The following is from No. 88 of AGNI. AGNI is a literary magazine housed at Boston University that often publishes early-career writers, many of whom are translated into English for the first time. Faruk Šehić is a post-Yugoslav poet, novelist, and journalist whose books have been translated into a dozen languages.He received the EU Prize for Literature for his 2006 novel Quiet Flows the Una.
This transpired at a time when I was still afraid of the dark in the stairwell. The darkness rose from the center of the Earth, spread toward the surface like a web of capillaries, and exited just where the stairwells of tower blocks were. Our block was old, its facade dark-colored, with streaks of green and tiny spangles that gleamed in the sun, that gleamed in the light of the street lamps. The darkness was in league with all the stairwells in the world known to me, which comprised a few streets in town.
The street lamps were special, each one a cluster of three great white orbs on a metal post. Somebody dubbed them mother’s tears, and older boys would make snowballs, press stones into the hearts of them, and with these loaded snowballs, break the tears of the street lamps. The town was full of broken white spheres hanging from curved lamp posts. Although mother’s tears seldom actually came in full complements of three, they shone brightly, especially when they were capped with snow and heralded the arrival of the new year—the smell of exploded firecrackers, the smell of snow in the air, the great excitement of the life ahead.
I developed particular techniques for driving the dark from the stairwell, because at the time there was no electric light in the basement and the dark pushed unstoppably upward, threatening to overcome what little daylight penetrated the cloudy glass of the stairwell door.
One of the ways to beat it was to take a deep breath and run up the stairs to the third floor, where we lived. So I dove through the darkness, running up the stairs, only lightly holding onto the wooden banister because my feet were barely touching the cold stone of the stairs.
At times I would overcome the fear, except my heartbeat would give me away when I reached our front door. The door had our surname and only my father’s first name written on it. To the left was another door, our neighbors’ apartment. The small landing in front of our door and theirs was protected by a metal railing and a wooden handrail carved with names, the children of the tenants who had lived there before us. One of the names was François, whom I’d never met. Fifi the cat napped on the handrail all the time. He often dribbled and was missing a few teeth, as he was very old.
Fifi was our common stairwell pet.
At times when I didn’t know how to overcome the fear, because the dark was as thick as rye dough, I would call out to my mom to come out on the balcony and ask her to open the front door. Only then would I dare step into the darkness and boldly go where no man had gone before. But this happened on rare occasions, for what if Mom wasn’t home, what if our apartment was empty, what if my nemesis the dark had already moved in?
On such occasions I called Greta for help. Greta lived one floor below us. She was a teacher, long retired. Fifi was in fact her cat—Greta had a way with cats and animals in general.
Her apartment had always been an unknown territory to me. It was tantalizing, but I respected Greta’s reclusiveness, and courtesy dictated that I knock and wait for her to invite me in. Sometimes I would wait just inside her dark hallway, where the temperature was always the same, neither cold nor hot. At times it would happen that Greta had gone out, and I would knock, unaware that she was away, and go in even though she wasn’t there to tell me to. Curiosity would then gradually overcome courtesy, which in those days was still considered an indispensable virtue.
There was a cabinet in Greta’s hallway, and on it a little metal frog with a neck that moved left and right. I loved amphibians and sun-loving reptiles, and therefore also objects which imitated them. The colors there were at the darker end of the spectrum and they emphasized the solemnity and mystique of the hallway, a path to even greater secrets. I marveled at the objects in Greta’s apartment, which was abundant in vintage posh. It was like a museum, and she its unimpeachable curator, though Time itself wanted to be the curator of our lives. At Greta’s, different laws of a different physics applied. Green woodpeckers landed on the parapet of her sitting-room window, which looked out on a garden with a disheveled walnut tree whose crown was like a baobab’s, and she fed them strips of suet that she trimmed off pieces of beef.
Greta would open her front door and I would zoom up the stairs like a space shuttle. As I crossed our doorstep I would make sure to thank her, although I was a serious little boy, not too keen on formalities or the petty bourgeois norms of behavior.
