Tonight is the third Christmas. I started counting them two summers and eleven months ago when I came to the island. The previous thousands weighed me down. I’d be able to win out over the numbers—at least I could add or subtract them—but didn’t know what to do with all the winters and falls. Those seasons are always laden with coats and wraps and faces hidden under raised collars, shawls, hoods . . .
It is always warm here. The first thing I did when I got here was take off my felt-lined coat, push one sleeve into another, roll it up carefully and put it in a cloth bag that I placed next to the dumpster. Someone took that unnecessary piece of clothing the very same day. I briefly wondered whether I would see it, on the island eccentric if no one else, but this didn’t happen. The coat disappeared without a trace and with it all the years before. Perhaps someone just needed an empty bag.
The previous Christmas I decorated an oleander in the garden behind the house. I made a special effort both times and when I was finished, marveled at how well the pink flowers matched the ceramic angels. For days afterward, delicate balls twinkled in the sunlight in the clumps of rosemary and lavender by the stone wall in the yard. They stayed there for a long time owing to my indolence, and when I finally decided to take the decorations off the plants, they kept their fragrance in the box until the next New Year. This very morning when I opened the box of ornaments, I smelt the scent of coastal scrub and open sea that came from its studded sandalwood.
I don’t know why I wanted a different tree this year. I was thinking of one that I could put inside the house, an artificial one, made of plastic. I hadn’t seen one at anyone’s house here. The island inhabitants have no need for anything evergreen in their homes—cypresses and pine groves are scattered all around—let alone an artificial contraption of plastic and metal imitating a tree. Nevertheless, I headed out, stubbornly intending to find one.
The island’s little streets do not follow any special plan, rather they go wherever the houses and their courtyards sprang up. Although they seem to keep to the shade, well away from the rays of the sun. There are no real corners as such; what would be called intersections are more like the crisscrossing of elbows that open as far as space allows them. They are rarely opened all the way, most often the bends seem to hug the stone walls of the residences, then at a shortcut open into shady passages tucked between the cool houses without attics, their roofs flat or with a single pitch.
There are no signs on the stores. They are not needed. The locals know where to find the hardware store by the balls of twine that sometimes roll from the entrance, by the strainers and ladles hooked to the semicircular iron ring above the door and by the sledgehammer leaning against it. The bakery is found by the smell of fresh bread and the general store by the wire stretched above the window where wooden clothespins secure fluttering towels, socks and underpants and by the piled sacks of corn, fertilizer, coffee beans, and sugar in front of the door.
Tourists rarely come this way, except if they’ve arrived on the wrong boat. Our supply boat comes every two weeks, providing the island with those food items and other products in short supply. Sometimes, but not often, the supplier or loaders in the Great Harbor make a mistake, like three months ago when we received cans of sardines instead of beans. But that’s exceptional and above all amusing—the island shakes with laughter for days.
Just about everything can be found here: olive oil, wine vinegar, salt in abundance in the water and air, seafood, figs, lemons and oranges, goats’ milk and cheese, wood, stone . . . Those who are frugal truly miss very little. Except Christmas trees, which is what I need right now.
I went past the bakery along the shore. It was closed. Bread sells out by eight in the morning and they bolt the door. Had it been open by some chance, I would have peeped into the room with wooden shelves and asked the baker’s wife if she knew where I could find a Christmas tree.
I took a shortcut to the general store. It was after twelve o’clock and out in the open the sun was scorching. Keeping to the narrow passages and shaded nooks, I soon reached the little square dominated by the church steeple, the highest point in town. The store was open and a woman with a child in her lap was sitting at the entrance. They were laughing at a tomcat, rolling a ball of twine bigger than its head, and yet it didn't tire. In a little while, a few hours, it would grow lazy and doze until sunset, opening one eye as needed should a mouse happen to run across the stone-paved plateau.
I asked her whether she had any Christmas trees. The cheerful woman found this funny too. She whirled the ball of twine in the direction of the grove that started above the last house, gesturing that all the pine trees were there. The cat disappeared with the ball and I followed it.
