Paper Cuts by Matea Šimić
Translated from the B/C/S by Mirza Purić.
1 // How I wish I wasn’t here
The smell of apple cider vinegar pervades the room, starting from the clean, warm window panes, making its way into the perfectly tightened coverlet on the bed, the freshly brushed carpet, and one suitcase. The great grey suitcase with blue diagonal stripes and two patinated metal locks which contains his entire life. The bag is sick of all the years of economic nomadism; pressing the bulging sides, she imagines it preparing to hurl its soul out the moment she opens it. She’s not thinking about everything he’s been through, and she’ll never see the metaphor in a piece of quality German fabric. She is here to separate the white underwear from the coloured. Wash it, iron it, fold it neatly, close the suitcase, place it by the door and wait till December to do the same thing again. She doesn’t expect to find a white envelope at the bottom of the suitcase when she empties it, yet she finds one there, opened.
Dijana contemplates suicide. There’s still some rat poison in the cellar, but arsenic sounds more poetic. Arsenic is more becoming of a woman disappointed. There’s no railway here in the sticks. Had she stayed in her hometown, she could’ve just walked to the illegal crossing and waited for the higher-speed train at 18:25. There’s only one shop here, and it’s closed Sundays and on bank holidays, and high-speed trains don’t pass through. She could walk down to the edge of the water.
“TO THE SEA. Water is for drinking. When will you ever learn?”
Leave a message. Write: I can’t keep destroying your life. His life? What about mine? What about my life? Where does my life come in? Wolves don’t drown, wolves swim. I should slit my wrists with a cheese knife, bite their soft insides, let blood splatter on all that is mine. I’d love to see the detergent that could wash me off the walls, and whether he would manage to wash his conscience with hydrochloric acid, provided he has one.
Dijana thinks that she maybe doesn’t want to die after all.
“If you don’t go see a therapist, I’ll file for divorce.”
Dijana is not crazy, and therefore, she won’t say anything this time. You’ve got to give him a bit of space—why do you keep railing at him? Sentimental kitsch against the shiny indigo background: a red rosebud crowned with the words Wish You Were Here, two silhouettes holding hands, sunset behind them. And Dijana’s reflection. A divorce is out of the question. Why was it in the envelope? Why was it left where I would certainly find it? Perhaps this time he really wants a divorce? Dijana is not stupid, and therefore, she won’t say anything. Divorce is not an option.
“Why do you always need to know where I’m going?”
Dijana is sitting with her back towards the dark coming in through the window which is open a crack. They say people go insane when southerly blows, and it’s been blowing incessantly for three days now. The gate is opening. Car tyres hurtle on the gravel, stones bounce off the bumper, leaving barely visible pits in the coachwork. Exhaust pipe rattling. Gate closes.
At first I think I’m dreaming. Why is it dark in the room? Is it morning yet? Has Dad arrived?
“Come to the sitting room.”
I enter in my socks, one eye shut. My feet are cold. Outside, a strong wind is still blowing.
“Sit at the table.”
She watches me intently for a few moments as if looking for something on my face; then, with her free hand, she passes me a piece of cardboard which slides across the table. She diverts her eyes.
“Ask your father.”
With my awake eye, I stare at the letters which I can’t make out, at the pink lip print. The paper is livid and smooth to the touch, like a mirror or a photograph. She’s looking out of the window as she passes me the tankard dad brought from a trip two years ago for my first communion.
“Go to the cellar and pour me some more.”
I descend the stairs with howling in my wake, from which you can only make out the word slag.
