T.M. De Vos is the author of Cimmeria (Červena Barvá Press, 2016); a 2015 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow; and an instructor at Writing Workshops Detroit.
Vi’s eyelids fluttered. Someone’s hand was on her arm, cool and hygienic. The flight attendant, her polite Fraulein? and a request, not yet dissolved in the air.
Of course, Vi said. She jerked her seat upright, and the cool prints lifted off her forearm.
Vi was always grateful to speak German, no matter how mundane the conversation. The language was beautiful to her, the words rattling around in her mouth like a too-big lozenge. She had always been German, private and correct. Even though private had been impossible in her part of the world: someone claimed her language, claimed her as soon as she opened her mouth. Sorting her as Macedonian instead of Albanian or Turkish. A snob who spoke in crisp literaturno instead of her parents’ homespun seloski. Pinning her down to her family name, her street, her house—the one that had stood empty for three weeks now, since her father’s heart had failed.
Vi had gotten the call late at night, from an uncle, and flown out the next afternoon. She was going back today to clear out the house. Back to the village, where she would be noticed, stared at, discussed. The small-town girl turned bacteriologist, the village educated out of her. In Frankfurt, people glanced past each other, following the unwritten contract not to stare, not to interfere.
Skopje would have been the same, Vi had to admit. Cities had their own culture. She looked down at it tilting beneath her, hemmed in by mountains and great rhomboid fields. The plane dipped, circling smokestacks from the factory outside town, then twin minarets. She closed her eyes again.
. . .
Vi found her native language at the rental-car counter: an old, faster gear she hadn’t used in some time. She glanced at her phone: two missed calls, one from each uncle. Her mother’s brothers. They lived in America, their houses in the village abandoned ’til they rolled in each June.
As soon as her father’s body was cold, they’d started ringing her up. What would she do with the house? Would she keep it? She should turn it over to them; they knew what to do.
Vi clicked back to her home screen and tried to unclench her stomach. She could keep the place—come in once a month, pick up groceries on the way. Pull her car all the way into the garden and lock herself in with Teo. If they wanted to go out, they could go to Tetovo.
She flinched. Not Tetovo. It felt hostile now, the names on the storefronts strung with Qs and double vowels. Macedonians went in the other direction—towards Skopje. We respect each other, her father had insisted when Vi complained about the tension. But he never made the mistake of walking into the wrong kafana. No one did. There were even two hair salons. Two of everything, in a village of 500.
“Fala dep.” Vi nodded as the boy presented the plasticky interior of an Opel Astra. It smelled like a clean ashtray: incinerated, nothing human in it. He slammed the trunk over her luggage and gave the hatchback a tap, sending her off.
. . .
Vi drove away, tentative at first, then acclimating to the gummy stick of the transmission. Off the ring road, the landscape began to solidify: signs announcing Shishevo selo, and later, Zhilche, where storks rocked on the edges of their sloppy nests. She treaded patiently behind an old man in a tractor until he rattled off onto a dirt road, a village over from Vi’s.
She cut a sharp right and inched up the only real street, dodging the chickens in front of the Roma family’s house. A cluster of Albanian men, heads covered by white kecinija, brushed by on their way into the teahouse. They stared curiously through the windshield at Vi, but she looked through them, drumming her fingertips on the wheel. Other Macedonian girls kept their eyes down, even if the men nudged each other or whistled. Vi lifted her chin, daring them. She pressed the gas pedal, making the engine growl, and the men hopped out of the way. Vi’s heart surged at the small victory.
She checked the time on the digital display. Only an hour on the ground, and she was already acting tribal. How could she think of keeping the house? Of living here beyond the weekend? Did she think she was safe? That this whole powder keg wouldn’t ignite again, someday? She might even light it herself, fed up with those crawling eyes.
. . .
In front of the house, Vi hopped out and undid the wire locking the gate. She tossed the rusty snarl into the ditch and rolled past the doghouse and wild garden. The Astra’s door had a tinny slam, like a can being tossed.
