Stanka Hrastelj (1975, Slovenia) has published two books of poetry and two novels. For her poetry she was named Best Young Poet at the 2001 Urška Poetry Festival, was shortlisted for the Jenko Award for best poetry collection, and was given the title of Poetry Knight at a poetry tournament for best unpublished poem. In 2012 she won the Modra Ptica Award for her debut novel. Some of Hrastelj’s poems are marked by stark motifs dealing with subjects such as illness, both physical and mental, as well as suicide, issues that still remain taboo in our society and are seldom given literary treatment. Hrastelj believes fostering interest in such subjects could help bring about important positive changes in our understanding of stigmatised subjects such as abortion, suicide, dementia, and old age. Hrastelj also translates Croatian and Serbian poetry and owns a pottery studio.
Stanka Hrastelj, First Lady
(Mladinska knjiga, 2018)
an excerpt from the novel
translated from the Slovene
by Gregor Timothy Čeh
1. A girl from the provinces
She left home young, she had her reasons, she married young to some high-ranking army guy and ran away to the capital. The wedding was unconventional, local traditions bored her, so predictable – drunken wedding guests, come knocking with the groom at the bride’s door, saying, we have a beautiful flower here, but no vase to put it in, apparently you have one here that’s just right for our bloom, go on, have a look, so the bride’s guests send an old woman to the door, oooh, come on, this one is all wrinkled and stooped, too old for our young fellow, don’t you have anyone younger?, then they stand a young girl outside the door, come on, this one has only just been weaned off her mother’s milk, this won’t do, send us another, and they eventually bring to the door the bride in a lavish, mandatory white wedding dress, the men’s eyes twinkle as they drool, wine flows freely, they all go off to the registry (stopped on the way by the šranga, a roadblock set up by the villagers, demanding a fee for the beauty from their parish, money they will drink away), from the registrar they go on to the altar, from the altar under the shower of rice, tears smudge makeups, then the inn with all the guests, cutting the cake, tossing the bouquet, and a variety of perverse wedding games until the cockerels begin to crow, then some sour soup, and off home – this kind of scenario simply wasn’t what she wanted, and Uriah didn’t care anyway.
2. Upright posture
The pavement was classically narrow, two could walk side by side without problems, three was impossible. She was walking in an east-west direction and two young men deep in conversation were coming the opposite way. At the moment they met, neither of them moved out of the way and she, the woman, had to step off the pavement. This upset her greatly. She thought about it, analysed the situation, and realised that it was indeed true that the small town where she used to live was almost a ghost town and one rarely met anyone in the street (inexperience of how to react in the event of meeting someone at a narrow spot) and that it was also partly her fault because she doesn’t know how to hold her body in such a posture that others would move out of her way. The key to a commanding body stance is the small of the back, the upright body a vertical line, allowing a flow of communication between the heavens and earth, the eyes forming the horizontal, a determined look.
She continued walking upright. Two others came in the opposite direction. Her gaze straight, as if not picking up on her surroundings, fixed somewhere far ahead, at the level of the horizon, slightly above them, and she smiled lightly to herself, as if her thoughts are with something that is going her way. It worked, they began moving out of the way.
3. A view on neatness
Uriah watched her, naked, smooth, perfect, and asked whether the hair in her armpits was normally thick or thin, black or golden, I mean, if you didn’t shave. – What a question, she smiled. There wasn’t a single period in her life when she had not shaved her armpits, not even when she had infectious mononucleosis and a temperature of thirty-nine. Well, I’m asking because… do you remember that black-and-white photo of Madonna naked, with hair in the groin and her armpits, remember? All bushy, real sexy.
Bathsheba remembered the black-and-white nudes, not at all attractive, plainly simply an unkempt woman, not at all sexy.
4. Concern for the future
A student party a few years ago when her friend from secondary school visited her. When the ash fell off her school friend’s cigarette of truth and the others at the party began showering the girl with questions about all kinds of experiences, she lied but only slightly, more exaggerating the truth to present it in a better light. Yes, she will never forget what it was like the first time, I admit, we were a little drunk, she liked him, all the other girls fancied him but he danced with her, he kissed her on the neck, he led her away by the hand and it was all surprisingly spontaneous and quite different from expectations, and although it bloody hurt, said the friend, it was divinely beautiful, she didn’t mention that he pushed her head in front of his cock in the parking lot, or how the gravel hurt her knees, how he dictated what was for her a far too rapid pace with his hand and slapped her across the face when she didn’t swallow, or that he then offered her to a friend who happened to come and take a leak, watched them and cheered him along, and that her entire body hurt afterwards, and that, ripped and bleeding she hid in the bushes and waited for Bathsheba to appear from the log cabin, Bathsheba the fortress, Bathsheba the friend who would take her home and not ask any questions and never say a word to anyone about it.
