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Footsteps

by David Albahari
Translated from Serbian by
Ellen Elias-Bursać
Issue 14 Online Exclusive

Miroslava dreamed she was in a fragile boat being tossed to and fro in the waves, and when she started awake she saw she was in bed, next to Nikola, who was leaning on his left elbow while masturbating with his right hand. She squinted at the alarm clock: it wasn’t even six. The bed kept rocking, and just in case she leaned over the edge to look and see whether they were, after all, on the surface of the sea. She could see the parquet floor, the crumbs and hairs, a crumpled up business card, two coins and a hair clip, but nowhere, thank goodness, even a splash of water. She sighed with relief and sank back into her pillow, but then Nikola requested a tissue. Without opening her eyes, she stretched out a hand, groped for the package of tissues on her bedside table and passed it to Nikola. She could hear the paper crinkle, then Nikola’s muffled moans. The bed shuddered once, and then all was still.

“Goodness,” said Miroslava, “couldn’t you have done that in the john?”

“There are some things better done in bed,” answered Nikola and began whistling softly.

A little later the pages of a book rustled. Unlike Miroslava, he was never one to use a bookmark, and she thought that this time she had the right to gloat. At the same time, she was bothered that she couldn’t place the tune, and didn’t know what book he was reading. What would she have been reading, she wondered, after masturbating? Love poems? Nikola had never in his life taken up a book of poetry, and he probably hadn’t now; more likely, she thought, he’d picked up an adventure story, and now, relaxed and satisfied, he had given himself over to following the troubles plaguing the hero of the story. Then Miroslava thought of the novels of Virginia Woolf, and she felt a tinge of sadness almost immediately: there was nothing so poignant as the image of a lonely woman who, after masturbating, read about the experiences of Mrs. Dalloway. She thought she might start to cry, but she mustn’t allow herself that, so instead she sniffled loudly.

Nikola asked her if she wanted the tissues back. “Now it is your turn,” he said and chuckled.

Miroslava reached out and opened her hand. I may never open my eyes again, she said to herself, and because of that thought she was scared for a minute, then she felt the package of tissues touch her hand, and the touch brought her peace. She worked a tissue out, wiped her nose, crumpled it up and dropped it under the bed. She didn’t hear anything but she knew that the tissue had joined the hairs and crumbs, and she could imagine it resting with one tip on a coin, while it lay against the hair clip at its other end, ready to stay here forever or at least until the woman came who cleaned their apartment.

Nikola turned a page. A few minutes later he turned another, and soon afterwards the new page could be heard catching on the folds of the sheets.

“Don’t skip ahead,” said Miroslava grumpily. She squeezed her eyes shut while she spoke, and then there were real fireworks in the darkness behind her lids, just like a long time ago, she remembered, when she’d been little and pressed her thumbs against her closed eyes.

“I’m not skipping the story,” said Nikola, “just the pictures.”

“Don’t be silly,” said Miroslava. “They don’t make novels these days with illustrations.”

“Who,” asked Nikola, “says I’m reading a novel?”

Miroslave rolled over toward him. If you’re not reading a novel what else could you be reading? She couldn’t think of a single time he had picked up a book of essays; he despised memoirs because, he said, they were too long and packed with lies; he shuddered at philosophy, as well as at books on the natural sciences. Maybe she could open her eyes just a little, she thought, to see what Nikola was reading, but she gave up even before she tried peeking through her eyelashes. If she’d been able to stop from opening her eyes till now, then maybe she’d go ahead with them closed. She turned her head away to the other side, toward the window, and the darkness behind her eyelids thinned, as if they were becoming transparent, Soon, she knew, the rays of sunlight would be shining into the room, which would be the last warning that it was time to get up and start getting ready to go off to work.

Meanwhile Nikola had turned another page, abruptly, as if he were hurrying to follow the rhythm of some description or exciting twist in second-guessing the murder suspects.

I will never know, thought Miroslava as the darkness around her eyes grew lighter, but this time the certainty of that statement did not scare her at all. She tugged her nightgown down, raised the covers and put her feet on the floor. The floor was cold. Her slippers were here somewhere, but where? She inched her feet to the left and right, and after a few tries she felt the edge of one slipper under her toes. The other was right next to the first, though Miroslava had to lean over and figure out which one was for the left foot and which for the right. She slipped into them and got up and went off towards the bathroom.

