Lana Bastašić, born 1986 in Zagreb, is a Bosnian writer. She studied English Language and Literature and holds an MA degree in Cultural Studies. She has published two collections of short stories, a book of children’s stories, and a collection of poetry. Catch the Rabbit, her first novel, was published in 2018 in Belgrade and was shortlisted for the NIN Award. Her short stories have been included in major anthologies throughout former Yugoslavia. She won the Best Short Story Award at the Zija Dizdarević Literary Competition in Fojnica, Bosnia; the Jury Award at the ‘Carver: Where I’m Calling From’ short story festival in Podgorica, Montenegro; the Best Short Story Award at the ‘Ulaznica’ festival in Zrenjanin, Serbia; Best Play by a Bosnian Playwright Award at the competition organized by Kamerni Teatar 55 in Sarajevo, the first award for best unpublished poetry collection in Zrenjanin, and the Targa UNESCO Prize for poetry at the Castello di Duino festival in Trieste, Italy. In 2016 she co-founded Escola Bloom with Borja Bagunyà and co-edits the school’s literary magazine Carn de cap. She lives and works in Barcelona.
Photo by Milan Ilić/RAS
Catch the Rabbit
[She never wanted to talk about her brother. But that night something was different, something broke inside her like a feeble straw fence. It was the first Monday after college graduation, one of those weeks when your life is supposed to start, or at least another stage of it. I had waited for the whole weekend to feel different. Nothing happened. Like someone had sold me bad weed.
We were sitting on the couch in her room. Stray cats howled painfully in the streets.
‘Twenty marks,’ she said, stroking the brown plush-cover that stretched teasingly between her and me. ‘The man came and changed it.’
‘What color was it before?’ I asked. It must have been the hundredth time I was in her room, yet I couldn’t recall that couch in any other shade but brown.
‘Beige, of course,’ she said. ‘Don’t you remember?’
To me this was unacceptable: she and beige. She was never a person for beige. Those people are silent and ordinary. I didn’t dare ask for other colors that, I was sure, stained the pale couch during the years I hadn’t visited. I was quiet most of the time. Nervous. After that day on the island she had stopped talking to me. Three years of college without a single word from her. And now, out of nowhere, I was there on her couch, given in to the first call, embarrassingly ready to accept anything.
We were drinking wine, even though I didn’t feel like alcohol. Lejla poured me a full glass and said firmly, yet gently, ‘Drink.’ And so I drank. Wine or something else, I can’t remember. I only know her black-haired 10 head was surprisingly heavy on my shoulder. I say black because to me she has always been the scruffy raven from high school, regardless of all the bleach she now used as camouflage. I remember her eyes flickered with the reflection of a tiny window and the thick darkness spilled behind it. I remember her handsome brother observing us from the only photograph in the room. Time had faded his cheeks, his sky, and his swimming trunks. And what else? What more? What was the carpet like? Did she even have a carpet? Did the ceiling still have that hideous lamp with fake black pearls she had bought in Dalmatia? Or had she gotten rid of that? How should I know? It doesn’t matter. I can’t explain Lejla by describing her room. It would be like describing an apple using mathematics. I can only remember her heavy head and how her painted toenail peeked through the hole on her sock. I remember her brother. If it hadn’t been for that photo, there would have been no life in that room.
Her mother kept banging with pots in the kitchen. A bit of wall separated us. I think I said something stupid, something that seemed funny at the moment, like aren’t you too old to have a mother in the kitchen? or something like that, and that Lejla smiled benignly – after all, I had one too. It seems like our town was that way back then – full of grown children and slouching, gray-haired mothers.
Why had I come that night? I wanted to ignore her and not jump at the first bone. But that morning she had found her rabbit dead on the cold bathroom tiles. I say cold – someone will correct that someday. They will say I wasn’t there to touch them, how do I know they were cold? But I know a bit about that rabbit of hers, and the bathroom, and those fingers always going towards the 38th Celsius. I know she was probably wearing those puffy apricot-colored slippers and that she crouched to touch the corpse. I know she thought corpse. I can see the bruises on her bony knees.
He never had an official name. He was Hare, Rabbit or Bunny, depending on Lejla’s mood. I remember we buried him in her backyard, under the old cherry tree, which she claimed was radioactive. It was the first time I was burying an animal.
‘That’s not true. What about your turtles?’ she asked me almost desperately. I remember how her hands were full of her dead Rabbit and how she held him, like precious dowry, in a blue garbage bag.
‘The turtles don’t count,’ I said. ‘They were like 5-6 centimeters across, like uštipci. A couple of moves. That hardly counts as serious undertaker’s experience.’
