EDITOR’S NOTE: In the opening chapter of Goran Petrovic’s novel The Sixty-Nine Drawers, a man approaches Adam Lozanic in his office at work and asks him to correct an already-printed book entitled My Memorial by Mr. Anastas C. Branica, self-described “man of letters.” The stranger promises generous compensation and explains that his wife will instruct Adam as to what kind of changes to make. A degree candidate at the School of Philology’s Serbian language and literature program and part-time proofreader for the tourism and nature magazine Our Scenic Beauty, Adam is wary, but he could use the rent money. He lives in a tiny studio apartment on Belgrade’s Milovan Milovanovic Street, sandwiched between a family with two preschool children and a peddler of souvenirs for tourists who spends considerable time hammering on laths to make his cheap trinkets. In these opening pages we also learn of Adam’s unusual relationship to his own reading:
“Beginning a year ago, from time to time it seemed to him that when reading he met—other readers. From time to time, only now and then, but more and more vividly, he recalled those other, mostly unknown people, who had been reading the same book at the same time as he. He remembered some of the details as if he had really lived them. Lived them with all his senses. Naturally, he had never confided this to anyone. They would have thought him mad. Or at best a little daft. Truth be told, when he seriously considered all these extraordinary matters, he himself came to the conclusion that he was teetering dangerously on the very brink of sound mind. Or did it all appear to him thus from too much literature and too little life?!”
In “Second Reading,” the section of the novel that follows, Adam begins the editing project, though still unsure of how or why he is supposed to correct this “book bound in saffian,” written fifty years hence by a now-deceased author. —CK
From The Sixty-Nine Drawers
where we speak
about a sumptuous garden,
and, a little further on,
about a French park,
about a pergola
with late-blooming roses,
about a light-and-dark-colored villa
and an inscription in a gable,
about a brief report in politika,
an outsize shadow,
of a glass pavilion,
about a conversation with a man
and then about the question:
what good are recipes,
if you can’t add something
according to your own taste?
All around, as far as the eye could see, stretched a garden of ravishing beauty. The road first wound between rows of larches, and then red oaks prevailed, and then, in perfect harmony, in a fireworks of form, the wholes were interchanged, skillfully joined by bends of brushwood and low, shrubby vegetation. One could hardly take a step without this next angle of observation giving rise to some new delight. From the primeval lichens, tranquil mosses, stubborn mistletoes, and trembling ferns in the hollows, through the young ivy and mighty trunks, to the round, pyramidal, branchy, conical, sadly drooping and bushy outlines of the treetops. Isolated here and there. Then grouped in small clusters of birch or conifer. Divided by forked trails of settled dust . . .
Solitary, disheveled English oaks—on grassy plateaus swarming with mushroom caps. Then pastures, gentle slopes edged by wild blackberry bushes and low walls of dry-stacked stone, overgrown with creepers of ivy. Quite unexpectedly—steeper inclines and endemic flora nestled against bare, blanched rocks, as in the Alps. In seemingly carelessly arranged contours, but always in such a way that the shady side never encroached on the sunny, so that each blade of grass had sufficient light and cool . . .
Vegetation accentuated by a well-considered, seething palette of colors. Nuances of red, purple, yellow, blue, and green. Doubled in intensity by textures of shiny smoothness, mealy pubescence, or hoary shriveling . . . Receding in a gradation of lighter tones, which lent to the whole expanse a certain depth. Vegetation reliably arose in such a way that no season of the year would usher in monotony—a period of bloom began where some other variety was flagging, the needle-covered evergreen pines did not hinder the flaming beechen colors of fall, and the freshness of the firs and spruce found expression when the deciduous wood of maples and elms began to languish . . .
Adam Lozanić beheld all this, moving along the widest path, not knowing in the multitude of wandering descriptions—where in fact he was going. The garden must have exuded an equally ravishing fragrance. But the young man had woken on Tuesday morning with all the signs of a bad cold; opening the window, he hadn’t very well discerned the acrid city smog, either. He was weak from an elevated temperature, and out of sorts on account of it all. Proofreading demanded complete concentration, but he scarcely managed to collect himself to perform ordinary, everyday tasks; he cut himself while shaving, twice he failed to button his flannel shirt, for a quarter of an hour he struggled with the insensible knots on his sneaker laces, only to force them on, and the last slice of rye bread fell from his hands, of course, onto the side spread with apricot jam. He decided he would have a bite in the neighboring deli when he got tired, when he took a break. It was still raining. The way things were going, something might have run him down as he crossed the street.
“The simple truth is that Tuesday is bad luck, on Tuesdays nothing ever goes right or ever gets done!” he said out loud, trying to schedule the book bound in saffian into whatever free time he had at his disposal; but however he planned the work, he didn’t manage to divide the number of pages into approximately equal parts, and so he finally gave up, resolving to cover as much of it as he could every day; somehow he would manage to read it through by Monday; the souvenir vendor probably wouldn’t disturb him too much.