Vi lifted her roller bag out and dragged it upstairs. She left it in the hall, not committing to a room. It was dark up here, the shutters latched and covered in heavy sheets. Vi’s father had only come up for emergencies: to free a trapped bird, to mend a crack in the plaster. After Vi’s mother had died over a decade ago, he’d confined himself to a single downstairs bedroom and the summer kitchen. The finished second story he left unheated, opening it only for Vi, when she visited.
She could have taken the other bedroom downstairs, on the opposite side of the summer kitchen. “I like it,” she’d protested, and it was true: the rough umber walls reminded her of a Pompeiian villa. But he insisted, so she complied, as if it were unseemly for a man and his grown daughter to sleep on the same floor of a house. It was the kind of thing her mother would have cared about: appearances, keeping a floor between them for decency.
So Vi tiptoed over his head after he went to bed—ten sharp—and brought the coffee down each morning. The abandoned kitchen, still fully stocked, had been her mother’s court. Vi stepped in and eyed the clay pot, the wooden mallets and spoons, strung up on nails. No slick gadgets like the ones at the home store in Frankfurt. In Vi’s own clean square kitchen, there was only chrome and tile. Nothing porous, nothing that wicked up oil, vinegar, blood. Juice, her mother had corrected, blotting the crimson flow from a roast.
Every animal and vegetable that had fed her family was recorded here, in the root-scented air. Vi imagined rods of Bacillus and Pseudomonas dotting the surfaces like chocolate sprinkles.
She slammed her throat shut, willing the tide of airline coffee back down. Swallowing hard, she clattered downstairs, into the summer kitchen. She would start in her father’s little cell, where things were simple: just a few cupboards, an old fridge. A folding table and a single chair, gnawed at the feet.
Vi opened the cupboards on an ancient skillet, seasoned with seventeen years of cutlets, and a small army of mismatched mugs. The pantry was heartbreaking: tied-off bags of salt, mountain spice, seeds, a few dried peppers that turned to dust under Vi’s touch. The refrigerator was worse, its autumn chill preserving the ends of three tough pork steaks and a half-empty jar of pickles. No wonder her father had turned to sinew, his own skin big on him.
Vi’s mother had been the opposite, a swollen gourd of a woman in quilted housecoats. With food, she was insatiable, bullying. She took second helpings, and thirds, and left the dishes out all day to pick at. In most of Vi’s memories, her mother was chewing: pork so tough it sounded like seams ripping, messy spoonfuls of tavce gravče that left trails of orange grease on her chin. Cheese she dug out of mighty wheels of burek and, finally, the empty phyllo shell, flake by flake.
Her coffin had been such a narrow pine box that Vi thought she’d have to be turned sideways to fit. Somehow, she had, squeezed at the sides, as if she were standing in her own doorway, ready to call to anyone who passed. Vi had thought briefly, guiltily, of the Dutch girls in the red-light district, framed in their windows. But the girls only pretended their desire; her mother’s had been real. She can’t breathe the air unless there’s gossip in it, Vi’s father used to say, to dull the sting of being talked about.
Vi took out the pickle jar and tilted it over the sink, holding the lid sideways to drain the juice. With a sudden, starved impulse, she twisted the end off one of the spears. She popped it onto her tongue, wincing at the vinegar sting.
She had seen the sink at the funeral home, a stainless-steel flash as the undertaker stepped out to greet her. Just a flash, its purpose unmistakable. He assured her of promptness, discretion, preserving the appearance. As he talked, Vi stared into the noise-canceling black of his suit jacket and thought of her father’s bruises.
Vi gagged and spat the corner of pickle into the trash. She stared after it for a moment, then dropped in the jar, followed by the wizened pork and twist-tied packets.
She knotted the trash bag and dragged it outside, into the overcast yard. And rubbed her hands, even though there was nothing on them to rub away.
On the other side of the fence, flint scraped metal. Teo was out, smoking. She had spent the night with him after her father’s funeral. Nothing wild. It felt more like a séance, a conjuring of the teenage selves they had abandoned: Teo to marriage and, lately, to divorce; Vi to the laboratory and occasional dates. She was paid well, five people’s salaries by village standards. You get paid that much to sit over a dish, her mother had marveled when Vi was first hired. Her mother, who’d believed in the evil eye and insisted that promaja, the crossdraft, made you sick. Even now, Vi couldn’t shake the feeling that her labors over the dishes of agar were sleight of hand, not real work. They seemed too easy, too much of a pleasure.