The island eccentric was sitting on a wooden three-legged stool in front of the hardware store. In the past three years I had never spoken a single word to the man. He reminded me of something that had been forgotten, left behind, of the years with four numbers. I shrank away from him, withdrew whenever I saw him, turned my head the other way and used other little stratagems and artifices to avoid him. That probably happens to all eccentrics. But now there was no retreating. If there was a Christmas tree anywhere it was in the store there, behind his back.
I went inside. He did not even raise his eyes from the pavement. Something told me that he saw the tip of my espadrilles. I gathered up my skirt so it wouldn’t rustle as I went down several steps to the basement. I blinked to adjust my eyes to the gloom. I was wrapped in the pleasant coolness of the store. There was a bell on the counter so I pressed it twice briefly. Ring, ring . . .
The hardware store owner appeared behind the counter under the low arched ceiling. He came from the back of the store through an opening hidden by a curtain of shells instead of beads. He was a large, good-natured man with a mustache.
“Beautiful day. How may I help you?” he asked me, spreading his arms with a smile.
“I’ll tell you, but please don’t laugh at me like Maria did a moment ago. It seems that her cat has stolen a ball of your twine,” I said, squealing on the cat.
“Maria is always laughing, that’s why we love her. And if what you’re looking for really is funny, I promise that we’ll laugh together,” he said, disregarding the cat’s thievery, an ordinary event.
“I would like to buy a Christmas tree. An artificial one,” I blurted out, wanting to get the moment over with as soon as possible.
“Artificial? Christmas tree?” Both questions were answers. My heart sank.
“It doesn’t have to be decorated. I’ll do it myself, make it festive. What’s important is for it to be small and green with needles . . .”
His mustache started to twitch. Then his chin. His nose wrinkled. His whole face moved and I still didn’t understand. I smiled apologetically. As though that was all he was waiting for, he burst out laughing. I chuckled too, although it saddened me. Not the fact that there was no Christmas tree, but that this was my first disappointment since coming to the island. As the man laughingly made excuses, I turned to go. Someone was blocking the brightness of the day.
“I have a Christmas tree.” That was the first time I had heard his voice.
* * *
On the bottom step stood a man who had a tree.
A white jute hood covered his head. He was standing like a taut sail, protecting his face in the deep shade. A stray ray of sunlight tried to reach the back of his head through the thick fabric, but the tranquil whiteness of the jute repelled it. The eccentric’s bearing seemed inviolable as well; a body in a light cocoon, out of reach of the sun and rain, unaffected by the world of external appearances.
Following the line of his shadow, I reached his one eye. The other one was half-closed, squinting at me, as though winking or sharpening the image. The open eye was dark-blue. Or green. I’m colorblind for those colors, blue turns green and green turns blue, but that’s still not enough for me to be eccentric. The eccentric was this guy in white, the colorless one.
“Ricardo,” he said, introducing himself, and the hood bowed. No one had ever told me his name. There is almost no need to call anyone here, everyone is always here.
I turned toward the counter for some sort of encouragement from the hardware store owner, a sign of what to do. The mustached hulk had disappeared and the rows of shells just dangled soundlessly. Perhaps they might say something to me if I put my ear to them. Just as I started walking toward them, a hand emerged out of the eccentric’s robe. I didn’t know whether it was extended to introduce himself or to help him walk out into the daylight. I took the easy way out and stayed in the gloom of the steps. I knew I was supposed to respond to him; if the eccentric acted normal, it was not normal for me to act eccentric. I took his hand, his dry fingers in my sweaty palm and squeezed them slightly, then opened my mouth to say my name.
I tried in vain to remember it. The first person I met when I arrived was the baker’s wife. She had presented me with a loaf of brown bread made with coarsely ground flour and other grains, and in return I had said my name, that now, damn it, I simply could not remember. The last time I was supposed to say it was a little less than three years ago as I waited with the locals for the fisherman’s little boat. He had been trapped by a storm on an island in the neighboring archipelago, and so was late in making my acquaintance. He was terribly saddened by the fact that he was bringing an empty net and repeated in Spanish without letup—nada, nada . . . I, the flustered newcomer, held out my hand and repeated in my language the magical, and in his language final word—Nada. The fisherman glanced at me in surprise, and then got back the smile he had lost in the storm. And so it happened that, although everyone already knew my name, it remained ambiguous. Soon it would be three years old.