Thus did the young man slowly make progress, no doubt oblivious to the numerous odors, sniffling, stopping here and there to blow his nose into a plaid handkerchief and to look over the details essential to the work he really knew next to nothing about. Nevertheless, his general impression gradually restored his mood: what he found there was well done, irreproachable even; there were no lapses, nor was the vocabulary inappropriate; the sentences of Anastas C. Branica followed one another naturally, the punctuation was located in the proper places—only that, apart from the description of the garden, there was nothing else. Absolutely nothing else, except newer and newer vegetation—nothing appeared, of events and happenings there was not a trace, nor intimation, provided one does not consider the slow rising of the solar orb, the flight of some distant birds, seemingly lost in the blue firmament, the falling of pinecones or the forming of dust clouds behind the young man’s feet. Thus did the pages follow one after the other, perhaps even more quickly than that asthmatic afternoon on Milovan Milovanović Street; the time of reading is compressed time, an hour here is not the same as an hour there, sometimes it lasts ten times longer, sometimes it is briefer than the instant between two blinks of an eye.
For how long it had gone on this way—he didn’t know. Although he read in a half-lying position, it seemed to him that his feet were already tired, when there began to emerge from the garden the sides of a house, better to say of a villa, in any event, of an unusually beautiful structure, in a style unknown to the young man. The presence of human hands became more apparent, the vegetation at once thinned out and gathered into the harmonious gardens of a French park, into ornate flowerbeds, rondelles, and spherically cropped boxwoods, and the road spilled onto a symmetrical delta of footpaths covered with gravel crushed so finely that it rustled. A woman approached on one of these meanders. Adam Lozanić was certain that it was—the wife of the mysterious client of yesterday. Whatever the case, it was one more proof of his extraordinary ability to meet other people: that woman was reading the same book he had in his hands—just where he didn’t know—but in such a way that she was waiting for him exactly here. Dispensing with formalities, she herself was suggesting something similar:
“Finally! You’re late!”
“Forgive me, the garden is rather large, it takes hours to see everything,” he offered as an excuse.
“Young man, you’re not here to poke your nose around, but to make the revisions I require of you,” she said, looking him up and down. Each of her gestures exuded haughtiness. He didn’t like her, but decided not to attach any greater importance to it; after all, he had gotten involved not for satisfaction’s sake but rather to take on a well-paying job.
“That goes without saying . . .” he said apologetically, trying hard not to look at her.
“You’re younger than I imagined . . .” the woman continued in an appraising tone. “And I hope not rash as well. My husband claims you have experience.”
Adam Lozanić opened his mouth to explain that he would soon receive his degree, that for two whole years now he had been a part-time associate at the magazine Our Scenic Beauty, that on three occasions he had done the proofreading for a collection of stories, of poems rather, by some of his friends, beginning writers. He opened his mouth, and then changed his mind. For sure, that meager bio-bibliography would make no impression on the woman.
“There is nothing to be done about it,” the woman said, shrugging her shoulders. “Let’s see how much you know. Take a good look at that pergola. I have never liked it. Be so kind as to get rid of it, but of course in such a way that no empty spot remains.”
On the contrary, the pergola clustered with late-blooming roses was quite dazzlingly beautiful. Adam Lozanić felt that he would be committing an unpardonable sin if he simply “got rid” of it. On the other hand, the instruction had been explicit. The woman had ordered the work to be done—if he wished to keep his job, he would have to accede to her demands . . .
Again he was unable to judge how much time had passed. His body temperature must have risen. His head cold rendered the smell of the roses useless. He approached the spot to be changed from several sides, picturing in his thoughts how the final change would look, and then what would happen to the surrounding sentences. Lastly, he decided where and how much to intervene; he stuck the point of his pencil in like a scalpel; more precisely, he stuck it in like a spade, into the very roots of the description; he began to cross out, to reverse the order of words, to rearrange sentences, to write in conjunctions, to pluck out entire images, and finally to join passages together. He was all sweaty, unpleasantly sweaty from a bad conscience; the pergola with the late-blooming roses vanished as if it had never been; the wound could scarcely be discerned, when the upturned sods of grass began to take root—the mournful scar would not be known for even this long.
“Well enough,” declared the woman without conviction. “But that was merely a little test. We already have a gardener. Let’s start for the house, most of what I have chosen for you to do is there.”
Confused, Adam did not budge.
“Well, why do you stand there, I don’t have time to waste. Let’s go to the house,” the woman repeated coldly.
“And the pergola? Do you want me to put everything back the way it was?” said Adam, not moving.
“Oh, but you’re a soft heart! A romantic. Forget about that now. Pokimica will be back. He has some free time on his hands, and gardening is more or less his passion . . .” His interlocutor turned in the direction of the villa and peremptorily strode off; the young man had no time to wonder who this Pokimica was and how the pergola would be built anew.
