Katarina Sarić (Montenegro, 1976), a professor of Slavic Literature and Philosophy and a civil rights activist, writes socially engaged poetry, prose, essays, and columns for both Serbian and Macedonian newspapers and magazines. She is an awarded author of twelve books and has been included in several anthologies. Katarina Sarić has also conceived several literary performances and is the editor of the online literary magazine Vavilonska biblioteka.
Sonja Porle (Slovenia, 1960) is a writer and essayist. She is the author of eight books (novels and short stories, including the cult best-selling debut Black Angel Watching Over Me) and the recipient of the Zlata Ptica Award. Prior to returning to the country of her birth, she spent 21 years living and working in Oxford, England. Yet the focus of her writing, both in literature and non-fiction, has primarily revolved around Africa, a continent she first visited in 1983. She has returned many a time since, and in the late 1980s she even settled down in Ghana for two years in order to conduct field-work among the Asanti families. A passionate collector of recycled toys created by African children, she has curated seven exhibitions based on her collection, both in Slovenia and abroad. Her work has appeared in many magazines and newspapers, both in Slovenia and abroad.
BLACK ANGEL WATCHING OVER ME
I stepped off the bus into a street alight with the golden glow of the setting sun. The faces of passersby andthe sunlit trunks of roadside trees were made of liquid gold, and the long, slim shadows of burnished copper.Over the tin roofs of the town arched a limpid blue sky. The pure and boundless heart of an angel. The street was lined with a row of taller and greener trees than I had expected, and hurrying past under their boughs were moresmartly dressed people than there had been a half-year before. And the notorious Ouagadougou dust seemedto have melted into the brick-colored earth. Only around the unbroken line of taxicabs, mopeds and bicycles onthe asphalt road did it swirl in a dry, grainy halo. And even that was golden in color. The evening was glorious.
I had taken barely twenty steps along the road which I presumed would take me downtown from the Westernoutskirts of Ouaga, when I felt the urge to treat myself to a complet coffee. I approached the long row ofmen and women sitting on a bench outside a roadside cafe watching the buoyant life on the street. Theysqueezed over to make room for me and shook hands with me one after another, bidding me good-evening. Iordered a café complet and joined in their silence. The street life was more than just buoyant; it throbbed in the frenzied rhythms of the approaching night, as if people were rushing pell- mell to finish in the coolness of thedying light all the things they hadn’t managed to do in the heat of the day. Their innocent actions called forimitation. The view from the restful side of the road lured one into momentary oblivion. I sank my teeth into somewhite bread and resolved to postpone my visit to the Zongos for a day or two.
I wished to be by myself, to reflect in peace on exactly what I would tell the Zongos about my life inGhana. I had learned from experience that the stories and thoughts you share with the first friend you meetupon your return
are the ones you then keep repeating to everyone willing to listen, and thus inadvertently forget all the things you’dfailed to first mention, until you end up no longer knowing yourself what had truly happened and what the places you’d visited had really been like. In Ghana, I had been free and at peace with the world in a way I had never known before. I’d made a vow to myself that I would not forget that serene happiness.
I inquired of the other guests at the cafe about the nearest inexpensive hotel. They conferred, and one of themtold me there indeed was a tiny hotel quite close by, but it was not fit for me, a white woman, because it wasnot clean enough and it had no electricity. Actually, it was not really a hotel at all, he added, just a doss-house,at best good enough for African wayfarers who were used to anything. I shook the dust out of my skirt andasked them to show me the way to the doss-house.
My hotel room turned out to be a little hole in the wall, chock full of the tired spirits of all who had stayedthere before me. It was furnished with a military bed, and illuminated by watery moonlight pouring in through a porthole just below the ceiling. I liked the little cubicle. It felt custom-made for my soul.
Spreading the vivid Ghana cloth over the warm bed, I sank into the sagging mattress, washed and tiredafter the long journey. I did not think about my vow; instead I listened to the buzz of the nearby streets andwondered at how curiously akin it was to the breathing of the sleeping tropical bush, which had been mylullaby for the last five months in that backwater Ghana village. And at how the piercing cries and whisperingsighs were not, after all, the nighttime shenanigans of jungle creatures, but the waking nightlife of a city. Mythoughts grew lighter and weaker, seamlessly entwining with sweet dreams. At dawn I remembered dreamingthat my journey was only just beginning.
Afterwards, I similarly failed to sort out my travel impressions. I quickly slipped on my high-heeled shoes and,with my spirits also high, set out from the little hotel with no name, which stood on a street with no name, for anaimless stroll
around the anonymous suburb. I did not go far; I knew all along I was going in circles and never lost track of the general whereabouts of my little room. I just walked on, with no thought or memory, this way and that, forward and back. Every now and then I’d buy myself a small delicacy, a banana or a fried millet dumpling, have a Coke and then go on,or else retrace my steps. I shook hands with everyone who crossed my path or met my eyes for longer than abrief second and, as luck would have it, engaged in lengthy conversation primarily with travelers: Guineans,Senegalese, Malians. Every encounter served in its way to convince me that there was nothing better than a carefree stroll around the wide world. Young Guineans enticed me with their flirtatious laughter and off-key guitars. With two fingers they twanged dewy, pretty tunes. They also sang in strangled, wounded voices, their eyes moist. Leaning against house fronts they sang: “I’ve been all around. To the south, to the north, to the east and the west. It’s nice everywhere. But Ouagadougou is the most beautiful of all. Because it is there, there that you are, my love, my angel. Ouaga’s your home, my lovely. Diarabi, ma Cherie, diarabi, diarabi, ma Cherie…” The passersby fell in step to the rhythm of the guitars, swaying their hips; young girls faltered and let their eyes drop, intimidated by the rhythm of the willing male desires; and I, I was overpowered by homesickness for places I’d never even been to. For cities that must be almost asbeautiful as Ouaga. For Lagos, Dakar, and Conakry, for Kinshasa, Luanda, and Lusaka. The Senegalese produced from their bottomless pockets wallets made of crocodile leather, bracelets and belts made of cowrie shells, strings ofglass beads, Fula earrings, Tuareg swords, and heavy Ashanti weavings, jingling them in front of my eyes until I finally bought one tiny, trifling souvenir that I did not need and could ill afford. But what could I do – it was so nice to adorn myself with nomadic jewels and imagine a life both restless and steadfast in the future. The Malians were the mostalluring of all. I had never before seen people with such graceful bodies and regular features. The older they were, the more perfect and stately their beauty. The men wrapped in shiny Moslem togas were tall and lean, with smooth, regal faces. I had to look up into the women’s faces as well: their many-layered turbans and heavy earrings pulled their patrician heads back, and they craned their necks in sharp, falcon-like twists; between their sparse words they would lower their silky black lids until their eyes were like coffee beans, and disdainfully pout their thick lips. Their demeanorexuded an air of dignity that was only fleetingly comprehensible. Quite evidently, the Malians were anything but rich.They hung about in the streets on the outskirts of the
world’s poorest capital city. But their surroundings had no bearing on their undisguised otherworldliness. It was as though they guarded inside themselves the memory of the time when Malians ruled the known world, and with theirgold undermined the financial markets of the unknown white world. They came from Gao, Timbuktu, Bamako, Djenne, Segou and Kayes … The very names of their hometowns rang with echoes of legendary beauty and fairy-tale power. Without restraint, and without lying either, I answered those Malians who invited me to come visit them when my travels took me to their desert kingdom that I would probably be going there the very next day. I did not have time, though – let alone money – for a new journey. But my daydreams knew no parsimony as I walked on and on and on, skipping over muddy puddles and laughing, thinking of a bright future and enjoying the moment, making new friends and taking a long time to say goodbye, as the ground under my feet turned golden, the sunlight ebbed away, and the afternoon soundlessly blossomed into evening. Until an enormous and restless full moon wandered onto the cornflower-blue expanse of Ouaga sky. I realized only then that I was no better prepared for my pending return than the nightbefore.
I took refuge in my little cubicle. I shook the money out of my handbag and onto the bed. I did not bother with the kerosene lamp, I made do with the torch. But the longer I counted, the less money there was. Even if I managed topostpone my flight to a later date, I could not stay in Ouaga for more than week. I dropped my clothes on the ground and lay down without washing, covering myself with the coolness of the turquoise moonlight. Without wanting to I started thinking about the objects in my suitcase. I wished to give the Zongos something, I knew they would appreciate every little thing no matter how small, even down-at-heel shoes and torn socks. I tossed about on the creaky bed, endlessly distributing my meager belongings among people who loved me rich or poor. In my mind, to the mothers I gave my toiletries, to Lizeta the non-African jewelry and my wristwatch, to Lara my worn clothes and shoes, to David the English books I’d finished reading, to Ousmane the bed-sheet, to the children the leaves in my notebooks Ihadn’t written upon. I decided to hand them the paltry gifts at the last moment before leaving for the airport, so they wouldn’t have time for profuse thanks. Only for Abdoulaye I had nothing left. I could give him my camera, or the Swiss army knife. After a brief moment of deliberation I decided to keep the camera for myself and took comfort in thethought that Abdoulaye did not
have money for film anyway. Undoubtedly, though, he would have been delighted with the knife, which would have been useful, too. He could whittle forked sticks for catapults with it, or open bottles of beer in his bar. But I hadinherited that pocket knife from my late father, and I could not bear to part with it. Before I had resolved whether I would nevertheless leave it with Abdoulaye or not, a ray of sunlight peeked into the room and I dropped off to sweaty daytime sleep.
When I peered out from the stuffy cell, my head heavy, the sun was high up in the middle of the sky. I threw my odds and ends into my suitcase and, carrying it in my hand and walking on my own shadow, hurried to the asphaltroad. The first taxi stopped, and I agreed to the driver’s first reduced fare to Dapoja. I did not feel like haggling. I began to look forward to returning to the Zongos, and immediately after that, home to Slovenia. Now, I could not have explained even to myself why I had feared going back. I could hardly wait to shake hands with the Zongos, and learn ifthey were – as always – all well and happy.
Afterwards, I similarly failed to sort out my travel impressions. I quickly slipped on my high-heeled shoes and, withmy spirits also high, set out from the little hotel with no name, which stood on a street with no name, for an aimless stroll around the anonymous suburb. I did not go far; I knew all along I was going in circles and never lost track of the general whereabouts of my little room. I just walked on, with no thought or memory, this way and that, forward and back. Every now and then I’d buy myself a small delicacy, a banana or a fried millet dumpling, have a Coke and then goon, or else retrace my steps. I shook hands with everyone who crossed my path or met my eyes for longer than a brief second and, as luck would have it, engaged in lengthy conversation primarily with travelers: Guineans, Senegalese,Malians. Every encounter served in its way to convince me that there was nothing better than a carefree stroll aroundthe wide world. Young Guineans enticed me with their flirtatious laughter and off-key guitars. With two fingers they twanged dewy, pretty tunes. They also sang in strangled, wounded voices, their eyes moist. Leaning against housefronts they sang: “I’ve been all around. To the south, to the north, to the east and the west. It’s nice everywhere.But Ouagadougou is the most beautiful of all.
