The Thing Outside was originally published in Croatian in the book titled Noćni ekspres (The Night Train) available in Croatian here https://issuu.com/studiotim/docs/milan_zagorac_nocni_ekspres and on Milan's blog (Ono vani - The Thing Outside) http://milanzagorac.blogspot.hr/2017/03/ono-vani.html and Noćni ekspres (The Night Train) http://milanzagorac.blogspot.hr/2017/03/nocni-ekspres.html.
The old lady knew it was outside. She wasn’t worried about firewood, since she kept enough of it inside that she didn’t need to go to the wood pile in the yard for days, nor was she in danger of running out of food. Her pantry was so well stocked that she could go two whole seasons without visiting the rather remote village store. Besides, her son and daughter could always bring her whatever was missing. No need to deprive herself of anything. She was a lady of some standing, after all, and if she had to, she could afford a local woman to bring her supplies. Good God, back in the city, she’d even been a boss of some kind, though that had been so long ago that even she barely remembered it.
She and the old man had moved to this house after retiring. It had belonged to her parents before. Her ancestral home, she liked to call it. And yes, she and the old man had been happy here. In fact, they’d been happy together for most of their time. It’s just that old age has the unhappy tendency to end in the predictable way.
Summers were easier to deal with, winters a bit less, but come the spring, life could be easy again. Days, especially sunny ones, were easy as well. She was free to go outside, or she could open the blinds and let the sunlight into the rooms drenched in the aroma of smoke and wormholes. Even a rainy day could be fine, as long as there was some light outside.
The old lady was over eighty-five, and her eyesight was failing. It was almost gone, really, past what her coke-bottle glasses could fix. She got around the house by sound, scent, and memory, relying on the slinking of her mostly silent cats, which purred or meowed quietly when they wanted food. She’d scratch their ears in the mornings after her coffee and cereal helped her do what had to be done in the bathroom.
In recent months, she had troubles with the water gathering in her belly, and her ankles swelled. A visit to the doctor wasn’t impossible to organize, but she had an idea of what was happening, so she treated it on her own, with large doses of diuretics, which she’d follow up with other medicines to make up for the lost minerals. She didn’t want to know what was behind her symptoms. The real word for it didn’t bear thinking about, let alone speaking, so she thought of it only as “ugly pain.”
This close to the sea, winters were mild and usually free of the poet’s “blanket of white,” but this year was an exception. This year, this January, these very days—the old lady knew it had to be a sign—the snow covered the ground, and a gloomy cold reigned even here, in the area normally so sunny and bright that she barely knew how to deal with the ongoing darkness. She wasn’t even sure for how long it had been dragging on. Seven, eight days? Still, she wasn’t worried about the cold. The house was easy to heat. The woodstove was reliable and heated the entire living area cheaply and evenly, excluding only the bathroom, and she had an electric heater for that. There was gas and electricity for cooking, so the real problem had to do with the running water.
The thing was, back when the old man was still alive, the water pipes were laid in the ground too shallowly, covered with just enough sand and roof tiles to protect them from being tread on under the walkway, and the meter was far from the house and lay exposed on the edge of the little bay. It was as if no one could have even imagined a winter harsh enough to burn the rosemary and kill the ancient oleanders, sparing only the olive trees, which were a bit further from the sea and already recovered from the attack of the northerly wind. The meter must have frozen and cracked, and the water no longer ran. Sure, she had enough to drink. Her son and daughter had brought her some bottled water on their last visit, and there was always wine in the house. But she couldn’t wash herself, and worse, couldn’t flush the toilet, and the knowledge was filling her with unease.
Not nearly so much, though, as the knowledge that it—he—was out there. She didn’t dare go outside. Not with him lurking behind the toolshed or watching her from the pine grove. In weather this dark—the northerly was called the dark bora for a reason—he could come any time, from any direction. But he couldn’t get inside, not unless she invited him, and she wouldn’t do that. Oh no, most certainly not, and that was his only way in.
Her son and daughter kept pressing her to come stay with one of them. They considered the house unfit for habitation, especially in wintertime. It was too close to the sea, and the salty wetness got into everything. The walls were ancient and too thick, the wooden staircase too frail, and every corner was full of God-knows-what kind of garbage that the old lady had been collecting for years—empty crates and piles of old newspapers going back at least to the last congress of the Yugoslav Communist Party.
