Nikole Tesle 58, Istočno Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Tanja Stupar-Trifunović was born in Zadar in 1977 and is a graduate of the University of Banja Luka. She writes poetry, columns and literary reviews. Her poetry has been translated into several languages, and she was shortlisted for the CEE Literature Award (for poetry) in 2008. Stupar-Trifunović lives in Banja Luka and works as the Editor of Putevi, a literary magazine.
Childhood is perhaps a good place to start. In childhood, impressions are deep and indelible, like a footprint in soft concrete. Now, it’s just traces of mud, easy to wash off. I have long become a paved square, a completed playground by the shore, a fixed-up pavement by the road; everything inside me has become solid. The steps of others are not imprints any more. The past is a house where a reckless thought ends up, memories press like walls stuffed with paintings.
I was walking along the shore, collecting seashells. Mother yelled because of too much sun on my back. My skin was going dark, tingling, tightening. I felt nothing. That came later. Now I was just searching. And my eyes were predators hunting and magnets attracting and beggars imploring. The seashells were there, scattered over the pebbles along the shore. Precious items waiting to be picked out. As I turned them, they were white and shimmery (like my belly), and dark on the outside (like my back). Like life. White and shimmery. Life coming from somewhere, starting in girls’ heads, shimmery and white, like the inside of a seashell. In the heads of girls frightened and solemn in their anticipation.
The wedding was modest. Nothing white. Nothing shimmery.
The seashell never opened all the way. The edge was too sharp. I cut my finger. The salt of the sea bit my blood, it stung (I pushed my finger under the water, so that Mother couldn’t see it). Through that finger the sea sucked out a part of me, a part of me went into the sea. The sea was not unjust, part of it came inside me (unknown shores often make me sway, I am often carried away, barely standing). When he licks my skin, he says he’s never slept with a saltier woman. Like a shower with seawater.
Something salty is sleeping in my skin. A sea captured.
Mother watches over me like a seagull following its naïve prey. A careless gesture will give me away and stop this adventure under the sun. A wave and a call that takes me towards her beak, in the shade. In safety. Under the green tamarix. Under the sappy pine. Under the fig whose unripe fruit drips sticky and stingy juice over my finger.
The rented flat was tin, musky and safe. Far away from the sea. I laid my seashells on shelves. It suffocated me. It frightened me. The closeness of the walls. The reliability of the storeroom offering discretely its stale air: by the time you grab a jar of jam, it has told you the entire history of poverty, your own and someone else’s.
I shivered as I looked out to the grey road through the tiny windows. The sea was far away, but the tides were close. Inside. And the storms. And the mornings with fish scattered along the shore. Something was growing.
Some day, something will swim out of me.
You slipped down my salty thighs, soaked in seawater and blood. It happened again. A part of me slipped into you, a part of you entered me. The exchange happened. We both murmured. In the summer, we collected seashells. Your eyes had the same glow of those who are on a quest. For the white, shimmery glow. Under the pebbles.
Mother looked at me furiously as I strolled towards the house lazily. A premonition of unpleasantness slowed down my steps. She was waiting for me. She gave me a spanking. I had recklessly revealed family secrets to a neighbour. Things they had said I shouldn’t tell anyone.
Within four walls.
I gave away.
He asked. I was honest. I thought that everyone was like us, that there was nothing special in those little family secrets. Inside, everything looks more or less the same. Everyone lies to everyone else. To avoid hurting them.
I couldn’t understand any of it.
You should be silent about things like that. The spanking taught me nothing.
It wasn’t worth it. The wedding was modest. Mother tilted her head on one side, Father on the other.
Father went out to sea to fish. I begged him to take me with him. Mother said it wasn’t safe, taking a child out to stormy sea so early in the morning. Taking such a small child to such a great sea, and there could be a northern wind, there was a bit already. Are you insane? Both of you. And don’t. And please, Daddy. And he took me. He and the men were there. They were cheerful and loud. It was a cold morning and a hot day. The sun made our skin tight. As if I was one of them. We caught a cuttlefish. The black liquid stained the inside of the white boat. It didn’t make me feel sick, it wasn’t ugly, I wasn’t afraid of getting dirty, just like they didn’t. Even later, as they were strategically distributed along different frontlines, dug into deep, fertile soil, they were not afraid of getting dirty. They never showed any fear. They got up early. They lit their cigarettes and left, as if they were going fishing. But I became very, very frightened.