Because it is there, there that you are, my love, my angel. Ouaga’s your home, my lovely. Diarabi, ma Cherie, diarabi, diarabi, ma Cherie…” The passersby fell in step to the rhythm of the guitars, swaying their hips; young girls faltered and let their eyes drop, intimidated by the rhythm of the willing male desires; and I, I was overpowered by homesickness for places I’d never even been to. For cities that must be almost as beautiful as Ouaga. For Lagos, Dakar, and Conakry,for Kinshasa, Luanda, and Lusaka. The Senegalese produced from their bottomless pockets wallets made of crocodileleather, bracelets and belts made of cowrie shells, strings of glass beads, Fula earrings, Tuareg swords, and heavy Ashanti weavings, jingling them in front of my eyes until I finally bought one tiny, trifling souvenir that I did not need and could ill afford. But what could I do – it was so nice to adorn myself with nomadic jewels and imagine a life both restless and steadfast in the future. The Malians were the most alluring of all. I had never before seen people with such graceful bodies and regular features. The older they were, the more perfect and stately their beauty. The men wrapped in shiny Moslem togas were tall and lean, with smooth, regal faces. I had to look up into the women’s faces as well: their many-layered turbans and heavy earrings pulled their patrician heads back, and they craned their necks in sharp, falcon-like twists; between their sparse words they would lower their silky black lids until their eyes were like coffee beans, and disdainfully pout their thick lips. Their demeanor exuded an air of dignity that was only fleetingly comprehensible. Quite evidently, the Malians were anything but rich. They hung about in the streets on the outskirts of the world’s poorest capital city. But their surroundings had no bearing on their undisguised otherworldliness. It was as though they guarded inside themselves the memory of the time when Malians ruled the known world, and with theirgold undermined the financial markets of the unknown white world. They came from Gao, Timbuktu, Bamako, Djenne, Segou and Kayes … The very names of their hometowns rang with echoes of legendary beauty and fairy-tale power. Without restraint, and without lying either, I answered those Malians who invited me to come visit them when my travels took me to their desert kingdom that I would probably be going there the very next day. I did not have time, though – let alone money – for a new journey. But my daydreams knew no parsimony as I walked on and on and on, skipping over muddy puddles and laughing, thinking of a bright future and enjoying the moment, making new friends and taking a long time to say goodbye, as the ground under my feet turned golden, the sunlight ebbed away, and theafternoon soundlessly blossomed
into evening. Until an enormous and restless full moon wandered onto the cornflower- blue expanse of Ouaga sky. I realized only then that I was no better prepared for my pending return than the night before.
THE SINGING PRESIDENT
(excerpt from Black Angel Watching Over Me)
To my relief, Abdoulaye did not feel like talking about German beer, or any other beer for that metter.
»Ever since they killed Sankara I often seem to wonder what I live for at all.«
He got up and turned up the volume on the cassette-player. That was bold thing to do. The music must have been heard clear out into the street and perhaps further. Mister policeman stared at his glass and twirled the beer bottle in his hand.
»You don`t have it so bad. You own a bar and your family`s well and happy,« he said eventually.
»I never said I had it bad, but what`s the life of a barkeeper compered to the life of a revolutionary. When I was revolutionary, I had faith and I fought for what I believed in. My life was full. Now I get up in the morning and go to bed at night.«
»Yes, one gets used to military life.«
»Military life, my foot,« muttered Abdoulaye almost malevolently, »it was much nicer to smuggle refrigerators from Nigeria than beeing Sankara`s soldier.«
With a quick change of mood he indicated his refrigerator, tapped the wooden table and raised his eyebrows:
»And more profitable too! But I`m not talking about a habit. I`m saying I was proud back then. I knew that every good thing I did would amount to something, that tomorrow we`d eat together what I`m denying myself today. I was good person! But otherwise the army was no laughing matter. And the war with Mali was no joke either. I know that, comrade, and you know that mon patron.«
Abdoulaye was one ot the thousands of soldiers in the “war of the poor“. In December 1985, the armies of two landlocked African countries went to war over a piece of border land supposedly rich in phosphorus and manganese. Ever since they existed, confined in the geometrical lines of their state borders drown into the semi-desert by the colonising French, Mali and Burkina Faso have ranked among the ten poorest countries in the world, Both are almost notorious for their indigence and general want. The Malian army had a few fighter planes, and the Burkinan armyhot-blooded
soldiers. After five days of gunfire and bombing, the presidents of two countries signed an armistice. They kept their word, and the tribunal at The Hague pronounced the strip of contention no-man`s land.
Abdoulaye was on his favourite subject. To keep him talking I asked:
»Did you shoot anyone?«
»Yes, some fifty Malians.« He sat up straight, took his hands away from his stomach and weekly, as though losing his breath, added: »Quite a few.«
Although Abdoulaye was over thirty, he still shot with his catapult at birds which strayed into the sky abovemetropolis, but I would know that he had never killed a man even if he had not told me time and again in his less inspired moments how disgusted he was by bloodshed and that he was scared even of fist fights. Abdoulaye was an ordinary Burkinan.
In the war, seventy Malian and Burkinan soldiers had died altogether. Abdoulaye`s hands went back to supporting his stomach, and he slumped slightly. For that reason, Mister and I refrained from smiling.
»Five years or five days, every war`s too long.« said Mister policeman. »It`s almost three years since then, Yes, it was touch and go for a bit, but in the end the Malians ran.« He looked at Abdoulaye.
»And we run right after that. We wouldn`t have run, though, if the French hadn`t come to their aid. Say what they will, the French hated Sankara`s guts. They paid lip service to his honesty, but in reality it rankled them. The French don`t like Africans. The French only like French Africans, those who play dumb and suck up to them.«
»And those who forget.« Mister`s voice resounded with determination. »Not only have they forgoten what they did to us, they demand that we forget as well.« Obviously, he also was not worried about darkness having big ears. Wewere still listening to Sankara`s voice and the tremling melody of his guitar. I happened to know what the menwere referring to. At a press conference in Paris, Thomas Sankara had said: »There isn`t a single Burkinan who doesnot recall his uncle or his father dying so that France should be free. I suggest you don`t forget either.« Or perhapsMister was referring to a time eighty not so very long years ago, when the French burned down villages killedlivestock and people, and drove hundreds of thousands of young men to work as free labour on plantations in what is now the Ivory Coast.
Mister was now addressing me, although he still stared at his glass.
»When you`re in Ghana, you`ll find they could show you a thing or two. The English
were mean too. Oh yes, very mean. Meaner than the French, it would seem at first sight. But they humiliated Africans more openly, to their faces. Better to be spat at the face than stabbed in the back. Or you don`t even see what they killyou with.«
»Thomas wasn`t killed by French. Sankara was killed by an African. Once again an African killed an African.« said Abdoulaye in a wounded voice. »The French were relieved and now they can laugh at us.«
A trace of smile appeared in Mister`s face:
»Let them laugh! The whole world has the right to laugh at us.«
He put the bottle down on the table. He looked at the dim light and raised his voice:
»Thomas Sankara was killed by his best friend.«
My heart no longer beat in my chest but in the pit of my stomach. Their words gave me comfort. Because a fortnightbefore I had done a very foolish thing.
Sven Popović (Croatia, 1989) is a writer and both a literary and music critic. His debut, a collection of short stories, was published in 2015, followed by a novel in 2018. His writing has been included in many literary magazines and anthologies and has been translated into English, German, Polish and Romanian. Popović is a one of the founders of the He is a co-founder of the literary group Tko čita? (Who Reads?), which gives younger authors the opportunity to read and promote their work. One of his stories was included in the anthology Best European Fiction 2017.
Thirteen years have passed since the boy from the class stabbed your palm with a pencil. A piece of graphite broke and continued to wander the tissue. A graphite submarine was lurking beneath the surface, straining your skin. A tiny gray submarine, a reminder of clothes and fingers smeared with chalk. He didn’t walk you home that day, his steps didn’t creak harmoniously through the snow together with yours. The next day he apologized to you, the next week he wasn’t on the school desk in front of yours. He moved out a few blocks further, went to another school. When you were little girl, that sort of distance was huge, there were several concrete oceans between you. She was left alone in the womb of a rectangular whale. She was left alone, you and your little crack.
So, more than thirteen years passed and you were sitting on the floor in your friend’s apartment. There’re few people from the faculty with you. The walls of the apartment were decorated with maps of cities where the friend hadn’t yet been. Once she traveled to one of them, she would tear that map off the wall. In one hand you have a sticky glass full of thick, brown liqueur, it looks like a fig liqueur, and in the other a crumpled, wrongly rolled cigarette. You talk about last week’s lectures, everyone thinks how beautiful and smart they are, and of course, your thoughts wander on the maps. Of all those hanged cities, Porto attracts you the most, you have always been somehow attracted to the ports, not so much because they offered an escape possibility, but as much as the feeling of transit that was more vivid than what was in the sterile grayness of the airport. All the more you recently sent an application for one semester to attend there.
A friend unknown to you approaches your friend, asks her if her boyfriend can come, to which your friend answers he can. Then she asks her if her boyfriend is single, on what both of them burst in laugh.
The party went on, it started to heat up, and you were freer with each glass. You was startled and realized you’ve been waiting in front of the toilet for a few minutes. There was no bubbling or violent snuffling sound from inside. You came in and for a few moments on the rough wall you were looking for the light switch. Soon you gave up and surely stepped into the darkness. Somehow you touched the path to the toilet bowl and sat down. You tried to get your eyes used to the darkness, but it didn’t work. It was as if there was an abyss around you, a complete absence of light. The ice was all cracked, the Morse code of urine and water, a meaningless message, a cat tapping on the keyboard.
The light splashed on you, you gathered your legs and screamed it’s busy. It seemed to you for a few seconds the silhouette stood on the door before retreating and sucking all the light inside itself. Shortly afterwards, you got up, wiped yourself, turned on the water, washed your hands, and left. The silhouette, a boy in his early twenties, was still waiting his turn.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and your eyesight was still adjusting to the light, the violet geometric figures dancing in front your eyes because of the recent, sudden flash.
“It’s OK”, you stopped for some reason as if you had something to talk about. You nodded and went back to your friends. “See ya.”
“Hey, are you Martina?”
You turned around. “Yes, I am”; you narrowed your eyes, then opened them widely, your look crystallized, your reality was in HD again.
“I don’t know if you remember me,” he had already headed to the door. “Igor, we studied together in elementary school.”
“Ah, yes, God, man, I didn’t see you for such a long time, so how are you?”
“Here, I live somehow, weekend, here and there.”
“Yes, I understand.”
“Hey, let’s hear each other, let’s go for a beer someday.”
You exchanged numbers probably with a false promise to really be heard. You knew it wouldn’t happen, in fact, school desks and pieces in your palm were probably the only connections, and you didn’t have the habit of seeing your classmates on the playground. The days of hide and seek were behind you, you’re sure that you have nothing in common, I “got off” for you.
With each passing hour you were less and less, before he and his girlfriend left, and he repeated once again how you’ll “make it”. The next day he received a message.
“The last time I saw you, the sky was peeling for days,” he told you and wave to the waiter.
“It was snowing,” the waiter approached. “Gin tonic,” he said and looked at you.
“Well, extended into a big cup,” you replied.
“But come on, you couldn’t drink coffee if I ordered a gin tonic.” He shrugged. “Why not.”
“Look, the day is beautiful,” he showed theatrically around himself.
“Come on, maybe a gin tonic.”
“That’s it,” he leaned back in his chair.
Two hours later he told me you’d have another drink. An hour later his girlfriend called him and he said he is having a drink with his faculty friends and would come later. An hour and a half later he told you you’re incredibly insecure.
“Why do you say that?”
“I bet you’re one of those people who reads the instruction manual of soup in its bag, even though that shit could just be poured into boiling water and stirred several times.
“Okay, but what made you say that?”
“I am intuitive.”
“You mean: intuited?”
He waved with his hand, “It comes to you after ten gin tonics.”
