Translated from Slovenian by Špela Bibič
Who am I? On this night? This day? In general? What am I? A badante. A tool. I’m lying in the hallway, not sure whether I’m awake or asleep, examining myself in the quiet, empty, utter grayness of the night. Is it the sheet that’s bothering me? Is it still night? Is it already the next day? Which day?
I have the penetrating eyes of a hawk. I’m looking at myself from above. It’s five AM. Friday. It tastes like warm, slightly sour coffee. I’m getting into an old rusty twingo. The neighbour always gives me a ride. The road winding from Pero to the Pula bus station is soaked with rain. I’m sleepy. Agitated. I never sleep the night before I leave. The leaving pains me. It bothers me. Or maybe it’s just the sheet. I take my trolley bag out of the boot. Every badante has one. Or a suitcase on wheels. I prefer the trolley. It’s lighter. I’ve adorned it with a silk bow because there is still beauty in the world. I have stuffed it with fourteen-days-worth of things. I buy a ticket. It costs me a day’s work. Bye, says the neighbour, kissing the air next to my cheek, call me, I’ll come and pick you up. I don’t wave at her. I can’t. Looking at her paralyses me. She’s free. She doesn’t have to go. She’ll be back home cooking her potato soup today. Her kitchen will be smelling of thyme today. Her thyme. Her own thyme. From the garden bed under the window.
Good morning, Marija, says Oto who is both the conductor and the driver. My name is still my name. I won’t be hearing it for the next fourteen days. The houses by the path are enveloped by darkness. Drops are falling on the windowpane, rolling down in trickles. The speed or the south wind is smearing them horizontally across the window. The windowpane smells of metal, salt, needle and something else. Why do things that I see have a smell? If I didn’t have the eyes of a hawk, he could stab me. With a knife, a fork, anything fit for stabbing he could get his hands on when my back was turned. When I actually closed my eyes. When I wasn’t looking. With a shard, even?
I’m a badante. I have a lithe, snake-like body. I have no extremities. My arms are sad, dead sags, my legs have been cut off. I can slither around in the darkness, I can sense presence with my forked tongue, his, hers, she’s not dangerous, I feel where and how they undulate without turning on the light. He can be nasty. I don’t look him in the eyes. I don’t let him find anything in there. Anything he could take advantage of. But I need to be able to see into the night. If I turn on the light unexpectedly, he can jump up, knock me to the floor, suffocate me … He’s still big and strong. And crazy. A strong, crazy man.
I use a calendar to help myself get through it. I cross off a day each day. I do the work. I cross off. I move on. I do the work. I cross off. I move. On. First Friday. Last Friday. Last cross. And I wait for my replacement. The time is a never-ending snake. At the end of it is another badante. From the Karst. We don’t talk much. When she comes, I can barely restrain myself from running out. The trolley is quite light. The bow fluttering. And what would we talk about anyway? We both know what it’s like. I’m done here. It’s her turn now. I pass my sadness on to her. It’s all hers now. I have 525 euro in my pocket. Outside, there is the wind and the sun and the smell of the city and the smell of salt. The bus leaves at two. I can go window-shopping in the meantime. I sit on a bench. I breathe. I make an exception and buy myself an ice-cream. I make an even bigger exception and go for a coffee. Oto will call me by my name. Hi, Marija, he’ll say. So, ready to go home?
I have the hearing of a bat. I can distinguish the moaning of the south wind that brought me here from the bora that started blowing yesterday. I hear the tyres of David’s bike, the breathing of the asphalt, laughter, he’s climbing onto the saddle with one foot, does an arabesque … He gives me the strength to overcome my pain, my disgust, my fear, my sadness … The bus drives past the marina, I hear people of a different breed, the sea splashing against the San Carlo Pier, pigeons in the Unita square … If I overheard the rustling of the sheet, the steps in the night, I could overhear the tragedy, the catastrophe, the days that aren’t and the days that are … He could hurt me in any which way and she wouldn’t even make a sound. She is not aware of herself, let alone of me.
I have the strong heart of a lion. The heart of every badante is made up of other memories. Mine contains David’s look, his hands that, on Sundays, dry the dishes next to mine, sit me down on the sofa and bring me a coffee, he is my strength, my health. It’s because of him that I let the wretched south wind thrust me into the marble hallway, into the darkness, the stench, inexistence. David makes the blood flow through my veins as I’m putting on my apron. It’s because of him that I wipe old Italian arses. It’s because of him that I don’t go crazy. Bring this, take that away, wipe it, wash it … It’s because of him that, for thirty-five euro a day, I let myself be bossed around by these people who can no longer be bosses of anything, not even their hands. It’s because of him that I make a million steps on cut-off legs. If it wasn’t for him, I would have ended the whole thing.
