Back at our place I hid the flower under the narrow trestle I slept on. My first instinct: to keep it from Granma and Mani. As I lay down, and the blanket covered my head I looked at the utter black in front me. I could hear Granma wiping breadcrumbs off the table with the flat of her hand, opening the door and slapping them off onto the ground for the birds. I allowed myself to think about Jilla. Was she lying as I was, facing an emptiness filled with a single flower, or was she busy, creating, weaving, casting spells and saving it all up to tell me tomorrow?
Jilla was always absent. But I still listened to her in the evenings on the orange plastic crate, even though it was almost too cold to do anything of the sort. Granma was surprised that I was out so much after dark, but quickly forgot about the surprise and remembered she hadn’t peeled the carrots yet, or that she had to go up to the Simonic’s. I was swiftly drifting beyond her reach.
Mani wasn’t a kid any more. I saw this with envy and pride when he pulled a bloody t-shirt off one afternoon at the table. His shoulders were broad and muscular, muscles moving beneath the skin, powerful and attractive to me with my scrawny frame. His chest and stomach had real dark hairs and he smelled of dirt and clean sweat.
He’d started smoking thin spitty roll-ups and when Granma was out he’d sit at the table with one between his fingers, staring at the wood grain. He spoke less and was distracted by his own thoughts a lot of the time. I became worried, protective of him. Six years older than me, he was soon going to be one of the first young men the village would have since the fighting broke out. His friends and enemies too, they became aware of the eyes of our village on them, the expectations that no-one voiced, but which were heaped on to them from all the female households, so tired of being the only strong ones left.
During these few short weeks I remembered that I had a brother, that this was lucky. I stopped sneering at him over the stew bowls and began asking him questions. At first he was rude, wary of my sudden interest in his opinions, and would quite often give me a slap for what he suspected was sarcasm. But soon he got used to it, and for the first time we started to talk as brothers instead of as kids. Even Granma noticed.
“Mani, you and your brother talking together, it’s good to hear.” A rare pause in the ceaseless timetable of housework. Mani nodded briefly to her as she spoke to us from her seat at the table. “It’s good Mani, I’m tired of you fighting.”
“He’s your brother.”
“Yeah and he’s a pain in the ass.”
“Shut up shit-face.”
“You can both say what you like. I know you talk, that’s good enough. One day you’ll be glad about it.”
We both glowered with embarrassment at this unfamiliar exposure. Granma took a sip of her hot drink. “Mani wash your hands before you sit down – you’re filthy.”
“Mani, how come the Simonic’s have a nice house and everything?”
Mani looked up from the roll-up he was making and then back down again.
“Brena’s been lucky, that’s all,” he lit his cigarette, “she’s taken the opportunities that came up.”
“What do you mean? She sells the soldiers bread too?”
Mani snorted, smoke puffing out of his nose dragon-like. “Among other things.”
I frowned, not wanting to ask more. What else was Brena selling? Not sex. Granma would rather have starved than buy her bread from a woman who slept with soldiers. What else was there to sell? The village had nothing.
I thought of Jilla’s perfect flower. There were things I didn’t know about, secrets I barely wanted to understand. There were connections sparking like train tracks when metal wheels scrape over them in the dark, on the way to unfamiliar places.