Aurora-winning poet Helen Marshall is an author, editor, and bibliophile. Her poetry and fiction have been published in The Chiaroscuro, Paper Crow, Abyss & Apex, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and Tor.com. She recently released a collection of poems entitled Skeleton Leaves from Kelp Queen Press and her collection of short stories Hair Side, Flesh Side was released from ChiZine Publications in 2012. More can be found from and about the author at her personal site. Currently, she is pursuing a Ph. D in medieval studies at the University of Toronto, for which she spends a great deal of her time staring at fourteenth-century manuscripts. Unwisely. When you look into a book, who knows what might be looking back. The following story, “The Mouth, Open,” is reprinted here with its accompanying art from Hair Side, Flesh Side. — The Editors
Copyright © Chris Roberts/Dead Clown Art
“It’s rude,” Jonah’s brother-in-law, Petar, whispered beforehand, “to turn down food. We’ve found the trick is to leave a little room at the end of the first helping so you can take some more when my aunt asks you.”
At the time, Jonah had agreed, but when ten o’clock rolled around, after the plane trip to Zagreb and the ensuing drive, the thirty-year-old programmer found that he was starving. Petar’s aunt served up a pot of peppers stuffed with rice and pork, mashed potatoes, thick crusty bread, baked string beans, and another bowl full of potatoes fried with mushrooms. Jonah began to salivate, and try as he might to follow Petar’s advice, he found his plate heaped higher and higher with food. He couldn’t help it. He never could.
“Aunt Katica may look stern,” Petar had told him, “but she’ll love you. You’re family after all, what with Deborah and I.” When he said that, he leaned over and kissed Deborah—Jonah’s super-beauty of a little sister—on the cheek. She smiled, and wriggled her body again at Petar in a way Jonah didn’t entirely approve of. “She’s just very old fashioned, you know, caught in the old ways. Her sons died when the Serbs bombed Dubrovnik back in the War of Independence. She takes good care of us now. And she’ll feed you until you’re fit to burst.”
Jonah had been doubtful about the trip, and about his reception with this new family he was supposed to be part of. He wasn’t terribly close to Deborah, had showed up to her wedding late, and missed most of the major festivities before and after. And, so when he arrived in Petar’s family home, back in the old country that Deborah had told him so much about, when they started piling food in front of him, despite the doctor’s warning, despite his avowal to drop thirty pounds, and despite Petar’s advice, he began to eat.
Travelling made him nervous; Petar’s family made him nervous; and when he was nervous he wanted to eat. After all, eating meant that you didn’t have to talk.
He shovelled forkful after forkful into his mouth, long after Petar and Deborah had stopped, while Petar’s cousins chatted to each other in Croatian. They were big, burly men, all of them, with bulky biceps and skin burnt to an attractive red-gold. Jonah, on the other hand, felt pudgy and fish-belly white. He went to the gym when he could, but sitting in front of a computer all day did nothing for either his complexion or his physique. So his own wife had told him before she packed her bags to leave him for her fitness instructor.
“You’ve let yourself go, honey,” Sarah said, eyes big with concern. “I can’t watch you doing this to yourself anymore. I don’t want to see who you are becoming.”
Doing what? He had wanted to ask. Working twelve to fourteen hours a day organising trade routes for shipping companies, implementing database systems, waking at six in the morning to answer his Blackberry all so that she could have a beautiful house in the nice part of town and spend hours at the high-end FemChic gym in Yorkville?
But Jonah had not said that. He had said nothing when Sarah left, and so here he was, joining his little sister, her husband and his Herculean cousins in an apartment in Dubrovnik.
“What you need is to get away,” Deborah had told him, patting his hand with that awkward breed of affection and contempt that only family can get away with. “Come with Dam and I. He won’t mind. And his family is our family now.”
They certainly didn’t look like his—Jonah’s—family. The younger Malinaric men had large foreheads and faces that seemed moulded from clay. They had welcomed Jonah solemnly, drank a shot of šljìvovica with him, and then ignored him completely in favour of Petar, the prodigal son, and his beautiful bride.
