This short story, originally published as “A možda je pas sanjao nas,” is a part of the book Metak u srcu Svetog Augustina; published in Zagreb (Faust Vrančić, 2003), Belgrade (Fabrika knjiga, 2003) and Sofia (Balkanis, 2008).
I haven’t slept since August 28, 1991. I know the date well, because it was the day after my mother's name-day, Monica. That night we held a wake for my grandfather. The casket was closed, of course, and aside from my father, mother, and one elderly aunt, nobody was there. If it hadn’t been for the war, the room would have been packed with relatives. But as it was, those who had survived the massacre held wake for those who hadn’t. My aunt ran her thumb over her rosary; my father sat with eyes closed, as if sleeping, though I knew he wasn't; my mother lit a votive candle below a portrait of the Holy Family and checked the oil in the glass (forty-eight times that night, from the moment I started keeping track), adding a drop every time she checked.
For the past year and a half, my main topic of contemplation during my evening strolls has been reflecting on the dead. I have images of them rising towards the star-studded sky and find myself asking whether they need gear shifts, electric motors, and iron cables; or do they perhaps have wings? I wonder if there is a scale involved, if they lay their heart on one side and a feather on the other, if the dead will be awaited by their loved ones, and whether they see their entire lives flash before their eyes, and really plunge into a tunnel of light? In any case, they’re very busy, which is why I find it odd that they need live people by their side during their first night spent in eternity.
In the social service center where Svjetlana and I volunteered (there was talk of a full-time position opening up) there were a bunch of back issues of women's magazines. There was quite a bit about insomnia in them. For example: people who sleep under four hours a night are three times more likely to die in the next six years than those who sleep seven to eight hours a night. People who don’t get enough sleep grow morose, irritable, forgetful, disoriented, apathetic, rude, and intolerant.
Nikša’s view from the fourteenth floor was magnificent. High-rise buildings surfaced from a sea of trees, and it was impossible to count all the shades of green the leaves exhibited. Above it all, the sun, and far below us, a playground crawling with children. They couldn’t go to the countryside because of the war and there was no money for the coast. Children’s shouts echoed between the high-rises, and even though we were far above it all, we could hear every sound clearly. I first caught sight of Nikša when he got his wheelchair stuck in the door-frame on his way out of the kitchen. I moved my hand over the stripped wood and got a splinter under my nail—it was all like a dream.
It felt like a dream—we say that when something is wonderful, extraordinary, dazzling, something which will remain engraved in our memories forever. But then we say It was like a dream for things that are unclear, mysterious, hazy, things we hadn’t heard or remembered with certainty. Like a dream can mean unforgettable or forgotten, or both. But there have been no dreams for me in ages. I don’t even wait for sleep anymore, lying in bed awake for hours. Instead, I go out for a walk, and when I’m not talking to my dog friend, I just listen to the nonsense running through my mind. For example, wondering if I have an antipode somewhere in the world. Somebody who does nothing but sleep. If people are like shoes and we’re all one of a pair—no matter how funny that sounds—does my other half, who does nothing but sleep, exist somewhere? And if I found her, what would I do with her?
When I make it back home around five in the morning, I sit in the armchair and close my eyes. I stay like that until my mother wakes up. Then the two of us make breakfast for ourselves and my father and I leave for work, to do a job I don’t get paid for.
God bless fear. If Svjetlana hadn’t been afraid I never would have met Nikša. “Silvija!, I’ve got a mental case. I can’t go there alone, I’m scared,” she had said. In the social service center they had told her about a soldier who was a little strange and who had already driven away some social workers and physical therapists. Supposedly he’d threatened them with a gun. I read the file: wound location, circumstances, degree of disability, the right to care and medical assistance, a pension. “Hm,” I turned to Svjetlana, “good catch.” “You’re insane,” she replied. “It’s all dead below the waist.”
He lived alone in a studio apartment. Small to begin with, it seemed even more congested by the oversized dresser and drawers made of massive, dark wood—probably Slavonian oak—autumn forest wallpaper, and oversized pillows on the bed.
“I wouldn’t have even gotten this place if I hadn’t taken my friend with me,” explained the soldier as we walked in. He winked at me. He paid no attention to Svjetlana. His eyes were fixed on me.