The sumptuous garden proved to be merely a worthy access to the beauty of the building. It was a two-story villa, its somewhat lower, ground-floor wings angled slightly backward, like a large bird just about to take flight. From where he was, Adam was unable to determine its style; he had never really understood architecture, but each individual element on its face was unquestionably a regular little masterpiece of structural engineering. The paths converged in front of the marble pillars of an arched doorway; immediately behind them was a double entrance door, with a pair of bronze door knockers in the shape of long-fingered women’s hands, but one could also go left or right by way of a wide, curving staircase, edged along its balustrade with stone vases, and then, in a half-circle, onto a large terrace, a sort of esplanade onto which communicated the doors of all the upstairs rooms. Judging by the number of windows and doors, one might have concluded that the house had ten or so rooms on the upper level. The numerous drainpipes and friezes enlivened the light-and-dark yellow surface of the façade. A person didn’t know where to look first, on what principle all the dimensions had been calculated, such that the slightest deviation would disturb the harmonious relationship of the entire structure.
Unfortunately, the woman had walked so quickly that the young man hadn’t had nearly enough time to focus attention on every detail. Before he knew it, they were climbing up to the terrace via the outside staircase, not entering the house. There, exactly on the vertical of the middle section of the villa, not far from a little table and four chairs made of wrought iron, stood a ladder, leaning to reach the triangular gable. The cornice of the roof was adorned at regular intervals with the figures of eight broad-shouldered Atlases, their arms raised and spread wide, the palms turned upward—as if holding up all eight corners of the world.
“We’ll start with the gable,” said the woman, pointing her finger in the direction of the triangle. “You’ll be doing an inscription.”
Adam Lozanić squinted. Where usually stands the name of the villa or the year of construction—there was nothing, except for traces of mortar that had been knocked off. In the very apex of the gable was a clock, its hands seemingly gone astray on the face without numbers.
“Do the inscription in bas-relief, and make sure that one can see it. The contents are these . . .” said the woman, handing the young man a folded slip of paper.
“Verba volant, scripta manent,” Adam read to himself, and searching through his rusty knowledge of Latin stammered:
“Words fly . . .”
“. . . written things remain! And now I’ll have to leave, I’ve some pressing matters to attend to. Be diligent. Tomorrow I’ll return to see what you’ve done and whether we can agree upon future alterations. If you get hungry, go around back . . . there is the kitchen, the old housekeeper Zlatana never leaves it. I believe she’ll have something to serve you . . .” The woman turned and quickly vanished down the stairs.
Remaining alone, Adam Lozanić tried to compose himself. Once more turning toward the garden, he understood just how much everything here was subordinate to pleasure. The Italian word belvedere was quite appropriate for the terrace. The view encompassed almost the entire estate. The edge of the property could only be surmised by the coalescence of blue. Beyond it, many days’ walk distant, gray mountains rose up, their peaks white with eternal snow; beyond the mountains stretched fog-shrouded lowlands and a great river, its source and mouth hidden in the indistinct haze of the horizon. At closer range, he saw the road by which he had come, the picturesque clusters of trees now in miniature, as if painted with the brush of a skilled watercolorist; he saw the geometric figures of the French park, the one near the approach to the villa, and saw what from below, from the ground, he had been unable to observe: to the south, a glass pavilion set alongside the cascades of a shimmering fishpond, and to the north a genuine Renaissance maze-promenade of tall hedges and shady arcades, in whose center swaggered the sparkling crest of a fountain, an empty pedestal for a statue, and, despite every expectation, two rather stunted palm trees.
Oblivious to all, save this captivating splendor, the young man sat down on the wrought-iron chair nearby, his back to the gable.
The telephone rang. Probably for a long, long time.
“All right, Adam boy, why don’t you answer?”
“This is Kusmuk!”
“Stevan Kusmuk, scatterbrain! Why do you sound like that, as if you’re on the other side of the world?”
“I have a cold, a cough, maybe a temperature, too, and my ears are
clogged . . .”
“What can you do—just think of Thomas Mann, to him life seemed to be a fever of matter . . . Anyway, I found that Anastas Branica. By accident. There’s no trace of his book in the reserves, you know that, otherwise it would be in the catalogues. I found a review of his novel. My friend, that’s not a review, that’s a place of execution. In the Serbian Literary Journal of 16 August 1936, new series XLVIII, number 48, page 646, under the heading ‘Reviews and Notes.’ The author is one D. L. He’s unknown to me. Nowhere else does he appear under the same initials. He worked over your Branica pretty well. Just listen to the title: ‘A Scribbling Attempt.’ And then the subtitle: ‘Boredom in over six hundred pages.’ Adam, my boy, are you listening to me?”
“I’m here . . .”
“Wait, I’ll read it to you: ‘For quite a while now we have not had the opportunity to have in our hands such a long and drawn-out text. However, in recent months Mr. Anastas C. Branica has seen to that. By his own admission a man of letters, he has published a novel under the title My Memorial. In any event—we thank this industrious practitioner of the written word, for now we possess a standard of what a literary work ought not to look like, and thus to what extent a person may become blind regarding his own, altogether unsupported intentions.’ What do you say? Standard!”
