I am convinced that mother is pregnant. Her stomach is a little larger than it was last week. While I was helping her with lunch, I noticed that she ate nine meatballs. I was mashing the potato and pretended that I couldn’t see. My brother didn’t believe me. He said that that would have been a major achievement even for Mirko the Giant, who ate thirty pancakes for dinner. I didn’t know what to think about mum’s pregnancy.
I decided to direct my thoughts as far away as possible. It didn’t really help, except when I dreamed about Madagascar. I did my best to retain it in my memory for as long as possible by opening the atlas and staring at it for several hours at a time. It resembled a chunk of walnut in water.
When I was rummaging through my father’s wardrobe and clothes, which I would sometimes put on secretly, I came across an envelope with some money. Two hundred and twenty Euros. I took ten. Then twenty, then another ten, and ten more, and then thirty. I stuffed myself with sweets and paid for hours in the playground. It was a sultry, cloudy spring afternoon when my semi-recumbent father said: “We’ve got a thief in the house”. My brother and I were standing in the middle of the room. We looked towards the window, remaining silent. There was a whistling under the silvery sky. The sound of the wind mixed with the noise of a plane. My mother was standing over my father with the open envelope. “There’s eighty missing”. He said it twice, softly. My brother shrugged his shoulders. My mother’s face puffed up. I thought that it would turn into a balloon and get stuck to the ceiling. Many people have died in that way. The walls have stopped them flying off into the sky. They would bob around the light fittings in bedrooms. It was worst for those facing the wall. Their skeletons would later clatter like the wooden bars of a xylophone. They say that it is a terrifying sound. It can enter your dreams and turn them upside down. The hollow bones eventually turn to dust, to be carried away by the wind or a vacuum cleaner.
My brother was babbling, trying to make excuses for something that he hadn’t done. His head looked like a young tomato. He was using a lot of words. I interrupted the brisk argument by asking if we could get to Madagascar with that amount of money. My father made us leave the room, with the strict promise that this was not the end of things. Our parents continued the conversation, which grew into an argument. Their silhouettes gleamed against the frosted glass of the bedroom door. My brother dragged me away by the arm, saying that we shouldn’t be there.
We went out into the yard, picked the longest bits of straw and went hunting for lizards. I was never able to fashion a good loop at the top, where the straw was thinnest and most fragile. My brother managed it every time. I knew I would never learn, that I would never be part of the category of hunters to which he belonged. It was amazing to watch how he would slip the loop over the lizard’s head, seamlessly, without shaking, without any clumsy movement, glassy eyes staring, waiting. A quick tug and zap! The lizard would leap into the air and come down. My brother would spin the straw, making large circles to stun his prey.
Occasionally I would catch one too; usually the fatter, stupid ones that made no effort even to try to escape. We laid out about thirty of them, put them in a plain plastic box and took them home. On the way back, we had to run across the garden of our notorious neighbour Šterika and his lame pit-bull, Spike, who got off on violence. The way to do it was as follows: while my brother passed, I would throw banana skins and rose petals which Spike would swallow before smelling them. I said that he reminded me of our mother, which earned me a couple of hefty wallops from my brother. Later we counted our catch in silence. The ones that had died we cautiously tossed from the balcony into the bushes, while we fed the survivors and prepared them for battle. We would only release them after several days.
Mother and father weren’t talking. He barely addressed us. He avoided looking at us and answering our questions, especially when mother was there. We had turned into a family of mummies that watched TV. I assumed that everyone was thinking about something at the same time, hoping that my thoughts were the most important, given that it was I who had created all this chaos. I began to believe in the power of money and its destructive force, sincerely regretting what had been stolen and spent. I stopped eating sweets and visiting the playground.
Mother got fatter and ruddy in the face. I caught her gorging herself again, but this time with no shame. She looked at me as she chewed some potato pie, washing it down with a gulp of chocolate milk. When I said that the money might be somewhere in the wardrobe, she simply shook her head and continued stuffing her face. My brother also refused to talk, offended by our parents’ suspicion. Every night, before sleep knocked me out, I tried to turn back time to the day when I committed the crime. I closed my eyes tight and pressed hard on my temples, softly repeating: “now you’re in the wardrobe, and only in the wardrobe”. In the morning, I would wake up disappointed, realising that I wasn’t where I wanted to be. Hope soon faded of journeying through time. I stopped opening the atlas because of the crushed thoughts that could go no further than the door. I tried several times to tell my family the truth, to repent out loud and answer before whomever was necessary, to try to repair relations, but mother was usually slumped on the sofa, while father was scrolling on his telephone. They weren’t ready to receive information in the form that I had imagined. I was consumed by sadness. I had felt like this once before, in the second year, when Kaća, with whom I was in love, moved away. Purple clouds scudded in. You could feel dust in the air. From behind the window, I observed the wind. The spring storms were magical, incomplete, full of electricity, just like mother’s mouth had once been, properly shaped, lively, with taut skin around it.
After two days of flooding and warm rain, the morning dawned clear. Father had already appeared at breakfast wearing his boots. The mushrooms had emerged. I asked if mother was going with us, but father replied curtly that this would be an excursion for men. My brother and I looked at each other, confused and impatient; we sharpened the knives, cleaned the baskets and buzzed around like trapped wasps.
The worn-out springs tossed us around on the back seat. We laughed and messed around, catching father’s deadly serious face in the rear-view mirror. We stopped on an expanse of gravel and went into the woods. We formed a semicircular line so that we could scout the terrain more effectively. I like looking at desiccated crickets on crooked tree trunks. Because they are yellow and empty. They stand there stuck silently to the bark, the remnants of a small, crispy town. My brother always said that that was the stupidest thing anyone had ever said. I didn’t like mushrooms, even though my father would point out countless times and with great passion the nuances and differences between the edible and poisonous ones’. There was a key. A clear and easily comprehensible system, for which I never had sufficient concentration. All I could do was to sort them by colour and where they grew. I do have a favourite – a wood blewit. I felt some sort of connection with it. It’s transparent. It reminds me of a semi-precious stone I once saw in my aunt’s jewellery shop. I amassed a huge amount of this sort and thought to myself that this was the ideal moment for the truth. My knees started to shake, but I was resolute. I would eat so many mushrooms that I wouldn’t think about anything other than the pain in my stomach. I would find it easy to say those terrible words, almost without thinking. If there were to be harsh words or a beating, I wouldn’t feel them, as a result of being bloated. I tore into the wood blewits. I chewed on them, managing to stop myself from throwing up. I found it hard to breathe, let alone to walk. I left the cricket cemetery behind me and went to search for my father and brother. I waddled like a water-filled balloon. My father was calling out for me. I tried to reply. My brother was sitting on a tree stump, his head bowed, fighting back tears. The basket was empty. My father stood there unmoving and pale. Sharply and coldly he told me to sit down. I squeezed up against my brother. My father was silent and stared blankly, and the next minute, the torrent of words gushed from his huge chest.
The journey home was silent. The car skidded as if on glass. We didn’t go over seventy. My brother drew rough shapes in the condensation on the windows. I floated like an astronaut. The nausea faded, together with the worry and sadness. Something new took their place, a vague feeling, empty and persuasive. Father was leaving us, going to live with another woman. We weaved across the plain. Father put his foot down. The engine hummed as it should. Then he braked suddenly. We lurched forward, grabbing hold of the seats, our heads locked in front of the windscreen. A huge lizard was standing in the middle of the main road. Instead of a tail, it flicked a stunted black growth. It looked at us in the same way that every monster looks at its prey. We were silent, like little monkeys who would start howling at any moment, frozen with terror.