‘So, what are we gonna do?’
The neighbor lent us a shovel thinking we were planting strawberries. It wasn’t a big tool, just a toy for adults really, lighter than hand. It took me forever to dig a hole big enough. I wanted to reproach her for the size of the corpse, but I swallowed my criticism that day. She looked small and frightened, as if she had fallen out of some nest prematurely.
We laid the bag with Bunny in the little vault. Minute roots crawled up from the earth, embracing the corpse with their thin fingers, and then pulled it deep down into their cold womb. When it was over, I laid two white stones on the ground to mark the grave, which quite expectedly made her roll her eyes.
‘Go on, say something,’ she said.
‘Whatever. You built him a monument, so a couple of words are in order.’
‘You’re the poet.’
How vicious, I thought. One pretty lousy poetry collection and now I was supposed to deliver eulogies to poisoned rabbits. But given the lost look in her eyes and her white hands sadly emptied of her Bunny, I coughed and, staring blandly at the two silent stones, pulled out the appropriate lines from some past life or other:
‘Speak low and little.
So I don’t hear you.
Especially about how smart I was.
What did I want? My hands are empty,
they lie sad on the cover.
What did I think about? On my lips, dryness and estrangement.
Did I live anything?
Oh, how sweetly I slept!’
And that’s when she cried, I think. Perhaps it was me, I’m not sure. It was dark; perhaps her eyes just sparkled in the streetlight. If she is reading this, she will be pissed; she will call me a sentimental cow, because she never cries. Whatever the case, the verses did the work – they closed an unmarked chapter better than a mere college degree.
My conscience was bothering me because I had made her believe the poem was mine. But in that moment, with dead Hare under the ground and Lejla above it, any idea of authorship made little sense to me. Verses were like runaway brides, free from Alvaro de Campos – who never existed in the first place, just like those strawberries – free from Lejla and me, free from the heap of cold earth with two stone eyes, free to be in one moment, and in the next to stop.
I can’t remember whether we returned the shovel to the neighbor, whether we said anything else or not. I only know that later that night her 13 head was heavy on my inappropriate shoulder and how I cursed both that shoulder and the brown cover which hardened into asphalt between us. We were looking at her pale brother inside four paper edges while her mother banged on in the kitchen.
Lejla said, ‘She still has a photo of Tito. It’s in the pantry, behind the turšija jar. If you look closely, you can see his eye between two pieces of paprika.’
I laughed, though I didn’t feel like it. I always found them unbearable – those silent nostalgiacs and the sinewy bubble in which they go on living their better, happier versions in some country where strawberries grow forever and rabbits don’t die. A country they could describe as perfect because they deprived us of the possibility to confirm that claim. I have heard her mother many more times than I have seen her. That night was the same. After a while, the pots went quiet – she laid her trombones down.
Lejla looked at the books lying on the shelf next to the photo of her brother, shut her made-up lids and whispered: ‘I watched it die.’
I looked at her in confusion. She opened her eyes and, noticing my lost expression, laughed and said, ‘One point for me.’ When she realized that I still didn’t understand what was going on, she rolled her eyes and added, ‘It is swollen now, like a corpse.’ That’s when I understood. It was our private game: one of us would spit out a forgotten quote from some of the books in sight, and the other would have to guess the title. But I couldn’t understand why she remembered our almost forgotten ritual at that moment. We had played with quotes at the beginning of college, back when we thought it was enough to say smart words so that people would think you understood them. But we were no longer those people. College was out of our lives – for me like a lover I had overestimated for four years, for her like a painful vaccine someone else had told her was necessary. It is swollen now, like a corpse was no longer the same sentence, just like we were no longer 14 the same kids. To Lejla, that game had always been just a fancier version of hide and seek. ‘Words are empty anyway,’ she had once told me during a Morphology exam. But that night she needed words, at least like placebo, so I followed the rules obligingly.
‘No, it has not shrunk,’ I whispered, ‘cold and empty it looks much bigger than before.’
‘Dark,’ Lejla said.
‘Dark and empty.’
‘Yes… Dark and empty. The Travelogues.’
Once I had offered the satisfying answer and she nodded in acceptance, I closed my eyes and pressed her warm hand as if to save it from the brown plush and its charlatan, beige past. It calmed me to see that she was still able to play, to resurrect quotes from some books she pretended not to like and share them with me as if she hadn’t ignored me for three years. I wasn’t angry. I was happy she could still believe in beauty after she had witnessed death crucified across bathroom tiles.
That was the first time she asked me that vile question.
‘When are you gonna write a poem about me?’
I opened my eyes and sat up straight. I had known her longer than I had my period and this surprised me anyway.
