Senka Marić writes poetry, prose and essays. She has published three collections of poetry: Odavde do nigdje, To su samo riječi and Do smrti naredne, and the novel Kintsugi tijela. She has won several literary awards, including the European Knight of Poetry Award in 2013, the Zija Dizdarević Award in 2000, and the 2019 Meša Selimović Award for the best novel published in 2018 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro. She is the editor of the internet portal for literature, culture and art strane.ba.
Body Kintsugi – Senka Marić
The summer of 2014 was shaped by three events.
On 17 June, just a few days after that afternoon you’d spent sitting on your king-size bed in which the two of you hadn’t slept together for over a year, in silence interrupted by the odd weary word, your husband packed his clothes into two large gym bags. You brought him one more from the store room and packed two sets of single bed linen, a pillow, a terry blanket, three small and two large towels. As you zipped it up, you thought about the coming winter. You returned to the store room, where you spent five minutes looking for a big plastic bag in which you stuffed a quilt. The hall was blocked with things. A few times he made to say something. Each time he changed his mind the moment he saw you arms akimbo, breathing deeply. He managed to pick up all three bags. Eyes cast down, hurrying down the stairs to the taxi that was already waiting for him in the street. After that you sat long in solitude in front of that bare wall and slowly realised that he hadn’t left behind a feeling of emptiness, only a sense of defeat.
On 15 July your left shoulder started to hurt. It hurt the most at night. You couldn’t sleep, so you sat on the bed and cried. It turned out you had calcific tendonitis – a jagged deposit of calcium which sores the surrounding tissue, causing an inflammation. The doctor said the only thing to do now was to take painkillers and wait for it to cease. And you hated waiting. And you hated medications. They were at odds with your need to control everything, with your inability to trust anyone enough to ask for help. You kept reducing your dosage. You took half the prescribed quantity. That sweltering July there was nothing in your world but pain. It was the dust settling on your time which refused to pass. You wore a shawl around your neck. To sling your left arm in. Lest it move. To make it hurt as little as possible. You could only think about how you were stronger than the pain. More tenacious. It will pass, I will remain. For a bit you thought about how unlucky you’d been, how bad things had been coming in a succession for years now. Incessantly. Maybe it was because you thought you could take it, you were stronger than all of that? If you’d screamed: Enough! would everything have stopped? Would the wheel grinding everything in its path have gone off the collision course with your life? It was night. It was hot. Kids were asleep. The moment was perfect for crying. For screaming: Enough! Enough, all right! But deep inside you didn’t believe. You knew you could take more.
It is 26 August. It hurts a bit less. You even manage to sleep. You have to be very careful whilst you lie in bed. A single wrong move could send you into agony. When you turn from your right to your left side to fix your shoulder in place, with your left hand you grab yourself firmly below the right armpit. A part of your palm lies on your right breast. As your body turns, slowly, over your back and onto your left haunch, your palm glides back. Your fingers, pressed into your flesh, move across your right breast. And then you feel it. There, to the side, on the edge of your breast, almost hard by. Like a pebble that found its way into your bathing suit top.
You lower your hand. You’re lying on your back. Staring at the ceiling. You don’t feel the pain in your shoulder, just your heart beating in your throat. You sit up and touch it again. It’s still there, moving slightly under your fingers. You remove your hand again and lie on your back. You can’t close your eyes. You don’t even blink. They are agape, swallowing the ceiling. The house changes shape and size. It bends. Flows into your eyes. And with it the city, the surrounding hills, the river trying to flow away from the city, the sea, mile after mile of land, the entire continent rolled up like a paper cone full of hot, sooty chestnuts, till there’s nothing left but the dead, black sky.
But I must’ve got it wrong!
You sit up and feel it again. Your breath fills the room. Bounces off the walls. Breaks the summer night into the day. The round lump withdraws under pressure (the feel of it is forever imprinted in the memory of your fingers). The panic is mud. It fills your mouth. The night swallows you.
You decide to smash the image. Like a mirror hit with a stone. It leaves behind nothing but a smouldering sense that you’re not yet even aware of what has been taken away from you.
Your breathing slows down, becomes inaudible. You say: Now you will sleep. You won’t think of anything. It’s easy. Your thoughts are too scattered anyway. You’re in a place that is above words, their meaning and sense. You distinctly feel only your skin, a membrane you share with the world. You sleep, never so deeply, never so completely, until the next morning, when you discover that the lump in your tit has supplanted the pain in your shoulder.
