Translated from Bosnian: Elizabeta Bakovska
My first summer at the seaside after the war. I and my seven-year-old relative Haris, who goes to the sea for the first time. The school holiday at Mali Drvenik was organised by his school. The other first graders are accompanied by their moms, Haris is accompanied by me. Fuck it, that was the only possible way. His mom Melida works in a supermarket, no days off, no weekends. We all live on her labour and my grandpa's pension. We'll pay for the summer holiday in instalments. What matters is that he's here, with his friends and his teacher.
I am in my first college year. Philosophy, literature… I got a big room smelling of lavender. In my suitcase I have more books than underwear. Everything that I read piles up in my head like a rain cloud ready to pour down and melt into the heat of the day.
At the beach, the moms rest in a pack. They sip coffee, lick ice-creams, yell at the kids. They talk and talk… When they see me with my book in my hands they smile mildly, nostalgically. I don’t understand their smiles. I smile at them shyly, and I quickly dive my eyes into the paper and letters. I think of a mother who’s lost her son.
It was in the movie “All about My Mother”. She, Manuela, had her Esteban, who was killed by a car on his birthday. Esteban wanted to write a novel about his mother, and Almodovar made a movie in which the mother mourns her son. I saw the movie at the Meeting Point cinema. That evening, I went straight home. I climbed up the steep street of the old neighbourhood, to my motherless house. Esteban’s face was in front of my eyes. I saw him wet, in his jacket and jeans, with a wet notebook in his hands. The street that I walked on is called the Wide Street and it is quite steep. At the end of the street I paused to catch my breath. During this break I turned to the valley. The city was sinking into darkness, and I thought: what if my mother was alive now, and I was the one to die that night, seventeen years ago?
The son burns on the beach. In the shadow of the pine trees, the moms fan themselves. Sweat runs down their necks, their thighs are wet, their voices grow silent. The children go wild on the hot rocks. They hit each other, they chase each other, their teacher screams after them. Every now and then a child walks into the shallow water without permission, gets his feet wet, then his arms, turns to the shore and shows his tongue to the others. The teacher runs after him, the moms yell.
Dreams turn into salt on your skin. I read Márquez. Short stories. One of them is called “The Most Beautiful Drowned Man in the World”. The skin on my forehead wrinkles when I realise his name is Esteban too. The sun leaves the defence zone of the umbrellas. The spongy mat soaks in the sweat of my skin. I take out the pen from my backpack. I circle every time the name is mentioned in the story. “Esteban, Esteban, Esteban…” The blue colour dries quickly, it isolates the seven letter word as a protective tape does the crime scene.
Gabriel’s Esteban is dressed in seaweed and shells, covered with the smell of the sea. Who knows how long he was carried by the water. Dead, he was washed ashore of the village that would become his holy tomb. I touch my hot neck with my palm. Burnt. It hurts. I want to take shelter. By mistake, I look directly at the sun. Shiny, hot and white, as it is only in the south, it flips my image of the world upside down. It flips it as Almodovar’s camera would do it immediately after the sound of the blunt hit of the boy’s body on the windshield of the expensive car. Manuela’s run, the rhythm of her high heels hitting the asphalt pulsates in my mind.
When my blindness passed, I saw my dead body on the surface of the sea. Small waves pulled it, just like a noble horse dash pulls a funeral carriage. When they washed me to the shore, the kids saw me. They forgot their mutual quarrels and mockery. Their pebbles fell out of their hands. They ran to me. They looked at me, pulled my nose, pulled my hair, pushed their little fingers in my ears. They removed the algae from my hands, poured sand in my open mouth, pounded my chest.
Playful, euphoric, they attracted the attention of their mothers. When the women recognised the dead toy among their children’s little bodies, they ran as if for their lives. They all rushed, cutting their bare feet on the sharp stones. Thin long dresses rolled up in the water. They floated around their hips as multi-coloured seaweed. The mothers pulled out the leeches from my arms, they took out the entangled hair from my face. They ordered their children with scared voices: “Quickly, call her!”
She wore a white dress, which made her hair and eyebrows even blacker. Everybody grew silent before her steps. The children and women ran away. Slowly but decisively she approached my body. Her wrinkled face came close to my blue cheeks. The sun shone. She took my head and carefully placed it in her palms, as an egg in a nest. It was my mother. At the threshold of her old age. She pressed her lips to my eyes and then she licked a drop of salty water from my eyelash with her tongue. “This is Esteban!”, she said. The other women looked at her. “Esteban and nobody else!” she sobbed. When they heard this, the other women gathered around me. They moaned aloud. They punched their chest, they pulled their hair, tore their dresses…
“This is Esteban”, said my mother once again and kissed my cheeks. All the other women started to nod their heads. As a flock of upset birds they pressed close to my mother. I felt her lips wet and warm from crying kissing mine. The others also started to caress me, kissing every part of my body. The time passed, the sun was setting.
