The demining squad was just leaving as I entered the village. I the czar, the king, the champion. I, door-to-door book salesman who'd leave no illiterate, blind, or unemployed wretch alone without closing at least a thousand kuna deal. My pitches would mesmerize them into thinking that they were buying not an ordinary health book but an elixir of youth, and they'd wonder how they even got that far without it. My cookbooks would fill their nostrils with tempting sensations and make their mouths water so bad they'd snatch the book and run into the kitchen as if a feast were to pop out just by cracking it open.
I roamed war-scorched, mine-infested villages covered in thicket, rubble and weed, craving a challenge. And there in the heart of the ancient wood of Prašnik I now stumbled upon this village with twenty-odd houses, half of which had been left standing in one piece or had been rebuilt. But even those were abandoned for the most part. I managed to sell a grandpa a copy of How to Succeed in Life, but that was it. One pitch went sour, and other houses were empty. Some would say that even one deal in this godforsaken place was a success, but I'm not one of them. On my way back I saw smoke rising from a tiny shack hit by a mortar shell. I saw the shack before, thought it wasn't worth the trouble, but now the smoke got my attention.
I made my way through the narrow front yard kicking aside black, white-bellied snakes sunbathing on the walkway and knocked. From inside I heard a feeble voice, so I entered.
A skinny old man was sitting at the table, resting his elbows on a plastic checkered tablecloth. The stove was burning - you could hear woodworms popping inside - even though it was warm, and someone was sleeping on the bed in the corner.
- Oh my, ain't ya the doctor? Mara got through to ya after all, did she? - said the old man.
- Sure she did, old man, sure she did - I said, quite accustomed to being called a doctor because I sell health books. - So, what's the problem, ain't feeling well?
- Oh, I'm fine, but my Pila's kinda sick. She gone to bed yesterday and never got up, so I told our Mara to give ya' a holler, she the only one with a phone in the village.
I left the book on the table and went to the bed where Nana Pila was lying. Stiff, solemn and grave, like a grunt at attention. Dead. As a doornail.
- Fancy a shot of brandy, doc? - said the old man.
- Sure, old man, as soon as I take care of your Pila.
The oldster went to fetch the bottle, and I sat by the bed, pretending to be examining the 'patient'. Her body was cold and stiff. She must've died the day before. But her eyes were still alive, and the more I looked at them, the more I got the feeling they were trying to tell me something. I couldn't stand the stare any longer, so I turned her on the side to face the wall. Now she really looked as if she'd been sleeping.
- Is it bad, doc? - said the old man as he returned with the bottle.
- We'll have her dance for you by the end of the day, old man, but God knows what would've happened if you hadn't sent for me - I heard myself blurt.
- Yee-haw! If only! She used to spin and spin like a fairy, and spin my head too. But we've spun our yarn. Now we just wait for Him to call on us. Here you go.
- To your health, old man. Ain't you gonna join me?
- I shouldn't. Not that I wouldn't. - I could hear longing in his voice.
- Now, who's the doctor here? And I tell you take a shot; it'll do you good. - I could already see him realizing that he was all alone without his Nana in the heart of this minefield jungle.
The old man took a shot, then another. He probably shouldn't but he clearly could take his booze, so we soon picked up the rap, clinking and downing our glasses of smooth-going spirits over and over again. When we drained the first bottle, the old man went to fetch another. While he was at it I sold him the health book. He asked how much he owed me for the visit, and I said no charge, but that this handbook, intended for people living away from healthcare institutions, that it didn't come free like my services, and that I wouldn't be leaving it with him if it weren't for my professional ethics and for the great benefits the book has for people in dire need. I filled out the form, he handed me a hundred kuna for the first installment, and I told him that he'd receive the remaining four slips by mail. He offered to pay in full, but Pila kept the cash in her apron, and neither of us wanted to wake her up.
My job was done, and I could go now. But I didn't feel like going, not just yet. We were both pretty wasted by now. The old man had been on and off for the last hour or so, mumbling something important that wasn't meant for me. He must've been talking to Pila. I left him to his nap and took a tour of the remaining room in the house. It was a bedroom with a big mirrored dresser and two huge old-style beds loaded like river barges ready to set sail. The first bed was stacked up with big feather pillows, quilts, and duvets, almost reaching the ceiling. Nothing interesting on that one. The second had clothes on it. I took my time picking the right skirt, the marine blue one sprinkled with little stars, then the blouse, black with red flowers, then the vest the color of red wine, and finally the green scarf with gold and silver thread.Nana was exactly my size so everything fitted like a glove, and the combination of the colors made me shine. But I needed to take a piss. Badly. So I rushed outside, lifted the front end of the skirt and hosed down the dirt with manly impudence. I hardly shook it off when a woman greeted me from across the road:
- Praise be to Jesus, Nana! Feeling any better?
- Always, my child! As you can see, I've never felt better! - I replied aping the voice I imagined could've been Pila's. Back in the house, I covered Pila's head and went to find a tune on the radio. A second later I was doing my magic dance in the kitchen, tickling the old man in the passing. It didn't take long to wake him up. Rubbing his eyes, he burst into a giggle, showing his toothless gums.
- And I didn't believe when the doc said you'd be dancing this very evening. And look at you, spinning like you're in your prime!
- Come and join me, grandpa - I said, taking him by the hand into my magic circle. And he couldn't stop laughing like crazy.
- How long it's been since we spun like this, eh, Pila?
- That I don't know, but what I know for a fact is that from now on we'll keep on spinning until our dying day. And beyond, in the other world.
- Aren't we lucky, the two of us, eh, Pila?
- Right on! - I said and planted a long kiss on his toothless mouth until he had no breath left. I didn't let him go but kept spinning, faster and faster, until I realized his feet were no longer on the ground. I gently laid his limp and weightless body on the bed, turned Pila to face him, and placed his arm over her hip. This is good, I thought to myself.
Then I took Pila's clothes back to where they belonged, sat at the table, where we drank just a while ago, poured another shot, and sipped it slowly as I watched the old lovers lie there, fortunate to die a few hours apart without ever knowing of each other's passing. Even Pila's stare had softened a little. So I changed the form, crossed out 'installment payment' and added that the book had been paid in full, which, with a 15 percent cash discount, made 481 kuna, no more, no less. I fished the exact amount from Pila's apron and left the house. As I reached the gate, a fat black snake lay in the way, but I kicked it hard into the bushes, and stepped on the road in the sunshine. I the czar, I the king, I the champion.