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from the December 2010 issue

The Cover

I’m starting this diary so the days won’t pass without my knowing what I did.

I live in the suburbs. I knit, embroider, and crochet. I sell everything I make at the nearby farmers’ market. Other women are there too. We bring stools, little chairs, or whatever we have. We sit down and spread doilies, tablecloths, and blouses in front of us. The needles in our hands fly through the air. Needles, hands, fingers, mouth. Fingers, hands, mouth, needles. Everything is moving, flying here and there, opening and closing. Stories flow as the rows of thread and yarn are arranged into doilies, tiny caps, and blouses. I always put my little chair with its peeling paint next to Smilja because we are neighbors and friends.

On winter days, we usually sit at her place or in my room, and work. I’d like to sell my work on Kalamegdan, but I’m still not up to snuff. Smilja is a real whiz. Sometimes I envy her.

Both Smilja and I live alone. I used to think that I would get married and have a family. I thought it would happen naturally, all by itself. When you reached such and such an age you simply got married and then had children. Like a pattern. You just followed it. A stitch here, a stitch there, and you get a blouse. But it seems this isn’t so. It really makes no difference. I’m used to living like this. It still might not be too late to get married, but I don’t think about it anymore. I live in a little house with a shared yard, and I’m happy. Sometimes I miss having someone to talk to. Then I go visit Smilja or she comes to my place. I have other neighbors too. The family next to me has twins and a baby. I invite them over for cookies when I feel like having children around.

I’ve never talked to Smilja about marriage. I don’t know why. She doesn’t have anyone and she’s still young. Somehow I don’t have the courage to ask her.

She’s always reading the newspaper. That doesn’t interest me. She likes to read, for example, about people who get rich overnight and other unusual things. She tells me all about them. And I talk to her about recipes and my little garden under the window. So we sit there and work, Smilja and me. Needles, hands, fingers, mouth.

Sometimes I watch television. Mostly series, the ones where I can see gardens in front of the houses. But I don’t tell that to anyone because they all just talk about what happened in the show; no one notices the gardens and flowers. I try to plant flower beds like the ones I see on TV. Mine aren’t exactly the same, but they’re similar.

Nov. 6

Smilja was at my place today. We crocheted all afternoon. She showed me a new stitch. Smilja is patient when she explains and when she works. I’m sorry that I’m jealous of her doilies and blouses sometimes. They are really a lot better than mine.

I mentioned to her the latest episode of my favorite show and how lovely the garden had been in front of the house. I knew she wouldn’t laugh at me. And she didn’t.  She didn’t mind that I didn’t know anything else about what was happening in the series.  She had noticed the garden too. That’s when I found out that she watches it because of the house. Her dream is to have a house just like that one day. A big one with lots of furniture and a beautiful bathroom. She lives in one little room off our common yard. Her toilet is outside. She’s never complained. She only let me in on her great dream today. We watched today’s episode together.

Nov. 13

For days Smilja has been telling me about her dream house. It was snowing outside but my place was warm. I kindled a fire in the stove and made some cookies. Smilja helped herself during her breaks. Otherwise she worked and talked. She was laying tiles in an imaginary bathroom. She wants them to be green and described everything in detail so I could have a perfect picture of her entering the bathroom and filling the bathtub with water, then pouring some liquid from a pretty little bottle and making bubbles. She put everything from the TV commercials into the bathroom.

“Remember those bubbles with the pink flower? Well, I’ll put the bottle on the right side, on the bathtub, and that liquid soap by the sink.”

Needles, hands, fingers, mouth. Smilja was embroidering and I went into the kitchen to make coffee. Smilja shouted something about the living room.

I’ve started to follow the plot of the show with her. That way I have something to talk about when we sit with other women. Rosalinda is having trouble with Jordan’s children, and their mother, who is jealous of her, comes over and makes scenes even though she’s in love with Rosario. Rosario used to be in love with Marguerita, the maid, so she had to go work for the Carello family, and then... I don’t know the rest. It’s all very complicated. Hands, needles, fingers, mouth.

