The following is from Robert Perišić’s A Cat At the End of the World. Perišić has published award-winning nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and criticism in his native Croatia, where his novels Our Man in Iraq and No-Signal Area were best sellers. He began writing short stories in the 1990s with a clear anti-war sentiment, during the days following the devastating war that tore apart the former Yugoslavia, and is now considered to be one of the most important writers and literary critics in the region. He lives in Zagreb.
A boat trailer is rusting in the grass. Over toward the houses are four rubbish bins. There is a deserted fish-can factory across the road. A single small cloud in the sky, very slow. I brood in the heat, such rest. And then I hear those two. I know that I know them. My memory is good, but it’s in the wind. They have sat down below, in the shade.
I have good hearing, so good I can sometimes hear myself among the leaves. When I turn around suddenly, I also hear the sounds I accidentally drag behind me. When I am moving, mid-sway, it can be confusing, those sounds, the voices I carry, that hook on to me like burdock. But the heat vibrates without my breeze and I can hear them clearly.
They fed the hungry colony one summer, perhaps last year. They are looking for the one they fed. It seems they have found something else. They are talking about something she found. It does look old, she says quietly. You think so? he says.
I move closer and look. The coin seems familiar, but my memory is far. She found it behind the wall, over there among weeds by the broken chair.
Something flashed then. From the depths, an entire boat surfaced, long rotten in time.
From the Other End
As he went toward the end, his memory of the beginning improved. He spoke of a poison, a mild one, and the day he’d chosen. He poured water into the wine and said, “I don’t know why, Kalia, I now remembered the moment I left El. Have I told you about it?”
“No,” Kalia said.
Arion repeated stories, and repeated the words he’d used inside those stories. Kalia didn’t mind because he did the same thing. They sat by the sea in the middle of the cove, facing the way out of the bay; to their left, on the slope, the town was sprouting.
“Yes, I had once abandoned El,” said Arion. “That was at the beginning, when I noticed that I was getting used to him. And I didn’t want to get used to him. It was when I ended my war.
“I saw then that I didn’t know where I should go back to. The question had not presented itself for a long time, but it appeared then: Where was my home?
“There was something confusing about the fact that I had come to love El. There was something in it that I had not foreseen. It was as if I was changing. But I didn’t want to be different. It was not through my will. The fact that I had come to love El was annoying me—I wanted to tear myself away from it. Why do I need this, to have someone to worry about? Is he hungry, where is he, I worried, but I didn’t want to worry. This was not for me, it was a kind of love felt by an old woman, I thought. I never would have said then that I loved El, I would have said look at this silly beast, the way it’s making me run around. As if he’d made me love him, he’d fooled me into it. And then I made the cut. I left and abandoned him. I left him in the care of an old woman in Syracuse. I gave her some money for his food. I knew, as I was giving her the money, that she would use it to buy herself food, perhaps pay off some debts, because she was poor. But I counted on the fact that she’d always give him something to eat, because she was a good person. All I wanted, Kalia, was to go on my way. I went home then, to my polis, Taranto. That’s a colony that was built long ago, like Syracuse. You’ve heard of Taranto, Kalia? Have I already told you about it?
“No, eh? Taranto is a Spartan colony, the only one they ever built. It was special, our colony. The Spartans sent the children the Spartan women had with foreigners there. Those foreigners had lived in Sparta and fought wars for Sparta, but the Spartans did not grant citizenship to these mercenaries, or to their children. There were many of those foreigners, and there were enough of their children to found Taranto. Sparta had never formed a colony before or after. They didn’t feel like forming colonies, they just wanted to get rid of us. Yet they did form a colony for us, apoikia, a home away from home, to make it all easier. That’s when you see what a colony is, Kalia. It’s not much different here on Issa; we were all a surplus in Syracuse. Like the ones they sent to Ancona. Some were in Dionysius’s way, some were democrats, or spent, mumbling soldiers, or they were Pythagoreans, or a tacit family of a traitor, or an embittered sister of a dead soldier. Or anyone who hadn’t yet been bought—and why not sell him now?
“And then there were those who were mysterious, like you, Kalia. It was the same way here, if you look well. Things were clear only in Taranto. The Spartans hid nothing because they
were like athletes: they had neither the time nor the patience for making things up. Taranto had already become powerful when I was born, although it wasn’t exactly known who we were, only that we were not those who we were meant to be. This made things strange, the fact that we were all illegitimate Greek sons and daughters. And we were also foreigners in the place where we’d arrived; there we were Greeks. Foreigners, of foreigners, on foreign land. That was my birth polis. It’s no wonder that some philosophized, even those like me, although I did not realize for a long time that this was what I was also doing. And, as I said, I had to go back there and check something in Taranto, that’s what it seemed like to me. I had memories from there, but they weren’t clear.
“My mother died when I was little, I don’t remember her. I don’t remember her, at least not in the kind of memories I could recall, although I wonder if that’s the entirety of memory, because sometimes in my dreams I have the sensation that I remember her, and although those dreams are more often beautiful than bad, I don’t like them because I am gripped by cold upon waking from them. And Father took another wife, who was perhaps not exactly good. I say perhaps, I always say perhaps, because I am not sure. Was my father’s wife good? That is what they asked me. I said that she was good even though I had no idea why I was saying it. Perhaps it was so they would stop asking. How should I know what a wife should be like? What the one my father married should be like, with whom he had other children, my sisters and brothers?
