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"Fritz: A Fable" is Boston Review's second dog story in a row. But while W.D. Wetherell's "The Master's Hand" carried much of its viciousness on the verbal surface, "Fritz" is like a tale of the Brothers Grimm: all sugar on the outside, poison--here of a distinctly Eastern European flavor--within. Stay tuned to these pages next time, as we will be publishing the winning entry in our Fifth Annual Short Story Contest, won in years past by Michael Dorris, Tom Paine, Mary Ann Jannazo, and Kiki Delancey.

--Jodi Daynard, Fiction Editor



Fritz: A Fable

Josip Novakovich

Lipik, Croatia
Fall and Winter, 1991

Fritz, a gray German shepherd, who in his pointed face and thick tail resembled a wolf, howled so terribly that his owner, Igor Lovrak, went into his larder, greased his great-grandfather's rifle, and thumbed gun powder and bullets into the barrels before he dared to walk out into the yard. And even then he trembled, expecting bears or a band of thieves to be closing in. Just when Igor stumbled out in his wooden clogs, Fritz leaped so violently that he tore from the ground the thick pipe to which he was chained and with a terrible din jumped over a hedge. A cat leaped onto the lamppost, barely escaping the dog, and climbed to the tilted and capped light bulb, and placed its paws over the lamp hook. Once settled, the cat didn't move.

Although usually obedient, Fritz wouldn't listen to Igor's shouts to stop. Igor, who was built like a weight-lifter, dragged him by the chain, but almost all the ground he had gained he lost with Fritz's leaping toward the aloof enemy.

Igor locked him in the basement--Fritz knew how to open unlocked doors--but that didn't prevent Fritz from howling most unpoetically his ugly song of hatred all night. Igor couldn't sleep. He marveled at Fritz's voice box. After so many bullets of wind from the lungs into the vocal cords, you'd expect the cords to snap. Igor's nerves did, so he took up his ancestral gun to walk into the basement. His frizzy-haired wife, Dara, who couldn't sleep either, stopped him. "Hey, leave that gun alone. What good could you do with it?"

"Shoot the devil."

"Once the cat goes, he'll be all right."

"Are you suggesting that I shoot the cat? I could."

They sat up on the edge of their bed with their feet on the cold cement floor. It was past twilight. Against the paling sky, the lamp post appeared stark black. On the post was the silhouetted cat, in the same position as the evening before.

"The damned cat hasn't moved at all!" said Igor.

"Are you sure it's alive?"

"Maybe it died of fright. Cats are such cowards that probably most of them die of heart attacks."

"I wouldn't call this cowardly. Maybe he's got himself electrocuted in the wires."

In the slanted, streaking sunlight, frosted branches of the hedges sparkled; in the hills, barks of beeches glistened. Loud sighing and intermittent snoring came from below, through the drains in the bathroom and the kitchen. When Igor turned on the faucet, even the water seemed to flow a sleepy sorrow of a groaning hunter--or Igor's ears still murmured in the aftermath of the howling. Now he couldn't stay alert, although he had to go to work as a plumber of the spa hotels, where ladies from all over Croatia and Hungary came to improve their complexions in iodine mineral water; they languidly coiled in pink oval marble pools, and when adjusting pipes, he sometimes caught a glimpse of them--born-again embryos in halved and steaming eggs with ossified shells. Now he thought that if he wasn't alert at work, he might cause some damage, cut his fingers off.

Igor walked out and called the cat, but the cat didn't move. Its turquoise eyes glowed independent of the sunlight.

Igor whistled like a bird, but the cat's ears stayed unmoved. He didn't want to let the cat remain suspended dead above his house. If a cat crossing your path spelled bad luck, a cat crossing your wires and looming lifeless in your window spelled doom. Would crows eat the cat? Maybe pigeons? Owls? He got a ladder and climbed, shakily, up the cracked post that smelled of oil and tar. When he reached for the cat, in a sudden blur the cat's claws and teeth lashed at his stretched hand. He lost balance, dropped the cat, and gripped the post. After the cat, his ladder fell. Slowly, hugging the post, with splinters needling his palms and sliding between his skin and his flesh, he descended to the ground. The claw swipes had made the back of his hand look like a fragmented music sheet, brownish with age; and two bloody canine marks coagulated, captured, and for now silenced two disharmonious notes of fear and hate--but the notes kept the frequency of the song that sooner or later would find throats to grip.

"What happened to the cat?" Dara asked.

"That interests you more than what happened to me?" He poured plum brandy over the music sheet that the back of his hand had become, and winced at the wet melody of scorching pain his nerves were hearing. Then he pinced splinters from his palms. The splinters hadn't provoked a flow of blood while under his skin, but once they were removed, blood flashed in the emptied lines like comets in the sky.

"Well, that'll teach you to pick up a strange cat without gloves. Where is it now? It must be starving."

