Hell is my natural habitat! (Geoffrey Firmin in the film Under the Volcano)
You are wherever you are
translated from Slovenian by Erica Johnson Debeljak
Anything is impossible!
Zdravko Čolić; from the song “Glavo luda” [Crazy head], album Ako priđeš bliže [When you come closer]
In the olden days, malta was collected in Bosnia. It looked something like this: at the top, at the entrance to the šeher (a town or a marketplace), there was a row of ramps which formed a sort of fortress where the peasants from the surrounding villages had to pay malta, an entrance fee to sell one's products at the market. Similarly, they paid a malta when they left the town, as a tax on the goods they sold. The thing was practical above all, the town demanding a tax so it could grow and enrich itself, and at the same time ensuring that the town was not permanently overrun by peasants who would cripple it with their provincial ways.
Sejo was sitting in the garden of one of the more frequented cafes at the so-called city beach that extends along the right bank of the Ljubljanica River. He was staring at all the people, most of whom were wearing sunglasses on their heads, and it somehow made him think of the malta and how welcome it would be in this place and time. However you look at it, city peasants were the worst kind of peasants. Peasants without land. There's nothing worse than that.
Blaž was sitting in the corner of the garden. A high functionary in the opposition party, he was in the company of some guys with beer bellies that were talking to every little teenager who walked by. The Saturday afternoon promenade was glistening in all its glory, the flea market slowly clearing away its junk into garages and side streets, making room for the blossoming beauties in mini-skirts, their too short tee-shirts revealing an array of tiny rings in all those youthful belly buttons. Hidden behind his sunglasses, Sejo voyeuristically watched the young meat and sipped on a stein of beer.
“Look at her! Look at her!” he heard Blaž say. “She’s going by for the third time.”
And a little bit later: “Hey, little one, congratulations, congratulations!”
Anything to give a glimmer of hope for a more beautiful future: school had started, the high school girls were happily showing off their Dalmatian suntans, just walking by.
La strada degli corpi bellissimi, as the Italians would say.
But any feelings of happiness were destroyed by Blaž:
“You sure know to lick it, little one!”
The dot on the ‘i’ was the exuberant explosion of laughter among the red-faced male company, aimed at a girl of fifteen years who was helping herself to a scoop of purple ice cream.
Old fat ruined farts, thought Sejo. I would collect malta from them!
He emptied his stein of beer, went to the bar to pay, sliding past Blaž. He sat in his taxi and drove off.
Destination: a new, modern apartment building, with a lot of greenery.
Sejo was sitting on the sofa when a voice came from the kitchen:
“You want coffee?”
“No. Pour me a shot,” Sejo answered.
Denisa came from the kitchen and placed a bottle on the little table in front of Sejo. Sejo poured the liquid into a tiny glass and took a sip.
“You sure you don’t want coffee?” she asked again.
Denisa went back to the kitchen. Probably to make that coffee. Sejo went out to the balcony with his glass in hand. He lit a cigarette, which was the only reason he was on the balcony. In Denisa’s apartment the following rules applied: when you enter, you must take off your shoes and put on a pair of slippers because sweaty feet leave a disgusting moist trace on the polished wood floors, which wouldn’t go with the impeccability of the new apartment. Loud talking is not advised, yelling strictly forbidden. Probably because of the thin walls that divide one modern apartment from the other. Smoking only the balcony, obviously! And that’s that. Seven floors below there were a sandbox, a few benches, and a lot of greenery. Children in the sandbox, parents on the benches, birds and beetles in the greenery. Denisa’s indistinct voice came from within. He stepped away from the railing and pricked up his ears… Nothing. He went right up to the door and said:
“I said I got a letter from Aida.”
“From Aida, who else? Look at you. Have you totally forgotten that you have another sister? And go out on to the balcony if you have to smoke. Don’t you see that the smoke is coming inside?”