You clumsily dressed yourself, he subsequently lied naked, the sweat almost shone on his black hairs. He breathed deeply and slowly. Consequence of the lazy marathon on the skin.
“You don’t have to leave immediately,” he told the ceiling.
“I’ll be late for faculty,” you tied your shoelaces. “And I’m not sure how much your girlfriend would appreciate this.”
“Girlfriend is a very strong word.”
“But, it is what?”
I don’t know, the English have the word “lover”, the translation of ours and isn’t something very applicable.
“And does she know she’s your mistress?” Sorry, lover.
“Come on, I’m sure we could figure out something more interesting than leaving for a lecture.”
You stopped tying your sneakers. He moved himself in your direction. You in his.
After the eleventh time you’ve seen each other, you decided you fell in love. In meanwhile, he left the girl and dropped out of the faculty. He got a job. First in a warehouse, and then in a call center where he spent days listening to hysterical British crying over this or that. She silently moved at him in a very nicely arranged garret, he didn’t even notice your gradual invasion until it was too late. There was your toothbrush. The toothbrush paint as is on the tracksuits from Eastern European Olympians. The brush, your flag that pierces the Moon’s crust.
He dreamed of tattooing you with a compass. You drew gorgeous, odd gyruses and arabesques on your skin, he talked it’s somehow a map of the city you’re traveling to. You were lying naked, first on your chest, then on your back, the black hair on the white sheet, the disheveled calligraphy without order and meaning. Blood began to drip from the black wounds, tiny, scarlet drops slid through the skin and wetted the sheet.
You woke up leaden and clumsy from the afternoon nap, the light cut the bed diagonally into two parts. There was a pungent smell of garlic fried in olive oil from the kitchen. He stood half-naked on the stove and easily shook the pan. He was holding a cigarette in his left hand and drew a little smoke from it. The ashes were falling into the pan, and he didn’t seem to mind. Even though he was weak, you could clearly see the beginnings of the muscles. Kebab-baby, he would say.
He cooked well. At least those six or seven recipes he knew how to prepare. Each of them in olive oil. You started to connect the olive oil with your awakening. Your private Mediterranean.
“Don’t forget the earrings,” he shouted, not looking at you. “The other day you left the necklace, before that, the bra. “I’m starting to collect you as stickers.”
“Animal kingdom”, you started yawning.
“No, Cro Army.”
She approached him from behind and hugged him around his waist. He reached out and rested his cigarette on his lips. You inhaled smoke, the ashes fell on his skin. He didn’t move away.
“I was thinking about something,” he stretched out and let out a faint squeak.
“I don’t know, I only heard snoring. Not any thinking. ”
“Oh, shut up.”
“Okay, well what were you thinking?”
“Do you know how your parents dress you as a child?”
“Aha,” he added finely chopped parsley to the oil.
“Here comes a day, and we don’t know it, here comes that day, our declaration of independence, so it comes, here comes that day when we start to choose our own clothes.”
“What do you mean by ‘yeah, and’?”
“Well, I don’t know, why would that matter?”
“I don’t know, I somehow think only after that we begin to become personalities. At the same time, as if everything after that somehow goes down. “Everything around us ceases to be a dream and we come out of the warm womb of this childhood into all this horror.”
“You’re wagging out, we’re starting to be personalities long before that. “In fact, do you seriously think that clothes speak that much about us?”
“I mean it seriously, you should be the first to realize that.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean, sir, I need half an hour to straighten my hair to look like I’ve just waken up.”
“I have no time between sleeping and dreaming, you know that?” He shook the can of tomato sauce and began to mix with the wooden spoon.
“But come on, I’m going to vomit.”
“But well, what about the fashion declaration of independence?” “Come on, tell me.”
“Well nothing, it seems to me that all those events exist in our lives, extremely important events that are not important to us, and on the other hand the complete stupiditiesare important for us.”
“Birthdays. “Oh, congratulations, someone squeezed you out of the womb.”
“Okay, what else matters?”
“Ugh, let’s say the first time we don’t look the homeless man in his face. We’re born shameless and when that shame is directed at us, easily, but somewhere, along the way, that thing happens and they become unpredictable to us, as if there is an entire city inside ours we consciously refuse to see.”
“Wouldn’t you say it’s a defense mechanism?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, my heart breaks every time I notice them, when I let them become part of “our city”, as you’d say. If I notice every homeless person, I would break down.”
“There is no empathy without suffering, that’s true, but somehow I think, as we grow, we somehow lose, we’re forgetting the important parts of ourselves, do you understand what I mean?”
“I see, yes, come on, try if this is salty enough.”
You tried the tomato sauce. “Exactly, maybe you can add another crumb of pepper.”
“I promise you I’ll not ignore anything anymore.”
“I could imagine”; you answered and took wine from the fridge. You leaned on the couch and took a sip from the bottle.
“Wow, sexy,” she told you.
“Come on, don’t fuck and fetch me a glass.”
“I don’t want to wash glasses, can I use a cup?”
You shrugged. “Why not. “Did you launder the bed sheets?”
“Yeah, why?” She poured wine into a cup.
“I can’t sleep in this dirty bedding any longer.”
“It’s not dirty.”
“We’ve been sleeping in it for a week, it’s far from fresh.”
You heard him pull on the new bedding and already feel the chemical freshness embracing you. Your cell phone vibrates. Received an e-mail. Congratulations, you got that Erasmus.
“It seems to me there’d be a storm,” he shouted at you from there. “I see some clouds there. “Low clouds are pressing on the city, squeezing all the air out of its dilapidated lungs.”
“Yeah,” you absently replied him.
“The storm. What do you think, does she kill mosquitoes or drives them to apartments?”
“Yeah,” you said.
He approached you from behind, and you continued to stare at the received email. “I fuck your sister,” he whispered you.
“Yeah,” you responded. He started pulling your ears. “What are you doing?”
“Hearing you ignoring me.”
“Yeah,” you murmured again.
“Well, what are you reading?” He asked.
“The e-mail,” you replied.
You give him the cell phone. “Here you see.”
He was silent for a few seconds. “Wow. Bravo. You’ll go?”
You shrugged. “I don’t know, what do you think?”
He sat opposite you and took a sip of wine from the bottle. “I think we should celebrate.”
“What exactly should we celebrate?”
“The opportunity. All occasions.”
“And the missed ones?”
“Until they are missed for love,” he replied and left the room. He placed the laptop between you and plug the little one into the room. He played “The Space guy” “from his balcony”.
“Oh God, you’ll probably not annoy us with those boring ones. “They sound like Oliver Mandich with excess chromosomes.”
“Well, then you choose, after all, it’s your celebration. „
“Rowland S. Howard.”
Roll your eyes. “Great. Along the way, I go for a dope.”
The night bathed on the balcony, sticky and thick, you had dinner and drank wine, wine, as sticky as the night that gradually covered you. No one mentioned Porto, and Rowland S. Howard didn’t sing fado. Anyway, as if he wasn’t there, on the balcony, with you in the summer heat, his answers were somehow slow and distorted. You knew what was tormenting him, you didn’t want to offend his intelligence with the question bothering him.
“It’s only six months,” she touch his knee.
“Yeah,” he bit his finger foots.
“So what, you’ll visit me two or three times.”
“Aha,” he crossed on his thumb nail, plucked it up and pulled itout, you saw a dark red liquid overflowing from the corner of his finger.
“It’s not that expensive.”
“Oh, no, it’s not, the bosses will allow me go to Portugal. Not twice, no, even better, three times. Fuck, we ‘re not all students to read and argue all day long.
You felt a crack in your chest, it spread through the lungs to the stomach, it spread capillary throughout the body. Your mouth formed a perfect “O”, a perfectly black “O” from the magician’s hat. At that moment he took you by the arm that was dragging out from his knee.
“Hey, hey, I’m sorry, I didn’t think that way, fuck, it’s not my fault I’m such an idiot and a scoundrel. I mean, I am, but … ”
You laughed, you didn’t want that, but anyway, it happened, a dove from the magician’shat blackness. “You aren’t an idiot, nor a scoundrel, you’re a horse thief and a robber.”
You were finishing the second bottle when his friend called him, you agreed to hang out with friends.
The evening was like many others, the conversations were flowing, in fact, no, they weren’t flowing, it was about a cross, inaccurate and intermittent shooting, and the alcohol was somehow predictably flowing through your almost dislocated jaw. He, sometimes after the third or fourth round, when you were both heavily drunk, decided to say you are going to Portugal.
“I’m not going, I think, I don’t know, I’m not going, I’m not sure yet, I really don’t know …”, you murmured.
You were splashed by semi-meaningful greetings to which you responded with a murmur and a contorted smile. You turned your gaze to him, his lips pursed like those of Franjo Tudjman, a sharp “Nike” symbol who was condemning you and telling you that you only think you were better than him, but that not all diplomas in the world could change the fact he simply Knew the things he knew them with a big “K” while you’re diving into books and manuals. You wanted to kick him, but you were sitting on a high chair and you were afraid of losing the atmosphere and strategically not crashing down. You didn’t realize how he managed, how he managed to humiliate you with something you should be proud of? You jumped abruptly to your feet, and he received you under the mucus of beer and ashes, but you managed to stand on your feet with the grace of a retired ballerina (it’s possible you stretched your tendon a little, maybe it isn’t the tendon, maybe you just scratched your ankle ) ran to the door, shooter who became one with the arrow, pure fucking zen.
The dim lights flickered around you, the streets passed, and you, always with a few steps in front of yourself. You staggered and leaned against the cold wall. You leaned on him and tried to push away, continuing your injured Odyssey at the end of the night. You managed to take off to the asphalt and to fall apart into a renaissance position. You tried to straighten your head, to sharpen your gaze, but your head was going left and right, up and down as if you were a puppet dog standing on the front windshield of the car. You heard steps, someone’s shadow splashed on you. You somehow looked up, you couldn’t recognize whose silhouette it was exactly, all you could see was the halo in the street light.
You aren’t an angel,” you said.
“No, I’m an idiot.” I ordered for us at Uber, come on, get up,” the silhouette extended a hand to you. You stumbled together through the warm womb of the night.
The leg’s toes stuck in the sand, fleshy ridges scratch, leaving irregular ditches on the beach.
“You are preparing for war,” she told him.
“Excuse me?” He replied, scraping the Hawaiian suit salt stains. He pointed his finger at the dimples in the sand. “The trenches.”
“Yes, nothing can be done against you except a trenching,” he watched his feet and continued to dig trenches.
“In fact completely the opposite.”
“Yes? Why do you say that?” you looked up.
“You’re the one who quickly loses interest, you want to drag into the trench battles. “Those are slow, well-thought-out moves, a chess game without long romantic diagonals and the horse’s bravura.”
“You’re right, yes, and how against you?”
“At least it’s obvious: a blitzkrieg, crazy, often irrational moves that would make me think too much, to tangle up so that I couldn’t move,” he drew with his fingers in the air the convolutions without ends.
“How to defeat yourself?”
He turned his head towards the sea, it looked like dark, liquid steel in that bloody orange-like sun. Sun umbrellas were fading on the beach, people were shaking the sand from the sunbeds and the towels.
“Come on, start that battle,” he said.
“The decisive one.” Dig your trenches, I will arrange my cavalry.”
You laughed. “You have time to overcome me until it gets dark,” he got up. “It’s ok.”
You ran to the sea and grabbed the sand, returned to your position and set out to form amorphous towers with a sinister shape. You were digging zigzag trenches with your nails in the sand, they were writing a clear message: no army will pass through here. You stuck twigs in front of them, an additional warning for anyone who decides to rush.