He pulled his shirt off and hunched over. He smelled of cheap soap, and his neck was unshaven. His skin was white and supple, but the muscles beneath it were tense. I told him to stretch out his arms, lift them up, and hold them out, and then I passed my fingers over his joints and tendons.
“Do your palms feel prickly?” I asked.
“Yes”, he replied.
I told him to wrap his arms around me and hoisted him from the wheelchair. I helped him to the bed and onto the damp and shabby mattress.
“It’s too soft,” I told him. I showed him the first three neck exercises and he obediently repeated them after me. I decided it was enough for the day and said we’d be back tomorrow. During the entire walk to the bus stop Svjetlana went on and on about how well everything had gone.
“It looks like he’s got a thing for you,” she said. I dug my heel into her foot.
The sanctity of the bedroom is extremely important for sound sleep: cast all your problems aside, don’t bring your troubles to bed with you, take care of your bills, plan your schedule for the following day, and get over your worrying at least two hours before bedtime, or your body will be confused and may not want to sleep in bed.
That night was the first time I didn’t contemplate the dead while on my walk. I felt light, as if I my body were injected with some kind of special air, as though all I had to do was pinch my nostrils and blow and I would begin levitating towards the clear night sky. Yes, it would take nothing more than one word to him, I could just take him by the hand and kiss him. But where would I find the courage?
Nikša lived in my old neighborhood, way across town. I walked to his high rise, looked for the fourteenth floor, and spotted him smoking at the window. I stood there for a while until three kids came by, either drunk or high.
“Oh, check her out, maybe she’s in search of someone with a soft heart and a hard dick.”
“Maybe she’s offering lip service but can’t find any customers.”
“I don’t get why people are so freaked out when they hear about someone getting raped and then killed. I mean, that’s like winning the jackpot right before you die.”
“Well we won’t kill this one, now, will we?”
They surrounded me. I staggered backwards. One of them held me up to keep me from falling. I was seized with panic; I couldn’t make out their faces or understand their words. I turned from side to side, and was just about to let out a scream when a dog positioned itself at my feet, a large, husky dog, with the head of a St. Bernard, only it wasn’t a St. Bernard, and it just stood at my side as though it were mine and began to growl convincingly at the kids. They shot off a few more remarks and then took off. I took a closer look at my new friend—he wasn’t wearing a collar but was clean and well-groomed, and his long, pale hair had a curl to it. There was something noble about him. I could picture him accompanying kings as they marched off to the battlegrounds. He gave me a wink and left.
After a claustrophobic journey in the smoke-filled elevator, Svjetlana and I rang Nikša’s doorbell. I would have loved to take a look at myself in the mirror in the elevator, but someone had stolen it, leaving only four holes as a reminder. Even though it was past noon, he was still asleep. “What can I say, I don’t sleep well. All night I hear that damn elevator going up and down,” he explained. While I was showing him his new exercises and checking to see how well he remembered the old ones, Svjetlana recounted a dream and offered us her interpretation.
“I dreamt about a dog,” Nikša suddenly blurted out, as if he’d only just remembered the dream.
“That’s a good sign. You'll either get married or make a new friend. But I hope it wasn’t black!”
“No, it was yellow.”
I felt neglected, as though they were feasting on a sumptuous meal and I was starving at the wayside. I changed the subject while Svjetlana pondered what a light dog might represent. I scolded Nikša, “You’re going through the exercises too quickly. You have to tense up your muscles, but you have to relax them, too. It’s not about being quick, these are static exercises.”
“Yes, sir,” he replied.
“You have a glorious view,” Svjetlana told him.
“Yeah, that’ll save me.”
“I know it’s not easy for you,” I said and laid my hand on his shoulder. He shifted.
“Luckily I’ve got a friend,” he said, and again he winked.
On our way out I asked him if he’d like to get out and go to the park. “No,” he answered, “where I come from, there was more than enough air for everyone.”
“You, my dear, are not sleeping because of stress. And what’s the best way to release stress?” said Svjetlana, holding out a magazine article. “For centuries it has gone without saying that sexual energy is a potential fountain of youth. Sexual activity releases endorphins (compounds in the brain which reduce stress). An enduring relationship, physical contact in the act of making love—kissing, caressing, embraces, and warmth—stimulate the health of each cell and organ in the body. An orgasm is excellent for relaxing the muscles and releasing stress, and it also strengthens the immune system.”