“Scathing, no two ways about it . . .”
“Scathing. But that’s nothing compared to what follows. I’ll skip around a bit . . . Listen to this: ‘We asked ourselves, and we ask ourselves, from where does one get such a far-fetched idea that he can write a novel in which, except for a description of some kind of forest, a park, and then a description of some house, a summer house, probably—there isn’t, I emphasize, there isn’t any kind of plot, any kind of action, nor even a single character? We asked ourselves, and we ask ourselves . . . Alas. No answer from anywhere. Except, of course, if everything cannot be properly explained by a lack of talent and a rudimentary knowledge of the structure of a literary work, by a lack of proportion and the mediocrity of a scribbler, by a lack of a basic good upbringing and an excess of the conceit that all of it will interest someone . . . ’ Adam, are you there? Are you breathing?”
“I’m here, here . . .”
“I’ll skip around again . . . And now the real cold shower: ‘It would be easy for us to take up a page, or even an entire issue of the Journal, with an analysis of this novel, but we consider that this would make no sense, and sense is precisely what we have failed to find in the subject of our present concern. Accordingly, we finish with it, in order not to deny space to deserving contributions of the Serbian pen. Quite in short, Mr. Branica, from the Lord good health, and from us the following request: Please refrain from bestowing on us any more memorials!’”
“You’re right, he obliterated him . . .”
“No, dear friend, you have no idea how right I am! Kusmuk researches everything very thoroughly. D. L. really executed him. I found in the Politika of 5 September of the same year—note that this is at most a week or two after the review in the Serbian Literary Journal—I found a report: ‘This morning fishermen pulled from the Danube, at Vinča, the body of Anastas C. Branica, a local homeless man with no known relatives. The drowning victim had on his person no identity papers. According to the condition of the remains, he must have been in the water about ten days, but the identity of the deceased was established beyond doubt with the help of a copy of a book that was found, a first novel, recently published at his own expense. We have learned from reliable sources, close to the Coroner’s Office, that in this disturbing case there is no confusion, and at issue is a self-drowning, most likely as a consequence of some nervous disorder.’”
“So it was. Suicide. The other papers didn’t report this news, but in the obituaries in Vreme and Pravda of 15 October, on the fortieth day after his death, it says that Branica lost his life in an accident. The usual soft-pedaling euphemism. But if it interests you, the remembrance in Vreme was signed by a certain Miss Natalija Dimitrijević, and the other one, in Pravda, I’m quoting now: ‘Your housekeeper Zlatana.’”
“Natalija Dimitrijević? And Zlatana?! The housekeeper Zlatana?!”
“Uh-huh, Zlatana. Is that something odd? Explain to me, what kind of intrigue is this? Do you have that novel, maybe? I’d like to look through it.”
“No, I don’t . . . Kusmuk, I thank you, I have to end the conversation, the water is boiling for tea . . .”
“Fine, Adam boy, get well, get well. Just know that you’re going to explain it all to me when we see each other . . .”
Feeling a little pang of conscience because he had lied to his friend, Adam Lozanić decided to set the matter right a bit—he put on the pot for tea. As the water simmered, as his mother’s steeping blend of sage, thyme, and chamomile released its soothing effect, as he sipped the warm potion in short drafts, the young man stood beside the window, now looking in the direction of the tavern “Our Sea,” now toward the bed, where the open book bound in saffian was waiting. It was past noon, and in the tavern it appeared that there wasn’t an empty seat. From the apartment it was difficult to see, but it seemed to Adam that no one there was opening his mouth now. As if Our Sea were silent. Alas, with how many veils of silence was the unhappy fate of that Branica hidden? To write a novel without a scrap of plot was, of course, a curious undertaking. Although, the young man reflected, in the descriptions of nature and the exterior of the villa, one would be hard pressed to discover any more serious reproach. From the style, one simply felt a certainty, felt that it had actually been experienced. So much the better for him. There would be no difficulties with the proofreading. But this whole assignment branched out in too many mysterious directions. Who was his client? Why wasn’t that Natalija Dimitrijević somehow known to him? Was it a coincidence that the housekeeper Zlatana of the death notice was the same one the woman had mentioned? And with that name remembering he had eaten nothing today, Adam Lozanić began to waver between going out to the deli or continuing with the reading . . .
The silence decided. His neighbor wasn’t there, he didn’t hear the hammering on laths, and the young man resolved to work a little more, while there was any peace at all.
Sitting exactly where the telephone call had interrupted him, in the wrought iron chair, his back to the gable and the doors to the rooms on the terrace-belvedere, Adam Lozanić at once perceived a change. From somewhere behind him stretched an elongated shadow. A triple shadow. According to the position of the sun this was in no way possible, but when the young man turned around he could not help but observe—an unknown man, child, and woman, huddled close together, nearly cowering; they gave off a shadow far greater than was warranted by the existing laws of nature. The door to one of the rooms upstairs was open; the three of them had just set foot onto the terrace; the shadow still gathered behind them, like a puddle of dirty water, which always, unerringly, tilts toward where it is most shallow.
