The first that I recall was seeing them in my dreams and that in the beginning they didn’t disturb my sleep. On the contrary, I looked forward to them, although you could sense in that happiness the seed of a future pain. They tied me with invisible threads to what once was, to what used to be the life I once shared with those who exist no more, never suspecting it would all become a magma of memories, deceptive, heavy and unreachable in a time that was yet to come. In the morning I would think it was just a dream, a lie, a fog, a web, nothing, and I would calmly begin the day whose monotonous, predictable emptiness was yet easier to bear. During the day I would slowly unwind my dreams. I would sit on some park bench during my lunch-hour, with a view of the canal and flocks of birds to which I would throw the pieces of old bread I always carried in my black rucksack. I was calm, filled with that dreamy fullness in which everything existed and in which I, the dreamer who I do not see but feel, strangely, was always not only younger, constantly at the beginning of something, but also whole, rounded, filled with life. I might smile at some detail from my dream. Or I might sink into thoughts from which I would be woken by the horn of a passing ship, or the bell of a nearby church that would ring twice, a sign that it was time for me to return.
I no longer remember when they moved from my dreams into my life, my waking life. They first inhabited the area at the corners of my vision, the area prone to evasion, without me having noticed it. This didn’t happen at once, but gradually, during slow mind motions, in light acceptance that what my eyes saw really did exist. As soon as I’d see them, they would vanish: pale faces in a passing train; a man standing motionless by the track; a woman I once knew disappearing behind a street corner before I can catch up with her.
So it went on, until I grew completely aware that they are here beside me, that they are watching me every moment, perhaps even when I’m sleeping, so that I cannot approach them, so that that I cannot escape them.
There is no-one I can discuss them with. What could I possibly say about them? That I regularly see those who no longer exist, those who have been dead for years, or those for whom I know have lived thousands of kilometres away from here. Instead I keep quiet and tolerate them, and I try to understand the laws that govern their appearance, to be able to anticipate them, to understand their logic. I have learnt a little. For example, they are completely mute, and not only do they not speak but they absorb every sound from their surroundings. The instant I see them, everything sinks into silence for a moment, everything slows down just like a silent, slow-motion movie. The colours are affected too, as though they are under the influence of the person that reflects them; sometimes they become more pale, washed out; sometimes stronger, more intense, brighter. They never appear when I expect them, when I think of them, but always suddenly, in a pause for breath, when I am not thinking.
When I say ‘they’, I find it hard to explain who I am referring to. They could be anybody, any face that I have ever seen, anyone I have ever met. Those I remember, along with those I thought were forever residing in oblivion. Sometimes they resemble themselves, sometimes they are younger, from a time when I did not even know them since I didn’t exist. Sometimes they are older, tired and worn out. Any face, any space I ever occupied, once upon a time, before I came to live here. And I do not understand what is the point, what is it that they want from me, why they persistently return and return, only to vanish at the very moment that I become aware of them. And I do not know what it is that I am supposed to do, what kind of fire I should use to create a circle around me, so that they would leave me alone, so that they would calmly continue to reside where they belong – on the other side of the infinite vastness of Space.
Maybe that is the reason why I decided to live here. Maybe. I do not know myself what it is that ties me to this world that would not allow me to go further. I remember once, at the beginning, during the first months of my stay, I was travelling somewhere on a train. The yellow train was crossing the monotonously similar landscape at a steady speed, it passed by green fields and herds of black-and-white cows. An entire forest of tall cement pillars crowned by three-forked wings that were spinning and spinning and spinning. The train passed them by quietly. Everything was captured by that inexpressible silence that always finds its place in large fields. Unannounced, unexpected, similar to the strong current that can occur near Mosko island and which is known as the Maelstrom whirlpool, I sensed that the train and all the passengers and me, the fields, the cows, the forest of white live windmills, the very blueness of the sky above us and the white feathery clouds were slowly starting to spin and to sink. And if it wasn’t for the light that was serenely travelling with us, I don’t know how I would have managed in that newly-discovered cave. How would I have conquered my fear? When I woke from that slow, merciless sinking that nothing could escape, an undetermined length of time having passed, I was met by the neon light of the compartment, some faces, cold, distant, absorbed in newspapers and rye bread sandwiches, a piece of marsh-land passing by too quickly to reveal anything, and silence.
Maybe it was after that event that everything to do with my story began. Maybe that was the first time that I saw them, from a train, in the twilight: someone was standing by the track and, despite the speed at which we passed, we exchanged glances. And for hours afterwards I asked myself, where do I know this man from? He revealed himself to me in a dream, it was the long-forgotten evil neighbour of my early childhood who ended up keeping all the balls that fell into his garden.
