In the Eye of Mrs. Kotova
Written by: Tena Lončarević
Translated by: Aleksandra Stojković
Mrs. Kotova’s apartment is the most colorful place in the city. The tall walls of Austro-Hungarian build are plastered with a flowery wallpaper. I see yellow, I see red and green, I see cobwebs in the corners of the ceiling, near the line where the wallpaper begins, in that spot that Mrs. Kotova can never reach. I play on the floor, on a woolen kilim rug with an oriental pattern, I pour out the buttons from alarge tin box and make railways and cities from those buttons.
The sowing machine clatters rhythmically, the large table where Mrs. Kotova normally eats dinner is now covered in fabric, sowing paper,measuring tape, scissors, and a round piece of chalk which I’ll later take and use to draw over the stone fence of the yard. An orange tomcat naps on a soft green armchair, a white crocheted doily draped over the top of the armchair is like a cloud above his sleepy head. It is never quiet in that apartment, but nevertheless that everyday noise is somehow peaceful.
Mrs. Kotova listens to the radio and hums old-town melodies in her deep voice. I like it best however, when she sings in Russian, “Oj da ne večer”, I listen as the color of her voice changes, as a shadow falls over it and turns it hazy and a bit gravelly. I put away the buttons, I stop my game, looking in awe. Later, quite a bit later, I would realize that the change had a name, its name was longing. Longing was a shadow in which Mrs. Kotova would drape herself in, shaping the words of her father’s language on her lips.
I remember that time, at the start of the 80’s, although I had barely been old enough for school, let alone to formany permanent memories. I stand at the stone part of the fence, my feet under the crooked metal bars. The fence is tall, slippery, the stones have moss growing on them, the iron is rusty, I grab it hard, my skin will have a red indent from it. The bars, decorated with vines and leaves, disrupt my view of the street.
The trams rattle on in both directions, the passengers inside all have vacant stares, they sway attached to triangular handles, no point in waving to them at all. The street is shackled by tall dirt-grey buildings, and the small piece of the sky somehow still blue, is crisscrossed by an endless tangle of wires and cables.
From the Slavonic province where I was always surrounded by children and where the only threat was in accidentally touching poison ivy, we moved to the very center of Zagreb, to Ilica street. My parents saw it as an opportunity for progress, dad finally got a job in his department, and mom was hoping to get hired more easily in the big city. To me, that move brought only a small piece of a concrete square yard, from which I was not to go out of,and that decrepit fence, decadently beautiful, but still a fence, a childhood cage. A temporary rented apartment filled with other people’s furniture, old-fashioned and cold, a nasty feeling that you’re different, that the way you speak, the long stretched out vocals don’t sit well with the Thank you’s and the How do you do’s.
Our apartment was one in the line of apartments sharing a yard, inside those apartments were people who didn’t need us. They had their own settled way of existence, they wove their every days together like threads of a finished tapestry. We didn’t understand their codes, their greetings, their get-togethers, their half-whispered gossips and merry smiles, they knew we were temporary, no point in investing in us.
The apartment of Mrs. Kotova was the only one in the line of those apartments whose inside I had seen. Whenever she’d call her tomcat in, which I was usually petting in the yard, she’d call me in as well and so our unusual friendship began, a friendship between a provincial girl thrown into the very center of a big city and a woman in her sixties whom everyone, despite the fact that she was born in Zagreb, called the Russian Woman.
Mrs. Kotova’s father had in fact been a Russian soldier, wounded and taken prisoner in a war long past, the result of which was that for the rest of his earthly existence his left foot dragged behind him and was able to accurately predict the weather. I purposely say the end of his earthly existence, because Mrs. Kotova’s father was very much still alive. He lived in her stories for several decades after his death.
– These eyes are his eyes – she tells me as I stare at her unusual face.
And truly her eyes were dark and bit slanted. Her eyes were strangers in Ilica, Zagreb, they were strangers in the city she was born in. Then she tells me her father’s story, the story of cold and damp trenches in the Carpathians, where only the tops of the soldiers bayonets peeked through the top and how the bullet which had found her father was really a bullet of relief, because after it he no longer had to work free his boots from the sticky mud and dream about Veles, the god of the underworld tugging on the sleeve of his army coat.
His long recovery had been in the building of the Zagreb grammar school, between thick walls that cooled him while the real summer heat began outside, in a real bed with clean sheets no less, and every night between those clean sheets he travelled to the Urals, to his home far, far away which he would never again see outside his dreams and the occasional drink. The homeland he had gone to war for had disappeared, but he was still a prisoner, suspicious to the government then, but to future governments as well. A Russian in Croatia.
He learned the language quickly, mostly so he could court a nurse who bandaged his wounds and who would later become Mrs. Kotova’s mother, the one who had fallen for the melancholy in his voice and the lingering smell of tall, dark forests on his skin.
– My father never truly moved here – says Mrs. Kotova – a part of him stayed in his homeland, and whenever he had a drink he’d let his voice free, he’d sing and take my mother and me with him to his homeland. I had always thought I would travel to Russia someday, and look at me now, an old woman already, I’d never managed to make that happen.
– Why not? I ask her naively, and she just smiles and doesn’t answer.
It was easy to love Mrs. Kotova. In her apartment and her voice I found a rainbow of colors that our rented apartment lacked.
– Oh, leave her be, let her stay a bit longer, she is my friend – Mrs. Kotova would wink when my mother came to get me, already a bit angry and convinced I had been bothering our neighbor.
I spent more and more time in her apartment, playing with the tomcat. Listening to her stories, watching the precise movements of her hands as she sowed, cooked, did dozens of small, everyday chores. Her fingers were short and stubby, but deft. Her grey hair pulled back into a high bun, pulled so tight it makes me think that is why her eyes turned a bit slant, and her skin smooth and without wrinkles. In the afternoon, after lunch, she likes to take a small nap. She likes to lounge her large body on the green sofa. I promise to be quiet, sit on the floor and play, and later I watch her breathing slow down and become deeper, the delicate flowers on her house dress rise and fall, the orange tomcat lazily raises his head off the armchair, then gives up and closes his eyes.
I come closer to Mrs. Kotova careful not to wake her, then raise her eyelid with my finger, the dark iris turns into a chase on an endless field of white. Their race makes the snow scatter, fly up from the ground. There is a squeal, it is the joy of Mrs. Kotova, she is the girl on the sled, she’s speeding through the Russian winter with her father. I let her eyelid close and go back to my game. I had seen Mrs. Kotova dreams.
Tena Lončarevič (Vinkovci, 1978) graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy in Osjek. She works as a Croatian language teacher in Županija, where she also lives. She writes short stories which she has had published in various internet portals and magazines. She loves words, photography, her dog and her family.
Translator Aleksandra Stojkovic, born August 23rd 1995, lives and attends University of Belgrade. She is currently in her final year of studies in the Faculty of Philology of the University of Belgrade, department of English. She works as a freelance translator and voice actress. She loves stories in all their forms, whether they be comic books, video games, movies or television shows.