2 // In the first stage, the information must be changed
I’ve recently read a scientific explanation as to why memory is prone to glitches, why human memories are unreliable. Researchers examined about seventy people, I think, at some university or college in America, and they reached the conclusion that when we remember an event, we don’t actually remember the event proper but, rather, the last occasion on which we remembered the event. Something like that. Bottom line, it turns out that each new memory is a paler version of the original. Of the original event, not of the original memory. Something like a psychedelic image in which a person is looking at a mirror in which that same person is looking at that same mirror, and so on indefinitely. All right, if I’m honest, I think I read that on some website like BuzzFeed or Huffington Post. They’re not necessarily the most reliable sources of such information. It sounds true, though. But, yes, I’m bringing this up because I found a letter I wrote to you twenty-seven years ago. It’s dated and all, so I know. I was cleaning Mum’s house and I found it among some boxes with my stuff. In the attic, since we’re dealing in clichés. I’m selling the house. Real estate is at a premium, and anyway, a house in the centre of the capital city isn’t going to be hard to sell. So, yes, the letter. That’s why I found the thing about how the brain works interesting. Let’s say I’d been remembering that letter rather differently over the last thirty years or so. Like, I remember I wanted to tell you I was sad when you were away for long and that Mum was sad and that I didn’t like it when you two argued and that I wanted us to spend more time together and for you to treat Mum better and for us to do stuff other families do. Yes. What I found looked a bit different, and it mentioned a new coat for Mum and all those things an eleven-year-old really ought not to know. What I found reminded me of Mum’s work as a proof-reader. Of the proposals I … forgot. The point of all this? I wanted to know how you remembered it. I remember: I won’t be blackmailed and You’re a bitch, just like your mother. I also remember that you were sorry when we talked for the last time a few months after that. I remember you were sorry. I remember: Just like your mother. What do you remember?
Are you sure you want to delete this message?
3 // Nothing but
The first time they came to pick her up was during third lesson. I remember exactly because I missed recess after that. And, therefore, lunch, which is why she spent the rest of the day hungry. She took a shortcut home, through the field, running all the way, as her disproportionate limbs jutted and flailed about anti-aesthetically with no sense or rhythm. She darted in huffing and heaving, took off her boots, and loped off upstairs to her room in her wet socks without saying hello. She completely forgot about hunger. She cried till her eyes started to burn, till she got tired and fell asleep. A few weeks earlier she had started to avoid going out into the street. She didn’t want to see anyone or listen to claptrap about who kissed whom at Ivana’s birthday party on Saturday right and proper, tongue and all!, who was caught still listening to Spice Girls, and whose parents got a huge phone bill because every day after school their son was phoning sexy ladies who pant into the receiver. Most of all, she wanted to avoid the stares and whispers that followed her about like an annoying younger sister she would never have.
Aye, she flit almost a month ago. Oh, aye? I ‘eard ‘e kicked ‘er aht. Is t’ lass goin’ tu stay wi ‘im and ‘is parents? I don’t know, bu’ I’ve ‘eard she’s flit tu a flat ‘ere in t’ centre tu be near tu t’ lass. Ivka’s neighbour telled me Marina’s been whorin’ abaht. I don’t believe that. Marina is an hones’ woman an’ a good mother. Ivka’s always been stickin’ ‘er neb where it dun’t belong and meddlin’ in ‘er bairns’ affairs. I’ll bet it’s partly ‘er fault Marina left ‘im. Mind you, me cousin’s wife works at t’ court in Stubice and …
The field is quiet. In the field you only hear your breath and the crackling under your feet. The field is safe.
Third lesson is Croatian, and the teacher had just finished explaining the difference between Č and Ć, the difference I’ve not remembered to this day, and she moved on to the reflexes of the phoneme yat—something I never will remember. The chalkboard is squeaking. We had the first snow last night. Happy children are making a snowman. Flakes of lime are falling off the chalkboard.
“Valerija, luv, they want to see you at the counsellor’s office.”
Although she came of age a long time ago, Valerija still spends weekends and summer holidays at the old house. Half of her birthdays, half of Easters, half of Christmases.
“Dad, where are the clean sheets?”
“’Ave a look down in Nan’s armoire!”
The armoire is one of those massive old-timers, so old they reek of decay. The wood itself is of good quality, and the armoire is in an excellent condition now decades after it was built. The rot collecting in its cracks is the smell of a body. Of a man who is withering and covering up his wrinkles with bags of lavender.
“This looks like a table cloth to me!”
“Check the top shelf!”
