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Ognjen Spahić was born in 1977. in Podgorica, Montenegro. He works as a journalist in cultural section of daily newspaper "Vijesti". His books are completion of stories - "Sve to" ("All that"), and novel "Hansenova djeca" ("Hansen's children"). He got a famous South-Eastern European regional award -"Meša Selimović" for his novel "Hansenova djeca".

Aftermath of the Clothes of Text

Translated by: Jelena Stanovnik

Indentation, exclamation mark, colon, question mark, comma, another indentation, italic, capital letter: you feel that your whole body is legible. You feel your body being read, becoming a part of those symbols and at the same time the symbols become your body, with meaning strewn all over it, she said.

Ana is sitting with two friends, sipping whiskey and peeling an orange. She does this with a half-dull knife, so that juice is streaming profusely down her bare arms, down to the elbows. She didn't manage to break the orange into segments and now she is biting into it - with muffled giggle - like an apple, without paying attention to the streams of aromatic nectar. Having licked her fingers, she casts a glance first towards one and then the other of her friends and they all laugh in a unified voice. I thought that she would be alone waiting for me and as I approach the table, Ana waving at me, the image of finding him dead comes to me uninvited -in the kitchen, on the floor, an orange in his hand, eyelids half closed, his body stretched between the fridge and old gas stove. Heart, the doctor said. It simply exploded due to high blood pressure. Even today, that same orange sits on the chimney ledge beside his picture. It's now desiccated and light. The woman who cleans my apartment on Sundays once took it upon herself to throw it in the wastebasket and then shook it out into the bin with the rest of the garbage. That happened early in the morning. At the bottom of the bin there were only a few gobs of putrefaction, among which it was easy for me to find the withered, still brightly colored fruit. It has preserved its natural color and the imprint of fingers clasped around it in death throes. As I approach the table, Ana says that her hands are grubby and sticky. She stretches out the back of her hand and kisses me on the cheek. You smell of oranges, I say. She also smells of whiskey, cheap face powder and cigarette smoke, but I tell her only about the fruit and that she looks pretty with her hair done up in a ponytail. Thanks, she says, pointing to friends who are at that moment getting up and leaving the table, whispering to each other. Whatever, she says. I'll introduce you some other time. If we ever see them again, she adds and bursts into laughter. I order coffee and she asks for another whiskey. She gets up to wash her hands and comes back serious and purified. After a few minutes of silence, she asks me if there are circles under her eyes and if she has changed since I last saw her. You haven't, I say. She has put on a little weight. But it suits her. When I last saw her she was abnormally skinny. Slender, she insists, liking that word better. No, you were too skinny, I say. When we were planting an orange tree on his grave she was wearing a light silk dress that accentuated the shape of her body, the line of her bones. I had expected her to cry, thinking that memories would bring back the image of him: the silhouette of a man in the dim light of the dining room, slowly turning pages of a newspaper, his hair thick, gray too soon, his delicately receding eyebrows and hoarse voice. But all she said was that it was too hot and she wanted some water. Those were her only words at the grave. Maybe she didn't actually love him with the love for a father even though it seemed that way. She is sitting on his lap, plucking little balls of wool from his sweater. They used to go out for walks, visit theaters. I usually refused invitations to join them: the old guy wants to win her and to get to know her better, I reckoned. I was six when mother and he got divorced. She went away with certain Vladimir. I used to repeat that name in whispers - at night under the covers - each time brimful of another substantial dose of hatred. Hatred for my mother, as it turned out. Years later when she called, I answered the phone and harshly refused to meet her. Another meeting at father's grave, a cold handshake and awkwardness and then - goodbye: final sinking into the deepest ditch of oblivion, into the limbos of consciousness, a funeral in the graveyard of memories. I first met Ana on 14th November, 1984, at about noon. A day earlier father had suggested that we go out for a walk. He sprayed some cologne on my hair, and while locking the front door he told me that we would go to the "Boulevard". Why aren't we going to the movies or for a pizza? I ask. Sorry, I have to "discuss something" with a "certain lady". It's not going to be boring. Margit has a daughter about your age. Her name is Ana, he said. Two weeks later Margit Aigenmaht and little Ana Ostojic were living in our apartment, in the same neglected rooms filled with dusty books and forgotten objects. I couldn't figure out why the two had different family names. Before my father and "Missis Margi" got married, we had three family names in our house. After the wedding, two remained. Ana's and ours. Her real father, Mister Ostojic requested in court that the girl should keep his name. The invisible Mister Ostojic will remain a voice from the other end of the phone line. As whispering to which Ana answers with "Hi, Martin, how are you?" Followed by: "It's all right... All OK. Nope, I didn't get your letter. Yes,. I know that you love me. I promise. I'll send the photos. Do you want mom's as well? Whatever. We're always together in photos." After such conversations she would usually fall silent and sulky. I would knock at