First she tried to picture the layout of the room, to figure out which route to take. Two steps, she thought. would bring her up next to the bed, then she should turn right, go around the chair with the clothes on it, take two or three more steps and that would get her to the hallway, then turn left, and then cross over to the bathroom, the door of which, she recalled, was always shut. The first two steps, however, were not enough, so that when she wanted to turn right, she walked into the bed frame and felt sharp pain ripple through her shin.
“What’s going on,” said Nikola, “can’t a person read in peace in this house?”

Miroslava rubbed the sore place, groped for the edge of the bed and inched a little more to the left. If her calculations were correct, she was now in front of the door leading to the hallway, and all she had to do was watch out to step around the chair with the clothes on it at the right time. She put out her right hand, took two steps, and then stopped, uncertain. Where was the chair? She took another step, but still couldn’t touch anything. Suddenly she thought that if she were to take even the smallest step, she would drop into an abyss, and she nearly opened her eyes. She could feel her heart pounding wildly, but at the same time she knew there was no turning back. She straightened up, dropped her arm and breathed deeply. She took three more steps but didn’t make it to the chair, and then she brushed the doorframe. Where was that chair? Had Nikola moved it the night before when he’d gotten undressed? There are some things we will never know, she thought, shrugged her shoulders, and stepped into the hallway.

The bathroom was to the left of their room, at the end of the hallway. She figured it would take her four steps to get there with her eyes open, but this way, with her eyes shut, maybe she’d need five or six. At first she clutched the doorframe, and then she pushed off from it and gave herself over to the air. She walked slowly, gingerly, though there was no furniture in the hallway, especially at that end, so she had no cause to worry about bumping into things. A coat tree and a telephone table stood by the front door to the right of their room, safely away from her back, although the feeling of certainty had no effect on the speed she moved. First she slid her left foot forward, then she drew her right foot to her left, leaned on both feet, and only then took the next step with her right foot and then drew her left up to it. The doubling of steps confused her count: she was sure she had taken more than six steps but she wasn’t yet across the hallway. She stopped and listened. There was no sound from their room The soft humming from somewhere to the side must have been the refrigerator in the kitchen, across from their room, but when she tried to listen to it more closely and use it to position herself, the humming subsided. Miroslava stretched out both hands, but nowhere, in any direction, was there anything to touch. The darkness under her eyelids got thicker and darker, and she thought she ought to call Nikola to help her before the darkness swallowed everything up, and then she scolded herself for not opening her eyes and seeing where she was. In fact it was pretty strange that Nikola hadn’t noticed anything while she shuffled through their room. He’d probably been so relaxed from masturbating that he’d fallen asleep with the book over his face, blessedly indifferent to what she was doing, especially this nonsense with her eyes being closed.

Of course, she could go back to their room, though that wouldn’t change anything, except if she should decide to open her eyes, which was not what was on her mind. Again she thought that she would never open her eyes again, but this time she didn’t feel scared. She would be leaving one world and settling into another one, and the two worlds, despite the differences, would essentially be the same. She took a step with her left foot, then her right, then her left again, and then she ran into the door of the bathroom. She felt a surprisingly sharp pain in her toes and knee, so sharp, in fact, that she felt she was sure she’d broken her toe. On the other hand the blow stopped her movement and prevented her from running into the smooth surface of the door with her forehead and nose, which would most likely have resulted in heavy bleeding, and might have made her open her eyes. She groped for the doorknob, turned it and went into the bathroom, then carefully shut the door behind her, taking care not to slam it and wake up Nikola. By now she was convinced that he had drifted off into a deep sleep: had he been awake, he surely would have come to see what had made all the noise in the hallway. Maybe it’s better this way, she thought, because then she would be able to come up with the best way of preparing him for her decision in peace and quiet, but first she had to do something which could no longer be postponed.

