“Noon/ Podne” was first published in Croatian at Knjizevnost http://knjizevnostuzivo.org/2017/miro-skugor-podne/.
The gravel path stuck to the steep incline leading from the edge of a suburban side road to the town’s old cemetery. The cemetery was so ancient barely anyone paid it attention. A row of aged, thickly planted cypress trees surrounded it on all sides, keeping from view what was a rectangular plot of land nearly filled with forty-eight tombstones covered with moss.
The names on the stones were almost unreadable with age. In the dampness and shadow between them, the low shrubbery grew, spreading outwards in all directions before reaching an invisible divide and meeting up with the tall grass of the surrounding meadows.
Ankica climbed the path the beginning of every May to visit her great-grandfather’s grave. She remembered him as a tall, thin, serious man well respected by everyone in the family. Yet, for a reason she still didn’t understand, people hadn’t liked speaking to him. Family and neighbors would only do it if they had to.
He’d become transformed only around his grand- and great-grandchildren. For Ankica, he’d always had a smile, a dry fig, a carob pod, a handful of almonds or walnuts, a small wicker basket full of red dates, an apple, or a fun, instructive story. The stories had been her favorite part, long before she’d realized they were made up just for her. One time, she’d made him mad. He’d taken his hat off, showing his balding head, and given her a light swat on her behind. It was the worst punishment she’d ever had.
She remembered it to this day, just as she remembered the morning they found him hanging in the attic of their house. “Suicide,” said the coroner’s report, though no one had been able to explain the purple marks on his wrists. They’d looked as if he’d been bound tightly for some length of time.
The funeral was attended by only three people outside of the family—the priest, the undertaker, and an unknown young man never seen before or since. Fifteen years later, only Ankica still visited the grave.
The path she climbed was flanked on both sides by a tall thicket, blackberry vines meeting, greeting, and escorting a visitor like a guard of honor.
She was halfway up when she heard a sound behind her. She paused and turned around. No one was there but her. Barely five steps later, she heard it again. Again she turned around, more slowly. Still no one in sight. On the side road below her, a car was becoming a speck in the distance, slowly disappearing in the direction of Split. She kept walking.
After a few seconds, the sound came again, clearer.
“Footsteps!” her brain translated. “Someone heavy, dragging his feet!”
She turned around abruptly. The path was still abandoned. So too, now, was the color abandoning her cheeks.
She picked up her pace. The footsteps behind her did the same. She stopped turning and rushed ahead. A sense of inhuman presence clung to her spine. The bouquet of roses she was carrying slipped from her hands.
The only parts of her still obeying were her feet.
“You have to reach Great-grandfather’s grave! You have to, you have to!” something in her bloodstream screamed, urging her to keep her wits about her. “Run, run, run!”
The squeal of the rusty hinges when she opened the cemetery gate was drowned out by the first strike of the bell from the nearby church.
From the depths of her subconscious, a message popped up like a sign flashing by the side of a highway—“NOON!”
She kept running, while behind her the sound of the footsteps competed with the tolling bell. She jumped over the first and the second grave. She abandoned piety and simply stepped on the next two. She tripped on the fifth and fell across the sixth—her great-grandfather’s grave—landing on her hands on the cold tombstone. Flat on her belly, she tried to distinguish the sound of her breathing from that of the footsteps, which were just now passing her by.
She ignored the pain in her scratched palms and dared to move. A glance at the meadow across from her made her freeze where she stood.
There was no wind at all, yet the blades of grass swayed under the weight of something moving in a serpentine motion. The “serpent” meandered down the length of the meadow, spilled onto the neighboring one, and continued onwards with the same sloshing, side-to-side motion, eventually disappearing into an olive grove visible only by the crowns of trees peering over from below the horizon.
Dizziness and gravity planted Ankica on her backside. For a few moments, she sat next to the grave, engulfed in complete silence. The chirping of a bird in one of the cypresses pulled her out of it, and when she looked at her wrist watch, the glass was broken and the hands were stopped at twelve.
She got to her feet. Her muscles resisted moving, and her entire body hurt. Somehow she picked herself up and began to brush off her clothes. The remains of dirt, grass, and terror stuck to her skirt and sweater.
The terror was the hardest to shake off.
Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a rose from her bouquet lying on the ground just beyond the cemetery gate. She ran to it, picked it up, and returned to her great-grandfather’s grave to crouch next to it and place the rose carefully on the tombstone. She leaned on it with her left hand, pressing her palm into the stone as if trying to leave a permanent imprint. Abruptly, she let go and straightened up.
Just before she start crying, she turned away and ran—toward the exit, away from everything.
In her room, she threw herself on her bed. Her sobs attracted her mother and grandmother.
“What is it, child? What happened to you?” Her mom tried to get an answer out of her. Ankica curled on her bed in a fetal position. Her initial tremors turned into uncontrollable shaking. Her sobs gave way to wailing, and for a time, she was robbed of speech. Her grandmother hugged her. Her hand ran through Ankica’s hair like a big comb.
It wasn’t until three hours later that she collected herself enough to speak. She told her mom and grandma every detail.
“Why, Mom? Why me? Grandma, why?” Her voice rose in disbelief.
Her grandma took her face gently in her palms. She looked into her eyes as if trying to etch every word into her memory. “Ah, my child. The same thing happened to Cousin Petar. Right around noon, he climbed an olive tree, wanting to pick olives. They saw it from the road—it slithered up to his tree and shot through the crown. It took him away and never let him go. Just look at him now—they move him from hospital to hospital, and he stares ahead and says nothing. Noon, my child, is the same thing as midnight.”