Mashed potatoes it was then, mixed with tomatoes and onions, and a second piece of bread that he could stuff in his face, so that when, at last, all the bronze, golem-faces turned to him, he could shrug and mumble apologetically.
“You don’t have to eat so much,” Deborah leaned over to whisper discreetly. “Really, you can just say no. They’ll understand. You aren’t from here.”
Jonah wanted to point out that neither was she, but Deborah, being Deborah, had left a smattering of meat and vegetables on her plate just to prove that she had really, really tried and that she was definitely good and full.
Jonah instantly put down the piece of bread he’d been about to finish off. “Okay, sis,” he whispered, “thanks.”
But when she turned away, he quickly popped the stub into his mouth and chewed as fast as he could. Petar shot him a look, a friendly are-you-having-a-good-time smile, but Jonah caught the quick eye flick to his belly, bulging out from beneath his navy t-shirt.
Only the aging Aunt Katica, a buttery-looking woman with sagging skin and sharp, bird-like eyes, looked on in approval. When at last Jonah’s plate was clear, she tapped a wooden spoon against her chin twice, and smiled at him. It was a strange smile, but the only genuine smile he had received since he arrived.
Deborah and Petar wanted to go with the cousins to a nightclub and they insisted that Jonah tag along as well.
“The women here are beautiful,” Petar said. “My parents were shocked that I found a Canadian girl as pretty as the girls in Dubrovnik.”
“Prettier,” Deborah rejoined. “And Canadians age well. It’s the cold. Keeps us well-preserved.”
They kissed then, a long post-honeymoon but pre-anniversary kind of kiss that involved a lot of tongue. Afterwards, they bobbed along, hand in hand, like two buoys floating in the ocean. Jonah felt a pang as he watched them. Sarah would have fit right in here. All the Croatian girls had surprisingly perfect bodies. It was the kind of place where everyone felt comfortable wearing bikini-tops. The cousins had each managed to find themselves identical counterparts: tanned, well-built girls with dark curling hair and sombre faces.
The nightclub was dark and dingy, just like every other nightclub Jonah had ever attended. They played American music, and served Croatian beer—“Pivo,” Petar informed him, “the only Croatian word you need to know.” The beer came in half-litre bottles, and tasted gritty but not unpleasant.
The music was hypnotic, and Jonah was still exhausted from jetlag. His belly felt too full, and the beer was very strong. These were people who liked to drink. Liked to drink and fight, Jonah remembered. It hadn’t been that long since the civil war had ended. You could see bullet holes, Petar had said, on the doors in some of the smaller cities where they hadn’t yet rebuilt. And there were villages bombed by the Serbs during World War II that still lay empty and deserted. It was a place for strong beer and quiet faces. When Jonah looked around, there seemed to be something angry and feral to the dancing.
“The Croatian women are very beautiful, yes?”
Jonah muttered a reply he hoped was polite, but he didn’t really want to talk to this hulking behemoth of a man—family, Deborah had said. Not his family. Hers.
“Is okay. Very beautiful. You dance now?” Jonah shook his head emphatically. “Is okay,” the cousin repeated, smiling.
A moment later, Jonah was alone again.
Disorientated and a little drunk, Jonah took a taxi home alone, hours, he suspected, before the others would be getting in, drunk and grinning, arms hugging companionably around oversized shoulders. When he slipped through the front door, Aunt Katica was there at the little kitchen table, clutching a hand-rolled cigarette.
She beckoned him to the table, and though he was tired, Jonah did not refuse.
The smell of tobacco was heavy. Wordlessly, she poured a small cupful of šljìvovica from a plastic water bottle in the fridge. The air conditioner buzzed angrily, but it was still hot in the room. Jonah sipped the liquor, enjoying the sweet, burning sensation it left in his throat.
