THE WOMAN FROM THE SECOND FLOOR
Two chapters, translated by Brian Willems
(This translation originally appears in Cross-Cultural Studies Review, Vol. 2, Nos. 1/2 (2020)).
Anka continued to be poisoned all summer. The whole of June, July, and August Bruna performed the same meticulous pharmaceutical rituals twice a day. She would prepare a meal. She would divide it equally onto two plates. And then she would heap some powder that smells of garlic onto one of them. That was the plate she would give to Anka.
In the summer, Bruna usually used to cook light, boiling green beans and zucchini, putting bowls of radish, wild asparagus and tomato salad together. Now things have changed. It was easier for her to mix the poison into thick, stewey dishes. Although it was hot, she cooked bean and pasta soup, veal with peas, tripe and cod stew all thick, soupy dishes full of garlic and oil, dishes in which the bromadiolone would get lost in a mixture of heavy smells. Anka loved that kind of food. She would dig into it with real pleasure, and with an appetite that made Bruna both happy and scared.
The summer months passed by, and the mouse poison seeped into Anka's body, from lunch to lunch, from dinner to dinner, in microscopic, irrevocable doses. It entered through the palate and irreversibly circulated through the vascular system, toward the lungs, marrow, lymph nodes, and liver. Bruna continued to attend the old woman all day. And she continued to get Anka out of bed, bring her to the table, and still wash her armpits and hair, smelling her skin that reeked of milk skin. In the palm of her hands she held Anka's wrists, scalp, flesh, and skin, feeling Anka's body as she touched her. She watched out for any tiny symptoms, symptoms which only she could read: a slight redness of the eyes, cracked lips, bruises that don't heal. Anka's veins burst and became brittle, and her blood thinned. The bromadiolone traveled through her veins and arteries, finishing off this impossible condition.
Strangely, in those months Anka also became different. She no longer acted with that contemptuous, curt hatred toward Bruna. She became mild, almost grateful, nearly gentle. Instead of a grumpy, one-syllable thanks, now Bruna got a look that was full of some kind of newly found mildness. Then - when Anka would nearly drown in her dead-calm goodness – Bruna would have a prick of conscience because of what she was doing. A prick, but just a short one. She continued on, to the rhythm of lunch and dinner, dinner and lunch. She would cook stewed green beans, chicken fricassée and chickpea soup, and every time one dish would be spiced with a pinch of poison. She just had to wait. To wait, for the blood to thin, for the artery walls to collapse.
All this time, Mirela still stopped by. She stopped by at least once a month, but just for a bit and always alone - without her husband and child. She would carefully hug her mother, take her out for a walk and help her get changed in the evening. She would clean Anka's apartment, do her laundry, and tidy the yard. But - she didn't cook. From the very first Bruna said that she would cook for everyone.
When she stopped by, Mirela would spend a lot of time on the phone. From afar she guided unknown handymen to install a tub and sand the parquet in the unfinished apartment. Her phone would ring, and then she would be talking in cryptic formulas to someone up in Zagreb, discussing some distant, byzantine office intrigues.
All this time, Mirela treated Bruna guardedly and timidly. She addressed her cautiously, with a mixture of discomfort and obvious guilt.
Mirela would come on Friday and leave on Sunday. She would leave by the afternoon bus, back to her ripped up apartment and a shaky career. And when Mirela would leave, the old woman would sink one more turn into some indefinite indignation. She would look at Bruna with sadness, as if looking at a defective replacement instead of the original. Blood is blood. She wasn't blood, she was a stranger.
Bruna would gaze at that look of indignation, and think. She thought about how life flows on. Everyone's but hers. And then she would tackle dinner, and in the dinner she would throw a pinch of powder that smelled like garlic.
One afternoon in early September, Anka suggested they go for a walk. Bruna got her settled in her wheelchair, lowered her into the yard, and pushed down in the direction of the sea. For a long time they made their way through blocks of new buildings that became uglier and more ornate and as they got near the shoreline. And then, all at once, the road went down into a muddy, grassy plateau that the municipal government filled in long ago, when the Pope came to town. Magnificently imagined, the plateau by the sea now stood as a sad mockery, neglected, and covered with a thicket intersected by tracks from truck tires. Bruna circled the muddy plain, then continued down the road before emerging onto the part of the shore with tended beaches.