He dug his trenches, found a shovel, a turquoise, plastic shovel that seemed to have been lost by a child. He pushes a hill of sand against your formations, puts the shovel on it, it’ll be a catapult, his Fat Berta with which he’ll try to destroy your fortifications for the cavalry to do its job. You saw him running to the mole, picking at its rough surface and through the shallows. He put shells next to the catapult, it was quite a cute pile. He placed the live shrimp on the sides, they supposed to be a scout.
Look, he’s going in the wrong direction, he’s retreating before the first shot,” you laughed.
“It’s a sabotage, don’t you worry at all,” he put the shell in the shovel, moved it, looking for the ideal angle. He hit with his fist on the opposite end and the shell flit besides your ear.
“Hey, watch out.”
“Sorry, further calibration is needed.”
He fired shell after shell, managed to score only a few times, he knocked down only one tower. His shrimp fled, the pile reduced to just three shells, the capitulation was inevitable. The sea changed from the color of liquid steel to black obsidian, it became colder in your feet and nose. You laughed and fired the last shell, it flew far above your head. He let out a dramatic scream and stretched out on the sand, clapping his hands and feet along the way.
“Are you surrendering?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Not if you plan to survive the night.”
“The Hawaiian shirt is my white flag,” he took off his shirt and waved it still in lying position.
You got up, crossed your trenches, stepped into no man’s land, stood with your feet apart above him and sat on his stomach. – „And? What does the winner wins?
He drew you to himself and kissed you, that salty kiss sung a hundred times. “Let’s go to take a shower, let me go first, and then get to the pedal boats.”
“With the pedal boats?”
You packed your things and headed back to the apartment. Let him go first in the shower. You were sitting at the table on the terrace and smoking.
“Ok, see you then,” he shouted.
You went to the shower and turned on the water, lukewarm water, the scumbag left you almost nothing of the warm. The spurt was weak and you rubbed your skin to remove salt stains. You put on something warmer and went out. A little later you saw them, the stranded baby whales with flashy colors, not far from them you saw a baby whale that didn’t strand and was swimming on the shiny black surface. The turquoise, half-peeled pedal boat was covered with sheets, music and dim light was coming from inside.
“I thought you didn’t want grandiose gestures,” you shouted.
His head was peeking from the canvases. “But no, I love pedal boats.”
“Wait, wait,” you opened your eyes widely. “Are those our sheets?”
“Technically speaking, they aren’t ours, they belong to Uncle Jure.”
“Oh God, tell me they aren’t candles.”
He looked inside, you felt as if he had shrugged his shoulders. “Fuck, yes, they’re candles.”
“Great, we’ll be the first people who burnt on a pedal boat.”
“Imagine a newspaper headline.”
“And we’re not even Czechs.”
“Come on, I’m coming to pick you up.”
And so we floated to the buoys, we were finishing the second bottle of wine, the light was turning into a growing stain on the baby whale’s skin. The night was getting thicker, the light was running out of oxygen, the wine was striking our heads, and you were starting to fall asleep. You asked if this was safe, he replied that the worst thing that could happen to you is for a drunken tycoon to crush you with his yacht.
“And the best?” you asked him. He lay down, and you laid your head on his chest.
“Mexico,” he said and closed his eyes.
You dreamed of the snow creaking, when you woke up the first thing you saw were his eyes, two grains of pepper dipped in honey. He was smiling.
“What is it?” She asked.
“You know, when you’re too young and you’re in love and you imagine so that you have to experience so much before you settle down.”
“Yeah,” he murmured, striving to direct the morning unpleasant odor into his lungs.
“Well, that wouldn’t happen to me.”
What a shit, you thought, but for some reason you still decided to trust him. You kissed him in the unpleasant smell because of spite and approached the edge of the pedal boat. The shore was a blur line, he was redirecting the pedal boat. While washing, you noticed the submarine in the palm of your hand sank.
Translated fromby Sasho Ognenovski
Ekaterina Petrova (Bulgaria) is a nonfiction writer, literary translator, and editor, working in English and Bulgarian. She holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa, where she was awarded the Iowa Arts Fellowship and helped edit the Exchanges Journal of Literary Translation, as well as an MSc in European Politics and Governance from the London School of Economics, and a BA in International Studies and German Studies from Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Originally from Sofia, where she is currently based, Ekaterina has also spent time living, studying, and/or working in Kuwait, New York, Berlin, Cuba, Northern Ireland, and the south of France. Petrova is the author of the Turnupstuffer column in the Capital Light weekly magazine (2012–2016), the travel writing and photography blog The Ground Beneath My Feet (2009–2016), and the documentary project If We Only Knew in 2002 (2012). Her essays have been included in the anthologies My Brother’s Suitcase (2015) and Our Fathers Are Never Gone (2017), among others.
Where the Heart Is
by Ekaterina Petrova
I am homeless, because there are
so many homelands that make their home in me.
A few months ago I stumbled upon my first international passport, issued by the Interior Ministry of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria in 1985. At first the passport seemed merely like a useless document that had expired long ago whose current value was purely sentimental. Upon closer inspection, however, I realized that the passport also documents and provides a way to tangibly measure how things have changed. The past three and a half decades have obviously seen many transformations, both global and personal. And yet—two political regimes, the substitution of one union in favor of another, a dozen or so international passports, and hundreds of trips to dozens and dozens of countries later—I am surprised to discover that some things have actually remained unchanged.
The tags in my old passport (for such things as first, last, and middle names, date and place of birth, etc.) are in Bulgarian, Russian, and French. In my current passport, these same tags now appear in Bulgarian and English. These superficial changes reflect significant political and historical processes that are, of course, much bigger and more important than myself. But in a strange way, the change also reflects my personal story with languages. My first passport was issued so that I could join my mother, then a PhD student, in Paris. As soon as I got there, she wasted no time before enrolling me in a French kindergarten, either unfazed by the fact that I didn’t understand a word of French or simply unable to do anything about it. The experience left me so revolted by French that I spent the next 25 years resisting the constant familial pressure to learn it properly, let alone speak it. My resistance suddenly weakened when, at the age of 31, I met a guy from New Caledonia and moved to France in order to be with him. I spent the better part of three years there, and had no choice but to brush up on my high-school French. Russian, by contrast, left my life permanently in 1991, when the fall of the Iron Curtain meant it was no longer mandatory for everyone to study it in school. English, by contrast, became the most important language in my life. I don’t just feel, think, and express myself with greatest ease in English, but my occupation as a translator also depends on it entirely. Just like in the passports, Bulgarian—as my native tongue—has remained a constant.
When I got my first passport at the age of five, nobody could imagine the dizzying amount of travel that lay in store for me. Considering the political, social, and economic realities of the time, it must have been unthinkable—not just to me, but to the adults around me—that in the next 35 years I would set foot in over 60 countries on five continents, that I would spend significant amounts of time living in six of them, and that I would be both blessed and cursed by a constant and insatiable sense of wanderlust (or, for that matter, that I would even know what the word wanderlust means).
But in hindsight, that first passport turns out to have documented my earliest steps as a constant traveler. The dozen or so passports that came after it were filled with visas and stamps from undreamed-of-in-1985 places, such as the US, Cuba, Mexico, Ireland, the UK, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Lithuania, Slovenia, Cyprus, Israel, Kuwait, Dubai, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Bhutan, Nepal, and many others. It’s tempting to take all these travels for granted; to think I was somehow meant to embark upon them and visit all these places, that this was my kismet, which my first passport unleashed. In reality, of course, this extensive traveling has been far from predestined—all these journeys were actually made possible by a combination of fortuitous circumstances, both global and personal, such as the fall of the Iron Curtain, Bulgaria’s European Union membership, and the opportunities initially provided by my parents and later by my own personal and professional endeavors.
But this is a topic for another piece. Here, it seems interesting to compare my two selves: the five-year old from back then and the current adult, 35 years and countless journeys later. At first glance, the difference is enormous. It’s as big as the difference between the raggedy, typewritten, Communist-era passport (on whose front cover, above the old coat of arms with the red star, the words “People’s Republic of Bulgaria” are written in Bulgarian only, with no translation) and my new, considerably more polished biometric passport, which has a bilingual cover that says “European Union” and “Republic of Bulgaria” and features a new coat of arms with three lions and a crown (though it actually dates to the period before communism). If I compare the miserable-looking child in the crookedly glued, black-and-white analogue photograph in the first passport to the smirking adult woman in the digital, hologram-covered color picture in my newest passport, I see a whole world of difference. Quite literally, too: the woman has already travelled through much of that world, while the child is on the verge of stepping out into it for the first time.
Yet, beneath the surface, there are some surprising similarities. My mom often says, half-jokingly, that in the black-and-white photo I look like a homeless orphan. That’s probably not too far off from how I must’ve felt, having been left in the care of my father and grandmothers while she was away in France. In the color photo of my newest passport, by contrast, I look confident, well traveled, at ease, and like I belong.
What’s not visible in the recent picture, though, is that in spite, or maybe because of all these travels and times spent living in different places, I am (still? once again?) homeless, albeit in a very different, much more manageable, significantly less painful, and sometimes quite pleasant way.
By 2004, when I finished my first Master’s degree and came back to Bulgaria, I had spent more than half of my life living abroad: I graduated from high school in Kuwait, then went to college in Minnesota (my undergraduate studies also included exchange programs in Berlin, Cuba, and Northern Ireland), then spent a year working in New York, and then went to London for graduate school. I came back to Bulgaria, expecting to find the one place where I belonged completely and I could finally settle down. In the decade that followed, I was based in Sofia but continued traveling on a regular basis, and I gradually realized that my expectations were unattainable: there was no place in the world that could belong to me completely or that I could completely belong to.
My Bulgarian passport is still the only passport I hold, but the nationality to which it attests does not overlap, or at least not neatly, with the multitudinous facets that comprise my emotional sense of home. In my case, the ingredients that make up my idea of home—people I love and who love me, old souvenirs and new memories, cozy languages, favorite views, sentimental objects, familiar scents, tastes, and sounds—are scattered in so many different places around the globe that I am in fact, to use Vilém Flusser’s expression, homeless.
The view I have over Sofia as I write this essay is home, but not entirely—missing from it is the small pivoting window of the attic apartment, through which I used to look over the roofs in the old part of Montpellier until a few years ago, when I was living and writing there. The pleasure of riding the tram along the same route I used to take to my English lessons in the late 1980s is not complete because it automatically excludes the possibility of getting on the subway in Harlem and running into my roommates from Brooklyn from fifteen years ago. Regardless of how much I love it and how many important meetings and conversations it may have witnessed, Hambara, my favorite bar in Sofia, can never be my favorite bar of all time, because that position has also been taken by the George IV pub in London, the Turf Club in St. Paul, and the Fox Head in Iowa City. On any given day of the week, I catch myself craving Berlin brunches, Belgian fries, American marshmallows, oysters from Brittany, or madeleines from Lorraine, and no matter where in the word I happen to be on the last Thursday of every November, like Pavlov’s dog, I invariably have hallucinations of turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. These culinary longings were at least partly compensated for by my grandma’s stuffed grape leaves while she was still alive.
The things I miss can sometimes be terribly and annoyingly pedestrian: a favorite coffee mug, a soft plaid blanket, a special spoon for eating grapefruit, or a painting by a friend—some of the countless things that didn’t fit into my luggage and had to be left behind during my numerous moves and relocations. When it comes to people, leaving them behind is even harder. Nor does it get any easier with time.