“Besides,” her daughter insisted, “you’d be closer to doctors and have better access to healthcare.” When that argument failed, she and her brother would offer to renovate, refurnish, remodel the house—“That, at least, is easy to do these days”—but the old lady wouldn’t let them touch a thing. “No, no, and no. The house is as my father built it and your father equipped it, and that’s how it’ll stay.”
Though the house was rather large, it was so full of unnecessary things one had to squeeze past them on tiptoe. All the photos, paintings, clocks, and chandeliers were covered in cobwebs and dust, which the old lady didn’t even notice.
Her son and daughter knew the reason for all this. It wasn’t just her incipient blindness, nor was it the undiagnosed cancer or one of her other, minor illnesses—and the list was long. It was senile dementia, and fairly advanced. For her part, the old lady resisted their invitations because she suspected moving back to the city would bring her closer to being placed in an institution, the thing called an old people’s home though she rather thought of it as the house of horrors. “I’m better off with my cats,” she thought doggedly, “than surrounded by the living dead.”
Her children didn’t see it that way. They thought she’d be better off in either of their apartments. More comfortable, if nothing else. Both of them believed she had to stay with someone in order to die decently. More decently, at any rate, than all alone. Only in the very last stages, when the end definitely approached, would they try placing her in palliative care.
But the old lady had another thing on her mind. She didn’t want to die away from home. “None of mine ever died in a hospital, much less in someone else’s apartment.” Moreover, she suspected that her children would call her self-prescribed therapy—one whole aspirin and six apricot kernels taken each day with breakfast—an old woman’s nonsense, an ordinary superstition guaranteed not to improve her health, and they’d certainly notice that she kept her prescription pills in all sorts of random little bags. They’d send her to an untold number of additional exams, which would only prove what she already knew: The end was near. This way, she had her established way of dealing with it and no desire for change.
“And who’s to say it’s even near?” she’d tell herself in a moment of bravado though she knew it for what it was. She was aware of her brain producing some very unusual signals, one minute convincing her everything was fine, and the next one, making her feel at sea. When one of these spells came over her, she’d lie down in a darkened room and wait for her brain to settle down. She’d also take her omega-3 pills, though not even she believed they did anything to help. “Perhaps I’ll just stick with the aspirin,” she’d say, “for the heart.” After recovering, she’d call her daughter, who’d occasionally drop by to see her, as would her son.
At no time would she refer to her life drawing to an end. She was content to keep going as she always had, but now, the lack of running water had it all upset. If it hadn’t been for the Thing Outside, she’d have gone out and collected some snow for washing up, but she was afraid of it creeping into the house or, God forbid, grabbing her from behind. The fear of it alone would finish her. So she went days without bathing or going to the bathroom, with the blinds shut tightly against the dark weather, determined to keep the Thing Outside at bay.
Inside, she was safe. Warm, with food to spare. Only her supplies of water were running low, and not even that—not if she counted the water in her legs and belly, and yes, that in the plastic bottles stored in the “larder,” that is, the pantry, and the fridge.
Still, this morning, she felt unusually weak. There was no help from her aspirins—the same ones that sometimes made her sick because they damaged her stomach lining—and the six apricot kernels didn’t give her the usual boost. The coffee wasn’t working either, nor was petting her cats. The urge to go to the bathroom didn’t even stir. She’d have gone and gotten it over with, washed up with the bottled water, and thrown some bleach on the entire thing, but nothing was happening.
“Must be,” she thought, “because I didn’t go in four days.”
She didn’t feel strong enough to phone her daughter. A thirst was troubling her too. She went to have her nap, but instead of resting, she remembered something that had been weighing on her mind her entire life. So awful was it that she’d never told it to anyone. Her son and daughter didn’t know anything about it. Only she and her late husband had known, and everyone else who could have remembered was “late” as well.
The time after the end of World War II had been bleak. People got by on their relief packages—Truman’s eggs and the cheese in the red wrapping—but the poor thing never got enough to drink.