“Nada,” I said with the accent of my mother tongue. I gave up trying to remember my old name; my head was filled with the Christmas tree, glass bells, silver balls and wrapping paper that wriggles at the touch. This snapped me out of it, so I withdrew my fingers from his. His hand disappeared in his trapezoidal sleeve as quickly as it had come out of it.
He moved away from the entrance and headed toward the sun that towered over the fountain on the square, and took a sip of its saltwater. The eccentric stopped and turned around. Of course, a Christmas tree doesn’t go walking around on its own, I thought, and took several decisive steps. My skirt rustled loudly.
He walked slowly in front of me. We passed by the statue of a fish with a thin stream of water spraying upward from its mouth into a fountain lined with the carapaces of spiny lobsters and sea urchins. We went by the little cathedral with its silent belfry and turned the corner round its bulky side. I knew that he lived on top of the island’s only peak, beyond the pine forest.
I was fascinated by the feet that appeared under his long robe. I had not seen even a bit of his skin and now I was looking at his heels as he walked, rising away from the worn-out soles of his sandals.
I remembered the day I first saw him; I thought he was a priest or a monk. I asked the baker’s wife if the man with the covered body and no face lived near the cathedral or in it. “Where did you ever see a priest in a white robe?” she said with a laugh, rewarding my silly question with a cookie, and explained that the eccentric had always been there. Her husband’s mother told her what her mother’s mother had told her while they were disentangling the nets. This had not always been a bakery. People used to bake their own bread on the stone slabs of their hearths. Back then instead of hot stoves and wooden shelves, there were fishing nets hanging from the ceiling. They wove seine nets—for sardines, mackerel, anchovies and herring, and trawling nets—for cod, squid and halibut . . . They made nets without knots for cages and nets with cork, lead weights and floats. Some were made of fine string and others were of the filament used for brooms, bags, and brushes. She had just married the net maker, the future baker, when the hardware store opened. Fishermen went in to check out the unusual store and left with balls of string, spools of twine, and crooked needles with large eyes. The fishermen became more industrious and instead of just repairing their nets they started weaving them. Luckily at the same time, their wives grew lazy; they probably had enough on their hands with cleaning, drying, and salting the fish and packing the seafood for transport to land. The bread they made and broke with their husbands when they returned from fishing became hard, or even worse, doughy—served them right—and so the bakery opened its doors. And the eccentric never sits in front of it, rather up there, in front of the hardware store . . .
The ascent took some time. The eccentric’s robe moved about his body noiselessly. Pine needles crackled beneath our feet. One fell into my espadrille but I did not stop to shake it out. If its prick was the price I had to pay for my Christmas tree, I would willingly pay it. I could smell the fragrance of the sandalwood and the box with Christmas ornaments.
The grove became a forest. The combed leaves of the cypresses spread a resinous fragrance that chased away the smells from my box. There was no reason to get upset. The fragrances both meant Christmas to me. The path meandered through ferns. The ground was almost hidden under the dry branches, scattered pinecones and tufts of needles. Now my espadrilles were full of needles. They pricked the bottoms of my feet and made bloodless holes, yet something was oozing out of them. Memories, perhaps . . .
* * *
The memories that started to fill my shoes and leave a snail trail behind me had been huddling in a shell made of the sea and sky, held closed by fingers of sunrays. Now in the cool forest they clenched it in fear that the earth would capture their secret.
The shell turned upside down. The sky fell, the sea spread over it and started pouring down, filling the shriveled clouds with rain that had nowhere to go. Drizzling down with the saltwater were seahorses and shrimp, sea anemones and seaweed, taut squid, anchovies, bristling sea urchins . . . Starfish stretched out their tentacles in their briefly allotted place in the firmament, until they fell with a thud. I stopped to shake the inverted piece of life out of my espadrilles.