She sat on the sofa and looked restlessly around her. A coffee rested on the table in front of her, served in a way that reminded Sejo of home. A little cup with an engraved metal handle, and a tiny džezva in which the coffee is brewed made from the same material, and of course a small dish for sugar decorated with a moon and a star. Handcrafted work, a gift from a mother for the journey into the world. Let life be sweet.
Sejo tossed his cigarette butt thought the balcony railing, watching it until it landed in the greenery below. Then he turned back to the room.
“What does Aida say?” he asked, sitting down next to her.
“Denisa?! Aida! What does Aida say?”
“Oh,” she smiled. “Aida’s okay.”
“Good,” Sejo said.
Denisa stood up and began to rearrange the little elephants on the shelf. She picked up one and moved it a little to the left. Then she lifted the second one, putting it in the place the first one had occupied. She took a step back and regarded the innovation. Then she placed the little elephants in their original positions. It all made it look like the little elephants were part of some damn chess game.
“If they’re turned toward the north, it means that money will come into the house. At least that’s what I think,” Sejo said.
Denisa smiled at him:
“This isn’t a house,” she said.
Then she went to the other wall of the room, regarded the shelves there, dragged her finger from one end to the other, and looked at it.
“Damn dust!” Against the rules, she raised her voice and ran toward the kitchen.
Sejo leaned back on the sofa and closed his eyes.
“Denisa,” he said after some time, eyes still closed.
“Denisa,” he repeated, a little louder this time.
“Yes?” she answered from the kitchen.
“Are you alright?”
“Aida’s living in Steinkjer now!” she called from the kitchen.
“And she says that she’s doing fine,” Denisa called.
“Good,” said Sejo.
He took a long sip from his shot glass and poured another one. Twice brewed brandy and very drinkable brandy it was. He knew about brandy. Soft brandy. His father brewed it in Faletiči, on a little mountain pasture, southeast of Sarajevo where he had a weekend house.
“They have a three metre long crab in their fjord,” Denisa said happily, coming back into the room. “Can you imagine that? You go to swim and on the rock above the water you see a three metre long crab? Ha ha!”
“I’d rather imagine it on my plate. Three metres,” Sejo said.
“They probably got that big because of Chernobyl,” Denisa continued. “Mutant. Monsters. Brrr!” She trembled. “They came from the Barents sea. Science will, Sejo, and excuse the word, fuck nature.”
Then she sat again and poured coffee from the džezva into her cup. She put in two spoonfuls of sugar. She took one sip, swallowed, and waited a bit. Probably the taste was right, because one could observe a faint movement of her head forward and a honeyed smile appear on her lips.
“It’s already gobbled up several people. Divers. Aida says that she’s afraid for Ljund…”
“Oh! Didn’t I tell you he was a diver?”
Sejo shook his head.
“Oh yes,” she said.
“Since when?” he asked.
“How should I know that? Probably for some time now…”
“Didn’t she break up with him?”
Denisa thought about it for a while, then put her hand up to her forehead.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me today. I said Ljund, didn’t I?”
“Really,” she said. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s with me today. I’m completely mixed up. I think I took one xanax too many.”
Sejo nodded and took another sip.
“I’m really completely…oh well, what can you do,” she said and held out her hands. “And you? How are you?”
“Nothing new,” said Sejo. “Same old thing.”
“Are you fine or not?”
Sejo looked at her.
“Comme ci, comme ça,” he said.
“No news is good news,” said Denisa and began to fiddle with his lighter. She lit it and let it go out. And then suddenly:
“Oh, I completely forgot…” she said and ran into the kitchen. Shortly afterwards, she came back with a big box wrapped in cellophane. “Your gift. A little something. Happy thirty-first birthday, little brother,” she said and handed him the gift.
Sejo looked at the box.
“Thanks,” he said. “You didn’t need to.”
“Open it,” said Denisa.
“When else?” said Denisa and tousled his hair. “Look at you!”
Sejo tackled the opening of the gift. It was nicely wrapped. The transparent paper rustled on all sides and it struck him that there was no end to the wrapping. Finally a large box emerged from it. There was a big fish drawn on it.
“Open it, open it,” Denisa said impatiently.