It was not easy to measure whom this encounter had surprised more. They immediately revealed to Adam that at this very instant—the three of them were reading the same book, too. Together, gathered over it, what with being huddled up so close like that. After all, as he’d heard from Kusmuk, in Anastas Branica’s novel there weren’t any characters. Opposite him—the man, child, and woman were visibly curious as to who this unknown youth, in sneakers and a flannel shirt indifferently thrown on over faded blue jeans, might be.
“A very good day to you,” the man decided to say first.
“And a very good day to you,” Adam greeted him in return.
“How’s it going? What’s new?” added the man after a brief pause.
“Fine, it’s pleasant here,” Adam answered.
“Here it’s always nice,” said the man.
“Do you come here often?” said the youth, not having to ask from where: the man’s Jekavian dialect bespoke where this small family might be from.
“Almost every day; of our entire library, only a few books remain.” The man lowered his head. “We read together, with the little one; we think that this is time within time . . .”
“Time within time.” Adam recalled how, two or three years before, he had heard of a man from a place where bridges and ferryboats were supposedly built in peace time only in order that, in time of war, there would be some means by which to flee. This man would not allow a single book to be used to light a meager fire, even though everyone was freezing, until the family had read each book once more. Time within time.
“All that remains of our things is a big shadow. No matter how we move, it nestles up to us . . .” the woman added, and she passed her foot back and forth through the dense shadow, which for a brief instant seemed to part and then revert to the way it was.
“And you, are you on vacation?” asked the man, wishing to avoid the depressing subject.
“On business, I’m supposed to make some changes—there, on the gable, they would like a new inscription . . .” answered Adam.
“Uh-huh,” the man nodded his head.
“This is what the owners want, I’ve only . . .” the young man apologized for some reason.
“The property is as much theirs as all the others, it belongs to them neither more nor less . . .” the woman interjected, obviously upset.
“Hold your tongue,” her husband whispered to her in a frightened tone.
Adam blushed. He stood up. The little girl did not remove her gaze from him. She had large, sad eyes. They could be described in no other way. Sad eyes. She said everything with them, and absolutely everything had been said.
“The way it was explained to me . . .” began the youth.
“We don’t know anything,” the man interrupted him. “This is an old book, from back before the war, there are few who know anything about it in detail. Perhaps the housekeeper Zlatana, but that good old woman is hard-of-hearing and talks only of preparing various dishes. If there’s anyone who can help you, then it’s the professor.”
“The professor?!” repeated Adam.
“Yes. There he is, over there, in the pavilion. They say he’s writing some kind of study about all this here. He comes to do research, he collects things, sorts through them . . . A decent man, he always nods to us . . .” the man explained sparingly.
“Thanks. And now I’ll have to add the inscription,” Adam remembered.
“Uh-huh,” the man nodded his head.
“And we’re leaving,” said the woman coldly. “Behind the house there’s a meadow to pick flowers. Pokimica lets the little one play there . . .”
Adam set out toward the ladder, searching through his pockets for that slip of paper. The family with the large shadow started down the stairs. Huddled one against the other. As if afraid the darkness would creep in between them as well. Only the little girl turned and shouted:
“We’re the Leleks!”
“Leleks?” the young man turned around.
“Yes. That’s our last name. Lelek!” the child affirmed.
“Adam . . . Adam Lozanić . . .” the young man introduced himself, but the Leleks had already disappeared from sight.
Sluggishly gathering itself, as if it knew that no one could escape from it, the triple shadow lazily slithered after them, lower—downward, from the belvedere.
Assuming at the top of the ladder the safest and most comfortable position possible, and in the absence of a tape measure, Adam began to proportion with his hand the available space and the four words he was to put into that blankness. Traces of previous inscriptions were visible even from below, but at close quarters they were clearly recognizable. It turned out that the gable had been an architectural palimpsest of sorts, a place where atop an earlier text had come a newer one several times before. Judging by what remained of the mortar, the color, the protuberances, and the hollows, letter by letter, the young man determined there might have been as many as four alterations. The original and oldest of them had been done in high relief; the strongly pronounced inscription in Latin letters, “Villa Nathalie,” must have been separated from the apex of the triangle a good three fingers. Another, in bas-relief, considerably shallower, had been done in Cyrillic characters, and of all the words that were there, the only one that could be discerned was the one that read “ . . . memorial.” Had he not remembered the dedication at the beginning of the book, the young man would have surely found it difficult to puzzle out its meaning, for the third alteration had in fact been done by knocking off, letter by letter, the previous one, somewhere down to the bricks, and then filling in the scars with new mortar, and subsequently writing out in ordinary oil paint—“1945.” As for the fourth layer, it could not reliably be ascertained whether it was the simple result of yet another alteration of some fickle human temperament or the accumulation of time, the change brought about by the rains that wash away or the beating down of the sun’s rays, the dampness, the heat, or the pecking of icy winds; that is, it consisted of nothing at all.