They walked for a long time along the graveled beaches, full of bathers, next to the trampolines for kids, tennis courts, and pizzerias. They walked and reached the nautical harbor. Bruna was pushing the wheelchair along the fence, past the dry-docked boats that smelled of tar, paint thinner, and algae. They walked, then reached a grove along the coast.
There was a restaurant in the woods. It had a winter garden enclosed by glass, which acted like an outside space so the guests could smoke. Ever since they had last been there, the glass lobby grew in all directions, like a metastasis.
Bruna stood in front of the restaurant and looked at the familiar place. The fact is that she is there — and that she is there with Anka — aroused in her an unexpected, painful grief.
We met here for the first time, Anka suddenly said. Does it ring a bell, that day Mirela had the baby baptized? Anka almost said it with a tenderness, with tone that Bruna hadn't expected. Why not - Bruna replied - I remember. I remember very well.
They stood and looked at the glass restaurant. There is a large group of people in the restaurant sitting at a long, festively decorated table celebrating something that looked, from the outside, like a baptism. There was a stroller by the table in which there slept an unconscious child. At the head of the table sat two elderly people, apparently a grandma and grandpa. Grandpa had a tie with a wide knot and a bright geometric pattern, which looked like it was last worn in the 1970s. No voices reached outside through the glass. Bruna was watching the family fiesta as if it were a silent movie. The people inside opened their mouths and gesticulated, but no sound reached her. Those - silent - people in the restaurant seemed indescribably happy.
They moved on, toward the center of town. They took a spin past the sand shoals and reached the tip between the two bays. People in swimming suits under tamarisk trees played chess, children were sprayed by water from the outdoor shower, and somewhere behind – on the horizon - the late afternoon twilight blushed. The red sun was setting on the horizon, somewhere behind two rows of islands, tall trees, and an unfinished apartment complex.
It's nice – Anka said.
And it was nice. So nice that you could freeze that moment and frame to last forever.
And then Bruna snapped awake. We have to go home - she said. We have to go home, it's late. She said that and pushed the wheelchair uphill, away from the sea, toward their neighborhood, street, and house. Toward the kitchen in which an unfinished dinner awaited.
It was the beginning of September. Fifteen days later, Anka Šarić was dead.
Anka died in her sleep. Bruna found her dead one Thursday in late September. Like every day, she got up that morning, took a shower, and got dressed for the office. She went downstairs to put Anka on her feet and get her dressed. When she entered the room, she didn't hear her usual, muffled breathing. She approached the bed and pulled down the sheet. The old woman was milky white, blissfully calm. Instead of her constant expression of everlasting indignation, her face radiated with unexpected serenity.
Bruna sat down in the kitchen and stared at herself for a long time, in complete apathy. And then she got up and picked up the phone. First she called for an ambulance. Then she called Mirela in Zagreb. Finally she sent a message to Frane. Frane, who that morning set sail from Dalian toward Korea.
When she finished the phone calls, she went back to the room. She found some kind of sheet and tucked it under the old woman's chin. She straightened her body folded her arms across her chest. Although dead, Anka still smelled the same, like a mixture of milk scum/curd and sweat. The old woman's limbs were still flexible. It meant that she had died recently, before dawn.
When Bruna laid the old woman on the couch, she sat down in the armchair beside her, waiting for the paramedics. She watched the old woman's body slowly cool and become rigid. She thought she would feel relief, or remorse, or excitement, or fear. But - she felt nothing: if anything, then maybe just a grain of vague, unexpected grief.
She sat like that for an hour and a half, maybe two. Finally, through the closed window she heard the sound of a van in the courtyard. There was a brief silence. And then the doorbell rang.
At that moment, she knew: one period of her life had come to an end. Her life can move on from this impasse.
She got up and opened the door for the coroners. It was the 22nd of September, a little after ten in the morning.