Aggie Zivaljevic's story Eva's Room won third place in the Summer Literary Seminars 2012 Unified Literary Contest, judged by Mary Gaitskill. Joyland will be publishing several of the finalists over the fall.
After the sun sets behind the bakery, and the sky turns a dark Prussian blue, the children feverishly play their sweetest games before being called in. From the hilltop they see how the downtown lights cast a golden glow on the glass dome of the City Hall, in the center of old Sarajevo. They hear the rattling of the streetcars below, and the barking of stray dogs in the Mt. Trebevic suburbs. The twilight breeze lures them with the river’s scent. Brothers and sisters can always go home and play or fight, but children without siblings cannot.
Eva cannot go home now. The yellow jersey shorts, showing her bronzed legs to the boys, and her mother’s buying power to the neighbors, are ruined. Eva’s mother Stella bought them for her eleventh birthday.
"Look at this pretty knitted fabric," Stella told her. "Just look at the chain stitches on the face side and these purl stitches on the back. Eva, feel how smooth it is. The elastic waistband stretches, so you can wear them next year too. Oh, aren’t they so, so cute and comfy? You can wear them with your purple smock."
And now, only one day after, Eva has a gaping hole in the back of her new shorts. Stella and Eva are different from everybody else. Their stylish wardrobe shows that it is not Stella’s fault that her husband’s red playboy Citroen has not been seen in front of their house for months. Eva has overheard the housewives gossiping on the other side of the crooked wooden fence, from behind the sheets on the clothesline. "He dumped her, didn’t he? So much for her good looks. She couldn’t keep that wolf Gvozden on a leash. Well, the fact that she’s moved back here with her old mother tells it all. Ma on ti je zenskaros kakvog mu nema ravna!"
Eva remembers how her babysitter’s house felt at night, before they lived with her Grandma. She was seven then and after cleaning the dirt between her toes in the warm kitchen, she would be sent to bed. Her babysitter would turn the lights off and shut the bedroom door. Eva used to look at the lights of her parents’ home across the street, their silhouettes moving in the window like dolls in the puppet theater, the tall shadow’s arms swiveling up and down at the smaller slumped shadow. Stella sometimes rushed in to give her a quick kiss. Eva would cling to Stella’s neck and cry, "Don't leave me here, Mama! Why do I have to sleep here?"
Then one night Stella said, "You can come home with me, tonight. Quickly, take your doll. And, tomorrow we are going to Grandma’s house. Just you and me, my treasure." At home, Mama gave her a bath. She kept saying, "Let’s scrub that foreign scent from you. Eva, you smell like somebody else’s house. I want you to smell like me and you." Eva noticed the glow of the lamps. It had been a long time since she was allowed to spend the night at home. She didn’t know how the soft, yellow light made everything look magic, like a toy store window. She knew better than to ask about her daddy. She dressed her doll for the trip and whispered to her, "We are going to Grandma’s house tomorrow. Just Mama, you and me, my treasure."
Now that the shorts are ruined, her mother is going to be very upset. Eva's brand new shorts, made of the softest cotton-poly jersey are torn. She wants to scream, I can’t go home now! Her girlfriends are still playing monkey in the middle. Her best friend Lidia throws the ball to Eva, while Diana tries to snatch it and misses again. What do they know? Lidia’s mother keeps neat rows of fresh ironed linens in her bedroom closet. Lidia’s flowered blouses all have the same, fresh-laundered scent. The scent of freckled girls playing happily ever after. Eva can smell their dimples, their pixie noses, their sweetness. It makes her sick. Lidia's mother packs Lidia’s lunch every morning and gives her extra pocket money for a rum-plocica and a fresh kifla. Men never turn their heads after Lidia's mother on the street to check out her legs. Nobody ever teases Lidia's mother for being her daughter’s older sister. Lidia does her homework at the kitchen table, her father takes a nap on the living room couch. Their small Fiat 750, nicknamed ’Fico’ sits firmly in front of their apartment building.