‘I’m sure you still write them. After that morbid book. Right? Admit it,’ she said, suddenly making me feel ashamed, as if writing poetry was the same as hiding a bottle of rakija in a paper bag and sleeping under a bridge.
‘I do,’ I said. It was past ten p.m. The pots from the kitchen had long gone quiet. I knew I should have gone home after the funeral. Nothing good can happen after you bury somebody’s pet.
‘So, why don’t you write a poem about me? What’s wrong with me?’
‘And what am I,’ I asked, ‘fucking Balašević1?’
I felt bad about it later. I should have said yeah, sure, she would have forgotten after a couple of days that she ever asked, or would have laughed her silly request off, adding she’d rather rot dead than play someone’s Muse. But I couldn’t help it. Not that my poetry was any good, but Lejla’s absence from that part of my life – the way she had diligently ignored the whole endeavor including promotions, reviews and awards – hurt like a dangerous pile in the middle of my body. No, I wouldn’t let her get away with this. Even if she had buried her mother that day, she wouldn’t humiliate me in such a banal way. Anyone else, a beggar in the street, could have asked the same thing, and I would have believed his request was genuine. But not her. For Lejla, life was a rabid fox coming at night to steal your poultry. Writing about life meant to stare at the slaughtered chicken the next day, never being able to catch the beast at its crime. Above all, it seems like she could never grasp why anyone in their right mind would sit down and write poems. Even less so, why I, in that place and that time, would ever choose to spend my nights that way. And now, after a lifelong policy of demeaning the only somewhat successful attempt in my altogether unspectacular life, she is sitting there, on her fake-brown couch, with her fake-blonde hair, insulting me. Well, hell no.
‘Geez, Sara,’ she said and stood up.
‘I was joking.’ She wasn’t angry, just tired. If you ask Lejla, poetry isn’t even worth fighting over. She went to the shelf, took the photo of her brother and wiped the glass with the end of her sleeve.
‘He didn’t wanna draw me, either,’ she said, putting the photo back to its place. Then she looked at me all wide-eyed as if she had suddenly remembered something.
‘Have I ever told you how he touched a painting?’
I was quiet, all of a sudden completely pointless on her couch, the way one slipper loses its point entirely when it’s not paired up. She obviously didn’t need an interlocutor, only an ear to empty herself into, like an animal before it’s stuffed. She said he. The first time after that terrible day on the island.
‘I don’t remember it,’ she went on, ‘I was too little. But mom’s told me the story a thousand times. We were in some museum. Armin was seven or eight, I think. I don’t know. Anyway, he stood on tiptoe and touched the painting. But really… Fingers on the painting, you know? And then the whole show – the alarm went off, the guards running around, our parents freaking out…’
I was sitting on the couch saying nothing. After all, what could I say? What could anyone say? The fox had already run away, I couldn’t catch it. All of a sudden words seemed false, expired, like stiff-dry makeup on an old woman’s face.
‘But, what matters is that Bunny got his epilogue,’ she said and shrugged, cutting the whole story about death, poetry and protected paintings. She was a simple girl again – the one that wouldn’t ask for a nine in an exam, the one who prefers to drink her beer and not talk too much. A blonde girl in plastic slippers who could joke about the rabbit that, I remember clearly, she used to love more than people. A girl who doesn’t know that Vienna is swollen like a corpse, who doesn’t talk about her brother. Someone’s frail, dumb Muse. I couldn’t stand her.
I said it was getting late and it was time for me to get going. Her mother had probably gone to bed already. She stared at me for a while – her eyes creeping about my face, from my lips to my eyebrows, as if I would change my mind if she looked long enough. I would stay, drink her wine, write her a poem – she only has to tug at the leash a bit. When nothing 17 happened, when she realized I had really made up my mind to go home, her eyes fell off my face like a sheet falling off a statue. She walked to the door, opened it and said, I think, I’m almost certain, though later she claimed it wasn’t like that, ‘Go fuck yourself.’
I finished my wine, or whatever else was in that glass, in one sip and left Lejla’s room. I reached my house too soon, so I just kept on walking, as if I hadn’t recognized my own front door. I walked for a long time, listening to crickets in unattended hedges and wondering where moles were hiding that night and whether it was true what they said about big venomous snakes by the river. I walked until all the churches tolled five o’clock and, it seems, long after that. I walked until twelve years later I reached St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin, pulled the cellphone from my coat and said her name. Yes, I mean your name. Then I stopped.]
1 A popular singer-songwriter from former Yugoslavia. Many of his songs are dedicated to women he
Translated by Lana Bastašić