Later they called this August the month of drought.
Every morning the city woke up to the glare of the blazing, fierce sun. Not a single cloud has unsettled the clear stretch of azure over the roofs. The plants on the balcony needed to be watered twice or thrice daily. The tap water was running almost warm.
The wrought-iron railings burned her palms. Her distorted and disheveled morning likeness reflected in the vintage copper watering can.
She was an early bird, raising at dawn, contemplating a walk along the bank of the neighboring canal. She stood with the first cup of coffee on the balcony, gazing from afar at the cinnamon water, at the unkempt bushes flanking the footpath. At the end of the summer, they inevitably ripened with the small wildlings, sour blackberries. The crop reddened on the single raspberry bush, the well-hidden secret of the children.
The ball hit the graffitied wall, the voice called ‘Olly olly oxen tree, all-y all-y all set free’. The blackberries laid in the outstretched hand, staining the fingers and lips. Boys played the dodgeball, girls skipped over the jump rope. Children came together for the red rover of hide-and-seek. ‘Ready or not, here I come’, shrieked somebody. Kids scattered around the hot courtyard, the drops of ice-cream stained the cobblestones.
The ice-cream they bought in the modest corner shop, hosted in the ugly pavilion, all corrugated steel, and dusty glass. The store lodged between the neighborhood and the canal, the last checkpoint of the civilization before the jungle around the ancient waterway.
Laden with sweets and yellow lemonade, the kids delved into the bushes were the hideouts and the crudely built rafts were maintained. There were enough fallen trees every autumn to manufacture those. Some claimed that on those rafts they had reached even the distant point where the canal had joined the bigger one. Eventually, the latter flowed into a river, so glorious in the center of the city.
There was also the center, albeit abandoned and forgotten one.
In her childhood, the tourists did not know about the old industrial district close to the gulf, where the former factories stood in disrepair. The thick carpet of undergrowth covered the empty plant yards. The green patches of creeper climbed among the ochre bricks. Moss covered the rusty machinery. Broken windows invited the sunlight and birds into the vast expanses of former depots.
Children came here, climbing the skeletons of long-disused city trams, searching the wastelands for the souvenirs of the lost empire. One of those, the enameled tram sign, still hung on the wall of her apartment. The route did not change, the number of the service remaining the same. The trams came from the new depot, clanking along the nearby street. Inside the carriage, it was boiling hot in summer and freezingly desolate in the darkness of winter. In December the sun almost did not appear on the low northern skyline.
She took the tram six days a week, leaving it at the school stop, before the tracks crossed the narrow canal, where the carriage climbed the shabby stone bridge. The metro station lay way ahead.
She went to school along the low wall of the cemetery, listening to the remote voices of the factory locomotives. The graveyard was deserted, bearing only the almost imperceptible remains of the old memorials.
They said that a long time ago, during the siege, the trucks came here with the cargo of corpses. The bodies were put in the wet, boggy ground of the seaside city.
Here the wind was almost always western, carrying the salt and drying seaweed aroma, sometimes bringing to the neighborhood the fine white sand from the flat shore. One could go there by raft, paddling along the cobweb of canals, navigating the city river, ending up on the beach, next to the flocks of gulls and piles of seaweed. The smell was so penetrative that for a week after the shore trip the clothing still held the pungent whiff of the darkish green, soggy mass, littered with shells.
Usually, she would walk in the more civilized park but today was different.
The time when the neighborhood was a dilapidated place has long gone. The former depots and shipyards became the creative clusters and coworking spaces. The ugly pavilion with a grocery store was torn down and rebuilt in the vintage style, a simulacrum of the lost reality. The rainbow of the glass cones, filled with fruit juices, occupied the prominent place on the counter. The steel blender churned, spitting out the frothy foam of the milkshake.
In her childhood, the shake cost the lowest possible silver coin. There were coppers, but for them, only the matches could be bought. Anything worth of child attention – the shake, the pale purple of the blackcurrant ice-cream in the waffle cone, the jam-filled glazed pastry, - required silver. Coppers were collected for the higher goal, the ultimate purpose of the cold vanilla shake on the humid Sunday morning. The drink has always ended too quickly, leaving on the lips the sweet promise of the next glass, the fleeting kiss of the seemingly endless summer vacation.
Nowadays the pavilion served mango and black chocolate shakes, goji berries and seaweed ice-cream, almond flour pastries with chia seed filling. The tram line became the heritage route, fitted with the carriages of time begone, with cracked red leatherette seats and wooden interior. She remembered some of those from her childhood, accompanied by the inevitably plump ticket lady, with a bag full of paper rolls of tickets and loose change.
