from the story collection MARS, out next month from the Feminist Press
The secretaries explained first that a dead person’s soul goes wherever she’d expected to go.
“Everyone wants to go to heaven,” I said. “It must be too crowded there.”
“It’s not,” said one of them. “Most people are so unimaginative that they simply stay wedged in the ground, like a potato.”
“So I was lucky?”
“You weren’t made for the soil.”
“Wait a second,” I interjected. “I can’t tell the two of you apart.”
“I am Tristesa,” said the one on the left.
“I am Zubrowka,” said the other.
“Like the vodka?”
“Listen, kiddo, don’t complain,” she said. “You drink what you poured.”
Death is typically a European film. The scenes are evocative, the atmosphere and characters charged. But in my case, death took on a different form. I suppose my final moments spent in front of the TV determined it. I was watching and unwittingly took his motto, “Alone against everyone,” to the world beyond. If it worked for him, it probably will for me too was my first thought once I realized what had happened. It wasn’t clear where death’s pervasive melancholy had gone: with the two secretaries who could only be distinguished by the color of their underwear (Tristesa’s were blue, to match her mood; Zubrowka’s, pink), it wasn’t realistic to expect the New Wave or anything like that.
“Where’s God?” I asked.
Zubrowka smiled and said that God didn’t exist.
“He must be somewhere,” I insisted.
“You should’ve been more careful when you had the chance. You can’t champion atheism and then play cards with the Lord when you die.”
When I was alive, I’d written a funny play about a sex-obsessed God and his gay disciples. If nothing else, I figured, this place would be like that. It wasn’t like I hadn’t considered Him.
“God slipped in the tub,” Zubrowka said after a moment.
I didn’t believe her. It was obvious from the way she kept looking at Tristesa that they were up to something.
“You can’t keep things from me and use my heathenism as an excuse.”
The secretaries shrugged and offered up more reasons. Seeing that I’d learn nothing from them, I gave up my line of questioning.
To be honest, I just didn’t think God was necessary; I was used to getting along without Him. And the secretaries weren’t any more necessary. I couldn’t figure out where they’d come from. At first I thought I’d lifted them from some comic strip I’d read long ago, but as time passed (I’m using the word time reflexively, because death doesn’t free the brain from such useless signposts), it became clear that they weren’t under my control. The secretaries came with death. This was, needless to say, frustrating.
I was trying desperately to understand. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my head was slowly expanding from all that strain. This whole time, I thought, it had been growing on all sides. It was right in front of my nose, but I hadn’t noticed it. Actually, it wasn’t right in front of my nose because it was my head, and, however big it was, I couldn’t see it without a mirror. Tristesa was rubbing her hands together in a satisfied manner. It was plain on her face that she was attentively following the growth of my head and was quite pleased. She called over Zubrowka.
“She’s thinking?” Zubrowka asked as if I weren’t in the room.
Then she looked at me and patted me on the shoulder. “This is just the beginning. We have an idea for how to make it grow even faster.”
“But I don’t want an enormous head,” I said nervously.
“The head doesn’t ask,” said Tristesa. “It simply grows.”
At that moment, I regretted choosing this instead of the potato option.
The secretaries had a clear plan. My head had become some sort of expensive egg. It resembled, in their words, one of those luxury Easter eggs from Czar Nicholas II. Since I didn’t have a mirror, I had no other choice but to believe them. The question was, What did they think they’d find inside?
“Stories, loads of stories,” said Zubrowka. “That’s why you’re here. We want you to write a whole book of them. If we like it, we’ll let you proceed to the second phase.”
“Second phase?” I asked.
I clutched my head. It didn’t seem to be growing, but still felt unpleasantly distended. I began to stroke my hair fretfully, panicked at the thought that in the second phase I’d discover only my skull had been growing, while my brain had stayed the same size.
I wasn’t sure if I had anything to do with it, but suddenly, not knowing how, I found myself in a hallway straight out of a fairy tale: There are many doors you can enter, except for the last one, blah blah blah. Of course, I wanted to see what was going on in that last room because, when I was alive, I’d watched a TV show about the difference between stupid and smart children. Scientists had conducted an experiment on a group of kids; they’d left them alone in a room with a two-way mirror they used to observe them. Before leaving a child, the scientists would warn them not to, under any circumstances, look at what was hidden under a white sheet on the table. The children who peeked were the smart ones. The others—not so much. Only one child turned out to be stupid, though. And not only was he stupid, he was also fat. I didn’t want to be him. If it weren’t for my desire to know, the size of my head would be a paradox. I bravely reached for the doorknob, but it was, of course, locked.
