Ivan Medvedich was washing his silvery mustache after eating a slice of dark bread with honey when a whistle cut through the air, deepened in frequency, and sank into an explosion that shook the house so that a bar of soap slid from the mirror ledge into the sink.
“Lord have mercy!” his wife Estera said. “What was that?”
“The Chetniks, what else.”
Soon, another whistle and another explosion.
“Run for cover!” Estera shouted.
“What cover? This is the safest place in the house.”
Ivan had built the house alone—actually, with a little help from his oldest, flat-footed son, Daniel, who had groaned more than he worked. It took Ivan twenty years of careful labor to finish the house, but one thing he had skipped: a cellar, perhaps because snakes had nested and floods crept into the cellar of his childhood home. God is my fortress and my strength was his motto. But now, in addition to God, a cellar would help.
He turned off the lights and prayed, and after his last Amen, no bombs fell for the rest of the night.
Next morning, Estera walked to the bakery early, because after six o’clock, the dark whole wheat disappeared and only milky white, soft, cake-like bread, as expensive as sin, remained. The old baker’s wife said nothing, handing her a two-kilo loaf as usual. When Estera exited, she heard a dog howl and then a high-pitched whistle. A bomb fell in a ditch ten yards away from her, exploding with a terrible blast. Shrapnel flew over her head, shattered the bakery attic windows, and riddled the faces of the nearby houses, which now looked like lepers’ foreheads. She walked home quickly.
If the bomb had fallen outside the ditch, the shrapnel would have flown low and struck her. She and Ivan concluded that God had saved her. Still, as Estera peeled onions that day, her neck twitched, jerking her head to one side. Estera had borne Ivan five sons. The youngest, whom she’d had at the age of forty-six, died because the wall between the chambers of his heart had collapsed. Since his death, silver streaked her hair.
Ivan played the violin by heart. Estera chopped onions. Tears from the onion fumes glazed their eyes. Tears slid down their cheeks like little eyes, mirroring knives and violins. Ivan walked out to the rabbit cages. The rabbits’ split lips quickly drew grass into their mouths. He took a white rabbit by its long ears and held it in the air. He had often petted the rabbit, so the rabbit was not scared, not even as his fist drove into its neck. The rabbit twitched several times and went limp. He shuddered and walked into the house and laid the rabbit on the table to cool. “You skin it this time,” he said.
That day he could not eat rabbit, his favorite meat, for the first time in his life; he ate only bread with honey, old honey that had crystallized into white grains.
At dusk, more whistles, and a dozen blasts, all in the near neighborhood. It went on like that for a week—blasts at dusk and at twilight. In their street, a large crater loomed between two shattered houses.
When Ivan cautioned Estera not to go early in the morning to buy bread, she said, “I am used to explosions.”
He said nothing to that, but hummed a tune, sounding like the buzz of bees, and bees it was that he was thinking about. In his old pickup, he drove out to collect honey from his apiary, ten miles east in a meadow of wildflowers near an acacia grove. He put on a beekeeper’s hat and gloves and opened the hives. His bees were so ardent that they had made honeycombs even outside of the frames; Ivan carved these additions out and stored them without draining the honey. He placed framed honeycombs in a circular barrel, a separator. Turning the wheel, he listened to honey slide out of the hexagonal wax trenches and hit the metal wall. He did not mind bee stings—he’d gotten more than a dozen that day—because he believed they benefited his heart.
He harvested alone. His sons used to help him, dancing around the honey separator like Joseph’s brothers around the grains of Egypt. But now one of his sons was in Australia. Another, Daniel, his firstborn, worked as a doctor. The third one, Jakov, worked as a carpenter in Germany. The youngest, Branko, stayed at home, studying for his entrance exams at the school of agricultural engineering.
When Ivan returned home with three barrels of honey and saw his son Daniel, he rolled up his sleeve because Daniel always took his blood pressure, especially since Ivan’s heart attack. (Ivan still suffered from angina pectoris but could not get a retirement settlement because his Communist boss hated him and, he suspected, wanted him to die at the factory.)