Oh, how she had yearned to have one of those coins when her coppers did not add on to the requisite sum of money, displayed on the counter! The glasses of cloudy apple juice or even the sharp tomato, with the healthy sprinkling of gray salt over it, were but a pale comparison to the sumptuous foam of shake.
The current tram ran along the heritage track as it was called in the guidebooks, stopping at the cemetery with the memorial to the siege victims, continuing to the metro station. The houses in the neighborhood, mainly the non-descriptive workers’ dwellings, built more than a hundred years ago, received new licks of paint and new railings on the balconies. Standing on hers, she saw beyond the red brick of the creative clusters the glistening surface of the canal.
The word in the area was that the canal will succumb next to the inexorable step of the gentrification. She heard about the granite embankment, the bike path, the boat trips and the park. For now, the banks remained overgrown with nettles and brambles. At the end of the summer, the blackberry bushes yielded a bumper crop, although she has never seen anyone collecting them.
Today her fingers will be stained dark red, today the flies will buzz over the dark brown, murky waters of the canal. The banks were even more humid than the rest of the neighborhood, jammed between the expanse of the city proper and the sea.
Thirty years ago, when she was a girl, the mosquitoes were relentless, attacking at night, getting to the rooms through even the thickest possible nets. Her parents thought a net to be a frivolity. She has learned not to scratch the mosquito bites, patiently waiting for the itch to subdue.
If you patiently wait, any pain will in the end subdue. Anything in life will either subdue or disappear altogether, leaving behind the traces of former self, barely perceptible beyond the new outline and content. The drought, however, can unearth them again and that had to be taken care of.
She always closed the shop for the two weeks at the end of August.
After a long stint of curatorship in one of the city’s most prominent museums she returned to the neighborhood, renting ground-floor premises on the one and only street, next to the third wave coffee shop and a barber place. The barber sat in the same cellar room where in her childhood she went to get a haircut and later a basic manicure, done with ugly, clanking instruments of almost surgical metal.
The hairdresser had adorned the walls with the black-and-white photos of models wearing jackets with prominent shoulder pads. Males sported steely jaws, females smiled under the mass of blonde curls. With her first salary, barely over sixteen, she bought the similar jacket and the acid washed ultra-skinny jeans. Being a natural northern blonde with the eyes color of an inclement sky, she did not need the peroxide.
In the museum, she curated the department of furniture and applied arts. Her shop catered to the new occupants of the freshly restored apartments in the neighborhood, the rich transplants from the capital. She had lovingly collected and restored the old furniture and bric-a-brac, filling the whitewashed room with the constructivist desks, antebellum porcelain, and even some original revolutionary posters.
The trade at Tante Emma was brisk, thanks to her well-trained eye and attentive customer service. She was reviewed in a couple of glossies and lauded in the city newspaper. She went on the expeditions to the depths of the countryside, scouting for the pieces that survived the wars, famines and countless purges. She made coffee for visitors and shipped the purchases abroad. She has also kept, almost religiously, the fortnight of a holiday. That was her free time, time for boats and rafts, bicycle and walks, time for visiting the past.
The visit to the canal banks required an accessory. Picking a short spade from the balcony, she has put it in the wicker basket together with the nondescript paper bag and an empty string shopper of the old variety, with cracked leather handles.
At the weekend the farmers market gathered at the small square where Tante Emma occupied the prominent place on the corner. She intended to pick up some cherry plums on her way to the canal.
The fruit was in season, dark red or greenish yellow, tart and juicy. Back home she painstakingly stoned the plums and simmered them on the gas stove, in the copper pot belonging to her grandmother. She added salt and spices, making the chutney the color of Bordeaux wine or Venetian gold. The concoction was perfect for the New Year gifts, together with the jar of cranberry jam. She always picked berries on her forays into the countryside, keeping the plastic pail in the trunk of her car.
Jam-making required patience and that she had in abundance. She did not like to take home berries from the bushes along the canal, preferring to eat them straight out of the palm of her hand, leaning over the bush, feeling the hot August sun on her slightly sweaty face. Besides, there never were enough of the blackberries. Locking her door, she realized that she has never taken anything home from the canal.
She has left things there and they had to be revisited sometimes.