Vi sucked in a wisp of smoke and held it, the way she had as a girl when Teo was just learning how. Maybe he’d want to come to Frankfurt, now that his children were older. Vi tried to imagine him there, his shoulders sloping on the metro, forehead crinkling into deep elevens as he fumbled for his rusty German.
She exhaled, pushing out the smoke. She should say hello. She would, later. After she had washed up—washed the embalmed taste from her mouth and the dust from her skin.
. . .
Vi pulled the door back into its frame and closed herself into the summer kitchen. The shadows were hazy, as if her father’s own smoke still hung here. As if she were walking through the ghosts of her parents, their old habits intact. Her father wrapping some morsel over and over the way Vi hated, because it made him seem small, and poor. Her mother, marshalling around in slippers and housecoat, reproaching Vi. For not seeing her in the hospital. For not seeing her, period.
Her mother had demanded that Vi return for holidays. Not just the big ones, but silly ones, too—name days and saints’ days and visits to the cemetery. Vi snowed her with descriptions of research, Latin names of new species, conferences. She had never lied; she made sure of it, registering for a lecture or signing up for extra hours at the lab before calling back.
Her excuses were airtight. Anaerobic. You’ve got an answer for everything, her mother had chided. She knew full well that Vi hated circle dances, the melodramatic, wailing songs: a man complaining to his mother about a girl, a woman vowing to murder her lover’s wife. The leader of the dance twirling a handkerchief and whistling his family up to follow. The old women who blocked Vi’s way and demanded to know when they’d dance at her wedding.
It was as if mothers wanted to be despised. But they were humored, loved, even venerated—at least in songs. You could shout at each other till the tomatoes rocked on their vines and the neighbors stopped craning their necks to hear, but no one believed it was possible not to love your mother.
That had made Vi bold, as a girl. As she’d grown older, she learned to save her energy, sit out her mother’s hopeful volleys. Their last argument had been in 2001, when Vi was home between semesters. She’d been shelling peanuts, making her case for the Albanians. They were citizens, she argued. They had businesses; they paid taxes. They should have more rights. Some representatives in parliament, some signs in their language.
All right, all right, her mother had conceded, finally, around a mouthful. A moment later, her father nodded.
. . .
But it was too late. As Vi sat arguing over the pile of papery shells, the insurgents were suiting up, making their way over from Kosovo. She’d flown right over them, unknowing, on her way back to Frankfurt.
On the day of the attack, a neighbor ran down to warn her mother. And what can they do, in my own house? her mother had scoffed, sure of her rights. It was her role to insist, and the world’s to yield. She didn’t leave. She didn’t yield. She insisted even as the boy soldier had raised his Kalashnikov—a Soviet cliché come to life—and clouted her on the head.
. . .
He was seventeen, eighteen, Vi’s father reported afterward. By the time he called, he was in Skopje, a stone’s throw from the hospital her mother lay in, unconscious. I think he panicked.
There was no blame in his recital. Just forces, like trains racing toward each other. Her mother, refusing, and the boy, paid to get everyone out. How much did he get for it, Vi wondered sometimes, as she pulled out her wallet to pay for a salad, a fruit cup. How much more than that?
The insurgents stripped the Macedonian homes down to the copper wiring, the bolts on the water heaters. Most of the neighbors fled to a refugee camp. As soon as they could, they went back and borrowed money to replace the fixtures, the wires, even the nails in the floorboards. They’d been there ever since, living beside the same neighbors who had raised the money to get them out.
That had been Vi’s senior year. She had her thesis, exams; she couldn’t come see her mother. Instead, she called her father every night, after the library had closed. Their conversations were short: lists of updates, lab results. A brain injury, her father explained. A clot. A bolus the size of a fist pressing on the optic nerve. Lesions.
With her tiny stipend, Vi ordered a bouquet for the hospital room. Huge and bright, like her guilt.