I have the cast-iron stomach of a wolf. That’s why I don’t throw up right now. The stench is brutal. I climb out of the folding bed. I’m barefoot. I quietly push the ajar door open in the dark. There is a puddle on the floor glistening in the streetlight. He has pulled out his catheter again.
She’s sitting on the floor like a mute Buddha, naked, rubbing her head with her nightgown. Even without my sharp, dog-like sense of smell, I would know what it is that she has spread over her hair.
I put on my slippers. I open the window. I put on my dressing gown.
I switch on the lights, first in the hallway, then the little one in their room, my wolf stomach does a four-angled flip. I hold my breath. She has taken off her diaper. Her nightgown is full of shit, she has smeared it all over herself, from the hair on her head down to her toenails. It’s two AM. He’s agitated. He’s cursing. My arms grow, so I go and get a pair of gloves. It’s alright, I tell him. It’s alright. Let’s go. His face breaks into a stupid, toothless grin as I take her to the bathroom. Let’s go. I push her onto the shower chair, throw her nightgown in the washing machine. I set the program. I dry her hair. I put on a diaper. I change her into a fresh nightgown, sit her in front of the TV. Now I smell too. Let’s go. I take off my dressing gown.
I wipe off the urine. If I don’t, some Moldovan woman will do it for less. I hope the acid doesn’t burn my wolf stomach. I make my own money. My own bread and butter. Let’s go. I would rather steal if had anywhere to steal from. Let’s go. I brace myself. Slide under. I lift him, put him in the armchair, take off his pyjamas, I don’t listen to the insults, I just go on, I wipe him down with a wet towel, brace myself, slide under, change him into a new pair of pyjamas, change the bedding, I brace myself, slide under, move him onto the bed, insert the catheter, it’s alright, it’s alright, I say, calming him down, let’s go, I get her, lie her down next to him and turn off the light. I close the windows. I take a shower. I put on a fresh tracksuit. It’s four o’clock. The sun is coming up over Trieste. I collapse onto my bed in the hall. I have no more strength left. Good thing that the wind has turned, bringing the sun with it.
I wonder how it is possible. What happened? Where did it go wrong? Who is to blame? There are thousands of us. From Moldova, Ukraine, Romania, Croatia, Slovenia … Outside the bora is roaming the streets, picking up litter and carrying it into the sea. I write to my president, my pope, my social worker, my beloved dead, to ministers, to God: You are socialists, do something for us, poor people … You’re humiliating me. I write and I read what I’ve written. A pension of two hundred euro? Are you daft? And an enforcement of claims for five hundred? New words come. Bad words. Words that sting me. Harden me. Stung, I try to go to sleep so I can polish off the remaining filth, fold the sheets, serve breakfast, take the abuses, feed, iron and clean before I leave. I have to go to sleep so I can get back to being Marija as soon as possible. I forgot to give him his sedative. Oh well, he’s sleeping. I’m not going to wake him.
But sleep doesn’t come, so I get up, get my calendar, cross off another date. I’m seventy-three years … five months … and eleven days old today. A transition pensioner. I’m alive. I have David, my grandson, who doesn’t have anyone in the world but me. I lie down. I close my eyes. I listen. I stare into my night in which there are still stars in the sky. I let myself go.
I hear him, smell him, feel him in the breathing of the wind. He’s up. He walks past me. He, too, can see in the dark. His urine is dripping on the floor again. Every drop explodes into a thousand smelly particles. He’s back. He has something in his hand. It’s heavy, Dark. A cutting board? Olive wood. Its rings are almost black. It has a little hole in the handle. A juice groove. An indentation for salt in the shape of half an egg. I left it on the table. She’s encouraging him from the depths of the room with a toothless chuckle. I can’t open my eyes. He’s going to smash my face in. Split my skull in two. I can’t move. Maybe it’s not a board. He’s waving something. Maybe it’s a knife. Maybe it’s a pillow. Every second now it’s going to stab, wrap itself around me, suffocate me … I can’t open my eyes. I can’t.
Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe they can stay closed. Maybe. Nothing. Maybe the badante has only let the bora sweep her into a dream because it’s already the morning of the last day.