I do realize, of course, that these symptoms of “homelessness” are also signs of enormous privilege. It’s an incredible luxury to feel content and like I belong, more or less, in so many different places; to have a cozy place of my own, filled with the coffee mugs, soft blankets, and paintings that did make it through different moves (still no grapefruit spoon, though!); to be able to leave whenever I want, so that I can cross continents and oceans and go to places where, even without an actual home, I can feel at home; to make my way around the world by only staying with friends and sleeping on their couches, and to then come back to an apartment located within a few blocks’ radius of my family and my friends from the first grade.
I have given up trying to find the place that completely belongs to me and that I belong to completely. I now realize that this place does, in fact, exist, but not as a geographical location—it exists inside of me. As the years go by, it has become almost tangible. I bring it along with me, always, as I return to familiar locations or discover new ones, as these places become mine and I become theirs, sometimes for a while, other times only briefly. Like a passport, it allows me to venture out, to cross borders, and to explore new territories, secure in the knowledge that I belong, that I won’t get lost.
Nikola Madžirov (North Macedonia, 1973) is a poet, translator, and essayist, the author of three collections of poetry. His work has been translated into more than thirty languages. Madžirov is the recipient of several awards, including the Hubert Burda Award, the Hu Zhimo Silver Leaf Poetry Award, the Brothers Miladinov Award, the Studentski Zbor Award, the Aco Karamanov Award, and the Fifteen Martyrs of Tiveriopol Award. Madžirov has also received several international scholarships, been selected for several residencies, and been invited to several international literary festivals. He is an editor for Lyrikline.
I lived at the edge of the town
like a streetlamp whose light bulb
no one ever replaces.
Cobwebs held the walls together,
and sweat our clasped hands.
I hid my teddy bear
in holes in crudely built stone walls
saving him from dreams.
Day and night I made the threshold come alive
returning like a bee that
always returns to the previous flower.
It was a time of peace when I left home:
the bitten apple was not bruised,
on the letter a stamp with an old abandoned house.
From birth I’ve migrated to quiet places
and voids have clung beneath me
like snow that doesn’t know if it belongs
to the earth or to the air.
USUAL SUMMER NIGHTFALL
This is what summer nightfall is like:
the adulteress comes onto the balcony
in a silk nightgown that lets through
the trembling of the stars,
a twig drops from the beak of a bird
that falls asleep before it has built its home,
a soldier lowers the flag of the state
with a letter from his mother in his pocket
and atomic tests in the womb of the earth
secretly revive the dead. At that moment someone
quietly interprets Byzantine neumes,
someone else falsifies the exoduses
of the Balkan and the civil wars
in the name of universal truths.
In the factory yards
the statues of participants
in annulled revolutions sleep,
on the symmetrical graves
plastic flowers lose their colour
and ordinary ones their shape,
but this peace of the dead
we have parted from
is not ours.
In the village with three lit windows
a fortune-teller foresees only
recoveries, and not illnesses.
The waves throw up bottles enough
to hold the whole sea,
the arrow on the one-way road sign
points to God,
a fisherman rips off a bit of the sky
as he casts his baited line into the river,
some poor child searches for the Little Bear
and the planet he’d like to come from,
in front of the doorstep of the killer with an alibi
a feather attempts to fly.
This is what usual summer nightfall is like.
The town combusts in the redness of the moon
and the fire brigade ladders seem
to lead to heaven, even then when
I DON’T KNOW
Distant are all the houses I am dreaming of,
distant is the voice of my mother
calling me for dinner, but I run toward the fields of wheat.
We are distant like a ball that misses the goal
and goes toward the sky, we are alive
like a thermometer that is precise only when
we look at it.
The distant reality every day questions me
like an unknown traveler who wakes me up in the middle of the journey
saying Is this the right bus?,
and I answer Yes, but I mean I don’t know,
I don’t know the cities of your grandparents
who want to leave behind all discovered diseases
and cures made of patience.
I dream of a house on the hill of our longings,
to watch how the waves of the sea draw
the cardiogram of our falls and loves,
how people believe so as not to sink
and step so as not to be forgotten.
Distant are all the huts where we hid from the storm
and from the pain of the does dying in front of the eyes of the hunters
who were more lonely than hungry.
The distant moment every day asks me
Is this the window? Is this the life? and I say
Yes, but I mean I don’t know, I don’t know if
birds will begin to speak, without uttering A war.
BEFORE WE WERE BORN
The streets were asphalted
before we were born and all
the constellations were already formed.
The leaves were rotting
on the edge of the pavement,
the silver was tarnishing
on the workers’ skin,
someone’s bones were growing through
the length of the sleep.
Europe was uniting
before we were born and
a woman’s hair was spreading
calmly over the surface
of the sea.
SHADOWS PASS US BY
We’ll meet one day,
like a paper boat and
a watermelon that’s been cooling in the river.
The anxiety of the world will
be with us. Our palms
will eclipse the sun and we’ll
approach each other holding lanterns.
One day, the wind won’t
The birch will send away leaves
into our shoes on the doorstep.
The wolves will come after
The butterflies will leave
their dust on our cheeks.
An old woman will tell stories
about us in the waiting room every morning.
Even what I’m saying has
been said already: we’re waiting for the wind
like two flags on a border.
One day every shadow
will pass us by.
WHEN SOMEONE GOES AWAY
EVERYTHING THAT’S BEEN DONE COMES BACK
For Marjan K.
In the embrace on the corner you will recognize
someone’s going away somewhere. It’s always so.
I live between two truths
like a neon light trembling in
an empty hall. My heart collects
more and more people, since they’re not here anymore.
It’s always so. One fourth of our waking hours
are spent in blinking. We forget
things even before we lose them –
the calligraphy notebook, for instance.
Nothing’s ever new. The bus
seat is always warm.
Last words are carried over
like oblique buckets to an ordinary summer fire.
The same will happen all over again tomorrow—
the face, before it vanishes from the photo,
will lose the wrinkles. When someone goes away
everything that’s been done comes back.
I separated myself from each truth about the beginnings
of rivers, trees, and cities.
I have a name that will be a street of goodbyes
and a heart that appears on X-ray films.
I separated myself even from you, mother of all skies
and carefree houses.
Now my blood is a refugee that belongs
to several souls and open wounds.
My god lives in the phosphorous of a match,
in the ashes holding the shape of the firewood.
I don’t need a map of the world when I fall asleep.
Now the shadow of a stalk of wheat covers my hope,
and my word is as valuable
as an old family watch that doesn’t keep time.
I separated from myself, to arrive at your skin
smelling of honey and wind, at your name
signifying restlessness that calms me down,
opening the doors to the cities in which I sleep,
but don’t live.
I separated myself from the air, the water, the fire.
The earth I was made from
is built into my home.
One day someone will fold our blankets
and send them to the cleaners
to scrub the last grain of salt from them,
will open our letters and sort them out by date
instead of by how often they’ve been read.
One day someone will rearrange the room’s furniture
like chessmen at the start of a new game,
will open the old shoebox
where we hoard pyjama-buttons,
not-quite-dead batteries and hunger.
One day the ache will return to our backs
from the weight of hotel room keys
and the receptionist’s suspicion
as he hands over the TV remote control.
Others’ pity will set out after us
like the moon after some wandering child.
WHAT WE HAVE SAID HAUNTS US
We’ve given names
to the wild plants
behind unfinished buildings,
given names to all the monuments
of our invaders.
We’ve christened our children
with affectionate nicknames
taken from letters
read only once.
Afterwards in secret we’ve interpreted
signatures at the foot of prescriptions
for incurable diseases,
with binoculars we’ve zoomed in
on hands waving farewell
We’ve left words
under stones with buried shadows,
on the hill that guards the echo
of the ancestors whose names are not
in the family tree.
What we have said without witnesses
will long haunt us.
The winters have piled up in us
without ever being mentioned.
IT WAS SPRING
It was spring when the invader
burned the deeds to the land where we hunted birds,
colourful insects, butterflies
existing only in old biology text-books.
Many things have changed the world
since then, the world has changed many things in us.
PERFECTION IS BORN
I want someone to tell me
about the messages in the water in our bodies,
about yesterday’s air
in telephone booths,
about flights postponed because of
poor visibility, despite
all the invisible angels on the calendars.
The fan that weeps for tropical winds,
the incense that smells best
as it vanishes – I want someone to tell me about these things.
I believe that when perfection is born
all forms and truths
crack like eggshells.
Only the sigh of gentle partings
can tear a cobweb apart
and the perfection of imagined lands
can postpone the secret
migration of souls.
And what can I do with my imperfect body:
I go and I return, go and return
like a plastic sandal on the waves
by the shore.
THE ONE WHO WRITES
You keep quiet. Like the sunken nets
of poachers. Like an angel
who knows what the night may bring.
And you travel. You forget,
so that you can come back.
You write and you don’t want to remember
the stone, the sea, the believers
sleeping with their hands apart.
FAST IS THE CENTURY
Fast is the century. If I were wind
I would have peeled the bark off the trees
and the facades off the buildings in the outskirts.
If I were gold, I would have been hidden in cellars,
into crumbly earth and among broken toys,
I would have been forgotten by the fathers,
and their sons would remember me forever.
If I were a dog, I wouldn’t have been afraid of
refugees, if I were a moon
I wouldn’t have been scared of executions.
If I wеre a wall clock
I would have covered the cracks on the wall.
Fast is the century. We survive the weak earthquakes
watching towards the sky, yet not towards the ground.
We open the windows to let in the air
of the places we have never been.
Wars don’t exist,
since someone wounds our heart every day.
Fast is the century.
Faster than the word.
If I were dead, everyone would have believed me
when I kept silent.
TOWNS THAT DON’T BELONG TO US
In strange towns
our thoughts wander calmly
like graves of forgotten circus artists,
dogs bark at dustbins and snowflakes
falling in them.
In strange towns we are unnoticed
like a crystal angel locked in an airless glass case,
like a second earthquake that merely
rearranges what is already ruined.
THE HANDS OF THE CLOCK
Inherit your childhood
from the photo album.
Transfer the silence
that expands and contracts
like a flock of birds in flight.
Hold in your hands
the irregular snowball
and the drops that run
down the line of life.
Say the prayer
through sealed lips –
the words are seeds falling into a flowerpot.
Silence is learned in the womb.
Try to be born
like the big hand after midnight
and the seconds will overtake you at once.
MANY THINGS HAPPENED
Many things happened
while the Earth was spinning on
Wires released themselves
from pylons and now
they connect one love to another.
deposited themselves eagerly
onto caves’ walls.
from minerals and set off
following the scent.
From the back pocket pieces of paper
started flying all over our airy room:
irrelevant things which we’d
never do unless
they were written down.
I SAW DREAMS
I saw dreams that no one remembers
and people wailing at the wrong graves.
I saw embraces in a falling airplane
and streets with open arteries.
I saw volcanoes asleep longer than
the roots of the family tree
and a child who’s not afraid of the rain.
Only it was me no one saw,
only it was me no one saw.
Translated by Peggy and Graham W. Reid, Magdalena Horvat and Adam Reed
Mojca Kumerdej (Slovenia, 1964) is a writer, philosopher, critic, and dramaturg. She has published two novels and three collections of short stories. Her work has been translated into several languages and included in several anthologies. She is a regular contributor to the daily Delo. Her novels have been shortlisted for the Kresnik Award and longlisted for the Dublin International Literary Award. She is the recipient of the Prešeren Fund Award, the Critics’ Sieve Award, the Kočić’s Pen Award, the Vilenica Crystal Award, as well as the Borštnik Award for dramaturgy.