The street was still deserted, the farmers market just unraveled. The third wave coffee shop put on the cobblestones of the square the blackboard with another ridiculous name for the daily brew. Once upon a time, there was only a single espresso and a double espresso. The latter could be small or big, in the lingo of coffee shops of the bygone days. The cap did not exist. The latte was made with a hefty splash of milk over the coffee. In some places, they served the vile mix of the fake chicory powder and sweetened evaporated milk. The potion was boiled on the stove in the pail and doled out with the ladle. She shuddered, remembering the chipped glasses full of sweet whitish liquid.
The daily brew was, in fact, the damned chicory substitute, which has become the drink du jour recently. Here they served it with almond or coconut milk. She popped in to get her customary americano. The spade was safely hidden under the string bag she used for marketing. Nobody could see. In any case, the kids working in the new establishments were of the new generation, friendly, but minding their own business.
She managed the Tante Emma alone, not having the desire to invest time and soul into training the young thing which then will leave for the pastures greener in the center of the city. The neighborhood, however, was becoming more up-and-coming. Bargaining for the cherry plums she had heard some English language among the market crowd. She kept her media presence only in the local language but noticing English has made a mental note of it. Tante Emma, with the reasonable prices and an amicable owner, deserved to be known wider.
The heritage tram rolled along the tracks. The grid was altered but the terminus stayed in the place where she, the slip of the girl, spent many frozen and windy minutes waiting for the marginally warmer uterine semi-darkness of the morning carriage. The dawn passengers, sleepy and irritable, filled the inside of the tram with the mixture of vile breath, wet tobacco residue, yesterday sweat of the unwashed clothing.
In winter she felt safe, cocooned in the heavy clothing, protected by the coat and another coat underneath, and long woolen school skirt, and cashmere leggings underneath and boots the weight of the prison leg irons and thick home-knitted socks underneath. All this was superfluous, but she could not imagine anyone wanting to peel off her even the single layer.
In any case, the winter was a hibernating time. The sun barely skimmed the horizon by midday. After two hours of weak, barely-there golden glow, it would disappear entirely, leaving behind the cranberry residue. The red shone in the countless city windows, painting the melted snow the subtle color of blood. By the late afternoon, the red also faded, replaced by the primeval darkness.
The wet palm of the whistling wind slapped the face. The tram rattled, the doors hissed invitingly, accepting her into the patchy warmth of the evening carriage. Sometimes the bench over the floor stove was gloriously empty, but more often she was greeted by the salivating, salubrious smile of her sworn enemy.
She hated him passionately, imagining the glorious moment when stepping into the carriage, she will find only a void space, the vacuum, the black hole that he has been sucked into.
There was no way to avoid him. She tried to take the earlier carriage from home to school or the later car on the way back, hanging in the library until the teacher started to lock up. Out on the street, it was pouring with rain or wheezing with the snowstorm. She stood at the tram stop hoping not to see him inside.
More often, than not he was there, grinning toothlessly, trailing after her whenever she went in the carriage, plonking himself on the nearest available place. He smelt of the cheap sweets and the stale sweat. In the pocket of his dirty trousers, he always carried a half-eaten, melting bar of chocolate or a waffle with the perfumery lemony aroma. He opened the rough, calloused palm, offering her a treat.
‘Eat’ he laughed, splattering her with the saliva ‘eat, please’. Those were one of the few words that he knew and could pronounce or, rather, sing. He sang passionately, straining the fat neck, trying to stand up on the seat. ‘Eat, eat, eat’ he screamed ‘eat, eat, eat!’
The woman selling tickets would rather unkindly say to her ‘Is it so difficult to eat a little bit? He likes you, say thank you to him. He will then calm down.’ He really did, albeit for a while,
She tried to hide the wretched piece of the waffle or chocolate chunk, but he was cunny and watchful. ‘Eat’ the fat fingers crawled to her hand ‘eat, please’.
Even now, almost thirty years after that, she could not touch anything sweet. The sickly taste rose in her mouth, she curtly refused the offering. With him, there was no refusal.
She had no idea where he existed beyond the tram carriages and who cared about him.
In winter he wore a cheap workman’s jacket of thick quilted material, in the utilitarian gray, with a fake-fur collar. The hat on his balding head was of the same scraggy fake brown fur. Behind the protective shield of clothing, he almost looked presentable, despite the stubble covering the fat cheeks and the wondering eyes looking somewhere beyond your face.
