Written by: Ivana Milaković
Translated by: Ivana Rangelov
Robert closed his eyes tightly. It didn’t help. He heard them. He knew it was impossible. You can’t hear bugs crawling across the floor, along the walls, and the ceiling. Not unless they’re walking on foil or something that would rustle, or if maybe you’re a dog or a cat. And he is neither one nor the other. He is a scared little boy in a room with a painted ceiling, painted walls, and polished floor. There is no way he could hear bugs, even if they are not ordinary bugs, but creepy-crawlies. And yet he hears them, tiny-tiny tap-tap-taps of numerous legs. He hears them, and covering his ears with his hands does not help. He hears them, and he wants to squeal with fear. But he mustn’t. His mother will be angry if she hears him, and if he tells her about the creepy-crawlies, she will bathe him again and she’ll rub so hard that every inch of his skin will prickle. He must be clean. He must pay attention to cleanliness. Not only because he’s a dirty boy, but also because he’s a sickly one. The smallest speck of dust is enough to get him sick, and the bugs… The bugs are the brood of infection. If just one bug touches him, his mother will have to rub him so that everything will hurt. She must, for his own good.
And he saw the creepy-crawlies all over the ceiling, the walls and the floor. He dares not imagine what his mom would do to him if she found out that there were so many dirty creepy-crawlies in his room. He dares not imagine, and mom mustn’t find out. And that’s why he keeps quiet, although he would rather squeal with fear.
He wasn’t always afraid of the bugs. He was afraid of the dirt because his mom always told him that he was weak and sick and that’s why he always had to be careful not to get dirty, that he had to wash his face, scrub and bathe constantly. His father thought his mother was exaggerating, that he would be a completely normal, healthy boy if mom would leave him alone, and if she allowed him to come out and get some fresh air and play with other children, but his mom would scream at him how she knows what is best for her child, it’s already too much that he goes every day to school, where he is surrounded by little mongrels, god forbid he hangs around them even after school. Who knows what kind of diseases he would have picked up? No. If he already has to go to school because of the law, he will, as soon as he returns, take a thorough bath and have a good scrub, and he will not go anywhere until the next day. After some time, father went silent, and after some more time he left. We don’t need him, anyway, mom said. He’s dirty like all men. And we don’t need him.
At school, following his mother’s advice, he shunned everyone, in order not to, by any chance, get infected by someone. Other children considered him weird, and the teachers thought that he was shy, and that it was nice that a nine-year-old boy payed so much attention to cleanliness and always smelled clean. He was good at studying. Then, at least, he could think of something else, and not about dirt and about being sick all the time. Mom didn’t care about his grades, as long as the little mongrels did not touch him and did not approach him. One goes to school because the law says it must be so, not because it is useful.
He liked living beings. He was a little bit afraid of the children, because they looked at him in a strange way, but even they were interesting to him. He knew that he shouldn’t touch neither dogs nor cats because they were dirty, but he liked to watch them. He watched everything around him – and that was better than thinking about dirt, and he was interested in all of it – and once, in the hallway from his own to his mother’s room, he dared to gently press a bug with his finger. A cockroach. It just stood on the floor, and did nothing. He was wondering whether it was dead, or lost, or confused. He was hoping it wasn’t dead. Another living being, there, next to his room. He liked that.
He didn’t notice that mom had left the room right at that moment. She screamed when she saw him touching the cockroach, grabbed him by the shirt collar, and quickly pulled him away. He watched her trampling the cockroach and pressing it into the floor with the slipper. Then she forced him to clean the floor, as punishment, and then dragged him to bath. All the while she shouted at him that he was an unruly, dirty little boy, how she looked out for him and did her best, and this was how he repaid her, by touching dirty creepy-crawlies, and he didn’t care at all that she’s scared to death for him.
She especially scrubbed his fingers with the brush. For a long time, he did his best not to cry every time he had to pick up something.
Robert was lying in the darkness, with his eyes tightly closed, his hands over his ears, listening to the creepy-craw lies creeping, and wishing they would leave already and stop scaring him.
He saw them only briefly, in the moonlight, before he curled up and closed his eyes. For a moment, he thought they were cockroaches, though they didn’t look much like them. Then he thought they were centipedes. They looked more like centipedes than cockroaches. They had a lot of legs, much more than cockroaches. And they were long, those legs had to fit somewhere. And yet, only the body itself looked like an elongated cockroach.
Robert had no idea what they were, except that they were some kind of creepy-crawlies. And he wanted them to leave.
He bit his lower lip to the point of bleeding when he realized, by the sound of it, that they were getting closer. And his whole body was still terribly aching from the last bath. How much more will the next one hurt, if mom just thinks of the creepy-crawlies? Will he survive?
You will survive. And it will not hurt.
He jumped. Who said that? He didn’t recognize the voice. And how does this somebody speak in his own head?
