Biljana Crvenkovska, born May 23, 1973 in Skopje, RN Macedonia. Writer, screenwriter, editor and translator. BPhil and MPhil in philosophy with sub-subjects in semiotics and philosophy of language. As writer, Crvenkovska started by writing mainly books for children and youth (as well as poetry, essays and theoretical works), but in the last couple of years her writing is oriented towards fiction (novels and short fiction). She also writes screenplays for Macedonian TV and animated shows, for children and adults. Her novels and picture books for children are translated or are currently being translated in several languages: Serbian, English, French, Albanian, German, Slovenian, Russian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian…
Bibliography. Novels: Девет приказни за госпоѓица Сит (Nine stories about Miss Sith, 2019), Куќа над брановите (House above the waves, 2020); Children’s novels: Што сонуваше Дедо Мраз (Santa in Dreamland, 2014), Супервештерката, мачката и шесте волшебни колачиња (The Superwitch, the cat and six magical cookies, 2017), Sвезда Мрак и суштествата од Страшковград (Stella Dark and the creatures from Scarytown, 2019); Picture books: Светот на Биби (Bibi’s world) – series of picture books; Книгата што никогаш не беше иста (The book that was never the same, 2017), Кучето што мјаукаше и мачето што џавкаше (The Dog that meowed and the Cat that barked, 2020), and many others; Graphic novels: Девојчето кое танцуваше со пролетта (The Girl that Danced with the Spring, 2018), Black Pig Secret Club – a series of six children’s graphic novels. Theoretical works: Митски лавиринт: патување низ митските слики (Mythical Labyrinth: a travel throught mythical pictures, 2004).
Awards: A Claw in the Dark – Black Pig Secret Club series, awarded Best book for children and youth between two book fairs in 2018 (first prize), and the prize Strusko izgrejsonce for best book for children and youth; Nine stories about Miss Sith – shortlisted for the prize Novel of the year 2019, awarded by the Foundation Slavko Janevski; Stella Dark and The Creatures from Scarytown, awarded two prizes between two book fairs, and shortlisted for third prize awarded by The Association of Macedonian Writers.
“Devet prikazni za gospogjica Sit”
(Nine stories about Miss Sith, Čudna šuma, 2019)
– excerpts –
AT “THE BLACK CAT”
She took a sip of coffee, then gazed again at the laptop screen. The black cat with a white spot on her chest, dozing in her lap, moved her whiskers, then poked her muzzle deeper still between her paws. Without taking her eyes off the screen, she put her hand down and touched the beautiful, soft fur. Though she knew she was supposed to keep working, she couldn’t stop caressing the cat. Shutting the laptop, she stared outside the wide glass windows… and heaved a deep sigh.
The sigh was long, layered, quivering. Inside it were many different thoughts, each lending the sigh a distinct tone… as if a series of quick sighs joined in a single symphony.
This symphony, above all, talked about the minutes and seconds, the day that was moving fast, pressing, not letting you forget its inevitable transience for one moment. It spoke of the feeling you have when you have many things to do, but at the same time, lack the desire to do any of it, and just sink instead into your thoughts, into the unbearable beauty of idleness… and of the unrest created by these delayed obligations, plans and ambitions, while you sit and dream with your eyes wide open.
Then, it contained the entire melancholy brought by the cloudy, rainy days such as this one. The low, heavy clouds that pour scarce, tortured raindrops down on the sizzling city. Mountain clouds – now that is a whole other feeling, a different sight altogether. In the mountains, these same clouds are large, powerful, threatening, coming fast with the wind, carrying a heavy storm, only to shatter underneath the spring sun. In the city, however, they are weighed down by the vapors, the many misfortunes, becoming sluggish, motionless. They struggle, just like those people in the busy metropolis below. The sigh told this story, too.
And here, deeply intertwined in the symphony of sighs, was love. Not some specific sort of love, as it happens in most cases, but love for things past. Things that disappeared, fell apart, or changed so much that they became distorted and unrecognizable. Love remained, without any real object to be directed to. Desolate, sad and hungry, like some neighborhood bitch that just whelped and her puppies were taken away.