How does one begin to tell a story that crumbles under the tongue and refuses to solidify?
You knew you would get cancer on the day your mother was diagnosed sixteen years ago, didn’t you?
Since the day your mother was diagnosed sixteen years ago you’ve been convinced you would never get cancer, haven’t you?
Both statements are equally true. The dots falling in place to capture that moment which transpired so long ago are two sequences that form a perfect oval shape, parsing the linear logic of time. Two parallel realities, one of which becomes real only when it reaches its destination. You knew you would get it and you were convinced you never would. The present retroactively renders the past true. You are imprisoned in a reality which refuses to admit that it could have ever been otherwise.
So, you were a sad child? Seems that way now. You had everything, but you could never escape the feeling that everything was a bit off, that there was something dark and oppressive lurking in all things. Still, all that time you thought you knew you’d be happy someday. Because you were meant to be happy. In a world in which happiness doesn’t exist.
Is it possible to pin down the point which cuts into the flesh of time, setting the trajectory which leads you to this moment?
You’re little. You’re sitting under the desk in your granddad’s study. You don’t remember if you’re trying to hide. You don’t know what happened before or after. You’re wearing a red-green plaid dress and thick tights. You feel dirty. Bad. The tights are white. Traitorous grey stains can be seen on the feet. Your hair is brown. Now you’re not quite sure, but it may have been greasy and clumpy. The image melts into the image of a cat emerging from a dark cellar. You wouldn’t want to touch it. Yet, the girl under the desk (is it really you?) is longing for touch. Granddad’s room is on the ground floor. The kitchen and the sitting room are upstairs. Everyone is upstairs all the time. Why are you downstairs, alone? Especially seeing that you’re afraid of the Gypsy man who will come to steal you. He looks like Sandokan, and he’s monochromatic. He’s a strange black-and-white figure which sneaks into your house, hides behind the screen under the stairwell, waiting for you. From Granddad’s room you can hop out straight onto the stairs. Sandokan the Gypsy can’t reach you. You run upstairs. Nan is up in the kitchen. The pressure cooker hisses. Pots clatter. Heavy aroma of food. You don’t want soup. You don’t want anything. Nan moves swiftly, juggling pots and plates. She’s twirling in her blue sleeveless dress. She can’t see you. But her presence makes you feel better.
In your memory, of the whole house, only the kitchen stands untouched. Like a spire atop a magic castle. One entire wall is glazed. Light glares. You’ll never forget the silence and darkness raging down below. You’re even dirtier in the light.
You didn’t open your eyes immediately. You lay there. You waited. You thought if you kept them shut everything would just go away. You could hear birds and you thought you were happy it was summer and the window panes didn’t sequester you from the world. You got up, went to the bathroom and showered a long time. At first the hand steered clear of the spot. You thought maybe it wasn’t there, maybe it was all a mistake. You would phone your friends. You would go for a morning coffee. You would drink wine instead, or whisky, or cherry liqueur, doesn’t matter. You would toast loudly. Laugh at the stray bullet that whizzed just wide of your head.
The lump is still there. Unyieldingly present. More supple than last night. Dancing under the wet skin.
You take a violet dress from the wardrobe, one of your nicest, strapless, no shoulders. It flows over your beautiful, firm breasts all the way down to your knees. You tie your hair in a ponytail. You put on make-up. You think that you’re beautiful. You look at the kids sleeping, drunk on the August heat, calmed by the serenity of the early morning, and you go to see your GP.
When you start to speak you realise you’re speaking too fast. Or not fast enough. The day seems too thick to admit your words. You slide down your dress top. You keep silent as he feels your breasts. He purses his lips, raises eyebrows. He nods slowly, lowering his gaze. Your stomach feels heavy. You should’ve been sent back from that initial stop. You counted on that place to be the point where life would flow into a familiar riverbed. Into a telephone invitation for a coffee that isn’t quite a coffee. A celebration of a bullet dodged. A moment of crystal clear awareness of everything you’re doing wrong, a decision never to make the same mistakes again. You would love those deserving of your love. You would eat healthy. You would practise yoga. You would feel every day.
The doctor wrote a referral note and sent you to hospital.