Carefully removing what remained of the previous inscriptions, the young man decided on a type of square, precisely drawn capital letters, and invoking his knowledge of Roman epigraphy, and having proportioned the Latin words and the spacing between the letters—wrote in the two lines:
It turned out well. And it was not lacking in dignity. Scriptura monumentalis. The clock in the apex of the triangular gable had no numbers, but it was still light out and one could determine that it was around three o’clock. Having fulfilled the request of his mysterious clients, the young man was now free, and so he decided to take another walk around the property. From the terrace, on the spot from which the pergola with late-blooming roses had been removed, he saw a man doing some kind of work. Adam Lozanić headed straight for him. No sooner had their eyes met than Adam felt remorse. The stooping man in his seventies, inconspicuously dressed, with some sort of little insignia in his lapel, ascetically thin, with a leaden pallor, his hair cropped close in military style, had rebuilt the pergola the way it was. Probably that Pokimica, surely the reader whose duty it was to take care of the garden, thought the young man, wishing to justify himself for this morning’s act. However, the glance that the man briefly deigned to cast on him discouraged Adam from attempting to say anything at all. Namely, Pokimica slowly straightened up, wiped his hands on his trousers, casually spat to the side, and then shot him a look full of scorn. Whereupon he turned his head and kneeled again, resuming his work about the late-blooming roses, doing nothing to indicate that besides him anyone else was there. Crestfallen, Adam Lozanić withdrew.
Where he was going—he wasn’t aware. From the French park he once more entered the dense vegetation. In order to forget the unpleasantness with the gardener, he began to consider the tiny forms with which nature abounded everywhere, only people usually didn’t notice them, occupied with their own overly important affairs. He discovered in the space between the branches of a tree the weave of the cosmically perfect spider web and its bowlegged master, who nimbly danced around a small fly that had just been caught. He saw the young caterpillar clinging to the bark of a wild chestnut tree, leaving behind itself the slimy threads of the recent toils of creation. He stepped over a column of black forest ants, busy dragging seeds and a dead cricket. He was startled by the cry of a peacock—which suddenly crossed his path. It seemed the bird had no intention of going away, craning its neck and spreading its plumage of blinding embers. And so he turned off the trail for a while, a cobweb caught on his face. He nearly stumbled over a molehill, and the noise disturbed a partridge on her roost and a squirrel. The bird flew off, and the small animal measured him with untrusting little eyes and fled into a thicket of briars, curiously enough still full of swollen fruit.
Through the dense willow trees came first a stray dragonfly, and then the flapping wings of a crane. The fishpond emerged in shimmers, and Adam now realized where he was in relation to the villa. The pond had a smooth, transparent surface, which sprang up from who knows where, and then, in miniature cascades—silently overflowed onto the next level, teeming with water lilies, lotuses, and other pond plants, fat frogs idling atop them. On the bottom of the pond, the young man observed quite clearly a school of spotted fish, wriggling around stones covered in dark green algae and a wine bottle with a slender neck, which half protruded from the settled mud. Where this water went to next, Adam didn’t know, because his attention was captured by the neighboring pavilion, a little house with latticed glass walls composed of myriad panes, inside of which flowing white linen drapes hung to the floor. Hesitating a moment, the young man knocked on the door twice and pushed the door knob, calling out:
“Is the owner here?”
Inside he found no one. The pavilion was actually a single stuffy room crowded with all manner of things. Entering, the young man caught sight of scores of large and small boxes, standing alone or stacked waist-high or even higher than himself; garden tools; a torn net for cleaning the fishpond and a mended one for catching butterflies; a forester’s hammer for marking tree trunks; a row of flowerpots with seedlings just beginning to sprout; an unmade bed and a cold hot-water bottle; a pair of steel-toed boots; grafting shears; a frayed straw hat; freckled eggs in a jar with some kind of liquid; in a corner, pieces of a broken porphyry bust of a woman; a bowl painted with Hellenistic motifs, a little more than halfway glued together; a bundle of surveyor’s rods; a ball of string; a small broom and one more broom of sorghum; a metal brush; rusty stirrups; on some kind of flower stand, a pair of copper coins and a silver buckle; beneath the stand a spatula; a rather thick herbarium from which protruded the stems of leaves; on the floor, assortments of stones, fragments of ceramics and colored glass, as well as slips of paper with some kind of numbers; and on a large table of rough-hewn planks, vials of India ink, a map scale, a pair of compasses, a protractor, a magnifying glass, a pair of pincers, and a map of the entire property, with various hachured areas, and little crosses and elevations drawn in, the sites of buildings and a vignette in the right-hand corner, where it was written in fine penmanship: “Imaginary reconstruction of the domain’s inception, 1:10,000, by Prof. D. Tiosavljević.”
Mojsilović inconsiderately pressed the doorbell. Adam recognized him by that inconsiderateness even before he peered through the peephole. The landlord actually didn’t remove his finger from the button—until the young man had opened the door.
