Whole Life

Vojislav Pejović

It was the time before the tourists and the yachts, before there was tap water and asphalt road. The power wasn’t on every day, either. In those days, the night would descend upon us unhindered, through the crowns of zelenika trees, absorbing and releasing the sound waves on its way: the cicadas would calm down, the hum of the sea would grow louder, and not long afterward, the invisible people would start treading the pillows of dry leaves. Those must be ghosts, I’d proclaim, dead certain, and my mother and father would agree. No, V. would intervene, those are just hedgehogs. At night, when they walk on those leaves, hedgehogs sound just like people. We’d then spend some more time sitting on the porch and taking in the sounds, the cicadas’ faint deliberations and the breaking of the waves, and then we’d retreat to our improvised beds on the dining room floor. V. seems to be in good shape, my mother would then proclaim, in her delicate whisper; thank goodness, my father would reply. I’d pretend to be asleep and they’d go on murmuring in the dark, although they must’ve known that I was sleuthing, that I was breathing like a child set on unearthing the unspoken. Before the flood of slumber would wash me away, V. would appear from the only bedroom in the house—her hair undone, a gas lamp in her hand—and say c’mon, kids, you’d better go to sleep now. She’d then return to the same bed in which she was born, and in which her parents had expired.

V. would often tell the story of how she gave birth completely unassisted. No one was even there—at this point, she’d make a wrinkled vessel out of her elongated palms—to bring her as much as a glass of water. Only on every third or fourth occasion, her mustached father would appear—a knife in his hand, back from fishing, or forest, or shelter—right on time to sever the cord and deliver her from the bloodied, screaming coil. She seemed not to notice such inconsistencies; after all, she’d tell her stories only after her evening anxiolytics were washed down with the obligatory few shots of grappa. And after the torment of birth and the curses that ensued, the bullets’ whistles and the tying of the cord (and finally, after the sky-piercing cry of the infant, which, carried away, she’d try to imitate), V. would ask that we each have one more glass. She’d then down hers in two short and focused movements, while I would use mine to soak the already grayed and solidified puff of cotton, and go on massaging her back. Press, my child, press harder, grappa is the cure for the diseased, she would keep repeating, and I’d keep rubbing as hard as I could, trying not to breathe in the vapors of alcohol, heavily spiced with odors of old age. Press right there, moj sine, that’s where it’s stuck, she’d squeeze through her teeth, as if sucking on a bitter candy, as if enjoying the itching pain she must’ve been in. About that moment, I’d begin to marvel at the redness the size of a child’s palm, growing brighter at the exact spot where a splinter from a German grenade supposedly lay buried. Our sessions would end abruptly, cut short by my parents returning from their evening stroll, bringing in the scents of tobacco smoke and algae.

I was fifteen that summer, when father took me to spend the entire school break with V. I guess it was still early; we really didn’t have the time to talk it over. A week after school was finished and after people stopped laying siege on our apartment, he said that I needed to pack. He also added that I’m big enough to understand some things, and that I ought to be at my bravest and at my most mature. Besides, he whispered, staring at an undefined spot behind my shoulder, I too need to get a grip on a few things, you know; you’ll have a much better time staying with her for a while. When we arrived at V.’s place, father just gave me a quick kiss on the cheek and hurried back to his car. Son, won’t you at least have something to eat, she shouted from the porch, but father just cast me the shortest of glances, muttered be good to your baba, and drove into the night.

Luckily, Mom died very fast, at the very end of the school year. I say luckily, because I knew that the end was approaching. A month before the “appendectomy” was done, I was spying more eagerly than ever on the whispers she and father worked to conceal. The doctor was still convinced that it was just nothing, a twisted bile sac at worst, but she knew, and I knew too, that the words of the good doctor meant very little in this world. After a month, everything was over, and so was school. Everyone immediately rushed to the seaside, leaving me and my father alone, with an unoccupied seat at the table, on the couch, and in the car.

That summer, I used to have the ugliest of dreams. They would all invariably end with curtains of thick smoke and a sensation of strong smell, scrubbing at my nostrils. Although the smell was oddly familiar, it took me at least a week of waking up to it to figure it out. Once I did, still half-awake, I started expecting another sensation: the sound of a tin tray, clicking softly against the surface of the outdoor table. Oh, why do old people like coffee so much, I remember asking myself, and oh, why the hell do they get up so early? Still under my slumberous hangover, I’d fantasize appropriately: they loved coffee because they believed in the rejuvenating warmth of the džezva pot; or they were somehow finding solace in the sight of a cube of sugar, vanishing in silence in its hot, liquid abyss. As a natural consequence of such cogitations, I’d sometimes feel like getting up early, having the first cup of coffee of my life, and then writing a short poem about the impermanence of human existence and the rituals of the day; Coffee, or Old Age was its presumptive title.

