(Published in Understanding, November 2000)
Ivan Stranic, who owned one of the larger farms in Lachtonia, was going to take the sheep up the mountain this morning to graze. His wife Milenka’s bad breath infiltrated his nostrils and his half-dreams, staining the sheep dark as he imagined leading them up the steep path.
He watched Milenka’s bulbous face and was not pleased. In consolation, he chewed a small gristle of garlic sausage stuck between his back molars.
‘Come on, breakfast!’ he commanded.
She turned her arse towards him.
‘Milenka, here’s your tea.’ Ivan pushed the mug towards her and sat on the edge of the bed, chewing some oily potatoes from last night. ‘I’m taking the sheep up the mountain today.’
‘I know.’ She itched the inside of her ear.
They looked through the chink in the curtains, towards the east side of the mountain that belonged to Lachtonia.
‘All the mountain should belong to Lachtonia,’ he raged.
‘Our grandfathers were tricked out of it!’ She rubbed sleep from her left eye.
They managed to look at each other. Neither saw the ill-assorted, smelly human figure of their partner before them, but a screen of their own outrage, against the people of Shartonia who had stolen their land many decades past.
Milenka blew her nose into a dirty handkerchief. ‘And I have to be polite to those greedy Shartonians next door, when they come into my bakery.’
‘Stop serving them. They take our food.’
All of the west side of the mountain belonged to Shartonia. Each spring they rented, at a fair price, one hundred hectares of good quality grazing land to Lachtonia.
Ivan did not shave or wash and led his sheep through the village smelling much like them. Men stood on corners, knocking their heavy feet on the cobbles, sucking pipes, acknowledging him with a touch of the cap, their sour grey eyes leaning towards the mountain. The women glanced up from hanging out large damp sheets and pillowcases.
The wild thyme smelt sweet as the sheep’s hooves scrunched it beneath them on the path to the mountain. Soft hills and meadows flowed to the far distance. All kinds of birds whirled and twittered in the sky. This should belong to us, all of it. His thoughts reddened the day and birds fell bleeding from the sky as he shot down wicked Shartonians.
Petar Linberg, the small, quiet mayor of Shartonia, waited at the slight wooden gate that marked the boundary of Shartonia’s land at the east side of the mountain. ‘Good morning Mr Stranic, are you well?’
‘We’re alright.’ Ivan pulled the banknotes notes from the rear pocket of his corduroy trousers and slapped them into Petar Linberg’s hand.
‘Thank you, Mr Stranic, I hope your sheep grow well.’
As the last sheep slid through the opening, Petar’s foot jerked out, as he tried to be helpful by opening the gate, and he kicked a lamb right in the belly.
‘You’re attacking my lambs!’
‘No, Mr Stranic, my foot slipped, there’s no harm done, please.’
‘You’re attacking my lambs!’ He slid out his thick brown leather belt and in one motion swiped Petar across the face and eyes.
‘Please Mr Stranic, please.’
‘I’ll give you “please!”.’ He flayed out with his belt and right fist, leaving Petar moaning on the floor, then replaced his belt and almost skipped down the mountain. ‘You’d steal everything there was, given the chance!’
Milenka noticed a new pride in his eyes as he hunched in the kitchen chair.
‘And I didn’t serve them with bread.’
They saw again the vision, and rejoiced. That night they hugged the vision close to them, and attempted sex. The failure was as nothing in the light of their new dream of a “Greater Lachtonia”.
Ivan called a meeting in the village square. The elders, the young bucks, and the women, some with heavy soup ladles strafing the air, agreed to revenge the injustices against their ancestors.
The following months were marshalled to army training and strategic planning. Ivan became a section commander. Milenka organised a boycott of all Shartonian produce and led the small mob that ferreted any resident Shartonians out of the village. She bought new clothes, and smiled more frequently into the mirror. Over supper they ate more politely and enjoyed their new dignity.
Lachtonian soldiers laid offensive mines across the mountain, often using old badger runs, rabbit warrens or fox holes; they placed artillery in strategic places; they had live target practice on the mass of birds that flew past in abundance.
Ivan, chewing a fat, wet cigar, led his platoon up the mountain in spring. It was a damp, still day. The tanks and artillery had damaged the wildlife and the butterflies had deserted for quieter terrain.
Shartonian opposition was slight. Many had fled already. Others died bravely and hopelessly. Ivan personally bayoneted Petar Linberg and watched his blood swim into a small puddle until it clotted in a pile of dust. Ivan was awarded a medal for his valour and chosen to lead the “new settlers” from Lachtonia when they recolonised Shartonia.
A year later the Stranics woke in Shartonia at the other side of the mountain. They had requisitioned the mayor’s house, a clean well-fitted home. Ivan noticed the sagging breasts of his wife, like huge cow’s udders. She smelt the stale garlic in his breath.
‘Make me some tea, woman!’
‘What a pathetic little worm!’ She turned her arse to him, squirming it into his genitals. ‘Gone dead once and for all, has it?’
The mountain looked dreary and lifeless in the dawn light. There were fewer birds, butterflies, bushes and grasses than before. Milenka opened the curtains in their bedroom which looked towards the green fertile plateau of Dantonia.
‘Those Dantonians!,’ Ivan shouted, ‘they don’t deserve that good land.’
‘They cheated it from us long ago.’
‘A Greater Lachtonia!’ They clapped their hands in unison.
They looked lovingly towards the plateau of Dantonia. Ivan imagined leading his sheep to the fine grazing land that belonged by rights to them.
When Ivan and Milenka sat opposite each other at breakfast they saw not their putrid, ugly shapes but a rejuvinated vision of truth, and rejoiced.