“You did not like the club?” the old woman asked him. Her English was surprisingly good, though the syllables still sounded heavy and guttural in her mouth. She didn’t have the high-pitched voices of the cousins’ girlfriends. Hers was harsher; her mouth scowled when she spoke English.
“It was very nice,” Jonah lied. “I’m just tired after the flight, is all.”
She grunted in reply, and poured him more liquor. Jonah felt lightheaded. The smoke scratched the inside of his lungs. It had been a while since he’d smoked, something he’d given up when he and Sarah had started dating.
“Is okay,” she said. “You are good boy. You will do well in this country.”
He coughed as he swallowed the šljìvovica. She stood, eyeing him, and cracked a window open. A breeze wafted into the room, stealing some of the heavy, circling smoke.
“I’m not staying long,” Jonah replied.
The old woman took a long drag from her cigarette. Jonah found himself studying her in the paper-yellow light. Her skin was brown and doughy, a thousand lines creased into the soft folds of it. She hadn’t gone to fat like so many of the other old women in the country, brought up the old way. In fact, Jonah had yet to see her eat. She had simply brought plate after plate to the table, and then observed as the family sat down to dine.
“It was a woman, yes?” she said after some time. “A woman from your country?”
Jonah nodded, feeling uncomfortable. “She’s gone now.”
She took another drag, and Jonah wondered where all the smoke had gone, whether it was pooling in her lungs. Finally, she exhaled a small cloud. “We have many ghosts here,” she said with a soft snarl. “The young people can be foolish in their forgetfulness.”
“It must be hard.”
“Yes. Very hard in Croatia, for a long time.”
She extinguished the last of the cigarette in an ash tray, and then rose to shut the window again. Jonah watched the red ember die to ash, while Aunt Katica looked on in thoughtful silence.
That night, Jonah dreamed that he was hungry. A woman sat on the other side of a table, but there was so much food piled between them that he couldn’t see her face properly. He began to eat and eat and eat. Dumplings, cabbage rolls, roasted chicken legs, breaded pork chops. His stomach pressed against the table, curving overtop and spilling onto the plate. The more he ate, the closer he felt to seeing that figure on the other side. Soon, he knew, soon.
Finally, as Jonah felt his stomach begin to burst, he heard a voice, Sarah’s: “I can’t watch you doing this to yourself.” But when he saw who was on the other side, she wasn’t alone. Aunt Katica sat next to her, sucking on her cigarette, eyes burning like red-hot embers as she watched him.
“You must eat,” she said. “Is good.”
And she pushed Sarah onto the plate.
Jonah couldn’t help it. He was so hungry. He took one of her pale, manicured hands and he popped it into his mouth, crunching down on the fingers. Soon he had eaten his way to her elbow, but Sarah only looked on with those sad eyes of hers. “This won’t make me love you any more,” she said. And then she gave him a languorous wink, and he imagined her rubbing up against the man at the club.
He could feel his skin tingling, could feel her pressed up against his insides as if she was wearing him like a second skin.
“This won’t make us closer,” she said, her words rippling out from his lungs, through his windpipe.
Aunt Katica nodded, tapped a wooden spoon to her chin, and smiled.
Deborah and Petar were late waking the next morning, and they grinned foolishly to each other at the breakfast table.
“I’m not used to drinking like that,” Deborah said. “You Croats must have cast-iron stomachs.”
“It’s taken practice. At least we excel at something.”
“In Croatia,” said one of the cousins, “we say we are very good at fighting. Not so good at peace.”
Aunt Katica gave him a dark look as she set down a pot of hot coffee. Jonah helped himself to a cupful, serving it out with a long, rounded spoon as he listened to the banter. He felt guilty he hadn’t stayed. They all seemed closer now without him. Deborah laughed easily with the cousins, making quick and clumsy jokes in their language.
They poured another round of šljìvovica—“It’s how we start the day over here,” Petar winked—but Jonah was somehow left out. He didn’t mind. The coffee was sweeter than he expected, and when he had finished it, he poked the dark silt at the bottom and licked the grounds off his finger.