“Lozanić, you sly bird, you’re not, perhaps, trying to hide from me?” leered the studio apartment’s owner, as if threatening with the handle of his closed umbrella.
“But, yesterday I left you a note that I’ll pay next week, as soon as I receive my fee from Our Scenic Beauty,” said Adam, wanting to be as brief as possible, since Mojsilović would never come around just to solve the matter of the disappearing water or to repair whatever else; he always came just to collect the rent.
“Eh, Lozanić, do you know how late you are? And what expenses I have! Do you have any idea how many elderly souls I’m carrying on my back? And how can I manage that if you are constantly telling me: tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow? Don’t think I’m not capable of renting this apartment right in the center of town for a lot bigger money!” Mojsilović never used the words studio apartment, but stubbornly used the phrase an apartment right in the center of town, thinking this would more than justify the dizzyingly high price.
“Next week . . .” Adam replied.
“And what will there be next week? If not another ‘next week’? You see what uncertain times these are. I know it’s not easy for you, I myself as a student had to make ends meet. But understand me, too . . .” Mojsilović’s customary tirade could not be easily curtailed; the young man thought that the landlord, of all the things he could have studied, had most certainly attended lectures in anatomy, in how to fleece someone but not kill him off completely, so that he would be able to continue paying.
“Next week, for sure . . .” said Adam, not offering much resistance, just trying not to prolong the conversation.
“Next week? That’s pretty uncertain. On Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday? Let it be on Monday. In the morning or afternoon? Noon at the latest. Besides, so it doesn’t turn out that I see absolutely everything in terms of money, I came to warn you. Your neighbor, who otherwise regularly pays his rent, complains to me that you make an unheard-of racket. He says that because of your speaking to yourself aloud he cannot work. Lozanić, I am not prepared to put up with that kind of behavior,” Mojsilović went on, again raising the handle of his umbrella; from such a type as he, one could expect a no less unpleasant situation.
“Listen, I’m not feeling well, come in the middle of next week. Now I have important work to do for which I’ll be very well compensated. Maybe then I’ll be able to pay you a few months in advance . . .” Adam said impatiently.
“In advance? That would be a very nice gesture on your part. And how far in advance?” The landlord softened.
“Yes, in advance and all at once. Five months . . .” the young man tried to convince him, corroborating his statement with an upraised hand, the fingers spread.
“But please be a little quieter . . .” replied Mojsilović, almost paternally now, already in quite a good humor. “And let’s see, one of these days, what can be done about that water of yours . . .”
“Of course, of course, goodbye to you, goodbye . . .” said Adam, and he closed the door.
Not caring that he hadn’t had a bite to eat since morning, the young man quickly went back to the open book. Burning with curiosity and a fever, he searched for the place where he had left off, where he had seen the mysterious map.
Nothing. Everything in the pavilion was in the spot it had been before, only he didn’t find the spread-out map on the table of rough-hewn planks. Someone had come in the meantime. Perhaps Professor Tiosavljević himself, perhaps some other reader, but who would know it now.
Overwhelmed by his thoughts, Adam returned to the villa by the same way he had come before. Pokimica was not there. The pergola stood in its utter beauty, just as it had been that morning. The first dusk lent the late-blooming roses a nuance of tragic red. The terrace-belvedere was deserted as well. In two of the rooms flickered the light of a candle. By the massive triple shadow in one of the window frames, the young man assumed that the unhappy Leleks had taken up residence there.
Circling the house around the east wing, Adam listened attentively at each of the three rear entrances, and hearing the clattering of dishes guessed behind which of the doors the kitchen was. Nor here did anyone answer his knocking, and the young man decided to go in. Unlike in the deserted pavilion, here he found someone bent over a rather thick book. A woman, very old, an apron over her dress with an embroidered hem, and holding a wooden spoon in her hand. In a flash she stopped leafing through the book and shouted out:
“Close the door! You’ll cool my dough! It’s just beginning to rise! Sit, wait, it’s not done yet!”
And Adam obeyed; he sat down at a table cluttered with piles of vegetables, lumps of butter in small dishes, a bowl of fresh cream, an oval tray with thick pieces of cleaned fish . . . The old woman was very loudly reading some sort of recipe from the tattered pages; he recognized the famous Great National Cookbook of Spasenija-Pata Marković, the very same one, but only somewhat newer, that his mother had at home. On the glowing plates of the wood stove, from a whole row of copper vessels, there came at every moment a crackling, a popping and a snapping, a gurgling, a spluttering and a sloshing, a sizzling, a simmering and a rattling . . . The housekeeper Zlatana, and it must have been she, took no notice of the newcomer, but instead shouted to her pots and pans, as if to that entire orchestra, having tuned it instrument by instrument, she were giving final instructions before the grand performance:
“Take one kilogram of sturgeon, a half kilogram of onions, and a quarter kilogram of fresh mushrooms, which should be boiled until tender before using. The sharp scales of the sturgeon are more difficult to remove than those of other fish; it is best that you scald it with boiling water and then peel off the skin; remove the gills and discard; chop the onions as finely as possible, add salt and then put them into a quarter liter of good olive oil and place on low heat to fry. When the onions are half fried, chop the mushrooms into small pieces and then add them to sauté together with the onions. When the onions have completely softened, add the fish cut into pieces and sauté for two minutes in the onions; during that time sprinkle on a little red pepper and ground white pepper and carefully stir with a wooden spoon. Then add warm water to the fish, but only enough to cover it, and cook for half an hour. While it is cooking do not stir the fish with the wooden spoon, but only shake the pan. Before removing the pan from the fire, add finely chopped parsley to the fish and bring to a slow boil. At that time remove the pan from the heat, serve on plates and place them on ice to cool!”