I took another walk to our old neighborhood and sat on a bench where the older crowd used to hang out at night singing. As a kid I would stare into the night and listen to them, feeling as if I were making contact with something surreal, although today I wouldn’t characterize the song as particularly deep. It had more in common with lines from an autograph book.
The streetlamp casts a circle in the night
While the moths dive straight for the light
But they do not know this is the end
That they are brought to death by its luminous bend
That night, as I was seeing off my whopping six-hundredth corpse, there was nobody sitting with a guitar. The park was shabby and run down, the trees were overgrown, the benches were rotting, the swings broken, the sandboxes neglected, and grass sprouted through the asphalt. I went to Nikša’s building, but his place was dark, a dark that only stirred my desire. There was a boy kicking around a ball. “What are you doing here?” I asked him, but he didn’t reply. Instead of him, the dog spoke. It had reappeared and was standing again at my side. “His old man drinks. When he comes home, all hell breaks loose, so the boy takes off and kicks the ball around until the old man falls asleep.”
“What’s his name?”
I thought about Nikša’s face. What secret is hiding behind that nose, those lips, those eyes, what kind of lethal distribution of features is that? Or is it in the eyebrows perhaps? His ears? Why do the angles of his face seduce me, drive me wild, frighten and attract me, melt me. Why does something in me stop cold when I see him?
Something? Everything stops. Except the insomnia, of course.
I’d lost sleep, this is true, but I had added years to my life. If I hadn’t slept six hundred days, which would have been an average of eight hours a night, then that means I saved myself two hundred days. Gilgamesh intended to defeat death by controlling sleep. But he failed. Is that what I want to do? Defeat death?
During lunch I examined the portrait of the Holy Family. Nikša and I were right there in the frame —we truly were the immaculate family. His neck was broken—nothing stirred between his legs.
“That’s not true,” retorted Svjetlana the next day. “Didn’t you notice he got hard while you were exercising with him?”
“No,” I said.
Another evening stroll. My feet ache, my hands are heavy, but I walk on.
The wire cables and pulleys which had raised into the next world all the dead they had shown on the TV news were spinning and grinding relentlessly and would not permit me to sleep.
In front of Nikša’s house was that dog again. Dino wasn’t around, it looked like his dad hadn’t come home yet.
“You’re worried about Nikša?” asked the dog.
“I am. He’s locked up in the house all the time. He should get out.”
“How is he supposed to get out when there are steps at the bottom of his building! He can’t get down them on his own, and he refuses to ask anyone for help.”
“Dogs really are smart,” I thought, and first thing in the morning I headed straight for the veteran’s society. After wandering around from one office to the next, I came across a boy I knew from school. He was some sort of secretary or vice-president there. I told him about the case—paralyzed boy, injured in the war, couldn’t leave the house. We don’t have the money, he said. I nearly clawed his eyes out. I spilled all the dirt I knew about him—that he hadn’t spent one single day in the war, that he had been a Party secretary at the university before the war, and that they had used the society’s resources to build tennis courts.
By the time I got to Nikša’s that afternoon, there were already two men with cement mixers in front of the entrance, building a ramp beside the steps. The hallway reeked of cats and probably rats as well. In front of the elevator stood Dino.
“Lady, could you take me to the fourteenth floor?”
“That’s where I’m going, too.”
“To the soldier’s?”
“Yes, and you?”
“Me, too. We’re friends.”
“What’s your name?”
“And where’s your mom, Dino?”
“She’s at home, sleeping, drinking coffee, and smoking.”
In the elevator Dino rubbed his nose; somebody before us had gone overboard on the perfume. On our way up he scratched at the wall with the key dangling from his neck; I stared dumbly at the jagged line before I actually realized what he was doing. “Don’t you ever do that again!” I cried out, and smacked his hand, but he didn’t seem to take offense.
I told Nikša the news, and warned him I’d be taking him for a walk the minute the concrete dried. “Yes, sir,” he said, and took off his shirt. While we were exercising I snuck a peek to see how things were standing—he was aroused again. He noticed I noticed and we both flushed.
“What can you do? What girl would want to make love to a cripple?”
“I would,” I answered, but not aloud.