Deborah gave him a look, and he tucked his hands back under the table, as the others all downed their liquor.
They ate thick slices of bread, spicy salami and cheese, along with a heaping spoonful of scrambled eggs. The cousins seemed in fine form, nudging each other in the ribs, their appetites unaffected by the apparent debauchery of last night. Deborah looked a little paler, and only nibbled at the food. Aunt Katica’s stared disapprovingly at her, and Jonah found himself doing the same thing.
Food was a gift. Food was hospitality. Food meant you were family.
He hadn’t felt like he had family in a long time. Deborah was great, but the two of them were nothing alike. She was tiny, trim, the kind of woman who went for a ten-kilometre run first thing in the morning. After their parents’ divorce, the family had become fragmented, with holidays so unbearably tense that Jonah had been happy to ditch them in favour of a low-key morning with Sarah, and dinner with her teeming, multitudinous assortment of cousins, nieces and nephews. But they had never been his family.
Here, though—here he felt a warmth creeping into his stomach, and at one point, Aunt Katica came and rested her hands on his shoulders. They were icy cold, but the touch was kind, a gesture of affection.
“It’s the dragon’s own weather outside,” Petar muttered. “I wanted to show you the beach today. I guess we can go to the market instead. The Old City.”
“Pijaca,” said one of the cousins. “Is very nice.”
It took some time to get moving, but eventually they boarded the tram into town. Even early in the morning, underneath a cover of grey clouds, the sun beat down on Jonah something fierce.
They passed through the ancient gateway into the Old City. Despite the sun, and the heat, and the sweat, even Jonah was impressed. The ancient fortifications still stood intact after all these years—after a vicious earthquake that had almost levelled the city, and after invasions by Venetians, Turks, later by Napoleon.
The walls towered up over Jonah. There were already a number of people up there, tourists for the most part, remarking at the colour of the ocean, taking pictures of the Adriatic. Jonah felt exhausted from last night as it was. Jetlag tugged at his eyelids, and he felt as if he had eaten a cannonball for breakfast, the weight of it sagging from his stomach. But up sprinted Deborah with her trim runner’s legs, the flesh smooth and expensively tanned. Jonah followed, taking one step at a time. He didn’t like heights much. But when he reached the top, the view really was spectacular. On one side, he could see a patchwork of red clay rooftop tiles jostling one another for space. There were so many different shades: the old tiles, grey where they had cracked and sun-bleached where they hadn’t; a variety of reds, oranges, browns of the newer tiles. In some places, he could make out the bright, coloured tiles where the rooftops had been patched. After the war, he thought. The too-even colours had a bright flesh-over-a-scar gloss.
It reminded Jonah of the way their apartment in Toronto had looked, the week after Sarah had left. She had let herself in while he was at work to collect all of her things. When he’d returned at the end of the day, exhausted from troubleshooting the glitches in the system he had been working on for the last month, he had found empty craters in the dust on bookshelves and tables where a lamp or vase had stood, nails sticking out of the wall.
She’d left a note:
Dear Jonah, sorry to collect my things while you were away, but it didn’t feel right to see you. Not yet. I know this is all my fault.
I left the key in the ashtray on the kitchen table.
Perhaps all loss felt like that, empty places where you knew something special, something important, had stood.
Traversing the walls took a good hour. Jonah sweated through most of it with a fairly good temper. Deborah and Petar often asked him to take cute-couple pictures of them kissing. Each time, Petar would open his mouth, like a fish, to suck on Deborah’s top lip. They fit together like two gears turning, mouths clicking together, camera clicking to capture the shot.
Finally, they found themselves in a large plaza filled on the one side with two-person tables where tourists reclined, drinking pale beer out of enormous glass mugs. On the other side, the square was filled with stalls perched under rectangular, blue and white striped umbrellas. The bustle of people was ferocious and Jonah was almost immediately swept away from his group by the crowd. There were enormous watermelons bulging out of crates, tomatoes, cucumbers, limes, olives, eggplants, bunches of bananas, and strings of garlic hanging from the rafters.