And that was it. A perfect death, fitting me great.
Translated from Bosnian by: Elizabeta Bakovska
I can't sleep. If I turn over, I'll wake her up. She sleeps lightly. Since always. She was woken up by my restlessness the very first night. When I opened my eyes in the morning, she was sitting on the bed and looking at me. “You had a bad dream”, she said: “You gnashed your teeth, mumbled in your sleep, squeezed your fists.”
I get out from under the blanket as quiet as I can. Kili dozes in a pile under her feet. She moves her ears, opens her eyes and stretches her paws when I move. She yawns.
“Shhhhh”, I press my finger to my lips. “Go to sleep, Kile”. I'm looking for my slippers under the bed. I peek through the curtains. Noise and rage outside. The southern wind has arrived to Sarajevo. It stretches the tree crowns, blows the garbage on the deserted streets. A dog shivers next to the kiosk. I read about the horrible storm in Croatia today. It pushed people, blew away roofs, in Dalmatia the bulging waves hit the coast. I turn to her. It's OK, she's asleep. I make myself some coffee in the kitchen and I light a cigarette. The clock marks two thirty. Long way to dawn. I walk up and down. Fear squeezes my heart. The little lamp blinks on my mobile. Those lighthouses down at the Adriatic must talk about the storm in such a way now. I read a message from Nermina: “Shall we go for a cup of coffee on Wednesday, Nermina, you and I?”
* * *
The first morning, saying that I have to do something, I quickly leave her apartment. I keep on receiving messages from Hana and Nermina: questions, curiosity, teasing. In the end we agree to see each other in the evening at Nermina's place. I arrive the last, and they have prepared everything: coffee, cards, music… I only have to talk. Spit out everything, to tiniest details.
But this time they are bothered by my pensive, otherwise usual facial expression. “Where are your smiles? Why do you look like a wet mushroom?” What can I do – I admit that everything did not go well. “Come on, Lela, it's the first time. What did you expect, anyway?!” says Hana clearly and out loud.
“It's not that, but after.” I say my nightmare have waken her up and that it’s not a good sign. Because my past… Nermina doesn't listen to me anymore, she hands over the cards, and then she says her famous: “Leli, it would be good to forget!” We laugh. Hana takes us with a shovel in the cards and she keeps on adding water to her coffee because it is too strong. After couple of hours she looks at her cup: “I keep on drinking this coffee and my cup is still full!” We laugh again. They look at me curiously, they are all impatient. Hana in particular: “Come on, tell us all the details. What happened? How did it happen?” And I am more and more n the mood. I become talkative, we speak until late in the night. And we play couple of rounds of cards.
* * *
The storm increases the cacophony inside me. I peek: I'm afraid of this wind. I look at my watch, I walk up and down. I put some food in her dish. Brikets crunch under sharp cat's teeth. She licks her snout. I light another cigarette. She jumps into my lap, I pat her neck, she purrs. I type to Nermina: “OK.” I know she's asleep, that noise and rage do not wash her dreams, but I add: “It’s fucked up outside”.
* * *
I walk to Cheka. We agreed for seven. I have time, I'm in no hurry. I think: maybe Nermina's right. Maybe it's time I screw myself and forget. In the end, I survived the psychiatry. I'm here in the street, in the open. I walk. And I don't think that I will collapse with my next step. The sky above, the earth beneath. Those girls encouraged me last night. And the doctor did this morning.
I entered her office, without any plans. The desk, white robe, typewriter. Full bag of pumpkin seeds in her hands. I apologise that I come without an appointment and I tell her that I can wait outside if I'm interrupting something. She smiles, there is no speech, I can come in. She asks me if something has happened, with concern, if I am out of medications? “No, no”, I tell her. She offers me a pumpkin seed, she says she stopped smoking so she has to. “No, thank you”, I wave away. I'm embarrassed, but this situation is pressing me so much that I need an expert opinion. I tell the doctor about her, about our mails, us going out, I also mention the first night, but somehow looking at the ceiling – I mean, I would not like the doctor to think that I would give her any details, but, she has to know that it has happened. I look at her. She chews those pumpkin seeds, she smiles. I am even more ashamed now, and I stare through the window and I beg the skies and the earth that I don't blush. I feel like smoking, but how can I – the woman has just quit. We keep quiet. I don't know what to say, so I repeat that I am awfully sorry to have busted into her office like this. “What's the problem?”, she asks. “Look… It's that… I don't know if this is fair… I mean… You know how I was… I was falling apart in front of your eyes… And now…” She interrupts me: “And now we’re in stable remission, right?” “Yes, we are. For a year already.” “So what does this girl say?” I can’t help but smile. “She… just looks with her blue eyes, as if nothing matters. She says, she doesn’t mind, we can do it.” “So, what’s the problem?” the doctor says. “Look… I mean… is it fair to drag her into all of this? I mean… into what has remained of me… What if I break again? If the noise and rage again…”
The doctor takes me by my arm: that’s her way to interrupting the attack of my doubts and fears. She looks at me directly, and then she mechanically offers me the bag with pumpkin seeds again. Woman, I don’t want any pumpkin seeds! – I feel like screaming, but I just smile a bit. “You too have the right to love”, she says. Well, fuck it… I’m red as a fresh wound. I see, she finds my shame cute, but I pretend I don’t understand. I stand up all of a sudden, I thank her and I apologize for coming announced once again. The doctor turns her chair to the window, she pushes the pumpkin seed between her teeth with her fingers and mumbles to herself: “That’s life.”