To the right of the door, at least that part was easy, was the toilet bowl. She pulled up her nightgown, sat down on the cold seat, and with a sigh of relief, she released a gush of urine. The bathroom was small, and when she got up, one step was enough to get her to the sink. There was a mirror right in front of her, and she tried to imagine her face in it. She couldn’t. She turned to the small window, which looked out on the back yard, hoping that the additional light would thin the darkness beneath her eyelids and allow her to see her face somewhere inside her, but it didn’t help. The best she could do was to summon some sort of empty face, which instead of the mouth and eyes had irregular holes, while there was a white patch where the nose was supposed to be. Only the ears were hers, and the locks of hair which curled next to her invisible cheeks. She thought she might start crying, and then she changed her mind and pressed her temples with the tips of her fingers and for a few moments she held her breath. Then she found the faucet, turned it on, filled her cupped hands with water and splashed her face. Leaning over the sink, she waited for the drips to stop dripping, reached for a towel—she had always done this with her eyes closed anyway—dried her eyes, forehead and nose, and lifted her head again toward the mirror, but even then, despite her efforts, she couldn’t summon a vision of what she looked like. Maybe she no longer had a face, she thought, and she felt a shiver slide down her spine. She shuddered, then she turned slowly, groped for the edge of the bathtub and sat down on it.

That is where she was sitting fifteen minutes later when Nikola came into the bathroom. She tried to explain to him what was happening, though she herself understood less and less of what it was she wanted to say. Meanwhile, Nikola kept demanding she open her eyes and stop acting like a dumbass. He repeated those words time after time, placing emphasis first on one, then on another, and the more he repeated them the more squeaky his voice became. The only time he fell silent was while he urinated long and forcefully, so that the water and the urine must have sprayed all over the place and Miroslava knew he was doing it to spite her, but she didn’t say anything. She let him go on repeating himself, and his words soon turned to shouts, to howls, which prompted her to howl and for a time they were shouting over one another until finally he threatened to beat the shit out of her so bad that she would never so much as blink, let alone play hide-and-go-seek or blind man’s bluff.

“And you,” said Miroslava, her voice suddenly calm, “would you hit a woman who can’t see?”

Nikola’s silence was a sure sign that she had startled him with the question. She could just see him blinking quickly, trying to muster any answer at all, and then tucking behind his back the hand that he had, without a doubt, raised to slap her.

“But,” said Nikola, “you are able to see, it’s just that you’ve decided not to.”

“It doesn’t matter how and why someone can’t see,” answered Miroslava, “what counts is the fact of the absence of sight. There are different ways to see, one doesn’t see in only one way.”

Nikola stopped talking again, and Miroslava knew that she had almost gotten him cornered. She did not, however, know what would happen then, but there was no hurry. Sooner or later, as it always happens, things would take their true place, and all the earlier effort would turn out to be in vain.

Nikola spoke up, “It’s all because of that, isn’t it?’

Miroslava didn’t understand right away what he had in mind, but then the memory stirred in her of the rocking boat, and Nikola’s hand moving up and down his red penis. The storm in her dream had been so wild! While the boat had rocked and creaked, her one thought had been tied to dying, to the despair that she would die and become fish food at the bottom of some lake or a sea and she wouldn’t even know what it was called. That was why she was indifferent when she saw the reason why the bed was shaking: there was no penis stronger than death or that could at least serve as a life raft for the shipwrecked. In any other situation, she would surely have leaned over and given Nikola a hand in finishing the job he had started, but with her mouth full of fear that possibility was simply out of the question.

“Let me be perfectly clear,” she said, “I have nothing against your penis, or against masturbation. I regret that I will never see it again, however, my decision not to see has nothing to do with what you were doing in bed.”

“In other words,” said Nikola, “from here on in you are not interested in how the world looks.”

“No,” said Miroslava, “I am not interested in how the world looks. I have already seen it plenty of times.”

“And me,” continued Nikola in a softer voice, “what about with me?”

“What with you?”

“Aren’t you interested in what I look like?”

Miroslava tried to summon his face, and quickly somewhere in the uneven darkness under her eyelids, she could see his eyes, cheeks, bushy mustache, the mole on his left nostril, quite nicely. Then she tried to imagine herself, and once again she was faced with an empty place in the shape that was supposed to be her face. It isn’t fair, she thought, it really isn’t fair, and out loud she said: “I know what you look like, I don’t need to see you each time all over again.”