Finally, there was the stomach ache, getting stronger and more unbearable by the minute. Reaching it, the symphony was at its loudest, being the only real, physical pain. Or was it? Where did it come from? What was the reason it appeared so suddenly, searing, hurting, gnawing and biting ceaselessly?
The cell rang. Loudly, piercingly, disturbingly. The stomach ache became even stronger, tearing and ravaging. It was horrible. She reached and grabbed her phone, put it in silent mode and sighed deeply once again. This time even longer and heavier than before.
The cat in her lap raised her head and looked at her with those yellow eyes as though she wanted to tell her something. Something really urgent and important. She purred. The kind of soft, soothing purr that calms you down, clears your mind and radiates a strangely infectious energy. Yes, the cat seemed to be passing this energy onto her, giving her strength, eventually clearing all her thoughts. At that moment, everything was crystal-clear. Clearer than ever before. She knew exactly what she had to do, right away, and not let anything discourage her… She opened her laptop feverishly and started typing urgently, almost frantically:
I’m writing to inform you that today I will not be coming to work. Nor tomorrow. Nor the day after tomorrow. In fact, don’t count on me anymore. I decided to get my life back, the one I lost long, long ago…
The cat purred more lively, more cheerfully, in sync with the typing on the keyboard. Meanwhile, the stomach ache was slowly wearing off…
Day twenty three. Tyrol. Village of Jochberg, on the slopes of the Tyrolean Alps. She arrived yesterday afternoon, from Salzburg. One place, two days. So far, she had visited a dozen places, and many more awaited her. Fatigue had already set in, but she could not afford to stop. She had to finish this pilgrimage of hers. Get through that purgatory and survive, or go to the next world and be by his side.
Now and then, she wanted to pause and take a breath. Stay longer and find herself again, especially in those places that meant more to her than others. Places that evoked deeper memories.
She couldn’t, though. She had to keep going. One place – two days, 48 hours. That was the plan, and she was sticking to it!
Steadily, she descended the mountain. Very slowly, being knee-deep in snow, even deeper in certain spots. As she was going down, the snow decreased, though the total absence of marcations along the way worried her.
The path she was on, very well-trodden, disappeared mysteriously. Actually, it didn’t disappear: she swerved from it. It was her fault, her mind wandered and she missed a marcation. In the mountain, in the winter, it meant everything. More often than not, it was a life-or-death situation.
She swerved because she thought about Jovan. Last time they were here, together, they went skiing. Half a century had passed since then, perhaps a bit less. Now, she couldn’t ski anymore. She was afraid. Every fall was a potential fracture, and a fracture at her age… did not end well. Nevertheless, her legs were still fit for climbing.
She never stopped climbing, not even in the days of mostly staying at home, with Jovan. He had a nurse who took care of him at certain periods of the day, so she could go out run the errands: shopping, bills, drugstore… and on Sundays, go to the mountains. Climbing was her biggest passion, and the smallest, too. Nothing else gave her pleasure anymore, nor peace. Only the mountains, woods, and now, this pilgrimage.
Though, you couldn’t say this pilgrimage eased her mind, quite the opposite. She thought that, if she visits all these places of “theirs”, the pain would subside. Wear off. Disappear. Unfortunately, she was more often upset rather than calm. Memories flooded back, bringing tears with them. Didn’t she know it was going to be like this? Perhaps she did. Perhaps she wanted to torment herself. He left, she stayed. And once, a hundred lives ago, they promised to each other they would leave together. And they wouldn’t leave bed-ridden, aged and powerless. The drivel of youth…
And so, lost in her thoughts, she swerved from the path, finding herself amidst high, untrodden snow. She looked for the marcations, but couldn’t see any. She tried tracing her footsteps back to the path somehow, but only went mysteriously around in a circle.
She wasn’t alarmed at first, trusting herself and her climber’s instinct. But, as time went on, she began to feel that sense of dread. Only then did she turn on her phone’s map. Not particularly tech-savvy, like every other mountain-climber, she used GPS.
She turned the navigation on and waited for the location to be found. Something was wrong: the GPS didn’t work. It had happened before, though not for long. She would have to go in a different direction and try again.
