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Stephen Magic

by Bergkamp 

Posted: 04 March 2004
Word Count: 2480

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I would re-enact these stories time after time. At first, the goblins would just capture the mice, hold them prisonerand then release then as part of a peace treaty. But later there were millitary raidsagainst the mice to avange the deaths of goblins. Prisoners were put on trial and the sentence, always sombre, always dramatic was always the same: death. A firing squad was assembled, the prisoner brought out, a last request, and then the inevitable cresendo.

Sometimes I played these games with schoolfriends, But no one wanted to be the mice every time. And I would always insist on the same scenario. The peace-loving goblins attacked by the invading mice. The nobilitty of revenge and justice was always the motivation behind the goblins’ attacks and kilings.

I was not brought up to hate Serbs and Bosniaks. As I look back on these games and stories of my childhood, I do not recall the iddea of enemies living among us, or nearby. There were some Moslem children at my school, some Serbs, too. I cannot remember their names, or if I counted them among my friends, but nothing like hatred comes to mind now.

Like most Croats, we were Roman Catholics. We celebrated the festivals and attended Mass regularly. There were pictures of the Sacred Heart on the walls at home, but I don’t recall a ddevout upbringing. It was part of the badge of my identity, an unexamined assumption.

I remember the priest from when I was a child. He was an old man by then, stooped with large, arthritic hands covered with liver spots. His teeth were crooked and yellow. His lips were always wet with the odour of the farmyard. I cannot remember if he died or retiredd , or who came after him. Now, I cannot remember his name. I suppose that there would be a record somwhere of who the priest in Jatebarsko was when I was grew up there.

I imagine that many of the answers that I am looking for, many of the missing pieces are waiting for me back home in Croatia. I could trace survivors, meet people who knew my family. No doubt they could tell me more about what happened to us, to me. But I am reluctant to do that. I am frightened of what I might find, of what they might tell me. My doctor has told me that he thinks that my memory loss is due partly to what he calls ‘mental trauma’. That is why he recommended that I write a memoir, in the hope that these missing scenes will re-emerge in the writing of it. That is my greatest fear. That I will uncover horrors and interpret the dreams that inhabit my sleep.

So, I write slowly, jerkily, in English, in the hope that by doing sothe memories will emerge but their cries of anguish, of loss, of fear and terror, that I imagine them to be, will be muffled. I will be able to write this account as a reporter, from behind the blinking eye of the camera lens. I know that this is a foolish, watery, hope.

I will start with what I know, that is safest. The first thing that I remember after it happened is the hospital in Zagreb. I had been past it many times as astudent on my bicycle on my from my room to lectures. I never once imagined that it would become my home for four months in 1992.

I have no recollection of how I was found, or who saved my life, or how I came to the hospital, 35 kms. from Jastebarsko. All I know is what I was told.

I must have been lying unconcious for several hours after the attack. I waas I waas concious but delirious and incoherent lying a pool of my own blood when I was found by villagers the next day. No one thought that iw ould survive because of my head injuries. My skull had been fractured in three places. On my right side, above the ear, and on the forehead, above the eye. Or, where my eye would have been. This was a dribbling mess of blood and smashed bobe and cartilige. I had been shot in the head, or the eye, to be more precise, from the side. Someone had tried to shoot me in the temple, and missed and hit me in the eye, instead. Somehow, my left eye was untouched. My jaw was smashed and I cannot open my jaw completely. I cannot eat an apple, unless it is sliced, because I canot open my mouth wide enough now. My vice is often a mumble and slurred. I am completelty deaf on my right side. I often feel dizzy and suffer from headaches.

The staff at the hospital told me that I didn’t regain conciousness until six weeks after the attack. By this time I had been operated on four times. My brain had been so swollen that they had had to wait five days before operating. All this time my whole head was swathed in bandages and I had to be fed by a tube directly into my stomach. I have a six centimetre scar on ther ight side of my stomach as testimony to this.

The hospital knew my name and address from the information that the people who found me had given them. My early days of conciousness are a sea of blue and a the numb velvet of sleep. I slept for most of the time, but when I waas concious I could see across the ward through a window that looked out across the city. Because I could hardly mmove, let alone lift my head, all I could see was the sky during those early weeks. Blue, clouds now and then. With my one good eye I could trace the broad window frame , the sickly cream clour of the hospital walls and the tops of the beds opposite. This was the picture of my world when I first returned from the world of blackness and emptiness. Because of the scarring on my right cheek and jaw that side of mmy face was too tender to shave. So, for weeks, I had uneven tufts of beard growing between the ridges on my chin and cheek on one side, while the left side of my face was smooth and familiar. I did nnot want a mirror . no one would tell me very much, at first, just that I should ‘concentrate on building up strength’, and ‘getting some sleep’.

