Excerpt of The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht
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Did he leave a letter?
He hadnt. My mother and grandma, I realized, had both probably seen his departure as part of his unwillingness to retire, like his relationship with a new housebound patient outside the Citya patient we had made up as a cover for his visits to the oncologist friend from the weekly doctors luncheon, a man who gave injections of some formulas that were supposed to help with the pain. Colorful formulas, my grandfather said when he came home, as if he knew the whole time that the formulas were just water laced with food coloring, as if it didnt matter anymore. He had, at first, more or less retained his healthy cast, which made hiding his illness easier; but after seeing him come out of these sessions just once, I had threatened to tell my mother, and he said: Dont you dare. And that was that.
My grandma was asking me: Are you already in Brejevina?
Were at the border, I said. We just came over on the ferry.
Outside, the line of cars was beginning to move again. I saw Zóra put her cigarette out on the ground, pull her leg back in and slam the door. A flurry of people who had assembled on the gravel shoulder to stretch and smoke, to check their tires and fill water bottles at the fountain, to look impatiently down the line, or dispose of pastries and sandwiches they had been attempting to smuggle, or urinate against the side of the bathroom, scrambled to get back to their vehicles.
My grandma was silent for a few moments. I could hear the line clicking, and then she said: Your mother wants to have the funeral in the next few days. Couldnt Zóra go on to Brejevina by herself?
If I had told Zóra about it, she would have made me go home immediately. She would have given me the car, taken the vaccine coolers, and hitchhiked across the border to make the Universitys good-faith delivery to the orphanage at Brejevina up the coast. But I said: Were almost there, Bako, and a lot of kids are waiting on these shots.
She didnt ask me again. My grandma just gave me the date of the funeral, the time, the place, even though I already knew where it would be, up on Strmina, the hill overlooking the City, where Mother Vera, my great-great-grandmother, was buried. After she hung up, I ran the faucet with my elbow and filled the water bottles I had brought as my pretext for getting out of the car. On the gravel outside, I rinsed off my feet before putting my shoes back on; Zóra left the engine running and jumped out to take her turn while I climbed into the drivers seat, pulled it forward to compensate for my height, and made sure our licenses and medication import documents were lined up in the correct order on the dashboard. Two cars in front of us, a customs official, green shirt clinging to his chest, was opening the hatchback of an elderly couples car, leaning carefully into it, unzipping suitcases with a gloved hand.
When Zóra got back, I didnt tell her anything about my grandfather. It had already been a bleak year for us both. I had made the mistake of walking out with the nurses during the strike in January; rewarded for my efforts with an indefinite suspension from the Vojvodja clinic, I had been housebound for monthsa blessing, in a way, because it meant I was around for my grandfather when the diagnosis came in. He was glad of it at first, but never passed up the opportunity to call me a gullible jackass for getting suspended. And then, as his illness wore on, he began spending less and less time at home, and suggested I do the same; he didnt want me hanging around, looking morose, scaring the hell out of him when he woke up without his glasses on to find me hovering over his bed in the middle of the night. My behavior, he said, was tipping my grandma off about his illness, making her suspicious of our silences and exchanges, and of the fact that my grandfather and I were busier than ever now that we were respectively retired and suspended. He wanted me to think about my specialization, too, about what I would do with myself once the suspension was liftedhe was not surprised that Srdjan, a professor of biochemical engineering with whom I had, according to my grandfather, been tangling, had failed to put in a good word for me with the suspension committee. At my grandfathers suggestion, I had gone back to volunteering with the Universitys United Clinics program, something I hadnt done since the end of the war.
Excerpted from The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht Copyright © 2011 by Tea Obreht. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher