I found out where this idea of the candle and the cigarettes came from. The morning was quiet, but as though damned. At such times I reach frantically for the books on the shelves. I open them, leaf through them, put them down. An old bill fell out of one of them. On the page it slipped out of, in the last line, it said that every time you light a cigarette from a candle, somewhere in the world a sailor dies. This was a book by Dario, our former neighbour. He smoked a lot, lighting each cigarette from the last. Now Dario is somewhere out there in the wide world. And the sailors are in a harbour, somewhere on the sea, in a ship, in a tavern, in the bought embrace of some lady of the harbour … Are there any sailors where Dario is living now? On the other hand, if you were to thrust that sentence published long ago back at its author, perhaps he would not remember that he had written it.
Like in that film … was it called ‘Night’? A man and a woman come out of a house after a long, barren night that has made them strangers. They sit down on the grass. Dawn is breaking. She takes an old letter out of her handbag. She reads it aloud. Emphasising every sentence. Declarations of love, words of tenderness, swearing devotion till eternity … When she has folded the letter, she puts it back in her bag and looks enquiringly at the man. He asks:
‘Who wrote that to you?’
Dario’s ‘somewhere in the world’ is now America. Everyone has his own troubles, even if he isn’t in a besieged city. But he doesn’t have to think about matches and candles. He can switch on ten light bulbs and turn the room into a dazzling operating theatre with no dim corners nibbling at the space, where painful questions nest. He lights his cigarettes with a lighter. The first one in the morning with a lighter, and then through the day, each one from the last. When he uses up his lighter, or loses it, he buys a new one. He can choose a new colour and trademark every time. And he’s left the all sailors’ souls to us. He has off-loaded all their weight onto our weary souls that even sleep no longer spares.
‘Do you know Dario’s address in America?’
‘The writer Dario, Dario the writer.’
‘The writer? No, I don’t. Why do you need it?’
This morning I put only three matches in the tin. All three stink of old ash. There’s still room in the tin. When I toss it from one hand to the other, I hear cheerful sounds, the sounds of tiny souls sliding and bumping into each other. They are enjoying their loss of weight. Yesterday, when he saw me playing with the tin, the boy said:
‘You’re a child now. You’ve got a rattle. A really ugly one!’
Now I have to find a second tin. Until I find a better one, I’ll use the box that once held long, thick matches with yellow phosphorous tips. It says ‘Budapest’ on it. I was there once, but I don’t remember the building in the picture. It isn’t ugly. But it wouldn’t be worth going back there to see it.
This box won’t last long. It’s already worn at the edges. For the moment, there’s a little ball of paraffin wax resting in it.
He touches the little ball in my hand with his forefinger again. Now I feel the touch of his fingertip as well as the slight tickle of the little wax ball. In the morning I collect the little balls from the table and place them in a glass jar with the words Kompot švetsky on the label. There’s a picture of two blue plums under the first word. When I have collected a lot of little balls, I melt them into a narrow candle.
But this morning I also placed one wax ball in the box with Budapest written on it. That’s when it happened!
Nothing particular preceded it. It had been an ordinary day. He came home late. Not looking particularly tired. That silent membrane already covered the room. At around midnight he took a cigarette out of the half-empty packet, then put it to his lips, but before he had separated one lip from the other, he made the face people make when their nose is itching and their hands are full. He moved his lower jaw upwards and his lips moved towards the tip of his nose. His upper lip, comically pinched, touched his nose. Nothing special.
I don’t remember a single film scene where an actor did that before killing someone.
He reached for the candle with his right hand. He raised it, on its saucer, to which it was secured by a broad wax base. The saucer has a picture of a rococo lady in three colours on it. Grey, violet, gold. The lady is sitting on a swing and a long arc separates her from the young gallant who has, presumably, just pushed her away and is now waiting for her to come back. The wax base of the candle covered part of the picture. Part of the lady’s face was hidden. You could see her wig, with its comic curls. And the lady’s legs. They are painted violet and grey. Her feet are separated from one another and have little narrow shoes strutting on them. The little golden shoes of a rococo lady. When the picture is completely revealed and daylight reaches into the room everything looks somehow different. Deprived of colour and action.
The candle in his hand was raised to the tip of the cigarette. A trickle of wax ran down the thin stalk out of the hollow round the wick. It covered the lady’s left leg. For a time the leg could be made out under the little transparent pool of paraffin, until it cooled, solidified and became an opaque blot. Musing on the lady’s leg, I forgot the sailor standing on the deck of a ship sailing from one continent to another. He was pressing tobacco into a pipe with his broad thumb. He had turned his back to the wind. Did he strike a match? He raised it to his pipe. And fell. As though struck down. As when one player’s pawn knocks out his opponent’s and it is no longer in his way.
He is smoking. He was away for three days and two nights. In the besieged city men have duties that keep them out of the house a lot. Should I tell him that the night before he left he killed a sailor? I’ll tell him. I’ll tell him tomorrow:
‘Put out your hands. Palms up.’
I’ll put the tin on his left hand, and the box that once held long matches on his right hand. I’ll step away and say:
‘Those are the souls you’ve saved and one you didn’t.’
Will he feel their different weight?
My God, in these giant amoebas, in their silent membranes, words and games acquire a weight that should be forgotten with the morning.
‘Give me a cigarette!’
‘Since when have you smoked?’
‘Since this evening ….’
He taps the packet lightly and a cigarette slides out of it. I take it with the fingers of my right hand, with my left I lift up the saucer with the candle. A trickle of wax runs down the thin candle and in an instant the rococo lady’s other leg disappears as well. Just the tip of one little shoe peers out, no bigger than the sharp end of a needle.
The lady is completely smothered by the wax base. Besides, her smiling gallant who is waiting for her to come back to him in an arc on the swing … There, he’s vanished. Their coquettish game has been stilled by the hard pool of wax.
Now we are tranquil. For a moment at least. I inhale the cigarette smoke inexpertly and cough. There are no more sailors whose lives and souls depend on our tiny actions and decisions, weariness and forgetfulness. There are no more ladies and gallants whose game is in our hands. Just the two of us, alone, waiting for sleep. Today more people died in the besieged city. Perhaps their names and pictures in the obituaries will one day feed some future story. Like wax which you shape into a little ball and when it cools, drop onto someone’s open hand.
I shan’t throw away those two boxes. I shan’t empty them. I’ll leave them somewhere, in one of the dark corners that gnaw at the square shape of the room. When this is all once again brilliantly lit up one day, shall I find them?
Shall I ask:
‘Who left this here?’
Shall I be able to say:
Alma Lazarevska is a Bosnian prose writer and graduate of the Faculty of Philosophy (University of Sarajevo). Her work has been translated into French, German and English, and included in an anthology of women writers from East and Central Europe: ‘Voices in the shadows: women and verbal art in Serbia and Bosnia’ (Central European University Press, 1999).
Celia Hawkesworth worked for many years as Senior Lecturer in Serbian and Croatian at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College, London. Among her many translations are two works by Dubravka Ugrešić: ‘The Museum of Unconditional Surrender’, shortlisted for the Weidenfeld Prize for Literary Translation, and ‘The Culture of Lies’, winner of the Heldt Prize for Translation in 1999.
Editor’s note: ‘How We Killed The Sailor’ appears in Alma Lazarevska’s collection ‘Death in the Museum of Modern Art’ (Istros Books, 2014, trans. Celia Hawkesworth), and is republished online with kind permission from the publisher.