I was no longer one of them.
The cuttlefish ink seeped into a story.
Shame on you, said Father. Shame on you. I was ashamed. Of all the mistakes. There must have been many. Like the bag of corn that the chicken ate by accident. There was nothing in front of me, except for that empty sack of shame. Time has eaten away the mistakes, but I am still ashamed. And Father is ashamed too. Shame on you, they told him too. You stole a lemon, you cut the fence, you broke the neighbour’s window. And he is ashamed on the photo, on the wall, with his head tilted on one side, and Mother’s on the other. At their wedding.
God, they’re so big. He came from behind. He tried to grab them. Maybe you need help carrying them, they will bend your back. I wiggled away. Those fingers followed me like jellyfish, with tentacles sticking to the air on the skin, stealing oxygen. Do you have a boyfriend? Does he touch you? Why do jellyfish always go for our breasts, for our hearts, to leave behind their toxic burns? It was different when I was young. She doesn’t want to sleep with me. The jellyfish are sad, transparent and toxic. The jellyfish always swim close to the children. The children don’t say anything to their parents, because the parents prefer to believe the jellyfish.
Let him who is without sin cast the first stone, shouted Father in a sad voice and hit his own head.
And don’t you ever, ever tell anyone about things we talk about at home, said Mother. Never.
We talk about what? What? The sea inside me murmured.
You know what they say about you? Said my daughter (you said) and looked me right in the eye.
I know, I said. And I started laughing. You didn’t like my laugh. It’s the kind of laugh no one ever likes. But it was more painful and faster than me.
The photographer stood on the side. That’s how I interpreted it, and that’s why the two of us are tilted on the photo. At our wedding. He is standing up straight. If you want to know what a right angle looks like, look at the shoulders. Look at this man’s head. He always stands up straight. But I tilted my head to one side, away from him, and the photographer tilted his hand. And everything is a bit tilted.
In my belly-sea, a fish is swimming, not knowing it’s there.
In Mother’s belly-sea, I wiggled nervously, not knowing I was there. And that I caught them.
The wedding was modest, nothing white, nothing shimmery. The rented room on the ground floor waited for the exhausted bodies which, intoxicated by the damp smell, forgot that they were young.
The registry clerk was a woman. She was about 50. Her eyes were bleak mirrors reflecting yes and yes and yes and yes and yes (screaming no and no and no and no and no and no behind them).
The fish had been caught. The engine hummed cheerfully. The men were just as happy and noisy. They drank and laughed. We’re going back. It all went really well. Women are always afraid for no reason. And they nag for no reason. I was angry at Mother for not knowing anything about this manly joy out on the open sea. The fish were there, in the buckets. I fished too. I was so proud. The black line left behind by the cuttlefish ink distracted me; there was something sticky and soft about its body, about its trace, about its way of getting us all, all of us on that boat. All of us cheerful men accidentally awakened to a woman inside them.
I told you not to tell anyone about it. You are my secret.
I won’t tell anyone about it.
You are mine.
And you are mine.
We were caught in the photo. (We are all a bit tilted.) I told you not to tell anyone about it, said Mother. I couldn’t remember what it was. What on earth have I talked about? And this mean neighbour who grilled children in such clever ways. Like a voyeur enjoying other people’s family secrets. Our family had secrets? We’re just a boring family. A wonderful, boring family. A wonderful, boring family in a tilted photograph. You’re here, inside, and I’m inside her. Like an onion, each one of us has a new layer. Yes, that kind of comparison, the ordinary comparison that makes you cry as you peel the layers off.
Cry, I said to myself, and I cried. Until all the cuttlefish ink has seeped out of me.
But before that, before something moved, before the white cuttlefish bone gleamed on my hand, my brother and I ran happily to offer it as a sacrifice to the beak of our golden canary, before the big prey and before our world has dispersed towards places and shores we knew nothing about, before the possibility of crying and talking has presented itself generously as the comforting freedom that delivers from hardship all those silenced mouths, hearts and groins, before the hardship and before the lightness, before the clocks in my mother’s room have gone silent and before dust has covered everything, before everything, there was a tender and gentle now, where we all touched, and whose reflection occasionally and unexpectedly flashes in our lives.