The Deathwatch

Wood termites gnaw away at the womb of the furniture. Underneath the smooth surface lies a labyrinth of endlessly long narrow tunnels. Black columns within. They tap away in the throes of passion and foretell the immediate death of Anka Kujadin, the wife of Žarko the carpenter. From the miniscule openings a fine, floury sawdust pours out onto the earthen floor. The larvae settled into the wood last summer, on the same day Anka fell ill and took to her bed.

Midnight struck ages ago and the fire in the stove is petering out. A rope stretches over her with limp, still damp, children’s shirts. On the top of the showcase, a sooty lantern throws elongated, flickering shadows around the cramped kitchen. In the middle there is a wide low table. The low benches have been tidily put away underneath. Against the wall, under the black crucifix, straw mats in a row. On them, like on small biers, children’s bodies are stretched out, each a hand’s breadth longer than the one next to it. All are asleep except for Mara, the eldest daughter. Next to her is an empty mat without a pillow. Mara has been up nights listening. Mother’s pained sobbing from her room and the unbearable tapping in the roof beams and window frames. Not even her prayers can silence them.

The door opens, and the shadows flicker more strongly. The house is doused by a cloud of biting, damp air. Žarko’s head is under his collar. His hair is a shiny black raven. His symmetrical, long moustached face tired and damp. Under his arm are the heavy oak boards that he has just taken off the wagon at the railway station. His brother Nikola, the railway guard, didn’t see anything this evening either. He throws the boards under the window. He closes the door and lowers the bar into place. He looks around for something to cover them but finds nothing.

He opens the furnace and blows strongly onto the already greyed pieces of wood. Ashy flakes rise into the air. The wood reignites hellishly, like eyes. Embers scatter, covering it. It burns. The firewood is dry, throwing sparks. Žarko’s face flares from the heat. He rises and undresses in the middle of the kitchen. He throws the raincoat into the corner. On the floor lie discarded his dirty trousers and sweaty, bloody shirt. Onto the flames he first tosses the shirt, then the trousers. The fire is momentarily cloaked but blazes into life again in wild flames. The furnace opening is a red-hot cave. It roars and beckons mercilessly.

In the middle of the night, black smoke spirals from the chimney on the house of Žarko Kujadin. The night is starry. If any soul were awake in the village, they would see that something unusual was going on there. Žarko’s movements are followed only by Mara’s half-lidded eyes. Her thoughts are etched into the walls. In crooked vibrating silhouettes.

Žarko takes the lantern from the showcase and douses it. The shadows are eaten by the dark. Mara crosses herself.

It’s much colder in Anka’s room. She’s sleeping on her back under a warm feather quilt. She is peaceful tonight, exhaling in pain from time to time. Žarko crawls into bed silently. He towers over her like a destructive storm.

He clamps his hand strongly over her mouth. Anka’s eyes widen in horror. With his other hand he raises her nightgown and spreads her thighs. Her body has curved in on itself, like a worm. Wasted and dry. Beneath his weight it breaks like glass. Some drops of bloody sweat from Žarko’s face fall into her eyes. Then the warm, thick seed spreads through her womb. His body relaxes, dripping over hers. Anka moans in pain. She is trembling. She wipes her misty eyes with her sleeve. He rolls onto his side of the bed and falls asleep immediately. Anka lowers her nightgown and wipes her crotch with its edge. Under the feather quilt there is a strong odour. With great difficulty she rolls onto her side. Under her pillow there is a cold scythe. Sharpened. Pointy. She holds the handle firmly and closes her eyes.

It’s dawn. The fire is completely out. In the yard, the first frost has fallen onto the chrysanthemums. Mara stands at the window decorated by ice crystals. She looks across the Lužnica at the Arambašić home. In front of it, covered female heads have gathered. Wailing and howling.  

*

Mara is in the plum orchard below the house. She is sitting under a tree with her head leaning against the rough, chapped bark. Heavy branches above. Bending under their load. Supported by thin, high props. Pails full of the juicy fruit around her. A summer dress on her, a blackened apron over it. Her legs are naked. Her feet are bare. Her toes are stubbed, chronic wounds. Her face is turned towards the sun. Her eyes are closed. Her black hair a landing strip for bees and butterflies. The same, yellow, butterflies that followed her last summer.

The eyes under the eyelids are restless. She rushes down the slope with Ana. Large carry baskets on their backs. Rakes dragging behind them. The grass is tall and only their spindly torsos stick out. Their hair is braided. Their laughter rings. Beneath the slope of lady fern. Ominous and hissing. The heap spills from the carry basket. Ana’s knee is taut and white. It presses into the rustling heap. The snake’s teeth are thin and sharp. Two bloody, purple points mark her knee. They return up the slope slowly. Arm in arm. The yellow butterflies land on their white dresses and hair. Ana’s body is heavy. She falls onto the yellowed grass. The butterflies fly high and vanish. They returned later and landed on the wooden cross.

Yoo-hoo!!!

She recognises Vranjka Arambašić’s voice.

Mara’s eyes open.

Yoo-hoo!!!

The wind rises suddenly and rocks the branches. Some of the fruit drops to the ground and rolls down the slope. The sun disappears for a moment and Mara’s eyes go dark. They follow Vranjka as she climbs the Lužnica to Vrelo, the source. Her clothes and a well-bleached laundry bat under her arm. Old poplar. She is chesty, with shamelessly wide hips.

