Chapter 14: Jilla and Me novella

The next day proved cold and sunny.  Mani was out the back of our place, sawing some wood to make shelves with a new saw he’d bought.  I put my fleece jacket on, and wandered out.

“Hold this end while I measure up, can you?”

I knelt on the cold ground and Mani bent back to the wood with a tape measure.  He made a mark with a pencil, which he then tucked behind his ear. 

“Mani.”

“Mm.”

“What did you mean the other day about Brena?  When you said she sold things to the soldiers?”

Mani didn’t look up, and spoke as if addressing the wood. 

“She said you knew something.”

My heart jumped, and I swallowed.  “No-one’s told me.  I guessed.”

“Guessed what?”

Clever.  “About Brena baking something into the bread.  And selling it.”

Mani put the tape measure in his pocket and stood up.  He looked down at me, still crouched and holding the end of the piece of wood.  I was dead.

“This is the first and last time you are ever going to mention this,” Mani looked into my guts as he spoke, his voice like metal.  “You don’t know what you’re talking about, so leave it alone.  The village needs you to leave it alone.  I’m only going to say it once.”

I stared at him, petrified.

“If I hear whispers that you’ve been asking questions again, I’ll batter the living shit out of you.  I don’t care what it takes.  Have you got that?” 

Slowly, creakily, I nodded once.  The inside of my mouth was dry as bone.

 

I had run, gasping in the cold, to the stream.  The whole village, that’s what he’d said.  The whole village was involved.  In dozens of other cellars, belonging to people I had known all my life, harvests of red flowers were growing, slowly.  The pollen, whatever it was, had sent me to sleep and I’d barely touched it.  Who knew what it did when it was eaten, or cooked. 

I’d seen men exist in a drugged world before now, when the fighting was at its fiercest and no-one ever returned once they’d left us.  Unable to cope, they’d gone with minds focused on other things, just as real. They’d said goodbye to their families with empty eyes, barely recognising them.  Seeing them only as colours.

I stared at the stream.  The sky had fallen towards earth, laden with grey cloud.  I knew what it was that was pulling at Jilla’s feet, dragging her away from life.  I had thought her stories were from a vivid imagination.  I hadn’t known she was an addict.

Her time at Jan Creusel’s – all those hours – she must have been exposed to enormous drifts of flowers over the months, maybe years, that this had been going on.  And Leni, he was sure to be involved – his cellar was probably being used too.  Jilla was surrounded with the pollen, day and night.  No-one had noticed. 

It began to snow.  I stared at the fir trees as they crowded innumerable on the opposite bank, silently turning white.  Their lethal shelter seemed tempting.  As the snow started to fall thick and fast, I turned and ran as I’d never run before, back to the village.

 

 

 

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Chapter 13: Jilla and Me novella

I had to mistrust my own brother. A hideous feeling crawled in my gut.  The people I had always seen as fixtures around me, immobile, like trees in a forest, were moving abruptly. As a gust of wind whipped round the clearing I turned my face to the shadow of the firs, bent forward, and vomited all the food I’d eaten that night onto the frozen ground.  Wretched, but somehow feeling better, I grabbed a small fistful of snow from the north side of the nearest tree, and wiped it over and into my mouth, spitting it out.

I had to stand in Mani’s way.  Jan Creusel had said there weren’t many people left who could do it.  I gasped in some arctic air, as if rising from a deep dive, and looked down at the house full of strangers. The rest of the village lay dark and empty.  This was the only opportunity I would have.

Slowly, I crossed the clearing and circled round the doctor’s house, keeping out of the pools of light shining through the windows.  At the road, I headed down the hill, past empty homes, breaking into a run as I got further from the party.  Within five minutes I was at the standpipe, looking at the dark shape of Jan Creusel’s place.  I had never felt so scared in my whole life. 

