I thought it was a sign.
All one summer, every clear evening, I stepped out of the house. Before that I’d watch the sky from the living room: when the light filled and swelled the window frames and the undulating shadows of the curtains had climbed from floor to wall, the sun was down low enough. I would throw my jacket over my shoulders because my mother was strict about me going out in the evening without a jacket on and I’d slip out of the house. The front door is hinged on the wrong side—the wrong side, at least, for me—so I wouldn’t catch sight immediately of what it was I longed to see. In the front yard I’d be greeted by dusk and chill air. The dark was already conquering the hedge and the depths of two young pine trees, growing by the front gate. Mountain peaks—under snow for months and now bare and intersected by a thin mist stretching out in waves—and there above them, the moon barely visible. The farther they are from me, the deeper the bluish tinge of the mountains, and the sky, in contrast, gradually pales, giving me the impression that the earth and sky merge just short of the horizon.
Then I go around the house, knowing there will still be day left on the other side. Through the suddenly shining grass I reach the wooden porch; I climb the three creaky steps, lean on the dark brown railing and look down the slope. The valley below is filled by a large lake and on the near shore there is a town, surrounded by wooded hills like ours. Because of the low sun, the water glistens and the lake looks as if it is moving, as if it doesn’t belong in the scene, since everything else is still. A fresh breeze climbs the slope and blows in my face.
Now is the time for patience. The sun sets behind the hill across the lake, hence night comes earlier to the town than to our house. I watch how the sheen on the water turns to murk as the lake darkens. The line of darkness advances across town, capturing house by house, swallowing rows of trees and streets, the occasional car eludes it briefly, while others hurtle gullibly towards it. Behind it reaches a growing shadow, resembling the elastic contour of the hill.
Not far from me, on the border where our lawn dives down the slope, there are three similar tree trunks standing one next to the other, sawed off at shoulder height. They live only at the close of day. As evening settles, the trunks come to me with their shadows. I step back into the recesses of the porch so that the intersecting diagonal timbers shield my eyes from the sun and I watch how the three equally distant shadows slowly grow and slide towards the house over the paving stones of our back yard. They all have obstacles to cross. A low stone wall obscures the base of one of the trunks, and its shadow seems to arrive by a shortcut, beginning out of sight. Only when it skips with ease over the low wall, beyond which, later, crickets chirp, does it align with the others. The middle shadow bumps into a small wooden chest in which Papa keeps his tools and this forces it into a stunt; after its tip briefly vanishes, it appears on the chest, traverses it, ducks into the plump shadow already there on the side nearer me and finally leaves it, remembering its shape and keeping up with the others. The third reaches the hole which evening has already filled with liquid-like shadow and the hole looks deep and mysterious, but I know it is actually shallow and empty. The shadow pours in but soon it emerges and continues towards me.
Now all the obstacles are behind them, and with patient confidence they continue to approach. Their slowness nearly sends me to sleep, the rafters no longer shield me from the dipping sun and my eyes fill with glints flashing from the paving stones. When the shadows finally stretch enough to reach the foundation of our house, I go down into the yard. They hesitate, gauging the obstacle, and then begin climbing the wall. The dark has lowered over the entire city, the lake is reconciled to it, and my shadows are held back only by the sun’s rim, ever thinning, peering over the hill. I watch them take the wall, until they, the vanguard, melt into twilight. Every night, our house, with its residents, seems trapped.
I thought this was a sign. In my childhood cosmology, the whole world knew of me and was sending me signs. The traces followed me everywhere. The movement of the clouds across the sky—a sign intended for my eyes. The wavy light in the crinkled drapes, too. What else? The brightly sunlit leaves of a birch shiver in a breeze, and the whole birch grove looks as if it were trembling. We walk along a high wooden dock on the lakeshore, and through the cracks between the peeling boards the water glistens, reflecting the sun. Snow glares under a streetlamp: countless sparks, as I move my head, blaze and flash in one spot and extinguish in another. All these are signs. Why, otherwise, would these images appear just as I was looking?
Even our house is filled with messages. The furniture crackles at night, trying to tell me something. The water pipes converse monotonously in the walls. As soon as I wake, I run into the living room and fling myself onto the rug. The red designs are closer to the door today and the blue designs nearer the window. Yesterday it was the other way around, wasn’t it? Each morning is different. In a crystal vase on the table, surrounded by fallen petals, there is a yellow flower; wasn’t the flower white yesterday? On a picture on the wall, in the corner, next to a familiar still life, a tiny figure appears of a man with a hat; I hadn’t noticed him earlier.
I didn’t know what these signs meant to tell me, nor did I—as far as I can remember—try to decipher them, but I never doubted them. I wondered whether they were asking me to go somewhere, do something.
I tried to answer the world. Whenever I happened to touch an object with one finger, I would also touch it with the mirror finger on the other hand. I would mount stairs starting with my right foot. I wanted even numbers for everything, whether it was marbles or picture books. We were in harmony then—the world and I.
A sunken world of light, sound and signs. I have understood for a long time that the three sawed-off trees were precisely that—three sawed-off trees. They just happened to be to the west of the house. That spring, Papa had been forced to sacrifice them, because they were on the projected route for a future power-transmission line, which was to straddle the hill and detour the lake. Later I heard, Mama told me, that he had felled them at that height out of protest. We never learned why the transmission line was never built. The stumps sprouted new shoots and reverted to trees and I stopped watching them.
If the world had truly wanted to send me a sign, then a gale would have ripped off our roof and smashed all the windows. Or a silent earthquake would have roiled the lake, a massive wave would have flooded the town. Or lightning would have struck the tree stumps. Something simple and glaring, tempered to who I was at the time.
But since nothing like that ever happened, I was not braced for the tragedy.
Veselin Marković was born in 1963. He has published two collections of short stories, two novels, and two books of scholarship. His prose has appeared in translation in Norway, Slovenia, the United States, Great Britain, Poland, and Bulgaria. He has also published essays, studies, reviews, translations from the English, travel essays, and newspaper articles. The novel We, Who Are Different was first published by Stubovi kulture in Belgrade, 2010, and received three literary awards. Veselin Marković spent many years in Norway and now lives in Strasbourg, France.
Ellen Elias-Bursac, Asymptote contributing editor, has been translating fiction and nonfiction from Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian for over twenty years. Her recent publications include Trieste by Daša Drndić, and she currently teaches translation practice and theory at Tufts University.