Her mother had never seen it, never awakened from her coma. She died in her sleep and was covered with a sheet by the time Vi’s father arrived the next morning. Vi wondered if she’d had some lovely vision before the end—or was it horrible, monstrous, all her paranoias come to life? Her own daughter the one to strike her?
. . .
The sun passed over the window, brightening the walls and startling Vi. Move it, she chided herself, a demerit in her voice, like the ones she used to get for passing notes with Teo. She needed to see the place empty. To see if it could be just a house.
The wall turned the color of mud again, sun filed behind the clouds. She moved toward her father’s room, half-ready to knock, as if he were still inside and might be dressing.
The room smelled of him—old smoke and a tinge of scalp. Vi stripped off the sheet and duvet. They were almost warm in her hand, as if it had been minutes—not weeks—since he’d last slept here. She gathered up the linens and loaded them into the washing machine. She would donate them; she could ask Teo where.
Soap added, the machine filled the house with pleasant surf sounds. Vi went back and pulled the few folded shirts out of the dresser. She laid them carefully inside one bag, then swept the underwear into another, averting her eyes. When the rickety drawers were empty, Vi paged through the volumes on the desk: all physics and mathematics. She admired the neat diagrams, the firm penciled notes in the margins. Her father had had a scientist’s hand: vertical and unadorned.
I’ll take these, she resolved, stroking the bindings as if his soul were locked inside. He had been a mechanic, the closest he could get to an engineer. He remembered his lessons down to the formulas and listened carefully to Vi as she told him about her projects, about finding her way on the metro and buying her flat.
He had understood her need to be free; had supported her when she’d chosen studying in Frankfurt over staying with Teo.
What is there for her here? he’d demanded, with uncharacteristic heat, and Vi’s mother had tsked and turned away. Vi confirmed her spot on the fakultät the next day.
When Vi had visited her father, he sat with her in the garden, smoking with relish and steaming his nose over black coffee. He never paraded her in front of the neighbors, never asked if she had someone back in Frankfurt. The most he ever said was, Your mother was proud of you, before heading in to bed.
. . .
It was only a matter of time, all the studies said, after one spouse went. But Vi’s father had hung on for sixteen years as a widower. A widower. Vi flinched. She hated the suffix, the implication that he’d committed some sort of violence to be alone.
She pulled open the desk drawers, one by one. Only some faded manila folders, all empty. An ancient mechanical pencil. A pad with a few equations worked.
Her eyes stung. Seeing the constants written out in her father’s neat hand felt more intimate, even, than seeing him in his coffin. The body, the undertaker had called him. The thin frail man, curled around his failed heart.
Without meaning to, Vi checked the work: all correct. Evenly written, as if he’d been sure of his arithmetic. She glanced up at the stack of books and her eyes stuck to them, unfocused and brimming.
. . .
A heavy fistfall landed on the door, making her jump. She waited a split terrified second, mentally running through escape routes. The back stairs. The roof. The cellar. She could lock herself in with the onions and the spiders, the last bottles of wine.
A softer knock followed: five notes, then silence. The door remained unbroken, the window unshattered.
Shaking, Vi tiptoed up to the curtain. She could just see a sliver of the person outside: a patch of clipped brown hair, a single ear.
Teo, she breathed, no voice in it. He must have seen the open gate, the Astra in the garden.
A bloom of tenderness filled her throat, as if she’d swallowed a hot pepper. She and Teo had been close as children, and she could picture him as an old man: shuffling out to the garden for a smoke, wrapping up scraps of meat to save. His shoulders were already beginning to slump, and the skin on his forehead was slackening, as if he hadn’t been stitched tightly enough. He and Vi were the same age, but Vi looked ten years younger, preserved by air conditioning and indoor work.
Vi tiptoed away. Clutching a bouquet of trash bags, she made her way upstairs. Two more rooms, she bargained. Two, then a hot bath. She needed to face her old bedroom before she could sleep in this place. If she slept here.