Buruk was guarding the door.  We looked at each other.  Buruk knew I wanted to get in, just as I knew he wasn’t going to let me.  Our Mexican stand-off lasted thirty seconds and then I remembered something.  Turning, I ran back to our place, and scrabbled underneath my bed.  Nothing.  Panicking, I swept the floor blindly with my hands, feeling dust, odd nails and a single sock. Then my hand brushed against something sticklike and dry.  I grasped it, and backed out from under the bed, sitting back on my heels.   I held the flower that Jilla had given me, dead and dried out from many weeks lying undisturbed on the floor in our home, where the stove had been kept constantly burning. 

I crept back outside, looking quickly round.  No-one.  I approached Jan’s house, holding the flower out in front of me, and pretending more bravery than I felt, advanced towards Buruk.  The full moon shone on his silvery coat, and his breath came in small clouds in the cold air.  I pointed the flower at him, and he sniffed at it, cautiously and for what seemed an eternity.  Then he whined, and lay down.  I stepped past him and tried the front door.  It opened and swung back with a creak, showing Jan’s moonlit kitchen.

Jan’s kitchen was better than ours.  He had more room, and his table was new-looking.  I was distracted by photos he had on the wall, black and white.  It was too dim to see them well, but I thought I recognised a young Brena in at least two of them.  I had to get on. 

I scanned the room, and caught sight of a small door in the corner, which led me down five wooden steps into a cellar.  It was utterly dark, and I struck a match from a box on Jan’s kitchen table.  It flared to show me that a light bulb hung from the ceiling, and I spent six matches looking for a switch, finding it eventually by the door in the kitchen.

At first the cellar looked as I had expected: shelves along the walls stuffed full of old tins of paint, nails, tools and bits of wood.  There were two long tables in the centre of the room, both bare.  I looked harder, and sniffed.  The smell I had detected at Brena’s was here too, fresher somehow.  Then I noticed several large pestles and mortar on one of the shelves, where they had no business being.  I reached up for one.  It was heavy and awkward, the pestle sliding round the rim of the mortar as I tilted it off the shelf, making a loud scraping sound.

Inside, there was a thin layer of yellow dust at the centre, where something had been ground.  It smelled strongly, and I ran my finger through it and then touched it with my tongue.  It tasted of nothing – Jilla was right about that.  I held up my dry flower to the light and examined its centre.  There, I could just see some tiny yellow specks, some remaining pollen, on the withered remains. 

Jilla had told me about hundreds of these flowers, crimson.  Mine had been the only one left the next time she looked.  What the hell were they? My head felt thick and heavy, and I suddenly felt very tired. I had no idea how long I’d been here, and it abruptly felt essential to leave.  I raised the pestle and mortar over my head and pushed it back onto its shelf.  Then I went back to Jan’s kitchen and switched off the light.  Moonlight razored in through the window. 

At home, I carefully put my dead flower back under my bed.  Then I lay down in the dark, and unexpectedly fell asleep.

 

 

 

Chapter 12: Jilla and Me novella

That evening we held a feast to celebrate the doctor’s return and the completion of the road to Srenja that had brought him back to us.  It was never going to be a feast like we used to have when people got married or a baby was born, but it seemed like a gluttony of indulgence.  At around nine o’clock that night we all packed into the doctor’s house, which was still complete and almost large enough.

Granma carried a casserole in a round earthenware pot, the smell of which was making me drool.  Mani and I followed her into the house; I almost mad with excitement at the press of people and the confused babble.  It seemed like my whole world was in that house that night: Mani and his friends, slouching eating and smoking round the doorway, laughing dirtily and watching Jana Zabowski’s bum as she climbed upstairs.  Conrad, tall and blond, was with his friends too, in the kitchen, drinking rough red wine from mugs and teasing younger brothers as they ran shrieking through the mob.

Brena had baked more bread, hot and doughy with a smell of warm summer afternoons spent lying in long grass. She and Jan Creusel were talking, softly, by the window, and I saw now that Granma was right: Jan loved Brena still.  Leni and Jilla were also present: it was shocking to see Jilla in a swarm of people as if she were a part of the life of the village.  Even so, she stood silently next to Leni, not eating or drinking, staring at the loaves of bread as if daring them to move.