Daniel had not come to take his blood pressure. Instead, he talked about how, in the village where he doctored, Chetniks went door to door, beating up old Croatian men as though these men had been ustashas. “The Chetniks with skulls and crossed bones painted on their caps drove people out of their homes, stole TV sets, burned haystacks. They cut off three old men’s testicles and forced them to eat them. One bled to death, the others I stitched up as best I could.”
“You should leave the village,” said Ivan. “Think of your young wife and child.”
“A colleague of mine has invited me to work in the Osijek hospital.”
“Are they going to have enough work for you there?”
“More than enough! Thousands of wounded.” He waved his hand as though to chase away a slow, fat fly.
Before his parents and brother could react, he was out the door, in his wobbly Citroen. Ivan rolled down his sleeve and turned on the radio.
The announcer said Vinkovci was eerily quiet. Eerily quiet was a cliché in a newscaster’s voice, but not so through the window when Estera opened it.
No machine gun fire, no car noises, not even birds singing; only a woman’s wailing far away.
“Estie,” Ivan said, “we must take care of the honey. You know how the Montenegrin poet says, A glass of honey asks for a glass of spleen, together they are easiest to drink.”
“What kind of poetry is it if it doesn’t even rhyme? Give me no Montenegrin junk when Montenegrin Chetniks are bombing us.”
Ivan let the honey sit in the barrels for several days, and then he scooped the creamy top—foamy, white, and exceedingly sweet. He was certain that this was ambrosia, the drink of the gods. He and Estera poured honey all evening long into glass bottles. Ivan looked back at the filled larder shelves and said, “It’s good, isn’t it?”
Just then a bomb fell at the edge of their garden so that the floorboards shook and the tiles on the roof quivered and slid, like teeth grinding. But the honey stayed calm in the bottles. Another bomb fell to the same spot. Ivan and Estera stayed in the larder, the safest room in the house because it had no windows.
Next day a couple of Federal MiG jets flew low, sharding people’s windows, but no window burst in Medvedich’s house. At night the light from houses on fire flickered through the shades that could not quite be shut. The red light on the wall seemed to be painting a message. The following morning, Estera wrapped a scarf under her chin and walked out.
“Where are you going, old woman?” Ivan asked.
“To buy bread.”
She walked out, proud of her courage.
Half an hour later, when she had not returned, he stood on the threshold and chewed a honeycomb with fresh honey. Chewing the wax calmed him better than chewing tobacco. The phone rang; it was the baker. On the bakery steps, mortar shrapnel had struck and wounded Estera.
Ivan hurried to the bakery. He lifted Estera—unconscious, her abdomen torn—and drove to the hospital. A doctor took a quick X-ray. Shrapnel had penetrated her liver. He dug in with his scalpel and gloved fingers, saying, “Too bad we’re out of anesthetics.” As he fished for the metal, Estera came to and swooned again. Just as the doctor tossed the bit of iron in the garbage bin, mortar hit the hospital, setting the roof on fire. Electricity went out. The doctor sewed up the wound while Ivan held a flashlight. They carried Estera to the basement, where the stench of crap and vomit hung about mustily.
For several days, Estera lay half-dead, half-alive, green in the face, unable to sleep, too weak to be awake. Ivan spent many hours with her but more at home, fearing brigands would break in and burn the house. He prayed but lost the meanings of his words in reveries and forgot to say his Amens. Words without thoughts to Heaven do not go. He missed his bees, abandoned behind enemy lines. As he drank his ambrosia, he decided that the next morning he’d drive into the eastern fields no matter what, even through the hail of bullets. But next dawn a bomb fell in front of his house, shattering the windows and digging holes in the stuccoed bricks. The gate collapsed. Another bomb fell in the backyard and demolished his pickup. The shrapnel pierced the house windows. Luckily, his youngest son, trembling on the floor, was unharmed.
A pharaoh did not weep when Persians slew his sons and raped his daughters because his sorrow was too deep for tears, but he did weep when, after it all, his ex-minister came to him in rags and begged for silver. Just so, Ivan had not wept when his wife bled in dirty hospitals, when his house had been nearly demolished, and when the truck he had saved for fifteen years to buy burst into pieces and shriveled in fire. But that he could not go out into the fields and take care of his bees, that made the cup—not of honey—overflow.