Eva and Stella live in the guest room; the rest of the house belongs to Eva’s Grandma. It’s as if they’re locked overnight in one-room furniture store. They have everything, except nothing serves its original purpose. On the left is Stella’s yellow kitchen cupboard where Eva keeps her school books and clothes. Her mother’s opera record collection is in the empty kitchen sink. The huge wardrobe is full of Stella’s skirts, dresses, blouses, hats, handbags, shawls, nylons, bras, lace panties - all untidy, every which way, as topsy-turvy as Stella’s hectic morning decision about what to wear to work. There is a record player on the night table, a large bed where they both sleep, two green armchairs, a mahogany coffee table, and an antique bronze table mirror that they call Psyche, meaning soul in ancient Greek. On the right is the black upright Chernoff piano, Czerny’s scales practice sheets, a petrol furnace heater, a bookshelf with hardcover collections of Bromfield, Balzac, the Bronte sisters, Cronin, Zola, Hemingway, Zane Grey, Karl May. Above the bed are Stella’s framed gobelin tapestries. Eva’s doll basket, and a shoe-box with fabric swatches are next to the furnace. She’s a perfect eleven-year-old mother to her baby doll. Eva has a small stool where she sits in the evenings, and reads to her baby doll from her favorite adventure book Winnetou. Eva is in love with the chief of the Apache. She carries the book everywhere with her. The boys chant after Eva,
If you’re smart,
Come when I fart
And count till two!
Eva believes she can see her soul in the bronze table mirror, a girl riding on a wild mustang on the prairies and the mountains of the West of America.
In the evening Eva watches I Love Lucy with her Grandma on a black-and-white television in the kitchen, while her mother is in their room, sitting upright in the bed needle-pointing. Next to her mother is an enamel box full of cotton embroidery floss imported from France and the Wiehller’s Gobelin Tapestry Catalogue from Germany. Stella wants to order the Island of Death kit next. Stella told Grandma when her husband comes back with his tail between his legs, she will show him three years’ worth of her embroidery work, proof that she wasn’t sleeping around despite the fact that he went into orbit with a nineteen-year-old mistress. With every stitch of her Petit Point embroidery, she makes a statement to the world, "I am the faithful one." She separates all six strands, then puts two back together again. She threads the embroidery floss through a needle. She measures the thread length from the tip of her middle finger to the bend of her elbow. She follows a chart and counts the stitches. The needle goes down and up on a cotton aida fabric, its edges protected from unraveling by machine zigzagging. Stella counts the rows of slanted stitches. She has made Good friends, Tempest, Accordionist, Lavinia with Fruits, Horses on the Well, Birch Trees, Sunflowers, Autumn Leaves, Winter Night. She hung them on the walls in gold ornamented frames.
Eva thinks of ways to cheer her mother up. She vacuums, mops, dusts, and polishes. She puts the embroidered runner on the table, makes the bed, picks flowers from the garden and then waits for praise. But the runner is wrinkled, and she wasn’t supposed to pluck from Stella’s scarlet tulips.
Eva spends hours daydreaming about the perfect house for Stella. It should have a sofa in the middle of the living room like the one on I Love Lucy. It will have yellow curtains and cupboards lined with parchment paper with decorative lace edges. It’s the place where Eva will find fire and roof, a temporary shelter whenever she leaves her true home in the wilderness. As for herself, she will need only her medicine bag and a good horse. Her room is a broad open space adorned with birds’ nests and berries.
Lidia loves to come over to Eva’s room. She likes the unruly life without a father, the flowers, the dressing gowns, the women’s magazines, the scent of powder. Stella, with her auburn hair and hand made dresses as seen in the fashion magazines, is glamorous, like a theater actress. Her family’s furniture is like a stage set. Every day after school, Eva and Lidia sneak into Eva’s backyard, as not to disturb her napping Grandma. The house is one story, white stucco, its paint peeling in large paper-thin sheets. Eva likes to step on the paper-thin sheets and watch them crumble into white dust, like spilled flour, like powder, like snow. Eva and Lidia climb up the small stool, move the curtain, and enter the room through the open window, pretending they’re entering the theater stage. They make a list of things to do,
chat as fast as we can
go to bathroom
They play Stella’s vinyl opera records, and twirl until the dance exorcises the longing in their bodies. They eat pate de fois-gras sandwiches from a bed-tray. There is a porcelain candy bowl on the table, full of cream chocolates. The white filling is better than pink or brown. As they sit sucking on chocolates Lidia writes on cutout paper hearts, "Please, I want a boyfriend. My name is Lidia." Eva scribbles, "This is Eva. Sejo is my dream." They fold the notes into miniature balls and exchange their secrets. Sejo hangs out every evening in front of the corner store. Eva likes him because of his unkempt hair, his long bangs that always get into his eyes. She loves when he tosses his head back to pull the hair from his face, his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. He never carries a school bag. Stella warned her to stay away from that jalijas. Eva imagines Sejo lying on his bed and reading, surrounded by a pile of thick hardcover books. He's not a hoodlum, no matter what Stella says!