Mihael is sometimes silent
The house I live in is big. But we haven’t always lived in this house. When I was very little, we lived in a flat, but I don’t remember that. Then dad, who is a lawyer, earned a lot of money and we bought this house with a big garden and a cabin, and in the summer dad inflates a big round pool for us to swim in. Of us all, I’m the one who likes swimming in the pool best, my elder sister is shy and doesn’t want to wear a bathing suit, but I don’t care and often wear nothing, and at the end of the day, I don’t understand why I should wear a bathing suit when it’s scratchy, and then when you’re wet, you have to change clothes, as mummy always points out. Sister and I don’t get along very well, probably because she is much older than me. She is already in the final year of primary school, and I am only in the third. She treats me as if I were some dumb kid who didn’t understand anything. But I’m not like our brother, who is the youngest of us three and a proper wally. And he is wicked too. Once, when I was making tartlets in the sand for my two dolls, little toy tiger and teddy bear, I heard him laughing under a tree and calling my name. I went to have a look and found him holding a big brown frog by its hind legs, turning it over in his hand, laughing, saying he would cut off its hind legs to see if the frog would be able to walk only on its front legs. You fool, I pushed him away, frogs jump, they need all four legs, otherwise, they can’t push themselves off! He was holding a pocketknife in his hand, waving it, the knife mummy didn’t let him use and he still took it from her drawer or stole it from somewhere. Yes, among other things, he steals, too. He once nicked from my room my magic wand that flickered red when you pressed a button. I knew it was him, so I went and searched his room and found it hidden under the wardrobe. I was fuming! When my brother heard me, he ran into the room and tried to wrestle the wand away from my hands, and he succeeded because during the fight I fell on my back, and then out of sheer malice, he started hitting the table with the stick and broke it. I thought I’d kill him! But mummy didn’t tell him off as I’d expected and instead yelled at me to leave my brother alone and go to my room. Oooh, how angry I was with her, too! Mum and dad are constantly telling us what we mustn’t do: we mustn’t lie or steal, we must behave, we mustn’t pester each other… But if I do something wrong, I always get punished more severely than my brother or sister, and I also sometimes get punished just for the sake of it, for no reason at all, unjustly. But mummy says that this is not true, that she and dad are equally strict and fair to all of us and that out of the three of us I am the one who’s the most pro-ble-ma-tic.
My brother was brandishing the knife, turning the frog over in his hand while it was twisting, trying to get away. I yelled that he should let it go because he was hurting it but he grimaced, revealing his chipped teeth, so I charged at him, knocked him down and hit him with my plastic shovel, snatched the knife from his hand, and truth be told, I slapped him a few times too. But no, I was the one who was punished again! Our mummy only told him not to torture animals, and then she yelled at me for beating up my brother and I was not allowed to go out in the garden for three days. And I cried because he’d tortured the frog. My brother should have been punished more than I was, but instead mummy pulled my pigtail roughly, which she does every time she wants to hit me but I know she won’t because she doesn’t believe that’s the right way to raise children.
Those days, after coming back from school, I would squat on the windowsill, reeeeeeaaaaaaally bored. I would draw a little and look out of the window to see if Mihael would happen by. I couldn’t call him because they took away my phone, I still didn’t have a computer and I could only play games on mummy’s but only when she let me. Sometimes, when I was punished, dad would just take the card from my phone, so I bought spare ones, but when they discovered my stash of phone cards, they punished me by taking my entire phone from me, and now I’m saving up to buy myself a secret one.
Mihael is a friend of mine. He used to live on the same road, three houses down from ours. His parents didn’t have as much money as we did so they didn’t own the whole house, but only a flat on the first floor, where you can crawl out through the window, down the cherry tree and into the garden. I know this because Mihael and I would crawl out like this a few times just for fun, not because he was punished or because he wanted to sneak out of his room because he never got punished the way I did. Mihael was from a class next to mine. He too thought that what my brother did, torturing frogs, hunting butterflies, was awful. My brother catches butterflies with a net and then pins them in a box with a glass lid to show them off. Mum and dad see nothing wrong with it and are even proud of him because he loves nature so much and studies it, they explain to their friends. But I don’t get it. Butterflies are living creatures, and by catching them and pinning their heads, he is killing them. And it probably hurts. Death hurts… it hurts a lot, and I know this although I’m not grown up yet. Dad says that butterflies are not intelligent beings and that they don’t have senses like we people do, and that beauty exists so that we can admire it. What nonsense! My dad is very smart, but in this case, I don’t agree with him at all. To me, dead things are not pretty. I cannot stand death. Death scares me, although Mihael says that he is fine where he is now… But not always, because sometimes Mihael is silent too, and sometimes if I ask him something, he doesn’t answer but disappears and is gone for days on end.
Mihael is my best friend. Apart from him, I have a few girlfriends, but he is the only one I get along really well with. Even now I sometimes talk to him, as if he were there beside me. When I’m cooking spinach in the garden, not real spinach, of course, I take a few soft leaves, chop them up and then I make sand noodles, I bake a delicious roulade or tartlet and put tiny rocks on top to make them look like cherries or strawberries, I serve lunch to Tuscan, the dolls, Bruno the teddybear with a missing ear, and Mitza the fox whose tail I accidentally tore off once, and I always serve a plate for Mihael too. Then we sit at the little table in the garden and chit-chat. About various things, like school, what’s new, and I always ask Mihael how he is. He usually says that he has friends where he is now and he’ll bring them over one day and introduce us, but that I’ll always be his best friend. Mum says that Mihael is in heaven, with the little Jesus that Mary is holding in her arms, not with the baby lying in the crib or the grown-up one on the cross. Mum says that Mihael is now playing with angels because he was always a diligent boy, not just at school but at home too. I’m diligent at school too but at home, not so much… okay, even at school I occasionally do something mischievous, as my mum puts it, but I never get into a fight just for the sake of it, for no reason. Dad also agrees that Mihael is in heaven, and my catechism teacher told me the same. Mum says that good children go to heaven, and the devil takes the naughty ones away. And since I am, as mummy puts it, often impertinent, I used to fear that if I died, the devil would come and drag me to hell, where evil people were, and he tortured them in all sorts of ways down there. But when I go to my aunt’s I’m never afraid of the devil. Because I know what the devil looks like: he has horns, legs, a head and a tail like Volodya and Sara, who are boyfriend and girlfriend and they once had three children who are all big now. Whenever I go to my aunt’s, Volodya and Sara immediately run to me because they know I have stale bread and biscuits for them; Volodya really likes them. Aunt has had goats, chickens and three cats and a dog just for a few years. She used to work in an office before, and she travelled a lot. She would always send me a postcard from her travels or bring me something, like my little toy tiger Tuscan, wooden dolls from Russia and a whirligig with a red and yellow chicken that pecks when you spin it, then a doll from South America that protects children from evil spirits, and sometimes even a dress. But once when aunt was sailing, a sail fell on her head and since then she hasn’t been able to read or write well, so she doesn’t work in the office anymore and she’s moved from the city to the country, where she now grows and sells vegetables. A friend of hers lives with her and helps her out but mum doesn’t like her, and some people work there but they don’t live there.
Mum and aunt believe in god. But aunt’s god is different from my mummy’s god, and I like him more because he is better. Aunt says that god lives in her carrots and in the lettuce and that he is in Volodya and Sara, and that the devil does not take bad children with him to hell because there is no hell just like there is no heaven. When aunt talks like that, mum gets angry, and then they often have a row. Aunt says that when the mast fell on her head, she saw an angel in the sky who told her not to worry because he was looking after her, and he also told her that her life would get better from then on. Mum, who is quite fat, would then start swinging in her chair, waving her hands about, and then she would get up and yell at aunt that she, aunt, did not believe in the real god and that what she was saying was nothing but hogwash. Aunt would just smile and start talking about things I don’t really understand, and then I’d start getting bored and I’d rather go out and play, usually with aunt’s puppy Dividend, whom we all call Divi, or I’d start teasing Volodya, grab him by the horns and try to ride him. Volodya doesn’t like that and would start screaming and attacking me like some dangerous bull, and I’d dodge him and run in front of him, which is a lot of fun. I know that when Volodya points his horns at me, he doesn’t really mean it, he is also playing, and then we run and jump in the garden until mum drags me back into the house so that I don’t get dirty and graze my knees. It is true, from May until the end of the summer, whether I wear knee-highs or not, my knees almost always sting because I often slip and fall and scrape my skin until it bleeds. I don’t really worry about it, but mum gets angry because I behave like a boy, badly, even worse than my brother and friends at school, especially Mihael who was almost always well-behaved.
My sister, and this is absolutely true, is completely different from me. She is very beautiful, has long curly hair and is the spitting image of Jesus’s mum, Mary. My sister is never gabby and always looks a little sad. Other people tell her she is beautiful too, dad, mum, our relatives, and people who come to visit. But my sister doesn’t just look sad, she really is sad. Why, I don’t know. I sometimes think perhaps it’s because she dances ballet and plays the piano. When people do these things, they do look serious and sad. When we were having important guests, mummy would tell me to prepare a tune to play for them. Luckily, no need for that anymore. They used to push me to play the flute or violin, they even signed me up for violin lessons, but my neck was hurting all the time and the sounds the violin made got on my nerves, and I hated screeching on that violin every day so once when the teacher reprimanded me for something or other, I got very mad and hurled the school violin out of an open window, and mum then had to pay for it, and I was put in strict detention. But I didn’t have to take violin lessons any longer. That week, when I wasn’t allowed out because of the violin, when I got home from school I went to my room and I drew a lot, mostly my little toy tiger Tuscan, my favourite toy, mainly because mum and dad don’t let me have a real tomcat. Mummy says that cats carry fleas and diseases and that they shed hair that gets all over the furniture. But at Mihael’s they had two tomcats, and neither had fleas or was sick, okay, except Mihael who didn’t get sick because of the cats but because some cells in his body became vicious and started attacking the good ones. Apart from Tuscan, I drew Transformers a lot, who turned from robots to horrible animals and monsters. When mummy discovered my drawings, she got really mad at me. Why did I draw those darned devils, she was yelling, and she also said that I was like one of those devils. I thought it was funny. Then the devil doesn’t have to come and take me, I said to her, I can go to hell by myself, whenever I want to. Mum’s face puffed up and turned red like a pumpkin when we lit up a candle in it for Halloween so that it glows from the balcony. She was so mad that I thought she would explode, and then, for the first time in my life, she slapped me on the face. It was a bolt from the blue for me, even more so for her, I could see that she immediately regretted it because it’s my mummy’s principle that hitting children is wrong. When, through the tears, I explained that they were not devils at all, but transformer robots that turned into Sara and Volodya, she didn’t know what to say and just slammed the door behind her. Frankly, the slap did hurt a bit, but not as much as falling on concrete riding rollerblades. I was deeply offended because I hadn’t done anything wrong. She scolded me for no reason at all and she even hit me. But I was also pleased a little because when I made her slap me, as she explained to dad later, I had punished her as well. I wasn’t just mad at mum, I was also mad at dad because he later told me off for being rude to mum. But no one is going to tell me what I can or can’t draw! If they punish me by not letting me go out, then I can draw whatever I like, goats, devils, tigers, cats or god. Yes, I sometimes draw god himself, aunt’s god, who is good and kind, who laughs, and I draw sunrays around his head, while mummy’s one always has a long, black cape and a black, metal helmet on his face, and looks like Darth Vader from Star Wars, which I saw with dad on DVD, and who seems really horrible because of his scary, deep voice.