Where does a woman go, if she doesn’t know what’s in store for her? I was plagued by questions. I’d wondered a great deal in life too, but in death the questions that confronted me were harder, and the feeling of false finality was driving me crazy. The secretaries laughed loudly behind the locked door. They were obviously having fun, like they were reading something hilarious.
“Why are you named Tristesa?” I asked when they suddenly appeared behind me. “I’ve never seen you sad. You’re always laughing and having a good time.”
“You should’ve learned by now that you can’t trust death, or people.”
“We should go,” said Zubrowka, pulling Tristesa by the sleeve. “She needs to continue.”
Alone once again, I watched the door close. I wanted to run after them, to join in their merriment, but I couldn’t move. My head was throbbing, and I felt like at any second it might explode—the big bang. I walked once along the hallway, up and down, but quickly grew tired. I opened the door to the nearest room, took a seat at the table that happened to be there, and began to write. But as soon as I put my pen to paper, I knew I had to write about writing, and that was dangerous because it wasn’t what I’d been brought here to do. I needed action, events—that was clearly what the secretaries preferred. Death is like a dream where you’re running, headless: you don’t have time to stop and reflect because that would mean you’ve awoken, and in my case that just wasn’t possible. I’d never heard of anyone waking up from death.
What to write about then? Everyone tends to write autobiography, which I find repulsive. But while I was feeling judgmental, a memory surfaced of my grandmother, how she would raise her legs and mas- sage them, one after the other, while my sister and I watched, in awe of her calloused heels. Everyone wants to read autobiography, so give them autobiography—it can even be fictionalized. Why should the secretaries be any different? Death loves other people. It’s not concerned solely with itself. It collects names, faces, human destinies, and gladly reads them. Fine, I thought, I will write about myself. And throw in a little about them; let everything be saccharine and romanticized, in the pastel shades of their underwear. But when I got down to writing, it became clear that I didn’t know how to write sappy stories. I wrote how I thought, and my thoughts were explosive.
When I was six years old, I fell off the kitchen counter and landed on my right hand, breaking it. At the emergency room, I sat next to a little girl with a bandaged leg. She said she’d been playing with an ax and the blade had fallen right on her foot. I never complained again about pain. Pain became superfluous to me; it was reserved for others.
I remember well enough the apartment I grew up in—it was a two-bedroom apartment on the thirteenth floor. The elevator never worked so we always had to use the stairs. I shared a room with my sister, who once stopped talking to me because she found my writing “gross.” I was hurt at the time, but she was right. My writing really was gross. I was a disobedient child and I stayed that way: mischievous through and through.
Every night when my family would fall asleep, I’d go out on the balcony and watch the parking lot, imagining morbid things, like a black van carrying off little children to some unknown place. I’d tell myself that soon it would be coming for me. Such vile things excited me, but I never ate my own boogers. To me, that was truly disgusting. Whenever I saw a child eating their own boogers, I’d smack them on the head.
I remember vividly my first grade school trip to Ozren, a mountain in northern Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the evening we’d lie in absolute darkness. I don’t remember how many of us were in the cabin, but all the girls would scream for the teacher when, just as everyone was on the edge of sleep, I’d tell scary stories about witches and monsters.
Look at that woman lurking at the window, I’d say. I often forgot how timid other children could be. The only thing that had frightened me was the dentist, and I’d quickly gotten over it. I returned from Ozren another child, one who wouldn’t stop talking. My family dubbed me the Philosopher. I was always waving my hands, gesticulating wildly. I wrote poetry with a carpenter’s pencil. I was truly special. I was different.
“You don’t seem that different to me,” said Zubrowka.
She leaned over my story, tapping her finger on the word special.
“It’s only a story,” I said.
“I know, but you shouldn’t think so highly of yourself. You’re not the first to sit at this table and write.”
“At this table?”
“Yes, at this table,” said Tristesa, who was standing on the other side.
“Exactly how many people have sat at this table before me?” I asked.
“We can’t tell you, it’s confidential.”
I was confused. If I’d invented such a death for myself, how could it have been the same for those before me?
“I don’t get it,” I said. “You told me that it was potatoes in the ground or whatever, but really, it’s either potatoes or this?” I paused, then added, “Is this heaven . . . or hell?”
Zubrowka and Tristesa gave each other a knowing look.
“It depends on the person,” Zubrowka said. “For people who don’t know how to write, this is hell. For those who love it and know how to do it well, this is heaven.”
“I beg to differ.”
I rose from the table and crumpled up my story.
