The Dealer and the Dead

Gerald Seymour


They were right, and he knew it… but he could not admit it to them.

Petar’s boy had started, had nagged at it, then Tomislav’s son had taken it up, and now it was Andrija’s cousin who voiced the obvious. ‘We are here too long, sir… We should have been well gone… Sir, we have to accept it. It is in our faces and an idiot could see it.’

The respect they showed him waned with each minute they stayed huddled and bent low, trying to find some minimal shelter from the rain. The corn, which had ripened two months before and had not, of course, been harvested, offered no refuge from the cold and wet that engulfed them. They respected him because he had taught them basic lessons at the village’s school, adding and subtracting, writing and reading, with a degree of discipline. He sensed that their respect had almost run its course – but he would not admit to them that they were right and he was wrong.

‘We stay,’ he said. ‘They will come. They promised they would. I have their word.’

As the schoolteacher in the village, Zoran was a person of status. If there had been a resident priest, the teacher would have had second place, but they shared a priest with other small communities. If the land around their village had been administered and worked by a collective, Zoran would have lagged behind its manager, but the strip fields had escaped the centralisation of the old regime and were farmed by individuals. They waited on a path between Petar’s crops, near to the Vuka river.

Zoran was wrong because now he could see the men who challenged his authority – not clearly, in detail, but he recognised their shapes and shadow movements. He knew which was Petar’s son, and Tomislav’s, and which was Andrija’s cousin. He could see them because the dawn was coming – slowly because of the deluge of rain. They should not be on the path after first light. They called it the Kukuruzni Put, and knew it was an act of suicide to be moving on the Cornfield Road without the cover of darkness.

But he demanded that they wait.

If anyone stood at full height and peered to the west, through the drooping tips of the corn, they would have seen the constant light over the town that was, perhaps, five kilometres down the Cornfield Road. The brightness was from the many fires that the incendiary shells had lit. If they stayed crouched, with their faces a few centimetres from the mud, and cupped their self-rolled cigarettes in their palms, they still could not escape the rumble of the big howitzer guns. The explosions – intensifying because a new day always started with a barrage of destruction – were muffled if the firing came from across the Danube and aimed at the heart of the town, loud if the targets were the villages of Marinci and Bogdanovci, and shatteringly clear if the shells came down on their own homes. When the closest shells detonated, each man shuddered or winced. Zoran thought of his wife, and the young men of their fathers, Petar and Tomislav; Andrija’s cousin thought of Maria and Andrija, in their cellar.

For almost three months the Cornfield Road had been the lifeline for the town and three villages that straddled it. The men and women who defended them accepted that when this last route was cut the siege would end and resistance would collapse. Zoran could have berated them for smoking, for allowing the smell of burned tobacco to waft in the wind, but did not.

It was hard for him to believe they would not come. He strained his eyes to search for the tiny torch beam that would show his trust had been well placed. He tried to shut out the murmurs of the men with him and listen for the squelch of boots among the collapsed corn. He saw nothing but the vivid brightness of the fires in the town and heard only the complaints of those he had brought with him.

‘Listen, old man, are you wanting us all dead? They aren’t coming. They would have been here by now if they were.’

Twenty-four days ago he had walked fast down that path. Then the Cetniks – the Yugoslav military and Arkan’s scum – had been further back. Now they were closer and had snipers with night-vision gear who watched the gaps where the crop had failed. Artillery and mortars were used at random, and it was only possible to cross the fields at night.

‘Wait a little longer. They promised they’d come. He gave me his word.’

Twenty-four days earlier, clutching a weighted briefcase, Zoran had negotiated the path through the corn and travelled with the hope and sacrifice of the village stuffed into the frayed leather case that had once held classroom notes and textbooks. Telephone lines were long cut, and the enemy listened routinely to the Motorola radios. He had left the village and gone through the lines and into the comparative safety of Vinkovci, then had taken a taxi to the embryo capital of his country. In Zagreb, a city of bright streetlights, restaurants serving hot food, and bars where beer was drunk, he had met a nephew who worked in the fledgling Ministry of Defence. He had been told it was inconceivable that an arms shipment would be sent for his village alone and not the town on the bend of the great river.

Then his nephew had sat forward, eyes darting from side to side, checking they would not be overheard, and had murmured that reinforcements and resources would be directed to the front line nearer to the city; the price of a ceasefire on all sectors was the fall of the town and their part of eastern Slavonia. His nephew had slipped a piece of folded paper into his hand, saying that Zoran was in his prayers.

When his nephew had gone Zoran saw a kind of normality around him, but the people in the cafe had no comprehension of the lives of their fellow countrymen beyond Vinkovci, in the town and the villages. He opened the paper, to find a name and a telephone number with an international code. He had gone to the telephone booth, by the door to the toilets, and dialled. His call was answered.

He had lingered in the city for two days, unable to learn anything about the siege on the Danube. He had hated the place, had felt a stranger among his own. The bombardment of Dubrovnik had attracted international headlines but not the struggle for his village, the others and the town. He believed his nephew from the Ministry of Defence: they had been abandoned.

He had met a man. He had placed an order, spelled it out, and had half expected a croak of derision. The answer: ‘No problem.’

Bolder, he had said when the order must be delivered and to where. The response: ‘No problem.’

Last, he had unfastened the briefcase, shown the man its contents and explained that this represented the total wealth of the village. The reply: ‘You have nothing to worry about, and that’s a promise.’

He had watched the man go away down the street, past the big statue in the square and towards a taxi rank. He had bent to get into the back seat, then looked back. When he saw that Zoran was still watching him he had waved, then was lost in the traffic.

Zoran had gone home, on the bus to Vinkovci, on foot along the Cornfield Road to the village. That had been the last time the path was used in daylight. An hour after he had passed, a sniper had killed two men, walking wounded, from the town, and had wounded a medical orderly who had volunteered to work in the town’s hospital. In the command bunker, a concrete pit with a kerosene lamp, he had told them what was coming, in what quantity and when. He had seen scepticism, doubt, disbelief, and had sought to suffocate it. ‘He promised. He shook my hand.’

He had been back for three weeks. The reserve ammunition stocks – in the command bunker – amounted to a thousand rounds, maybe ten bullets for each fighter, and a box of a hundred fragmentation grenades. They had brought with them two wheelbarrows, a large upright pram’s chassis and a handcart from Petar’s farm. He had wondered how many boxes they could move in one trip, whether they would need to return the next evening. Even the ferocity of the rain could not disguise the light to the east where the enemy’s howitzers fired.

‘Get it into your head! They’re not coming. We’ve been here too long already, should have been gone a quarter of an hour ago. Mother of God, you want to stay, Zoran, you stay, but I’m off.’

Until then he had been the undisputed leader of the village and its defence. Now his authority was stripped from him. He attempted to reason with them one last time: ‘A few more minutes. He shook my hand. He took as payment what I brought him. Without them, we’re defeated and dead-’

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