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.

 

 

 

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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 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.