He made his way to a huge statue with large, bronze panels on it that stood in the centre of the square. The panel before him depicted a dragon and a winged lion bowing before a woman on a throne. It was beautiful, and imposing, a relic of the ancient spirit of Dubrovnik exerting itself against its would-be enemies. Libertas, Jonah remembered, was the motto of this town. It had never let itself be conquered, not by the Venetians who ruled the rest of Croatia nor the Turks, their ancient enemy.
But Jonah’s gaze soon swept back to the lines of burdened stalls. Where had the others gone? He tried to shade his eyes and get a better look.
“Try, yes?” called out a slender woman selling giant wheels of cheese. She shaved a piece off a crescent and offered it to him. Jonah, without thinking, put it into his mouth. “You try, yes? Try all!” She cut off more from something darker, an orange-yellow with a red skin to it. He took it. And the next piece, and the next. He tried to put his hands up apologetically.
“No more, no more,” he pleaded, and disentangled himself from the booth, offering twenty kuna to satisfy the woman.
Where were Deborah and Petar? He thought he spotted Petar’s head towering over the crowd, and he tried to wade through the crowd to rejoin them.
Someone tugged at his arm.
It was a small child, shirtless, nut-brown from head to toe like all the Croats. His eyes looked up with an eager expression on his face. In his hands, he clutched a thick slice of watermelon, which he held out before Jonah. He did not resist when the fruit was pushed into his hands. He bit down, felt the juice running over his chin.
Then there was a girl, fifteen or sixteen maybe, in a knotted white dress. She came up to him shyly. He still held the green rind of the watermelon in his hand, so she leaned in close and pushed some kind of sweet pastry into his mouth.
“No,” he whispered. “I don’t need it.” But she simply smiled and fed him another. He dropped the shell of the watermelon.
There was another hand. Something dark with a thick, aromatic juice was pushed toward him. And then a red sliver of tomato.
Jonah had barely closed his mouth, barely chewed. His stomach felt tight against his shorts. It bulged out under his shirt. He tried to protest, but there were so many hands, so many offerings. He couldn’t stop. He felt his mouth unhinge like a snake’s, as meat and cheese slid down his gullet almost effortlessly.
“Alklha,” he heard them whisper. “Alklha.” He didn’t know what the word meant, but it didn’t seem to matter. The marketplace came alive before him, a thousand tanned hands and smiling faces. He was fit to bursting, but his hunger was deep, so deep. It was as if he had never eaten in his entire life. Jonah could feel a fire beginning to burn in the pit of his stomach, a fierce joy, protectiveness, something like love even, for these people and their gifts.
“I love you,” he wanted to say. “I love you all.”
The chatter began to grow louder. There was quite a crowd of people now, all those dark, brown eyes staring up at him with hopeful, expectant faces.
It was then that the nut-brown boy—the one who had first offered him the watermelon—was pushed to the front of the crowd. His eyes were bright, shining, his skin smooth and youthful, long-limbed. He would be a handsome boy one day, barrel-chested like the cousins. He slipped his short child’s fingers into Jonah’s mouth. They tasted sweet, sweeter than anything Jonah had ever tasted before. The boy pushed further, and soon it was his whole arm, and then a leg, and then both legs, so that the boy was sitting on the edge of Jonah’s jaw, half in, half out. He didn’t seem scared. In fact, he seemed happy, excited. Jonah couldn’t speak. His throat began to work, constricting in tight circles that caught hold of the feet and dragged them deeper into his throat.
And then the people were pushing, pushing the boy further into him. Jonah squeezed his eyes shut, caught somewhere between the fear and hunger, the moment dreamlike in its intensity.
The boy’s head disappeared, and then, at last, the final hand slithered between his lips.
Jonah felt heavy now, terribly heavy.
