By Uršuľa Kovalyk
Translated from Slovak by Julia Sherwood
A yellow butterfly fluttered around the red ribbon buried in her gray hair. Taking the little bucket from my hands, Miss Priska emptied the coffee dregs onto the ground next to the tree. I watched the earth absorb the remnants of our morning Turkish coffee. The butterfly performed an elegant maneuver to taste the wet, coffee-flavored soil. “I hope it won’t give it a heart attack,” I said but the old lady just waved it away, sending a stream of water from her hose onto the gnarled apricot tree. It must have been in our courtyard for at least a century. Miss Priska was seventy-four, with a gorgeous shock of silvery hair. She lived alone in a first floor apartment with a little garden, surrounded by an enormous brick wall. In spite of her seventy-four years she was out there every day tending her fringed Dutch tulips, purple irises and sugar-puff-like pink hydrangeas. “Coffee and Elvis, there’s nothing better to give a girl a lift,” she said, slowly walking over to her apartment to turn up the record player. The tree’s branches swayed in the draft generated by ‘I Got a Woman’. Miss Priska was an Elvis Presley fan. An aged Elvis Presley fan, to be precise. If it hadn’t been for her wrinkled face and white hair I would have thought this was a crazed girl in a fifties polka-dot dress from Christian Dior. She listened to the King of Rock every day, humming to the flowers in her husky voice on long summer afternoons. Her apartment was crammed with the looniest assortment of trinkets bearing Elvis’s likeness: sugar bowls, glasses, doilies, statuettes and plates; she even owned a toothbrush adorned with his portrait. That she never used. Displayed in a goblet behind glass it looked as if Elvis had only just finished brushing his teeth. “He’s a kindred soul,” she would say, knowingly caressing a wall hanging showing a life-sized Elvis microphone in hand. “We might have met if it hadn’t been for the Pond, but who would have wanted to cross the Atlantic?” she added with a gesture indicating she wasn’t going soft in the head.
Miss Priska was the oldest resident on our block. The only thing possibly older than her was the fruit tree that she looked after affectionately. She was lonely. Over the years she had lost her siblings and most of her friends had been pushing up daisies for a quite a while. She knew the history of every apartment around the courtyard. She remembered old gossip and long-forgotten love triangles. “The only ones left are me and her,” she said, pointing toward the old tree with a chin that made her look like a storybook picture of an old witch. The apricot tree had borne no fruit for years. That didn’t stop Miss Priska from tending to it with touching care. She would prune it, hoe around it, and treat it with fertilizer. She kept looking for new recipes guaranteed to give the tree a new lease on life so that she could taste its wondrously delicious fruit once again. “You wouldn’t understand unless you’d tasted it. It’s a rare variety. A Turkish pasha brought it straight from Istanbul as a gift for Miss Eržika! Eržika had lived on the third floor and the Turk fell madly in love with her after they met at a health resort. Now they’re both long gone, you see? But the apricot tree is still here!”
For a whole month the smell of apricot jam kept prizing open the windows of our block with its finger. It tweaked the noses of the sweet-toothed neighbors. They sat watching TV, salivating onto their carpets. Apricot jam, stewed apricots, apricot butter, dried apricots, apricot custard. I must have hauled tons of sugar from the shop and still the tree wouldn’t stop bearing fruit. Every morning its branches were freshly laden, forcing Miss Priska to store the preserves in very available space, including the bathroom. “Would you like some apricots?” she kept badgering the neighbors, who just shook their heads in refusal. The fruit fell to the ground, rotting and fermenting, but Miss Priska kept at her labors tirelessly. “This is crazy,” I said one evening, after making one of my regular deliveries of sugar. Priska dipped her hand into a baby bath full of squashed apricots and said with a devilish smile: “I’ve discovered a brilliant recipe for apricot shampoo, it’s supposed to make one’s hair grow like nothing on earth!” I glanced at Priska’s gray hair, twisted into a giant bun. “You should stop now or all this preserving will drive you completely crazy!” She shook her head stubbornly. “Just look at the tree, my dear!” The apricot tree was still heavy with vast quantities of fruit. Every inch of it was covered in small, velvety, yellow and red balls. By now the tree resembled an apricot tart melting in the sun. Huge amounts of sweet fruit lay rotting around it. Fat wasps circled the banquet, their fussy buzzing audible to everyone in the house. Miss Priska stopped sleeping. She started playing her Elvis rather more loudly than appropriate and kept collecting the fruit tirelessly. Every morning she found more on the tree’s branches.
