A German Shepherd Beside a Girl

Aleš Šteger

Illustration by Cody Cobb

A German shepherd beside a girl in a black-and-white photograph with a blurred background on the northern wall of your writing room above the garage next to the house beside the cemetery. This is how my language works. The space of a finger next to the space of a palm next to the space of a forearm next to the space of an upper arm next to the space of a shoulder joint next to the space of a right lung in the space of a torso. Individual words live for themselves alone, they're an autonomous territory, like the inhabitants of mountain farms they form a body only during holidays and wars. And your language? Interdependence and reciprocity. Words like the types of shells that have washed up on the shore of the bay near your house (in my language). They adhere to one another, rely on a strength that relies on them. Crepidula fornicata, you say and continue to translate.

You say that one must seize words, that words hold themselves when you carry them from language to language. Then we talk about the maniraptors, dinosaurs that, 140 million years ago, developed a flexible joint in their forelimbs, allowing them to grab and hold. Deinocheirus mirificus in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, enormous arms, found in Mongolia.

Bushes grow between the house and the cemetery. In a little while, they will lose their last leaves. Tombstones are already visible from the veranda. Numerous small flags by the graves. Flags in my language, memorial plaques in yours. They mark the graves of soldiers. Some fell in past wars, others in wars that pass like the bright red leaves on bushes. An increasingly porous boundary.

I dream a word, lose it the moment I wake. I don't understand it in dreams, the word in your language. You try to explain again and again. It doesn't work. The word won't go into my language. You grab a bottle, point at the cork. You keep explaining. In a language without words, you say, in a language dreamily mute, you say that this word doesn't let one side into the other, that it's so introverted it doesn't even let a single word's impermeability, mine, yours, anyone's words, to cross to the other side.

Complete darkness when we reach the shore. A footstep sinks gently, but it's too dark for the prints to be visible. The smell of seaweed. It rustles when I walk on it. As if, dried out, it still possessed a living language that feeds on random steps. In the gloom we nearly bump into two fishermen, their rods protruding like antennae toward the absence of stars. On our way back, one of them bends. We stand and stare at the watch glimmering on the wrist of the fisherman as he reels in the line, a trace on the calm surface of the darkness, the gills of the word hlastač in my language, pulsing in a frantic struggle, the gills of the word snapper, which the other fisherman says in yours.

We're very late. Only three pages of text, but the translation has dragged on. Until the last, you dragged meanings out of sentences, opened the dictionary, examined the possibilities for a solution. Around the corner you turn down the street that leads through the cemetery. The difference between my language and yours is that my language doesn't allow cars to drive across the cemetery, past the graves, between the sixth and seventh row, toward the south exit. Even less does it allow the sentence, which you speak in your language and which I inadequately translate, just as we translate dreams: Across the cemetery, I'll safely drive you home.

translated from the Slovenian by Brian Henry and Urška Charney