Mara gets up and stands beneath the open window. From within escape smoke and children’s crying. She is pressed up against the wall like a cat. From around the corner she peers into her father’s workshop. Žarko stands at the door, his face bright. A shot of spirits in his hand. He downs it. He looks around him a few times and hurries after Vranjka into the forest darkness.

Beneath Mara’s feet the grass is ticklish and dry. Painful. Her dress is raised above her knee. Her legs are thin and bony. Goat’s legs.

The Lužnica murmurs louder in the forest. It is only disturbed by birdsong. Clean and clear. The air is cold, dispersing into tiny droplets.

At Vrelo, the water courses clear and icy. Drops thread together on the hairs of her arms. The drops contain the forest and the birds. She can’t see her father or Vranjka, but she can hear their voices. She follows her witch’s laughter mixed with the roar of the water current. Mara’s step is soft, catlike.

Vranjka’s dress is pushed back. Scrunched up beneath the neck. Her breasts squeezed by Žarko’s calloused fists. Large rancid sweat stains under his armpits. White, firm female legs crossed across his back. The thighs bearing bruises the colour of blood sausage. Žarko’s head dives to her throat. Blood thirsty bat. Vranjka smothers her animal screeches, but the leaves beneath betray them by rustling in rhythm.

Mara’s legs rush down the forest path horrified. Fine dust sticks to her wounds, thorns prick. Her blood pounds loudly in her ears. She sits on the grass and holds on to the vegetable garden’s fence. In her eyes, the worms are eating up her tomatoes. The leaves are speckled and dry. The door has been left open. The chickens are feasting on the remains.

Children’s shrieks come from the house. Mara runs towards them.

The child is in the wooden playpen with its hands raised high. His tears have moistened the dry snot on its cheeks. Its little legs slosh in the urine that has run out of its nappy.

Boiling soup on the stove. At the bottom there’s just a little bit of water left and two yellow chicken legs with the claws cut off. Mara removes the pot from the fire and puts it on a wet board. It smokes and sizzles. She takes the child in her arms and the crying subsides.

Anka is lying on the bed, her forehead red-hot. She convulses feverishly. Her eyes open. Her cheeks damp. Her fists cold and cramped. Mara looks around in a panic with the child in her arms. She goes out in front of the house and sees her father coming down the slope. She beckons him by waving.

The first dark falls. Anka’s body is calm. The sky has gone black. Above the forest it is torn by lightning. It thunders and the earth shakes.

Vranjka descends from Vrelo with wet laundry over her arms. She passes by the Kujadin house. The door is open. In the house it’s dark. The lanterns haven’t been lit yet. Vranjka knocks on the door and goes in.

“How’s your mother?” she asks Mara, putting down the clothes. Mara doesn’t reply. She looks in on Anka and covers her with her shadow. Once again lightning strikes frightfully and illuminates Vranjka’s face. Her eyes glisten.

*

Your time has come, too, Vranjka. I can’t see you from the window, but I know you’re dragging yourself after the coffin. You couldn’t even wait for the snow to thaw. See how the hills are patchy, there’s still ice in the forest’s shadow. Not even the orchids have broken the ground. A current of stinking mud has flown from the slopes into the Lužnica. The little bridge was nearly washed away.

I wonder what on earth old Rosa said to you when you left; did anyone bless you on the threshold? Does your son know that you never mean to return; did he cry? Father won’t have somebody else’s child under his roof.

I knew we were in for bad luck the moment you started roaming around the house like a bitch. How slyly you beckoned to him. He followed you wherever you went. I saw everything, Vranjka.  I followed the two of you like a shadow. You moaned and wheezed beneath him like a cow. And later you would enter our house like death. You were just waiting for mother to die. And your disgusting buckets of milk. Just so that you know, I spilled them down the privy as soon as you left.

You didn’t have to wait long for mother to die. Do you remember how it turned to snow that day? The acacia pods withered and froze. As twisted as mother’s body. Do you know that you can rot inside, and be as dry as a prune on the outside? When you got the news that she had died you shrieked with joy. They heard you. Even then two boxes were leaning against the wall of father’s workshop. The first was the coffin for mother, and the other was a wedding chest for you and your rags.

They could barely lay mother out in the coffin; they had to break her arms and legs. And even then, like now, you walked after the coffin. It was carried by my father and three of my brothers. Just like they’re carrying yours into our house.

But do you know, Vranjka, what he made your chest from? From the same timber with which he smashed your husband’s head on the wagon. The timber is bloodied on the inside. You can’t wash wood. Did you know that night that your husband wouldn’t be coming back, or did you wait for him by the window?

My father burnt all of his clothes, I saw everything. Flames blazed out of the furnace as if from hell.

In this house, Vranjka, everything is falling apart. It is as hollow as a rotten tooth. My fingers press into the window frame. The tapping can’t be heard anymore. Everything has gone silent. It’s only a question of time when the roof is going to come down on us. Everything is rancid, it still smells of illness. That smell cannot be forced out. We open windows in vain.

What are you going to do with so many children huddled next to the stove? I don’t know what you’re going to feed them. All the money went on the alcohol kegs. You should see how big they are, you can live in them.

Welcome, Vranjka. We’ve got your bridal bed ready. Under the pillow a sharpened scythe awaits you.

Magdalena Blažević (1982) is short-story writer from Bosnia and Herzegovina. She was born and grew up in Žepče, a small town in Central Bosnia. She studied English and Croatian Literature in Mostar where she lives and works. She won several prizes for the best short story. Her first short-story collection „Celebration“ was published this year.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here