The sound of raised voices came from upstairs, and a thud followed by Rolfe, one of Mani’s hangers-on, sliding on his behind down the stairs, with a grin from ear to ear.  I stood not far from my brother’s group, having detached myself from Granma as quickly as possible, but not quite daring to walk up to them and risk a public put-down.  Mani was not averse to calling me humiliating names in front of his friends, when he felt like it.

 

Rolfe was the current focus of the group, so for the moment I was safe.

“I told you you wouldn’t get anywhere with her.”

“Not for want of trying, you should take notes from me; she’s never going to notice you unless you make the first move.”

“Even if the first move’s on your ass down the stairs?”

Laughter, more drink.

“Jana’s a good girl.  Worse luck.”

A few sniggers.

“Not what Conrad’s been saying.”

“What would that fuck know?”

“More than you might think.”

“You believe a word he says?  Come on.”

“I heard it from Leena, she knows.  Why would she lie?”

“To wind you up.  To wind us all up.  Girl’s a fucking tease.  No way has Conrad got anywhere near Jana.”

“Not so sure.”

Mani sneered in disgust and poured wine down his throat in a move that was deft and practised.  He was drunk and getting drunker.  I hoped a fight wasn’t where it was all headed, but from experience it looked as sure as eggs make omelettes.  Conrad was only a room away, also drunk, also with friends.  The only thing that had prevented Mani starting something already was the fact that most of the village stood between him and Conrad, laughing and eating fresh-baked bread as guests in the doctor’s home.  The rules of hospitality still outweighed the demands of Mani’s stunted machismo, for now.  A rude guest was a disgrace.

I sidled away from the group, feeling uneasy, and grabbed a handful of fried potato slices from a table as I wandered past, stuffing them into my mouth.  The taste of green olive oil exploded on my tongue. 

I spotted Jilla, looking dumbly at me, and made my way over to her. She detached herself from her uncle and pulled me under the stairs where we weren’t overlooked. 

“Don’t eat the bread.”

I already had.  “What? Why not?”

“It’s bad for you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Never mind.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say.  Her eyes were dark and round, reflecting back no light, and she seemed thinner than ever.  I wondered suddenly if she were ill, and my question came out of my mouth aloud.

“I’m just tired.”

“How can you be tired?”

“I just am. It’s like swimming through treacle, everything is so slow and it floats past like I dreamed it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Isn’t that how it is for you?”

“No.  How what is?”

“Everything, it’s got so strange here.  Can’t you hear their voices, like birds cackling at each other from trees?  Do you think we’re halfway to death and that’s why the words make no sense any more?”

“Jilla.”

“You’re drifting away too, sometimes you’re just a colour and then you speak and I know it’s you.”

“Stop it.”

“I can’t stop it.” She looked into my eyes and ice seeped up through my torso.  She was full of terror.  I felt her fear in the pit of my stomach, instinctively recognising it.  Jilla was about to drop.

I pulled her to me and put my thin arms round her scrawny shoulders.  It felt strange, but the only thing to do.  I felt her arms slowly come up to hold on to me, and then she was gripping me hard, hugging me with a strength I would never have guessed she had.  She buried her face into my shoulder and sobbed, hot unpleasant breaths that I could feel through my clothes, soaking into my skin.  I had never seen her cry before and felt tears stinging my own eyes in response.  Frantically I blinked them away, desperate for no-one to see them, turning away from the room and its people, willing it to be abruptly empty and quiet. The crowds, smells, laughter and voices remained.  But no-one was watching us; no-one had eyes for two quiet kids in a dark corner who were old enough to look after themselves.

Gradually Jilla’s snorting and sniffing against my jumper communicated an end to her crying and I slowly pulled away from her.  She looked down at the floor, wiping her nose with the back of her hand, and then her eyes with the palm.  I looked away. 

We stood still in the semi-darkness under the stairs, wordless.  The feast was unimportant suddenly.  All I wanted to do was sit in the woodshed and listen to her.  I wanted to listen to Jilla and hear what she had been trying to tell me.  I hadn’t been hearing her: all those hours as she sat and spun our lives out in ways that I didn’t understand – I’d missed the most important thing. There was something enormous behind her lurking in my blind spot. The realisation that I’d been somehow so obtuse that I’d failed her, my girlfriend, was a punch in my gut.

