Tangle by Kulović Selma
Photographic response by Vanja Čerimagić
Translated from the B/C/S by Mirza Purić.
All the pain we inflicted on our mother began with our birth. We hurt her when we were being born, and we hurt her by being born. Why people come uninvited, she never understood. She invited her first husband into her life. Me she didn’t invite. They even told her she couldn’t have children. She disinvited her husband. She couldn’t disinvite me. She let her second husband into her life, and he brought her my sister. She didn’t invite her. And they’d told her she couldn’t have any more children after me.
Snježana was beautiful. We couldn’t deny that. We also couldn’t say her beauty was average. She had that “just right” sort of beauty: tall but not too tall; slender but not skinny; fair-complected but not pale – just right. The lids of her light blue eyes were always done up with eyeliner. Those elegant lines are a small detail, but they’re the mark of a lady, as she put it. That, and the fur coat. Fur coats were a constant point of contention, and she wondered why she should feel guilty if a person, let alone an animal, had to die for her coat. All things serve their purpose, she said. All things have their place in this world.
When she was fed up with conversation, or the injustice she felt the world was inflicting on her, Snježana would retreat to her castle. Her living quarters had to contain two things: a hand-carved dining table, her prized possession, which she inherited from her grandmother, and a separate space for her castle. My father halved the sitting room, pushed the cumbersome dining table on one side, placed it next to the door, and set up her personal space, her palais, by the window. On the right, he put a vanity with a mirror where she kept all her make-up and perfumes, and a matching white stool. She stored her shawls and jewellery in the vanity drawers and her hats in a small cabinet next to it. Opposite were her bulky armchair and a round coffee table on which she served herself green tea, biscuits on a small plate with a floral pattern, and magazines or a book. On account of the way she would seat herself in her armchair and look at the installation on the coffee table with contentment, I always believed she pretended she hadn’t put all those things there herself, that they’d been placed there for her, just as becomes her. The space was off limits to us. There were no doors, no partition walls, just an invisible line from the other side of which we looked at her profile. I remember her in profile.
She knew men well, she would tell us. She knew how to charm them with her sheer presence, she related – “a perfect combination of beauty and attitude” – so she was in a position to choose. She found it hard to cherry-pick a husband but easy to get married. Her second marriage was more difficult, a mistake I was supposed to atone for. Nobody wants a guest who overstays her welcome, and if she was unable to explain what I was doing in her house, how could somebody else accept my presence? For reasons beyond Snježana’s comprehension, Melisa’s father didn’t mind my eating their food.
“Easy on the cheese,” she warned me, as was her wont.
“Let the kid eat, Snježana,” remarked Melisa’s father mechanically.
“What do you mean?” she said composedly. “And let her fatten up? You can’t make a lady out of a sow. Besides, it’s not as if she puts food on the table.”
“Well, it’s not as if you do, either,” said Mr. Faruk matter-of-factly.
But Snježana wasn’t a woman of facts. She put her fork down by the left side of her plate, straightened her already straight back some more and asked, “Is that you reproaching me?”
“Let the kid eat. What’s wrong with you, woman? It’s like she’s not even yours.” He took a slice of bread without looking at her.
“Are you trying to say that I’m not contributing to the household?”
Now Mr. Faruk put down his fork, though somewhat less elegantly. I straightened up and cupped my hands in my lap, and I remembered to gather my feet under the table (Melisa burst out crying in her room; she still hadn’t learnt table manners and so wasn’t allowed to partake of the meal with us), while Snježana peacefully pressed on.
“Who looks after the house? Who has turned this squalor into dignity? Who makes sure that everything is clean?”
“It’s not as if you’re cleaning. Nevresa comes round every day while you’re out gallivanting.”
“Am I supposed to be locked in?”
“You know well I’m talking about the kids. You leave them alone all the time.”
“I’m sorry, exactly how are they alone? Haven’t you just said Nevresa comes round? And how is the little one alone? This one here is old enough to take care of her.”
“Hana is eight, for God’s sake. Are you out of your mind? Now, she’s supposed to look after a two-year-old?”
Snježana slowly raised her eyebrow and stoically asked, “Is that you raising your voice at me?”
She patted her lips with a serviette, put it down by her plate, stood up, pushed her chair back under the table and strolled off to her castle. From her throne she added, “It’s time for us to part ways.”
I don’t remember what happened after that, nor how Melisa stopped crying. I think I went to her; I barely remember that, either, if it happened at all. What I do know for certain is that Mr. Faruk didn’t come home after work the following day. Thus Melisa saw her father on two weekends each month, I saw him almost never, and I saw my own father literally never (I heard he’d gone to America and married someone for papers).