The crowd was dissipating, all those happy, faces blending back into the dull morass of hot, sticky tourists and bored vendors. The bright white and blue of the tents were blinding. Jonah found himself slumped on a bench, half in the shade, his stomach sagging pitifully over the belt of his shorts. He felt queasy. His vision blurred. The sun was too hot, and he could feel prickles of sweat running down his neck.
Deborah and Petar appeared, as if out of thin air. Deborah sat down on the bench beside him, while Petar peered off, his hands shading his eyes. The cousins ringed them like an entourage.
“You don’t look well,” she said, her voice laced with concern. “Maybe you should go lie down?”
Jonah nodded his head, moaned something low.
Deborah put her hand on his wet, sticky back. The gesture was so intimate, so familiar, that for a brief moment Jonah felt tears at the edges of his vision.
“One of the cousins can take you home,” Deborah said softly. “Petar wants to show me the harbour. It’s supposed to be beautiful. Do you want to come . . . ?”
Jonah shook his head. There was an intense pain in his abdomen. He felt hot and sleepy, fevered. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them, a cousin had propped him up under one arm, and they were walking toward the tram.
“Sorry about this,” Jonah muttered. “I hate to spoil your day.”
He looked up, and the cousin was smiling a tight, sharp smile. Jonah recognised him as the one from the bar, the one who had sent him fleeing back to the apartment. At that moment, he didn’t care though. He didn’t think he could make it back on his own. Another wave of pain overtook him, and he almost doubled over with it.
“Is okay,” the cousin said. “Alklha. We wait for you.”
The air in the apartment was thick with the growing heat of the afternoon. Jonah was sweating profusely now, his shirt almost soaked through. At one point, he half-dreamed he saw Sarah in the kitchen, but when he blinked his eyes, it was Aunt Katica, clucking sympathetically, while she poured a glass of cold tap water for him. She wore a green, printed dress, and for a moment, Jonah was glad it was her there and not Sarah. When he had got the flu, she had locked him in their shared bedroom with an electric kettle, a small jar of honey, and a box of Twinings teabags. Not much of a caregiver.
But when Aunt Katica put her hand to his brow, he felt something blissfully cold slither down his spine. “You rest now,” she said firmly. “Grow strong.”
The bedroom felt smaller today. Jonah’s belly heaped like a mountain under the cover. The walls were so close on either side that he felt he could reach out and touch them.
Sleep was difficult coming, but when it did, he saw Aunt Katica staring down at him from an enormous height. Her cigarette tip glowed in the darkness like a third eye, and Jonah found himself enwreathed in delicious smoke. He breathed it in, feeling it travel through his veins, bringing a rich wave of shuddering heat to the tips of his body.
Aunt Katica drew closer, and her eyes flashed red. The folds of her skin now were a burnished bronze, gleaming in the light of the cigarette. She took his hand in hers and pressed it against her cheek. There was no give. Jonah felt something hot and metallic underneath his fingertips, like a penny that had been out in the sun too long. But he didn’t want to stop touching it. He hadn’t felt desire for anyone since Sarah had left. He had thought his capacity for it burnt out of him. But Aunt Katica’s age sloughed off her like a second skin: her flesh was smooth, taut, her breasts were firm and perfect, thighs slim and tapered. She tugged him closer, and his erection was stiffer than it had ever been in his entire life, his penis engorged, terribly sensitive. Her smooth, metallic fingers touched it gently, and he almost came right then. But she grasped him firmly, and her fingers were very hot.
“Is good, yes? You grow big?” she whispered and suddenly there was no air in his lungs for speaking. His white flesh shuddered against her. She leaned in close to kiss him, her tongue darting in and out of his mouth. Their tongues met for a moment, his large and fleshy, hers soft, sharp, forked at the end like a snake’s. But, god, that was even more erotic. She kissed his neck, his chest, flicking across his nipples as if she was tasting them.
He tangled his hands in her hair, overwhelmed by their combined scent. She smelled dry, like the desert.