When Bathsheba’s ash fell and it was her turn to answer questions, she lied, but only a little, meaning she barely told them anything, appearing a little embarrassed and inexperienced, what business of theirs are her intimate moments. Bathsheba had a firm grip on everything, she was thinking about tomorrow, the day after and well beyond.
5. Enthusiastic about the theatre
He said, we’re going out for a beer with the guys, come along. She said, you went for a beer on Tuesday, you went for a beer yesterday, let’s go to the theatre today. And he said, oh, come on, not the theatre. She said, why not? He said that theatre was boring. She begged to disagree. He said he had tired of theatres even at school because they were taken to see The Magic Flute every year. She said that that’s an opera. He said it’s all the same. She said that it isn’t quite the same and that she would like to go and see Crime on Goat Island. He said that all Russians, Tolstoy included, are wrist-slashingly morbid and long-winded.
6. Uriah leaves for the battlefront
Saying goodbye was brief. If we made too much of an issue of it, they were silent, it would be like saying goodbye for the last time, but going to the battlefront can be just a trip from which you return decorated and unscathed – although the Grim Reaper constantly breathes down the soldiers’ necks. Bye – God bless – take care. One way or the other, we’ll see each other in a few weeks anyway. (They hoped not the other.)
7. View on comfort
When I think what kind of bed I slept in all those years, she said, satisfied that she can turn and stretch out as much as she wishes without being in danger of falling onto the floor. Uriah, well-built and tall as he is, had had the huge bed made specially for him, long enough to lay on it stretched out, and wide enough that, if he so fancied, he could also sleep across its width, and when he told the carpenter the size he wanted, he also said know what, make me one of those with a canopy. The carpenter made what was ordered. To her this was a dream item of furniture (apart from the bedding and the curtains, she immediately bought new ones), with everything else the lack of a woman’s touch, as they used to say, was pretty obvious, it lacked an aesthete who would insist on putting things in order and harmony, something she shined at.
Poor Uriah, she sighed after she had been waking up alone for a number of consecutive mornings, he has such a large and comfortable bed and so rarely sleeps in it. Uriah also occasionally snorted with exasperation after waking up morning after morning on the hard bed in the military camp, swollen with mosquito and other bug bites, pulling on his dusty and blood-splattered uniform, brushing his boots, shaving his stubble, straightening up and buttoning up to his neck so he looked tip-top, calling out to the reflection in the shard of mirror he was using, Potentia est imperare orbi universo, clicking his heels and stepping out of his tent into a new day, towards new victories.
8. “I could have been…”
She unrolled the awning, winding the crank handle, and looked at the pale palms of her hands (not pale in the sense of pale as death but pale in a noble sort of way: Bathsheba’s complexion was aristocratically pale), the backs of her left and right hands moving each in their own circle, one slightly higher than the other, the same axel, turning in opposite directions, the crank handle extended another metre up to the top where the hook was attached to the horizontal roller tube with the waxed canvas wound around it. She unrolled it in the morning (her tiny hands evenly turning in opposite directions), this was a south-facing balcony, now, in the late afternoon, she was winding it back up, getting rid of the shade. How fascinating, she whispered to herself, barely moving her lips, how very fascinating indeed: horizontal turns, the crank, vertical turns and vice versa, immediate effect, the canvas opens or closes, isn’t this crazy?! Were I a child now, had I been able as a child to move shadows by winding a handle, I would have surely been so excited by this that I would have wanted to become an engineer or a mechanic, or something like that, and I would have become one too, but now, well…
The sun had not quite set yet, there was still half of it left, tinting the evening with a honey-coloured light, Bathsheba’s pale face appeared soft, it was soft, and dreamy, and gentle, until the sun set completely. (Over the Hills and Far Away.)
9. Completing her studies
The graduation ceremony coincided nicely with her husband’s leave. After the event at the university they all went for lunch together, the young couple, Bathsheba’s parents, Bathsheba’s friend from school. In the evening her friend commented, well, your guy can certainly hold his booze!