Sejo smiled and lifted the cover of the box. He was looking at a sort of plastic thing, a brown-coloured fish stuck on a plate.
“A fish!” he said.
“Take it out.”
Again the rustling of paper.
“Do you see that button there?” asked Denisa, pointing with her finger. “Press it!”
Sejo pressed and the button and the fish wriggled toward him. Startled, he pushed it out of his lap and it landed on the floor. It kept wriggling on the floor, like a fish on dry land, and out of its open mouth came the words: Take me to the river, throw me in the water….
“Fuck,” said Sejo.
Denisa was laughing out loud. “Isn’t it great?”
“Mother fucker,” said Sejo.
They kept laughing and pressing on the button. Take me to the river, throw me in the water…. Several times. And much laughter.
“Did Ljund catch it?” Sejo laughed.
Denisa exploded. She slapped her hands on her knees.
“Noooo,” she moaned through her laughter.
Sejo had not seen her so happy for a long time. She had tears in her eyes. Then she slowly calmed down and continued:
“Oh, I did say Ljund, didn’t I?”
“Sorry. Ljund is her ex, now she has some Sven, the diver…”
Sejo nodded. Denisa stood opposite him and looked at him with a smile on her face.
“Wait,” she said and ran back into the kitchen.
Sejo picked up the fish, put it in his lap again, and looked at it. He touched it, examining how it was made. Why it moved, where it had a battery, and so on.
Denisa returned with a pile of photographs.
“There,” she said, waving one picture under his nose. “That’s Sven. Isn’t he sweet?”
“Actually no,” said Sejo, taking the photograph into his hand.
Denisa tousled his hair.
“Boys,” she said. “Always competing with each other.”
“Fuck it,” he said.
“Don’t talk that way,” said Denisa. “Mother would turn over in her grave if she could hear you. There! That’s her Samir. Do you remember how little he was when she was still with Ljund?”
She handed him the next photograph.
“Yup,” said Sejo.
“How they grow. Aida says the child doesn’t bother him at all, that he understands, and that’s it. Finally.”
“Who doesn’t the child bother at all?” Sejo asked.
“Yeah. Sven. Who else?”
And then another photograph of Sven in diving equipment, and Aida and Sven somewhere out in nature. And then another one with Samir wearing skis in some sort of wilderness, etc.
“She finally found the right guy,” said Denisa.
“And what else does she say? Aida?”
“That she’s in Steinkjer now, eighty kilometres from Trondhaim, and that she’s fine,” said Denisa and started to sob.
Sejo leaned back on the sofa and closed his eyes again. He knew that this family celebration of his birthday would be torture but he came anyway. He would have liked to leave, but these things meant a lot to Denisa. Family things, though the family was completely shattered now. Two children in Ljubljana, one in some Stein… god knows where… mother in the ground, the old man drunk somewhere around Novi Travnik probably. The cursed Šahinpašić family. Denisa was the youngest and it hit her hardest.
“Thanks for the gift,” said Sejo and kissed her tear-stained cheeks.
Denisa smiled, wiped her tears, and then cheerfully continued:
“Do you remember when you were on television?”
“Because of your paper about Comrade Tito…”
“Oh, that was a long time ago,” Sejo said.
“You were so sweet, with your pioneer cap and the red handkerchief around your neck. And… and…” she started to laugh, “you were yawning the whole time, and we were worried that they would come after the old man, you know?”
“How can you remember that? You were so little then.”
“Oh, I remember. I was famous in the courtyard because of that.”
Sejo smiled. He patted Denisa on the knee.
“And you got to go to Sutjeksa as a prize.”
“To Tjentište actually,” said Sejo.
“We didn’t go to Sutjeska but to Tjentište. To look at those monuments,” said Sejo.
“Tito’s little pioneer,” said Denisa.
“Tito’s little pioneer,” said Sejo.
Denisa went silent and looked at her brother.
“You liked to read…” she said then.
“You liked to read… books!”
“I did not,” he said.
“Yes you did.”