the door of her room trying to entice a reaction from her; but she would only reply with a muffled, whining and quiet "Leave me alone, please". She would eventually emerge with her face a little swollen with tears, hair disheveled, and open the fridge that she knew would stand considerable losses. Nobody was allowed to ask Ana about her father; we all knew. That was the intimate agony to which she completely and calculatedly gave herself. By occasional fits of depression she used to reinforce her status as an "unfortunate child, deprived of her father's love. " We used to accept that game of hers, and little Ana always managed to keep it within the limits of good taste. My strategy was more precise and considerably less spiced with emotion. I decided that Margi was my mother in certain situations, and I called her that exclusively when we were out, in a restaurant or during a Sunday walk. Within the walls of our apartment, she was only "Missis Margi." White-skinned, sweet-smelling Missis Margi, who wasn't reluctant to saunter bare breasted to her room after taking a shower. I sit in an armchair, the bathroom door opens and Missis Margi, barefoot, on tiptoes, drifts past the table, leaving in the air a trace of
humid warmth and fruit-scented soap. I believed that she was the most beautiful woman in the world. That is, until Ana turned fourteen. We secretly drank a bottle of wine on the terrace, and she licked the wine off my lips and kissed my brow. The last fragments of partly imposed feeling of "brother for sister" love were stifled under the irresistible attraction of the ever-present body, unbridled giggling and the delicate scent of Ana Ostojić. During the following year we repeated the wine ritual perhaps ten times, aware of the possible consequences. Because I knew: our illusion of happy family was standing unsteadily on slippery feet of superficial talks, pretended "understanding," platonic gazes and walks together. I knew that, as a rule, such a condition couldn't last long, at least not longer than our capacity to forcefully keep it going. The glass would shatter explosively, and its pieces would eventually scatter around our bodies. Glittery, dreadfully sharp, apt to injure and inflict pain. The atelier on the opposite side of the city, where Margi spent at least five hours a day-and from where during the last months of our living together she occasionally came back home utterly drunk- became a subject of disputes and quarrels in our house. She used to leave at six o'clock in the afternoon staggering under her painting tools, the time of her return being delayed by several more minutes each day. Father sees her to the car: from upstairs Ana and I watch them putting the equipment in the trunk and then standing there and gesturing at each other. She gets into the car and then gets out again, pointing her finger in denial, nervously switching the car keys from one pocket to another; father wipes his forehead, sighs. A squeal of tires, and Missis Margi is gone. He enters the nearby coffee shop where, with whiskey, he puts on a smile to wear back home ten minutes later. Ana is well aware of the state of affairs. She is trying to cheer him up as he, seated in the living-room, his head bent, endures the agony of another personal empire crashing: a family circus in which he plays the clown. She used to babble about school adventures, endless stories featuring the inevitable "good friend" who always does "something stupid" or a "funny thing," anecdote in which professors come to classes "with their zipper undone" or wearing "traces of shaving foam," causing pupils to explode with laughter. Every day she seemed to meet someone "delighted with father's new collection of stories" and "her friend from Spanish class" who says that "she has never read such moving passages about hopelessness of the modern intellectual." Ana gesticulating with all her body, screwing her face into a series of the most fantastic grimaces, father mutely opens his mouth and raises his eyebrows, unable to squeeze out a single token of gaiety. He's thinking about Margi. He'll be thinking about Margi for years to come. He dissected his memories like rotting corpses, trying to grasp with the instinct of a pathologist the true cause of the death and decay of the family. And he knew much more than I could have guessed then. A bunch of unpublished manuscripts contain a meticulous diagnosis of our lives and complex relations. In his story "The Children" he brilliantly depicted the relationship between me and Ana: starting with slipping from "partly imposed brother-for-sister love" to the "invented birthday parties" which were our inept excuses for going out at night. We used to go to the Artists' Club, an outmoded place fifteen minutes from our apartment. On velvet lounges - under a pale light hanging over a reproduction of Gauguin's "Riders on the Beach" - we would contemplate the fateful and phony cheerfulness. "How's your dear father?" Simon, the owner of the club, used to ask every time I came in. "Very well, thank you. He sends you regards," I used to lie. A copy of a book of father's stories with a dedication "to him personally" was the guarantee that Ana's and my tender age wouldn't be a problem. We were the youngest of the bunch of junkies, ruined writers, journalists and motley scum who sat transcending their failures and losses with cheap, homemade wine. "To a dear friend in memory of the old days," I wrote, forging my father's signature on the title page of one of his books: enough to make Mister Simon quiver with delight. He keeps it on a cabinet behind the bar, sometimes showing it to his costumers. We arranged our last get-together three days before I was to leave for America. She asked then - "What will become of the two of them?" - meaning, of course, father and Margi. I shrugged my shoulders, meaning "I don't know," even though we both sensed