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Publication: Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 13122
ISSN: 02760045
Journal code: PRCF

Today, Mama looks pretty bad. She needs her hair dyed, at least the gray streaks that trail from her forehead to the top of her head, and she should have her split ends cut. She should also change her shirt or at least wash it, but Mama is of the opinion that only her daughter and the Lord God ever set eyes on her, so she doesn't feel self-conscious at all. It's very rare that anyone visits these women who don't already know them, and when they're at the pub, you can hardly tell them apart, except for their shiny foreheads, one with wrinkles, another without. Mama has her arms in water up to her elbows, the water is unpleasantly cold. When she straightens up, her hair brushes against the ceiling and the black, lavalike adhesive still clinging to it. This drips back down into the bathtub and she spreads the black foam in her hair. Once again, she submerges her arms in the water. The water's surface seems to slice them off at the elbows, so all that's left of them are the poor stumps. She fishes out a few small pocked apples. She tosses a whole one into her mouth, then one goes into her daughter's outthrust hands. She nibbles, she rumples her brow, she spits out some yellow matter directly onto the ground. You can spit on the ground in the cellar, but even there you have to clean up pretty often because the black goo is constantly bubbling over everything. Everything gets dusty because of this when it's dry out. The cellar is growing, painlessly, aU by itself. You can already fit in a table and kegs and shelves down there. Now they've carried in the bathtub as well, but you can't move that anymore. They brought water to the bathtub and then the apples to make brandy and preserves. They wanted the courtyard to be clean, so they were doing everything in the cellar, it was also soundproof down there, and dirt didn't matter. They never brought visitors there.

"We can't fit everything in here," Mama says, assessing the situation. She's right. The water from the bathtub will have to be carried out again and the bathtub itself washed in the courtyard. That means that, "Your work is cut out for you tomorrow."

Mama has gone to lie down, her arms are hurting. Several months ago, she spread boiling hot dandelion honey on them. She went around for two months in bandages, each week they removed the putrefying blisters, pieces of skin went too, and they rubbed her arms with violet water. They still itch, especially where the knuckles chafe against each other, and Mama's hands are certainly boney enough. Now she's rubbing them with that honey. Otherwise, she's as strong as a lumberjack. She drinks as much too. Sometimes they drink together in the cellar where they also sleep. They mostly drink on holidays, state holidays too. That's probably another reason Mama wanted to have the bathtub there, so that she wouldn't have to sleep on the ground, because then her back hurts like hell. She would prefer to remove the preserving liquor tomorrow so that she isn't tempted by it.

The boy from town, Slávko, arrived on the early morning train. He came like an apparition of the Virgin Mary, he dropped from heaven right in front of the gate. He was all clean, cologned, shaved, and he was really afraid for his pants when he sat down on the bench outside. He walked around looking at the chicken conscientiously, and then went to kiss the girl on the cheek, as was appropriate, even though there was no one around to see. He was a Uttle afraid, as he didn't know where or how he was supposed to sit, where to put his backpack down, how he was supposed to ask to use the bathroom. And he feared her mama like the devü, even though he hadn't even seen her yet. He had no idea of how to present himself to her or whether he should lie about his arrival somehow or if he should confess that he would gladly become acquainted with life in the viUage and spend the rest of the summer with his girlfriend there. After all, she had told him to drop by. He was fidgeting, his legs were hurting, useless under all his worry

"Mama went off somewhere this morning," she said and took his backpack. "Probably went mushrooming," she added and went inside the house.

"Nice dress," he said, though only to himself. He looked around, he didn't want to stare when she was near him. Bright blue with lace that tied at the neck was no longer in fashion, it was already considered something old women would wear.

"Slávko, come in, we'll carry out the table!" she called from the house. He carefully stepped over the threshold, walked through the haU, and found the kitchen thanks to his nose.

"Should I carry it facing forward or back?" flashed through his head, just as he smacked into the doorframe.