“I want to go back in the ground,” I said.
“Impossible,” Tristesa replied. “First the stories, then you can proceed.”
“Proceed where exactly?” I asked, once again nervous.
“We can’t tell you, it’s confidential,” they said in unison.
I began to walk around the table. Tristesa reached for me.
“Get your hands off me! Don’t you dare!” I yelled.
The two of them backed away toward the door, not taking their eyes off me. Once they’d left, I straightened the crumpled paper and copied the beginning of the story onto another sheet. I needed to keep going, needed to bring death to its conclusion.
To be honest, I wasn’t actually special. I had an eccentric personality, sure, but plenty of others did too. I wasn’t unique.
Before taking this thought further, I paused. The secretaries’ second phase was tormenting me. It sounded like they were planning on robbing a bank or overthrowing the government, and I was supposed to help them somehow. I chuckled to myself and wrote: Writing isn’t an explosive. It can’t blow up a safe, a wall, or a basement.
“You’re wrong,” I imagined Tristesa correcting me. “We said we needed loads of stories because we need enough to light the fireworks.”
“I don’t want to participate in anything illegal,” I said aloud, as if talking to Tristesa.
“Fool!” she shouted, ending our imaginary argument.
I kept writing.
After he had an accident, my uncle came to live with us. Mama took care of him. He slept in the living room for a few months. At night, I’d watch porn right next to his pillow and laugh. I knew he didn’t hear me. He had a good excuse—he was sick. The rest of the family was healthy and no one paid attention to me anyway. Of all the kids at school, I was the most invisible. Or it seemed that way, at least. I went to school alone, I came home alone. I didn’t have any friends, just an immense desire to know everything.
As it happened, I did have one friend, an imaginary one—a unicorn named Sebastian who would only appear when I had a fever. I refused to go to the hospital, because one time there I’d spoken to the wrong people about him. They’d started to think I was crazy. My sister had saved me at the last minute, and together we’d escaped.
“If it weren’t for you freaks,” Zubrowka had said earlier, “every death would be a potato.”
My back was beginning to hurt; I needed to stretch my legs. I stepped out into the corridor and walked toward the room at the end of the hall. I didn’t hear the two secretaries giggling, so I assumed they’d gone outside somewhere. I tried the doorknob again: still locked. And then—who knows where I got the courage—I decided to break the door down. I kicked it a few times and managed to get inside.
The room was full of cardboard boxes, stacked all the way to the ceiling. In the middle was a table with two chairs and a small lamp. I guessed this was where Tristesa and Zubrowka sat. I opened one of the boxes at random and saw it contained manuscripts.
“What are you doing?” I heard Zubrowka’s angry voice.
“It was open,” I lied.
“She destroyed the door,” said Tristesa, picking up the broken bolt from the carpet.
“I needed to know.”
“We would’ve told you soon enough, if you’d just been a little more patient.”
“I couldn’t. The second phase is torturing me.”
The secretaries sat down at the table. Since there weren’t three chairs, I had to stand. Tristesa turned on the lamp and a weak glow lit her gloomy face. But their irritation didn’t last—Tristesa began to laugh and bang her fist on the table.
“So you needed to know!” she said.
She laughed loudly, as if her mouth were full of other people’s laughter—as if she’d stuffed herself with it like cake.
“I like you,” she began. “I know Zubrowka likes you too, so I’ll tell you everything. Here’s the deal: we gather the most interesting posthumous texts, light a big ceremonial fire, throw the paper in it, and. . .”
She paused and raised her hands in the air to heighten the tension.
“BOOM!” she shouted. “All the best there is in death will emerge into the light of day.”
“You mean, the dead will walk among the living?” I asked, confused.
“Not all the dead, only the ones who write well.”
Zubrowka, who’d been sitting in silence, spoke up.
“Literature is,” she said, “the primary link between life and death.”
It seemed to me that they both glorified writing too much, but I didn’t want to interrupt.
“We need the heat of the written word to open a small rift so we can step into reality. You’ve read fairy tales, you know how it works.”
“But fairy tales are made up,” I said.
“Fairy tales are, but death isn’t. There’s no fucking around with death,” said Tristesa. “Death reaches even the most inaccessible places, but only through literature. Otherwise death can do nothing.”
“And the other arts? What about painting, sculpture, music?”
“Those don’t interest us,” they said. “They can, of course, be of use, but writing excites us more.”
I closed my eyes. I imagined my unicorn friend Sebastian.
“Do you hear what these two morons are saying?” I asked him.
