Luiza Bouharaoua (1985, Croatia) is a writer and a translator. She is the founder and coordinator of the Association for the Promotion of Literature and Culture Skribonauti, where she develops cultural and artistic programs for marginalised groups. She leads a reading club and a creative writing workshop at a women’s penitentiary. In 2016, she founded the Kino Sloboda interactive prison cinema program aimed at developing film literacy among marginalized groups. She produced the documentary Free Weekend, created at a documentary film workshop at a penitentiary, and the short documentary The Right to Work: The Way We Left It, winner of the Ethics and Human Rights Award, as well as the short animated film Hell Lemonade. Bouharaoua’s short stories have been published in various magazines and included in anthologies. She is the recipient of the Ticket for a Short Story Award and the Prozak Award.
– What’s your name?
– How old are you, Daniel?
– Are you related to Mrs Mara Radić?
– What’s your relationship with her nephew, Dalibor Radić?
– What’s your relationship with Goran Abazić?
– Do you have other flatmates apart from him?
– How long has Tomislava Popić lived in the flat?
– What’s your relationship with her?
– It’s important because you are under investigation.
– Have you had anything to drink for lunch?
– How much did you drink?
– Do you drink often?
– Are you usually aggressive when you drink?
It was May, and yet it was snowing. I was the one making it snow. Everywhere around me fluffy blossoms, delicate and ready to fly silently away at my slightest movement and turn white both the ground and Dado who had just peeked through the tree crown. I shook a branch and a blizzard of petals plummeted on his face. With his index finger he pushed the one that had fallen straight on his right eyelid.
– Please, talk to me. I didn’t say anything.
– Daniel, please.
– How did you know where to find me?
Dado pointed at Mara’s black cat sitting in the grass to his right.
– Leave me alone, both you and her!
The branches beneath me started to tremble. White, soft snowflakes were now falling on my face and blurring my vision. When I could see again, Dado was already sitting next to me.
– This is the only part of the orchard where the ground looks as if it’s been snowing. That’s how I knew.
I was silent.
– I used to sit here like this.
– When? – he knew I couldn’t hold out.
– The Wednesday they found out.
You think that removing all the evidence and hiding will erase what happened. That memories will chase away time and oblivion will fall over you as silently as the snow, like these petals. But they won’t. Because 16 years later Wednesday will come and mother will run away from you to the kitchen, and you will run away from her by bus. Not one, but two different buses full of strangers secretly staring at your tearful face, and you will ride and then walk and then run until you arrive at this orchard. Then you will climb a tree and weep hidden in its crown until the blossoms paint the ground white.
You will hide just like you hid the fact that eight years ago, by accident and without premeditation, you found a box for size 35 shoes from which you pulled out a picture of a boy who didn’t look like you but did look like someone else. In that face you recognised your mother’s nose, your father’s eyes, a whole life that happened before you, mysterious and unfamiliar to you as the malignant disease that suddenly cut it short. And everything you found you will keep inside as if you were a box and then you’ll be silent. On weekends, holidays, normal days. You will be silent together with your parents, but still miles away from them. And you will have chewed on your solitude patiently like a dog until that Wednesday when your mother would come into your room and look away in disgust. From you, from the two of you, from the kiss you had just been given. The kiss that you don’t feel he is guilty for, but you know that he must be because you have seen the horror flash in her pupils. And it will take time for you to accept that it is wrong for her for the same reason it is right for you – because it was Stipe who gave it. You will not hear her cry, she always does that in silence, you will only hear her mutter from the deep, as if from the cellar:
– I’ve lost my good child.
Petals will be showering from the branches covering the road like snow in the middle of summer, and you will shake them from your hair, climb down the tree and start walking through the orchard towards Mara. Mara, who will be waiting for you at the door and who has already made the bed for you. She will look you in the eye, stroke your cheek and say:
– I know why you are here.
Do you understand? At some point, you’ll be able to climb down. Until then we’ll stay put. If need be, we’ll spend the night in the treetop.
– How did you get hold of a cold weapon?
– Why was such a big knife on the table?
– What were Goran Abazić and Tomislava Popić doing at that moment?
– Where were Dalibor and Mara Radić at that moment?
– Why did you throw yourself at Goran Abazić?
– What’s the relationship between Tomislava Popić and Goran Abazić?
– Sit down or we’ll have to restrain you!
– If you’re going to be sick, my colleague will take you to the lavatory.
– But how did she know?
– Daniel, the police are looking for you.
I blew at a branch and followed the winding fall of the petals to the ground:
– Let them look. I want to know how Mara knew you were coming.
– You want a logical explanation or the local legend?
– My parents must have called her.
– And the legend?