She kept going down the mountain, choosing a path between the trees with the least amount of snow. Occasionally she would try and locate herself on the map, but to no avail. Still, she was determined to continue. All the while, her mind strayed back to Jovan. They had had a nice life together. Many trips, many mountains, many forests. And towns, and villages, seas and oceans. They were alone, childless. They decided not to adopt, who knows why. She slightly regretted this decision now, but on the other hand, the trips fulfilled them. They had cats and dogs. Sat in the garden. It was nice. But, the worst came and it exhausted both of them. They struggled for years, he, the poor wretch, and she along with him. Damned illness. Damned old age.
She wiped the tears off her eyes with her glove. Seeing more clearly now, she noticed the magnificent view ahead. Coming out of the pines, she had emerged on a misty clearing, through which a gurgling stream ran, and snow-capped rocks towered on the far end with a waterfall in between. It murmured quietly, like the softest music, happy and sad at the same time. This place was unfamiliar to her, but she couldn’t get her eyes off the scenery. There was something magical about it, some otherworldly energy.
She felt the urge, after a very long time, to take a picture. The memory was worth preserving, this rare beauty needed to be captured.
She grabbed her phone, took a few shots, and was halfway through putting it back inside the pocket when it slipped out of her hand. She made a move to reach and grab it, but stepped badly and felt a sharp pain in her ankle.
An hour later, she was sitting on the rock, scrunched up and truly frightened. Her lug hurt, the screen was shattered to pieces, making the phone useless. She had no idea where she was, what to do, and the worst part was, she couldn’t stay here. She had to move! The evening was near. Come nightfall, she wouldn’t survive, not with the equipment she had. The temperature went well below zero in these mountain areas, and she wasn’t ready for a night in the woods.
She tried to get up and walk. It hurt. She sank to the rock again and looked around. It didn’t seem that magical anymore, but rather cold and alien. As she was sitting, the cold got more and more biting, surrounding the clearing threateningly, swallowing piece by piece with each passing moment. Everything around her seemed bafflingly unreal, like an ominous dream foreshadowing something horrible.
Even weirder than that, her fear seemed to subside. Maybe this was meant to be, she told herself. Go like this. Like a lone wolf. I don’t want to live without him anyway. Don’t want to live… without him… don’t want to… without him… live…
She almost closed her eyes. Almost accepted her fate. Almost. But the, she heard rustling in the treetops above, and breeze sneaked over the clearing, chasing the fog like a hound that wandered into a herd of sheep.
She blinked, looked around, took a deep breath, regaining her strength and… got up! It hurt, but not enough to prevent her from walking. Easy, one step at a time, she could return… if only she knew which way to go!
While trying to figure out the correct path, a rustling sound came from the bushes. It scared her! There were wolves in these woods; bears, too. She turned around apprehensively, and saw – a cat! A beautiful, black cat with a white spot on her chest. In her warm, yellow eyes flickered the flame of some nearby, welcoming fireplace.
“Where did you come from?” she breathed in wonder, knowing that the cat could understand a word or two. Her cats at home were exceptionally intelligent.
The cat meowed a puzzling reply.
“Where do you live, kitty?” she asked. “Where is your home? Home? Zu Haus?”
The cat turned her back slowly, raised her tail and moved along what seemed like an untrodden path, left and down from the waterfall. She hesitated, but the cat turned her head and looked at her expectantly.
I’ll follow her, she thought. She seems to know what she’s doing.
And so they trudged through the snow.
Step by step. The cat and the old mountain-climber.
When she would feel pain in her leg and stopped to rest, the cat stopped too, waiting patiently. And then another step… and another…
Steadily, downwards, to the first houses of Jochberg, right when darkness fell around them, and the moon showed its fresh, joyful face.
On entering the village, the cat leaped without a warning and disappeared into the junipers. She didn’t even get the chance to thank her, but she felt the cat knew very well how much she owed her. Not only her life, but something much, much greater…
Drenched from the snow, she arrived at the boarding-house she was staying at, and the stout, heavyset mistress welcomed her in tears, embracing her tightly, telling her she was scared out of her wits. She said she was ready to call the mountain service. Then she grabbed her, took off her shoes, helped her take off the drenched jacket and dragged her over to the fireplace, then gave her tea and a blanket, telling her all the while that she should change immediately, otherwise she could catch a cold.