Summer was the worst, as he put on the slippers of the cheapest kind, made of the foul-smelling rubber. The claw-like toenails yellowed with fungus, the soles of his feet were cracked. He reeked of dirt and other, almost indistinct, but still disgusting aroma. The stained pajama trousers barely covered the deposits of fat on his back. Sometimes the trousers rolled down, baring the top of the pale, pimply buttocks. The ticket lady in the tram gently helped him to adjust the closing. He always put on the same dirty wife-beater. The armpit hair was also graying, unkempt.
The waffle in the palm of his hand was wet and soggy with the humid heat of the city summer. ‘Eat, eat, eat’ he sang insistently ‘eat, eat’.
The ticket lady told her to be kind. ‘The poor creature is totally alone in this world’ the old woman pursed her lips ‘he lives in the state care home’. The dull ochre of the state care home was visible from the tram, perched half-way between the cemetery and the metro station. ‘He is perfectly harmless’ added the lady ‘they let him out for the whole day. He loves the trams. He is in his forties, but is almost helpless, like a baby’. She learned that he was the war orphan who lost his parents at the beginning of the siege. ‘Lost his mind as well’ signed the ticket lady ‘the hunger affects you such. That is why he is trying to feed you. Maybe, he had a little sister who did not survive the war’.
She just nodded not saying anything. She did not mention his fingers crawling beneath the hem of her skirt, trying to get inside her underwear. She clenched her thighs, tried to stand, attempted to leave her seat but his bulk was solid and unmovable. In the crowded carriage, he rubbed himself against her, blocking her in the corner, muttering softly under his breath. She was then just in the first grade of the school.
Then he somehow discovered where she lived. He did not come to the house entrance, instead waiting for her on the corner, the silent, bulky figure, huddled under the frozen wind or sweating in the summer heat. She tried walking to school but he toddled after, never getting too close.
Finally, she decided to wake up an hour earlier rather than endure the tram torture again. He seemed not to be displeased by that still grinning every time he saw her getting out of the house entrance or leaving the school gates. He missed barely a couple of days during the entire school year.
She thought he was content with just following her almost everywhere she went, continuing to plant himself on the street corner even on vacations. She never told any of her friends about him neither she has acknowledged his existence by any word of gesture. She always avoided his strange, nomadic gaze. His eyes were reddish and swollen as if he cried somewhere in the place she could not and did not care to reach.
In the summer of her thirteenth year, he appeared on the banks of the canal.
She took the same path they used as children. After leaving the once-abandoned factories and depots, now the creative cluster, she turned to the left, fading from the sight in the thorny mass of brambles and bushes, instinctively ending up on the narrow sidewalk along the hot, muddy water. Mosquitoes chirped close to her ear, she instinctively rose her hand. The arm dropped, she walked faster, not caring about the sharp stones getting into her sandals. The heat became balmy, she felt the smell of decaying fish, drying seaweed, salty, pungent smell.
She did not want to drive the mosquitoes away, to attract any attention at all. That summer he remained the same silent figure, simply standing somewhere among the bushes, with unzipped, stained trousers, moving his palm, widely grinning. They did not care about him. The older kids warned the younger ones not to come closer but judged him to be harmless.
He was not a first such visitor to the canal. They never did anything except moving their hand up and down, watching the distant games, listening to the remote voices of the kids. She did not share with others her tram memories.
Everyone understood what police would do if teenagers were to complain in the nearest precinct. Those people were locked up forever in the secure facilities for crazies as they were called on the street. Getting in those places was easy but leaving was uncertain and riddled with obstacles. Nobody knew what exactly went on in the secure facilities. The returnees did not speak about it, appearing broken creatures, wandering around as if in the gaze.
The teenagers agreed not to snoop the guy, reduced to having his thrills only in such way.
She also did not want to end up like her former classmate, the girl whose penchant for black clothing and mournful songs has landed her in the loony bin. She never returned to school disappearing from the public view, withdrawing into her own misty world within the four walls of the poor apartment.
Either break or be broken. She did not intend to end up broken, so she had to break herself.
That summer he did not approach her, but she was aware of his distant stare, the wandering eyes searching for her in the bushes, on the canal raft, on the few hidden clearings used by children in their long and elaborate games.
Those lasted all summer, dividing the tribes, as they called themselves, into the waring and trading fractions. Marriages and peace treaties were arranged, prisoners taken and freed, messengers and gifts sent. Kids who went outside they city simply assumed their roles on return from the country vacation.