There were two doctors there. One, who wasn’t quite sure what to make of the multitude of black and white dots making up the inside of your breasts under the ultrasound scanner stick. And another, sent for by the first one. He applied a coat of cold gel onto your breasts again and circled round with the stick. They agreed you were fine. The other doctor told you to bring the report from your regular check-up six months ago, where findings were normal, and schedule a mammography in twelve months.
You stepped out into the street. Maybe you knew already and your hands were shaking. You felt like crying but you didn’t want your mascara to smudge. You still wanted to be pretty. You told yourself to be quiet, though there were no words in your mouth. You told yourself: Don’t jinx it! Don’t stare into the darkness. Turn your back to the abyss! You got in your car and drove, although you didn’t know where to.
Then you saw him in the street, the radiologist you’d been entrusting with your tits for years now, determined to forestall, by going for regular check-ups, the illness that had ravaged your mother’s body. An hour before that you’d looked for him in the hospital corridors, but they told you he wasn’t in. Now you stopped your car in the middle of the road, in a sea of speeding cars, and you ran after him. You told him that you knew you were crazy, and that you were sorry for pestering, his colleagues having told you were fine. But you knew, you felt that stone under your skin, the cry of the tissue sick and tired of the pain you’d been swallowing like bites of a bland dinner at a stranger’s house. He smiled and told you not to worry. He would expect you at his surgery at three. You would check everything. And everything would quite certainly be fine. You knew he had no way of knowing that. But you felt reassured because he wasn’t going to send you home, tell you to come back in a year and stop thinking about you.
When you entered his surgery, on 15 September, he said: Did you really come alone? Four days prior he’d run MRI and biopsy. The results would take two weeks. When he acquainted himself with your lump via the ultrasound, on the day when you ran after him in the street, he was convinced it was nothing. It looked benign. Six months prior, there was nothing there. But, on account of your family medical history, we will do MRI and biopsy. Don’t worry. Looks fine! You would wait for the optimal moment, the period between the seventh and the twelfth day of your menstrual cycle, and perform both procedures.
When he scanned you on the MRI four days ago, he said nothing. He didn’t want to look you in the eye. He muttered that he was snowed under. That he didn’t have time. That he would let you know as soon as the biopsy results were in. You’d seen him walking into the MRI room examining your scan report. For five minutes. After that, as he was performing biopsy sticking the needle with which he extracted bits of the lump from your body (o, what a brutally dull, final sound), you talked about your daughters, who were the same age, about yoga, and the waning summer. You kept silent about everything else as you breathed deeply, lying on the narrow bed, covered with a green sheet. Over the following four days you didn’t think about anything. You were in no hurry to be scared.
On Monday at ten in the morning his nurse phones you and asks you to be at his surgery at eleven. Minutes are slowly dripping excess of eternity. You dress slowly. You put on make-up, long and carefully. You fix your hair. You put on your ring and earrings. You get in your car and drive to the hospital.
– Yes, I really came alone – you even smiled.
– We have bad news, but also good news – he said, finally looking you in the eye.
– Let’s start with the bad news – is what you said.
That wasn’t courage talking.
– Cancer it is.
– OK – you say – OK.
Something in you wants to whimper, cry. But all those things, the room on the ground floor of the city hospital, the great big desk behind his back with the giant computer screen showing about twenty images of the inside of your breasts, the big black chair on which he moved a bit to the left, then a bit to the right, you on the low sofa opposite, one hand holding the other on your knees, the strident blue sky seeping in through the interstices of the window blinds and the squeaking of somebody’s rubber soles on the linoleum floor in the corridor outside, all of that seems insufficiently true, like a glitch in reality that’s going to be corrected any moment now. And all things will return to their proper place.
– But, we’ve caught it on time – that was the good news.
– Good – you say – good.
For a moment, the room wraps itself tight round your neck. You think you’re going to burst into tears. The next instant you realise how pointless that gesture would’ve been, how unnecessary. Redundant. You lean forward. You listen to him attentively. He says a surgery is to be scheduled. He should see with the surgeon if the entire breast is to be removed, or just the section with the tumour. And a number of lymph nodes. The surgeon will decide how many. He says nothing about what happens if there is tumour in the lymph nodes, too. He talks about how good the prognosis is when cancer is caught so early on.
– This is certainly very early, certainly in good time.
The words are an anchor stopping reality from dissolving.
Translated from Bosnian by Mirza Purić
Photo: Radmila Vankoska