Sex may very well be the most popular activity before sleep. Sex provides natural relaxation which helps your body unwind so you can ensure a sound sleep.
While I was walking that night, I wondered what became of my dreams. Did they piece themselves together somewhere and then wait for me to draw on them or were they born only when I sleep and therefore do not even exist? Did my antipode dream them? Was someone in New Zealand dreaming of airplanes, blackouts, cannons, and corpses, and then, in the morning over their cornflakes, wondering what to make of the dreams and where they came from?
I called for the elevator, stepped into the repugnant thing (billowing with smoke this time) and rode up to the fourteenth floor. I stood at Nikša’s door; everything was quiet. I wondered if he had heard the elevator stop and quietly took the stairs down. The dog followed me home; he didn’t know what to say and just watched me sadly. My eyes ached. Oh, yeah, he told me Dino was at home, asleep.
I only managed to get Nikša out to the park once. He was terribly excited about it and really caught the attention of the neighbors outside. They’d all seen the cement ramp and were curious who it was for. It was a sunny day and he had a really great time, and the kids gawked at him as though he were a god. We celebrated our little victory in a café, he with a beer and I with a juice (“Alcohol might help you fall asleep, but it won’t help you stay asleep.”)
At work they hired Svjetlana, not me. Her father was a Yugoslav army officer and he switched sides during the war. I think she changed her name, too. Her name was Svetlana, a Serbian name, before the war, but I’m not sure. She took over my patients, and I went home to do what Dino’s mother does. Minus the sleeping. And the smoking.
As far as Nikša’s smoking, I talked to the dog about it. The dog was of the opinion that he shouldn’t smoke so much, and I agreed, but just didn’t know what to do about it.
I stayed in a few days due to my period and skipped a few walks (I would be seeing off the dead while lying in bed, anyway). The minute I left my place again to go to the store, there was the dog, waiting for me at the door. He had come to let me know Nikša refused to do his exercises and wasn’t answering his phone. Svjetlana had tried banging on his door but he had threatened her with a gun and she had refused to go back ever since. And Dino was sad. Could I do something perhaps?
This being my first unofficial visit, I needed reinforcement. The dog led me to where Dino lived. They were war refugees—they’d converted the laundry-room on the ground floor into a home. It suddenly became clear to me why Dino was so fond of visiting his soldier—the laundry room had the tiniest of windows, so high up that you couldn’t see a thing through them. The boy was home alone and immediately set out for the fourteenth floor.
It turned out I had nothing to worry about—as soon as he heard who it was, Nikša opened the door. Wanting to speak to him alone, I asked him to let Dino see his uniform. He opened the closet, pulled out a few duffle bags and green backpacks crammed with military equipment, and let the kid dig through the treasures. I couldn’t help but notice a stack of adult magazines in the closet.
Nikša offered me some coffee, so I squeezed myself into the small kitchen. While he was fumbling around the stove (I could’ve made it ten times faster, but didn’t want to interfere), Dino discovered two medals in a box where the boots were stored.
“You just go ahead and play with them. That’s all they’re good for anyway,” he said to Dino. Then to me, “It’s nothing really. Everyone got a commemorative medal. My grandmother even. She’s got three of them. And I got the cross for being wounded. How’s that for merit?”
“Tell me how it happened, how were you wounded?”
“I was a statistic. It’s well known what percentage of people will be injured when combing through a minefield. Two or three in a hundred—that’s within acceptable limits. That’s why mines are basically ineffective. And that’s how we were able to catch them asleep—they planted the minefields and thought they were safe. The problem is just that those few people still manage to step on a mine. And my problem is that this time one of them was me. You understand?”
“You’re not a statistic to me,” I said, and put my lips to his. He pushed me aside and shifted, but I was persistent, like never before in my life. I turned his face back to mine and kissed his lips, and he softened and returned the kiss.
It seemed as though my parents didn’t even notice when I moved in with Nikša. I still stopped by now and again for lunch and to help them around the apartment, but they barely registered me. That’s how the cards seemed to have been dealt in our family: they’re asleep, and I’m awake. Truth be told, they really didn’t expect me to sleep at home.
The summer was fantastic. We went out for walks every day (I went out for a “walk” walk, he went for a ride). We went to the movies, I cooked for him, Dino came over to play cards and watch TV. I had a long heart-to-heart with his mom, and in the end she kicked the bastard out. I shaved Nikša’s neck, changed his soap, took that horrendous wallpaper down, and got rid of the pillows.