She moved against him now, rubbing his erection between her legs until he was gasping with pleasure, with the pain of wanting her so much.
She guided him into her then, and he just about dissolved into the hot, liquid warmth of her. He thrust once. Again. He could see the weight of his stomach bouncing with the effort, but he didn’t mind. He seemed to be growing thicker, not with fat, but with muscle, his body expanding, expanding. Suddenly she was a tiny thing next to him. He thrust and he thrust, each stroke engorging him further as if his entire body had grown priapic. Then, at last, release came.
His muscles contracted, painfully, ecstatically, all at once.
When he woke, Deborah was sitting by the side of the bed. She had a small, strange smile on her face.
“Do you want to come down to dinner?” she asked. “Aunt Katica said you’ve been sleeping all afternoon. Feel any better?”
“I—I think so,” he replied. Jonah found he did feel better. The queasiness and the pain in his stomach had all but disappeared. He looked over at his sister, small and petite, next to the bulking mass of him. His body wobbled as if it had grown an extra set of skin.
“Are you doing okay here?” She flicked aside a fly that had settled on the sheets. “You don’t seem yourself. Is it—”
“It’s not Sarah,” he finished.
She nodded, her smile sympathetic, not really hearing him. “We thought you were going to get married, Mom, Dad, all of us. I really liked her.”
There was something soft and accusing in her tone. Like it had been Jonah who had screwed it all up.
“I know, sis.”
“We want you to be happy.” Jonah wondered who the we was. His parents? They hadn’t called after the break up. Petar? He hardly knew the man. “Look, I know Mom and Dad were shit. Arguing all the time. And I know you’re still angry at them—”
“I’m not—” he protested.
“—but it’s not always like that. Petar and I, we—”
Jonah wasn’t listening. He shut his eyes and let the hum of the air conditioner buzz around him. I didn’t want her to go, he thought. I wanted her to stay. I wanted her to love me. He thought about Petar and Deborah kissing, their mouths open, trying to devour each other. His stomach rumbled.
“Family’s important,” she was saying. “That’s why I brought you here. I wanted you to see what Petar’s family is like. They’re all so close. It’s different. It can be different.
“You don’t want to end up alone.” Again, that strange smile.
“I know, sis,” he repeated. He patted her hand gently, though he wasn’t sure if he was comforting her or the other way round. He wanted to tell her about what had happened in the square, but looking at her just then, the gulf between them seemed so wide, unbridgeable.
She quirked her lips, tossed her hair back with a sweep of her muscular arms. “So, dinner then?”
He nodded, and heaved himself out of the bed.
There were new faces at the dinner table: the girlfriends were there alongside the cousins, but also several older men and woman, some grey-haired, some burly, some dough-faced with creases in the folds of their flesh from age. But they all had the same sloping foreheads, the same dark eyes. Jonah wasn’t sure how they all managed to fit in the apartment. He felt bulky beside them, and try as he might to take up less space when he was seated at the dining table, he still felt his flesh crowding those beside him. He tucked his elbows in, but there seemed nowhere that he could put himself.
Aunt Katica stood in the corner, directing an armada of pots and vessels to the table. They drank, all of them, small glasses full of šljìvovica. One, two, three shots they knocked back in quick succession. Jonah’s eyes watered and his stomach burned with the liquor. He noticed, though, that Deborah had not touched hers this evening. “Živjeli!” they shouted, as each glass went down.
The chatter buzzed around Jonah. He couldn’t make out the slurred Croatia syllables. It all sounded so strange and yet comfortable. The woman beside him—she looked familiar somehow—wore a white knotted dress that stood out against the dark burnished brown of her skin. She smiled genially at him, and clinked her glass against his.
“You are the brother, yes?” she asked. Jonah nodded. “Good, good. Welcome!”
Her leg brushed against his.
And then Petar was hushing everyone. The murmurs died down, and all eyes turned toward him.
