Written by: Miloš Cvetković
Translated by: Filip Čolović
You will be rewarded, son, handsomely. He almost repeated these words out loud as he squeezed the yellowed pillow. His lips moved without uttering a word, and his eyes glistened with a spark that nobody else noticed, not even he himself did, even though there was a mirror right across from him. His gaze, however, was directed at the pillow which finally stopped moving. He removed the pillow and looked deep into another’s pair of eyes which had no spark in them at all. Finally, he realized what her words had meant and they would never hound him again. He smiled, and the face in the mirror smiled in turn, without averting its eyes. He will drink to that, he thought, and then he started going through the apartment in search of money…
A few days earlier, his arms were shaking as he was trying to lock the door to his room in the attic. It was because of the cold, he thought back then, but it was also because of the unease that had been haunting him ever since that idea possessed him, that terrible fantasy which kept tormenting him. The lock finally clicked and the university student, wrapped in his tattered coat, left the dilapidated house.
“You should drink something warm to warm yourself up.” Those words interrupted his contemplations as he walked through the blizzard, gripping the collar of his coat so tightly that it appeared as if he were trying to strangle himself. The old woman stood in front of him, hunched over, as if she had been waiting for him, and he couldn’t not avert his gaze from her clear blue eyes within which he could almost see his own premeditation. She must have noticed that he had been stalking her for days. Those eyes were the only part of her wrinkled face that still exuded vitality.
She looked at him as if she knew what he was thinking about, he thought, startled.
“I’ll make you some tea, come on”, she said and he accepted, as if he had no will of his own, he silently followed the old woman as she slowly climbed the squeaking stairs, taking a breath with each step. It was like a dream, he thought, but he didn’t have enough strength to pinch himself.
He didn’t stop shaking even after he had warmed up. He felt cold on the inside. It felt as if his stomach was full of icy snowballs. The tea was strong and sour. He observed the reddish tea leaves at the bottom of the cup, trying to avoid raising his gaze. But she was patient, and he knew it, she had read his thoughts and now… He couldn’t finish that thought, no matter how hard he tried, it eluded him, dissolving in nonsensical thoughts that picked at his brain before falling silent forever and leaving him in an awkward silence from which new suspicions would then sprout. And so, it went on and on, without end. He had to raise his gaze and face her, he had no other option.
“I cannot do it myself, I’m too weak, but I can’t wait either…”, she paused. “…I have been waiting for death for too long.”
“It’s a sin…”, he didn’t know why he said it, the words came out on their own. In truth, he had to cut her off somehow, he didn’t want to listen to her, he thought, and he actually did not want to accept his own curiosity which had no such scruples.
“The sin is mine”, she said. “You will…”, she paused and her eyes wandered off, as if she had forgotten what she wanted to say, he thought, or perhaps she remembered something else.
He was already thinking about how to cut her off, to apologize and run away from that place forever, and then the old woman looked at him with eyes that were unusually clear, and she said in one breath:
“You will be rewarded, son, handsomely.”
Those were the words he was waiting to hear, and he didn’t even know it. He felt unusually calm, as if she had invited him in for tea before… “How much time has passed?”, he wondered, nodding.
The old woman’s eyes were filled with tears and a smile danced on her face. The student slowly got up and headed for the bed. He took the white pillow which was filled with goose feathers. He noted its softness, its smell.
In one of his earlier fantasies that he used to consider shameful, he used an axe. How foolish that would be, he thought, he would only create an unnecessary mess. As he was raising the pillow, he avoided looking at the old woman for the last time, and yet, when he had put the pillow back onto the bed, he couldn’t help but notice the contours of her face. This delivered a powerful blow to his gut and he had no other choice, he thought in that moment, but to hit back. He started punching the pillow until the face was entirely gone. He calmed down, and then turned to face what he thought would be an accusing glare. However, the old woman was sitting in the chair, her eyes closed, with a frozen blissful smile on her face. Again, he felt that strange numbness which had brought him to this place and helped him commit the crime. The crime, he realized how this word rang clearly in his mind for the first time. The reward, was the word that followed next, his promised rewarded.