Unfortunately, Nikša couldn’t orgasm. Not that this didn’t have its good side—our sex was one, single, never-ending communion and there was no chance he’d leave me unsatisfied. But he was left unsatisfied and that’s still, you’ve got to admit, just partial sex. Whatever we did, however hard I tried, it didn’t work. I leafed through my physiology books. Most people with neck injuries like his were unable to ever make love again. For the few that still could attain an erection, a nerve could have been severed, which meant no ejaculation, no orgasm.
In another article, “Does Sex Really Prolong Life?”: “Taoism praised ritualized sexual relations as the key to longevity. Male followers were instructed to practice coitus reservatus (or coitus obstructus), to stop their orgasms and bring their partners to climax. It was believed that semen retained in that manner invigorated and rejuvenated the man’s body—the semen, or jang, would climb through the body and nourish the brain. The renowned Dutch doctor, Boerhaave (1668-1738), advised the elderly mayor of Amsterdam to lie between two young girls, convincing him it would bring back his strength and empower his soul. Gandhi practiced it as well.” We didn’t underestimate the possibility of it just being a form of foreplay, either, so we gave that a try as well. Our conclusion was that Nikša’s problem wasn’t potency, but rather how to relieve himself of it.
I asked my father if dogs had dreams. He told me dogs twitched while they slept, they pawed the air as if they were chasing someone, whimpered like they were dreaming.
In late June we were held captive on our floor while an inner safety door was being installed into the elevators. It was okay insofar as Dino could no longer scribble on the wall, but also, the wheelchair no longer fit. I went to the president of the tenants’ council, but nothing registered with him.
“All those council presidents are nuts,” I told Nikša. “I guess normal people wouldn’t get involved in that.”
“I’ll introduce him to my friend.”
He called the president and invited him over, and the minute the man stepped in he whipped out his gun and held it under his nose. I froze, and Dino shouted, “Wow! A 9 mm caliber!”
The president bolted; Nikša scowled.
“I see you know a thing or two about guns,” he said to Dino.
“I’m gonna be a soldier too.”
“I hope not. What did I get out of it? Look at me, I sit around in the park like a damn parasite. War is the greatest stupidity ever, trust me. Don’t ever wish to become a soldier.”
I wasn’t angry about his temper. It’s not surprising he had one—he’d confided in me about the pain he suffered, and how uncomfortable the constant tension was. He also felt guilty that we were only working on his problem, (and we really did work on it), and not dealing with my insomnia. I shrugged it off; lying awake was my problem, while his, on the other hand, was a problem we shared. Determined to resolve it, I became a member of an X-rated video store—maybe I’d find something there that would burst the dam. But even after an endless number of movies, we still had no success. I bit him, hit him, yelled at him, but nothing—he remained inaccessible.
In the end we even turned it into a joke. I gave Nikša the silliest possible suggestions—he could reenlist in the army and serve as a flagpole or rent himself out as a fishing rod; or, we could apply as the ideal couple for porn movies. We could be body-doubles for the particularly strenuous scenes: him with endless stamina, able to rock back and forth the whole night long, and me who never fell asleep in the process.
“It’s all the dog’s fault,” declared Nikša.
That summer evening he told me about the dog. He wasn’t actually the one who stepped on a mine, he had been careful; it was the dog. From who knows where, out of nowhere, a light-haired dog had appeared and stepped on a mine a few meters away. Since then he’d incessantly been dreaming of himself running after the dog, to keep it from moving onto the minefield, but the dream always ends with that same explosion. The dog eternally eludes him. That’s his nightmare—he calls out to the dog, but doesn’t know its name.
Nikša was gentle and kind, in spite of the pain and suffering lovemaking caused him. I was not his first, though he was mine, but for some reason I felt older and more experienced—because of the corpses. While they were complete in death, we were still innocents compared to them; it was as though they had first night’s rights to us—as though they had claimed sovereignty over us, as though we were serfs of some Middle Ages lord who kidnapped virgins and deflowered them. Or maybe they were just afraid and I’m exaggerating.
They removed the inner safety door on Nikša’s elevator. We could take trips to the park again.
“You’re looking at me strangely,” the dog observed.