He was about to scream when he felt something touching his leg. Beneath the pajamas. He stiffened and tried to understand what was going on. Sometimes it helped if he focused on each detail and put together a picture. Then he could think of something else rather than the dirt/pain.
The touch surprised him. Gentle touch. A tiny leg. A tiny leg of a bug. Then more touches. Nothing hurts. It will hurt later.
It will not hurt.
Again, that voice in his head. And the voice is wrong.
We are not wrong. It will not hurt.
More touching. More touching. More touching more touching more touching. Stay calm. You mustn’t make a sound. She mustn’t find out.
You don’t know my mom, he thought. It will hurt.
Who are you?
We are here.
You’re the creep…. I apologize.
We don’t mind. We don’t care how they call us.
What are you doing to me?
What do you feel?
Details. Focus on the details. It doesn’t hurt. It tickles a little bit when they cross somewhere, but it doesn’t hurt. They are everywhere. Oh they are everywhere.
Calm down. Don’t think about being covered with creepy-crawlies. Or about how they are getting everywhere. Think about the fact that it’s not hurting. It’s getting itchy a little bit. It’s getting more and more itchy.
The itching will pass.
Then it won’t hurt you.
If only that were possible.
It is possible.
Ugh, it’s really itchy. But you can’t scratch without brushing them. If you brush them, you’ll scream and your mom will come. Think of a question. How are you here?
You wanted some company.
It’s true. He wanted some company. It didn’t have to be human company. It was ridiculous to ask them how they knew it. They heard him, he guessed, same as they hear him now, even though he hasn’t uttered a word.
Or maybe he conjured them up. Maybe he’s just imagining they are there, and he’s just imagining hearing their voices in his head. He’s not so little anymore. He knows that such creatures don’t exist. And if they did exist, he wouldn’t be able to see them so well in the moonlight. Even a cat wouldn’t be able to see their every single legin the moonlight, let alone he. It was possible that he conjured them up in order to distract himself, not to think about how much he was afraid and how much it hurt.
What’s hurting you?
He thought about the question, and realized that it wasn’t itching anymore, and that it didn’t hurt anymore.
If he turns on the light to look and check if his skin is still red from the rubbing with a brush, his mum will notice and come. But it really doesn’t hurt. And it couldn’t have stopped so quickly on its own.
Either he’s incredibly good at self-deceiving, or…
Or the creepy-crawlies,which he was so afraid of,healed him.
You’re not afraid of us.
No, he wasn’t really afraid of them. But it was easier to say that he was afraid of them, and that he feared the dirt. Mom looks after him. She loves him, and does it for his own good.
It’s easier to say that mom does it for his own good. Although it will soon hurt again.
It won’t if you don’t want to.
He thought about it. He really thought about it. He realized his face was wet. He was crying.
“I don’t want to,” he whispered.
He was lying in the darkness of his room, and listened to the tiny-tiny tap-tap-taps of the numerous legs that were going away. He heard a muffled scream, and then, perhaps, a wheezing. For the wheezing, he wasn’t sure if he really heard it or just imagined it; he was sure that you couldn’t scream with a throat into which the creepy-crawlies creeped in.
He smiled. It won’t hurt anymore. And he’s made some friends.
For some time,they’ll have enough food. After that he will have to find them something.
Born in 1976 in Belgrade, Graduated from the Department for Dramaturgy at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade in 2000. Her short stories in Serbian and English were publish in Grad weekly journal, and journals Gradina, NašTrag, ZnakSagite i Omaja, and on the websites Art-Anima, Horrorfind, Screaming Planet, Libartes, Helly Cherry, magazines Lit Up and Literally Literary, in the Emitor fanzine and the LUDUS theater newspaper. She worked on children seires (“Dice, Dice, Little Dice”, “Smile Keepers”, “The Globe Bus”, “Write and Erase”) as a screenwriter, dramaturge or collaborator. She published close to 7000 texts on the Internet Krstaricawebsite, out of which 50 are depictions of novels. Published the Five people radio drama at Radio Belgrade, not to mention the dog in the Balkan Literary Herald. Her work is present in the City Stories 3 – Fantasy (2008), White Noise (2008), Truthful Lies (2009) and In the Vampiress’ Sign (2012), and Alice in Wonderland collection and www.priče.co.yu. Her work has been translated into Romanian. She persistently tries to befriend every cat she sees. Cats’ Dreams is her first collection. Laughter in the Grass within the 30-31-32 triathlon of the Balkan Literary Herald is her second collection.
Translator, Ivana Rangelov, born in 1992 in Kraljevo. Graduated from the Faculty of Philology and Arts in Kragujevac, major English language and literature. I teach English, translate, which is my first love, occasionally do some writing, and I am collecting books for my personal library. I have translated various texts, from the literary ones to vocational ones.