Chapter 15: Jilla and Me novella – Final Chapter

As I ran through the wood, the pine needles underfoot softened my footfalls. It was eerily quiet, the snow muffling the air, blocking sounds from human ears, as it camouflaged the world from view. I was panting, with sharp clouds bursting out of my mouth. The back of my throat rasped on the icy air. My nose ran and I sniffed, wiping it on my sleeve as I went. I sweated, feverish.

I burst clear of the trees and hit a scene so completely changed since I’d seen it thirty minutes before that it brought me skidding to a stop. I’d never known snow to fall so fast. Already it was ankle deep on the fields, and the shacks and houses had white rooftops instead of brown or red or grey.

I loped into a cumbersome run leaving tracks in the virgin snow and feeling as though my nightmares had come true and I had suddenly forgotten how to put one foot in front of the other. I heard the small crunch-squeak of compressed crystals under my boots.

Jan Creusel’s house had light streaming out of the windows. I ran to it, ignoring Buruk, and hammered on the door.

“Jilla! Jilla!”

There were hurried steps, and the door was pulled open sharply. Jan stood in the doorway, surprise covering his face.

“What’s the matter?”

“Jilla – where’s Jilla?”

“She’s not here. I’ve not seen her today.”

I backed away, looking in his strange eyes, and turned and ran again, up the hill, past my home. I was almost sobbing.

Conrad, thick-set in his bulky red coat, was coming down the slope and stopped as I belted past him, my eyes wide with frozen tears. My lungs stretched for more oxygen and I forced myself to keep going. Still snow fell, and I started to wade through it. My fleece jacket turned white, and I felt snowflakes hit my mouth and land on my tongue as I sucked in, feeling like cobwebs. My leg muscles screamed at me to stop, to give up and lie down in the snow.

I was at the top of the hill and I was crying now, gasping with the pressure of all the time I’d wasted. There was no-one around, my feet crunched on the snow with no-one to hear them. Suddenly I was at Jilla’s place, and I dived for the doorknob.

I fell into the kitchen, a swirl of snow and white footprints behind me. No light. My eyes adjusted, slowly, to the gloom. I became aware of a shape on the floor and dropped onto my knees next to it, sobbing and gasping like a woman seeing the body of her husband. It was Jilla.

She had fallen at an unnatural angle, dark eyes looking upward, unfocused. A tin mug lay on its side where it had rolled under the table, sloshing its brackish contents in a small ragged pool, flecks of what looked like grated twigs floating on its surface. As I took hold of her hand I was howling in pain, and then Conrad was there, pulling me gently away, taking off his red coat, and covering Jilla’s face with it.

I remember very little of the next thirty minutes of my life. I imagine that Conrad had followed me as I ran blindly past him on the hill, and it must have been him that went for the doctor, who seemed to arrive too quickly, in a few short seconds. I had been put in a wooden chair at the kitchen table, where I shook and cried, seeing and hearing nothing, my mouth wide and screaming. Leni could not be found for a long time, but I remember Jan Creusel was the one who wrapped a blanket round me and carried me to a neighbour’s house, where a hot fire was burning.

As Jan backed out of Jilla’s kitchen, with me now silent in his arms, I glimpsed something I recognised. There was a girl covered in a red coat, and silent snow drifting onto a rug through an open door. I knew that this was death.

 

Now, thinking of my youth, it seems I can never put my finger on the point where my childhood stopped. It could have ended when the fighting started, when my friends and neighbours began dying around me, when my home and theirs’ were obliterated. Perhaps I had it still, until I woke up to what was gone forever in Brena’s kitchen. I believe that nothing really took it away from me until Jilla’s death, by her own hand, in her own home.

Her mug had contained fir bark tea: not the bark of a Douglas fir, the tree which grew everywhere around us. This tea was made with the inner bark of a rare, slow-growing fir that no-one had set eyes on for over twenty years. Jilla had found it, with unerring precision, in the forest, further in than anyone else dared to go.