I’m standing at the Munt and thinking which direction to go, towards Central Station to buy a new weekly travelcard, or the opposite way, down Vijzelstraat, to the school of foreign languages to enrol on the Dutch language course I’ve been putting off for months. The bells of surrounding towers and churches are ringing out, I decide to go down Vijzelstraat. I bend down to look my bicycle, I always have problems with that massive, black, arched lock. And then I see them. That is, in that instant I saw myself on the other side of the road: my mother and I, engaged in some lively conversation and disappearing towards Rembrandt Square. Mum is wearing her old-fashioned brown tweed coat. I’m wearing a reversible maroon jacket that I bought many years ago with my first earnings from an interview published in “Student”. My hair is cut short. Mum is the same as ever – surrounded by a halo of red hair, waving her arms and laughing loudly.
At that moment, everything stopped. The pedestrians, the trams, the automobiles and the bicycles. I had the feeling that even the pigeons beneath the tower froze. There was not a breath of wind. Not a sound. Like being in a glass ball which the raindrops pass by without a sound.
With the lock still in my hand, I tore myself away from that frozen picture and rushed after them, not caring about the busy road whose life and sound were restored at the moment I moved, when I caught my breath. And colour – ordinary, grey, autumn afternoon semi-darkness shot through with tiny rain drops. The tram bells rang, the mechanical bells sang from the nearby towers and churches, someone was honking a horn. I saw the face of a chauffeur who was madly shouting something at me through the window. Some man looking at me. I saw the brown tweed and the maroon jacket disappearing into Thorbecke Square and I knew that by the time I reached the corner they would have disappeared. They had. The street was empty. The wind was chasing some dry leaves and a discarded newspaper along the dark smooth cobbled road. I knew that there was no point in going any further, I wasn’t going to find them.
So I walked down the road to the canal, and then along the murky, dark green water, back towards the Munt. It was only then I realised I was still holding my bicycle lock in my hand, but the bicycle was no longer where I had left it. I gave up on all of my previous plans and, broken and empty, decided to go back home on foot. I grudgingly walked through the labyrinth of streets on the south side of the city, it made no difference whether or when I was going to get home. I didn’t feel like entering the loneliness of my home. I felt guilty, I was jealous of the two of them. Why am I walking on my own when she is walking with her? And who on earth is she? Am I her? These complex questions were confusing me, they had no answers. On the corner of one small street, in front of an antique shop, a man the same cinnamon colour as the shop-window he stood in front of, was preaching.
– Only dogs, cowards, sorcerers, prostitutes and those blood thirsty will remain on the other side! – he shouted, but no one, not even I, paid him any attention. I thought, ‘why dogs?’, but I didn’t go back to ask him. The tiny rain drops were becoming bigger and bigger, I was totally wet and frozen, but that somehow didn’t matter any more. I arrived at the street where I lived, which consists of an infinitely long row of ground floor apartments for single women and pensioners. My apartment was situated at the very beginning, Ruststraat number six. I sat by the window and for hours observed the landscape already embedded in my memory, part of the four-storey building in the distance, a winter garden, two herons and the slowly turning sail of a windmill. The sky was low and metallic and it seemed to me to begin in the crowns of the bare sycamore trees. It was quiet in the apartment, so quiet that a heartbeat could be clearly heard. I wanted to go to them, I wanted to hug both of them and to tell them both something very important. I wanted to get out of here, I wanted to go to the other side. I lay on the floor, blew out the pilot flame of the gas stove, turned on the gas and lovingly pressed my face against the wooden floor. I searched through the room with my eyes, in the most hidden corners, searched for some kind of a crevice, some kind of a cleft. My heart was pumping, the stove was quietly hissing as once had the wind in the white poplars. And my eyes no longer desperately searched but calmly slid along the dark line along the joints of the wooden floor, in which they no longer saw the dead, layered beams, but only the indestructible core of large peaceful trees. And then they saw her.
The shadows slowly, slowly vanished from the walls. The floor was Beginning to move and was lifting itself up until the powerful green crowns gained their first greenness. Simultaneously, the sky was drifting from grey into azure and was rising. More and more and further away, lifting me with it. I was lying on dry white sand, my hands thrown above my head, with half-shut eyelids, sprinkled with warm gold. I looked forward to the feathery clouds that would soon arrive, carried by some high hot wind, and slowly passed away into the distance. It was clear that I was on an Island, that a River was flowing around me, that on the other side stood the massive grey City, and that from the Dock it would take less than an hour to get Home on the red tram which is always crowded, and which goes along the steep shady street where the passers-by always wish each other good day when they meet.
Translated from Serbocroatian by: Mirna Jancic