"I'll go pet the dog and let him run after the cat."

"Let him stay down there--and I'll feed the cat."

She walked out. Igor, pouring plum brandy down his throat, saw a gorgeous tabby with thick black stripes--a veritable black and gray picture of a tiger--scratching its back against Dara's thin ankles, which were in thick woolen socks. Her heels, he noticed, even now formed a dancer's right angle; she never forgave him for living in the provinces where she couldn't become a professional dancer. The cat lapped milk, rubbed his back against the socks, lapped more milk. The cat's tail went straight up, and grew fluffy, perhaps from the static that flared up from the socks. The tail tip waved joyfully above round testes. Dara picked him up, scratched his tummy, and the cat licked her palm and put his paw pads on her cheek. And so they stayed for a whole minute, gazing at each other with an inter-species sympathy.

"That cat's so thin," Dara said as she poured milk into a tea cup. "We should take care of him."

"Is that up to us to decide?"

"Fritz will just have to get used to it. When he realizes that the cat is here to stay, he'll accept him and even love him."


But Fritz couldn't get used to it. At night he barked mercilessly. He chased the cat into roof pipes and into the hills. Once, when the cat fled onto a thin birch, Fritz peeled the layers of bark with his teeth, and then gnawed on the wood, like a beaver, until the tree fell. The flying cat barely touched the ground before it bounced over the dog, up a huge beech. Fritz kept digging the beech roots and tearing them, perhaps with the design to bring down that tree, too. And maybe after a month of labor he would have succeeded if Igor hadn't found him and chained him again.

Fritz's hatred for the cat grew legendary. (And so, this story could have started like this: In a spa town there lived two mortal enemies, a cat and a dog. Now this was not unusual--there were many cats and dogs in the town, and they were all mortal and the hatred between them frequently entertained the inhabitants, Serbs and Croats, and the laughter of the inhabitants was loud. However, the hatred between most of the cats and dogs was amateurish compared with the hatred of a gray German shepherd and a gray tabby. The night the tabby appeared in the hedges on the edge of the town, the dog howled so terribly that his owner went into his larder and oiled his grandfather's gun powder rifle . . . Anyhow, the story didn't start--nor will it end--this way.)

Fritz chased Bobo all over the hills and treed him up many trees; and yet, when he dragged his feet home exhausted and disenchanted, unable to lift his hanging tongue into his mouth, he'd see Bobo strutting across the yard to his bowl of milk, in the old barn's rafters. Fritz would yawn, while Bobo lapped his white nirvana of peace. Once, after a day of chasing, Fritz fell asleep, and Bobo came up and cuddled with him. Bobo licked his nose, purred in his ear, then left. Pretty soon Fritz awoke with a howl; he sniffed himself all over and even bit himself trying to get rid of the odious odor, and he kept sucking and chewing his fur as though he'd been infected with cat-flies. However, usually Fritz needed only a cat-nap to recover, and soon he'd be up against the barn howling and digging holes under the wooden wall. Once, in a corner, he surprised Bobo, who had been absorbed in the joys of tossing a dying mouse over his head. He flew at Bobo with predatory certainty. Bobo flew even faster past his face and tore his ear. Before Fritz had time to understand what had happened, Bobo was up on the wall, ostentatiously ignoring him. Fritz would have a V-cut in his ear for the rest of his life.

The inability of the two beasts to get along complicated the Lovrak's lives. They slept poorly. Fritz had been a passionate hunter even before Bobo showed up. He had leaped on anything that moved. But nothing matched this monomania for the cat.

"He hates life," Dara joked.

It was a miracle that the cat did not seek another home; but, as theirs was the last house in the town, this may have been his last chance.

Who knows how much longer this would have been going on if people hadn't begun to behave like--and worse than--cats and dogs. Lipik was one of the first towns to be surrounded by the Serb armies. When rumors of approaching Chetniks with their bared knives reached the town, and even more concretely, when a mortar shell shattered their roof tiles, the Lovraks rushed away. They couldn't find Fritz and Bobo to take them along--and besides, how could you take such two enemies in one little car? Many cars, tractors, and trucks drove out of town--Croats north to Bjelovar, Serbs south to Banja Luka.