I took her hand, without looking at her, and pulled her behind me as I forced a way through the throng and toward the back door.  She followed docile and sniffing.  No-one gave us a glance as we slipped outside, and automatically headed up to the clearing where Jilla maintained the secret pentagram could be seen in a crescent moonlight.

 

The moon was almost full that night, the clearing was bright and the shadows were sharp.  We stood under a fir tree, shivering, looking at each other without speaking.  Time stopped and no birds sang.  Jilla wasn’t seeing me as a colour right then.  She could see me as I really was, her eyes were clear and her hand held mine, feeling strong.

“What is it that I don’t know?”

“So many things.”

“Tell me.”

“I don’t know where to start.”

“Start from the beginning.”

“There is no beginning.”

“Then start from the middle.” Her eyes looked away from me, toward the trees. 

“There’s something happening at Brena’s.” 
I froze. “The bread?  The bread she bakes?  That smell, is it that smell?”

She nodded, staring at me, round-eyed. 

“What’s in it?”

“I don’t know. It tastes of nothing.”

“What does she do with it?”

“She sells it to the soldiers on the bridge.”

Looking down into her eyes, I knew she told the truth.  And I knew that the image in my mind, of Mani laughing with his friend the peacekeeper, was no accident.  The connections were starting to form, like a cobweb in the dark as a spider spins in moonlight.  Mani was involved.

“Jilla, what’s wrong?”

She was unable to tell me.  She looked at me with eyes like those of a stag before it’s shot, aware that death is unavoidable.

“I can’t see the secrets any more – I can’t move fast enough.  Something’s dragging at my feet the whole time, I think it’s too late. There’s something really bad happening. It’s everyone, all the people you think it can’t be.  I thought I was wrong, but I’m not, I’m right, I’m right about everything.”

She hugged me, once, and left, going home to an unlit house and a night where she would dream even if she never slept. 

Chapter 2 – Jilla and Me novella

We all had bruises; some outward, many inward.  Jilla was more than simply coated with them, she was a product of them.  There was nothing of Jilla that I could ever imagine was there before the fighting broke out – she became herself because of what happened.  Looking at Jilla was a stinging slap on raw flesh – she was pain, something we had all had an aching gutful of.  There it was, in a tatty dress with tangled hair, orbiting the shouting groups that kicked a football or chatted over fences.

So Jilla was swept under the carpet by Granma’s broom, never invited in, but tolerated as a sad presence, the way people live when there’s a ghost in the house.  And what was one more ghost? I kept her to myself and consulted her privately; a hidden book.  I never expected her to have any answers, but I waited until she began her stories, and then disappeared into them.

*                                              *                                              *

“In the oldest part of the greatest forest there’s a wooden hut.  An ancient man lived in it, so far away from life that for years he didn’t see another soul.”  Jilla’s voice was pale and tear-stained that day.  I noticed and ignored these things. “Snow fell deep, deeper than it ever had before, and his lamp at the window was the only light the ravens in the sky could see, for a thousand miles around.” Fat drops of rain spotted the fence posts a darker brown.

“The old man felt that death had come for him at last, and so he opened his door to welcome it, knowing that nothing else on this night could be knocking on his heart so hard to get in.  As he looked out at the forest he saw a girl in a red coat turn from where she had been looking at his hut, and run under black shadows.”  I could hear the sound of a rug being shaken outside Jan Creusel’s place.

“The man left his door wide open and followed the girl into the snow, and his feet froze into blocks.  He knew that when he stopped, he would never walk again.  As he limped into the darkness, the pine needles jabbed his numb feet.  The red coat was far away from him now and he saw that he would never reach her.  As his eyes closed and he fell to his knees, the ancient man suddenly knew what death is: a girl in a red coat and silent snow settling on a rug as it drifts through an open door.”

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