In addition to the mystery that her flat exuded and the deep shadows cast by the well-kept antique furniture in her bedroom, on top of her love of animals wild and domestic, Greta baked cakes and cookies no one else in town could match. She had brought recipes from Slovenia inherited from her Austrian forebears. Greta’s maiden name was Falkner. The very word inspired awe for a faraway Alpine world.
Greta was a virtuoso. In the afternoon, the smell of her kitchen, the wonderful aroma of butter cookies, would seep in through the crack under our door. Each of the cookies had a different shape—Greta had a collection of tin molds.Then I’d hear her call out my name, which meant I should run down the stairs to her door, where she stood in a house dress holding a bowl full of delectable stars, rectangles, horses, rosettes, all still hot. Each time, I would stare at the fleshy lump on the inside of her little finger, like a marble pushed under her skin, but the sheen of her golden ring would avert my attention from that which I didn’t fully understand.
Greta decorated a tree for Christmas and New Year’s, while we did so only for the New Year, as we were an atheist family and revered the values of the sickle and hammer. Greta respected the Red Star, but she also venerated the Star of Bethlehem. And we respected Greta, so Christmas, too, was respected in our home, although only Santa, in his red uniform with white trim, had the right of entry. I was just interested in presents, I knew nothing about the birth of Godman at the time.
In addition to being my own personal Lady of the Light, Greta taught me many skills. A boy at school threatened to beat me up once, and I asked Greta what to do. She told me to repay him in kind. I did, and the aggressive boy came to fear me and gave up.
“You’ve got to tell him,” Greta said, “‘Why, you damn . . .’”
After that I knew how to treat people. It’s important always to be brave and never to give an inch.That’s how I went through life—no retreating, no cowardice. Seasons went by on the grand calendar of cosmic proportions.
We were even nicked by a smallish war. It grazed our trajectory. Greta was with us even then, when the smallish war took us roughly by the hand and moved us to a strange town, made first-rate refugees out of us. She could have taken asylum in the country of her ancient origins, but she didn’t want that, for her life was here, where she’d ended up by order of the Communist Party because young graduates were needed for the reconstruction effort after the world war.
During our smallish war, Greta did the same things all the time, more or less. She helped with cooking, read books, and smoked passionately. She played solitaire with my sister, who was her personal refugee commissioner, and the two of them made up a separate, semi-autonomous cell within our familial refugee formation. Greta would dictate, and my sister write down, letters in German, which would then be sent via the Red Cross to Greta’s primeval homeland. Thus we kept in touch, through letters in the German language, with the outside world, which didn’t seem to care all that much about our smallish war.
“Greta decorated a tree for Christmas and New Year’s, while we did so only for the New Year, as we were an atheist family and revered the values of the sickle and hammer. Greta respected the Red Star, but she also venerated the Star of Bethlehem.”
We had a cat and a dog, although we were displaced from our stairwell, from the street lit by trios of mother’s tears. I even missed my good old darkness from the basement.
The smallish war was soon over, and we returned to our stairwell, to our respective floors. I forgot to mention, when we fled at the beginning, we left behind two of Fifi’s descendants, and we didn’t find them when we came back. One of them walked with his belly touching the ground all the time, he was cautious and frightful, so we nicknamed him Mousie. Mousie may have survived by withdrawing to the catacombs and fraternizing with proper rats, like the ones I used to come across in the basement, among the metal dustbins, which were of a kind no longer made. In times of confusion there was room for unnatural alliances, even between biological enemies such as cats and mice. Be that as it may, when we returned home the tuber on Greta’s pinky had sent forth roots, but we had new kittens from our refugee-camp kitty, a promise that life in our new old stairwell would never become boring.
We traveled through time and space till cosmic silver started to nestle in our hair. The train had probably wandered off into one of those by-road dimensions, which wasn’t difficult to achieve when you were little and had the power to see a miracle wherever you pleased. Some alighted along the way and stayed at their stations and we never met again. Greta, too, alighted once. A heavy smoker, she went to buy a box of sulphur-head Dolac matches. Although she was many times older than me, Greta had the power to see miracles, because she knew how to rejoice.
