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.