A few years later, Snježana met a man, a proper gentleman. He often took her out for dinner and sent her red roses. The unique stench of roses combined with the hairspray they were sprinkled with spread all over the house. Snježana would dunk her nose into the chemical petals and hum tunes round the flat. She was a living cliché. She said she would marry him. One night, she stopped as she was passing by me, sized me up thoroughly from head to toe, frowned and asked, “How old are you?”
She sat on her throne, looked through the window pensively and mumbled on, “Thirteen …”
The following week when the roses arrived, she smelt them, started coughing in disgust, said they stank and threw them in the bin. She didn’t marry him. When I asked why, she just grumbled, “I know men. A stranger in the house …”
All this time, my sister and I had been looked after by the neighbour, old Nevresa. She bathed us, carried us and told us stories (from fictional fairies to real wars, from fictional wars to real fairies). I remember little, I’m lucky to remember anything the way it was, but I do know she kissed both my eyes every night and I’d get to sleep. She taught me that dreams were little angels playing, “sometimes a bit naughty but never ill-willed.” I didn’t believe in angels then, as I don’t now, but Nan Nevresa said nightmares were just play, and I slept soundly. On one such night, I got my first period. Fortunately, I will never know what would’ve happened if Nana hadn’t woken me up for school that morning, if she hadn’t seen the blood before I saw it, if she hadn’t hugged me and told me it was all normal when I started screaming, if she hadn’t explained that the blood wasn’t coming out of my bottom, that my organs hadn’t turned into liquid, and that no, it was no fault of mine. She celebrated all day long.
Four years later, I was sixteen, Melisa was ten. Although a teenager, I never refused Nan Nevresa’s hugs and kisses. Every day she smelt more and more of old age, but I didn’t mind. Melisa would often wrest herself free from her embrace, saying, “Nana smells like old people,” but would eventually go back to her lap for a scratch on her crown. The first week of April was nearing its end, and we hadn’t seen Nana for four days. We rang at her door, but she wasn’t in. Snježana said she’d had to go to Zenica – “She must have some business to attend to, see her son, I guess” – but we didn’t know exactly why. We waited for her to come back. We feared something had happened to her son and that Nan would be sad. We wouldn’t know what to say.
“Go down the shop, get me my cigarettes,” I heard a voice say from the armchair.
I bought the cigarettes (slims) and went back to the tower block. There was a death announcement on the front door: With sadness, friends and family announce the passing of Nevresa Šurković, aged ninety-three. I shut the door. I realised I hadn’t entered, so I opened it again, realised I didn’t know where our flat was anymore, so I methodically worked out the way to my own door. Then I remembered – she’d said that Nan Nevresa had gone to see her family in Zenica. I ran, burst inside without taking my shoes off. I trod on her Persian rug.
“Snježana! You told me Nana went to Zenica.”
“What’s taken you so long, girl? Give me those cigarettes.”
“You said she went to Zenica!”
“Is that you stepping in in your shoes? Get out, now!”
“Snježana!” My voice broke. For a moment I realised I was shaking. For a moment I felt pain in the soft of my palm where my fingernails bored in. For a moment I did, and then I didn’t.
“Why are you screaming?”
“She died. Why didn’t you tell me she died?”
“So, now I have to keep track of who died? I said it was possible that she went away. Why are you snivelling? Shame on you, look how old you are, acting like a brat. You should’ve been a young lady, yet here you are, fussing and drivelling. Go wipe that face of yours.”
I went and wiped my face, and I stopped talking to her. I was the one who had to tell Melisa. She cried, and she didn’t wipe her face. Five more years passed.
“Where are you going?”
“D’ you need any money?”
“Oh, please,” grinned Melisa. She took her rucksack in one hand, her skateboard in the other. “Luv ya, Sis, bye. Bye Snjež’!” she shouted to her mother.
“What did you just call me, you little brat? You’ll never become a lady.”
“That’s just what I need,” she giggled, and off she went.
Gone. Hopped off. She looks so much like her mother. She only looks like her.
“Hey! If you break those legs you’re gonna have to put them together yourself,” I shouted, picked up my drum sticks and went to band practice.
Snježana was getting increasingly restless. She wasn’t sleeping. She started to scream in pain, but she wouldn’t go to hospital. We had to call the ambulance more and more often, but she still wouldn’t go to hospital. Melisa and I took turns sleeping in her room. A few months later, she started vomiting, then finally threw up blood, which frightened her. Blood is dirty and doesn’t become a person of her birth. She finally went to hospital and stayed there. She was diagnosed with uterine cancer. It spread. She took all the painkillers but refused chemo. She used to have beautiful, silky hair. She returned home. Other patients scared her. She was fading. The armchair became too large for her tiny bones.
“Hana,” she called out in a thin voice. “Come here a second.”
