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The horse abruptly let loose a sodden stream of urine, and the liquid slapped at the soil with a noise like wet fish cascading down a trawler’s hold. Rišto caught its sharp stink and wrinkled his nose and held his breath. He was a city child, born and bred, and he had never liked farms or anything to do with the manure and sweat of country life. Even now, at home, the least hint of rot or mold could send him into a frenzy of cleaning and disinfecting. Nikola would raise a skeptical eyebrow as he scoured the sinks or the algae-infested join between the ball-and-faucet taps. “There are better things,” she’d say. “Why not fix the transmission on the car?” But this he did not know how to do. Despite an engineer’s training, a four-year banishment to neighboring Serbia and the ancient smoke-stack city of Niš, he knew no more about the internal workings of an actual car than he did about the internal organs of an actual horse. The entire concept made him dizzy, weak not in the knees but deep in his gut, as if inadequacies and fears could lodge somehow in the cave of a man’s stomach. By necessity, he had gradually changed his university training from civil engineer to urban planner, evolving slowly into a man who knew not what made things go but understood instead how to pave the roads and route the sewers, tax the hotels and drive the flaccid engines of a formerly communist economy. It was, he told himself and others, engineering of a kind. Even to Nikola, he had always professed that his change in career vector had been entirely preferential, that ability had played no part, and this constant position of denial ate at him daily, a lamprey affixed to his soul. It was, of course, much too late now to admit the truth.
The owner, then. He resolved to begin with the little blue brick of a house. He walked toward it, guiding his bicycle by the seat, and tripping once on the broken, ragged sidewalk. At the door, he rang the bell and knocked, but no one came to answer, and he got the same result at the next door down. He had brought neither paper nor pencil, so he could not leave a note. Memorizing the street address was both easy and pointless, as neither building had a house number.
He rode home to Nikola undaunted. So he had achieved little to begin, no matter. He had taken stock, surveyed the lay of the land. It was a beginning, and he felt expansive and generous, secure in the knowledge that he had been handed an important task by an important man, and that he would, without question, succeed.
Inside their Tito-era apartment, Nikola was ladling up steaming brownish goop from the depths of her grandmother’s best hand-me-down cast iron pot, her expression vexed in the extreme. “The butcher,” she said, “gives us offal that is three days old at least. He should show more respect.”
Rišto kissed Nikola on the neck just below the ear, a gesture he knew would not be returned, and removed his shoes. He had grown up poor, and offal for supper was not in any way a disappointment. For Nikola, it represented a step backwards, and to serve it more than once a month, which she often had to do, and to value the leftovers besides, was a sign that her mother had been right, she’d married down. Still, even these bothersome associations did nothing to dampen Rišto’s ebullient mood. The future held more delectable ražnič than it did offal stew.
Nikola worked mornings at a jewelry shop just across the Stone Bridge, but not so far into the maze of the Old Town that he worried for her safety. She did repair work, mostly, and her nimble fingers and quick turnarounds had gained her a certain renown. The shop, despite innumerable competitors in every direction, had grown ever more prosperous, although the owner, a swarthy and self-obsessed Vlach named Sašo, had not as yet passed any of the rewards on to Nikola. “Your skills will make us all rich,” he’d say, bending down to watch her work. “In time.” He liked, said Nikola, to touch her as she worked, to trail a finger through her shoulder-length hair, and Rišto had demanded more than once that she quit, find other work, but Nikola only told him this was her business, that nothing more would ever happen. “You are my husband, not him,” she’d say, sounding annoyed with that fact, “and you know we need the money.” If he pressed her, she’d say, “What do you want me to do, attack him?” Rišto hoped she might. A feisty one, his wife, pretty and intent but ever more distant, with a face like a lonely hovering hawk.
That night, after dinner, they watched a tepid soccer match on their aging television and shared, in near silence, a Turkish beer. Afterward, they undressed on opposite sides of the bed — when had it become such a barricade? — and slid beneath the maroon covers without once touching. Rišto drifted off to sleep as if born to it, and he dreamed precisely nothing, while beside him his wife read a trio of books, sweeping sagas and vast, gory histories, pausing on occasion to shove her comatose husband away.
First thing at the office, Rišto called the Housing Authority and asked them to research the owner of the little blue home adjacent to the horse’s paddock. He made sure to be especially cheery on the phone, and to drop the Director’s name more than once in order to properly impress upon the poor functionary who’d answered that here stood matters too pressing for the standard feint-and-delay. Next, he went downstairs to research the regulations pertaining to livestock and their permissibility within the city limits. Several ordinances presented themselves, most overlapping in their scope, some with specific penalties for violation, some not. Horses were mentioned by name only once, in a document dated 1963. Still, it was better than nothing. For removing the horse, there was clear and established precedent. If it came to the courts, the magistrates, with the Director’s blessing, would back him.
To his surprise, he received a call back from Housing within the hour; he had expected a delay of several days, a full twenty-four hours at best. The caller was a woman, and not the person he’d spoken with first. She informed him that the house belonged to Božidar Sokalski, but that Sokalski did not own the lot on which stood the horse, and he did not wish to be disturbed regarding this matter. Warning bells sounded in Rišto’s head. He had not mentioned either horse or lot, yet this stranger already knew his mission and was calmly turning him aside. “Wait,” he said, “how did you know it was the adjacent lot I wished to know about?”
The woman laughed, and the cold wire depths of the telephone stripped the sound of any possible warmth. “You’re not the first to call from the City Authority. What you want to know really is who owns the vacant lot. Officially, the name you want is Ivo Redžepova. Reaching him, that will be harder.”
“He’s been dead for, let’s see. Thirty-two years.”
With the call concluded, Rišto rose and paced his cramped office, working out a rough U from desk to door and back again, over and over. They knew, all of them! He had not imagined his co-worker’s laughter from the day before. What was this, then, a hazing ritual? Did the Director give this assignment to all new hires within the Urban Planning Division? And all before him had failed? No matter. Their laughter meant nothing. He would not ask what they knew; he would investigate only the matter at hand. He would simply continue as if he were not in the least aware of his shameful position. He would press forward with all his energies focused to a laser’s brightness on the problem. And how big a problem could it possibly be, the removal of a single horse?
Acting on an impulse that he knew to be rash, he called his wife’s uncle, Milco Šelderov. “Would you be so kind,” he said, when he had Milco on the line at last, “as to meet me for lunch?”