See PROLOGUE 1 here.
When I was a little girl, the blue light entranced me. Eager, I would ask my mother, “Is it today we go?” She would say, “No, we went yesterday. You know it’s every other day that we go.” The next morning, annoyed, she’d say, “Yes, it is today.”
We always went by city bus, a drab grey one, and I would be furious that we were stopped by the traffic lights and bus stops, that people were getting off so slowly, and then others were getting on… we’d never get there.
The hospital, at last. The final hurdles between me and the blue light are the crowds in the overfull corridors and the chatty nurses, exchanging whispers with Mother while they stroke my hair. We climb up to the second floor, and at the landing in the stairwell gleams milky glass, divided into little squares. We open the squeaky double door and step into the little waiting room, most often empty and filled with the fresh scent of a recently mopped floor, a fragrance I have since then always associated with hospitals. My mother sometimes kisses my hair, sometimes not, gestures to the wooden bench, identical to the benches in the park of conifers around the hospital, and says, ritually, “I’ll be waiting for you here.”
Without turning, I step into the doctor’s office and while still walking I start undoing the buttons on my shirt so the nurse doesn’t have to tell me to undress. She always asks me jokey questions but I don’t answer; I can’t even remember them now. I remember what matters: I am standing barefoot, I have nothing on except my underpants, and I am staring without blinking at the bed in the middle of the room. I have never seen another like it. Not only does it have three sides and a roof—made of a transparent, solid material—but it is blue, because a blue lamp shines at every corner, affixed to a metal post and aimed downward. I’m cold, but under the lamps, I know, it will be hot. This doesn’t matter. White and glistening under my feet, the ceramic tiles turn bluer the closer they are to the bed, as if pointing the way for me to go.
The nurse—all I have retained of her in my memory is her brown bun—wrongly interprets my hesitation as fear, and says gently, “Come here, don’t be scared. This will help you. Imagine you are lying in a bed with a canopy all lit up… Silly me. You probably don’t know what a canopy is.”
I didn’t then, of course, and today I would find such associations condescending.
I sit down on the edge of the bed, on the smooth sheet, and my feet don’t reach the tiles. I feel the warmth on my hair, I look around the office from the centre of blue light: everything else seems suddenly different, muted and smaller. I don’t have a chance to survey the room for long because the nurse lowers my head to the pillow and arranges a mask over my eyes.
“There. Be patient, now. I know it’s boring, but what can you do.”
It’s only boring until she goes. At first I listen closely, because the nurse turns into the tap of her heels. Sometimes she goes to the window and stops—I don’t know why—and sometimes she goes over to the desk. No, she hasn’t yet left, I am cautioned by the doleful creak of the metal cupboard, stay still a few minutes more. Finally I am alone: the door opens and the sound of footsteps vanishes down the corridor as if she is ascending into heights. I can begin.
I lift the mask and look at one of the lamps above my feet. I stare at it until it goes pale around the edges, swells and spills over, while the surroundings lose their sharpness. Then I pull the mask back on fast and cover it with my hands. Here, in the dark—never total darkness because no matter how tightly I squeeze my fingers together and press down on the mask some light always survives, it is there under my hands, inside my eye, in the form of flashing spots, sometimes merging into lines or nebulae that wander with my gaze. Here, in the unsuccessful dark, a minute outline of the lamp soon appears, its edges crisp, proportionate to the source. The reflection fluctuates between dark blue, emerald, and dark green, and, barely visibly, it shivers. I stare at it, just as I stared a moment before at the lamp, because the image is so fragile that a careless blink might destroy it. It slips steadily, of its own accord, to the periphery of my eye and when I try to look the other way and draw the image back this only hastens the end. I am powerless while the image moves to the edge, crumbling, disappearing into the dark. Alone again, in dark that is impinged only by floating flashes, I do not open my eyes, nor do I move my fingers. The real magic, I know, is yet to come. The image surfaces again from the depth of my eye, in the same place where it first appears. Now it is triumphantly bright, most often a vivid green. Again it slips to the periphery and is gone, then it shows again, and this happens several times; with each return it gradually loses brilliance and size, turning into an outline with blurry borders. Sometimes, already a deathly grey, it shifts to a new colour: its edges tinged by red, as a last fling before the end. Here and there a greyish green blotch, shrinking, pulls free of the dark, and then it, too, vanishes, this time for good, though I am certain that the image of the lamp remains in my eye, too weak to show itself to me. Time to lift the mask again.
Sometimes I hesitate, because I remember the nurse saying, “I have noticed you sometimes take the mask off and look at the lights. Don’t, it may damage your vision. You know we have already talked about this.” Fearful that I’ll go blind, I am quiet for a time and my thoughts turn to my parents, school, or what I have watched on TV, but I know already that I will not resist and that soon I’ll lift the mask.
“All done,” I suddenly hear the nurse’s voice. I hadn’t noticed she was back. “Three hours are up. You may get up and get dressed.” The light switch clicks softly, and the lamps hiss in parting. Time to take off the mask and open my eyes. Since I was pressing down on my eyeballs, the office looks murky as if it were under water. Although for a moment I am scared that I’ll see the world that way from now on, experience tells me the image is fleeting, that the shapes will separate by degrees and gain solidity and corners as my eyes come back to the surface. My vision finally sharpens and before me is the ordinary world: the sheet, the pillow, the walls—whitened. The ceramic tiles are white now, they gleam in a monotone around me, and through the window I glimpse, crowded between the curtains and the houses, a little square of pale blue sky, intersected by smoke from chimneys and the crown of an oak, always bending to wind off the lake. The warmth quickly fades and that is the only proof left that the lamps were on.
When I leave the doctor’s office, my mother folds her crossword puzzle, stands up, and stretches. She asks me nothing, so I tell her nothing. On our way home, by the bus we came with, I watch people moving along the sidewalk, similar and uninteresting regardless of whether the sun is shining or it’s snowing. The world has lost its vibrant hues and that is how it will be until the day after tomorrow.
Today I cannot summon any other memory. Have I ever spoken with someone, anyone, about what I experience? I have not. Did I ever wonder why I was going to the hospital every other day? I did not, either, though any mirror could easily have told me the answer.
That is how things used to be. When did the blue light stop entrancing me? When did delight turn to boredom, boredom to tears, to futile excuses and bribery with sweets? It seems a very long time ago. Now I no longer touch the mask, I just lie there, as if I were dead, and wait for the end.
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.