Chapter 7: Jilla and Me novella

“My Granma told me about you.”

Jilla and I were walking away from the village.  On a rare mild Saturday in the near-constant assault of cold, we had decided to follow the path on beyond the back of the Zabowski’s place where it led under the firs.  This was a small wood but we knew it led on to another once you crossed the stream, and then you were beginning to walk among trees so tall and numerous that you suddenly knew you were in the forest.  And the forest was as old as time and twice as dangerous.

“What about me?”

“About your mother and Jan Creusel.”

“So what?”

“Nothing.” We walked on silently.  I could hear the trickle of the stream just ahead as it ran over the rocks.  It would be full and running fast because of the rain.

“What d’you do in Jan Creusel’s house?”

“It’s always warm.  I play with Buruk. And find out secrets.”

“What secrets?”

“I tell you the secrets I find out.”

“But those are just stories.”

“They’re secrets that I find out.  No-one else knows them. That flower I gave you?” I nodded.  “The hermit in the cellar grows them.  One time there were thousands, millions, all red and heavy in the air.  The next time, there were none, except just that one, on the floor.”

“Who is the hermit?”

“I’ve never seen him: he doesn’t know I’m there.  No-one knows I find out the secrets except Buruk. I see what the hermit grows in the dark.”

“Plants don’t grow in the dark.”

“His do.”

We crossed the stream by a plank that had been laid across it years and years ago.  I remembered crossing that stream behind my father and Mani.  I saw the waterstained boots he always wore, the length of his stride almost two of Mani’s and my own desperate attempts to keep up with them both.  It felt like a billion ice ages had come and gone since that memory and yet that plank was still there.

Once over the stream we plunged into the trees and suddenly the world shifted. As the branches were whipped about by the wind, they moved as though to attack.  The air was green-scented and dark; it was springy underfoot.  This was the start of the forest, the forest we were told about when we were little; told about and told about.

Don’t go too far in – you’ll never come back out.  It’s old, older than anyone can remember and it creeps up to the stream, waiting to cross it and come to the village.  Every winter, the men go to the edge and cut it back, and every spring new fir trees grow.  Don’t play under the trees – you won’t notice the dark getting darker or the silence getting stronger until you hear an owl above you and feel how alone you are.  Then you’re lost, and once you’re lost, you’re dead.

We walked in silence.  I didn’t want to ask more questions and I didn’t trust what Jilla was telling me.  Yet I had the flower. For a second a spark had been lit.

We were daring each other to stop and suggest turning back.  Daring without speaking.  I looked across at Jilla every now and again as the stream’s noise faded behind us and then it was a thick quiet that we walked through.  Her hair hung to her jawline, tangled, and she walked on as if she were crossing the street to the standpipe.  She didn’t look at me.  As we climbed over a fallen tree without comment, I suddenly knew that Jilla had been here before.  She knew where she was. At that moment I wanted to be in the village, anywhere, talking to Brena in her kitchen, splashing freezing water on my shoes – anywhere but in the forest with Jilla.

“Let’s go back.”  I had caved in first.

“Why?”

“This is boring.”  I turned and climbed back over the fallen tree, not looking at her.  I was cold all at once, and almost jogged in my hurry to get back to the stream.  I could hear Jilla some way behind me, her feet cracking twigs and a cough every once in a while.

“You’re going the wrong way.”

I jerked to a halt and looked up.  Jilla was right.  I had veered off the main path onto a barely visible track, probably made by animals.  And I hadn’t even noticed.  I was afraid then, more afraid than I had been for over a year.  I was alone with Jilla.  And if I had been alone without her, I would probably have been dead by this time the next day.  No-one knew where we were.  Including me.

“Come on.”

Jilla led me the way we had come.  It was further, so much further than we had ever walked on the way out. Trees flickered in my peripheral vision as I concentrated on the ground, watching my disembodied feet go one in front of the other.  I was panting dryly, and could form no words.