She was moved by how concerned this woman was. It made her think. After finally changing her clothes, sitting by the fire with a cup of tea in her hand, the swollen leg rubbed with ointments, carefully bandaged and raised on a stool, she started thinking about what just happened.
About the miracle, the true, true miracle.
Some things in life cannot be explained, my Jovan, she thought. Sometimes we need an experience like this in order to realize just how unpredictable things are, and how little influence we have.
She sank into the comfortable armchair. She would have dinner, then go to bed. The next day she would sleep in, no rush. Nowhere. She would never rush again. She decided to stay a bit longer, here in Jochberg. Perhaps a couple days more, perhaps even longer.
Life doesn’t want plans, love, she heard Jovan’s voice somewhere within her, from the swirl of memories. Surrender to it: only then will you know what it means to live fully.
She was sitting in the bus, looking out the window. In fact, she was looking more at her own reflection in the window than outside it. They passed by the same old buildings, streets and sidewalks as always when she came home, although, she had to admit, they were quite spellbinding in the evenings.
Still, she preferred to look at herself, study her features, how they matched her hair, makeup, jewelry, even her clothes. She still found this game amusing.
They were at a bus stop. People were getting on and off, and the bus emptied a little. People rarely looked at her. Fortunately, here, in this city, almost no one looked at anyone else. Of course, they didn’t even notice her, just like they didn’t notice anyone or anything. They were too absorbed in their own isolated, selfish worlds. It suited her. She liked that cold selfishness and practiced it.
Back home, it was quite a different matter. Back there, had she gone out spruced up like this, everyone would notice, gaze at her, check her out, comment on her provocative outfit and heavy makeup. Almost everyone she’d meet would badmouth her, some of them could be rude, others downright aggressive. That is why she refused to dress like this in her hometown, trying not to attract too much attention. But, that was at home. The place where she had no intention of ever coming back. The bus moved on. Its swaying made her sleepy. She knew she wouldn’t doze off, but inadvertently let her thoughts go someplace they were not allowed: her deeply suppressed childhood memories, where there also was a bus.
They were going on a school trip. The other children were screaming, laughing, shouting to each other, teasing one another… the others, but not him. He always sat crumpled in some corner, inconspicuous.
Inside the bus, he sat near the driver and the teachers, glued to the window, hoping nobody would notice his existence, or start to mock him, insult him, push or kick him around. They called him a wimp, a sissy, a coward… jeered at him for not being good at soccer and hanging out with girls.
Wussy, they shouted at him, girl! Ha, ha, ha, girl, girl!
He couldn’t understand why they were laughing at him. What was so bad about being a girl? He couldn’t even grasp why he couldn’t be a girl. In fact, his grandma, perhaps the only person that got him, told him when he was very little:
“Look at my handsome boy, pretty as a doll! Ah, you should’ve been born a girl. You really should’ve, my sweet little angel.”
When she caressed him like this, he hugged and kissed her. Also, she was the only one who would let him play with dolls in secret. But, his grandma passed away last year, so now there was nobody who could actually understand him.
He was confused, alone, unable to answer any of the questions that whirled in his mind.
No one to answer them for him, either.
The bus halted at the next stop. She looked out the window. There were three more stops on the way home. A long time. Scary long. She feared the memories that brought back the bitterness, weakness and pain she thought she had done away with. Even so, they haunted her less and less, and she felt free and secure more and more each day.
Again she gazed at her reflection in the window, only this time, another face gazed back. A face she thought she had almost forgotten.
He was standing in front of the mirror. He had been playing this game since he was little: donning his mother’s clothes, applying makeup, putting on all kinds of jewelry, and then looking at himself into the mirror for a long, long time, studying every bit of his face and body.
He felt tremendously excited while doing it. Nothing else in his life thrilled him as much.
Still, he was very cautious. He did it only when he was alone, knowing he was safe. These solitary, furtive moments were perhaps the only time when he felt secure, but there was something more to it.
He felt happy then. He was his own. He knew who and what he was, what he had always been. While obsessing over his own reflection, he didn’t notice the bedroom door open. He realized what was happening only when his mother and father stood next to him, shocked, dismayed, furious.