Peacekeepers, who seemed unable to fit their actions to their job-titles, held a public inquest, demanded strenuously by Conrad, his voice strong, and his blue eyes full of anger. The inquest led to an autopsy, which revealed high levels of an opium-like substance in Jilla’s bloodstream. Made from Clemandis, a flower which had been forgotten and which used to be the object of worship for its ability to bloom without sunlight, this substance produced hallucinogenic reveries, feelings of floating and drowsiness, while colours and noises were transposed.

If Jilla hadn’t drunk the tea, the quantities of Clemandis she had ingested would have killed her.

Of course it all came out, revealed like familiar ground when snow melts. The chain of polyglot command made arrests, searches and court martials – things that I barely registered at the time. I knew no-one and nothing, my mind was a blank, and when I think of this time of my life, I remember a numbness, more bitter than the ice wind, that held me in a steel fist and through which even bullets could not penetrate.

When I finally raised my head and looked into the sunshine once more, the village was half-empty and I knew that it was no longer a place I could ever call home again.

I left, down the road to Srenja, where peacekeepers needed boys in tiny cafes to bring them coffee. I may not be clear on a lot of things now, but I do know that I was no longer a child at this point. I never saw my brother Mani again, and I don’t know what became of him. Of Granma, I had no word. And I never asked.

 

Perhaps a year had passed when I looked up from wiping a table, to see Conrad filling the doorway. This time his coat was blue.

“Hello Sascha.”

I hadn’t heard anyone call me that name for a long, long time. My father had called me Sascha after his Russian Granpa, of whom I had been told many stories, doubtless untrue.

“Conrad.”

He stepped into the café and took a stool at the small counter. I gave him coffee, black and strong.

“You’re working hard and it suits you.”

We looked at each other. His eyes were kind, and I remembered now that this was how they had always been. He looked at his coffee, and took a sip.

“How are you, Conrad? What are you doing?”

“I’m on my way to the city. Training to be a doctor.”

I stared at him in surprise. Then, slowly, I nodded.

“I wanted to give you this,” he pulled a small pad of paper from his coat pocket, one that was identical to those we had used in the church school. It was empty, except for a scrawled note in pencil on the last page. “We found it under Jilla’s bed.”

I took the pad of paper, and read the note.

All the world’s swirling and drowning to a close. Perhaps the only thing to miss is Sascha. It seems a shame that I probably won’t see him again.

I shut the notepad and looked dry-eyed at Conrad. I hadn’t known Jilla could write. Conrad drank his coffee in three scalding gulps, and stood up, the wooden stool legs scraping over the linoleum floor.

“When I have money, when I’m a doctor, I’ll come back for you. Mani was a bully and a fool. None of it was your fault. I’ll be back for you Sascha – look out for me. Don’t forget.”

Six years later, almost to the day, Conrad found me serving beer to veterans in a small bar in Srenja. He marched me silently out of the door, although at age eighteen I was as big as he was, and he kept his promise.

THE END.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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 11 – Jilla and Me novella

I saw Jilla later that day, as the sun was setting.  I was back at the standpipe and the temperature had dropped suddenly, forcing me to wear both new fleece jacket and Teren’s coat over the top of it.  Jilla was walking up the hill past the Zabowski’s place, from the direction of the stream and I would have bet a million kronas that I was right earlier, that she’d been in the forest alone.

“Hello.”

At first she seemed hardly to hear me, then she slowed and looked up, as if in surprise to see where she was.  “It’s almost dark.”

I nodded and turned off the standpipe tap, holding my red plastic bucket awkwardly away from my body.  It was heavy and my arms shook with the effort.  I slowly walked along the plank and stepped off onto the hard ground, still frozen under the grass.

“Will you come to the woodshed later?”

“Yeah.”

Jilla turned towards Jan Creusel’s place.  “I’ve got something new to tell you.”