Jilla too was silent, but Jilla often was.  I knew that she wasn’t scared, she had come here by herself, maybe many times, and told no-one. She wandered, seeing what wasn’t there, making sense of the things most of us would never confront.  Her eyes were glazed, watching the world as if it were somewhere she would never visit.  I felt close to panic, and then I caught the first sound of the stream and almost wet myself as warm relief pulsed around my veins.

Standing on the bank of the stream, the world shifted back to normality again.  But I was quick to cross the plank, and I didn’t look back, even though a voice in my head told me that I should.

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Chapter 6: Jilla and Me novella

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“Out by the river, where it runs across the moorland, there’s a woman who walks in bare feet at midnight.  She’s looking for the husband she should have had, but who was shot before she ever met him.”  Jilla and I had deserted the orange plastic crate at last: the evenings were acid cold now and even though we were under a roof we both shivered.

“Every midnight when the sky is clear and the wind blows, she walks to the river and drops in a silver coin, and when the ripples clear she sees his face.”  Jan Creusel’s woodshed was well made.  The rain drummed on its tiny tin roof, but we remained dry and ignored it.

“He’s beautiful – he has green eyes, dark hair, long to his shoulders, and he laughs at her.  He’s waiting for her to die.”  I was too thin: I was growing quickly and the cold felt like metal to me.  We had a candle and our hands were held palms-down above it, for heat.

“She knows that she loves this man she has never met.  One night she lies on her back in the water, with her silver coins one over each eye, waiting to pay the ferryman to take her across to her husband.  And the water turns warm as her beautiful man puts his arms around her and pulls her down to his river bed.”

*            *                *                *         *               *               *              *                *                      *

“Jan Creusel tells me you and that girl have been in his woodshed.”  Granma stirred the pot of boiling potatoes, one hand on the small of her back.  Steam and warmth, earth-smells and the scrape of metal on metal.
“So what?”
“Just be careful that’s all.”  She didn’t turn round, but her thoughts weren’t on cooking.
“Careful of what?”
There was no reply.

Jan Creusel was one of the few men left.  His place, built by him, stood by the standpipe and was next to the Zabowski’s and their gang of seven kids.  It was always busy around that way, and Jan’s place was the backdrop to our streetlife, but none of us had even been inside.

Only Jilla ever went in.  Jan Creusel was strange – his hair was long and tangled and his eyes were different colours.  Granma said he’s had an unlucky life and really, that was something to think about after the past few years.  She said as bad as things got, at least she wasn’t a Creusel.  Unluck rubs off, so I avoided him when I could.

Outside his place, his dog always kept guard.  Mani told me it was a wolf.  It may have been; its eyes were yellow.  It was beautiful and loyal, sitting up in a silent stare if any of us dared approach the front door.  It never barked and the name we gave it was Buruk.

Jilla and Buruk had an understanding.  We would all have loved to gloat as we ran our muddy hands through his fur on our way into Jan Creusel’s, but it was only Jilla who could do this.  Buruk tolerated no-one else, and timid advances were repelled with a sub-sonic growl.

It occurred to me one moment at the standpipe that Jilla spent her time at Jan Creusel’s, and that I had no idea what she did there.  I was surprised.  It was the first time I’d been seriously interested in something that had nothing to do with me.

Ice cracked underfoot as I made my way back to our place, eyes on the ground.  Granma was mending some trousers by the stove, comfortably.  I sat down at the table.

“Granma, tell me about Jan Creusel.”
She stopped what she was doing for two seconds: I counted them like a heartbeat.  Then her needle moved again as she thought for a moment.

“Jan Creusel was born under a bad star,” her voice was pleasant to listen to – she was feeling expansive and warm.  “When he was born, his eyes were two different colours – that’s an unlucky sign.  He’s clever, no doubt about that, but no girl would go near him with eyes like that.  Jan Creusel fell in love with someone that didn’t love him back.”

I didn’t want to interrupt her chain of thought.

“The girl he loved, and loves still, married another man when they were all young.  A long time ago now.  Jan’s never got over it. We all thought he’d die away, but he’s still here, when almost everyone else is gone.  The woman’s husband turned out to be a poor fraction of a man.  He got another girl pregnant.  Then he died.  The girl had the baby.”