The omnipresent sweetish smell irritated my stomach. I kept having to visit the toilet and be sick. I noticed that where my hands had touched the apricots they had changed. The skin became tauter and more supple. They looked like smooth little baby hands. Without any lines, hangnails or blotches. Miss Priska started to change, too. Her complexion became taut and smooth. Wrinkles vanished from her face, her gray hair was transformed into fresh black tresses and she looked years younger. With brisk steps she darted around the garden to the rhythm of the music, looking like a schoolgirl in her hideous polka-dot dress.
“Miss Priscilla, please try at least not to play your music full blast or you’ll get yourself sectioned,” I warned her, worn out by these antics. She just tilted her head back and shouted in abandon: “So what? Should I kill myself just because I feel like partying?”
I was getting seriously concerned about her. The changes in her behavior, her unnatural rejuvenation and her deranged laughter convinced me that Miss Priska had succumbed to some mysterious mental illness. “Please, no more preserves. Please!” I implored. But she just kept stuffing apricots into my mouth. One night I had a strange dream. I was standing in Priscilla’s garden and felt my body getting bigger, swelling up and rounding out until I turned into a giant ball. My legs and arms disappeared and I was rolling towards the fringed tulips. My skin suddenly burst open, a weird yellow liquid seeping from what used to be my navel. I woke up with an overwhelming sense of disgust. The sweat-covered sheets and a bad premonition made me get up and walk down to Miss Priska’s. I found her apartment door open and the place empty. Music was playing in the room crammed with bric-a-brac and Elvis’s portraits. The plaintive tones of a Spanish guitar meandered among endless rows of jars. ‘Love me tender, love me sweet,’ sang the velvety voice and it was as if Presley were standing right there in the kitchen playing especially for her. I went into the garden. It was illuminated with striped paper lanterns and a full moon that was like an orange-colored fizzy vitamin C tablet. Priscilla stood in the yellow light, stark naked. The long black hair cascading down her naked back reminded me of a flowing river. The skin on her body seemed to vibrate as if crawling with ants. “Priscilla!” I called out but the woman didn’t respond. Suddenly she began to dance. Gently swaying to the sound of the guitar, she drew invisible signs in the air, swinging her hips lasciviously. She turned around. I gasped at her firm, rejuvenated, rhythmically swaying breasts. Her eyes were closed and her face bore the kind of expression you see in people who are about to leap to their death from the eighth floor. I felt goose bumps on my arms and a hard lump swelling in my throat. The naked woman danced slowly toward the apricot tree. And then she began to grow smaller. She kept shrinking and shrinking and before I could reach her, she had disappeared for good. The apricot tree absorbed her in the very spot where she used to pour out the coffee dregs. By now there was no fruit on the tree, only peeling bark, black, as if scorched by fire. I noticed something crawling on the tree. A thousand tiny little girls sat on the blackened branches dangling their feet. They all wore fifties polka-dot dresses by Christian Dior. I noticed that all the miniature Miss Priskas were giggling about something. One mini-Priska noticed me. As she pointed her finger at me all the other little girls fell silent. A thousand pairs of eyes bored into mine. The sweat pouring off me smelled of fear. “Miss Priska, what’s happened to you?” I stammered. A sinister smile spread across their faces. “I’m not Priska,” they squeaked in unison, “I’m Apricot”, echoing each other in endless repetition. Their high-pitched voices kept getting louder and mingled with Elvis’s song to the point where everything merged into an intolerable cacophony. I was in pain. Blood came streaming from my ears, coloring my pajamas red. The little Apricots waved to me cheerfully. I ran off in terror.
Uršuľa Kovalyk is a poet, fiction writer, playwright and social worker. She is the director of the Theatre With No Home, which features homeless and disabled actors. She has published two collections of short stories and two novels, ‘Žena zo sekáča’ (The Second-hand Woman 2008) and ‘Krasojazdkyňa’ (The Circus Rider, 2013).
Julia Sherwood is a freelance translator. She grew up in Czechoslovakia, has lived in Germany and the UK and is currently based in Chapel Hill, NC. Her book-length translations include ‘Samko Tále’s Cemetery Book’ by Daniela Kapitáňová and ‘Freshta’ by Petra Procházková. She is Asymptote’s Editor-at-large for Slovakia and chairs the NGO Rights in Russia.