I’d already noticed a number of times that the dog was able to read my mind. And this was my train of thought—if I really was seeing off the dead, maybe that included dogs as well; if that was really the dog, maybe I was awake in Nikša’s dream; if that dog is dead and still hanging around this world, maybe there is a reason for it; maybe it’s up to me to catch it and prevent the explosion. It came to me all at once, but the dog was quicker than my thoughts; he spun around and took off. I felt an indescribable terror, the space through which the dog was escaping expanded; I staggered back. The elevator was occupied, but it was stuck. Someone had left the door open again, I thought, and I went to see what floor it was stuck on, since I had nothing better to do.
Something horrible had happened. Dino’s dad had returned and had begun beating his wife with such ferocity that Dino fled as fast as he could, taking only his ball. He got in the elevator and climbed up onto the ball so he could reach the button for the fourteenth floor. When the elevator started, it jerked and knocked the ball out from under his feet; it got stuck between the elevator and the wall and began to squeak. Frightened, the boy tried to kick it out, managing to dislodge the ball, but getting his leg caught instead. With the boy’s leg caught in the there, it went up another few meters and came to a stop on the second floor. That’s how I found him—stuck, unconscious, bloody. The next day Nikša paid a visit to Dino’s father and introduced him to his friend, and nobody ever saw the crazy drunk again.
I told my mother what had happened and asked her if she’d light a votive candle in front of the Holy Family, but she said they were only supposed to be lit for the dead.
They were able to save Dino’s leg, and when he came back from rehabilitation one month later, he looked perfectly fine. As his family could not afford a therapist, I did exercises with him during his recovery period, and he made excellent progress. He had a book about dogs, and in it I found my friend—a golden retriever. Only mine was bigger and brawnier than the ones in the pictures, and his head somehow was pointier.
Things with Nikša were progressively deteriorating. He shut himself up completely, and no longer even wanted to try.
“It’s not the dog’s fault,” Nikša told me. “It’s our fault. We were the ones at war. What does a dog know about who is wrong and who the victim is? What does he have to do with it? Was he out on his own because his owner had been killed, or because his owner had gone out to kill? We killed the dog, that’s what happened.”
Just to be on the safe side I put away Nikša’s friend. Not even the dog appeared anymore. I sat on the bench alone where they used to sing that silly song.
When I was a moth I used to fly
The light lured me in and burned my wings
Black moth, fly back to the night
Wait for the morning when there will be light
Since I couldn’t help Nikša, I tried to at least feel useful. I followed all the advice he showered me with for my insomnia to the letter—I didn’t drink tea, coffee or coke before bed. I didn’t go to bed on a full stomach. I didn’t go to bed hungry. I drank herbal potions, hops, valerian and balm tea with honey. In the evenings I unwound in the tub, listened to calming music; tried yoga, autogenic training, meditation and prayer; I never watched TV late at night; I didn’t take care of the bills in bed or read physiology books there, either; I aired the room out, I changed Nikša’s nightmare of a mattress; I made it a rule to pee before going to bed. The one thing we couldn’t try was lulling me to sleep with the murmur of the sea. Nothing helped. Not even sex.
I took walks around the building with Dino and his mother. His leg was still thin, but he could walk, longer and longer each time, though with a limp. I told his mother there was no reason why he shouldn’t start school on time, but she still cried. Nikša watched us from the window, and when I looked up, he retreated inside. For the first time ever during the day, the dog came up to me and rolled himself into a ball under the bench.
“Where have you been for so long?” I patted his head and tickled his hair with my nose. “I bet you were out trying to get some action.”
“It’s true,” he grew sheepish. “You know how dogs have a tendency to get hooked, and then end up hopelessly attached.”
“You didn’t get hooked, did you?”
“Two whole months!”
I sighed. Like Nikša and me. Or maybe the dog was Nikša - maybe Nikša morphed into the dog at night so he could run. I thought of how he winked at me when we’d met, just like Nikša did. And what’s more, in front of Nikša’s high rise. And the elevator was always stained with urine; maybe he took the elevator home. I looked at the bundle of a dog and wondered if he could reach the button for the fourteenth floor. But he just blinked and paid me no attention.