One day Eva does not get up. She remains in bed crying the entire day. Winnetou, the noble chief of the Apache has died on page 256, from a bullet in his chest. Under her pillow Eva keeps the medicine bag with dismembered pieces of Bettina, the fashion doll her father gave her for her ninth birthday, and the toy gun he gave her for her tenth.
A few days after Eva's eleventh birthday, her father Gvozden glides down the block, accompanied by a flock of Gypsy children, attracted by his shiny red car with red leather upholstery. He sends one to fetch Eva. When Gvozden does not come to the front door himself, Stella adds some more blood-red lipstick, licks her lips, fluffs her red hair, and soothes her red chiffon sundress with wide shoulder straps. She says to Eva, "Go on. I think I will go to Slavica na kafu." Eva’s new dress is identical, with rose print, pleated bottom ruffle and patch pockets, made from scratch by Stella on her smart purchase, a Singer sewing machine. Eva’s head is full of instructions about the virtues of her mother’s life, in case Gvozden wants to know. But he never asks.
Her daddy opens the door for her and says, "Eva, you’re all grown-up." His car smells like a barber shop and a delicatessen. His long white fingers grip firmly the red steering wheel. He takes her downtown shopping, to the Bascarsija, the old Turkish market quarter. They go into a men’s tailor shop and Gvozden buys two business suits with geometrical patterns of squares and diagonal stripes. Their earth colors and zigzag lines are something like a reptile’s. He pays with a single bank note from a bundle in his leather wallet. They both blink at the spring sun outside. Gvozden carries two parcels wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. Eva stuffs her hands in the pockets of her dress, and follows him down a narrow cobblestone street with sweetshops with pistachios halvah and baklava on both sides. Street vendors sell bunches of violets and cyclamen picked on the Mt. Trebevic slopes. Marshal Tito Boulevard's consignment shops have dirty windows and dead flies among smuggled goods. They pass by the toyshop with a baby doll carriage, the cobbler’s shop with the lustrous black shoes with ankle straps, and by the bazaar with spools of satin hair ribbons. Gvozden stops by an improvised book booth in front of the National Museum. A traveling salesman sits on a wooden crate and cuts sausage with a pocket knife on greasy butcher paper in his lap.
"What do we have here, a little bookworm?" the salesman says.
Gvozden picks up a hardcover book and asks for a pen. He writes something below the title The Call of the Wild on the first page. "Write me a letter and let me know what you think of it," he says, handing the book to Eva.
When Eva bursts into the house, feverish from the spring air, her cheeks flushed by the warm south wind, Stella doesn’t lift her eyes from her sewing. She is sitting on the bed, propped up on a stack of pillows, patching Eva's torn shorts. She’s still wearing her red sundress.
Her voice is dry, "Go and wash, Eva. You smell funny."
Eva takes her new book to the bathroom, turns to a random page and reads, "Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest..."
Eva washes her face with cold water, and combs her hair. In front of the mirror she opens the book again and reads Gvozden’s inscription: One spring day in May, Eva and her daddy discovered this book together. Perhaps the book found them? She dashes to Stella and sprawls on the bed next to her and shows her what her father gave her for her birthday. Stella marks the spot on the gobelin chart and bites the floss off with her teeth. She tucks the needle into the pincushion.
"Did he ask about me?"
"No, but he said although you two are separated, he can see that I’m my father’s daughter," Eva replies in one breath.
"My poor lamb, dusice moja, did you know that your father was so jealous of my love for you, I had to leave you at the babysitter’s house every night? Night after night, for more than a year." She paused. "He devoured my heart, Eva."
They lie on the bed next to each other, gazing at the low ceiling. Their red, matching dresses appear stitched together, until Eva moves to embrace Stella, and rips its fanciful seam.