The Thief Who Couldn't Sleep Page 18

He was astonished when I spoke to him in Croat.

He lived alone, he told me. His wife was dead, his children had married Italians and moved away. He lived with his goats and saw hardly anyone. And he wanted-desperately-to talk.

He fed me a dish of meat and rice. We sat together and drank plum brandy and talked of the future of Croatia.

“You have come from our homeland?”

“No,” I said.

“You go there?”


“You must watch out for the Serbs. They are treacherous.”

“I understand.”

“How will you go?”

I explained that I had to cross the border. He wanted to know if I planned to start a revolution. It was difficult to keep from laughing aloud. There would never be a revolution, I was tempted to tell him. The little splinters of Balkan nationalism were almost entirely in exile, and the few who remained to plot and scheme against their governments were bent old men like Ljudevit Starcevic, himself.

But of course I did not say this. His was a noble madness and a special form of lunacy that I was happy to share with him. One may, in this happy world, believe what one wishes to believe. And it pleased me to believe that one day Croatia would throw off the yoke of the Belgrade Government and take her rightful place among the nations, just as it pleased me to believe that Prince Rupert would one day dispossess Betty Saxe-Coburg from Buckingham Palace, that the Irish Republican Army would liberate the Six Counties, that Cilician Armenia would be again reborn and, for that matter, that the earth was flat.

“I will not start a revolution,” I said.

“Ah.” His eyes were downcast.

“Not this time.”

“But soon?”


His leathery face creased in a smile. “And now? What do you plan this trip, Vanec?”

“There are men I must see. Plans to be made.”


“But first I must cross the border.”

He thought this over for some time. “It is possible,” he admitted. “I have been back myself. Not many times, you understand, because it is, of course, very dangerous for me. I am a hunted man in my native land. The police are constantly on the lookout for me. They know that I am dangerous. It would be death for me to be caught there.”

It was entirely possible, I thought, that no one in the Yugoslav Government so much as knew his name.

“But I have been back. I go once in a very great while to see my people. It is a land of great beauty, my Croatia. But you know this, of course.”

“Of course.”

“But the border,” he said, and put his face in his hands and closed his eyes in thought. “It is possible. I can take you myself. I am old, I move more slowly than I did in my youth, but it is no matter. I must take you, do you understand? Because there is no one else I could trust with the task!”

He stuffed tobacco into the bowl of a pipe and lit it with a wooden match. He puffed solemnly on the pipe, then set it down on the scarred wooden top of the table.

“I can take you,” he said.


“But not tonight. Not for several days. This is-what? Saturday night, yes?”


“Tomorrow is Sunday. That is no good. Then Monday, then Tuesday. Tuesday night will be good.”

“It will?”

“Yes. Tuesday is the best night to cross the border. There is a stretch of the border just a few kilometers from here where there are three guards. Always three guards, walking back and forth. It is allowed to cross only at the Customs stations, you see. And at the rest of the border where one is not allowed to cross there are always guards, and here there are three guards.”

He relit the pipe. “But on Tuesday,” he said triumphantly, “there will be only two guards!”

“Why is that so?”

“It is always so. Who knows why? Whenever I cross the border, I do so on Tuesday, Vanec.”

“And on Tuesday-”

“On Tuesday two men must do the work of three. They cannot cover the space. Believe me, I know how to get you to Croatia. My only worry is your fate when you arrive. Never trust the Serbs. Trust a snake before a Serb, do you follow me?”

I didn’t entirely, but I said I did.

“But tonight is Saturday,” said Ljudevit Starcevic. “Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. You must stay here until then. It will be easy for you. It will be safe here. Who would look for you here? No one. You will eat, you will sleep, you will walk in the fields with the goats and sit with me by the fire. Do you play dominoes?”


“Then we will play dominoes. And you will get as much rest as possible so that you will be fresh and at ease when it is time for you to return to our homeland.”

Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, I would have to stay in one place all that time, marking time when I might otherwise be working my way inch by inch through Yugoslavia and into Turkey. For all those vital days I would be stuck on a farm in the northeast corner of Italy with nothing to do but eat and drink and rest and read and play dominoes.

It sounded wonderful.

Chapter 12

Clouds filled the sky all Tuesday afternoon. The night was black as a coal mine, moonless and starless. Around eight o’clock old Starcevic and I set out for the border. I carried a leather satchel he had given me. In it was a loaf of bread, several wedges of ripe cheese, a flask of plum brandy, and the inevitable mysterious documents that were my last souvenir of Ireland. We walked along narrow mountain paths. There was lightning and thunder in the west, but the storm was a long way off, and it was not raining where we were.

When we approached the border, Starcevic drew me down in a clump of shrubbery. “Now we must be very quiet,” he whispered. “In a few moments the border guard will pass us. You see that tree? If you climb it, you can get over the fence. I have climbed it and I am an old man, so you will be over it with no difficulty. We will wait until the guard passes and then we will wait five minutes, no longer, and then you will climb the tree and jump over the fence. It is not Croatia on the other side, you know. It is Slovenia.”