I went back to Nikša’s, resolute. Now or never, I said, and I pounced on the poor guy. It was exactly nine p.m. We tried everything we knew about sex (some things we even invented on the spot), until one in the morning, but nothing worked.
“Don’t be mad, but everything hurts,” I said, admitting defeat. “I can’t anymore.”
Nikša remained silent, he just lay in the dark covering his organ, brutally stiff, with his hands.
“My poor baby,” I leaned in and kissed him as he ground his teeth and wrinkled his brow. He was already asleep by the time I got out of the bathroom. The erection had subsided. I covered him, got dressed, and went out to the stairwell.
I hated that narrow, piss-stained elevator. It shook, someone had stolen the light bulb once again—I was dying of fear in the darkness as the gears and iron cables wailed and screeched. I came out into the night and was suddenly taken aback.
The dog greeted me in front of the entrance.
“Silvija, you really look tired.”
“I’d give anything to be able to fall asleep, even for just a minute. Do you sleep? I’ve never seen you sleep.”
“And can dogs dream? You know, maybe I’m sleeping right now and dreaming about you. Maybe Nikša’s sleeping and dreaming about us. Or perhaps you’re dreaming about us?”
The dog tilted his head and studied me. “Aha,” I thought, “he’s dodging the question.”
“And if you are dreaming about me, maybe you could dream about me as some sleeping animal. Like a dormouse, say. Or a badger. Or maybe a bear?”
“Or a sloth?”
“Yes! A sloth! Please, have me be a sloth!”
“Silvija, you think things are that simple, you dream of something, and it comes into being. That’s wrong. You can only dream of yourself as you really are.”
“Well, what am I?”
“How about imagining some winged creature?” asked the dog, and it fixed its eyes on me. And within an instant I was fluttering around a streetlamp. It was insane—there were no dark, piss-stained elevators, and I could make my way up without the wailing and squeaking of pulleys, without iron cables or weights.
“Not into the light, Silvija!” shouted the dog in a fright. “Up, up!”
And up at the window I saw Nikša with a cigarette. He tossed it out and watched it fall, watched it ricochet off the pavement and roll onto the grass, watched the embers scatter. Thirty meters above the shadowy playground, in the moist evening sky, with the swings and seesaws at rest, I silently flapped my wings in the emptiness.
Nikša finally made up his mind, or perhaps it would be more precise to say he finally let himself go, and threw himself out the window onto the sandboxes and slides. But I was there at the right place and the right time, and I caught him. I embraced him high up above the benches and the grass, bristly with dew. Within him something roared, something trembled—it was the night dying all around us. I flapped my wings even harder through the air and took him back in through the window. He didn’t wake when I lay him in bed, or even when I straddled him and pulled him inside me. He just shuddered and twitched in his sleep, until finally, for the first time in my life, I felt something warm flowing into me, flowing until the ember scattered and the night died together with the dead.
I awoke before he did. Nikša slept peacefully, his arousal had passed. I showered and convinced myself it wasn’t a dream—everything really did happen last night. I quietly got dressed and went to the store.
As I made my way back across the playground, Dino waved. I waved back and put the bags down for a moment to rest. The children were playing something, shouting and quarreling. A war game had just begun. They were training their units, assigning their duties, devising their war plans, comparing weapons. But they didn’t want Dino. “My dad told me that Dino wouldn’t pass enlistment and can’t be a soldier,” was the definitive ruling from the chief commanding officer. Dino wept and implored me with his eyes, but I didn’t know what to say. We both cast our gazes upwards, where Nikša stood at the window, smoking, before drawing his head back inside.
Then a scream—everyone gasped and held their breath, and I knew I couldn’t help him this time, because there were no longer any wings on my shoulders. A man in uniform was falling, plummeting from the fourteenth floor, and he fell onto the grass and lay there. A single gasp rose from all the children, the people at the windows, the mothers and the babies in their strollers.
Horrified, I rushed over, and then burst into laughter—it was just a uniform, pants and a jacket, boots and a backpack, and the two medals, but there was no man inside it.
Nikša had shaken the contents of the military bag out the window and was waving heartily from the fourteenth floor.
“Dino, my friend,” he chuckled. “You tell them all to fuck off! You and I won’t go to war any more—and they can’t do a thing about it!”
And I went back to the bench, sat down, and thought maybe I shouldn’t be getting so excited. What if I’m pregnant?