10. Problems with limescale
She did a number two, wanted to flush, but pressed the handle in vain, the water just wouldn’t flow and the turd laughed mockingly at her from the bottom of the toilet bowl. What luck that Uriah happens to be at home on leave for a few days, she ran off to find him after filling a plastic basin with water and pouring it down the toilet, cleaning the bowl with the brush and pouring another basin full of water down it, Uriah, go and check what’s wrong, perhaps you can fix it? He put down the remote, stood up from the sofa, and said, no problems. After fiddling around with the tank for a few minutes, he announced that it was all sorted. But the following evening the water once again didn’t flush away the faeces. Uriah, it’s playing up again, can you take another look? – Oh, dear, limescale, shit to sort out, will look at it tomorrow, I’ve arranged to go out with my mates now, would you like to come along?
Half an hour later he was tilting his glass. Bathsheba stayed at home, donned a pair of rubber gloves, armed herself with a plastic bottle of spirit vinegar and a packet of bicarbonate of soda, took the lid off the tank and cleaned and fixed it, the same way she had always seen her mother do it, and, while she was at it, she also scrubbed the bath, the sink and the tiles, then she found a documentary about Bulgarkov on YouTube and watched it. During the closing credits she sighed, what a life, such highs and such lows, unbelievable! It affected her and she knew that she would be unable to sleep straight away, so she prepared a bath with rosemary oil, lay in the hot water and indulged in the scent and warmth. Just as she was getting out of the bath Uriah returned from the pub, desperate to use the loo, rushed into the bathroom without closing the front or any other door, sat on the toilet and bleary-eyed watched his naked and wet wife, and dismissed her with I’d love to, but sorry, I can’t.
At that moment the gentle scent of rosemary in the bathroom was overpowered by a different odour and the flush worked flawlessly long after.
11. Doubting the correctness of her decision
A few months later she was looking at the photos from her honeymoon, wondering whether she had made the right decision or not. Pros: she no longer lived with her parents, no longer lived in the provinces that are rather tohu wa-bohu, but in the centre of town, right next to the royal palace, more independent than ever, more free than ever. Cons: Uriah is never home and when he is he leaves his sweaty socks everywhere, doesn’t wash much, and pays her little attention. To him she is simply an ordinary partner. And what have I achieved in doing so, she said, same pattern as mother: the old man non-stop at work and whenever he was home he was grumpy, his phone ringing all the time, how is my life different?
12. Bathsheba’s talent
She became terribly interested in Nikola Tesla, exceedingly so. She wanted to know everything about his life and work, wanted, though she wouldn’t admit this, to also discover within herself the source of geniality, for she had read about his childhood, how as a three-year-old he was stroking a cat one dark stormy night, its fur producing a crackling shower of sparks and an aura of light as he did so, and – pff – one of the sparks jumped, igniting the flame, giving birth to his passion, oh, Nikica, there is no turning back. In fact she hoped that there had been some kind of similarly magnificent and fateful gesture in her own childhood too. She tried to jog her memory, searched and searched but there was nothing similar she could think of. The closest was when she had once taken a bicycle totally apart and then reassembled it – everything fitted, everything functioned like before, but she was left with five screws, washers and nuts (Father gave her a spanking), surely that wasn’t it, so she resigned herself to perhaps at least catching a fragment of the genius by researching the life and work of Nikola Tesla, at least that.
All her efforts and deep searches within were in vain, Bathsheba was no genius and no innovator, in fact she wasn’t even a particularly technical person. She did have other talents, however.
13. A job interview
She was included on the shortlist but wasn’t the best candidate, this much she knew, two others had much better references, the other four candidates weren’t really a threat. Then she happened to get an exceptional opportunity because the director decided that the second part of the interview would be an informal chat over coffee somewhere in town. He did not ask questions about the job, he wanted to get to know them in a more personal atmosphere. He was open and jolly and the candidates were also witty and pleasant, they ordered and in an apparently relaxed manner chatted about their spare-time passions. Ms Internationalexperience wore a decent sporty-elegant dress and regularly organised top culinary sessions at her house, Mr Theyrefighingoverme could not imagine life without golf and collects expensive watches, Bathsheba said she was consistent, reliable, liked good stories and a good game. In the meantime, the modern gourmet received a phone call from her nanny that her kid was throwing up, begging her to come home because he wants his mummy, and someone hit the golfer’s car, setting off the alarm, so he had to, I apologise, leave the table, and she was left alone with the director, the floor was hers and Bathsheba knew how to take an opportunity.
And she was satisfied that she had called and paid the people she had, very satisfied.
14. Bathsheba starts work
She liked her job. She was satisfied with the pay.