Stepping onto the tiny clearance she involuntarily pulled down her linen skirt. That summer she wore the gloriously kitschy frock, white and short, with the cornucopia of brightly colored flowers on the tight bodice. It was not a good choice for the canal expeditions, but she loved it so much she could not bear to be separated with it even for one day.
Here she rose a hand to drive away an irksome mosquito. Here he, silently leaving the bushes, still widely grinning, caught her by the wrist.
The day was the same, hot and humid, still empty and void of children’s voices. The kids did not come to the canal so early, but she was a dawn riser. She wanted to check the rope borders separating her tribe territory from the other domains. The breakage was a clear reason to send the irate note to the neighbors. She anticipated the long negotiations, since the chief of the other tribe, the boy a little older than her, had a clear penchant for her company. She, nevertheless, steadily refused his offers of the arranged game marriage and unification of the tribes. She had valued her own independence.
She still did, after all those years.
Now the banks were permanently devoid of the human presence. The new inhabitants of the area would never permit their kids to wander around unsupervised, to devour the wild blackberries, build the rafts and fight with other children. Their ilk was all holed at homes, in the company of the virtual strangers, met online.
She leaned over the likeness of the shrine, set onto the top of the hill. As she had expected, the soil has lost the habitual moisture, becoming dry and crumbly under her fingers.
She has set up a circle of stones in the wet March of the next year, eight months after that long summer morning.
Nobody suspected anything, nobody guessed about her state, nobody questioned her desire to lie in bed with the almost not feigned early spring cold. She had waited until her parents left the house. Collecting the spade from the sad and bare wintry balcony, she went here, into the bushes.
Stones she had brought up later when the unused spade went back to her school bag. The stained towel she threw into the dark depth of the canal. The ice had thawed but the low sky remained gray, without a single hint of the timid bluishness of the inevitable spring.
She knew that the heat would come, berries will flourish, seagulls will once again soar into the azure sky. The life will overcome death, that would remain here, buried under the mass of earth, covered with reeds and stones.
She blew away the light sand, the warm ashes of the drought. Her secret lay under the clear glass of the broken bottle. She knew other places with such secrets. Girls made them out of beads and buttons, fake pearls of the old necklaces, dried flowers and other precious trinkets. They were safely covered with soil, left to be searched for and discovered. The lucky one, stumbling upon somebody else’s secret, had a right to claim its contents for herself.
Nobody claimed this one. She did not raise the piece of glass. The dried immortelles surrounded the tiny skull, the fake pearls shone on the almost disintegrated bones.
That March morning it did not live, not even for a split second, emerging cold in the surprisingly scarce trickle of blood, almost painlessly. Were it to live, she would kill and dismember it with a spade. It was a chunk of flesh, anyway, with only the head resembling something human.
Carefully covering the secret with a soil, she took an old plastic bottle from the cheap lemonade. Somebody had a picnic here a while ago and did not bother to clear the trash, leaving behind the debris of human indulgence. The sweet taste rose in her throat. In the long summer morning thirty years ago, she had to endure a lot of it.
The water from the canal also smelt of sweetness. Nearby stood the city oldest confectionary plant, duly producing waffles and biscuits, marshmallows and candies. The industrial waste from the factory still polluted the canal, albeit the smell was now lighter.
Thirty years ago, she swam to the other shore, unable to face the people, hiding in one of the abandoned buildings, waiting for pain to subside, for the dress to dry, for the life to come back. Eventually, it did.
Some of those cheap sweets she carried today in her wicker basket. Generously moistening the soil, arranging the stones in the circle again, she went back to the land of living, having picked up the blackberries on her way.
She ate them from the palm of her hand, walking along the tracks of the heritage tram, coming to the dull wall of the state home for the mentally disabled. She has heard that with the death of last occupants the facility will be closed, paving the way for the next creative cluster or something similar. For now, the hot tarmac of the courtyard was deserted. The elderly guard nodded in his glass booth.
He sat on the bench in the corner, the silent mass of decaying flesh, the mound of man, with ugly, elephantine legs. Festooning sores covered the misshapen feet. She smelt the dried shit and piss, the sickly whiff of the putrefaction. His eyes were milky white, rimmed with red circles of crying. Mushroom-like growth was feeding on the cheek. He moved his bulbous nose, smiling toothlessly. He must have been in his late seventies by now.
She sat on the other side of the bench, taking care not to come too close. The paper wrapper rustled, the cheap waffle went into his outstretched palm.
‘Eat’ sang she sweetly, serenely ‘eat, eat, eat’,