He wept in his armchair, in his wooden shoes, will-less, nearly motionless. As a child, he had seen on the outskirts of his village Croatian peasants, dead, their eyes plucked out. His father had forbidden him to talk about it since this part of history was politically incorrect—am strengstens verboten—to recount.
One afternoon four Croatian soldiers walked into Ivan’s house and asked for Branko. He was in the bathroom, but Ivan said he’d gone to the university library. He was surprised to hear himself lie, but then he remembered that Abraham lied that his sister was his wife to save her from a marriage in a foreign land. That Branko should be a soldier struck him as absurd. Ivan had raised him on turn the other cheek. For years the larger boys beat him, broke his nose, yet he would not fight back. Ivan had complained to the school president, who asked, “Is your son gay?” That was all he offered in the way of help, so Ivan had to protect Branko, giving him a beekeeper’s mask to save his face, and walking him home while boys threw stones and shouted, “Baptists, Claptists.” Branko, who had grown up as a theological experiment, without any malice in his head, spent his days developing landscape photographs in the shed, his darkroom, and his eyes stayed watery and bloodshot.
Estera began to improve. Daniel took her to Osijek, together with Branko, but Ivan would not leave his house, as though it was his skin. On his block, there were fewer than a dozen people left, and in the city, out of forty thousand, perhaps three thousand had remained. Neither phone nor electricity worked anymore. He lived on water from a hand pump and on honey.
He had been a corpulent, double-chinned man, but in a month in which it was all the same to him whether he was alive or dead, he became a thin man with sharp pentagonal jaws, overgrown in a Mosaic beard. Perhaps he would not have eaten honey if it had not reminded him of his bees; he ate it in their remembrance, a sacrament to the little striped and winged tigresses.
One crisp morning, Ivan felt tremendously alert. He wondered whether he was about to die, since before death one could get a moment of lucidity, to summon one’s family and deliver blessings—that lucidity was a sine qua non in a Biblical death, and he, a father of several sons, would of course have a Biblical death. Or had his diet cleared his coronary arteries? The following day, since he still felt lucid, he concluded that honey had healed his heart.
He biked to see his brother David, the carpenter, in Andriasevci, in their father’s house, ten miles away. On the way, he saw starved shaggy cattle roaming, masterless. Horses rotted in dried-up sunflower fields. Blind dogs stumbled into trees. Cats with red eyes purred so loudly that he could hear them even as he rode over cracking branches. Heads of wheat bent in the fields like contrite sinners; nobody harvested them.
David and Ivan hugged and kissed as brothers. After they had slurped rosehip tea, David said, “I have presents for you: one coffin for Estera and one for you. Come, take a look!”
“‘What? But Estera is alive. And I am all right.”
“Of course. But in case you get killed, you won’t be dumped in a mass grave if you have a coffin with your name.”
The next morning, Ivan decided to go back to Vinkovci. As if he had not thought about death enough, or seen it enough, that his young brother—who used to spend most of his time making tambourines and singing—should see the world as a plantation of coffins, incensed him against the invading armies. He rode through the groaning countryside.
From the edge of the village, a black German shepherd followed him all the way home. There he wagged his tail, licked Ivan’s shoe, and did all he could to endear himself to Ivan. Ivan gave him an old slice of bread and honey. The dog loved that.
Ivan stood on his threshold and stared at the horizon, dark blue with clouds. The stink of putrid animals, borne on an unusually warm wind, assaulted his nostrils. Smoke and gangrene.
And when the rains began, a ghost crept along the surface of the earth, not as an image, white and gray, but as a stench of wet smoke and pus. The muddy soul of the Panonian valley sought fire to solidify into bricks of a tower of Babel in which all languages would merge into one: Serbian. Govori Srpski da te ceo svet razume. Speak Serbian so the whole world could understand you, the Serb folk saying went.
He rode his bike to a foundry converted into a bomb factory and volunteered to make bombs for the under-armed Croatian soldiers. At the end of his shift, he always found the German shepherd waiting for him. One dawn MiG jets bombed the factory, mostly missing and hitting people’s houses nearby, but they did damage it enough to shut it.
Ivan could finally take it no more, so he dragged a cart east, through Mirkovci. Now and then he stopped and scratched his dog’s fur. He ran into a checkpoint made of stacked beer cases in the middle of the road. A Chetnik asked him, “Where the hell are you going?”