– Legend has it that Mara can simply predict some things. It started when she was seven, the summer her mother fell from a tree while she was picking cherries in this orchard. A branch snapped under her, and she fell to the ground like a stone. My grandmother, Mara’s sister, claimed until the day she died that mother was still climbing the tree when Mara poked her in the rib and whispered: – Run and fetch the doctor.
From that day on, she would never miss a child or death arriving to a house, always a step ahead of the doctor and the priest. That’s the legend.
– You believe that your great-grandaunt is some kind of oracle?
– The village believes what the village believes. I believe in my aunt.
– But how did she know about me? Dado looked away.
– How did she know what I was going to see?
The scent of pulled out rosemary and sage that grow freely in the driveway. The vegetable garden where before dawn Mara picked the first ripe tomatoes, fragrant green peppers and purple onions still warm from the soil’s embrace, whose sweetness we are now grabbing with gossamer white bread and are shoving into our mouths with soft meat. We have swallowed the words together with the plants and animals and are now soaking them in sharp wine. All this is splashing about in my stomach like a fish, like an ominous sign I don’t know how to interpret.
Goran and Tomislava are begging Mara to tell them their future, this morning in the village they heard that she was the best. Dado laughs, Mara adjusts the black scarf on her head, crossing herself and laughing at the kids she thought were smart and educated and yet they fell for some village nonsense. Her watery eyes are calming me down, it seems that they are the only ones sensing the ominous fish splashing about inside me. She agrees to the game and takes us behind the house one by one. I am the last one whose muddy coffee cup is turned upside down by her warm fingers, dark as the soil they work every morning. She peers into its darkness and says something short and cryptic and I shuffle it under my tongue as I sit down at the table again.
Her black cat approaches me meandering sleekly between my calves. I tear a piece of meat off the bone and offer it to her, but she backs up until she has lured me under the table. Under the table all legs are motionless like a tree trunk with a leafy crown above us, only two of them on the opposite side of the table leaning against each other, two hands sprouting out of them with fingers intertwined like branches. The cat grabs her piece of meat and chews on it greedily, but I am the one with a lump in my throat.
Above the table, Goran and Tomislava are not even looking at each other. Mara brings out a large baking tin with a cake bleeding with the first strawberries and next to it places a big silver knife that glistens in the sun like a camera flash.
– A photo of you two in front of the cinema. His hand tentatively resting on your shoulder, a barely visible smile stretched across your lips. You two frozen, scared as deer in the headlights, because you know it is obvious. You two lovers. Immediately – or just after – I scream or I think I do.
Hands, just like mine, are grabbing the knife from the tin trying to rip the photograph blocking my view, to slash with a single precise cut stop both it and the deafening rustle in the branches that prevents me from understanding what Dado is yelling, and how am I supposed to understand when I am already charging down the path to the orchard. In front of me, Goran, enveloped in the white dust rising from the gravel, behind me, Tomislava’s face, distorted with a painful grimace, and Dado, pushing her into Mara’s arms and running after me.
The mist on the ground, endless rows of blossoming cherry trees, clouds. Everything is white, while inside me crimson bitterness is boiling, pushing through to my throat, knocking me down to the ground and letting this ripe secret out into the innocence of fallen petals.
– Are you feeling better? One more question then.
– How did you come to know the nature of relationship between Goran Abazić and Tomislava Popić?
– My colleague will now take you to Mara Radić.
– No further action. Neither Abazić nor Popić were wounded. They both insisted that we don’t prosecute you further, and we are under no official obligation to do so.
– Listen to me. It’s neither time nor place for pride. Go to the Radić’s. We’ll book it as a breach of the peace.
– How did she know?
Dado threw me over his right shoulder like a wounded animal. White petals falling from my hair were sprinkling the path.
– I see a table. Under that table you will mess up your life and then put it back together.
Dado didn’t say a thing.
– She said she saw a table and then her cat lured me under the table.
– I heard you the first time.
He was striding through the orchard. I pushed myself with both palms on his back and straightened up. Mara’s cat was still following us.
– Stop fidgeting. You’re even heavier when you’re drunk like this, you fool. A sudden jolt of his knee broke my grip and in a second my entire upper body was dangling down his back.
I couldn’t hear anything but the gravel crushing under Dado’s shoes.
– H-O-W did she know?
Everything I had seen had at that moment swopped places. A second before I crashed into the ground, Dado grabbed me by my shoulders and stood me up.
Darkness was descending over the orchard and everything around us was slowly turning cerulean blue, except for the white blossoms glowing in the dusk like fresh pristine snow. The outlines of Dado’s face, his willowy movements, his shiny black hair, it was all slowly drowning in the dark blue of the sky. I could only make out Dado’s shiny cat’s eyes: two green spotlights with pupils, like knives dividing them in two.
– How did she know, Dado?
The ominous fish in my belly was calming down.
– I told her to tell you.