She tested the door with the back of her hand, checking for—what? Heat? Cold? Inside, there was just the flat barge of mattress and wooden mebels, so shellacked the grain barely showed. Vi emptied each drawer of the ancient bureau, trying not to see her old clothes. The blouses were worn nearly to satin and had been folded into neat squares two decades ago, by Vi herself. She shook one out. Had she worn this, with one of these cheap camisoles? The jeans, with their veiny stonewash? At least she’d had the sense to throw out her old underwear, all homely yellowed cotton, before she left for school.
Vi wadded up the clothes and shook the bag to settle them. It felt like a small body, maybe a young girl with frosted eyelids and cheap tops. A girl who mixed up her declensions and didn’t know which line to stand in. Vi’s face heated at the memory, and she attacked the bed, stripping off the dusty sheets and faded afghans and bagging them. Burying the bad clothes.
. . .
Vi strode back into the hallway. Her old self hadn’t put up a fight after all; she had strength enough for her mother’s room.
Really, both her parents had slept there. But when her father returned to the sacked house, he moved downstairs—just collected his things and closed the door. He’d never gone back in, as far as Vi knew, never cleared out her mother’s things.
There weren’t many, just old clothes. No jewelry—she’d been buried with her wedding band. No books. No magazines or newspapers, not even a recipe. She cooked from memory, muttering brashno, brashno, pinch of salt.
Vi looked around at the rough plaster walls, the mattress with the sagging left side. Even now, her mother was indelible, while her father, gone only a few weeks, was receding. The ikona of Mary gazed at his side of the bed, as if trying to conjure him onto the flat expanse.
Indignation burned in Vi’s throat like a spoonful of too-hot soup. It didn’t seem fair to sleep in a room for forty years and leave no mark.
She tore off the sheets, making dust rise and dance. Her mother had been the last to wash them, the last to sleep there. No one had touched this bed since that day, probably. Her mother had folded down the spread, thinking she would be under it again by nightfall. Not in Skopje being breathed for by a machine.
Vi turned her back on the bare mattress. The wardrobe door was half-open, showing a row of flowered housedresses, quilted and fluffy as oven mitts. She folded down the collar of a pink one edged in yellow rickrack, but the tag had been cut off at the root. Vi flicked through another, and another—all doctored.
She yanked the first dress off its hanger, snapping the cheap plastic, and held it up by the shoulders.
It was a meter across, maybe. Not small, but finite. In Vi’s memories, her mother filled whole rooms. Her skirt engulfed chairs like the down of an enormous hen who clucked and fretted at Vi and her father. Pecked them when they were quiet or shared a joke. When Vi’s father watched her work an algebra problem.
Vi held the housedress up to her body. It was twenty centimeters too big, at least. She unclenched her stomach, let it pout up against her waistband. It felt strange to release it, unnatural. Maybe this was how it had felt to be her mother: free and expansive.
Gentle now, Vi unzipped the dresses and coaxed them off the hangers. She rolled them into a single snug ball and pulled a bag over it. Gingerly, as if it might come to life.
. . .
The dresser held a tangle of her mother’s brassieres. Vi wrinkled her nose at the mothball taste of the word brassieres, but there was nothing else to call the mountainous, sagging cups. With their rubbery straps, they looked like part of a conveyor belt. A saddle. A pulley system. Not lingerie. That frilly frivolous word was a continent away.
In the next drawer were the bottoms, clustered in a staticky wad. Vi had seen her mother’s underwear scores of times on the clothesline, wide and sexless as the pillowcases. Vi shook out a pair, checking for a tag. It had been clipped, the frayed end like a tiny vestigial tail.
Vi plucked out the wad of putty-colored satin from the drawer and quarantined it in its own bag. Her mother had outsmarted her. Her loud strident mother, who had never locked a door in her life, had kept her size a secret.
I’m not small, she used to say, patting her hips. Everyone could see that, of course. But exact measurements were something different. Incriminating. Vi felt it, too, when she was ushered onto the scale at the doctor’s office. She wanted to argue with the number: It was never what she felt she’d earned.
Vi knotted the bag and coughed. Her throat prickled, as if a ghost were choking her. A ghost like a gas leak, who expanded until the room was full of her.
. . .
Four rooms done, six bags knotted and lined up in the hall. Vi could have her bath now, could wash off her mother’s clinging ghost. Maybe Teo would go out for another smoke, and she could drift next door without any fanfare. Any negotiations.