“To cool!” Only then did the old woman look at the youth. “Mm, how good this smells! So that it looks more picturesque, we’ll add peas and slices of cooked carrots, and on top more finely chopped parsley leaves! What good is a recipe if you can’t add something according to your own taste? What do you say, son?”
“It sounds good . . .” said Adam.
“What’s that? It’s not done yet! It’s not!” The old woman was stone deaf. “This is for tomorrow! Aspic of sturgeon! Lenten! Is tomorrow Wednesday?”
“Yes!” Adam shouted, too.
“But I tell you it’s not done yet!” The elderly housekeeper had heard nothing. “Dinner’s not ready! Wait a while!”
And the young man waited, watching how surprisingly spryly Zlatana went about her work, how she peeped under the covers of pots, carefully counted the rising bubbles, added water, skimmed off the froth, lighted a fire, opened and closed the draft of the stove, peeled, stuffed, grated, and strained, seasoned with pepper, salt, and sugar, cut into halves and quarters, and chopped, greased baking pans, rolled out dough with a pastry wheel, put into and removed things from the oven, occasionally shouting, as if to hear herself:
“Poach it, poach it!”
“There are too few ingredients written here, we’ll add another sprig of dill!”
Steam fogged up the walls of faience tiles with their idyllic motifs, it blurred the outlines of the hanging pots and pans, the small kitchen utensils, the stalks of dried plants, the little boxes of spices arranged in order . . . From the pleasant warmth Adam’s nose quite thawed out, and he reached more and more often for his handkerchief. All of a sudden the other door opened, the door by which the kitchen was connected to the interior of the house, and the young man recognized the girl with the bell-shaped hat, now, in fact, without it, but once again with a dictionary of English, this time a small one, under her upper left arm. And she, here!—he set to musing, while despite his cold he also recognized her smell, equally pleasant as it had been the day before, in the National Library.
“Soup coming right up, it’s almost done!” shouted Zlatana, addressing the girl as well.
The girl sat opposite the young man and absently nodded to him. Looking askance, he was able to see as she opened her dictionary and, underlining them with her finger, read out the words: waggle, wagon, wagtail, waif, wail, wainscot, waist, wait. She was so near that Adam Lozanić could discern each eyelash and brow, each strand of light red hair, so in contrast to the paleness of her regular features . . . She wore a linen traveling dress, the top two buttons undone; the lines of her neck seemed so delicate that Adam began to fear she would sense his glance. He didn’t dare to utter a thing, to add a thing . . .
Meanwhile, the housekeeper ladled soup from a pot into a lidded bowl, and along with two plates and two spoons, served everything on a tray and shouted once more:
“Here we are, say hello to Miss Dimitrijević and be careful not to spill the soup! I didn’t skimp on anything, I put in everything I was supposed to! By God, Natalija Dimitrijević is going to remember not only my cooking but even what she never tasted before—or my name isn’t Zlatana!”
The girl closed the dictionary, put it in a pocket of her dress, took the serving tray, and walked to where she had come in. The young man jumped up to assist her; he held the door; she thanked him with a kind of melancholy smile and disappeared down the narrow hallway into the interior of the mysterious house.
Returning to the table, Adam found placed there a bowl of soup, and so he started to eat, not knowing which was hotter—the contents of his spoon or the feeling of bliss which because of that smile crept over his flesh.
“Blow on it, child, so you don’t burn yourself!” roared the old Zlatana. “Blow! Now the rest of it will arrive, too!”
It was just as well. Some peculiar feeling of fullness began to make him drowsy. In the studio apartment it had grown quite dark. The neighbor was hammering on his laths. But nothing disturbed Adam Lozanić. Resting the pencil and open book on his chest, not undressing, he drew the blanket over himself and started to drift off to sleep. He dreamt he fell asleep in that same garden and that he felt someone’s breath on his cheek. He dreamt that he woke, that he raised himself up, and came eye to eye with—a splendid white unicorn. He dreamt how that mythical creature nestled its head on his shoulder. And then he dreamt, horrible nightmare—that he woke up and was unable to dream of anything more.
—translated from the Serbian by Peter Agnone