Granma stopped and shook her head, looking so sad I almost got up to go to her. “Soon after, she killed herself.  They say she was mad.  Mad to sleep with that man and mad to leave a new-born baby girl alone in the world.”  Again she shook her head, but this time as if to clear it.

I could hear some of the Zabowski kids playing outside. “What happened to the baby?”

Granma looked at me. “When Jan Creusel isn’t looking after her, she tells you stories in his woodshed and then goes home to her uncle.”

Chapter 5 – Jilla and Me Novella

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.”

“Granma…”

“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.

Chapter 4 – Jilla and Me novella

I reached the Simonic’s house, still a real house with a tiled roof.  Brena opened the door.  She wore an apron that looked new.  I blinked.

“Well!  Bread is it?”

“Please.”

“You’d better come in.”

As I waited for Brena to reappear from the kitchen I panicked, realising that my eyes had filled with tears.  Too suddenly, here was what I’d forgotten I missed.  The house was warm, had stairs and good old rugs.  Plates matched, cutlery belonged together.  It was safe and permanent. The smell of bread was almost too much – I turned and opened the door again, letting in the cold of a different night.

“Where are you going?  Here.”  Brena held a brown loaf out to me, dropping it in Granma’s bag when I failed to take it from her.  “Are you alright?”

I nodded.  She looked at me, seeing me properly for the first time ever in her life and mine. Then for a small fraction of part of a second she looked at the floor.
“Go on, it’s getting dark early now.”

I left, my head low, sight blurred, heart breaking.  There was no magic, no paths leading me off into other places.  Just a red and white nylon shopping bag, with only one loaf of bread pulling me where I didn’t want to go. I felt the water leak out of the corners of my eyes, my nose run, my throat freeze with the effort of not wailing out.  I sat on a dark uprooted kerbstone.  I could no more go home crying than I could bring back the dead.

The loaf was three-quarters eaten and I was rinsing off the tin plates we still used under the standpipe near Jan Creusel’s place.  Mud sucked at feet and trouser bottoms here.  A swamp of food scraps.  I stood on a board laid over the top of the muck, leaning out to stop the freezing water splashing my legs.  It was getting very cold.  I jumped: Jilla was watching me from a few metres away.  I looked back at the standpipe and realised I’d sprayed water onto my filthy shoes.

“Shit.”

“Did you see the soldiers?”

I nodded.  She’s seen me go and come back from the Simonic’s house.  Had she seen me crying? I realised I didn’t care.  I was tired and my faith was gone.

“Did they talk to you?”

“No.”  I turned off the standpipe and jumped back to more solid ground.

Jilla didn’t move.  She wanted to talk to me.  But it was so cold, my feet were wet and my eyes felt swollen and slitty.  I would spend the night lying facing the wall with the blanket completely covering my head and my knees bent up to my chest.  She knew this. Jilla must have slept this way every night.

“I’ve got something for you.” I stared at her, the plates dripping from my left hand.  I saw then that she had a flower, a startling scarlet bloom with a moss green, furry stem.  Its petals were pristine and feathery, its centre saffron yellow. I’d never seen a flower like it before.  She held it out to me and I took it, trance-like, shocked.

“Where did you get it?”

“The hermit in the cellar.” She didn’t smile.

“What….”

“It’s the only one.”  She took a deep breath.  “Bye.”

“Jilla…”

Everything spun inside out again.  In my raw hand I was holding the perfect flower.  And it was the only one in the world.

Chapter 3: Jilla and Me novella

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?”

“Shut up.”

“Granma, did you know he’s got a girlfriend?”

“Shut up!”

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.

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.”

*                                              *                                                          *

Chapter One

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.”

“So what?”

“He had a fight with Conrad.”

“So what?”  Scuffed feet in unlaced shoes.

“I’m Jilla.”

“It’s my birthday soon, I’m getting a Walkman.”

“I bet you don’t.”

“I am.”

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.