Vi sighed. He would ask about the house, and she would have to tell him something. Something decisive, like I’ll be back next month or I’ll come every week to pick the raspberries. But the idea of traveling back and forth made her tired. The expense, the bother. It would be a relief to give in to the uncles. She wouldn’t even have to call. Just a text message: The key is under the jar in the garden. Wishing you a quick sale, zdravie.
But there would be nothing with Teo if she left now. He’d grown mellow, even humble, but she couldn’t go back to him a third time.
Vi poured some salts into the tub and started filling it, watching the soap scrim rise with the waterline. She kicked off her jeans and warm twist of underwear and pulled off her top. She examined her torso in the mirror, more from habit than interest. No rubbery overhang from the waist or flanks. Nothing alarming.
She watched her weight, filling most of her plate with vegetables, hardly any bread or meat. She took medication for her thyroid, gritty white pebbles an hour before breakfast. She imagined the hormone traveling around her body, incinerating fat that had piled like snowdrifts. Her metabolism wasn’t good but, with attention, she was average. Not heavy. No goiter blooming from her collar; no reason to open her buttons and rub her neck, the way her mother had.
How many times, Vi wondered, will I look? How long until I stop caring?
She stepped into the bath, water rocking like a bowl of gelatin, and inched down into the mild scorch. She’d wipe up the splashes, though there was no one to care now.
Vi tipped her head back, thinking of a painting she’d seen in some museum or other: a drowned girl on her back, moss beneath her like a bed of cooked noodles. She had looked comfortable. Relieved.
. . .
Vi’s phone chimed, the small screen lighting the pocket of her discarded jeans. She stretched out two fingers and reeled in the leg. Wiping her hand, she tapped for her messages.
It was Teo. Did she want to come by? Or—
Vi waited a long minute as the dots sizzled at the bottom of the screen, then disappeared. The Or stood.
She set the phone on the edge of the tub. It was like Teo not to mention that he’d knocked. To decide that she hadn’t heard, she’d been busy. Vi had always set their meetings in advance, even in high school. Her other friends just stopped by, assuming they had a standing invitation for a cup of tursko.
So Teo’s children were gone, with their mother, maybe. After her father’s funeral, Teo had apologized for his unmade bed, the stale sheets: I hadn’t expected anyone. Vi had liked being a surprise, a stroke of good luck. That had been three weeks ago. Three weeks of messaging with Teo, building back up to it.
Vi closed her eyes. Being penetrated over and over was so dull. If only there were something else to do with a man. Sex in Frankfurt was neat and latex-coated: no volatiles exchanged, nothing owed. But there was no exchange with Teo, either—not really. They had the same microbes, had grown up drinking the same water, been inoculated with the same batches of the same vaccines.
She stirred a cloud of soap. She would have to put on her nice bra, with the lace—give him something to find. As if it were fun. As if the ghosts of her parents, of Teo’s, of their younger selves wouldn’t perch on the foot of the bed, watching, commenting, interfering.
Selanka, Vi chastised herself. She was thinking like a superstitious village woman. There either were cells that started somewhere, then left off, or there weren’t.
A chill ran over her exposed skin, contradicting her. Cold was the mark of death, the sign of haunting. Vi imagined a translucent version of her mother oversalting the stew or tossing a red sock into the wash with Vi’s lab coats. And smiled, in spite of herself.
But consciousness—minds, brains—ran hot, not cold. Vi had read an article about how much sugar the brain consumed, florid with pictures of scans. Brains glowing red and orange while subjects read magazines or recited poems. Which was impossible, of course, without a body.
. . .
All right, thought Vi, standing up in the tub, I’ll wear the nice bra. She wrapped a towel around herself and picked up her phone.
“20 minutes,” she tapped, speaking the words aloud. She would go tonight and make no promises. She would take her time. Teo had been dormant for so long, like a virus she didn’t know she carried. She couldn’t stain it, or isolate it on a slide. She couldn’t snuff it with penicillin, or any of the -mycins. It didn’t feed, or mate. It had been gentle with her, slipping in through some old wound, working slowly.