The rain stopped on a Wednesday. This was the first day Jilla ever spoke to me, in the cold sunshine and mud.
“You’re Mani’s brother.”
“He had a fight with Conrad.”
“So what?” Scuffed feet in unlaced shoes.
“It’s my birthday soon, I’m getting a Walkman.”
“I bet you don’t.”
Jilla looked at me. Her hair blew in her eyes. “Can I listen?”
I leaned up against the fence. “Only if you don’t tell anyone.”
That was the first secret Jilla and I ever shared. She was right of course – I never had a Walkman. Instead, on my eleventh birthday, I listened to Jilla, sitting on an orange plastic crate behind the Zabowskis’, where no-one else could hear.
Jilla told me stories. And Jilla told stories that swept dirt from brick, heated the wind and straightened crooked fences. Time froze, ran backward, speeded on. Thinking myself too old for tales I’d pretended at first not to listen; throwing rocks at Jan Creusel’s tin roof, teasing his dog – anything. But I always found myself silent, crouched by her, leaning forward to catch what spilled out, not knowing how long I’d been there or how Jilla could know about the things that she did.
As if blowing across my life with the ice from the frozen Brothers Grimm, Jilla’s stories were far from comforting. Frequently unfair, and blotted with as much death as life, Jilla told me (straight-faced and staring ahead into a distance only she could see) about turncoat kings, starving cats feeding off mute beggars, and poisoned fir bark tea.
Jilla’s fathomless world was vivid against the corrugated steel of our lives. Crimson and ebony, her stories poured richly over the bullet holes in the walls, grew glossily around the graves of the men and fell sparkling onto the cracked slabs of concrete underfoot.
When I tried retelling these stories to Granma as she swept up, the pictures I reproduced were poor forgeries, faded and sketchy.
“That girl’s uncle should be making sure she washes a bit more often, instead of telling her tales to pass on to you.”
“She makes them up herself.”
“She always has dirty feet,” said Granma, as if that put a lid on it.
What Granma really meant was that she didn’t want me playing with Jilla. Adults didn’t warm to her as they did to other kids, her eyes were too empty and she barely spoke. But sitting on the orange plastic crate I knew something about Jilla that no-one else did.