“I hear, I hear,” he whinnied. “Remember Heraclitus. When people die, they’re confronted by what they didn’t expect or consider. Count to fifty to calm down.”
“I’ve forgotten numbers,” I said. “I can only count to ten.”
When I opened my eyes, Tristesa and Zubrowka showed me one of their boxes.
“This is where we put the most valuable manuscripts.”
“Who wrote them?” I asked.
“That’s a secret,” Zubrowka said. “But you’ll know when we return to the living.”
“Now you must keep writing,” said Tristesa. “We don’t have much time. The necessary condition for our departure is a total solar eclipse.”
“That, or a full moon,” added Zubrowka. “Really, it’s all the same. There just needs to be some element of horror.”
“Okay,” I said.
I left the room, and in the hallway I started to think that, compared to the idiocy the two secretaries had described, a bank robbery wouldn’t be all that bad.
Gold is worth more than life, I thought.
How did I know this? I knew because at one time I’d been alive and witnessed it myself. But I needed to stop all my theorizing. The secretaries wanted to resurrect me, to bring me with them. I honestly didn’t feel a strong desire to breathe air again and see what was happening on the other side, but this idea about the power of literature had completely possessed me. Everything I’d written—two tiny books of poetry that no one read anymore—had ended up in local libraries. Writing that collected dust versus writing that resurrected the dead—there was no doubt about which I could get behind.
I wrote day and night, nonstop. Tristesa and Zubrowka brought me food and drink, and periodically wiped the sweat from my brow. Thirty days later the moment of truth came. They sat at the table and read what I’d written. They glanced over conjunctions and pronouns, laughing all the while.
“This is it!” they exclaimed. “Time for us to get going.”
They jammed my manuscript into a box, secured it with duct tape, and placed it off to the side. I craned my neck to see if they had placed it in the “most valuable” box, but that one was already closed. As if all the best literature had already been written in the past, long before me. I found this annoying. Two tiny books of poetry, okay, but they were still significant. No matter their size.
“Go into one of the rooms,” said Zubrowka. “You’re not allowed to leave until you feel a force, like a lasso, pulling you toward the door.”
I holed up in the same room I’d been writing in. The chair was uncomfortable, but so was my life.
And my death was uncomfortable too. I was used to discomfort.
A great heat spread through the room, and I thought I might be burned alive along with my posthumous brainchild. I sat still, not expecting that what the secretaries had described would literally happen—but then I felt something tightening around my waist, binding my hands to my body and pulling me toward the door.
My friend Sebastian appeared.
“We’re going back among the living,” I said. “Can you believe it?”
“Heraclitus says that immortals are mortal, and mortals immortal, because the life of one is the death of the other, and the death of one is the life of the other.”
“Enough already with your Heraclitus!” I snapped.
Sebastian regarded me with an offended look.
“What a goose you are. How I wish I could’ve been Heraclitus’s imaginary friend instead of yours. You have no appreciation for delicacy. From an airplane one can see you’re from Bosnia.”
Before I could respond, the door opened and I was sucked into the dark of the hallway. Above me spread blackness. I had no idea where I was. It seemed like I was emerging from a bottomless abyss.
“Where are we?” I asked the person next to me. I couldn’t see faces in the dark.
“I think we’re in Montenegro,” said a woman’s voice.
Once my head was out, I looked around. I’d never been to Montenegro.
“Durmitor,” someone called out.
I was in the water. I saw Tristesa.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“Devil’s Lake,” she said, laughing.
A full moon shone down on us. I looked at my reflection on the lake’s surface. Naturally, I was a zombie. No one returns from death undamaged.
“You could’ve warned me,” I said to Tristesa.
“Why do you think zombies devour human brains?” she said. “It’s not like writers spend their lives obsessing over genitals or feet.”
She was right, of course. The great invasion of undead writers began its hunt for the human brain. Everyone hurried to get out of the water. Somewhere ahead of me I spied the poet Njegoš.
He would no doubt get the honor of the first bite, I thought, frustrated.
Even the zombies, unfortunately, practiced etiquette and respected the hierarchy. I tried to make a fist, but my hand didn’t cooperate. The lasso still held me tight. Who was tugging the rope, who was steering me toward someone else’s brain—I never managed to find out.
Jennifer Zoble is a writer, editor, educator, and literary translator. She coedits InTranslation, and teaches at NYU.Asja Bakić
Asja Bakić (1982) is a Bosnian poet, writer, and translator. She was selected as one of Literary Europe Live's New Voices from Europe 2017, and her writing has been translated into seven languages. She currently lives and works in Zagreb, Croatia.