The table looked nice under the winding grapevines. It could be smaller. They didn't need such a large table for two. But the pattern of leaves and the sun shining through them suited it. His sore legs were bothering him; he would need to get hold of a doctor. But she set a plank down for him to lie on and soon he was feeling better. By the time she had brought three more small tables out, Slávko began to feel guilty, he should really be helping with something. He didn't like feeling like a guest, having obligations. But she was nervous too. As if they were seeing each other for the first time, damn it, for the first time. He didn't wonder if she always cooked in that outfit - after all, all the women in the village wore flowered aprons with brown leggings beneath them. His stomach was twisting.

"Can I help you?" he blurted out. Instead of answering him, she caressed his hair, like old women do, and not at all like she should have done to a future lover, as he would have hoped. It was clear that she was at home, in her proper place. He wouldn't have been surprised if she'd shouted to him, "Hey, sonny, stoke the fire!" But she ran back into the house and for a good ten minutes walked from room to room, opening cupboard doors and banging pots.

Meanwhile, Slávko looked round at the unfamiliar surroundings: the filthy walls of the brick house, originally painted with white limestone; the rusty metal plates leaned against a wooden shanty; the odds and ends piled on the shanty's roof up to a dangerous height; and the fragrant leaves beneath the trees. A leaky gutter with a metal tongue. No right angles anywhere. He walked around the house, squatting as he passed the windows, counting his steps. He was a guest after all. Behind the house, a grassy slope rose sharply and there were additional pues of junk. Thanks to the stench, he found the wooden outhouse. The house disappointed him a bit from the exterior, he still had to have a careful look around inside. He was not, however, disappointed by the fragrant grass and trees, he enjoyed the smell of everything around him - except for the chickens - he enjoyed the grapevines, and her slightly see-through dress, and the quiet ... He felt the small soft bodies of pears beneath his feet, succumbing to decay. He wiped his shoes on the yellow grass and returned to his place beneath the grapevines.

"Don't be afraid of Mama, make yourself at home. Surprised? No, she won't be. She's looking forward to meeting you, but probably your being here won't disturb her too much in any case," she said when she saw how his eyes were constantly wandering over to the gate.

"What do you mean?" he asked - he just could imagine a mother welcoming him into her home.

"Just what I said. She isn't bothered much by life, she takes care of her house, of the garden, of the cellar, and of me . . . She doesn't need anything more. She doesn't even really take particular care of me!" She moved her fork to her mouth and smiled gently. "She gets annoyed at carrots that rot in dry soil and maybe wine that's gone bad. But then, that makes me mad too."

It grew dark as she talked. She put on the lamp hanging over the door, but only little slivers of light made it through the grapevine leaves. She looked like a salamander. An exotic animal in an exotic landscape.

Mama arrived noisUy. By the gate, she tripped over the stick that kept the makeshift garbage can upright and fell sprawling on the ground. Her scattered mushrooms formed a halo around her head. Slávko broke out in an inappropriate snicker, but the girl glared at him and ran over to the gate. The idiot wished he could hide, now. Mama got up, grabbed her back, and stretched herself untü she could focus on the cowering boy. She smoothed her apron with an unsteady hand and straightened all the creases, as if she was going to court in her best clothes.

"Good evening, Sláfko. Is that you?" she greeted him in a surprisingly normal tone. "Come on, gather them up!" she added and they shook hands as she stroked her hair in a tired way with her free hand. Garbage stuck to her wet forehead, but the palm of her hand was dry and rough to the touch. No long rite of getting acquainted. He liked her. Usually, he was afraid of old women [ . . . ]

Slávko was glad the weather was dry. He could collapse in the grass, exhale, and calmly close his eyes, roll about a bit. Why was that old man looking so annoyed? And when the ants started biting his calves, he stood up, raised his arms over his head, and got ready to run down the hill. Somewhere along the way, he stopped, cupped his hand to his ear, listened for a moment, swore, and then kept on running down the hUl. After half an hour of catching invisible waves, he lay on the ground, and there, close to the earth, his telephone rang, quite out of place in all this silence. Down below the hill, the irate old man threw his hoe into a ditch and left his field. Slávko had soon satisfied his hunger for up-to-date information and could finally look around, at peace.

