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.

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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.

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“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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