 

*                      *                      *                                  *                                  *

“A long time ago, when no-one travelled outside of their village their whole lives, a magician appeared one evening at the door of the church.  Everyone inside stopped talking, and the magician walked into the church with his black cloak and strode up the aisle.  He told everyone that he could produce sunlight at night, heat from rocks and the smell of cinammon from sand.”

In the woodshed, we had lit three candles for more warmth and our gloved hands were held out to them.

“Everyone left the church to follow the magician to the village square.  No-one had seen a magician before, and no-one thought he could do the things he said he could.  But one by one, the magician conjured those things: he shaped a glowing globe of light between his outstretched hands, that bounced and shimmered in the faces of the villagers.  He picked a pebble from the ground and warmed it in hands until it glowed red, but he wasn’t burned.  Then he took a small glass vial from his cloak and poured out a tiny pyramid of sand on the palm of his hand, and when he blew it into the air, the smell of cinnamon wafted out on the breeze.”

I looked up from the candles at Jilla.  She stared at the three flames in front of her.

“All the people who saw the magic were afraid and they wished they hadn’t followed him to the square.  There was a long silence and all they could smell was cinnamon, stronger and stronger.

But the magician hadn’t told them he could also make them forget.  And an hour later, he was gone, and the villagers found themselves sitting back in the church, with no memory of either him or his magic.”  I stared at her.

“For a long while afterwards, people kept remarking on how there was a smell of cinnamon in the air and wondering where it came from.  But then they even forgot that it hadn’t been there always, and they didn’t notice it any more.  They told themselves it had always smelled like this, and that this was the way the world smelled.  The magician never came back, and his grains of sand are still floating in the air around the village even now.”

 

*                                  *                                  *                                              *

The next day I saw Jan Creusel as I was making one of my many fact-finding tours of the village.  He smiled at me, and I was in such a mood of optimism that I found myself telling him I’d seen Jilla the previous evening.

“Ah, so it was you in my woodshed was it?”

I nodded, realising he knew we went there often.

“And did Jilla have a new story for you?”

“Yes. About a magician.”

“A magician?” Jan paused for a second. “Did it have a happy ending?”

I thought about that for a while.  Most of Jilla’s stories were like listening to an accident happen by tiny increments.
“I don’t know.”

Jan nodded at me, unsmiling.  Then he continued on his way down the hill, leaving me standing there thinking of the smell of cinnamon.

As I stood staring into space the sound of voices, loud and celebratory cut through my thoughts.  I raced up the hill to see what was going on, and saw Conrad, one of Mani’s long-time foes, coming the other way at a great pace.  He had always been friendly to me, so I shouted to him as he passed.

“What is it?”

“It’s Dr Blenvic – he’s back!”

“Dr Blenvic?”

But Conrad had gone already, racing back home to be the first with the news.  I saw the doctor then, surrounded by old friends and well-wishers, dressed in his army jacket, his own, not borrowed, and carrying a mammoth duffel bag of grey khaki.  He had been called up early as all medical professionals were, and no-one had heard anything from him since the day he left.  As time passed, death was assumed to have caught him.  It seemed a miracle that almost five years later he could walk back into the village, unharmed, smiling as if he had left the previous week.

I rushed to see him up close, but the crowd around him was such that I couldn’t get anywhere near him, so I climbed up onto a broken wall to look at him over the hats of the well-wishers.  He looked older, weather-coarsened and thin.  This was no surprise.  What seemed supernatural was his similarity to the person he had been when he left.  The same eyes, the same walk, the voice that was deep, reassuring to anxious mothers and consolatory to their husbands.  Here he was, hugging the men, kissing the women, kneeling down to the kids who were too young to know who this celebrity was.

Amidst the screams and shouts of happiness and the group of smiling faces, Dr Blenvic suddenly looked up at me, standing on the wall of what used to be a house.  We looked in each other’s eyes for what seemed to me to be a long time.

