translated from Croatian by Graham McMaster
“Tereza, Tereza,” trickled down the street.
It hadn’t even dawned, and the women waiting for the Albanian to rattle open the door of shop saw her hurrying with the little rucksack on her back. Some of them stretched their heads out to Duga ulica and watched the young woman (the very young woman) climb up to the bus station. The Albanian was late with the bread that morning because it had begun to snow the previous evening, and here even a simple shower caused a snarl-up in the traffic. Time froze, and space, and everything in it went stiff. The sea would not even rock to and fro. People looked through their open shutters or plastic blinds at the snow in the framework of the window like the snow on the TV screen. Through the slats of the blinds they also saw Tereza: in her canvas sneakers and new red jumper which rounded into a large ball at the front, a ball of wall beneath which slept an unborn pussycat. Not even if she wanted to could she hide it, that Tereza, who was going somewhere with the rucksack on her back. To the bus station, it seemed. She didn’t even manage to button up that man’s coat that she had put on, his coat.
Is the snow going to fall the whole day, as the weathermen say? Everyone’s talking about it, for here snow falls once in five years, and never falls long enough to stay. The palms and the flowers on the balconies beneath which she is passing have already whitened. And she thinks there’s some magic in it.
Tracks of All-star 37s were left behind her, footprints that cut across the beach and went on as if the sand was not ending, as if this beach had climbed right up high to the road where Tereza’s footsteps vanished behind the fast food shack on which kebab and toasted sandwiches were written, perhaps on further, to the highway and behind the new five-storey buildings. If she closes her eyes and squints at the hills, they are sandbanks of EPS. Sitting in the bus are several women with their noses red with cold, turned towards the foggy glass, probably cleaners and checkout assistants in the new mall on the way out of the estate. Some of them nod a greeting, others hardly notice her. She counts out change and buys a ticket from the driver. On the last seat, as usual, is Skint Sasha. Sometimes she meets him in the centre where he goes around the sidewalk cafes and cadges money, and people say: Poor old chap, and he’s not even a gypsy. And they take out a kuna or two for the bleary eyes of Skint Sasha. He looks at Tereza’s swelling belly and the damp light that shimmers in her dark hair and the scene drives him to some kind of happy uncontrolled winking, a tick. He likes her, all round as she is, and warm and shining, Sasha smiles every time he catches her glance. Tereza takes a five-kuna coin, a ‘bear’, out of her purse and presses it into his hand.
“Where to, Tera?” Sasha asks her, picking his nose.
“None of your business,” she answers. But her voice is mild, her face childish, without a single sharp line.”
“And stop mining,” she says to him. “You’ll not find any gold,” she says, for she has to change at this stop, and waves to Skint Sasha.
That’s how he rides, keeping warm. Today it’s cold. And deaf, the sound is turned off.
For some time Tereza stays hunched under the plastic roof of the pissed-up shelter, looking up the road that took her out of the city and the estate, and then decides to continue on foot. Perhaps the bus is not running today, she thinks.
Now when there’s no one to stop and ask, Tereza treads more slowly, her legs heavy, her sneakers soaked through. She wades through deeper and deeper snow. She was so thin that he called her little lizard, and now she is waddling along the road, awkward, her body unreponsive, trailing after her or letting her down. Every now and then she curses the truckers if they scare her with their horns. They’re on edge after driving at night in these conditions. The number plates are from the south and south east of Europe. Lumps of muddy ice break off the tarps of the trucks and fall on the blacktop.
Past the petrol pump, Tereza’s shallow footprints with the star on the heel are lost again, because the snow is falling faster. She vanishes behind the hangars and warehouses, where the houses and road stop, among the clumps of broom and shaggy brambles on the wasteland over which, from the west, dark clouds are boiling. The goat tracks are blocked, drifted over by that EPS that is rotting over your protuberant soft tummy, over your, you silly moo, stubborn head.
Whether it’s the bitch to blame or her, Tereza no longer cares, it’s time to go home. Silly moo. He told her that ten days ago, took the dog and vanished. The bitch is to blame.
The bitch is called Penelope, a pit bull, the most disgusting creature Tereza had ever seen, a monster.
It was impossible for them from the outcome.
“It’s because you’re a pussy, little lizard,” he said.
“It’s not true,” said Tereza, “I like some dogs.”
“Labs and huskies,” she said.
Between her and Penny, as he called the bitch, grew neither liking nor tolerance, although Tereza was the one to feed her while he was in the bar Mali raj. He was never around, he was on his feet working for days and night. That’s why he had to scrape his feet in the bathtub like a woman, thinks Tereza.
It’s not the dog to blame. It’s him.