This promised reward, however, was nowhere to be found. The box was empty and the student managed to remain calm and affirm to himself that the old woman was probably mistaken, that there had to be another box somewhere in this cramped apartment which held his promised reward. He was sure that the old woman was not lying to him when she promised it. It’s just that there was no other box nor any other place where it could have been hidden. After carefully going through each room, having returned everything to how he found it, the student gave up on his evidently pointless search, barely resisting the obsessive urge to repeat the sentence again. Then, he wished to take something to remind him of this place, some souvenir, the words appeared, but he realized that the old woman had already given him a souvenir in the form of that sentence which continued to torment him.
Another time, he thought, before leaving the apartment forever. He slept like a baby that night, and when he finally woke up fresh in the morning, he could only think about one thing, and it was not the murder that he committed but the old woman’s words. He had to find an answer that would put his mind at ease.
He walked through the blizzard, squeezing the collar of his coat as if he were trying to hide his face. He had been following the old woman for three days and he will soon have to do something before she starts growing suspicious, he thought. He knew where she lived, that she was alone, he was familiar with her movements during the day, and he suspected that he would find something more than an empty box at her apartment. He couldn’t take it any longer, last night he could hardly sleep from the excitement, and it wouldn’t be a good idea to leave himself exhausted because what if the pillow slips, what if she wiggles free, what if… He brushed aside all these insecurities that had slowed him down before and while he used to accept them as an integral part of himself, as a burden that he would carry to the end of his days, now he realized that it was nothing but a habit that can be discarded like worn-out clothes. As he stood there, thinking, the old woman appeared from around the corner, walking very briskly for her age. The student let go of his collar and put his hands in the pockets of his coat. He started walking towards her, repeating the phrase…
You will be rewarded, son, handsomely. And he was rewarded handsomely indeed. He took all the money and several pieces of jewelry he found in a drawer that he initially thought was stuck. But it came loose in the end. “In the end”, he thought, “everybody loosens up.” He remembered how she waved her arms around while he pressed the yellow pillow to her face, how she almost scratched his face with her nails. He did not need such a souvenir, he thought, as he savored the vodka. Finally, it all fell into place, the unease that had been haunting him these days as he was trying to figure out the meaning of the old woman’s words was completely gone. He cracked open a window to get rid of the stench of death that had crept inside. That stench was there even before he came, he thought, and smiled to himself again. The blue-eyed old woman rewarded him handsomely, he thought. She pushed him into the water and he started swimming. Now, he was enjoying that feeling as he cut through the waves, swimming farther and farther. The snow had stopped falling and tomorrow he would take a walk, he thought, he would visit Sonja, he hasn’t seen her for quite a while and now he finally has enough money to afford that small pleasure. He smiled again, and laughed out loud. He thought about the lonely old ladies of St. Petersburg. He thought about the gift which so unexpectedly changed his life. Excited, he thought about the next one, and after it, another one, and then another one… another crime without punishment.
Miloš Cvetković was born in Belgrade in 1979, where he currently resides and studies literature. He published film critiques and essays in the following magazines: Popboks, Yellow Cab, Huper, and Filaz. He published an essay titled “Revenge Film: The Ballad of Cruelty by Radivoje Lola Djukic” in Novi Kadrovi (CLIO, Belgrade, 2008). He published several essays in English in the following books: 101 Sci-Fi Movies and 101 War Movies (Barron’s, New York, 2009). He compiled two collections of short stories: Anomalija 1 (2012)and Anomalija 2 (2015), published by the Drustvo ljubitelja fantastike Lazar Komarcic. He writes the occasional short story but he prefers reading and editing.
Translator Filip Čolović (1995) – born in Belgrade, he is currently finishing his undergraduate studies at the Faculty of Philology of the University of Belgrade (English Department). At the moment, he works as a content writer and translator. Appreciates the avant-garde and all forms of quality art and fiction.