Time can do strange things sometimes; I’d noticed before that it sped up and slowed down, that it wobbled on its course round the clock when no-one was looking.  Now it took on the soapy telescopic coating of a dream.  The doctor saw me – a thin boy in a second-hand coat standing on the ruins of a house that had been a beautiful red-tiled building the last time he’d seen it.  I knew that I was looking at a ghost. He nodded to me, holding my gaze, and after a second I jumped down from the wall, and ran to tell Granma.

 

Chapter 9: Jilla and Me novella

“If you go to the right places at the right times, you’ll see a group of men sitting together in the sun, smoking pipes and blowing smoke rings.”  Back in the woodshed, where candles kept appearing, we were huddled together.  Rain wasn’t falling but the ice wind was blowing.

“Each man has a long pipe with a tiny bowl at the end, a pale white colour, like bone.  Gradually, as they smoke, they start to talk.  They don’t talk to each other, or to anyone else but themselves, but as they talk the smoke drifts out of their lungs so that each person’s smoke ring passes through the words of the man to his left.”

My mind was blank darkness and all I could see was a drifting white smoke ring when I shut my eyes.  I seemed to have been sitting here with Jilla forever and everything else was a dream, horrible but remote and now unimportant.

“Instead of disappearing as they rise, the smoke rings pass through each other and form a pattern in the sky.  And as the men continue to speak, the pattern spells their lives in the air, as they tell of what they know.  If you know how, you can learn from these men by reading the shapes they make with each other.”

“Jilla?”

“What?”

“Are you my girlfriend?”

“Yes.”

I closed my eyes again, seeing smoke rings pass through each other against inky black.

“Jilla?”

“Mmm.”

“How do you know all this stuff?”

There was a small silence.  With my eyes shut and almost asleep I couldn’t say how long it lasted.

“Secrets.”  Jilla blew out the candle, and when I opened my eyes again, I couldn’t tell the difference.

One day shortly after this, I came home from the school to find a man I vaguely recognised sitting at our table with Granma.  As I blundered through the door, they looked sharply at me and a sudden uncomfortable silence reared up.  They had been talking about me.  I knew it as sure as if I’d heard them.  I blushed and stood rooted to the doorway.

“Well are you coming in or are you going to stand there and let the whole house get freezing cold?”  Granma was on good form – she often was when she had a visitor.  I imagine she relished speaking to adults instead of Mani and I all the time.

I shut the door and nodded wordlessly to the man, trying to place him.

“You don’t know me do you?” The man had eyes that were amused by what they saw, and not in a way that invited you to share the joke.

“No.”

“This is Jilla’s uncle, Leni.”

It clicked.  There was even a slight resemblance.

“How do you do?” I had been brought up to be polite to people older than myself.  This obviously excluded my brother.

“Well.  Well.  As well as we all can expect.”  Granma and Leni turned back to each other across the table and continued their discussion on new tracks after this momentary derailment.

“She doesn’t want to go to the school,” Leni was saying, staring into his steaming tin mug, “and she won’t discuss it with me.  Runs off, gone all day mostly I don’t know where.  Well I have to work, I can’t watch her all the time, it’s not possible.”

“Leni, the girl is a free spirit like her mother and with all this on top of it, she was never going to be easy.”

“No.”

I was sitting on my bed, pulling off my coat.  Teren’s coat.

“You spend a lot of time with Jilla, so I hear.”

I stood up and came towards the table.  I nodded, uncertain.  They both looked at me.  I wasn’t sure what they wanted.

“What do you do together?”

My thousand possible replies hurtled through my mind in a haphazard symphony: we talk about smoke rings, the dead, flowers that don’t exist, stars under the ground.  We sit in the dark and listen to the weather, we hold hands in the dark.

I shrugged.  “Dunno.”

They both sighed.  This was the expected answer. Granma pulled herself to her feet.  “Go and wash your hands and help me peel these potatoes.”

