Vikend priča: Jasmine and Death

Jelena Lengold (Kruševac, 1959) dobitnica je Nagrade čitalaca Evropske unije za najbolju evropsku priču. Priču „Jasmin i smrt“ na engleski jezik preveo je Zoran Paunović. Konkurs za najbolju evropsku priču raspisao je konzorcijum Evropske nagrade za književnost povodom deset godina od osnivanja Evropske nagrade za književnost. Na konkursu je učestvovalo 36 pisaca iz 26 evropskih zemalja. Lengold je 2017. dobila Andrićevu nagradu za knjigu priča „Raščarani svet“.  Vikend priča na korzoportalu, izuzetno na engleskom jeziku, jer je na tom jeziku pobedila! Foto: Dragana Kojić

The thought of him is like a dream that refuses to leave me on my own even when I have been awoken for long. A light breakfast, of the sort I always prepare before a flight, the sound of toaster when it energetically pops a slice of bread up, the smell of tea that fills the small kitchen, in which semi-darkness still reigns, because the dawn is still on the other side of the building, a look at the fridge, should I put anything on the toast, no, nothing, I’m too impatient even to chew up a single bite; just swallow the bread, just pour some tea after it, only to avoid being sick. Nevertheless, while doing all that, I am still asleep. I have not woken up and I will not wake up.

Almost a month has passed since the last time we were lying in his bed, there on the fourth floor, in that room with small roof windows, which make the outside world seem non-existent. Only the sky, the rain, the stars. And the wind that sometimes blows across the windowpanes at night, giving us an excuse to cuddle against each other more tightly. Somewhere down there, way down below us, in the world that is out of our sight, the city lives its life, which is at the same time similar and dissimilar the life of the rest of Oslo. I keep on promising that one day I will go down and buy big eggplants, clusters of celery and parsley, and then prepare some extraordinary dish that Carsten has never tasted. But there is never enough time for that. We make love, we eat cereals with milk, and then we make love again. That is the dream I never wake up from. The hand that puts raisins upon my body, like buttons on Santa Claus. Then he eats them, one by one, from top to bottom. While the stars are melting on the windowpane, announcing the day. Always too soon. Sometimes, nevertheless, we decide to take a look at the world, and then we descend the winding stairs, go out in the street, merge into the crowd, walk among tourists, cyclists, dog-walkers, women in burkhas taking their children by the hand, we stroll along the pavements full of stands with fruit and vegetables. This city always look different when I walk with you, says Carsten. Although I’ve spent my whole life in it. I laugh at that. What is different? Colours, he says, colours! For some reason, I am completely unaware of all these colours when I walk alone. And indeed, above crammed grocery store there hangs a green beer ad; right beside it, on the first floor, two jardinières full of red flowers, a number of multicoloured parasols in front of every shop, striped awnings above merchandise, the street sweeper in his bright orange trousers, heaps of bananas and melons in all nuances of yellow, an old lady with beautiful grey hair, picking strawberries. This quarter has its colours, its smells that are different at every corner, its sound that is a mixture of children’s yelling, of vans that always wait for something with their engines on, of pulsing of traffic lights, of bicycle chimes, of the wheels that roll over the pavements loaded with all sorts of things, of people who talk with headphones on their ears, usually in some languages that I can’t understand. I keep my hand in the pocket of Carsten’s jacket, at one moment our fingers are entangled, at the next one his hand enfolds mine completely. And so we get to the café. We order espresso there and nibble plastic spoons. The world is still in the street and we pretend to belong to it. Not far from there, in a building, on the fourth floor, a pillow is waiting for us, keeping the shapes of our skulls, even when we are not in the room. And the sheets that smell of two previous nights. Such is that dream.

Have a nice trip, says the cab driver, putting my little suitcase on the pavement, and I hear his voice for the first and last time. I wave to him as to an old acquaintance and he smiles as if he knew where I am going. The women hurrying along, so delighted so early in the morning. Cab drivers always know. I see him with my left eye, standing by the car and looking at me walking away from him. Straightening my back, I enter the airport building. My heels echo until the revolving doors eject me inside, into overall clamour.

A dark-skinned man stood in the line, right behind me. Tall, in a plain white shirt. Surrounded by ropes we were going towards check-in counters, advancing slowly, step by step. Everybody except him were checking something in their bags, shouting to each other, impatiently looking at their watches, but he just stood calmly, as if he was not hurrying anywhere. With each move of the line, he would make another step. And so we went right to the yellow line, which I passed before him, and handed my luggage in. Then I forgot him, just like we forget the face of the man at the newspaper stand in a strange city. I pushed my way through the crowd, without having to follow letters and arrows, because I know that path by heart. It was the sixth time that I went to visit Carsten. Always on the same flight, always from the same gate.

Several slant-eyed stewardesses passed by me, rolling their hand luggage behind them. They were uncannily beautiful and identical. Their red scarves were tied in the same way. Their tight buns under small grey caps all stood in the same way. Innumerable pairs of eyes looked at them for a moment, and then that icily elegant beauty disappeared down the hallways.

I still had some time to wait before the departure. So I entered the perfume shop and started sniffing the bottles. I raised one of them towards my neck, intending to spray the perfume. Then I saw him beside me again, the man from the checking line. He must have had a very silent gait, for I had not realized that he had approached me until he spoke. He addressed me as if we had known each other for long. Not that perfume, he said. If you are going to sit beside me, I would like you to smell of jasmine. How could he know that I would be sitting next to him? I didn’t have time to ask him, for he touched my elbow, lead me to the next stall, and offered me his hand. You and I will now pass through a jasmine garden, he said.

