Preserved Strawberries

By Sanja Pilić

Translated By Mirna Cubranic

It all passed with no hurry at all—preserved strawberries, among other things. We stopped eating sweets, and no longer checked for strawberries in the garden. Jars stood on top of the cupboard, and Aunt died. We were no longer children, my brother Isak and I, my twin brother and I.

 

We sat and strolled around the dimly lit apartment, playing with our scattered shadows. Sometimes I made eggs for breakfast. We had inherited a white dog that wagged its tail and had to be taken for walks. Isak, with his rosy cheeks, walked it three times a day. He was beautiful, my brother. He took after our Dad.

Dad slipped from our lives long ago. He slipped with a mirror in his hand, fixing his hair. Nobody missed that pretty face. We were alone for a long time, until Aunt came. Then we had food for winter and woolen socks. We had pillowcases with embroidered moons.

 

Outside the window, black students—foreigners—blew their noses in handkerchiefs without initials. Some lost their necklaces made out of elephant tusk. Ritz-bar was nearby, with its neon sign glittering in the night. And there were girls with penciled eyes. Isak watched them, leaning on his warm hands folded like ivy, still sticky with honey. I watched Isak. He was illuminated by red and purple neon.

 

Aunt never entered our room. Aunt never asked any questions. We saw her only in the kitchen, in her black apron. Her cheeks sagged. She didn't talk much, she just caressed us. Her kisses were moist and flabby, imprinted on our foreheads at bedtime.

 

We brushed our teeth before bed. It was funny. Then we kissed and sniffed each other. I took an ancient china doll from the Ming dynasty and placed it on my pillow. Isak wore a nightshirt Aunt had made for him. Shops didn't sell nightshirts.

 

In our beds, we dreamt. We cherished and remembered our dreams, and then confided them to each other in the morning. We dreamt luxurious dreams—in color—and wrote them down in a notebook. I often dreamt of our handsome father, although I never thought of him during the day. Once I dreamt I was sitting in a room with pretty Franko (that was his name, he was a southerner, half Italian). I was reading his fortune from coffee, and Franko was listening to me, watching me with fatherly affection. As soon as I fell silent, he turned into a lover. I ran outside into the rain, passed by the sea, jumped over a wall, and found myself on a meadow where some of our acquaintances were sitting on chairs eating fruit. I wanted them to go to the church with me, but they shook their heads—they had been there already. The rain was still pouring, everything was muddy. I headed towards the wooden church and met a procession guided by the frenzied priest, like something from a painting by Goya. I ran out of the church, gripped with terror, and got on the tram. I wanted to make a phone call but I couldn't. Coins poured over my hands, the phone was broken, and I woke up with a start.

 

Isak was still asleep. Aunt was not around. That was the day she returned from some medical tests, her face pale from truths.

 

– I don't have much time – she said absentmindedly. – They will soon put me in hospital. I'll wash your nightshirts and cook your meals for many days, and put them in two fridges and a freezer. And then, when you have eaten them all, maybe you will be grown-ups – she said and sent me out, to get some fresh air. That morning I didn't wait for Isak.

 

Zagreb was snug and cheerful. No clouds were shading its squares and no flags were fluttering in the wind, but it still seemed ceremonious. I bought a postcard with a picture of the national theater, wishing I was an actress in the beautiful set. I had no one to write to, so I didn't buy a stamp. Pretty girls with bare shoulders were watching me from shop windows. I thought about summer and holidays. It was summer and the days were long and empty. I was sixteen, at that sad time of fleeting commercials and coffee downed in one gulp, standing. Inside, Isak had been in his nightshirt where neon lights painted his face. We had jars of preserved strawberries on the cupboard and meals in the freezer. We were an old family with paintings in gold frames. We still loved coffee houses and lawns. We had three tombs at Mirogoj cemetery and an aunt who was dying.

 

Isak also came to get some fresh air, Isak with rosy cheeks and a white dog. We sat on a bench in silence. Then we bought sandwiches and ate them, sitting on the same bench. The dog wagged its tail. We went for a Coca-Coola, but the dog was not allowed inside the café, so we tied it to a traffic sign. We watched the passersby skirt the dog, afraid of its size. They somehow forgot what a dog was and were angry to see it calmly basking in the sun. They cursed it, getting into their sunbaked cars parked in front of the shop window. Walkers walked single file. There was not enough room to hold hands. The white note on the wall read: Please do not park in front of door. Two women were staring at us, whispering and nodding. Isak had pearl white teeth and little girls watched his reflection in the mirror. We ate two ice creams and left the café. The dog was happy.

 

We returned home late in the evening. Aunt was waiting for us.

 

– What took you so long? – she asked. – I must give you some instructions for life, before I go.

 

She told us who to call if we had a problem with the gas, who if a fuse blew, who if a waterpipe broke. She also said that life was nothing special and that everything was transient, including friendship and love and that we should stick together and never part. It was the last time we ate preserved strawberries.

 

Aunt left. At first, she was wrapped in white sheets, with the others who were condemned to death. Flowers and tangerines sat on the bedside table. Slanted light poured through the window. Aunt met us with an absent gaze and held our hands before she told us not to come again.

 

Pretty Franko showed up once we had eaten all the food in the freezer. He rang the bell on the door behind which we had grown up, just like Aunt had wanted. When Franko entered the room, Isak was smoking a cigarette while lying on the bed, on the embroidered pillow, barefoot with the dog.

 

– Why have you come? – he asked in a voice which no longer cracked. Franko was old, his beauty had grown old too, too quickly. His face was haggard, his glossy hair gone, his suit was shabby, his fingernails dirty and neglected. He had lost his former allure. It was the time for him to remember us. A tango was playing on the radio, and outside, the workers were changing the sign on Ritz-bar. Heavily made-up girls had been banished from the area. Ritz-bar was slowly turning into a snack bar for all those who were in a hurry.

 

Franko sat down carefully. I offered him a glass of brandy. The eyes of the former pretty face watched me with fatherly pride and a certain apprehension.

 

– You're a grown woman – he said huskily and I remembered my dream. Isak got up. Smoke curled out of his mouth.

 

– I want you to leave. It's hard for me to look at you. You can understand that much, can't you? – he whispered.

 

Franko sipped his brandy, glancing around the room. His ancestors were smiling at him. He looked at me, then at Isak. He had just matured enough to be a father, but it was too late.

 

– It's all right – he said and stood up, but his shoulders remained hunched. Isak was standing barefoot on the Persian rug. I took the dog by its leash and walked down the stairs with our father. He walked so slowly that the dog was impatient. We were both silent and parted without a word. I thought about my dream and about Aunt. One way or another, life was nothing special. While I was walking, not greeting other dog walkers, not talking about food, vaccinations, and habits, I thought about our legacy, about our ancestors in gold frames, about silver samovars, diaries, old photographs, and pillow cases with embroidered moons. I thought about our oldest, well-wrapped, preserved and lasting legacy called solitude.

 

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