The main thing is that I brought in the flowers so they won’t freeze. I left those that don’t have to be brought inside to winter outside. I have a plan for the spring, but I won’t go into it now. I’ll see how Rosalinda puts her pansies under the window. I think I saw impatiens next to a path in the backyard of their house. I’ll try the same thing. My garden is a lot smaller, so I’ll space the tulips closer together.

Nov. 16

It’s been snowing without letup for three days already. Like when I was a little girl. I’ll make a nice festive lunch for Christmas and invite Smilja. I’ll put some pretty decorations in the room. I already have some mistletoe. I’ll put some pine branches on the little table in the corner by the window and place candied apples on them. It’ll be merry.

I’ll make cookies, those special ones that Smilja likes the most. I’ll surprise her. Mum’s the word. I don’t want her to be alone like last year when I had to go see my sister. When I got back, Smilja looked lonelier than ever.

Nov. 18

Something unusual happened today. Smilja rushed over to my place early in the morning. She slammed the door, squealing with joy, grabbed my hands and started twirling me around the room.

“I’m going to get my house, I’m going to get my house,” she repeated breathlessly as we twirled around the cramped room. Snowflakes were melting on her hair.

“For heaven’s sake, Smilja, sit down and get hold of yourself. Would you like some coffee? What happened?” I tried to pull my hands away from hers and find out what was going on. First she gave me a hug, then sat down and threw a newspaper on the table. She gave me a knowing look and motioned toward it with her head.

It was a full-page announcement. Christmas Crochet Contest. The first prize was a prefabricated house with a garden in the suburbs.

Smilja was already going on and on about the house and nothing could stop her.

“Smilja, what are you supposed to crochet?” I asked.

“I don’t know, it doesn’t say anywhere, but you see, they gave the pattern. I’ve never seen one like it, but I’ll figure out how to work with it,” she said gaily. I didn’t understand a thing from the pattern. I was surprised that not even Smilja knew what it was, since she was the whiz.

She spent the whole day at my place. We had lunch together. I made some delicious dried peppers stuffed with meat. It was snowing and everything was hushed and white. Only Smilja’s merry voice disturbed the silence.

We watched the TV show. Smilja paid even greater attention than usual and commented on all the details of Rosalinda’s house, but I was troubled by that crochet pattern for the contest.

Nov. 20

Smilja went straight to work. She’s following the pattern with care. This stitch here, that stitch there. Everything is given in detail. This morning she told me that she dreamed about the house she would win.

We worked together the whole morning. She did hers, I did mine. I’m not even close to Smilja when it comes to crocheting. I make simple things, stuff I’m able to do. And I admire Smilja.

Nov. 22

It’s snowing again today. We wonder what it will turn out to be when Smilja finishes the piece. It reminds me a little of the crystals I saw in caves as a child.

Smilja had another dream. A large house with lots of rooms. The house in yesterday’s dream was empty, and in the one this morning, the kitchen was fully equipped Smilja described what it looked like and planned out where we would sit. You can see a river through the window. She says it’s all like the prettiest picture.

Her hands were lively and soft and flying in all directions.

Nov. 25

Smilja’s work is growing, it’s made entirely of lace stitches. It’s getting bigger not only in width and length, but the depth is somehow expanding. Smilja says she’s never seen anything like it and that’s why she wants to finish it as soon as possible. We call it “The Cover.”

Nov. 30

The Cover looks as if it’s alive. It frightens me a little. It moves and wriggles in Smilja’s hands. It covers half the floor in my room. I don’t like brushing against it when I pass by. Smilja is already having trouble packing it and bringing it to my place in the morning. But it’s warmer at my place and there’s more space and light than in her little room.

I recently finished three blouses and two caps. They look lifeless and stiff next to the Cover. It seems to shine with a sort of light. Smilja bought a special kind of thread for it.