Samira Kentrić (Slovenia, 1976) expresses herself with images and words. Her work merges the political language with the personal, often erotic part of everyday life, thus striving to articulate what in contemporary society remains unreflected and therefore unpleasant and hidden. In 1999, she began her career in the performance art duo Eclipse, using her own body as a means for expressing socially relevant topics, such as the demythologisation of the image of refugees. As a visual artist, she designs book covers and visual commentaries for several newspapers and magazines. Since 2016, she’s been leading art workshops for underprivileged groups. Kentrić published three graphic novels and received awards both for her performance art as well as her books, including the Golden Bird Award, the international Special Book Award by the Motovun Group Association MGA, and an award at the Slovene Biennial of Book Illustration.
Husein Dedić – Hule: The Pilot from the Pit
translated from the Slovene by Gregor Timothy Čeh
Hule had not always been a security guard at the Velenje coal mine. Before that he was a miner. In the mid-1980s a part of the roof collapsed in the mine and knocked out his front teeth. He knew how tough it is for miners to earn their crust. But the pay was decent and with it he could help his family back in Bosnia. The wish that he might also afford and create his own home in Velenje was greater than any fear. He persisted and was doing well.
Before the war his mother had fallen seriously ill and he regularly made the trip to Bosnia to provide her with morphine. Up until 20 March 1992 when he drove down to her funeral in his red Zastava. He didn’t go alone, there was room in his car for three colleagues from neighbouring villages. They were taking their pay packets to their families, among them his sister’s husband Adem. He dropped them off at the bus stop in Zvornik and they arranged that he would pick them up at the same place ten days later, at two in the afternoon on 30 March, so they would return together to their work in the mine.
Hule waited for them at the arranged spot in vain. He had to report for work the following morning at six. He waited an hour. Two. Until half past four. There had been roadblocks along the way even when they arrived, and everything had gone much slower than usual. He drove back from Zvornik alone. There were even more army blockades along the way and he kept having to show his papers. The barricades merely strengthened his dark premonition about his colleagues not turning up. He parked his car outside the block of flats in Velenje at 5 a.m., drank a coffee and went to work.
Once back in Velenje, it soon became clear that his colleagues had not simply chosen some other means of returning. Routes were closed and people were trapped wherever they happened to be. His colleagues and relatives were stranded in the municipality of Srebrenica. All conventional communication channels were cut off. Hule bought a radio transmitter and learned how to operate it. He named his frequency The Pilot. By September he was up on the Gorjanci Hills above Novo Mesto, trying to make contact with the missing. With great effort and a little luck, he managed to contact a ham operator from Titovo Užice in Serbia called Marko who generously enabled him to get through to Samir, a ham from Srebrenica. Samir found his sister Mina and his brother-in-law Adem. During the next calls he managed to speak to several acquaintances and he found out that his sister had just given birth to their youngest daughter. He was once again an uncle. They did not talk about politics; the rules of amateur radio did not allow such discussions during war. He heard about all the shortages, how they risk their lives going on horseback through the forest to get flour, how they otherwise felt safe. There was also a United Nations contingent in town. It was supposed to maintain peace, protect human lives.
Just over a year later, Hule lost all contact. Someone else had taken over the transmitter in Užice, the communication at the end of the line was laden with swearing and threats.
At home in Velenje Hule’s family converted their single bedroom flat into a temporary home for a further seventeen refugees. The miners all contributed to hiring a bus that went to meet the refugees at the border. Hule worked shifts and slept whenever a bed or a patch of floor was empty. He found out about the atrocities in his village, about his father who to no avail tried to hide in a bear den. He was sniffed out by dogs. The Chetniks interrogated, beat and killed him.
His youngest brother from Tuzla called Hule at the mine and explained where he had buried their father’s body. He went on to fight and did not survive the war. Neither did Hule’s colleagues, or Samir, the ham from Srebrenica.
A number of years after the war Hule managed, with a little smooth talking and a couple of boxes of chocolates, to get information from admin at the mine about the employment records and years of service of his three murdered colleagues. With this information and a court ruling, their widows won the right to part of the pension that the miners had worked so hard for. This meant their underage children could at least hope for an education. He did not manage to get proof of employment for all the other men killed. Data protection, they told him.
In 2012 he and his friends managed to organise the first Cycling Marathon for Peace from Velenje to Srebrenica. With five colleagues, wearing his honorary miner’s uniform, he paid tribute to his dead workmates and all the victims of Srebrenica. This was important to him. Remembering is important to him. Now that he has time, he helps with renovations. He does not like revenge. “There are courts for that.”
All along, Hule did what he could. He does not talk about politics and the responsibilities of others. What does hurt him, though, is that the Mining Company does not want to search through their records and confirm the names of all its workers who had been killed in the war. It is as if they never existed, he says.
Zvonko Karanović (Serbia, 1959) writes poetry and prose. He published three novels and more than ten collections of poetry, several of which have also been translated. His poems have been translated into twenty languages and featured in several regional and international anthologies, most notably in New European Poets (Graywolf Press, USA, Minnesota, 2008). He is the recipient of several Serbian poetry awards, as well as several international literary scholarships. Zvonko Karanović’s work refers strongly to the heritage of the beat generation, as well as popular culture. In his recent collections of poetry, he’s experimented with surrealism, film-like editing, and prose poems.
Nedžad Ibrahimović (Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1958) received his PhD at the Faculty of Philosophy in Tuzla in the field of literature of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He completed his television studies at the Media Academy in Hilversum (Netherlands). Ibrahimović is the founder and editor-in-chief of the journal for art theory and criticism Razlika/Difference. Ibrahimović is the recipient of two awards for best poetry collection and an award for best screenplay. In 2006, he was a Fulbright professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. Between 2014 and 2017 he was the president of PEN Bosnia and Herzegovina. He teaches literary theory at the Faculty of Philosophy in Tuzla, and teaches film theory at the University of Donja Gorica in Montenegro.
From the book FAMILY AND OTHER TERRIBLE SONGS
IN ORAŠJE IN ŠIROKO
The hot afternoon pours its rays.
Groundskeepers are trimming linden branches above the pavement . Traces ofsummers which are
gone and never will be again.
I miss the people in my city who did not love me.
With whom to disagree now about literature?
News shots from Pakistan: demolished houses in Model Colony. From 98 Airbus A-‐320 passengers more than 80 have died. The others are gone. Still gone…
A young man -‐ in a television frame in front of a ruin (black beard
and a messy tuft) testifies that he first saw smoke in the sky –
-‐ is signed as Allah. (22-‐05-‐2020)
The scents of linden reach the room and flower wreaths will soon
fall to the ground.
In the hospital by the river, mother tells of her roommate in the third person. This shrewd patient
smiles gently and peeks from the margins.
Neither of them seems to mind.
A good death is one where your earthly
remains are being dealt with by some unknown people… (JM Coetzee)
There are people who suddenly stop loving, and don’t tell the other, andthen
they love each other disproportionately and asymmetrically.
And then, after a while, he
gives to her a stroke, she to him a heart attack,
and then again they watch over and safeguard each other, just like at the beginning.
But there are also those selfish ones, who within their heart do not mix anyone else. Deathespecially appreciates that.
It likes to surprise everyone else.
I met my ex-‐wife at the station restaurant.
Just came from a trip, she says, while
she wipes the black jam from her lips with a napkin. Bićanić wrote beautifully about her acting. The show won numerous rewards and, then -‐ so, how’s life, and such?
Between plays and television, the child is led, she says, from school to home, from home to school. Weaned from me, she looks back as if towards someone invisible
to whom she makes an unspecified complaint. A void thrives around us.
When she’s acting, she’s a lot prettier, and she seems to know this too. Say hello to the kid,I say, and leave quickly.
Until she hasn’t.
STORIES ABOUT GAPS
Nobody buys books anymore. Petar and I sip brandy from
a slivovitz flask in front of a bookstore. Although the good-‐looking waitress crosses the squarewearing a mini skirt in the cold,
we don’t order from her anymore. The jerk owner somehow figured out that his business is going up andhe raised the prices. In a parrot yellow coat and with eyes devoid of hope a black-‐faced migrant enters
the perimeter and bypasses us. A stray dog was sniffing in front of the cafe door -‐ itknows nothing about inflating price. With the cold wind from the Sava river, a memoryof the son appears.
My Bela is pregnant, says Petar, while sipping and stomping his feet in place. That’s about a hundred marks per puppy. We quarreled and I, very much like a father, smacked him -‐ and thatwas
that -‐ six years ago. Seven!
The stray dog now pisses down a church wall and the vine twists towards the grain pea. An acquaintance, a hydrological engineer, told me that because
whirling coastal waters this part of the town hovers over the void. It will be warmer tomorrow, Isay, I look into the void and leave.
After unknown worries and strange fears, after preparations and sketches, everynightthinking, stealing
of characters and personalities you met, you finally decide, and
like a diligent and organized crook, you get up at half past five in the morning, you make tea and eat polenta.There, you are finally in front of your
void and you write, you make note and you delete what is written. Beneath the windows the employedprecariat is in a hurry, the police exhibitionists
sirens are howling, the ambulance alarms are screaming and
schoolchildren in love are typing messages in the rain. You cross words and signs, shortening sentence strings andforming paragraphs with spaces.
And so on every God-‐given day, for years incessantly – all until it’s all over. After all, you arefinishing and throwing out that
burden from your soul. Afterwards, everything is same as before. Nothing makes sense and nothing madeit in the first place.
And then under the ceiling, in a corner above the desk, you see a spider’s web, largeand spacious. You saw
it on time, because it almost came down to you. At night spiders search
for water and creep into the nose and mouth, mostly in childhood when you sleep the hardest, and you realize that youhave been formed by hundreds of grams of
raw spider and that there is nothing else you could do but by that inner compulsion to knit from your own body.
All you needed for that was emptiness. And now you’re waiting. Only hunger makes sense.
Ask and you shall receive! Seek, and ye shall find! (Mt 7: 7-8)
It’ warmer. The short streets between the crammed shacks smells of fish, river mud andwet willows. Petar sold
two puppies, and I sent my son another letter. The first one maybe he didn’t see, maybe he didn’tunderstand it, or maybe it hurt him?
Maybe I asked too much of him, it’s possible he
thought I was being condescending. He doesn’t trust me anymore.
I therefore crammed this one with beautiful stylistic figures, imported it with mild verbs, and asked for nothing. Now every day
I’m checking my other profile. (He blocked me on the first one.)
But, if he also had an other profile, he would have a new name, the two of us could then, like two nakedsnails, extend our horns one
to the other and start our history from scratch. Only mutual lie could save us.
Someone said ask and you shall receive! Seek and ye shall find !, laughs Petar. By the church the waitress inthe mini skirt carries two shots with brandy.
By delving into the boundaries of language the reason gets bumps.
I wish I didn’t read.
I wish I walked through the city like through a spring forest. Not reading the inscriptions on the shops, the glittering commercials and illiterate advertisements, communal notices, textson stores, names and
surnames on lawyers’ offices and notaries’ entrance doors, billboards, discounts, names of
bakeries and meat boutiques, I wish didn’t even read obituaries anymore.
I wish I was a dog that doesn’t get off the leash and that in this chaos I only rest my tongue.
“Welcome children! Eat,
and after that you can come in and I will give you cake! ” The Brothers Grimm
A teenager who starts smoking. I was writing in the hope of getting laid, and then I broke into this house suddenly And here I am now. Locked. The language is now
my shirt and my tail, my shoes and my gloves.