The top shelf is too high. I need a chair, I don’t feel like tekkin’ me shoes off, tha’s apt tu get frozzen ‘ere, snow is up tu thi knees, bloody ‘ell lookit all t’ linen, a reet pile, this one’s too big, this one too, this is a pillowcase, this … this is a notebook.
Friday, 08, came from work after eleven in t’ evenin’, screamed at t’ lass for no’ bein’ in bed
11 April. Every day a bloke in a blue opelastra picks ‘er up from work, dunt’ bring ‘er all t’ way tu t’ hahse, but leaves ‘er at t’ junction. Firs’ of May, allegedly, she has tu work…
What the hell?
All summer she dun’t let t’ lass come tu visit us, she sends er tu t’ seaside tu ‘er family
27 September. Said she’d kill erssen and t’ lass if ‘e trys tu tek ‘er
called an’ threatened tu tell ‘e belted ‘er
got tu tell t’ social worker she slapped t’ lass
The cramped office is chock-full of boxes full of papers. It’s never cold there, but now the place seems about to burst into flames with the heat of the three bodies. Valerija doesn’t understand why this strange lady is saying strange things like, “Have you ever heard your parents argue?” and “What was the argument about?” and “Does your mum treat you well?” and “Who would you rather stay with, your mum or your dad?”
Every time they call out her name, when she, the one whose parents are divorcing, has to get up in front of everyone, the only thing she wants is to breathe herself into her own rib cage and disappear. When they asked if it was true that her mum was beating her, she thought they were joking. They told her it was a serious question, be serious. A serious Valerija then spent both halves of Christmas in her rooms. If they would at least stop coming to school.
“Does she often yell at you?”
“What do you have for dinner most often?”
“Who would you rather stay with, your mum or your dad?”
“Don’t worry, you can tell me.”
If only they would ask why she is wearing long sleeves in June. Valerija, why are you hiding your arms?
If only they would stop asking who she would rather stay with.
“You have to make a decision, luv, you’re old enough.”
Valerija isn’t thinking about bed sheets now. She’s thinking about multidimensionality. About how someone once tried to explain to her the principle of truth. In the example, two people are sitting at a table on which there is a box. Both see the face of the box facing them, the face the other person can’t see at all. The sides and the top they see only partially. Neither can see the bottom. Nobody even thinks about what’s inside the box. A decade away from the small office full of papers, Valerija isn’t sure whether she should cry again now, or get angry and shout at the wrinkled face that rubbed salt, pepper, and spices into every wound of hers. And she’s not sure whose face that’s supposed to be.
Well, she’s really puttin’ summat into it.
Fillin’ t’ lass’s ‘ed wi’ lies … Waitress … Local pub … Social work centre – let them talk wi’ Valerija while she’s at school, so she can’t stuff ‘er ‘ed … Lass is reet skinny … I’m sure she’s no’ cookin’ … T’ lass is always in ‘er room …
Page after page filled with gibberish. It was all a long time ago. All the traces from her arms have disappeared, except you can make out a pale V on the inside of her forearm which she covered with her first tattoo when she turned eighteen.
The lady from the social work centre told her once, “You’re a lucky girl. See how much your parents love you? They can’t agree who you’ll belong to.”
“Didst tha find a sheet?”
“When’s tha gettin’ back from yer mother?”
“Eight, nine at the latest.”
Valerija hates Christmas.
Photographic response by Dario Kristić
Matea Šimić was born in Oroslavje, Croatia, in 1985. She received an MA in English Language and Literature / Comparative Literature from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb. She writes both prose and poetry in Croatian and English. She has been a part of the Sarajevo Writers’ Workshop since 2012. Her poems have been published in H.O.W Journal (online), and she contributed a short story to the International Writing Program’s Narrative Witness collaboration (Caracas-Sarajevo). She is the founder and editor of NEMA, a bilingual journal for literature and arts. She lives and works in Barcelona, Spain.
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.
Dario Kristić, architect, born in 1980, lives and works in Sarajevo.
Published on October 2, 2017.
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