Without exception, however, my plans would be thwarted by M., who lived next door and always managed to show up before I had time to get my act together. She couldn’t stop talking, stood a mere meter and a half tall, and had a nickname of Big branded on her for longer than anyone could remember. While the two women were going through the newspapers and the village gossip—yes, my dear, oh, whaddo you say, oh, don’t ask, I know, my sweetie—I’d be trying, without much success, to come up with some brilliant verses for my poem. Their chatter was hopelessly distracting, so the only thing I could succeed at was pretending to be asleep. It was sickening: in the entire village, there lived no one under the age of sixty; all in all, twelve stone houses with tiny, rectangular windows and blinds the color of pine needles. The only place where I was not surrounded by the old and the frail was the beach. As I said, it was the time before the tourists and the yachts. The beach could be reached only over the rocks and through a thorny shrub, and I was the only one in the entire village who could perform such a feat.

In the spring of forty-five, when Germans finally retreated, Big M. was the first one to return. The village was not burnt down, but it was deserted and overgrown by creepers. The goats either had gone wild or had gone away. The first couple of days M. spent in total darkness, in her house like a cave, because she was afraid to open the windows or light up the lamp. Soon afterward, the other villagers began to arrive. Among the last to return were V.’s parents, bringing with them a three-year-old child. We don’t know if she’s in this or in the other world, they’d say, if someone asked; she went off to the forest and never came back. She practically didn’t breastfeed the poor thing; we barely managed to keep him alive.

Then another year and a half went by. Big M. recalls that it was a Saturday, when she looked up from her window and saw V. coming down the steep goat path to the village. Her cheeks were all dried up and her hair was short, like in women who escaped soul asylums or internment camps. She burst into the yard like a smiling ghost, her arms spread toward her mother and child. The child screamed in terror and ran into the house.

Occasionally, my beach would be invaded by the uninvited, filthy visitors jumping out of their motor boats and ruining my day. Not only couldn’t I bathe naked with them around: that summer, I was also in a great need of solitude. Therefore, each time I’d hear the menacing patter of the little engine, I’d run off into the nearby bushes and squat down as low as I could. Hidden behind a barrier of thorns, I’d focus all of my mental powers on chasing the intruders away, on imprinting into their jell-o-brains the true legend of a beast that lives somewhere around, sleeps under the pebbles, and feeds on human hearts. Each and every time, however, I had no choice but to capitulate, squatting away the time of their visit in my hideout, as nude as a baby, and as mad as a fiery and timid leprechaun. The visitors would waste their time on sunbathing and eating, on exchanging vulgar braggadocios for having discovered the only pristine beach on the Adriatic coast, and I’d end up asking myself what’s taking the night so long, and where the hell are all those hedgehogs when you need them the most.

When she wasn’t telling stories of giving birth, V. would recollect the events of March, nineteen-forty-one. One of those days, the war was going to come; at least, that’s what she kept hearing from R., who was my mythical grandfather and the fallen hero of the struggle against the uninvited. Shut up, you silly man, may cats bite your tongue off: I just got my job, and I’m not going back to the village—not even if I’m driven at the point of a gun. My heroic grandfather would then put his arms on V.’s shoulders, and say don’t worry, I’ll protect you no matter what, which she’d reenact by grabbing her own shoulders with her twig-like fingers, strong and half-petrified with arthritis. My fingers would also be firm in their position, gathered around the almost dry lump of cotton, which was about to expire its last breaths of alcohol. The less alcohol there was, the stronger I pushed, asking myself for the thousandth time why the grenade splinters are so sensitive to pressure, and how come this one glows so reddish, through flesh and through skin.

It would take another year and a half for son and mother to embrace. Father claims that as his earliest memory. In contrast to V., he tells his stories always the same way: a boy approaches a tall, meager-looking woman bent over an ironing board—in those days, my son, you’d have to fill the iron with hot coal—and pulls at her skirt. The woman leans over to the boy and asks what it is that he wants; the boy puts his arms around her neck, and requests loud and clear: I want you to peel me an apple. Right away, my son, the woman replies. I imagine it happening in an early spring, and on a sunny day; I can hear the sea foaming the rocks, I can see it turning brilliant-blue. I imagine the room smelling of fruit and of freshly ironed linen.

