|LINEMAN’S HUT NO. 13|
by Magdalena Blazevic The shadow is alive and Sofija knows she cannot run from it. The room’s walls cannot soak it in, nor can the dark swallow it up. She pulls the covers over her head anyway. She can smell it even there. Impregnated railway tracks melted in the sun. The grease of the coarse material of the work overall. This smell is what she goes to bed and wakes with.
She knows how it all goes. A slight beam of light splits the darkness. The hut shakes slightly. The locomotive’s whistle is shrill; she recognizes it, but it is still in the distance. The light becomes ever stronger. It fills the room with flickering. The flickers fracture against the showcase glass, against the cups and glasses. The racket is eerie.
The train thunders by destructively. The glass is tense. On the verge of shattering. Sofija knows that none have ever cracked, but in her head, they shatter into thousands of pieces, the roof of the hut caves in. Over the place where she is lying.
The light goes off and the sound becomes a monotonous whooshing. Her body freezes. She can’t open her tiny fists. No sound comes out of her dry throat. At the click of the iron lock, Sofija’s eyes are swallowed up by her eyelashes. They will remain there until it is all over.
The boots stand untied in the middle of the hall. The tiles are cold. The bucket is metal. The water splashes briefly. A few times. Wet fingers through hair.
The steps are practically silent. Sofija counts them. One, two, three, four, five… That’s how many there are from the door to her bed. The cover slides off her face. Her nightgown is twisted into a noose around her neck. Over there, the breaths are deep. Sofija is not breathing. Damp hair on her face. Cold and slippery. Hands scalding hot. They tear and burn the skin between the legs. This is how a child’s palm sizzles when pressed on the stove.
The belt is unbuckled. The worn leather and metal. It sets a stagnant stench free.
It leaves hot pokers in her womb. Snails in her ears.
The sheet is a slimy bog.
The last sigh is always deep. Full of relief. Sofija does not move an inch.
She counts the steps again. One, two, three, four, five…
And when she opens her eyes she can see nothing. The yellow flecks are shiny.
Sofija lowers her nightgown. She pushes it between her legs and eases the pain.
She hears the door to her mother’s room close. She turns towards the wall. She sticks her nose into the cold whitewash.
The darkness goes quiet.
Sofija waits for the cemetery gate to close. Her eyes are turned towards the melted yellow candles pressed into the dry, sandy soil. The sun is burning, the roses will not keep their freshness for long. The cross is oak. The letters white. Plastic. Jozefina Vila (1952-1994). All the crosses above the fresh graves were made by the same hand.
Although her eyes are red, and the thin skin around the eyes are purple, Sofija has never shed a tear. Not even when the coffin was lowered into the grave. The shadow pulsed beside her. She didn’t smell of melted railway tracks, but of the damp and cold earth. She clenched her cold, sweaty fists. Sofija thought that the trenches were enormous molehills and that shadows could not pulse on walls without light.
Her mother’s black dress suits her. Their bodies are the same shape. The mother’s lines on Sofija’s face. The slightly lowered eyebrows, the grey eyes. Her hair was somewhat lighter, gathered at the nape. Boiling hot beads of sweat sizzle on her skin.
Only when the voices fall silent does Sofija make her way down to the gate. The rusty metal crosses. She wipes her hands on her dress. The cemetery is on a hill and the path to the lineman’s hut is narrow. Both sides are lined with flowering thistle and gentle poppy. The nests of yellowhammers are empty under sharp weeds. Ravens and field mice have only left speckled shells behind.
From the path, the lineman’s hut and the red-hot tracks are visible. Sofija thinks that no grave has become more one with vines and tiny wild roses than the hut has. Poisonous ivy has crept under the green façade and has crawled up to the roof. The petals of the wild roses are fragile and pale. While the trains passed, the unripe petals would decay on the ground. They manage to survive now if no storms blow or heavy rains fall.
The hut has kept well over the past few years. It was only hit by a stray bullet. Under the green façade red brick. A round tear. It ages naturally. The color has peeled in places. The window frames have dried up. It’s holding up nobly in comparison to other village houses. Once painted white with red roofs, now neglected and grey.
When she moved here with her mother, she was afraid to sleep in the lineman’s hut. The night trains shook the walls and the furniture. Mother said we should be happy. No one wants a woman with a bastard. Jumping from the attic, punching yourself in the stomach is in vain. And the railway linemen are well situated.
She wasn’t allowed to cross the tracks, and in peaceful days, she could hear the babbling of the Bosna river. In summer, the splashing of water and the shrieking of children climbing the bent willow and then jumping into the muddy river. She would stand, leaning on her elbows in the window and watch the high treetops at dusk. She would wonder that there was nothing above them. There were no towers in the village; not even the birds flew so high.
On the wooden lid to the well there was a lock. When the lid was lifted, dead air was within. She thinks that the air must be like this in trenches too. Her mother would open the well and stare hard and long at her reflection on the surface. Sofija didn’t hear the splash, but she knew… She wasn’t in the house, and her slippers stood beside the front door. She imagined her mother going out barefoot and how the concrete in front of the lineman’s hut felt on her feet. There was a narrow strip of grass alongside the well. Sofija bent over the edge. On the calm water surface her mother’s face was reflected. Sofija touched it with her fingers.
It didn’t take long for them to pull her out. The stone walls of the well echoed loudly. The skull banging against the wall, the scraping of the rope over the edge of the well. They lay her on the grass. Her face purple and slashed. Wet, darkened hair. Her nightgown twisted around her neck into a noose.
The lineman’s hut was unlocked. The door, wooden and painted green. The yellow roses on the tiles in the hall cracked. The grout gone black. Beside the wooden cabinet the untied boots. The metal bucket with water. Sofija’s fists clench. Cold and sweaty. She opens the kitchen door. He is sitting on Sofija’s bed. His head resting on the whitewashed wall. Five steps separate them.
The rain has torn the last petals off the blossoming poppies. The bare pods bent over and damp. The night has dropped onto the roof of lineman’s hut no. 13. Sofija is in her mother’s room. From the bed she looks at the ceiling, into the dusty, flowery light fitting. On the bedside table a candle stuck onto a saucer burns. The light is gentle and yellow.
The black dress is thrown over the chair. The uniform full of damp and cold earth lies crumpled on the floor. Her nightgown is twisted around her throat in a noose. His eyes are two black wells. In them, Sofija sees her mother’s face.
She turns away.
The shadow pulses on the wall. About the Author:Magdalena Blažević is a short-story writer from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Her first short story collection will be published this year in publishing house Fraktura, Croatia. She won several prizes for best short story. Some of them are translated and published in English, Russian, Macedonian and Hungarian.