I stood in front of the castle. I moved left, then right, then left … I walked along the invisible line, forcing myself to swallow saliva in an attempt to wet my dry throat. My palms were sweating, and I realised, even if I’d gone for a drink of water, the glass would’ve slipped out of my hand. But I was so thirsty. Anxiety was choking me with every step as I imagined her observing me nervously, thinking she would scream at me, asking what’s taking me so long. I walked along the border once more and finally stepped over the invisible line. I was waiting for a burst of fire; I was waiting for a gaze telling me I’d just made the biggest mistake of my life, and I felt like a sinner who’d broken the commandment – Thou shalt not step into the space of thy Snježana. Nothing happened. She didn’t even look at me.
“Sit here for a bit.”
I sat by the armchair and stared at her profile.
“Have I ever told you about my gran?”
“Yes, you have.”
“She was a proper lady,” she said, looking through the window. “Granted, she didn’t have it easy when she was a little girl. Her mother was widowed, then remarried, but her new husband fancied my gran a lot more. The horrors he inflicted on her – ” She interrupted herself and frowned. I’d never heard that before. I didn’t know. Snježana quickly switched to another memory, smiled at the next, familiar part of the story and continued: “She lived in France for a long time. Grandfather had a large estate and servants, the children were reared by governesses, and Gran walked around in the finest dresses …” She smiled. “She had everything she wanted. A life like that … Isn’t that splendid? Freedom.”
“That’s not freedom, Snježana,” was my attempt to comfort her. “My great-grandmother married so her stepfather could expand his shop. She spent the rest of her life obeying her husband. When they went bankrupt, all that was left to her was that table.”
“Yes, the table,” she said, laughing to the extent her wheezy lungs allowed. “She lay on it and wouldn’t let them take it.” She looked straight at me (startling me a bit), then grabbed my chin with a shaky hand (which startled me good and proper). “True, she obeyed her husband. But there’s nothing bad about living that way, know-it-all. In order to have something, you give up something else. There is always somebody setting the boundaries. They are necessary. They are worth your while when you truly live.”
“Some are – ” I wanted to say ” – pure shite,” but I dared not cuss in front of her. “Some are senseless.”
She pulled her head back, raised an eyebrow and lowered her hand.
I felt a sudden twinge of pain. People say your soul can hurt. People are crazy. I don’t really believe in souls, but something definitely hurt. If I did have a soul, it was eating me alive. I felt nauseous. A tangle was spinning in my stomach, till it contracted suddenly – a tangle of unsaid words with a single word as its core.
“Like when a kid says, ‘Mum,’ and never gets an answer.”
She was looking at me. The tangle unravelled a bit, then it contracted again and pulled my stomach in.
“Don’t talk nonsense.” Now we both startled and looked to the side. She said, “Help me to my vanity.”
We slowly dragged ourselves to the table, and she sat. She looked at herself in the mirror, and I wondered if she was able to recognise herself. She took a rouge brush and started patting at her face. Her hand was shaking, and she kept missing her cheekbone.
“There, now,” I said. “Let me make you up.”
“If you knew how to do it, you’d be making yourself up.”
Still, she dropped the brush. I applied primer, then foundation. Even the lightest shade was now too dark for her skin. In some other areas of her face, though, it couldn’t cover up the blemishes. Nothing could cover up the furrows of age. She was looking at me. I was going to pat loose setting powder onto her cheek as well. For a moment, the upper bit of the puff became wet and warm. So I patted salty powder in. She closed her eyes and added peacefully,
“Eyeliner. Don’t forget eyeliner.”
Kulović Selma is a fiction and non-fiction writer from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, writing in Bosnian and English. She holds an MA in English Language and Literature from the University of Sarajevo. She has been a member of the Sarajevo Writers’ Workshop since 2012. She has published academic work in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and her poetry and fiction have appeared in H.O.W. Journal (online), the Narrative Witness exchange collection under the auspices of University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (US), and the journal NEMA. Selma also published an online fiction writing workshop on Udemy. She is currently working on her debut novel in English and on a short story collection in Bosnian as a co-author.
Mirza Purić is a literary translator working from German and B/C/S. He serves as a contributing editor with EuropeNow and in-house translator with Sarajevo Writers’ Workshop. From 2014 to 2017 he was an editor-at-large with Asymptote. He has several book-length translations into B/C/S under his belt and his shorter translations into English have appeared in Asymptote, H.O.W., EuropeNow and PEN America, among other places. He plays Bass VI and baritone guitar in a band.
Vanja Čerimagić is a freelance photographer based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since 2011, his work has focused towards the activities of development organizations in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He collaborates with various NGOs and works regularly for the European Union (EU), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and, most recently, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Along with his work as a documentary photographer, he is passionately devoted to concert photography.
Published on June 6, 2017.
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