I leaned out the window precariously with steam sticking to my face and bits of coal getting in my eyes, I wanted to see Greta one more time. I saw only the tail of her house dress, and Fifi at her side, his tail touching the hem of her dress. Above her head flew the same large birds that she had been feeding her entire life. Green woodpeckers, ball-shaped robins, blue tits, jays, even the woodpecker that used to peck at the thick bark of the walnut tree behind our block, all larger than life. In the distance gleamed a Christmas tree the size of a house. It was decorated with kind words that could atone for human malice. I saw Godman sitting by the living tree, waiting for people to gather. That wasn’t natural, for the redeemer was supposed to be a baby, but what could ever be natural in a world in which fancy dictated reality? I knew that at this station Christmas never stopped. I also knew that Greta was headed for the great tree, and I prayed to Godman, though I wasn’t good at praying, to help Greta and give her eternal life. She deserved nothing less for helping people and animals. She had helped me beat the dark, and taught me how to be brave.
The locomotive’s horn screamed one last time, cosmic snow started driving down, and we had to continue our journey, which began at the local station, where we purchased tickets at a counter manned by a serious-looking man with short blond hair. He had an apparatus of some kind, like a soda machine, he pulled red levers, pressed control buttons, and the ticket popped out, small and rigid, made of cardboard. You could travel to the end of the world with it.
He said to me: “Antananarivo.”
I readily replied: “Madagascar.”
A geography test was compulsory before you got your ticket, for how could you travel if you didn’t like geography? Before handing you the ticket, he would regard you and shake his head as if in worry. He was a skeptical seller of trips to distant places.
“Any object, wholly or partially immersed in a fluid,” I replied, without much thinking, “is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the object.”
You had to know your physics if you were going to be a globetrotter, because without Archimedes’ principle a boat wouldn’t be able to stay afloat, nor would balloons be able to fly. The ticket seller often flew trial balloons which could leave the Earth’s orbit, cross the line fifty kilometers overhead, and sail off into proper space.
The third question was the easiest. The answer was, “The skin. The skin is the largest organ of the human body.” The skin gives us our definite form. If you were going to be a committed traveler, you needed to know the boundaries of you. Although every real traveler also had an astral skin, which had no limits or bounds.
Due to the nature of his work, the ticket seller had to be starwise, he had to know the stars as a clockmaker knows works. Atop the railway station was a small tower with a rusty weathervane, a cast-iron rooster, and the seller sat in that tower night after night. He had both an astrolabe and a compass. He knew how to operate a sextant too, although there was no sea in sight.
The short-haired blond ticket seller used a vintage telescope to see if the stars were aligned for our travels. He had every passenger’s file and knew all our desired destinations. Before each sale he would spend the night in the tower, alone, surrounded by stars. His astrolabe never let him down. He measured the local time relative to the longitude of a given place, as it was vital for us to know what time it was at the geographical point we wanted to reach. Because if we were passing through time zones ahead, we were traveling to the future, and that was something we had to be prepared for. The only thing he was unable to measure with his astrolabe was the azimuth of our hearts.
In the morning, sleep-deprived after all the astronomical measuring, the short-haired, blond ticket seller was drowsy and sour. I bought a ticket to the Bering Strait, because I liked the sound of the words that made up the hydronym and Hyperborea was close to my heart. I am still traveling and have yet to reach my final stop.
Someday I will set my eyes upon the far North. I will see the beluga whales whose white bodies are like stitches in the cold aquamarine, rhythmically submerging and emerging, surrounded by bergs of solitary ice. I will stand on the spot where the sky is closest to every boy’s head. The stars are up there, warm and twinkly. Surely Greta is there, too, in the celestial metropolis. She has her own flat, her own stairwell. Her head is in the clouds of smoke from her favorite cheap, strong cigarettes. She’s playing solitaire, and her cards are made of the sparkling matter of celestial bodies. Fifi is there, too, asleep on a banister of frozen comets.
From AGNI 88. Used with permission of AGNI. Copyright © 2018 by Faruk Šehić. English translation copyright © 2018 by Mirza Purić.