We came to a clearing surrounded by pines, no larger than the rocks at the bottom of the island’s cliffs. I was expecting a log cabin. That is how I had originally imagined the eccentric’s abode. I might have expected a dark cave, a hut, a house of wattle and daub covered with straw, or a cellar dug in the ground, but in the middle of the forest stood a white boat. It was supported by logs on six sides. I don’t believe they came from the surrounding forest; they were too round and thick. The houseboat had both eaves and guttering. The blind eyes of the portholes looked at me from the front, their unslatted shutters firmly closed. There was a three-pitched yellow tarpaulin roof, unusual for this region, but it made good sense for such a house. The crown over it was reminiscent of the eccentric’s hood, except with a more uniform shape.
Not far from the wooden ladder that led up to the deck stood three fir trees—one bluish-green, one greenish-blue, and one red. I assumed that their purpose was to brighten the whiteness and yellowness emitted by the house. I feared that the eccentric was thinking of them when he said he had a Christmas tree. I didn’t want to take life away from the living but to give life to the nonliving.
Luckily, he only brushed against their branches with his hood. He climbed up the ladder and stopped on the deck without turning around. I waited by the firs. I was carrying my shoe. I hadn’t put it on again after shaking out the needles. Nothing tickled or pricked me anymore except uncertainty. Where was the artificial tree?
When the eccentric disappeared inside the boat I waited for several moments. Then I went up the wooden ladder, holding onto the rope that was there. It wobbled under my feet until I stepped onto the firm floor of the deck. I felt grains of sand under my feet. The front door was decorated with a wooden wind rose. As soon as I closed it behind me, the center of the rose turned silently.
After I entered I almost collided with two armless dressmaker’s dummies. Their heads and trunks were upholstered in black cloth and poles were stuck in the base each, from the trunk downward instead of legs. At first glance they seemed identical; closer inspection revealed a slight difference—one was my height with a hint of breasts and the other was taller with a flat chest. Since they did not have arms, it was pointless to shake hands.
At the end of the room was a bar with several small barrels as stools. That little corner was a copy of the village tavern where I went to each Friday. I liked the smell of cork and rosy wine creeping up the stairs from its cellar. Once I asked the tavern owner to show me the vault where he kept his best wine. He laughed with a ring like toasting glasses and warned me of the evaporation. He said I would get drunk just from breathing the air. For days afterward I walked with a stagger, intoxicated by a smell that I was certain was the color of red.
Across from the door and my dumbfounded self was a picture. A green rhinoceros gazed out at me docilely from it, and drew me forward.
There were books on either side of the picture on open shelves that filled the space from ceiling to floor. They warped the wall at the corners to the very ends of the neighboring walls. Had there been books behind my back, too, I would have felt like I was in the stomach of a librarian whale.
The covers of the books were made of a leather of dark-green scales. I wondered whether they were from reptiles or tanned fish skin. If a fish had paid its life for the luxurious binding, I didn’t know what kind it was: it probably came from depths where I had never been.
I took out a volume. The title was written in embedded pearls. It said—Ana. I reached for another one. The same type of cover with a pearl title, but another name—Estraven. I quickly put it back and took the book that seemed the newest—Ricardo. Then the next one and . . . Nastasia, Vladimir, Joe, Katarina, Fyodor . . .
I got to thinking. If I were to write a book, what language would it be in? If these were the names of the authors, what would the pearls say on my scales—Nada as in Spanish, meaning nothing or Nada as in my native tongue, meaning hope? A pointless question . . . It would be Nada all the same.
To the right of the rhinoceros and door was an oak table with a computer monitor on it. A sprite was walking on the screen; up, down, then diagonally. It was only then that I remembered the eccentric who had brought me there.
But there was no trace of him.
* * *
Well, I guessed that he would reappear when he found the tree. No doubt it was under the lower deck somewhere, covered by a great pile of other things. I would not be surprised if this house had a basement under the basement, down to the very heart of the earth, all filled with odds and ends he had collected.