They were all getting on my nerves, and terribly so; I wished they’d end up swallowed by the sea and eaten by the fish. All it takes is a little bit of focus, and I can recall the increasingly louder coughing of the little engine, and the ever brighter whiteness of the boat. Concealed behind a wall of shrubs, I first take notice of a man in a striped shirt, jumping into the shallow water and pulling the boat onto the beach gravel. C’mon, Kitty, let’s go, says a woman with a faux-straw hat, upon which Miss Kitty, no doubt their spoiled and boring daughter, descends from the vessel. It’s a late afternoon. I’m squatting silently in my prison of thorns. I hope they’ll soon get enough of their fun; I hope that soon they’ll pick up their stuff and leave.

I’ve been squatting in my thorn bush for over an hour. I can’t make a move without revealing myself. The longer I wait, the more my response to the question—hey boy, tell us what the hell are you doing, all naked in those bushes—would look like an excuse for some nasty business. The three of them show no signs of giving up; they even brought a sun umbrella. The woman has just prostrated herself over a huge beach towel, decorated with a school of floating turtles. I was watching as she spread it at her feet in one swift move, and as the top part of her swimsuit slid down her hourglass waist, revealing a pair of melon-shaped tits, which were as thoroughly tanned as her big shoulders and her tight abdomen. She must be a swimmer, I remember thinking.

As she’s throwing herself on the towel, the man—now stripped of his striped shirt—emerges out of the water, as if in a well-choreographed scene, and sits down at her side, on the warm and polished pebbles. Hey, Tomcat, are your hands dry, she purrs, and he’s already on the task, wiping off his palms against a couple of helpless towel reptiles. Then he reaches for a bag adorned with a garland of oversized lilies, and takes out a plastic bottle with the picture of a bare-assed child. Gliding over the woman’s muscular back, the bottle leaves a smooth line of sunscreen in its wake. The man starts rubbing in the lotion: slowly, with fortitude, and without passion. The woman makes no sound, aside from letting out an occasional moan, proclaiming that mmmm, here’s so mmmm.

The man and the woman seem to be asleep now: she, half-wrapped in the umbrella’s shadow; he, entirely exposed to the muted afternoon sun. All this time, Miss Kitty is in the water. Through the web of dusty vegetation and the shiny, jittery threads the sun bounces off the sea, she sometimes takes on a shape of nothing more than a dot, and sometimes the undisputable features of a female, with tar-black hair shining down her neck and covering her eyes. I wonder how much longer I will have to maintain my humiliating position. To kill time, I try to think of something, just anything, but to no avail.

She’s sitting in the shallows, where I can see her better. She must be thirteen or fourteen, and has her mother’s muscular back. Hey, Kitty, come over here, the topless woman calls out; let’s have some peaches. Miss Kitty stands up and stretches her lanky body. She’s wearing a white bikini with large, navy-blue polka dots. She approaches the man and the woman and lowers herself onto the towel. All three of them are now shielded by the umbrella’s distorted shadow, and gathered around a genuine picnic basket, one of those padded with neat checkered twill. More than ever, I feel like a complete and innocent victim of a cruel and inconsiderate invasion. Swift currents of strong, inarticulate rage start racing through my body. Only then do I take notice of the fact that I’m having the most spectacular erection of my life.

All of a sudden, I’m becoming painfully aware that I’m naked and sore from an entire hour and a half of squatting. My enormous penis occasionally touches the warm and desiccated earth. With a sound no louder than a gasp of astonishment would make, a well-gnawed peach seed lands right next to its hugely augmented head. A couple of filaments of the peach flesh are still clinging to the seed, attracting rust-colored particles from the ground.

The next seed lands in my lap. Just keep still, I say to myself; this is hardly your first hiding, you know you’re invisible. Then I see her standing up, hear her saying I gotta pee, and count the ten or so steps she makes toward the bushes. Trying not to catch her gaze, I focus on the patch of earth between my feet, where a sentry unit of red ants hurries busily toward the moist remnants of peach flesh. Miss Kitty finds her way through the thicket rather quickly, and comes to a halt only a few meters away from my hideout. She pulls down her bikini bottom and rolls down into a firm squat. A gold-yellow liquid bursts out from between her thighs, hitting the ground audibly, and starts running down toward her toes. In order not to wet herself, she rotates by a quarter of a circle; now we’re face to face, and both wearing no panties.