How should I know what she should be like? She was the way she was. I didn’t know any other. Perhaps she was good—she claimed to be. She said she was too good. Perhaps that sounded like a warning.
“She sometimes said that I would see what others would be like if they were in her place.
“That sounded like a warning that she might leave. But she didn’t leave. And I didn’t see any others, so I didn’t know if she really was as good as she said, and if others were better. Once she said it at dinner, ‘I’m too good, I’d like to see you with another.’ Then I asked Father, ‘Is there another woman?’ ‘Why?’ he asked after a silence. I said, ‘Just to see what she might be like.’ He started to laugh, really he laughed too hard. I didn’t laugh, nor did my father’s wife.
“This was before I understood that some things are said in the way that one should not take them to be true. This thing that I should see how I would fare with a different woman—
this, in fact, did not mean that I should see how I would fare with a different woman. It was only then I realized that what people say could mean the very opposite of what is being said. Especially when it is said by someone who is good. They actually don’t even have to be good. They are good because they speak.
“For example, when I tell this story, you, Kalia, think I’m the good guy in the story.
“Who would be the good guy in my story, if not me? You see, it pays to speak. But, you know, you can’t stop some people. They talk all the time because they think that this will make them look like the good guy. Just give them time. The ones who talk the most are the most suspicious. Still, you get to know them a bit and their lie becomes more familiar than the truth of those who are silent. The problem with those who are silent is not that they might tell a lie. The problem is with the truth, and what to do with it. You can see it in the way they frown as they think.
“It is rare for a bad person to lose their mind, while those who are concerned with the truth, they can go mad. That is why in the polis we prefer to choose politicians who lie, it’s safer.
“I always considered why some people are silent and was always on the side of the silent ones, perhaps because I too often chose silence. Still, don’t believe me while I speak. I am, Kalia, mostly concerned with myself in this story and that is very suspicious. Because the I depends on the story.
“You know, since I arrived in Issa, I could tell each of my stories the way I wanted to. I could do this because there was no one here who knew me. You know, the people who know you, they don’t let you liberate yourself of the I that always postures in front of them in the same way.
“I always postured so that I looked strong and unbreakable. I did not tell stories in which I didn’t appear that way. You can lie to those who know you and to those who don’t. But the lie to those who know you is deeper. It’s hard to get out of. In fact, you’ll tell the truth more easily to a passing stranger, even if you tell a little lie along the way. You can even lie about your name, and the rest can be the truth. You tell the truth a lot less to those who know you. They know you and tell the truth about you. And then you do the same in return. And there is a whole other world above the truth. That is the most unbelievable world, and it is the very one in which we live. That obscures a clear perspective, Kalia.
“I think Simon told me about all this. Have I mentioned Simon? No? What I remember from him is that we don’t know others. And then we don’t know what we are like either. Because maybe I was bad, maybe I made my father’s wife angry, maybe I was horrible even though she was too good. And really, I don’t know if I was bad, if I was ungrateful, because I didn’t know what I ought to have been like, and I didn’t know what she was like, or what others might be like in her place. Do we know what others are like—are we better or worse than they? Take a better look at them and you’ll see that in their eyes, everything is different. I saw, but only later, that almost everyone thinks they’re good, too good. I, however, didn’t think this, so it seemed that something was wrong with me. I didn’t think I was good, and that word itself was strange to me. Maybe because it was good, too good.
“And then, what was I like? I wanted to be on the outside, although it may be impossible to be outside of the good and bad in words; it is hard to be outside unless you have a great wall, and even if you do have it, you’d be peeking over it. I was not good, that’s entirely possible. But in order to be bad, I had to, I guess, have done some deeds. I did those only later, but it was still unclear at the time. I simply didn’t know what I was like, so that I sometimes thought I was good, and sometimes I thought I was bad. Perhaps I even thought I was bad more often, but then I’d think, I can’t be the only bad one, while everyone else is good. There was something in me that told me that it was not right for things to be this way. Then I told myself: I may be naughty and at fault, let them say that, but I am still good, maybe even too good.
“When I think about it now, I was not the only one to see it in this way. Simon helped me with this. He could have been my grandfather, but he was not, he was our neighbor in Taranto. He would sometimes see me fighting with other children, the times when I thought I was right, and sometimes when I was down, when I thought I was wrong—then he would talk to me, as if in jest, but seriously. He looked at me seriously, even though he often made jokes, which sounds strange overall, but this is exactly how it was. I would go to the sea often with Simon. What I know about fishing today, I learned from him. Including that a fish needs to be killed, and not left to thrash about. It is not all right for it to be dying for a long time so that others could see it was fresh, he told me. Because if one day someone leaves us to thrash about, that would not be good for us, and we would resent those who watched us in this state.
“I don’t know what you think about this, Kalia, perhaps I am only a fool who sells dead fish?
“Simon played the flute and taught me to play; he told me about harmony in music and mathematics. I learned from him the word cosmos. He told me about the Counter-Earth, which makes harmony with our Earth, and while it cannot be seen in itself, it is visible through harmony. I don’t know if this is simply the same picture seen from the other side. He said that all of this is in the flute and that it is best sensed through playing. Still, what mattered to me the most was the fish. I wanted to bring fish home. I proudly took home the fish Simon gave me as his assistant, because I would have the right to speak as someone who is good.
“Simon only told me that I was not bad. He told me that it still remains to be seen, what I am like.
Excerpt courtesy of Sandorf Passage. Copyright © 2022 by Robert Perišić/Vesna Maric.