“I know.”

“Trust a snake before a Slovene. Tell them nothing. But in Croatia you will meet your friends.”

“Of course.”

“But why do I tell you these things?” He laughed softly. “You could tell me more than I could tell you, for it is you who will start the revolution.”


“Oh, I know, I know. You must not say as much, not even to me. But I know, Vanec. I know.”

He fell silent. I waited, my eyes on the tree and the fence beyond it. The tree did not look all that easy to climb. There was a branch that extended over the fence, and I saw that it would be possible to move along the branch and jump clear of the fence. It would also be possible to make a very attractive target on the branch, outlined against the sky. At least the sky was dark and, according to Starcevic, there would be worlds of time once the sentry had passed.

After a few moments we saw the sentry pass. He was tall enough to play professional basketball. He wore high laced boots and a severely tailored uniform and carried a rifle. In my mind I saw him swing the rifle surely and easily, like a gunner in a movie short on skeet-shooting, zeroing in on a man poised on the branch of a tree, squeezing off an easy shot and dropping his prey.

We waited five long minutes. Then Starcevic touched my shoulder and pointed at the tree. I ran to it, tossed my leather satchel high over the fence, and shinnied up the tree. I climbed out onto the proper branch and felt it bend under my weight, but it held me, and I moved out until I was clear of the boundary fence. I had the horrible feeling that a gun barrel was trained on me and I waited for a shot to pierce the night. No shot came. I caught hold of the branch with my hands, let my feet swing down, then let go and dropped a few yards to the ground. I found the satchel, snatched it up, and started walking.

So that was the Iron Curtain, I thought. A stretch of barbed wire one could pass over simply by shinnying up a tree. A hazardous obstacle for James Bond and his cohorts but child’s play for that great Croatian revolutionary, Evan Tanner.

I felt wonderful. The days and nights at Starcevic’s farm had done me worlds of good. Merely staying in one place for a few days rested me, and the security of knowing that I was safe, that I could eat and drink and lie down without constantly looking over my shoulder for police in one shape or another was a luxury to which I had recently become unaccustomed. Starcevic himself was a decent enough companion, pleasant enough to talk with and agreeably silent when I did not feel like talking. He worried that I was not getting enough sleep, as I always stayed up after he went to bed and managed to be awake before he rose in the morning. But he was so happy to have someone around to speak Croat to him and play dominoes with him that he was careful not to press or pry.

Now, rested and recovered, I felt equal to the challenge of Yugoslavia. It could be both easy and hard at once; it was a police state, on the one hand, and it was at the same time an utter gold mine of political extremists. The national groups that made up Yugoslavia were by no means a homogenized blend. Each province had dreams of independence, and in each province there were men whom I knew, men to whom I had written those cryptic notes. It was easy to construct a route that would lead safely and surely down into Bulgaria and from there to Turkey. I had entered Slovenia. I would move south and east through Croatia and Slavonia to Vukovar on the Danube-where I was awaited-then south through Serbia, stopping in Kragujevac, and on to Djakovica in Kosovo-Metohija, and stopping finally in any of several towns in Macedonia before turning east for the Bulgarian border. The whole trip would run around five hundred miles, and I might have to take my time, but I could expect to be sheltered every step of the way.

And there would be no Estebans in Yugoslavia, no inept conspirators. An inept conspirator in Yugoslavia very speedily found his way into prison. These men of mine might lead equally futile lives, but they would be professionals in their futility. I could count on them.

By dawn Wednesday I had reached the Slovenian city of Ljubljana. There a displaced Serbian teacher took me into his house, fed me breakfast, and took me to a friend who let me ride to Zagreb in the back of his truck. The ride was bumpy but quick. In Zagreb, Sandor Kofalic fed me roasted lamb and locked me in his cellar with a bottle of sweet wine while he rounded up a Croat separatist who had landed a berth as a minor functionary in the local Communist Party. I never learned the man’s name; he didn’t mention it, and I had the sense not to ask it. He provided me with a travel pass that would let me ride the trains as far as Belgrade (bypassing Vukovar). I would have to be careful in Belgrade, he counseled me, and I should not attempt to take the trains any further south, but, if I had friends, I would find my way readily enough.

In Belgrade I had dinner with Janos Papilov. He did not have a car, he told me, but a friend of his did, and perhaps he could borrow it. I waited at his house and played cards with his wife and father-in-law while he went to hunt up transportation. He came back with a car, and late at night we set out. He drove me sixty miles to Kragujevac and apologized that he could go no farther. Like the others I had met, he did not ask where I was going or why I was going there. He knew only that I was a comrade and in trouble and assumed that I was going someplace important and had something important to do there. That was enough to satisfy him.

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