I don’t know what happens first: do I avert my gaze from hers or take notice that she has far more pubic hair than I do. I don’t know whether my mouth is open, and if my face gives away the thrilling fear I’m awash with. I don’t know what I should do, once I become aware of her bright-green eyes and the puffed-up lips, crossed by the line of her index finger. I don’t know what to do, except to return her sign of silence, and make sure that I don’t drop my pitiful bundle of clothes. My erratic eyes are taking in her face, her breasts, and the spread of her legs, still pouring out a shy little stream. I see three thin curving traces of urine, making their way toward me. And that’s pretty much all I remember from our encounter. I still can somewhat recall the industrious platoon of ants, making their path to the seed of the peach, only to be swept away by the flood that smells of fecundity and sin, and how I think that I’m going to blow into pieces.

What are you doing, you asshole, you little motherfucker: those are the words carried by a hoarse barking voice, words I fail to register until she jumps up, pulling up her pants and letting out a silent scream. A thick, purple head is looming over mine, from above the walls of once impenetrable bushes. Daddy, don’t, I hear her saying as she retreats a step, but he’s already pushing through the thorns, shoving them left and right with the beach towel, whose one end is tied in a knot that looks like a cubist turtle sculpture. I’m sorry, please, I didn’t, I babble in vain, as I take the hit of the towel ball straight into my face. My nose begins to bleed. I drop my clothes and begin to run.

I don’t know for how long I was running through the bushes, with hands in front of my eyes. I don’t know if or for how long her raging father was breathing down my neck. Sometimes I had a feeling that he was but a step away, and that the knot, now overgrown with spikes of all sizes, kept catching up with my back and the back of my head. I didn’t turn even once. I ran and ran, until I tripped over a stone or some root and hit the ground with the full force of my battered body. Around me there was no one and nothing, except for a razor-sharp labyrinth of leaves. My wounds had not yet started to burn, but I was cut all over, and covered with blood like a newborn. Fighting the gasps, I remained on the ground as long as I could, trying to keep low my heavy, swollen head. Slowly, it was becoming clear that I didn’t know where I was. The colors were burning out; the cicadas were winding down their song; I thought I could hear an intermittent sound of a small boat engine. It was late, the night was falling.

In my dream, I first saw grandpa R., who did not say a word. Instead, he opened the skies like a curtain and pointed at V., who was breastfeeding an infant with a head of a vampire bat. Then a gigantic Messerschmitt flew over, followed by the sounds of metallic thunder and L’Internationale, and a machine gun fired, and grandpa fell on the ground, cut in pieces. V. stepped forth, took over the rims of the sky-curtain from his dead fingers, and sewed them together in one move. Then she turned away from me and disappeared into a darkness that was descending with an unnatural speed, but not before I could spot a piece of white-hot metal, glowing from between her shoulder blades. Then out of the darkness my mother emerged, with her porcelain skin and her belly sliced wide open. She was grinning widely, and gesturing that everything was fine, and that her abdominal cave, with its sheen of nacre, was now depleted of every single organ. She moved toward me and took me in a strong, motherly embrace. The entire universe began to shake uncontrollably.

Wake up, son, wake up, says the voice behind the off-yellow light. Big M. takes me under the arm and lifts me up with an unexpected strength. Wha’ happened, you little fool? Tha’ woman’s dead-worried, you know. Which woman, I remember thinking. I have no idea where I am: I only know that it’s night, that I’m naked, and that my whole body is covered with bruises and wounds. All I see is an uneven dance of two weak electric torches; all I can hear are voices of two women, calling out to each other. Finally, V. and Big M. drag me to the house and lay me on a bed. V. tries to run her fingers through my hair of thorns; Big M. brings me a glass of cold milk. V. then fills her palms with grappa. Grappa is the cure for the diseased, I need to disinfect you, kućo moja, she keeps saying as she runs her hands up and down my body, blowing into my countless burning wounds, and as I begin to cry, as if giving birth.

A couple of evenings later, father showed up, looking twenty years older. My wounds were healing well and were barely visible in the dark; I couldn’t, didn’t want to tell him a thing. We sat down together, he and I, on the wooden bench in front of the house. Above our heads, through the crowns of zelenika trees, a glowing night was descending. I thought that it would never end, and that I’d stay awake forever. Do you know how far the light travels in one year? I know, I said. We kept sitting like that, staring at the stars, I don’t know for how long. Then the leaves started to rustle, as if trodden over by invisible people. So there they are, father said. C’mon now, we’d better go to sleep.

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