“I did not like to read,” said Sejo and he looked across at the shelf with the little elephants. They were pointed to the north.
“Yes, you did,” said Denisa, as if she wanted to convince him.
“In my whole life I only read Little Red Riding Hood and even that I fucked up,” said Sejo.
Denisa burst into loud laughter. She held her sides.
Sejo looked at her and started laughing too.
“What is it Denisa?” he asked through the laughter.
She kept laughing.
“When you and Aida went for the afternoon, ha ha…” she laughed, “When you…” Then she suddenly grew serious and quiet.
Sejo had also become serious and looked at her for a long while.
“When we what, Denisa?” he asked then.
Denisa looked somewhere in front and was suddenly absent.
“When you…” she said.
Silence. She started to crack the knuckles on her hands. Sejo looked at his sister. She was four years younger than him, only twenty-seven, but she looked much older.
“Nothing. What did I want to say? Well…” And then Denisa lifted her head, looked at her brother, and smiled wanly.
“Where is he now?” she asked, looking at his watch. “He said he’d be home at five and now it’s half past…”
“There’s no hurry,” said Sejo. “Pour me another one.”
Denisa filled the shot glass again. A couple seconds of silence. Denisa was gazing somewhere at the wall. Sejo closed his eyes. Then after a while:
“Oh! This always being late gets on my nerves,” said Denisa.
“Where is he?”
“At his mother’s. There’s something wrong with her hips or I don’t know what,” said Denisa. “Lately he’s there a lot.”
Sejo nodded. Denisa got up and went to the balcony. She looked for him down below. Sejo went out with her and lit a cigarette. Silently they observed what was going on seven floors below.
“How nice it must be at home now, don’t you think?” she said after a while.
Sejo tried to remember the courtyard at home. They were quiet and surveyed the scene. The view from the seventh floor wasn’t all that good, god knows. Train tracks ran by on the right side past the new apartment buildings, the local train to Dolenjska rattled by three or four times a day. The Grubar Canal was on the other side, Golovec to the south. Beneath, a little bit to the side, was the big Mercator Centre and the Austrian Hofer, for those with less money, as the advertisements said.
“Yup,” he said. “It must be nice…”
“I haven’t been home for an eternity,” said Denisa.
“We could go down together,” said Sejo.
“We could,” said Denisa.
Sejo emptied the shot glass, took a last puff off his cigarette, and tossed it over the railing.
“Don’t throw your butts down there,” Denisa scolded. “There are children down there!”
“Too late,” said Sejo.
“It’s never too late,” his little sister said and ran into the kitchen.
Sejo went back to the sofa. The endless waiting for her Blaž continued several more minutes, during which Denisa ran to the kitchen and back at least three times, and then somewhere else, and so on and so forth, into the kitchen, into the living room. At some point in her travels, the doorbell rang and something like this could be heard in the hall:
“Where have you been?”
“At my mother’s. I already told you.”
“For so long?”
“You know her. Once she starts to tell her stories, not even the grace of god could stop her.”
“And how is she?”
“Is she still going to that class?”
“Pottery? Yeah. That’s all she has.”
And then he stepped into the room. Blaž. A high-placed functionary in the opposition party. He stank of beer.
“Hey, dude!” he greeted him. “You still alive?”
“Just barely,” said Sejo.
Blaž clapped him on the shoulder and sat down next to him. Then he poured himself a shot and drank it in one gulp. He wiped his mouth with the bank of his hand, thumped his chest, and said:
“Soft brandy! Nothing like it!”
“You should try some of our homemade brandy. From Horjul! Now that burns. You can hardly drink it without a wine chaser.” This was a flower of Horjul humour and Blaž laughed out loud at his own joke.
“Definitely,” said Sejo.
“Did you bring it?” Denisa was standing in front of him.
“Of course, I did,” said Blaž, and pulled several boxes of tablets from his pocket. He tossed them onto the table. Boxes of lexaurin, xanax, tramal flew across the table. Denisa gathered them up quickly and took them into the kitchen.
