Later the same day, I ate stew as Granma washed clothes. Mani had come in with another black eye, defiant at her silent glare. I didn’t bother asking who it was this time – it was someone older, younger, weaker, stronger; they were laughing, they weren’t laughing. Mani could fight an empty room.
“Saw your girlfriend just now.”
“She’s not my girlfriend.”
“Jana Zabowski says you sit behind their fence with her for hours, so what’re you doing if she’s not your girlfriend?”
“Granma, did you know he’s got a girlfriend?”
Mani took a slurp of stew. “Don’t think much of your taste in women.”
A school had been set up in what used to be the church. I attended. I knew this was important, I had to learn, but the classes were confused; we were all ages, all different levels. I’d forgotten a lot, and when asked a question, the first things that sprang to mind weren’t the history of our people, or English verbs, they were the eerie twilights of Jilla. Mixing her stories with the dry facts I half-remembered, my responses from the pews were surprising at best. After a few tries, our teachers stopped asking me. Another puzzle, too small to solve.
Jilla never went to the school. I knew that she wouldn’t be there without asking. Just like she wasn’t laughing with the girls by the bridge, or pegging out washing like they did. It was something of a surprise to adults when they saw her at all. Most of the time she was invisible.
“Go to the Simonic’s and see if there’s any bread for me.” Granma chopped vegetables expertly onto a plank. Her hands were cold red from the water in the bucket beside her.
“Granma we don’t need bread.”
“Do as you’re told!”
She knew why I didn’t want to go – the Simonic house was up by the bridge, next to the checkpoint. Soldiers who weren’t soldiers but peacekeepers were there. Down here I could pretend to forget about their polyglot flag from no country.
“They mean well,” Granma always said. That was enough for now.
It was cold that day, twilight already when I stepped out the door. The rubble road was treacherous with its shadows and broken glass and rock. I moved quickly, knowing where the obstacles were: a pit in the road led to a cellar where a hermit grew plants that no-one had seen. The firs to my left, behind where the doctor used to live, concealed a pentagram, no grass ever grew there, and it glowed under the thinnest crescent moon. I knew that the bridge spanned a void, that the ground disappeared below it every night and instead the view was of stars, moving slowly. I knew that the graves were empty and those stars were, each one of them, a soul protecting our village, night after night. Only Jilla and I knew these things.