In practice this meant lying in bed all day, waiting for my body to recover. Or, to find out to what extent my body would recover.

There were the distant blasts and thunder of guns and mortar fire from outside. Then, the whine of sirens, the honking of car horns. But most often the outside was quiet. It did not feel like we could be targeted. The ffighting was outside, and that was another world.

The day was punctuated by meals, by being washed , dressings changed. Medication was swallowed. And always the dull comfort of pain. For most of the time I felt removed from what was happening to me. I was moved, changed, washed. I took no part in these activities. I did not see mys elf in the mirror. I could only touch the uninjured side of my face. It was painful to to open my mouth the fraction that I could. If I sneezed I would be hurled into a spasm of pain. My head felt as though it would crack quite lterally with the pressure. I tried to relax my body if I felt a sneeze coming, but this simply hadd the effect of jerking my head forward, putting pressre on my neck, which was unbearable. I could not even blow my nose, the pain was so great. So, I was faced with a dribbling nose and constantly, but too gently because of the pain, wiping the bloody coloured mucus from my face and mouth. My mouth was very fragile. I was aware that I was missing at least half my teeth, all on my right side. But my mouth was too tender to explore this properly with my tongue or fingers. It made little difference to me. I could not eat or or talk properly anyway. Either because I could not, or I lacked the will to do so, the outcome was the same.

During those first blurred weeks, as I emerged from unconsciousness, I inhabited a world of pain. Dull, sharp, shooting, throbbing. My body was my universe, and yet it felt separate from me. I heard voices clattering around me. I could not feel my mouth or my tongue properly, much less speak. My body was shifted, rubbed, washed, dried. I didn’t care. I felt no indignity. I felt nothing except the merry go round of pain, whirling around my head.

I had no idea whether I was in a single room, or in a ward. It made no difference in those early day, and weeks. I could think of nothing. Only feel the pain biting, sharp, dull or throbbing. Tears rolled past my temple onto the pillow, or into my one ear. On my injured side I could only feel intermittently, the dampness under my bandages as I lay in a well of pain.

I felt no grief, no loss. I had no thoughts other than the most immediate sensations, either pain, or medication, or being washed and changed by the nurses. I cannot recall a single thought I gave to the fate of my family or friends. In those early days I had no dreams, just drug-induced sleep. I was not lonely; I had pain as my constant companion.

One morning, a few days after I had started to have stretches of time awake without feeling constant pain, a doctor I had never seen before, whose voice I didn’t recognize, came to see me. I was able to sit propped up in bed by pillow. A nurse, I cannot remember her name, was there as well. I am not even sure what she looked like. The picture that I have of her in my mind’s eye is of a tall woman with short auburn hair. She is wearing glasses with frames, the lenses are oval. She talks little, which is fine as far as I am concerned. I had only recently discovered how difficult it was for me to speak, and that when I did my voice is not my own. It is slurred and slow. The words are just out of reach. There are many sounds I cannot make. The physical effort is to much, so I don’t try. This helped to protect me from the realisation of just how serious my injuries were. I still had not seen myself in a mirror since I had been in the hospital. The picture I have of the nurse may just bew a compilation of a number of different nurses who looked after me. I cannot recall any of their names. Apart from the name of the first doctor, that is. He was a man in his forties, mybe. He had grey/brown hair. He was tall, with what seemed like long arms. But prehaps this was because his white doctor’s coat did not fit him properly. He looked tired. He came and stood by my bed, on the left side , so that I could hear properly. The nurse, who had been giving me my pain killers, leaned over from the other side of the bed and said:
‘This is Doctor Vasnic.’

He smiled, shook my hand. My hand was lost in his grasp for what seemed like a long time.

‘Hello, Mr. Majik. I am glad to see that you looking better. How are you feeling today?’

What I wanted to say was : ‘Hello doctor. I am still in pain. But less than before. What has happened to me? How long have I been here?’ But all that came out was sounded like a series of gurgling sounds.

‘It’s alright, you don’t have to speak if it is dfficult. I expect that you have lots of questions. I can answer some of them for you. Do you know how you came to be in the hospital here, in Zagreb?’