15. View on the state of her relationship
On the underground a young couple sat opposite her, the girl looked like a fairy, tiny, sweet face and almond eyes, the boy’s hair, eyebrows, and especially Greek profile reminded her of the guy from Twilight Saga. They were holding hands, in fact the girl was clinging onto him and he appeared to be sulking, didn’t say a word, while the girl kept looking towards him, as if checking to see if he is alright, or trying to catch his gaze but he persistently stared at his sneakers. There was a bitter aura about them, as if they had fought or their relationship was hanging from a thread, then they got off the train. Their place was taken up by another young couple, she was blonde, he a redhead, they chatted all the time, laughed, touched each other, their eyes twinkling as their glances shot all over the place, each other and the entire carriage, an air of brightness radiated from them. Hmm, Bathsheba thought to herself, we’re somewhere in between.
16. Bathsheba meets the king
She had read somewhere that they were putting up an opera by Debussy in Barcelona, directed by Robert Wilson, and she found a cheap flight, a fairly comfortable hotel, and went alone to the Gran Teatre del Liceu to watch Wilson’s wonder. To begin with she found it excruciating (slow and abstruse) but then she became used to it and was soon enjoying it, returning home enthusiastic with her batteries recharged.
A while later she was chatting in a coffee shop in town with a colleague from another department who ranted and raved about the theatre director Tomaž Pandur, but Bathsheba said that she too used to find him original but that she had wondered recently whether too much of his inspiration might not be coming from another giant. The discussion was constructive and without bile or spite, a serious debate, in as much as any debate over an afternoon coffee can be serious, and eavesdropping behind them was a gallant gentleman, they could see only his back, then he got up, bowed slightly to the ladies, paid for their coffees and left. They asked the waiter who the kind stranger was and he whispered lightly, King David, incognito, gently touching his lips with his index finger that this was a secret, and they nodded.
17. A personal question
Her friend from school asked her whether her husband was a good lover and whether the passion of her honeymoon has waned at all. Oh yes, definitely, Bathsheba answered the second question pretending she was answering the first.
18. Bathsheba is enraptured
King David in person… The very idea!
19. Bathsheba handles crisis situations
She heard shrieks from the corridor and went to see what was going on. Her colleague was waving about with her arms, dancing around, hopping as if she had lost her mind because she had found a hornet on the copier and it was now buzzing around her head, wanted to crawl into her mouth and sting her, making her suffocate, the terrible, terrible hornet.
An entire squad came to watch the scene and help yell and wave their arms. Bathsheba stayed cool as a cucumber, went to get a glass from the office kitchen and when the beast landed on the wall she covered it with the glass, put a sheet of paper under it, stepped to the window, they opened it and everyone jumped out of the way, Bathsheba freed the animal, though before doing so it did cross her mind that she could squash it in her hand, the way you walk across a bridge and for a brief moment think you might jump, nothing serious.
20. Close friendship
Apart from her friend from secondary school, Bathsheba didn’t keep in regular touch with anyone from her previous life, the place she used to live in, not counting the occasional courtesy phone call to her mother because mother was just mother, was and would be, and the longer they were apart, the better for the both of them since living under the same roof they had simply got on each other’s nerves every day.
They were chalk and cheese, Bathsheba and her school friend, but what both excited and annoyed her was that she always and regularly brought her down to earth (roughly and in a healthy way), and now, miles apart, she lacked this, not that she missed it, it was just that she was used to it. Without you, I’d get carried away, she had once admitted, truly carried away. They mostly communicated via Skype, occasionally Bathsheba managed to persuade her to visit the city and they wandered around together.
21. Bathsheba’s clear vision
If Anne Boleyn managed it and even Theodora managed it, I shall manage it too. These words formed on Bathsheba’s ruby lips one fine day in May as she sat on the balcony, basking in the morning sun, listening to dark Mahler, feeling all dark within.
22. Bathsheba’s persistence
Crush a handful of lovage leaves with your fingers and add to the bath. Bathsheba observed the ancient, modern and shrewd advice. Lovage, a fistful in the bath, regularly and consistently, lovage, Levisticum, ljupčac, luštrek, Liebstöckel, lubczyk and so on.
She undressed at the window, just in case, lights on and blinds up, and from time to time she stepped out into the pale darkness of the balcony in her transparent T-shirt and without any panties.
She often left home and returned soon in order to be seen in the street, holding reading material under her arm, so it would be obvious that she reads a lot, often reaching for giants of classical literature, contemporary writing and essays in the humanities, a determined woman, beautiful, well-read, a woman of vision.