I bolted for the standpipe, just catching Leni’s refusal of a meal as I went through the door.  He wanted to check whether Jilla was back home.

Chapter 8: Jilla and Me novella

A few days later I was toiling up the hill to the Simonic’s again, for bread.  The red and white striped shopping bag trailed in the mud behind me, and I was wearing one of Mani’s old jumpers on top of two of mine.  It was bitter, and I was surprised to see Mani at the bridge as I approached the house, apparently talking to one of the peacekeepers.  I dawdled, watching: he hadn’t seen me yet.

They were deep in talk, their heads close together, obviously speaking softly.  The peacekeeper smoked a roll-up, the same as Mani’s and they laughed quietly to each other, often.  Mani noticed me first and I saw him nudge his friend.  His friend the peacekeeper.  I stopped short, voiceless.

“What’re you doing up here?”

“Bread.”

He nodded, once.  “Well go on then.”

I turned sharply and strode to the Simonic house and knocked loudly on the door, staring straight ahead of me.  Their four eyes bored into the back of my neck as I waited and I flushed red.  Pinpricks of sweat darted under my armpits, itchy and unpleasant.  At last the door opened and Brena told me to come in.  I was in her kitchen before she’d finished speaking.

“What’s the matter with you?  Cold is it?”

“Freezing.”

“Mm, it’s winter for sure any day now.  No coat?”

“Not yet.”

“One of Teren’s old ones is here somewhere – it would probably fit you.” She appraised me for a few seconds, “you’ve grown a lot this year, you know.”

“I know.”  I was pleased to hear it though.  It meant I was growing up.  I didn’t feel like a kid and I was sick of looking like one.  Maybe I was going to be as strong as Mani was.  I was his brother, after all, we couldn’t be that different.

“Sit down and I’ll look for it – I know I saw it a few weeks ago somewhere.”

Brena opened a cupboard door next to the stairs and rummaged through the darkness inside.  She stood back up straight, her hands on her hips.

“Where was it?  It might have been upstairs now I think about it.  I won’t be a minute.”  She climbed the stairs and I heard the floorboards creaking above me and the sound of more cupboards being opened.  I sat on a chair, happy to wait in the warm with my loaf of bread in my bag.

I’d been sitting there for only a few minutes when I became aware of a subtle odour underneath that of the constantly baking bread.  It was a pleasant smell, sweet like treacle but with a bitter top note, like salt.  It reminded me of nothing.  Again, a spark lit up in my mind, showing me nothing but making me uneasy.

Brena came heavily down the stairs – she’d found the coat.

“Here.  It’s warm – he hardly wore it before he grew out of it.”  Brena’s son Teren had been three years older than me when he was still alive.  I had once made a den with him behind the doctor’s place, where we swapped passwords, made unnecessary and obscure rules and pretended we were in hiding from supernatural powers.  That was six lifetimes ago.

“Thank you.”  I put the coat on.  I remembered Teren wearing it, sitting on a log in the den, sharpening his penknife.  I was glad I had his coat.

“Well I’d better get on then,” Brena tied her apron on.

“Yeah.” I started toward the front door, turned around on impulse.  “Brena?”

“Yes?”

“What are you cooking apart from the bread?”

Unexpectedly Brena laughed, loud and harsh.  She paused, eyeing me with a cold glint that hadn’t been there a moment ago.

“Someone’s been talking, have they?” she nodded to herself.  “Well that’s no surprise around here.  You’re a clever one aren’t you?  You’ll work it out for yourself some day, and probably long before you should do.  But you won’t hear it from me – now get out of here and tell your brother to come in if he’s still out there.”

I was shocked and stepped out of the house quickly, relieved to be gone.

“Mani, Brena says to go and see her.”

Mani was still by the bridge, but his peacekeeper friend had gone.  He ground out his roll-up under his shoe, and walked past me without a word, opening Brena’s door without knocking and closing it firmly behind him.

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.