By Alma Lazarevska
Translated from Bosnian by Celia Hawkesworth
If I mentioned it, he’d say I was being petty and that was unworthy of me. He’d close his eyes and, as though he were speaking about someone who wasn’t in the room, he’d say:
‘I’ll count to three to make it go away. There, she didn’t say a thing. One, two three. Forgotten!’
That’s what he did when I pointed out that he was spreading the margarine too thickly on his slices of bread; when I remarked that he had given away almost the entire contents of the package of humanitarian supplies that the inhabitants of the besieged city occasionally receive. All he’d left us was a little packet of green mints. I once told him they reminded me of my grandmother who had died long ago — my mother’s blueeyed mother who was never hungry. It’s true that we still had the cardboard packing. It burns well, but we won’t use it. The inscription on it and the list of contents may one day feed some future story.
He closed his eyes and counted to three when he noticed … but I won’t say what. Maybe I’ll use that too, when the shame passes, to feed some bitter story. For the time being, let it be forgotten.
The room had lost its box-shape. The light of the thin candle didn’t reach its corners. It created a dim, uneven oval that shifted lazily if an unexpected current of air happened to touch its tiny wick. There was a transparent, trembling film over us. The few objects that were bathed in dim light, and the two of us, made up the inside of a giant amoeba. We were its organs, pulsating in the same rhythm, but not touching. Is an ‘amoeba’ that single-celled organism covered by a transparent membrane we looked at down the school microscope? If you touched the drop of water it was floating in with the tip of a needle, it would slowly curl up. Right now in the besieged city, where tonight no fiery balls are falling and no whistling bullets are being fired from the other side of the encircling ring, there are thousands of membranes hovering like this. The people in these bubbles of light are silent. Frightened, tired or indifferent, they are silent. Or listening. Hoping for sleep. To overwhelm them and spare them this vigil.
He had lit five cigarettes that evening and each time he used a new match. He put the dead match down in the saucer by the candle. In the ashtray lay cigarette butts and the narrow red band from the cigarette packet.
‘Why are you doing that?’
I sensed that sleep wouldn’t come for a long time yet. But, as I uttered the question I was aware that it was
He didn’t reply.
Now I had a reason to be angry and speak.
‘Why are you doing that?’
I didn’t care what was worthy of me and what wasn’t. He looked at me and waved his hand, as though removing invisible headphones from his ears. He’d put them down for a moment and focus on me and my impatience.
‘Doing … what?’
‘Using matches to light your cigarettes!’
‘What am I supposed to use?’
Now he was prepared to put his invisible headphones properly away. He was interested in learning something new, something he hadn’t heard before. He was expecting me to tell him where the sun could rise apart from in the east. That someone was killed every day on his daily route through town, that he already knew.
‘The candle! You know yourself that we don’t have enough matches. They’re hard to find. The candle’s alight, so use it for your cigarettes.’
There were already too many words in our silent bubble. Added together and expressed like this, they were all unworthy. Without them, we would just have been two organs pulsating to the same rhythm until they were overcome by sleep.
He looked at me as though he was standing in front of a stupid child who understood nothing and who had to have everything painstakingly explained to it.
‘You can’t … what?’
‘Light cigarettes with a candle!’
‘Every time a person does that, someone dies somewhere in the world.’
Besides, whatever he did, at least one person died somewhere in the world every second. There were even cold statistics about that. In the books that the candlelight didn’t reach. That was why, suddenly and unexpectedly, his answer put me under an obligation, like a holy rule whispered into the ear of an unwilling novice.
Maybe one day I’ll scatter all those matches into his hand and say:
‘That’s how many people you’ve saved from dying!’
Then red-hot balls will no longer be falling on the besieged city and people in it will not die from tiny pieces of hot iron in their bodies. They will again die of illness and old-age. There will be light bulbs again and no one will be obliged to light cigarettes from candles. That will only happen in films.
I’ve been collecting the dedicated matches for three days now. I put them into an empty Solea cream tin with ‘contents: 250g’ written on it. But even if it didn’t, I can assume from its size that it can hold another hundred or so matches. Sometimes I miss one and it ends up in the ashtray. In the morning I dig it out from under the butts. After that, the tips of my forefinger and thumb stink all day and the child frowns when I touch the end of his nose.
The matches he lays beside the saucer with the candle don’t stink. There is even something agreeable about the slightly piquant smell from the phosphorous tip that remains even after it’s extinguished. When I take the lid off the tin and count the matches, I’m aware only of the left-over smell of the cream. It is sweetish, like a woman’s deodorised armpit in summer. Huddling in them, resting, are the souls that have been saved. There are twenty-five of them for now. When I close the tin, they come to life. I listen in to the sounds they make while the tin rests on my hand. Twenty-five saved souls rest in my hand. Today in the besieged city fifteen people were killed by one fiery ball (sent from the dark hill where the bad people went). No one had wanted to save them. I’ll see their faces tomorrow in the newspaper obituaries. What about these saved souls in my hand? How old are they? What are their faces like? How much good is there in them? Do they know that there is a besieged city somewhere in the world with the saviours of their souls in it?