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.

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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 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.