath the leaves looked pale and almost transparent.
One of Beppo's cats, the tabby, was stretched out on the top of the wall round the empty house, a very thin cat whenever its belly is not full of kittens, which Sergio has to kill because Beppo cannot face it. His hands shake too much just thinking about it, and so Sergio has to get rid of the kittens, smashing one little head after another against the stone steps to his house, and I too find that I don't have the stomach or the heart for watching it, but now Beppo's tabby cat was stretched out up there, as thin as anything, snoozing in the late afternoon sun on the same wall where my sweetiepie had cut his hands on the broken glass the night before. Also his white shirt had been torn, and I took it with me to the kitchen table to try to mend it or at least sew the buttons back on.
When my husband came back from his walk I saw at once that something was wrong. His eyes were brooding and flickering from side to side, something that he had seen down there in front of the house must have irritated him so much that he could no longer calmly observe one thing at a time.
Who owns that kitchen garden, he asked. Someone is growing lettuce and potatoes down there.
Don't pretend, he said. Whose is it?
That vegetable plot is Dimitrij's, I said, though it was less than entirely true because Dimitrij owns nothing whatsoever in our village, least of all land, but he'd somehow taken over that little patch of ground at the bottom of the slope below the empty house, started digging and growing potatoes there, land that no one in the village would ever dream of claiming or bother to demand should be returned to its rightful owner just because Dimitrij was using it, something that strictly speaking wasn't his. Down there on the slope beneath the empty house Dimitrij's lettuce and potatoes were left in peace to grow as best they could, although once the snails had got a taste for the lettuce, the crop of large, mealy potatoes was all that was left for Dimitrij.
Dimitrij? Since when is he supposed to own anything at all in this village, my husband asked, and I couldn't think of any good answer.
There's something I have to talk to him about, he said, and I wanted to tell him that it would be too late now, Beppo's cat had already jumped off the wall and left, perhaps whatever it was could wait till tomorrow, but there was no way of stopping my husband; suddenly he had no time to lose, I had to come along with him to see Dimitrij, it's something important, he said, it has to do with our house, and I didn't dare argue although we are not really on social terms with Dimitrij, normally my husband doesn't even greet him, not a very good idea in a small village like ours.
You've got to be friendlier towards the people in the village, I often have to say to him, especially to the women. You should take an interest in their stories and try all the tasty tidbits they offer you, preserves or cakes or whatever it is, I say to him, but he always refuses and especially insists on having nothing to do with Dimitrij and his wife. My husband does greet the postman though, and the fishmonger as well as the priest; he passes the time of day with them, and even with the poor man who tolls the church bell, who is weak in the head and all day keeps walking back and forth between the church and the cemetery, though he has nothing to do except at mass and at funerals-even that poor man he treats with respect, but it's not enough, as I keep telling my sweetiepie, the women in our village are as important as Father Sverko to whom he is polite only for my sake, as he lets me know. If it wasn't because you care I wouldn't take any notice of the priest either, he says, but as for that character Dimitrij, I want nothing to do with him or with his wife; except now, that very same Dimitrij he now was determined to go and visit at once.
Hurry up, he said, barely giving me enough time to hang my apron on its hook in the kitchen, come on, quick, he urged me, I've got a thing or two to tell that Dimitrij, and I went along with him, what else could I do?
Dimitrij was outside in his yard. Only a rusty chicken-wire fence separates it from the gravel path that leads to the cemetery, and Caesar was there with him, his black dog that started barking straightaway as soon as he saw us, so that Dimitrij looked up from the big black plastic bag that he was rooting around in, both his hands thrust deep inside.
Well, well, what next, Dimitrij said, wiping his hand on his trousers while Caesar was barking and pulling at his chain so that it rattled across the paved yard.
Good evening, Dimitrij, I said and my husband, who is scared of big dogs, kept close behind me.
Excerpted from A House in Istria by RICHARD SWARTZ Copyright © 1999 by Richard Swartz
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.