The old lady couldn’t forget his crying, crying, crying... “Dear God, that child never stopped crying.”
She felt like crying herself, but she couldn’t. She knew she’d meet him soon.
“He must have been hungry, the poor little thing. He must have been hungry all the time.” She repeated it to herself as if trying to convince herself it was the truth.
Maybe it was.
“My milk was useless. The village women told me he’d die if I didn’t give him to a wet nurse, but what did I know? Those fat cows had milk enough to feed an army, and I was thin as a stick, barely—” She couldn’t remember how old she’d been. “God, I was so stupid. I gave him goat’s milk.”
And he died. Seizure, they called it. He cried and cried and, after weeks of crying his guts out, died. No one in those days bothered explaining why infants died before one year of age. They’d call it a seizure, and that was that.
The old man had agreed to bury him with all the sacraments, no matter that he’d always been a loyal communist. He’d seen all sorts of horrors in the war, but after weeks of the child’s merciless crying, he couldn’t refuse his miserable wife a small spiritual and, above all, human, comfort. The baby was his son too, and everyone in the village knew the situation. His superiors in the Party simply turned a blind eye, even attended the funeral. How could they not?
“It must have been the hunger. That milk of mine was nothing but water,” the old lady thought. “How could I have been so stupid?”
For the first time in many years, she began to cry. The last time she’d done it was at the old man’s funeral. Or was it even then? She couldn’t remember when the last time was and whether she’d cried on that occasion.
A sudden surge of strength came over her. She got up and walked to the front door.
“Here, honey, sweetie, here,” she called from the front door into the twilight as if calling her cats. “Here, darling, come.”
He wasn’t coming. She called him for a long time, but he wasn’t coming. She called him mournfully for a bit longer, then walked over the patio and all through the yard, finally returning inside to lie unhappily on her bed.
She closed her eyes and cried again. Out of voice, out of tears.
It sat by her side.
She couldn’t see him very well. He was nothing but shadows and blur, but she knew he was a beautiful young man much like her son, only more handsome. Her son would have been old by now. This one was eternally young.
The old lady no longer knew why she’d feared meeting him for so long. She lay peacefully on her bed. Her hands were warm, and more warmth was swelling in her chest. She wanted to be in his arms, but her body ached all over, and she couldn’t get up.
He took her hands in his. They were young and soft.
“Good God,” she said, “you didn’t grow old at all.”
“No, Mom, I didn’t.” He tucked her in with a soft cotton sheet, lightly, very lightly, careful not to hurt any part of her.
“I’m very thirsty.”
He squeezed a few drops of water from his hand into her mouth.
“I wish . . .” She wanted to say something, but she was too weak.
“Mom, you’ll feel the warmth come out of your mouth.”
“. . . you’d hug me,” the old lady finished her thought, although she wasn’t sure if she’d spoken the words.
“Soon, Mom. Soon. First you’ll fall into the darkness.”
“Hold my hand. I’m so thirsty.”
“You’re always thirsty.”
She looked at him and laughed. She wanted to tell him he was always hungry. It was funny, she thought, that even now, they joked.
“You should have been a stage comedian.” Again, she wasn’t sure if she’d said it or merely thought it.
But she knew he’d have been a big joker if he’d lived. She’d always known how to enjoy levity and laughter, and he would have appreciated that. Things were, on the whole, best not taken too seriously.
She watched him, her eyes almost fully closed on her gaunt, dry, smiling face. She didn’t say anything more.
She would have told him that she’d always loved him, that she’d never stopped blaming herself for having been young and stupid, not knowing how, not listening to advice, not adapting quickly enough, but she couldn’t speak. There was no need. He understood.
“Just hold my hand,” she whispered with her last effort, her voice tiny and weak.
“I will. I’m right here.”
The old lady laughed again. She’d always known he was there. She used to call him her little angel, feel his presence around her cats. She couldn’t understand at all how she’d later become so afraid of him. Maybe she’d thought he’d be angry? Or maybe she’d been afraid of finding out what this moment looked like, and she’d known they’d meet when it came. Yes, that must have been it.
She felt happy now. He walked by her side. All she had to do was step, at last, into the salty river.
Cover image by Sirma Krusteva