Blaž looked after her for a while and shook his head.
“She’s getting worse,” he said.
Sejo shrugged his shoulders.
“What can you do?” he said.
“What can you do,” Blaž repeated. Then he slapped his knees and stood up. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a little package. “This is a little something from me on your birthday, kid, so you won’t say that we Slovenians are cheap, yeah?” He handed him the package. “Go into the bathroom and make two lines.”
Sejo stood up to show that he understood and Blaž grabbed his hand.
“Kid,” he said. “Not too much. It’s strong stuff, okay?”
“Understood,” said Sejo.
“And not a word to her, okay?” He nodded his head toward the kitchen.
“If after all those pills she tried some of that, we’d have a real party.”
Sejo went to the bathroom, locked the door behind him, and opened the package. On the shelf beside the lipstick, mascara, powders and creams, he slowly transformed a rock from the white mass into two lines. One larger and one smaller. He snorted the larger line, sniffed two or three times, then returned to the living room. Denisa and Blaž sat on the sofa, a fresh shot glass filled with homemade brandy in front of Blaž, and Denisa next to him looking through the window with a confused smile on her face.
“I hope you flushed,” said Blaž, winking at him, and heading toward the bathroom.
Sejo sat down in his place.
“Aida is in Steinkjer now, about eighty kilometres from Trondhaim, and she says she’s fine,” said Denisa.
“You already told me,” said Sejo.
Denisa looked at him strangely, then she smiled.
“You oddball,” she said and tousled his hair.
“Sejo,” said Blaž coming out of the bathroom, “tell us a story from the taxi.”
“Leave him alone. Don’t bother him with that today. It’s his birthday,” said Denisa.
“So what?” said Blaž. He sat between them sniffing.
“There’s not much to say,” said Sejo.
“Come on, come on,” Blaž tugged at his shoulder. “Don’t tell me there’s nothing to say. Lots of interesting things happen in a taxi… Come on!”
Sejo was silent.
“Nothing very exciting,” said Sejo.
“No crazy chicks? No drunks, no horny couple who can’t wait? No fights?”
“Don’t talk like that,” said Denisa.
“It’s just us,” said Blaž and slapped Sejo’s shoulder. “Isn’t that right?”
“There was one girl who got in the taxi with a piece of glass in her finger,” said Sejo.
“Nothing really… She has this piece glass in her finger and she didn’t even know it. As if it weren’t the first time. She asked me to light her cigarette… With this piece of glass in her skin… And no blood, only the glass in her skin…” said Sejo.
“Wounded, no blood, that’s it. That’s everything,” said Sejo.
Blaž looked at him for a while, then at Denisa, then back at him.
“But that’s nothing,” he said disappointed.
Sejo shrugged his shoulders.
“That’s it,” he said.
Blaž was still looking at him. He shook his head. Then he looked at Denina and… tsk, tsk, tsk…, came from his mouth. He lit a cigarette. He walked around the room. Then he stopped in front of the window, in front of the balcony actually, and looked out into the city. After a while, he turned back to Sejo.
“No blood, you say?”
Sejo shrugged his shoulders again.
And Blaž: “Tsk, tsk, tsk…”
“Go smoke on the balcony,” Denisa said.
Blaž looked at her and then silently went out on to the balcony. He looked down to the courtyard and went: “Tsk, tsk, tsk…”
He took a couple of quick puffs and tossed his cigarette over the railing. When he stepped back into the room, he looked at Sejo, smiled and nodded.
“Now we can have cake. I worked on it all day,” said Denisa and ran into the kitchen again.
Blaž looked after her for a while, then he walked up to Sejo, and whispered in his ear: “Make another two lines, will you?”
“No problem,” said Sejo and went toward the bathroom again. When he stood up, Blaž boxed him in the shoulder and said:
“You’re going to talk to me about no blood, ha ha ha…” he quietly laughed.
“Fuck it, Blaž,” said Sejo, “that’s the way it was.” He looked straight into his eyes and then walked past him.