I don’t know when there will be enough of it, and when too much, for all that I would like to say. Mine… Mine? These words are my
legcuffs and handcuffs lurking after my head to eat it with delight.
the language is now both my father and my mother, and my mother’s mother and my mother’s father, and, worst of all, my language is also Her language. Thus, my father and mother and Her father and mother.
I am repulsed by this sticky tongue saliva that we share. Everything I say is also said byHer. Everything I write,
She has already written, everything I want to say, there she is, and through the barred window she threatensfrom outside with her skinny finger
and grins cynically. I have a premonition, and only premonitions are mine, that – just like a hanged man is killed by his own body,
and the cherry-‐plum in front of the house by its own fruit – one word will kill me, the one that I will not know to be the last one, the strong one, Miljkovićev’s one. It will be the key to the sugary door that She will get herhands on,
but that word will ultimatley be mine alone. And that is what
I am modestly looking forward to. I am a wolf who, for my freedom, gnaws its front paw.
The years of captivity are getting harder and faster, and when I get tired and give up, I don’t get off the leash anymore.
Through the spring forest then the two of us pass as
through a city where I no longer read inscriptions on the shops, the glittering commercials and illiterate advertisements, communal notices, texts on stores, names and titles on
lawyers’ offices and notaries’ entrance doors, billboards, discounts, names of bakeries and meat boutiques, nor obituaries do I read anymore. None but mine own.
The old ones, before I fell into Her house.
Filip Grujić (Serbia, 1995) is a dramaturg, a playwright and a novelist. He published the novels Podstanar (LOM, 2020) and Bludni dani kuratog Džonija (Samizdat, 2017). He is the recipient of the Sterija Award and the Slobodan Selenić Award for his play ne pre 4:30 niti posle 5:00. He plays in the band CIMERKE and as a solo artist.
A FRESH START
(saying goodbye to my landlord, moving to a new flat, my father-in-law, my job again, and some realisations)
Saying goodbye to my landlord
It turns out that you do best what you feel most familiar and comfortable with. I came to this realisation while I was lying on my mattress, which I already described many times before, and waiting for Sonya to have a shower. Since I was living closer to the city, and her work, Sonya often stayed at my place. The flat, meanwhile, has changed. More often than not, stuff would be scattered over the floor. Sonya was messy. I wondered why, and I couldn’t figure it out. She had the same amount of stuff at that time as I ever had. I wouldn’t say Sonya was a big spender, on the contrary, over that couple of months we’d been together I rarely saw her buy something for herself. You could say this was because of her budget, which was not big enough to cover everything she wanted to buy. But despite the messiness that had befallen my rented flat, I didn’t feel bad. I liked the liveliness that my floors, walls and bed had acquired. I liked, of course, sharing my life with someone. If I were completely honest, I also liked that I was capable of sharing my life with someone. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but the logic of the story requires it now – Sonya had a flat on the other side of the river, an average, quite acceptable flat, which she shared with her younger sister, about whom I will talk more, oh much more, later. The flat was hers, and that being so, she didn’t have a landlord. She was, so to speak, her own landlord. Anyway, Sonya was having a shower, and I was lying on the bed when it dawned on me that you do best what you feel most familiar with. The day I was supposed to move out was coming soon. That’s what Sonya and I agreed, and I didn’t protest much. She reckoned that it made perfect sense for us to live together and I was pretty much of the same opinion. Considering our financial situation, and taking into account that I had just lost my job, which had caused a few small tiffs between us, I probably wouldn’t be wrong if I said that those were the first ones since we’ve been together, primarily because I had lost my job practically because I’d had a fight with her ex-boyfriend, my ex-friend, which in fact she was the cause of, anyway, we came to the conclusion that we couldn’t pay for both flats, and we were spending the nights together much more often than apart, so we sensibly and practically decided that I should move in with her to the other side of the river and be done with what until then had been my bachelor pad. That’s what she called it – a bachelor pad. It sounded good to me because it meant I was the guy I was expected to be. While I was lying like that thinking about the sentence I’d mentioned earlier, I was overcome with irrevocable sadness for leaving the flat. I got up and looked around me.
Everything I had ever made was there. The mattress I was lying on, so neat and comfortable, was mine. All the things in the flat, apart from the walls, and a few kitchen cupboards, the bathtub, and the parquet floor, were mine. There weren’t too many things, but the truth is that I made it cosy for myself between all those walls. I looked, and in the kitchen I could clearly see forks and knives, in the rooms a couple of chairs and a clothes horse, and suddenly, I remembered how I went to a chain furniture store and had a good time there.
Where did it all go?
Looking at all those things, even back then, I felt as if I was witnessing a memory. I couldn’t comprehend it.
I had applied myself to furnishing the flat with so much passion, and now I had to leave it all behind. Every single thing I had bought, acquired or dragged here in one way or another, I had handpicked as if I would never part from it. I had been choosing them with a joy I could only feel at that moment, a moment I thought was worth remembering. I couldn’t understand what I was going to do with all those emotions I felt for every piece of furniture. I was supposed to leave the flat in three days. Until then, I had to clean it up, polish the floors, perhaps put a lick of paint on the walls, return the keys and never, definitely never again return to that flat. Luckily, Sonya interrupted my musings. She stepped out of the bathroom, wet, naked, erect nipples. It took me only about six seconds to feel good again. I forgot why I was sad and indulged in happiness.
At that moment, it seemed to me that there was not a thing that could make me sad as long as I was near those breasts, I felt like a man that had neither past nor future, nothing but a desire to touch.
But those moments can’t last forever. The next three days, while I was bidding farewell to my stuff and my furniture, Sonya would go and have a shower a few times, at least three, she would nip down to the shops, go to work, and I was alone, feeling the sharp pangs of melancholy and questioning. For instance, I would remember how I started smoking. What was that all about? I couldn’t comprehend. The moment I started smoking, and you could say that I was now a seasoned smoker, seemed like a moment that happened to somebody else. I could clearly see myself standing outside and smoking, as if observing myself from the window, but I couldn’t understand how.
Whose life was I living and whose life could I see? Where were the time and space, my brain couldn’t discern, all I knew was that I couldn’t comprehend, couldn’t accept that if I forgot the moment when I started smoking, it would be as if I’d never started smoking in the first place. But, as I said , those were the moments when I allowed myself to indulge in those thoughts. At the same time I was packing my stuff into boxes.I didn’t have much, quite enough for a man like me one could say. Suddenly, all I had could fit into three boxes. Even I, if I were to twist and bend my body properly, could fit my entire self in a box. The thought amused me and made me think about myself as a living being. Everything that had happened to me was inside me, somewhere, who knows where, but inside me. I, as I said, my entire self, with all the people I’d ever met, with all the joys I’d created for myself, with all the sorrows I’d accepted, would fit in a box if, again, I were to twist and bend my body properly.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. On one hand I found the thought intriguing, but at the same time it made me feel restless. And then, of course, I’d forget I’d ever had such a thought and start snogging Sonya as if it were the only thing I knew how to do and wanted to do.
Strange, strange all that. I’d already packed my stuff, I was leaving my flat. I’d given a lick of paint to what needed painting, Sonya helped as much as she could, we tidied up together, cleaned and scrubbed, leaving the flat to somebody else who will enter an empty space as if nothing ever existed there before. I looked out of the window, and I could clearly see myself smoking on the other side of the street. While I was living here, a burger joint had opened and had already shut down. The corner shop, the bakery, they are still there. At that very place, where the two streets joined, I was looking, pensively, at my window, wondering which was Tamara’s floor.
Whatever happened to Tamara? I didn’t know where she was. She must have been somewhere far away, I’d stopped bumping into her in the building. She may have moved away. I heard that she’d got a more lucrative job offer. That’s how, as far as I knew, you determine how successful someone was. You work at one place, and after a while you get a better offer somewhere else. Then you work at that other place and, if you’re lucky, you get an even better offer from another place. And so on, until your market value starts going further and further down, and then you do your best to stay where you are, you hold onto the job as hard as you can, your job, claiming you deserve it because of your age and years of experience, sentimentally remembering the day when you first came to the company. Anyway, I was wondering where Tamara was. I didn’t know if she was happy, or if I would ever think of her again. At that moment, while I was saying goodbye to the flat, I thought of Tamara only because I remembered myself smoking in the street wondering where Tamara was. It was really time for me to get a move on. Two other big things happened that day:
1) I met Sonya’s dad. His name is Gordan. He borrowed a van that transports donkey chemicals, if I got it right, some concoctions that help donkeys grow faster and better, anyway, he borrowed a van from a friend of his, whom, of course, I didn’t know at the time because, as it turned out, until that day I hadn’t met Sonya’s dad either, whose name was Gordan. Until that day, I hadn’t thought about him much. I knew he would come to help us move, we were, after all, moving into his former flat. But, shaken and overwhelmed with all kinds of emotions, I ignored the fact. So I just extended my hand and introduced myself.
Hi, son. I’m Gordan.
Nice to meet you.
I stared at the floor, surprised that he’d called me son.
So, what are we taking?
Here it is. . .
This is all you’ve got?
I felt he was judging me. I panicked.
It is all I need.
C’mon, son, let’s hurry up.
He took a box as I stubbornly paced the flat.
I’d left all four indicators on.
Gordan, of course, will be the subject of some of my later contemplations and dilemmas. But at that moment, the only thing I worried about was that I didn’t drop a box and, inexplicably, I wanted to show Gordan that I was strong, at least as a bullock, so I carried more than I could. As a result, I got inflammation in my lower back, and I was stuck in bed for three to five days. We put everything in the van and realised that Gordan hadn’t needed to borrow it. It could all fit in a car. We climbed back to the flat to check if we had left anything behind. Sonya was walking around in the flat.
She asked me incredulously.
It’s not exactly comfortable for us, is it?
Mine is definitely bigger.
Maybe you can sell it?
Maybe I could.
There was nothing else left. We and Gordan were going to take the stuff to Sonya’s flat. And that’s what we did. Nothing else of importance happened because I had to go back to my rented flat. Meeting the landlord, handing in the keys and the inspection of his property were scheduled for one o clock in the afternoon. So, the other big thing, besides meeting Sonya’s dad, happened after that.
2) I cried. That’s what happened. I didn’t cry much, just a bit. I didn’t know how to explain this to myself. Everything was perfect. There was the girl that, I can safely say, I loved. Consequently, there was this planned happiness. So, I, one of the few, will be living with the girl I loved. While I was waiting for one in the afternoon, sitting on my mattress, the only thing left behind in the empty flat, I wept. I lay on the mattress and stared at the ceiling. How many nights I had spent there staring at the ceiling. Sometimes, when it was light outside, when it was full moon, I could see the ceiling better. Some nights I would pull the blinds down. Some nights I would leave the light on in the hallway, on purpose, to keep me company. But, this mattress was mine. I was definitely lying on that mattress for the last time in my life, and even more definitely, I was crying on that mattress for the last time. This was supposed to be a happy day. The beginning of something new. My landlord arrived. I wiped off the tears before opening the door. He had his hat on and his pipe. We greeted each other, he asked me how I was. I said I was fine.
Do you mind?
He pointed at his pipe.
Anyway, even if you did…
He laughed, realising than in no more than fifteen minutes I would have no say in this flat.
He rummaged in the corners, this landlord of mine. He inspected the white surfaces, whether they were white enough. He looked at the door, whether it was dented. The doors often get damaged, he said, especially where there is turbulent love life. People get carried away and then when they don’t know what to do, they always hit the door…
He said that, pleased with himself, as if he too, while he had the strength, used to hit the door.