that the enforced everyday life of the family had set foot in the darkest corridors of an irresolvable maze. Margi was spending nights in the atelier preparing for a "big exhibition". She didn't even answer the phone, and father wanted that to be understood as her "dedication to work" at any cost. Those days all our life together could have been put between quotation marks. Because we weren't a family, but a quotation of a family. A simulacrum before which we closed our eyes and noses, fearing that the reek of putrefaction would creep under our skin and that we would feel it for years to come. That killed father and poor Margi, I believe: she cut her veins and jumped through the third-story atelier window. On the floor, as a testament, she left a small oil on board. "No name (no game)" was written at the bottom right corner of the painting. In the upper left corner, an airy head of a child is floating above a black puddle. Instead of a reflection of the child's face, a dreadful snout of a red-eyed wolf is rising from the water's depths . To the right of that scene, she had painted a hyper-realistic TV screen with clear outlines of four human figures with their backs turned to the viewer. They, however, are curiously peeping through slashes in heavy drapes made of winding thick lines of illegible text. What was all that supposed to mean? Any attempt to solve the riddle would get us nowhere. Margi had always been tight-lipped, and she certainly wouldn't be able to explain her truly feral visions. Later, the painting was sent to Ana. She locked it in a closet in the damp basement of the three-store building where she lives today. "I hope it's rotten by now" she says while the waiter serves another round of drinks. She is nervously twisting her fingers, looking at the ceiling with eyes half closed and, I guess, thinking of us. Of all of us. The remembrances are breaking loose from the uproar of people who, as the night grows older, gather around tables and the bar. Their sweaty bodies are mechanically jerking to the beat of techno music, pressing in on us. But we can't get up until Ana's tale is done. She suggested a story. She literally said that: A Story. I'm waiting for her to start talking, to overcome the distance between us: a landscape filled with already shapeless emotions. Last winter, she says, but then stops. Last winter I bought myself a dress. For the first time, she says. You know, I don't like dresses. I'm so clumsy in them, she raises her voice, trying to drown out the music. But this was a really nice dress. Different. I saw it in a shop window and decided to buy it without even trying it on. Why? I couldn't say. I just knew that it was the right thing to do and that wearing it I would feel like a woman. You understand? Yes, I said, even though I didn't have the remotest idea what she was talking about. It seemed like she wanted to embellish the story into an outfit of senselessness right from the beginning. Ninety percent cotton, she said. I wear only cotton. But the fabric, so as not to stretch, must contain at least ten percent artificial fiber, she said, sipping her whiskey. Five years back when I'd told her that I would stay in America ? when I'd said that my schooling there was going fine and that I would enroll in a university ? she wept on the phone for a long time, almost making me change my mind. Margi was "gone" the following summer, and father two years later, two weeks after I came back for the summer holiday. I saw him twice. Once we had dinner together at the Artists' Club, Simon hysterically fluttering around the table because of my father's presence. The second time was in our old apartment. We are smoking in the living room, chattering about trifles. When I see him a third time, I thought, we'll talk about everything. I'll mention Margi and Ana from whom I didn't hear any more. But, the next time, he was lying on the kitchen floor mute as earth, with an orange in his hand. I dragged him to the armchair, took the fruit from his hand and replaced it with a copy of "The Odyssey" with leather covers. After a formal visit by the ambulance service and the Police, newspapers sprouted spectacularly pathetic headlines, and obituaries invariably began with quotations from Homer. "When the sacred dawn/Arising glitter'd o'er the dewy lawn,/ I call'd my fellows, and these words address'd/'My dear associates, here indulge your rest; While, with my single ship, adventurous, I/ Go forth, the manners of you men to try;/ Whether a race unjust, of barbarous might,/ Rude and unconscious of a stranger's right;/ Or such who harbour pity in their breast,/ Revere the gods, and succour the distress'd." The effect was achieved. Father used to talk about "dignified" death, decent dying when he was alive, and in his short fiction he never allowed his characters even to clear their throats when they breathed their last. "He left as it should be," Ana says. I think that she said that because of Margi, Missis Aigenmaht, who turned dying into a business sordid beyond description. They managed to hide the details, and Ana never knew precisely what had happened. However, the coffin remained closed at the service in the chapel. I guess that fact must have raised some doubts because this was a recipe reserved for serving of mutilated corpses. She had no idea that they had picked her mother up from the concrete. And that the white facade of the building-from veins cut immediately before the jump and ferocious waggling of hands during the fall?was stippled with blood stains. But Ana Ostojic is still talking about the dress. About its light and smooth fabric, about the pattern of "Evidence" a fashion brand using selections of text from the local daily press. The fashions of the mid-eighties are coming back, she says. I liked the style using the text, she said. For example: you're sitting close to some person, very close, say. Text