In the bathroom, he first splashed a little water on his face, then he got ready to go through the same procedure again. There on the little shelf, among all the cosmetics, he found an old family photograph. They were all in it, his father Faruk, his mother Farah, the two sisters Aida and Denisa, somewhere near a stream. He looked into the photograph. He didn’t remember either the stream or the day when the photograph was taken. He was about fourteen years old, fifteen, and in the picture he is holding up two fingers behind Aida’s head. Similarly, the old Faruk is holding up two fingers behind the mother’s head. He’s laughing with his father and his mother looks grim. She always looked grim, it struck him. She was always worried about something. Aida acted casual, as if the whole thing bored her. At least, that’s how it looked. Denisa was crying and hiding behind mother’s long black skirt. He smiled. The photograph was probably taken just before the war, he thought. It was probably the last picture before we kids were sent out into the world… Alone… No, that’s not completely true. We went with our neighbours, the Livnjaks, who had relatives in Velenje. First to Split, running into Serbs three times. Then up to Rijeka, and from Rijeka to Slovenia. The old Fare remained in Travnik with their sick mother… He had never seen either of them again. The mother was buried in Novi Travnik, the father…. He makes brandy, fuck it, down there somewhere. He made two lines and snorted one. He left one for Blaž next to the photograph. He took a piss and then went back into the living room.
A squashed cake lay across the floor… Fruit and cream and dough was strewn over about a metre, one after the other. Apricots, banana, frosting… Cake and some unlit candles… Denisa was squatting against the wall and sobbing noiselessly. She had her face covered with her hands and was sniffling. Blaž sat on the sofa, nodding off. He held in his hands that singing fish and pressed the button. The fish sang: take me to the river, throw me in the water….
“This should have a remote control,” said Blaž.
* * *
Fuck it, everyone in our family is totally fucked, thought Sejo. In this shit… in this hell!... Hell is a global thing, an earthly thing, right here on earth! Ach! He sat in the taxi and smoked. Just smoked and blew clouds of smoke through the window. There was the Mercedes hood ornament, like the cross hairs of a gun. He looked at a children’s playground through it. A couple of tree trunks were painted in a dark brown colour, probably or mostly because it held up over time, and the city planners had agreed to make rockets, jungle gyms, hanging bridges and that sort of thing. A touch of nature in an apartment complex. The achievement of urbanism. Children chased each other to and fro, young mothers sat bored on the benches, in a haze of a cigarette smoke.
Is it possible that everything is so fucked up? Sejo wondered.
He leaned his head forward on the steering wheel. Something was pounding in the back of his head. He felt sick. He sat up again and lit a cigarette with the butt of the last one. He looked through the hood ornament and pretended he was shooting the playing children. Bang, bang, whoosh…. ratatatat… When one of the kids managed to get to the top of the wooden rocket in the middle of the crosshairs, he was interrupted by the sound of knocking. He jumped. He opened the window and a cloud of smoke floated out.
“Are you free?”
He nodded his head.
“Of course,” he said.
An older man opened the back door and sat down in the back seat. The automobile filled with the sound of the fish: take me to the river, throw me in the water… The old man got a fright, jumped, and banged his head hard on the edge of the door.
“Fuck my mother!” said the old man, looking at the fish in the backseat. “What the fuck is that?”
“A gift,” said Sejo.
The old man calmed down bit. He tossed the fish in the front seat and leaned back again.
“Fuck such a gift,” he said with an accent and touched himself on the forehead.
Sejo could see in the rear view mirror that the old man was bleeding a bit from his forehead.
“Fuck such a birthday,” said Sejo. “Where to?”
“Glinšek Square,” he said.
Sejo stretched out his arm to fasten his seatbelt. He started the car. The interior of the car was filled with a thousand lights. Again he looked at his client in the rear view mirror.
“You’re not from here,” he said more than asked.
“Hey, kid, you’re from wherever you are,” said the old man.
“Yup,” said Sejo. “You are wherever you are.”
He shifted the car into gear and slowly drove on.