A small saleswoman, from the other side of the room, was looking at us somewhat worriedly. At me, doing silently what Ahmed wanted, and at him, taking the bottle, spraying a semicircle in the air and saying, you see, now we will pass through this and the odour will stay upon us. Inhale deeply, said Ahmed. That is the odour that as a child I smelt under my window every morning when I woke up, and today I would like that odour to be around me constantly.

A tiny bit of fear slid down from my brain to somewhere in the chest and stopped there, perplexed. I wanted to turn and run away, to go back along the path that lead me there, back to the customs officers, and then to the safety of my apartment. And at the same time, I wanted to look straight into the darkest eyes I had ever seen and ask Ahmed about something that seemed quite inevitable for me at that moment: does that mean that today we are going to die? Why with me? Why on this particular flight? Doesn’t he know that probably at this very moment Carsten is spreading clean sheets upon the bed and impatiently runs his fingers through his hair?

An invitation to the passengers for our flight was heard from the loudspeaker. We were walking by each other, Ahmed and me, and the officers who checked our hand luggage and let us pass through the iron gate probably thought us to be a pair, an unusual one, but a pair. I was waiting while Ahmed was putting his belt back on his trousers and tying his shoelaces. The customs officer was looking at me, intently and vacantly at the same time. I looked back at him, straight into his eyes, and then I cast several quick glances at Ahmed. Nothing happened. The officer didn’t even raise an eyebrow. I could not expect any help from him. Goodbye then, I will never see you again, just like I will never see the cab driver again, nor the saleswoman, goodbye to all of you who cannot understand my glance. There are too many people in this world who neglect other people’s glances, I thought. Well then, goodbye to all. I didn’t say anything, I just boarded the plane after Ahmed. A white cloud of jasmine was following us, like an inaudible footstep of the inevitable. The engines of the Boeing roared, the wheels gained speed, the force of gravity nailed us down to our seats for a moment, and that was that. We were in the air. Nobody around me could not even have a vague idea about how high we were to go.

Whatever happened to the jasmine bushes from your childhood, I asked Ahmed, when the plane finally reached the scheduled height. There is nothing there any more, he retorted, not looking at me. Just death. There is only the smell of rotting human bodies and sick animals. And the houses, what happened to them? There are no houses. No yards. Where the flowerbeds used to be, there are tin roofs now, fallen down from the ruined houses. The tanks rolled over the fences and orchards. Only dry land and bones are there now. Holes in the walls, like wounds that cannot heal. And lanky dogs wandering around, that is all.

We were flying almost without a sound above white, perfect clouds, on which the sun was drawing most beautiful scenes, like those from childhood dreams. Look, I said, do you see the swan! And two polar bears! There, there they are, we have just passed by them! Ahmed held his hand in the air for a moment, as if in hesitation, and then he caressed my cheek. I felt an upsurge of tears, although I did not know where they were coming from. It was pointless to ask him to change his mind, I knew that. Ahmed had the darkest eyes that anyone had ever seen.

He kept silent for several minutes, with his shoulder tightly pressed to mine. I had an impression that somewhere from the depth of his body I felt some quiet, suppressed trembling. Or perhaps it was coming from my body, who could know? Then he slowly got up and said that he was going to the toilet. So this is it, I thought. It is going to happen now. And this will all disappear, these clouds, this odour, and the little lamp that blinks over our heads, it will also disappear. Strangely enough, I was not afraid. I was resigned and sad, because of him, as much as because of me. Somewhere down there, deep down under us, life may perhaps have given us something, if people only had been able to understand other people’s glances. He slid by me and wanted to go, but I tugged at his sleeve. Wait, I said, I have to tell you something. Ahmed stopped. A man is waiting for me at Oslo. He learned to make plum cake because of me and filled the apartment with flowers. I think that it’s time for you to forget him, said Ahmed silently, and smiled, more with his eyes than with his mouth. Wait, I said, come over here, I have something more to tell you. Ahmed lowered his ear to my lips. I want to make love tonight, do you understand? He was looking at me as if he had understood. He was looking at me as no one had ever looked at me. What a pity, what an irrevocable pity, I thought. And then he went down the rows of seats and disappeared behind the curtain forever. The cloud of jasmine was split in two.

I was sitting and waiting. Astonishingly serene. I remembered an aunt of mine, who had been dying in a hospital for weeks. I remembered her declining body and her face becoming more and more yellow from one day to another, until finally it a acquired the colour of the earth. Anything is better than that, I thought. Is it possible that this is my last thought? No, I have to think of something more beautiful, quickly, quickly, of those mornings with distant noise from the street and the sun peeking through the blinds. Carsten wakes up and his hair falls over his eyes, his skin is warm under the bed sheet, I have to think of that, or maybe the crowing of roosters that I have not heard for years, I would really like to hear it again, no, I don’t want to think of roosters at the very last moment of my life, then again why not, look, one of these clouds looks exactly like a big white rooster…

All of a sudden I realized that Ahmed had come back and that he was standing beside me, waiting for me to let him pass. It was obvious that he had ran his wet hand through his hair. We are alive, I said, when he sat beside me again. Yes we are, he nodded. Sometimes it looks fantastic to me too, but nevertheless, I am still alive.

Through the loudspeaker, they were telling us to fasten our seatbelts, everything trembled for a moment, the plane put out its wheels and the multicoloured city appeared below us. It smelt of jasmine. I did not know where we would go next, when we touch the earth, Ahmed and me.







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