The following days went by as though in a movie. Slávko whirled around the beans and the corn, picked apples, got use to greeting people with "May the Lord God help you." He walked barefoot in manure and became acquainted with the magic of the cellar. But aU of them worked dUigently in the garden. He even fixed the radio, because he knew how. They would turn it on in the evening outside on the bench beneath the grapevines, sometimes they would bring over a basin and soak their feet in salty water, and because of the wine their heads would be spinning, and sometimes they'd even faU over. Mama didn't talk much, she felt awkward around him. Apparently she didn't trust herself to use proper grammar when she wasn't at work. Yet, despite this, she drank gladly and without embarrassment. Somewhere in the ceUar, she had a demijohn with apple brandy buried up to and over the neck of the bottle - she had received this from her father as a wedding present and she had to empty it completely before he would refiU it with new apple brandy for his daughter. When Slávko came, she decided it was time to do her duty. When she feU like a log into her big bed, Slávko pulled his washbasin over and sat feeling the firmness of her calves with his foot, aU withered from the salt. She smelled of apples.

"Sláfko, are those waves catching hold of you again?" Mama asked in the dark, searching for the painfully hardened deposits on her spine with her fingers. "You could bring us a bit of gravel from the stream. I'd sew a pouch with it benead the maddress. For my back," she said. "Next year we'll leave the apples to the kziddies. We won't be dragging them around anymore. Or we'll cut em down, those apple trees." She added with a tinge of bitterness. Her back was hurting her again.*

She drew her hair back to rub her forehead. The kitchen smelled unpleasantly from the yeUow paste on her head. She opened the window and threw a striped towel over the lamp so that the light wouldn't attract too many mosquitoes. Outside it was so dark that the objects no longer reflected any Ught, and yet the dark wasn't so deep that your eyes still couldn't get used to it. Mama's eyes simply swiveled around in a confused way, not knowing what to catch themselves on, not knowing how to find something famUiar to look at. They could only find the weak light of the boy's telephone screen shimmering somewhere up the hill.

The paste in her hair had begun to really heat up and the Igora brand coloring was running down her cheeks onto her neck. It soaked into the T-shirt under her neck and made her a dark collar of stains. The girl in her arms feU asleep. The muscles on her naked back grew limp, completely surrendering beneath her fingers. She left her lying there on the table, didn't even cover her up, it was so humid and hot. She took an old towel with small white bobbles sewn on the ends and went outside. The paste was covering her entire face now, and in the evening air, it began to grow thick and white. She went round the house, groped for the light switch on the back wall made of artificial stone nestled into the hill. She put on the one naked light bulb that Slávko had mounted for them over the cellar door. "Thank God," she thought. Blinded flies fell to the grass. She found her demijohn in the cellar and pulled out the cork. She had her fill and was very thankful. She found the tub outside under the pear tree, whisked the drowned bugs and leaves from the surface with her arm, whatever had fallen from the tree, and swished them all out with the water onto the ground. She took offher sweaty T-shirt to soak her head in the tub. Her hair, which had been completely covered in the paste, now covered the entire surface of the water as she took it in her hands. Gradually, her hair gave off oüy circles of color. She opened her eyes and counted eight pears, beautifuUy ripe, on the bottom of the tub.

* In Slovak, Mama's speech is a good example of the Saris dialect, as spoken in the region in northeastern Slovakia near Poland, hence the tendency toward words like dzecisko (or dziecko, in standard Polish), here translated as "kziddie."

Author affiliation:

MONIKA KOMPANÍKOVÁ (b. 1979) Born in Povazská Bystrica. Studied graphic arts and painting. Works as a freelance writer/artist and at the Institute for Public Questions, the Center for Philanthropy, and the Bratislava Community Foundation. Debuted in 2001.

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