A story about two old widowers who keep what must be a very large rabbit.
First published in Hecate (2015) and produced as audio story by Radio National (2016). Read the full text below or click here to listen.
On a borrowed bicycle, I'm cutting through a burnt-out field. In the distance I can see two old men. One is short and fat and the other is tall and skinny. They are carrying big bunches of weeds like bouquets draped in their arms. They're walking towards me, as if in slow motion. And I am moving towards them, a little faster, but not much, along the lumpy dirt path.
Finally, we are face to face. I brake. They stop and smile, showing me the remains of their poor teeth that look as if they've just had acid poured on them, that morning, before lunch. They are brown eroded sticks, pointed sabre-flint, black nervy stumps. But the old men's eyes are kind, soft.
'Zdravo,' they say.
'Zdravo,' I say. 'Shto pravite?' – which means 'what are you doing?', as well as 'how are you?'
The short one answers first. 'I'm collecting food for my rabbit.'
The tall one says, 'And I'm helping him. I'm his friend. We're widowers. Both our wives are dead.'
The short one wants to know, 'How 'bout you?'
I say, 'Well, I just finished the Seminar for Macedonian Language, Literature and Culture in Ohrid.'
The tall one says, 'Oh, yeah. I saw it on TV. On the news.'
'Bravos,' says the short one. 'Your Macedonian is very good. Honestly, I would've thought you were from around here.'
He smiles with his mouth closed.
Then, generously, he opens it. He's too kind.
I am kind too.
I say, 'I like your T-shirt.' It's bright yellow and announces in loud English fluorescent letters: YOUNG, SINGLE & FREE. I ask him where he got it.
'From a shop,' he says and shrugs. 'His nephew bought it for him,' the tall one informs. I ask, 'Did your nephew explain what the words mean?' 'No,' he says. 'He doesn't know English. He studied German at
school.' So I translate.
And one blushes. The other sighs, long. We smile at each other some more. All of us with mouths open – tonsils, teeth, gums, throats. I look at them. They take in me. And I wonder what they are making of mine – my teeth. Do they see cemeteries? Do they see head stones, newly planted in a concrete-solid, invincible row? Or ivory cradles? I wonder – what?
'Well, thanks for the chit-chat, dear maiden,' says the short one. 'It was very nice to meet you. But now we have to go.' He indicates towards the weeds in his arms and then the path. 'The rabbit is waiting, hungry, in his cage for us.'
'Even the rabbit has to eat,' the tall one asserts, with a sudden solemn expression.
I nod in agreement. 'Yes, the rabbit does.'
Of course, he does. Of course.