Fish Reading

Excerpted from The Book of the Una

Faruk Šehić

Artwork by Robert Zhao Renhui

I am a terrestrial astronaut. I travel motionlessly, aimlessly. The atmosphere is my dungeon. If only I could roam the vacuum, even if locked in a wooden rocket with a single circular window, maybe then I would say, "Planet Earth is blue, and there's nothing I can do . . . " Sweet, sweet dreams! I am a terrestrial astronaut. I travel at the speed of thought. I will never have a vivid vision of burning cruisers off the shoulder of Orion, that you can only have in a film. Nor will I ever see the blond replicant, played by Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner, sitting atop a building, completely nude and with his legs crossed, uttering the famous line, "Time to die," then closing his eyes and dying in a shower from the murky sky. I will never break through into that particular stratosphere beyond which you can't tell where fiction stops and reality begins. And vice versa. Up there, in space, all the sci-fi films are happening right now.

I've got the jitters, for dawn is about to break.

I cup my hands into a pair of binoculars and observe the evening star, the last to leave its sentry duty. Summer is no time to die, said some elderly men yesterday, gazing from the Wooden Bridge into the main stream of the river. Although stars expire just as souls leave bodies, quickly and suddenly, as I once read in a suspiciously titled paperback. My reality is boring and awfully unfantastic, and I don't like realistic books.

Therefore I daydream of my heart beating in harmony and in league with remote galaxies. Night, to me, is not the time when spectres from the pile of past lives come out and won't let you sleep. Night, to me, is a vacuum, the space between sunset and sunrise. A necessary evil. I wait for the dawn to break so I can pop out from under Nan's heavy eiderdown which the cold doesn't abandon even in June, because I can't wait to put on my shorts and espadrilles and go up the concrete steps undercut by the rain to the mossy retaining wall on which orange slugs have left slimy shiny trails. I would run the pad of my index finger down those rainbow-coloured motorways, follow them all the way to the holes and cracks where my finger couldn't get in. This inability to enter a minute world, the stem of a plantain leaf or the tight bud of a white rose, would also haunt me in more frightful times.

The walls of Nan's house are thick and warm because blocks of tufa from the river were built into them. There is a clock hanging on the wall above my head, and the sweep hand limps and ticks over the incomprehensible inscription Tempus Vulnera Curabit, and every time I read those words I shrink like a boiled shirt.

Slimy bodies of slugs sometimes seem darker; red and brownish in the cold lee of the elongated three-storey houses, later translucent and yellowish under the sunrays popping above the dewy roof tiles of the tallest house in the neighbourhood, which looks to me like a mediaeval castle from which no one can come out happy. From its windows, a boy my age, haggard with progeria, regards me beseechingly. His features are those of a lean old man with the eyes of a harmless boy. He waves at me and smiles from the window framing him into an icon.

Spindly homeless slimers emerge from the cracks into which thin soft fingers of moss are squeezing. Tentacles coyly test the morning air. Cold scalpel. When I touch them, they quickly withdraw into the head, and the slug stops stretching the sticky furrow behind himself. The same furrow which the sun would later turn into a small road in all the colours of the rainbow palette, a spectral Golgotha on which no one would be crucified.

The softness of their bodies was harrowing, so I loved and pitied them at the same time, unable to understand how a soft body can turn into a dried out, lifeless crust in the afternoon sun. Then I would reluctantly come to grasp that, after all, they too have to meet their end, like all other living creatures.

Every morning I got up and ran to the slugs, until a mysterious crime took place. Someone had neatly torn off the moss from the retaining wall and filled the cracks with mortar. Surely the murderer of nature is a man zealous, curmudgeonly and pathologically diligent. Who might this man be? An old man who would smooth out every uneven spot on the face of the Earth? A carpenter with a bent for geometry who hates knots in premium wood, knots which remind one of frozen star whorls? A mason with a bitter trowel in his heart, condemned to build and build furiously for all eternity, terrified by the emptiness that surrounds us? Who is this villain who has attempted to kill fancy?

For two days I mourned the slugs, and then soon forgot them. I had to give up a nice tragic habit and find a new sensation. Then I discovered the fish. They are free and cannot be mortared and walled in, for water is the realm of freedom. Fish are great big elegant submarines with scales that cast warm reflections through water and air. Pike, faster than arrows, sunbathing on the surface between the threads of swaying reed, from where they dart toward their prey. Wattled barbels—dredgers of the river bed which the anglers fed with leftovers of roast lamb. Roaches and nases—the river cows. I discovered graylings—piscine torpedoes that leapt on the surface greedily swallowing fluorescent green flies—and trout, the sovereign mistresses of cascades and sloping streambeds. Some people know how to divine by beans, I learnt to read the fish.

It would make sense here at the beginning to return whence we came. Into the water from which we're built. Into the whirling streams of the underwater epic, where I shall hark the anarchistic, pale-eyed, clamouring trout. Why the trout are anarchistic you'll find out later. They are pale eyed and clamouring as a nod to Rimbaud, and I shall be a hypnotised boat, and the rivers shall carry me wherever I want.

translated from the Bosnian by Mirza Purić

Watch a subtitled video of Faruk Šehić reading the full text of "Fish Reading" here.