“I need to take back my bees from the fields.”
“Bees?” The Chetnik pulled out a knife. “Your ID?”
“I have none.”
“I’m gonna tattoo you so we can recognize you next time.” He pushed his knife against Ivan’s face.
The dog growled, ready to pounce. A Chetnik grabbed his comrade’s arm. “Don’t you see he’s crazy? Let him get his bees.” And turning to Ivan, he winked, and said, “God protects the crazy ones. I like that, bees. Bees!” When Ivan was a fair distance away, they shot at the German shepherd but missed.
That he had managed to pass surprised him. Perhaps the brigands had understood his beard as an emblem of Serbdom.
Ivan waxed the entrances to ten beehives and stacked them on his cart. When he passed by the Chetniks, they again shot at his dog, and this time they killed him. Ivan turned soil on the side of the road with a shovel and buried his friend. It took him five trips—and a dozen kilos of honey as the “road tax”—to bring home all his beehives.
Ivan built a brick wall around the hives. He melted sugar for his friends so they would survive the winter. Since he had seen Polish geese migrating south, a sign that the winter would be a long one, he thoroughly filled the cracks in the hives with frame wax.
For hours he listened to the congregation of bees. They were his revelation.
For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead… Yes, the invisible Godhead and his plan were revealed in bees. Bees fulfilled the Old Testament through the perfection of their laws and the New Testament through the perfection of their love for the queen bee, for whom every bee was willing to die. Ivan thought that even if he had never read the Bible, from studying his bees, he’d understand that a rational God existed.
He brought the bees several pounds of honey, apologizing for having taken it in the summer. He admired the heaven on earth, the earth in heaven.
His son Daniel visited and told him that Estera, although anemic, had nearly fully recovered. When asked to join her in Osijek, Ivan said, “Somebody has to stay here and protect the church and the bees.”
The shack where his son had developed photographs had served as a chapel ever since Ivan excommunicated himself from the Baptist church. Likeminded Baptists and Pentecostals, for whom their churches had not been pious enough, used to worship in the shack with Ivan and his family, until they discovered that they were not like-minded. Nobody came now, but still, it used to be—and would continue to be—God’s space.
Ivan played the violin in his chapel and studied scripture. He was disappointed that scripture mentioned bees only a few times and lions many times. It consoled him that in one verse bees got the better of the lion: There was a swarm of bees and honey in the carcase of the lion.
Another passage intrigued Ivan. And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall hiss for the fly that is in the uttermost part of the river of Egypt, and for the bee that is on the land of Assyria.
He whistled and hissed to call out his bees, but none came out. Then he made a flute from a wet willow branch, with a low note, and found a hiss that indeed excited the bees so that they came out and crisscrossed the sky into a mighty net. When they came back, they tossed out their drones, and they kept tossing them for days. A peculiar fratricide—that aspect of bee theologically troubled Ivan. Some element of God’s wrath built in the natural order of things? In front of the beehives, fat drones with stunted wings curled atop each other and shrank; the ditch filled up with drones. On a sunny day, so many crows flew over Ivan’s head, to feast on the drones, that the sky grew dark.
After a prolonged bombardment, a band of Chetniks came to Ivan’s street. He was the only person living on his block. When he saw them coming, he unplugged the beehive entrances and hissed on his flute. At the same time, a bomb flew, with a low whistle, and fell in the street. It did not go off. Bees grew agitated and flew out into the street, where the sweaty Chetniks, having loaded his neighbor’s furniture on a truck, turned their eyes to Ivan’s house.
Thousands of bees covered each brigand, giving him the appearance of an armored medieval knight. The brigands ran helter-skelter, dropping their weapons. One staggered in circles and fell dead in front of Ivan’s house. He kept swelling even after the rigor mortis gripped him.
Josip Novakovich left Croatia at the age of 20. He’s published 6 books of short stories, 3 essay collections, and a novel. “Honey in the Carcase,” first published in the Threepenny Review, was included in a Pushcart Prize anthology, and it’s the lead story of the collection by the same name (Dzanc Press, earlier this year). He teaches at Concordia University in Montreal.
See more of Josip Novakovich’s work in TLR: Granary.