runs all over your body, she says. On the breasts, shoulders, hips. And he watches your curvy textual landscape, for example, and starts to read. You allow him to do so; he switches from letter to letter, line to line, drawing his eyes over thin black columns of printed symbols, she said. Indentation, exclamation mark, colon, question mark, comma, another indentation, italic, capital letter: you feel that your whole body is legible. You feel your body being read, becoming a part of those symbols and at the same time the symbols become your body, with meaning strewn all over it, she said. Yes, I say. Exciting. I have to shout to be heard. My eyes are watering from the sour cannabis smoke drifting from a nearby table, while Ana sprawls against the back of her chair, jerking her shoulders to the music. After the washing machine... she says. She stops and repeats it-louder. When I washed it for the first time, after ironing it, I sat down and started to read. Reading a dress...! - she shouts and starts to laugh. She asks the waiter to bring her some more whiskey. I ask her if that is wise, I knew that she couldn't handle large amounts of alcohol. That was then, kiddo, she says, letting the last drops slowly slide down into her mouth. I read from the hem to the collar. All kinds of text. Boring stuff, mostly. Idiotic headlines from all over. An epidemic of adjectives. Several style incidents and printing errors, she says. Her two friends lurk near the front door. She waves her hand, telling them to wait a little. They indifferently shrug their shoulders and walk to the bar hand in hand. One of them screeches because a red-haired transvestite keeps pinching his butt. But he actually doesn't mind. He's pretending to be angry and mockingly waggles his finger. Ana realizes what's going on and says: "That Red is O.K.". She knows him from before. It's harmless fooling around, she says. She resumes her story about the dress, speaking faster, and now I can manage to catch only fragments of sentences. Text on the left breast... she says. Words fade and then rush back in the rare moments of silence between blasts from the loudspeakers. I stop her, pointing to my ears. She realizes that I can't hear and draws her chair near. I feel her warm breath. She touches her left breast. On that place..., she says. There it reported that Margi.... Can you imagine, my Margi. I can't stand that. It's all lies, she said and took another sip. She couldn't understand that there were such cruel coincidences, she continued. She's wondering, did she really have to enter that shop and get exactly that dress? She's wondering: how did the news of her mother's death get onto the fabric and why did they publish all that, she says. For days before and after the funeral she had refused to read the papers. I sensed that it was pretty messy and that they had discovered something else about Margi's death. "Something else," she repeats, tapping the edge of the table with her glass. She's opening her purse and gently unfolding a piece of fabric. Read. The local paper, she says. The dress, she said. A piece of her dress. She's waving at the bar again. Journalists, she says, pointing at the "two friends". They cooked this all up. She'll ask them to reveal to her some unreported details. She wants to know as much as possible. She's thinking only about that. How can it be - she's wondering. Whispers between relatives and friends were lurking like mice in moldy corners of a basement. Like shadows: gloomy and terrifying. They were hiding something fatal and dark. I was aware of that, but I couldn't guess what it was all about. It was clear that they were talking about my mother, that they were mentioning Margi, who was decaying in the graveyard; that they were talking about her life, raising their eyebrows in surprise. One had to ignore all that. The voices went silent and soon everything clicked back into place. Everything, I say, until I bought that dress and put on my body the very thing I had been running away from, she said. The music is becoming louder and while I try once more to decipher the last lines on the cloth, Ana keeps talking and posing all kinds of questions. Is that true? Do you believe?... It would be humiliating that your father, that he, that this is true... Terrible... I thought that he adored her... that he loved Margi immensely, she says. But I don't hear anything anymore. Her left ankle shows a bruise-like cluster of pinpricks. She feels my stare and crosses her legs, hiding the traces. Somebody approaches our table without being invited and caresses her shoulder, whispering something in her ear. She waves him away like a wearisome mosquito, paying no attention. This seemed routine to her. She gets up and says that she must go to the toilet. I won't be waiting for her, I say. I'd had enough for that day. I'll see her when she composes herself, recovers. She manages to construct several scruffy sentences. I have to... another important thing. Let's talk... Don't... Wait. Suit yourself... but... - she says quietly. But she's not confused or shaken by emotion. It's the clamor of veins craving another shot of yellowish solution. She gets up and grabs my hand. After the clothes of text... she says. After the clothes of text... she said and fell silent. I asked her to continue, I said that I wanted to hear what she had to say. But Ana waves me away and heads for the back of the room to the rhythm of the music. The flesh on her buttocks and hips sways. Her body is getting fat. I can recognize only remote fragments of her former elegance and style. That day she was wearing a completely white dress. After the clothes of text... I thought at the exit. After the clothes of text - I repeated aloud, watching her barely managing to stay on her feet. I watch her stumble and totter, disappearing in the red twilight. Little Ana Ostojić, after the clothes of text.