“What’s wrong with you? Why are you dressed as a woman? What is that on your face? What are you, a faggot? I don’t want to see you like this ever again, got that? Ever! Go to the bathroom, quick, straighten up and get normal.
Normal. This was normal to him. Those other things, they didn’t feel normal. How could he ever explain to them?
From this day on, he wasn’t sure who he feared more, his peers at school or his parents. The former abused him, and the latter ignored him.
He felt perturbed, hurt, disappointed, lost… Shallow as a cocoon that lets out a gorgeous butterfly, and the butterfly leaves it to dry out and disappear. Why couldn’t he be the butterfly?
She realized she was no longer looking at her reflection, but the buildings and people passing by. She didn’t want to remember these things. They were bad memories. From the time before she realized she was a butterfly. The time when she was still forced to think of herself as a boy, even though she felt differently. Deep inside, she always knew she was a girl, a beautiful, tender butterfly.
It was good to have left these memories far behind, back home. And now, this was home. Here, she finally found herself.
When she first came to the city, she still wore male clothes. Then she started leading a double life. During the day, she was a quiet, unassuming boy; in the evening, she turned into a gorgeous nocturnal butterfly, queen of the night, a beauty. Then, she lived exactly how she wanted, allowing herself all these happy moments.
At first, she dreaded a possible incident, like the one at home… the one she refused to remember, the most hideous memory of all, disgusting, humiliating, painful…
the heels clattering on the cobblestones… the insecurity… the gloom… the looks from other people… threathening… she speeds up, almost running… the heels clatter on the cobblestones… breathes heavily…
Don’t think about it, don’t think about it, don’t think about it!
they are following him… running after him… they are faster, gaining on him… grab him… hands, grabbing him…
No, I don’t want to remember, I don’t want to, I don’t want to…
fists… punches… blood… lots of blood… feet… kicked with feet… in his stomach… everywhere… blood… lots of blood… in his mouth… eyes… all over…
The bus halted abruptly, screeching and shaking. The passengers started yelling. This brought her back to reality.
“What happened?” shouted an agitated old woman in the back.
“Nothing serious, it’s all good”, said someone in the front seats.
“Did someone run in front of the bus?” the old woman kept asking. “A child, maybe?”
“No, it was a cat. A black cat. She got away, she’ll be fine.”
Oh God, I hope it ‘s not… no , no way. Enough with these thoughts already. I have to clear my head, right now!
She decided to get off right then and there. She wanted to breathe the air, walk around, not let herself go back ever again. Never go back to her memories, never go back home.
She got to her feet and hurried out the door, a split second before it closed. She kept walking down the street, headed for the apartment. She was truly happy that no one took notice of her, a fact that proved itself day after day, even now, while strolling along the sidewalk. She felt better, and even smiled.
Things were slowly coming into place, once she got outside in the fresh air.
Entering her apartment, she became a different woman altogether. Cheerful and satisfied with her life. She loved this city, loved these people, but most of all, loved Her. She owed everything to Her. From the moment they met, through all stages of transformation, until, with all the daily support and encouragement , she became what she was now. Yes, she owed her everything she was, everything she became after coming here, everything she did and everything she had.
She felt the urge to tell her this, now, tonight. Not that she didn’t already know it, not that she hadn’t told her a million times before, it’s just – she wanted to tell her again.
She wasn’t in the living room, so she went quietly to the bedroom. She peeped through the door and spotted her sleeping, curled up on the bed.
“I knew you’d be here, sleepyhead”, she whispered, then lied gently next to her and started patting her. The black cat raised her head drowsily and looked at her with those bright yellow, otherworldly eyes.
“Oooh, you got up, miss Sith”, she kept cooing while scratching her head. “I wanted to tell you something, but seeing you look at me like this, I know it won’t be necessary, am I right?”
The black cat wagged her tail. Once, twice.
“I knew it”, she said, beaming, then took the cat in her arms and hugged her tightly. “What would I do without you!”
Outside, in the sky above, the Moon fully entered the shadow of the Earth.
The total eclipse lasted exactly 99 minutes.
translated by Vladimir Stojanovski