Igor and Dara stayed in a basement belonging to Igor's brother in Bjelovar. Igor feared to walk out into the streets, lest he should be drafted and forced to run at Serb tanks armed only with a rifle. His sense of masculinity was insulted--for he saw himself as a brave man. In his youth he had been a bar fighter. That is how he had met Dara when she worked as a tavern-waitress. A giant drunk stalked her and, when she had finished her shift, attempted to rape her. Igor jumped at the giant and nearly strangled him. Dara had been grateful to him, and he had been proud. And now he was reduced to living with a bunch of onions and potatoes that in the winter sprouted their offspring; out of the old, shriveling fruits of the earth grew new pristine lives. And what could grow out of him? He tried to do some good--he fixed all the plumbing and rewired the house--but once he was done, out of his bleak moods sprouted only cynicism, which Dara couldn't take for long. She abhorred the fact that Serbs were attacking, but she also detested listening to the venom Croats, including Igor, spewed at Serbs--she was a Serb. When Croatian bands began to burn out houses of the Serbs who had left--and presumably become soldiers in the Serb army--she stepped on a train to Hungary. Weeks later she sent Igor a card from Belgrade, telling him that she hadn't felt safe in Croatia.

He was enraged. He had worried about her for weeks, and now she didn't feel safe! And who was responsible for that, if not the Serbs in Belgrade, whom she now served, cooking bean stews in fast food dives, feeding past murderers and future murderers? He read the card while watching pictures of Lipik in the newsreel.

In the war only a dozen elderly people remained in Lipik. Serb soldiers lobbed mortar shells into the town for weeks without a break. Croatian policemen--there was no Croatian army at first--defended the town, entrenched in the schools, churches, and hospitals.

In the old Austrian spa buildings, rocketed many times, now loomed large holes, so that the ruins looked like skulls with empty eye-sockets, with bricks and tiles on the side, like broken teeth. Many tree trunks, cut in half from stray howitzer hits, resembled the broken legs of tubercular patients, their yellow bones sticking out of crusty skins; the rest of the patients' bodies, which should have been above the broken femurs, was missing; the bodies may have hid in iodine vapors or slid into the ground under the moss. Shards of stained glass windows with peeing angels lay in the gardens and in pastel-blue tiled swimming pools. The shards sank in a heap of dead crows, leaves of weeping willows, and oaks.

The gloom notwithstanding, most people could take care of themselves. At least they could run; they understood what was going on. But how were animals to understand war? They trembled as though a natural calamity were taking place--thunder, earthquake, fires. And all of these were taking place. A Lippizaner stable (from which Lipik got its name)--where for more than a century one of the original lines of the Austrian white horse kept going--had been firebombed. A white horse was seen running into the hills, with its mane and tail and penis ablaze. Another stepped on a cluster of mines and flew into the sky as a geyser of blood, iron, and hooves.

When that Christmas Eve Croatian soldiers broke the siege and took over the town, several of them wanted to enter Lovraks' house. But on the threshold stood a wolf-like dog, and next to the dog, a tabby, leaning on the dog. The dog's paw gently and protectively lay over the tabby's shoulders. When the soldiers came closer, the dog growled most threateningly and the cat arched his back and hissed. The soldiers, who otherwise may not have felt any qualms at shooting an inimical dog, were touched. They didn't insist on entering the house, even though that may have been imprudent--Serb snipers could have crouched in there, but the captain of the unit decided that that was highly unlikely, for the house had a large tank hole gouged into its middle. On the way out, the Serb tanks had blasted holes in many houses, according to the dog in the manger fable: if we can't have this, neither will you.

Later, when Igor returned, Fritz wouldn't let him into the house.

"Don't you know me?" Igor shouted. "I'm your master."

But Fritz didn't acknowledge him. And when Igor wanted to pet Bobo, who showed no resentment but a great deal of indifference, Fritz growled jealously and nearly bit Igor's hand. Igor backed off, and Fritz's tongue washed Bobo.

With the help of the United Nations, Igor built a cabin in his yard. He was lonely. Not even his dog liked him. Not even the cat did.

He took photographs of Fritz and Bobo, and captured the images of the two souls cuddling. Igor sent the pictures to his wife in Belgrade. He wrote a letter, and among other sentences, he wrote these:

"During multiple-rocket-launcher fires, the two shell-shocked trembling creatures forgot to hate each other. Who knows how many nights they spent together, embraced. Who knows how they survived. I imagine that the cat hunted and fed the dog pigeons, mice, little rabbits. And when the cat couldn't catch anything, perhaps Fritz did. Or maybe they ate horse carcasses, or even human corpses. I don't want to imagine that but I just did. I am sure they didn't--they hunted. I see Bobo hunt in the yard in the morning. But the strange thing is, they don't let me approach them. They don't let me into the house, either. Anyhow, all I want to say is: if Fritz and Bobo get along, why couldn't we?"

That was a rhetorical question. Igor didn't expect an answer, but three weeks later--not much longer than it took the letter to reach Belgrade--Dara arrived on a seemingly empty train. The train wasn't in fact empty. People didn't dare to travel at night in the trains, and if they did, they lay on their seats and on the floors for fear of snipers shooting them from the woods.

Once she closed the squeaking yard-gate of her old home, Dara hugged her husband. Fritz and Bobo came out of the house and growled at them.

Originally published in the October/ November 1997 issue of Boston Review



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