The first time after, the bitch had attacked some kids, he had taken her to his relatives in the countryside, but she had come back two weeks later. They found her in front of the door, sitting and waiting. Later it was easier for her, with this instinct, probably. Every time she would come back the next day or in a couple of days. They already knew in some way that they would find her again at the top of the steps, in front of the entrance, they expected her. It tickled him, Tereza was serious. So he took Penelope to some island, but fifteen days later, with bloody muzzle and wounded paws, she was back again, on the ferry probably. That’s how some dogs are, they said. She lay on the door mat, tongue hanging out.
For him it was a sign. While he was wiping the gashed paws with pieces of cotton wool dipped in grappa, Tereza leaned against the wall and watched them. He said that if the bitch survived this, he was going to have a little pit bull tattooed under the left tit. That the kids had teased her, everyone knew that. And he never once looked at Tereza.
Crazy idiot, she said to him.
No chance I’m going to bring a baby home into the same flat.
Get out of my sight.
No chance, off you go, too.
But he’s not to blame. It’s me. The first few days she held out without calling him. She spent the third day head over the toilet, throwing up. And the fourth. She called, but he didn’t answer. Later his cell was always turned off. On the seventh she forgave them all, it was easier for them all that way. He was not to blame, nor the dog, nor Tereza. On the tenth day she set off to him to the Mali raj.
He had one tit left to tattoo.
She stops under a fig tree that doesn’t give her any protection and here pulls off her wet stockings, takes a dry pair out of her rucksack, pulls them on. Then she wraps up her feet in plastic bags, and over that the frozen sneakers.
Here, now she’s stopped, something seems strange: as if someone were following her. She takes a few more steps, and takes cover behind an old substation.
Sasha, for Christ’s sake. He’s walking on all fours, arms and legs stretched out. Like they did at school during gym.
“What’s up with you?”
“I’m after you.”
“Go back where you came from.”
She sets off, he after her.
“You don’t need to escort me, thanks very much; a bit more, and I’m there. Off you go now. My husband’s waiting for me down there in Mali Raj.”
“Is it true your husband’s run off? A woman in the bus said so.”
“Anyone can go where he wants, we’re not in the Middle Ages.”
“If he’s run off, I can be your husband. I thought I could be that for you.” He stood up and shook off the snow.
Tereza lengthens her stride, and then suddenly turned round to Skint Sasha, who has stopped, uncertain whether to go on after her or not. “He’s in Mali Raj, works there, behind the bar. Perhaps you’ve seen him, a tall thin guy with a bitch, a pit bull. She’s called Penelope. Or Penny.”
“Not possible, no one like that there. Do you think snow’s like sugar or salt?”
Tereza looks at him with her black eyes as if she is seeing him for the first time.
“What do you mean, not there?”
“Like sugar, bet you anything. Nobody says salt, why not? For me, it’s absolutely like salt.”
“Not there?” repeats Tereza gently, absently.
“I take the trash out for Renata twice a week from Mali Raj. She’s got five cats, three Persians. Won’t have any mongrels. Tall guys, yes, but no dogs.”
Renata is the owner of Mali Raj. Of unknown age, maybe thirty, maybe forty. They call her Anchorwoman, because of the silicon. When she had seen Tereza she had winked towards the bar. “Just like butter, this girl of yours, me lad.” And he had laughed, what else. That’s why Anchorwoman pays me, he had said to Tereza, to smile.
Mouth agape to the sky, Skint Sasha was catching snowflakes.
“Do you think snow’s like milkshake or white of egg or popcorn? To me it’s like a big firm dollop of egg white on custard.
Tereza smiles with no joy, as if she hadn’t got it. “Like polystyrene”, she says, and keeps both palms pressed over her eyes for a few seconds. Then she drops her hands and places them on her tummy and adds seriously: “And like schneeknockerl too.”
“Tereza, Teresa,” rolled down the street.
Again the heads stretched out behind the edges of the houses watched the young woman, the very young woman, coming down from the bus station to the sea, and over the beach. Evening dropped early and quickly, and the cold barbed drizzle turned the snow into a viscous yellowish mass and slushy puddles. Clear water poured from the balconies Tereza passed beneath. The sea boiled, and people closed their shutters, but through the new plastic slats they could anyway see Tereza coming back alone, with wet hair and inflamed eyes, in her new red jumper that was nicely rounded at the front. That Tereza, she’s got nowhere else to go but an empty house, they noted. In front of the door of their house, as if she had never moved from the spot, Penelope sits patiently.
“Get in,” she says to the dog in a toneless voice. “Get in.” And the ugly little dog gets in, sniffing cautiously, tail down, and the woman quickly shuts the door.