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from the February 2015 issue

Sea Anemone

Her studio resembles a stinking airtight can. Miss Annemarie hasn’t opened her windows in years. Keeping the heavy curtains drawn night and day has solved the cleaning problem once and for all. She can’t stand big clean-ups, blasts of fresh air, or noise. She can’t stand anything remotely resembling change. That’s why she’s kept her apartment in the same state since spotting a luxurious set of modular furniture in a store window in 1971. She grabbed her bankbook and, without batting an eye, coughed up an unheard-of amount for the joys of modern design.

“Your place stinks like some sleazy bar, shouldn’t I let some fresh air in?” I ask, as always, setting a carrier with a special meal for her gall-bladder diet on the kitchen counter. Annemarie lifts the lid on the metal container with her index finger. “Vegetable soup—not again,” she grumbles, wiping the vinyl tablecloth with a dishcloth of no particular color.

That smell is truly a mystery. The place stinks as if she smoked two packs a day, even though she claims never to have touched a cigarette. “No point opening the window. It comes from me,” she says hoarsely as I struggle to open the window. “What comes from you?” I ask, baffled.

Instead of replying, the old woman lumbers over to a bureau and produces a photograph. “The smoke, my dear, the smoke!” She makes me sit in a rickety armchair and shoves a black-and-white photograph in my face. “Have a look,” she says.

Fascinated, I examine a curvaceous woman in a silver bikini with tassels. Shell-shaped bra cups cling to her breasts and her head is adorned with a curious headband reminiscent of coral reefs. She is grinning broadly, holding a cigar in one hand. “Is that you?” I ask, my jaw dropping. Miss Annemarie straightens up as far as her ancient body permits and declares proudly: “Sea Anemone. A number I performed for five years in Prague’s top striptease club!”

My confused look wanders from the sexy creature in the photograph to Miss Annemarie’s sallow, wrinkled face, and back. “But this proves that you used to smoke,” I say suspiciously, making Annemarie crack up and slap her thighs. “I did smoke. . . but with what, my dear, with what!” she laughs, snatching the photo away to examine it under the fringed lamp that must have once been snow white.

“Those were the days,” she sighs in delight. “And the money! It just came rolling in! Our club used to put on the finest shows—we were compared to the Moulin Rouge!” Her face is radiant and I notice a hint of the flirtatiousness that I detected in the youthful photograph.

“So what happened to it?” I say with a smile, going to the kitchen to warm up her lunch.

“Oh, you know. The Party closed it down after 1968, saying the bourgeois rabble undermined the orderly life of the working people. So I got a job in a meat-processing plant.”

I put out the cutlery, serve the warmed-up soup, and call out to Miss Annemarie, who is reliving her Sea Anemone stunt with her eyes fixed on the dirty closed curtains. The old lady gingerly pads over to the table and begins to eat. She grumbles about the fat-free gall-bladder diet and reminisces about the spicy sausages she used to devour at the meat processing plant. “And you see, this is what I’ve sunk to now. I stink like an ashtray and my gall bladder is screwed.”

She leaves bits of boiled broccoli on the side of the plate, saying she wouldn’t eat that stuff if they burned her alive. I dust her plastic flowers while she cuts up some boiled fish with trembling hands. I offer to vacuum but Miss Annemarie stops me indignantly, saying the vacuum cleaner only stirs up the dust. Besides, her place is clean and she’s never needed a maid.

“But you have me as your home help,” I object but she just shakes her head, indicating it’s all the same to her.

When she is done, I wash the dishes, and while I collect her dirty laundry Miss Annemarie gets ready for her afternoon nap. She sits on the bed, thoughtfully combing her long, once-gorgeous hair. I watch her for a while. Miss Annemarie stares at me with her short-sighted, watery eyes. Putting the hairbrush down she says: “Good night.” I tell her I’ll be bringing her laundry back when I bring her lunch the next day, but the old lady is already snoring away.

I slam the door and finally breathe in some fresh air unpolluted by smoke. Then I take her laundry to the Geriatric Center. The woman who works there will separate the underwear from the socks. Everything will be neatly washed, dried, and packed into a plastic bag with “Annemarie” written on it in black marker.

Next day, as soon as I turn the key, the powerful stench of cigarette smoke hits my nose. I can barely see through the permanent twilight of the room. Miss Annemarie is lying silent in the unmade bed, just as I left her the day before. “Good morning!” I call out, my voice heavy with irony, and then notice something, something that is not quite right. Something that makes me walk slowly over to the old lady before I put down my bag, something that makes the hairs on the nape of my neck stand on end.

Putting my load down, I gently place the palm of my hand on her chest. The old lady is not breathing. Her mouth is open and her dry eyes stare at the closed curtains. I sit down in the rickety armchair and switch on the light. I get the cell phone out of my pocket.

I notice strange bluish smoke emanating from the dead woman’s body. Rising quietly, the smoke drifts along the ceiling before descending again. Next to the dead woman’s body it curls into the shape of a woman with a cigar in her hand and a coral headband. The smoke woman sits on the bed, watching me quietly. She has the full lips and face of the young Miss Annemarie from the photograph. We eye each other. She smiles flirtatiously.

The woman, or rather the smoke, suddenly begins to undulate, spreading her legs wide to give a posthumous demonstration of her Sea Anemone act. My eyes begin to sting. I cough violently. I get up from the armchair and yank open the jammed window with my first attempt. The smoke-Annemarie gives a shiver. She casts a mournful look at the body on the bed. She draws on the cigar once more before the draft sucks her through the open window, out into the street.

“Sasanka” © Uršuľa Kovalyk. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood. All rights reserved.

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