Dec. 2

It’s getting closer to Christmas. Smilja hasn’t gone out to sell anything for days because she’s working on the Cover. I’ve had better sales at the farmers’ market recently, probably because Smilja hasn’t been there with all her things.

Ever since she started working on the Cover, I’ve made lunch for her and encouraged her.

Dec. 4

Smilja talks more and more to the Cover while she works and less and less to me. She arranges it and shapes it and tells it which position to take. And it seems to obey her. It curls up in her lap and then suddenly unwinds and slides to the floor. While she works on one end, the other moves around and dances.

Dec. 6

Now I go to Smilja’s because the Cover is so big that she can’t bring it to my place anymore. In the morning I take a pot of stew and everything else to her place and we sit there and work.

She is increasingly silent. Every once in a while she talks to me and describes her dreams. In them she finishes the rooms and furnishes them one by one, and more and more people are boating down the river. She takes great pleasure in looking out the window at the river and the vast forest behind it.

The white Cover looks like a snowy layer is spread over almost all of the floor in Smilja’s room. She’s put a white sheet under it on the floor and makes sure it doesn’t get dirty or touch the ground anywhere. She folds it up carefully and puts it away like something valuable.

Dec. 16

I don’t go to Smilja’s anymore. There isn’t enough room for me. The Cover fills almost the entire room. The day before yesterday was my last time. I touched it by accident and shuddered. It was cold and dry. There seems to be more to it than meets the eye. It reminds me of an ice sculpture.

Smilja suddenly starting chatting away to me. As though snapping out of a spell, she proudly described the garden around the house, details and colors, even her new neighbors. “It’s like you live there already,” I said. She did not reply.

Dec. 22

When darkness fell, I looked out the window at the thick white layer of snow on the tops of the trees that had transformed their bare branches into white umbrellas. I saw brightly decorated rooms through other people’s lighted windows. Everything looked festive.

The light was on at Smilja’s until late at night. The curtains were drawn so I couldn’t see inside.

I must say that I’m hurt. I had to stop myself from going over and knocking on her door. It’s like she’s forgotten me completely.

Dec. 24

I’ve spent the past few days doing odd jobs so I don’t think about Smilja. I have a feeling that she won’t come to see me tomorrow either, so we won’t be celebrating Christmas together, and the cookies I baked for us will go untouched.

She worked late again last night. From the shadows that fell on the curtains on her window, at one point I thought I saw her carefully spread the enormous Cover around the room. I turned my head the other way.

Didn’t she hand it in today? I’ll go see her tomorrow and everything will be like before.

Dec. 25

Last night I dreamed about Smilja in a garden full of flowers. This morning I found out that she’d died. A neighbor found her just before dawn. He’d gone out to the toilet and noticed that her door was wide open. When he went inside her little room, he found her on the bed. She was stone cold.

I saw her briefly before they took her away. She was smiling. The neighbors told me that it must have been a stroke. I’m not sure. She looked happy to me. The Cover was not in her room. No one knew what I was talking about. The neighbor who found Smilja said he hadn’t seen anything unusual. He claims that no one went to her  place during the night because the gate was locked. He thinks that a gust of wind must have opened her wobbly door.

Jan. 3

I’ve been to Smilja’s place several times now, trying to find an explanation, a thread from the Cover, anything.

I found the page with the announcement and the crochet pattern under her mattress.

This morning I went to the newspaper that had advertised the contest. They showed me a copy of  the paper. The announcement was not there. They didn’t know what I was talking about or where the page I had with me might have come from. They thought it must have been a mistake or a joke.

“But Smilja is dead,” I burst into tears, “and I didn’t see her on Christmas day.”

They asked me to leave the office.

It doesn’t matter any more. What matters is that I found the crochet pattern and that Smilja had a smile on her face when she died.

Soon, when I master a few more secrets of crocheting, I’ll start making a cover like Smilja’s. I’ll follow the pattern.

Translation of “Prekrivač." Copyright Dejana Dimitrijević. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2010 by Alice Copple-Tosić. All rights reserved.

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