I put back the last book I’d taken and headed toward the little barrels. Where there is a bar there is a kitchen, I rightly concluded, and I was feeling hungry. As I went toward it, the plank flooring made of Siberian larch squeaked underfoot. The house must have traveled halfway around the world before it settled on the top of the island.
The galley was quite small but had everything that was needed. I found wild blackberry preserves in the refrigerator. They were lovely. The only problem was that they had pine needles in them too.
I made some strong coffee and sat on the third little barrel behind the bar. I found the place more and more captivating. From there I could see the nets hanging between the ceiling beams. They were not empty as I imagined they should have been. Almost right above my head was a wriggling spiny lobster caught in the netting. It reminded me of the hardware store owner; both of them twitched their mustaches the same way. There were other sea creatures and fish under the dry vaulted roof. They moved and swam in the empty space bounded by the ceiling beams, the roof and the stretched-out nets. I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed them moving before. Perhaps because shadows were doing the dance of the blue veil up there.
Sea instead of sky, I remembered. I postponed until later the question it implied.
I headed back to the monitor. Along the way, I wondered what would happen if I undid the stitches that held the nets together. Summer before last, the net of the oldest fisherman in the village had ripped. He’d been fishing for little medusae with stinging tentacles but had caught six hundred kilos of larger jellyfish instead. There had been no way to raise the net, so he dragged it for four and a half hours, driving his boat around the spot where he was fishing. Finally, with great difficulty, he pulled the net onto the boat. Afterward other fishermen took the remaining jellyfish out of the torn net and measured one. Its umbrella measured over three feet! Without raising my head, I stole a glance at the ceiling. There weren’t any jellyfish, just several happy little squid dancing in the air.
Calmed, I concentrated on the monitor. The little sprite was still swimming about the screen as though on a calm sea.
I went up to the table and the sprite expanded. I made out a gold star on the top, silver angels, red Santa Clauses . . . A Christmas-tree screensaver, I thought with a smile. No matter what it was saving, it was surreal enough. Wasn’t that just what I was looking for?
A book with a white cover lay on the table next to the keyboard. The future title was just starting to appear. Perhaps the book was an oyster shell in which a grain of someone’s name had fallen? How much time did it need to envelop it with nacre?
I heard the tolling of bad weather and turned in that direction. The air scattered in all directions as the wind rose.
I saw the eccentric in front of the green rhinoceros. He was holding my old coat over his arm. The sleeves were dangling, but it was washed and ironed.
“Did you find the Christmas tree?” he asked me.
“Yes. It’s beautiful.”
He tapped on his wristwatch and then headed for the dummies. He wrapped the coat around the one with small breasts.
“You’ll need it when you leave,” he said, smoothing the cloth. “You have everything you need here. If there’s something you’re missing, you’ll find it down in the village.”
“Bread,” I said, remembering the baker’s wife who believed in the eternal eccentric.
“Of course,” he said returning my smile.
As he took off his robe and put it over the dummy, I hoped for a tiny bit of bare body. My wish was not fulfilled—I was looking at a man in a black flannel suit. Well, all right, I thought, what I don’t see I’ll write.
I turned toward the table. The book cover was lined with scales. I didn’t have to look to know whose name was written in pearl. I stroked the initial N with my fingertips. It was rounded and covered with the colors of the rainbow.
“Is there anything else you would like to ask me?” he said, stopping briefly at the door.
Everything seemed radiantly clear, except one thing. The door had already closed behind the eccentric when the overdue query peeped out of his robe, out of the houseboat, the wild blackberry and pine needle preserves, the smell of evergreen and oleander, the hardware store owner’s and the spiny lobster’s mustaches, the shaded nooks and the scorching sun, the cat with its ball and my rustling skirt, the bell in the belfry and the little glass bells, Ana, Estraven, Ricardo and the other names, the wood and the stone, out of the green fir and the sea hanging over me:
“Where is the sky?”
Copyright Violeta Ivković. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2010 by Alice Copple-Tosić. All rights reserved.