Nikola said nothing. Then she heard him turn the doorknob, open the door, and go out into the hallway. Miroslava sharpened her ears, but she couldn’t tell which direction he was headed, until she heard the dial jangling on the telephone as it turned. Silence followed, then Nikola explained to someone that he was Miroslava Atanackovic’s husband, and that he was calling her to let them know that she wouldn’t be coming to work. Then there was a new silence, when the person he was talking to probably asked for the reason why she’d be out. Something has lodged in her eye, said Nikola, and he added that he would be taking her to the eye clinic straightaway. Then he stopped talking again, and then finally in a soft voice he said he would certainly let them know what the doctors decided. “Now she can’t see anything,” he said at the end, “but that probably won’t last too long.” He set the receiver down almost soundlessly. If Nikola was angry, thought Miroslava, he wasn’t showing it. She imagined the cradle on the phone, the receiver in it, and the cord, twisted and tangled, and then she imagined Nikola’s fingers separating from the phone, and how his fingers, and whole hand, rose to his forehead, how they came down on it and pressed and rubbed it, as if that might help, as if what had happened were just a drawing done with a pencil that could be erased. “Nothing can be erased,” she whispered, and then she began imagining her lips, teeth and tongue moving as they formed sounds, letters, words. She wanted to imagine her ear, and the eardrum membrane that vibrated while the receiver was in the cradle, while the words were circling around the room, but she gave up because she wasn’t sure how the ear looked inside, and how the vibrating of the membrane turns into information about the sound. She would have to read about that, she thought, in the medical encyclopedia, and then she remembered that she couldn’t see, so books were no longer available to her, and that she would be forced, if she really wanted to learn something, to ask Nikola to read to her. Instantly she imagined them sitting at the kitchen table: Nikola reading news from the paper, and she listening, her head cocked slightly to the side, and sometimes, only seldom, she would ask him for an additional explanation. She imagined herself from behind so that she wouldn’t have to despair over the empty place on her face, and she imagined Nikola with blue eyes, different from his real eyes, but the eyes she had always wished she could see on his face. At last, she thought, at last the world will be the way I want it to be. She clapped her hands, thrilled, and called Nikola.

“Nikola,” she shouted, “where are you? I have something important to tell you.”

Nikola did not answer.

Miroslava stretched out her hand, touched the door frame, took two small steps and came out into the hallway.

Silence reigned in the apartment. There were no sounds coming from anywhere, not from a single room: the parquet floor didn’t creak, there was no gurgle of water, no hum of the refrigerator, no clatter of plates, no ringing voice of a television anchorperson. If he was in the apartment, Nikola wasn’t budging. He was crouched somewhere, thought Miroslava, sure that this is a whim of mine that will pass. She wanted to shout out that it wasn’t like that, that he was wasting his time thinking this was something temporary, and that he would be better off getting used to it straight away, but then she felt something touch her shoulder. She turned quickly, thrust out her hand and waved it every which way, until she thought she felt a touch to the back of her head. Then she spun around again, swinging wildly with her right hand and the swing spun her yet again, and soon she no longer knew whether she was facing the front door or the bathroom door. She was breathing fast, her heart pounding, her hands shook, her knees buckled. She wanted to tell Nikola to stop teasing, but she couldn’t form the words. The fear that had started to fill her was unlike anything else: all she could do was follow it as it mushroomed, turning into sheer horror, into something that eluded any attempt to describe it. She opened her mouth, choking on a lack of air, and then she heard the dull thud of footsteps. They were coming from far off, no rush, no impatience, comfortable that they were headed in the right direction and that there was nothing that would stop them. Miroslava felt beads of sweat drip down her ears, down her neck, all the way to her collarbone. The steps meanwhile became firmer, closer, heavier; the floor under them rocked like water, and Miroslava suddenly felt as if she was in a boat again on a tossing sea among the waves. Even if she had wanted to flee she wouldn’t have been able to. The footsteps by then had come very close. Miroslava raised her hands in front of her. She stood that way for a while and when the steps stopped she dropped her hands.

David Albahari, a Serbian writer and translator, has published eleven short-story collections and thirteen novels in Serbian, garnering the Ivo Andric Award for best book of short stories published in Yugloslavia (1982), the NIN Prize for best novel published in Yugoslavia (1996), the Balcanica Award, and the Berlin Bridge Prize, among others. He also has translated into Serbian the works of a host of English-language writers, from Saul Bellow to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Vladimir Nabokov to Sam Shepard. He lives in Alberta, Canada.  
Translator
Ellen Elias-Bursac translates novels and non-fiction by Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian writers. ALTA's National Translation Award was given to her translation of Albahari's novel Götz and Meyer in 2006.