So, I was in Zagreb. I had a picture of the front of the hospital in my mind, but that was all. I could remember a main road outside the front of the hospital. I was somewhere insie that building. I had no idea which floor the ward was on. I nodded dumbly at Dr. Vasnic. I understood where I was, but not why. I must have been in a car accident. I had no memory of what had happened at all.

Did I own a car? I realised that I didn’t know.
‘Caaaaarrrr,’ was all that I could say. I put my arms out in front of me in a rough mime of holding a steering wheel. I did not know if there was a question in the sound that I had made, but Dr. Vasnic seemed to understand.

‘No, Mr. Majik. You have not been in a car accident. Eight weeks ago, on 24 July, Jastebarsko was attacked by a gang of Yugoslav Nationalists. You were injured in that attack.’

As Dr. Vasnic spoke, I felt my mind scrambling to grasp what he was saying……a hospital in Zagreb….24 July…....Jastebarsko. What was the date now? Why had I been in Jastebarsko?

I don’t know how long I lay there staring into space. The doctor was talking, but not about me. I was in Zagreb. Jastebarsko? The name was familiar, but that ws all. An attack? I remembered nothing. To say thast I had been hit by a meteor from outer space would have made equal sense. Then his voice started to come back to me. His words were becoming solid again.

‘So, I am sure that you will have many questions about all of this. If you find that it is still too difficult to talk the staff here can help you with writing materials. Your head injuries were severe. We will need to do some tests when you are feeling stronger. You have not been well enough until now…....' His voice was trailing off again, as if what he was saying was being drained through a sieve. I wanted him to slow down, start again. To expalin slowly. But at the same time my head was jammed full of arbitrary pieces of informationthat blocked out everything else. Zagreb, Jastebarsko, attack,July 24….I was not here because of a road accident. Someone had done this to me on purpose. Someone, a group of people had planned this.

The doctor had gone.

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Comments by other Members

Ralph at 12:41 on 06 March 2004  Report this post
Hi Nick,

Glad to see more of this, and to be able to follow what happened to Stephen.

The sense of uncertainty, groping for understanding, and the utter alienation of his experiences are painted very vividly here. There's again some beautiful lyricism, and it works with rather than against the horrors he is describing. And the distance of his voice is haunting. It's very powerful writing.

I know you're working on getting this all out before you come back to edit, but there's a few things that struck me in this section that might be worth bearing in mind when you do come back to it:

It's right that there should be a certain amount of disorientation for Stephen, trying to piece events together with no real memory of them. Parts of this were a bit too confusing for me to be able to follow his train of thought, though. I think the major thing was the use of the word "conscious". When he starts describing his recovery, he says:

"I must have been lying unconscious for several hours..." Then, immediately afterwards, "I was conscious..."

Later he describes his early days of consciousness as "a sea of blue and a the numb velvet of sleep... not sure he can be conscious and asleep at the same time...

There's also a bit of repetition that threw me slightly. Stephen describes being moved and washed three or four times, and the word "pain" was a little bit overused... I wondered if this was working in a cyclical way, but it seemed to hook the narrative up a little too much, stopped the flow. Maybe trimming this section down, keeping the descriptions simple, would make it more accute for the reader... just a thought. It's worth seeing what others say.

Having said all of this, it's still very easy to associate with Stephen, to feel his sense of isolation and his lack of comprehension. It's very moving.

Hope some of this helps. Looking forward to reading more.

All the best with it



Account Closed at 18:40 on 06 March 2004  Report this post
I was gripped by this - the sense of voice and the personality are very strong and carried me along very well. I also enjoyed the descriptions given of people - the priest, the doctor and nurse etc - the physicality is very good.

And I also thought the use of narrative and minimal dialogue (though I know he can't speak!) meant there was this very effective feeling of being trapped in this place. The only real problem I had was the typos and mispellings - but that's easily sorted.

Am very keen to know what happens next on this one.

Best wishes

Anne B

Nell at 09:15 on 13 March 2004  Report this post
Hi Nick,

There's something compelling about Stephen's quiet voice and the story itself, I'm not sure what it is, but it keeps me coming back to this in spite of some irritation with typos. There's an indefinable 'otherness' about him and a confidence in the writing; it's as if you're totally taken up with Stephen and his story and the whole thing is there in your head, fully formed and spilling out onto the page. I can only echo previous comments and await the next chapter.

Best, Nell.

Bergkamp at 16:23 on 15 March 2004  Report this post
Dear Nell,

Thank you for your encouraging words. I will try to cut down on the typos in future!
I have written soe more, but I want to run it by my editor first before I post it. I am going to see her next week, I hope.

All the best,


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