I see her in the distance. A cap, vest, an umbrella in her hand. I stop. The by-passers wonder at my smile. And I feel like standing and watching her. She looks at her watch a bit nervously. I approach. Something pulls me to her so strongly. The joy in her eyes when she sees me. She asks me where I would like to go. Somewhere where there are no many people. “You know”, I say carefully, “I’m not comfortable with crowds yet”. It’s OK for her. We sit in a café. We are alone, the two of us and the waitress at the bar. We speak quietly, leaning to each other more and more. She asks with concern if everything is OK, because I left in a hurry yesterday. I know it’s time. I stand up, I put on my jacket and I say. “I have to show you something.”
The wind brings small raindrops to our faces. We walk in silence down Zagrebacka Street. We enter the building, we climb to the first floor. I unlock the door. I switch on the light in the empty, deserted apartment. “Where are we?”, she asks.
“In my past.” She turns around. She looks at the dump, dark walls in silence. “This is the apartment of my grandparents.” She asks me where they are now. “Dead”, I say. I push a box from the corner to the middle of the room and I offer her to sit down. “You see… I’ve let them down. They died in another city. Alone.”
She doesn’t ask anything more. I move another box, I sit down as well. We are quiet. She takes my hand and puts it in its palm. My nail polish is cracked. I try to pull my hand back, but she would not let me. I explain: “Nermina and Hana polished my nails the other day. I couldn’t refuse. They went to half of the pharmacies around the city to find a quality transparent nail polish. And I told them it would not work. Not on me. Everything cracks on me.” She puts my palm to her cheek. She kisses it. “How did this apartment used to look?”, she asks with curiosity.
No look has penetrated me as hers. And I was looked by people who were lost, fucked, enraged, joyful, happy, crying, psychotic… Her look enters my bones, finds the most distant places. “There was a couch, made of fabric, in three colours”, I show the wall with my hand. She smiles. She encourages me to continue with her look.
“The dinner table here, and three chairs, for the three of us.” I lead her to the other room through the hall, then to the kitchen. I paint a lost world with my words. She listens. She listens so well.
* * *
We have been coming here for ten years. We enter the hollow insides of my childhood. She helps me clean the floors. She runs after me when they call me for a flood, when the black water bursts and spills down my neighbours' walls. She stands next to me as I apologise. She stands my me when the old neighbours stop me and ask me: “Lejla, hon', why don't you move in?” And I answer them for how knows how many years in a row: “I can't. I have no papers. They won't give them to me.” I only have a key and a pile of memories that I have nowhere to place. She nods when they describe this government and these times. “’Cause hon’, they had nobody but you.” Or she takes out the thorn that stuck into my finger as I tried to close the holes in the rotten windows.
I return to the room, as quiet as I can. I stand by the window. Downstairs, in front of the building, the reflection of the moon crumbles in the puddles. She jerks all of a sudden, she sits up in the bed, she calls me. “I’m here. Go back to sleep”, I say. She won’t, she’s awake, scared a bit. “Shall I go?”, I ask.
“What is it again?” “I’m afraid, look at this storm. The windows might crack. The glass will break. Shall I bring some tape, to put it around the corners? Who knows what the wind might bring.”
She calls me by my name. I sit on the edge of the bed. She hugs me from behind. “It’s OK”, she whispers. She promises that we will go together in the morning, check, fix whatever is needed. And now I should go to bed, I can’t stay up all night. Here, Kiki is a bundle again. I get in under the blanker. I kiss her. She hugs me, and I press harder against her body, against her image of the world. I feel her smell and I realize that life does not pay you back as you deserve. Because I haven’t deserved her with anything. And then, as lightings are on fire and thunders roam outside, I fall asleep, believing now a bit more that I have survived it after all.