Simple, little things
What does freedom mean in today's day and age? As part of the "Freiraum" project of European Goethe-Instituts, eight authors are trying to establish their positions based on different narrative perspectives, allowing contradictory experiences and systems to come together. Today we present a short story by Serbian author Vladimir Arsenijević.
That morning she found a large black insect in the kitchen.
It sat in the sink and circumspectly stretched out its long feelers, like a wise man. Nauseated, she let the water run. The animal was immediately caught by the water jet. It wriggled in the eddy that swept it away towards the drain.
She turned to make coffee. She had made it a habit to prepare a double dose every morning.
Only when the coffee machine started hissing did she look back at the sink. The big black insect was still there. It fought against the water. Its legs were losing their strength, the tips of its wings already shredded, raw, dark yellow flesh already emerging at those places.
She felt her stomach heave. Turned off the faucet.
The insect calmed down. It didn't move for a while. Then it started to climb up the sink. Badly wounded, it dragged its hind legs and slipped down helplessly again and again. But it didn't give up.
From the window-sill she took an empty flowerpot with residues of dry soil sticking to the bottom. She put it over the insect, which slowly pushed itself up against the inside wall. She put the pot back on the window-sill and closed the window.
She sat down at the kitchen table. Wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. She poured herself coffee and took a sip. But the coffee didn't taste good, she couldn't handle the usual half of the double dose of her customary morning coffee today.
Forty days had passed since her husband's death. Although the priest of the church wanted to say a prayer for his salvation in the village and suggested holding a memorial service for him, she did not even dream of considering it. It was enough that he had imposed himself at the funeral and had run through the summary version of a service against her will. Whenever he crossed himself and said "Amen", she and her son had stood still, their heads bowed. Only the geriatric nurse had emulated the priest and crossed herself voluntarily. But the wrong way around. She had shed tears and gotten on her nerves.
At the request of the deceased, only the three of them, apart from the priest, attended the funeral. Later they scattered the ashes in a previously designated place. Here, too, only the three of them were present. The presence of the geriatric nurse was bothersome, and she and her son made equal efforts to ignore the woman. They hadn't even chosen her. A palliative care service had sent her to them. She had fled the war that had raged in an eastern country about twenty years ago. At first she assumed that the nurse was a Muslim, but then she saw how she crossed herself. Every morning she drank a cup of tea in the kitchen before going to work. She entered the hospital room as if it were a spaceship. Or a sinister mining tunnel. She eavesdropped through the wall while the nurse read to him. Day in, day out. After all the years she’s been here, her pronunciation was still deplorable.
They thought the end would come sooner, but sometimes these things drag on unpredictably. And so the nurse stayed with them for almost a year. Inexplicably, she did not succeed in committing her name to memory during this time. Deep down, she knew she had no ill will towards her, but she just couldn't retain it. The nurse was offended and their relationship remained distant.
In any case, they did not see any more of each other after all the commotion around the death, cremation and all the accompanying rituals was over. The nurse vanished from her memory and there was no concrete reason to think of her this particular morning. And yet she did. The feeling that life would send her some kind of message smouldered within her, and flared up when the doorbell rang unexpectedly amidst her coffee ruminations. This feeling culminated when of all people she, the geriatric nurse, stood before the door. She had never been so happy to see the nurse. "How nice of you to visit," she said to her. "Do come in, please."
The nurse entered the apartment very tentatively. She put her bag down in the corridor and wanted to take off her shoes as before.
She stopped her. "Would you like some coffee?" she asked as she invited her into the living room.
"Yes, why not," the nurse replied. Her pronunciation was still wretched. Maybe, she thought, there might yet be a future in which that wouldn't bother her anymore.
"Coming right away, my dear," she chirped and handed her the second half of the usual double dose of morning coffee.
After the nurse had left, her stomach constricted with hunger. She thought of lettuce and strawberries, two slices of rye bread with a thin layer of butter on top, and the tart taste of alpine cheese that stuck to the palate. But as soon as she took a step into the kitchen, the big black insect came to her mind. She opened the window and looked cautiously into the flowerpot. It was still there, at the bottom of the pot, sitting on its dry earth shroud. Its long feelers had gracefully set it up once again. When it sensed someone leaning over it, it froze.
It moved her deeply. She almost wanted to caress it. But then she flinched, retreated and prepared the meal she had planned in a few easy steps, put everything on a wooden tray and went into the living room.
That afternoon, she met her son at her favourite pastry shop. She was very impressed by the nurse's unexpected visit, but he seemed to find her description too effusive. She watched him type a message on his cell phone, nodding mechanically. She gave him a light slap on the hand in which he held the cell phone and said: "Hey!" His face was puffy. "I was just telling you about her husband." And she continued: "He's gotten a residence permit. Finally, he too can get out of the horror and go to his wife and children."
“Nice for them, right?” her son replied indifferently. She sighed: "Of course," she said, "But sometimes I think it would be best if they all stayed where they are."
"Just because you feel comfortable right where you are," he said with reluctance in his voice, "doesn't mean you're entitled to it all by yourself."
He had always been a smartass. Like his father.
"I don't know," she said. "One should be able to choose somehow."
Her son's face was suddenly all smiles. "While we're at it," he said and bent over, "I’ve got a question for you. Ready? All right, listen up. Where do you think the eastern border of Europe is?"
He seemed to want to provoke, like a talk-show host.
She closed her eyes and imagined a boundary stone on a bare, wind-swept mountain top. But where was this mountain?
She didn't know, but he wasn't in a hurry. She would think over her answer calmly. He used the pause to tell her that the host had recently put this very same question - Where does Europe end in the East? - to a guest in the panel discussion at the cultural centre. He kept looking at her piercingly. The glitter in his eyes was almost manic.
"I don't know," she said. "I really don't know. What did the guest say?"
If only someone would love him, she thought as she looked at him. If only someone, for just a moment, would love him.
"It does not end," he whispered dramatically. "It fades away."
That night she avoided the kitchen. She watched the news on TV. Dictators, presidents, ministers and generals flickered before her eyes one after the other across the screen. Columns of refugees, long-suffering people, pursued by misfortune. Wars, conflicts, natural disasters, murders, sexual abuse. She kept zapping. For a while she watched an ancient sitcom. Nothing was so reassuring to her, nothing made life so enjoyable as bad jokes and canned laughter, she thought. Simple little things, all those simple little things! She almost choked. She turned the TV up. For a few minutes she laughed along with the canned people, then a sense of shame overcame her, and she turned the TV off and went to bed.
She woke up in the middle of the night. Got up and went into the kitchen. Drank a glass of tap water. Then she opened the window. Cautiously, she looked into the flowerpot. She had sensed it: The insect was gone. She lifted the flowerpot. It wasn't underneath or behind it. She bent far out over the window-sill and looked at the façade.
A barely visible trace, a slimy serpentine line, ran across the outer wall and disappeared into the darkness.
She closed the window and went back to bed.
Only later would she be overcome with fear.
An e-book with all the short stories compiled will be made available to download in the beginning of September from the project website: www.goethe.de/freiraum