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Lace

by Uršuľa Kovalyk
Translated from Slovak by
Julia Sherwood

The wart on her right cheek kept growing. At first, it was just a tiny black dot Magdaléna noticed in the mirror as she washed her face. She didn’t attach great importance to it. She had gotten used to the fact that her body was changing as it aged, so she was not thrown by the first age spots on her hands or the tiny brown warts on her neck. Magdaléna was a music composer. Although she worked at a dry cleaner, she composed the most wonderful preludes full of melancholy piano tunes in her head. She could not play the piano. She could not read music and was not able to sing even the simplest nursery rhyme. She could only hear the music in her head. It played there every day with great urgency, filling her completely from within and dilating her pupils. It resonated in her heart and pulsated through her blood vessels and every single muscle, sometimes making her entire body tremble. As if she was gripped by fever. At such moments, Magdaléna stopped stuffing clean clothes into transparent polyethylene bags and opened her mouth wide, to stop the music from tearing her body apart. Her colleagues taunted her, saying there she went again, doing her carp-out-of-water impersonation; some of them even took pictures of her with their phones. Magdaléna was not deaf. She knew her mouth didn’t emit any sound. It was a curse. The minute the music left her body, it evaporated. It simply disappeared without leaving a single acoustic trace of the perfection which sprang from within her head and for which she had no name. I’m missing a channel of communication, she thought. I’m a blocked well from whose depths precious water springs. One day I’m bound to burst. She would never forget the day the music invaded her head. She was going for lunch to a cafeteria across the street from the dry cleaner. There was a wonderful smell of sautéed liver and the clanging of enormous pots. Magdaléna heard cutlery loudly being tossed into a metal tray. Suddenly the kitchen noises welded into a rhythmic tune, which intensified and was gradually joined by various musical instruments. Ever since then, Magdaléna lived all by herself, immersed in her music. Her mornings were filled with brisk bagatelles and her evenings were full of depressing fugues. Extraordinary things happened during thunderstorms. Her head roared and her hair became electric, as if she were connected to a transformer station. A stormy symphony resounded inside her, wind and string instruments drowning each other out and the percussion booming so loudly that she sometimes faded into a trance. Any activity that produced a sound launched an avalanche of continuous melody, so that sometimes at work she was transported by the rustling of polyethylene or the humming of a flushing toilet.

She began to worry about the wart on her face. Not only was it growing but it started excreting a kind of fiber. Delicate capillaries stuck to her skin, creating a bizarre, flowery pattern. It’s growing like English ivy, she thought one evening. She picked up a magnifying glass and thoroughly inspected the cobweb that had, by now, covered the lower part of her jaw. The capillaries joined into various ornaments, creating a black lace that reminded her of magnolia blossoms. The lace was growing by the day. Magdaléna noticed that the music in her head was also growing in intensity and the sounds it contained were becoming ever stranger. The sounds of piano and strings were punctuated by weird electronic sounds and industrial rhythms, making her feel as if she was listening to a singing tin factory. It all started getting a bit tiresome. The rhythm was accelerating and she caught herself throwing dirty laundry into a white van at a frantic pace. One morning, when a steel drum machine roared in her head as she was whisking eggs, she decided she had to do something. She made an appointment with a dermatologist. In a mocking tone, the doctor asked about her mental state, but after she looked at her through a magnifying glass she was dumbstruck. “Incredible,” she said opening an enormous book and browsing through it for a while. “Perhaps it’s a degenerative form of wart? Have you been sunning yourself a lot?” she inquired, but Magdaléna assured her she had not been able to stand the sun ever since she was a little girl. The doctor continued leafing through the encyclopedia for a while, then said with a sigh: “Let’s try Locacid!” Every day Magdaléna applied the ointment to the wart. Yet it kept growing, covering all of her neck and half her face and spreading lower and lower still, as if it was trying to envelop her completely. The wart did not respond to anything. Ointments, liquid nitrogen, even laser treatment didn’t stop it from excreting more capillaries. Magdaléna was changing. Not only were her face, neck, arms, and torso now covered by a continuous layer of lace; she started emitting music. Yes. The tones she had managed to contain for years now began to rise to the surface, streaming out through the lace loudly, wildly. She turned into a music-playing, lacy larva, from which a strange butterfly might one day emerge. Crowds of people started coming to the dry cleaner to gape at her and turnover went up by three hundred percent. Nor was Magdaléna’s body what it had been. The lace had grown into her muscles and she found she was much more pliable and was able to bend into a bridge without the slightest effort. “I’m convinced that you are a case way beyond the scope of science. We have to contact international experts. Whole symposia will be organized!” the doctor said during a check up. At that moment, Magdaléna was playing jazz and her body, completely covered by lace, was swaying to its rhythm. “Can you hear it?” Magdaléna asked. “Why do you need a scientific explanation, I just relaxed, that’s all.” The doctor nodded resignedly: “Do you hear the music at night too?” Magdaléna told her that at night she played organic ambient music, which enabled her to get some sleep. “Except I don’t feel like sleeping,” she whispered. “I’m just bursting with energy. You know how many wonderful pieces I can compose this way? I thought I might start recording; I’ve even had an offer from a radio station.” The doctor went on about the importance of sleep and tried to hand her a prescription for some medication, but a wave of furious breakbeat washed through Magdaléna, sweeping her out of the doctor’s office, out of the hospital, and to a distant park. The music bursting out of her through the lace was getting harder. Autumn was coming and Magdaléna noticed that in the morning she played increasingly harder rock spiked with elements of heavy metal, so she stopped taking the bus to work. Few people could stand being next to her. The music was too loud and customers at the dry cleaner started complaining. “Why don’t you take unpaid leave?” her boss suggested after Magdaléna came to work playing crazed punk. “I’ll try to tune into something gentler, like reggae,” she tried to reassure her, but her boss just clutched her head, screaming: “Turn her off, somebody, for God’s sake!” Magdaléna began to avoid people. She sought out remote places in mountain parks with frightened squirrels as her only company. One evening, when the moon was full and she was again unable to sleep, a heart-rending jungle beat made her wander far beyond the city limits. In a meadow overgrown with brambles she stumbled upon some people dancing. They were lit by the headlights of parked cars and a girl with headphones was playing music on strange turntables. Magdaléna smiled. Her spirit connected to the house music streaming from the speakers. The lace was burning, her skin was stretching, and her heart was pounding madly. After a few hours of dancing, Magdaléna’s body burst. A huge white bat flew out. After noiselessly circling above the heads of the dancers a few times it disappeared into the quiet darkness emanating from the depths of the forest.

Uršul’a Kovalyk has published plays, short stories, novels, and poetry. A story of hers appeared in the Dalkey Archive Press’s issue of the Review of Contemporary fiction dedicated to Slovak literature.
Translator
Slovak-born Julia Sherwood was educated in Germany and England and settled in London where she worked for Amnesty International and Save the Children. Since moving to the U.S. in 2008, she has worked as a freelance translator. She has translated Samko Tále’s Cemetery Book by Daniela Kapitáňová (Garnett Press, London, 2011) from the Slovak and is currently translating the novel Freshta by Petra Procházková from the Czech.