“Deborah and I are so glad everyone could be here tonight.” Deborah stood beside him. He snaked an arm around her, pulling her closer. “Because we have an announcement to make.”
Jonah stared at his sister, saw the way her hand fluttered against her belly delicately, almost protectively. Her eyes were downcast as if, for once, she didn’t enjoy all the attention. For a brief moment, Jonah almost felt sorry for her. Her glass of šljìvovica still remained untouched. Jonah felt a stab of panic.
“I’m pregnant,” she said, voice shy, uncertain. Her eyes darted up to meet Jonah’s. They were wide, blue, maybe a little bit happy, maybe a little bit scared. Petar tugged on her. She turned her face toward him, and then they were kissing with that open-mouthed, fishy kiss of theirs. Her body relaxed into him.
The cousins burst into a happy chatter, some banging forks against plates, some raising glasses. The šljìvovica went round again. And again.
Jonah drank to steady himself. The woman beside him murmured something into his ear and patted him on the back. “We are family now, yes? It is good luck, this baby.”
But Jonah was only half listening. He searched the crowd, looking for a face, and then he found it: Aunt Katica was nodding approvingly, but not at Deborah. She was looking directly at him with eyes that burned through the haze of the alcohol. For a moment, as she drew a cigarette to her lips, he thought her skin flashed gold and metallic. Heat swept through him.
And then they were all rising from the table, the cousins and their girlfriends, the woman in the white dress, Petar, Deborah. They were spilling out into the night, into the streets, a sea of white teeth set in dark faces. Jonah felt drunk. He was unsteady on his feet, but someone put an arm out to help him. The air was cooler now that the sun had set. Jonah breathed it in, tasting the salt of it on his tongue. Someone jostled him. They were moving now, sweeping past white buildings roofed in red clay tiles. The ground was uneven beneath his feet, but he kept up with them. The alcohol sang in his blood.
Pregnant. She was pregnant.
He felt large and clumsy, but this time, somehow part of the crowd. It felt good. A new child. That was something to celebrate.
Plum liquor poured down his throat, as the woman in white offered him a slug from a plastic bottle.
“We are family. Is good!” she shouted.
The streets seemed to contract around him, and he had to suck in his belly to pass through the narrow corridors, elbows pushing at him, hands pulling him along. His legs and arms felt enormous. He could have been floating, a giant blimp above them, thick sausage-like fingers, legs thick as pillars.
Down, down, they went, along the city walls, until they stood on a pier, the whole riotous lot of them. Jonah could hardly see, but he could smell the tang of the Adriatic, could hear the crash of the waves against the rock. He stumbled, and fell hard against the wooden boards of the dock. The ocean leapt up in a spray between the planks, cool against his skin. There were hands on his shoulders now. He couldn’t quite get up. His body felt too round. He couldn’t get his legs under him. The hands pinched into his flesh like claws, and Jonah looked up to see Aunt Katica standing over him, but her face was different now, like in the dream. Her skin was metallic, and her fingers were long, with sharp nails that tug into him. Those eyes burned, and when she exhaled, a small plume of smoke formed.
And then the woman, the one who had been sitting next to him, leaned down, her lips brushing lightly against his. His mouth formed a surprised “o” and before he could think, before he could react, she had reached both hands into his mouth, and pried his lips apart, crawling in, all the way, disappearing down his throat.
He tried to struggle, but his limbs felt so heavy. Aunt Katica’s nails dug into his shoulders. His mouth was opening again, and then one of the cousins climbed in, and then another, and then another: the old men, the young, all those Slavic faces disappearing inside him.
“They come soon,” Aunt Katica whispered in his ears, looking across the Adriatic, beyond the borders of Croatia. “The young, they are foolish, they forget. But we do not forget. The serpent will always rise again, and it will eat our children, our grandfathers.
“We cannot forget this. You understand, yes?” Jonah squirmed, but he could not escape. They had to crawl over him now; his body was mountainous. He had long since split the seams of his clothes, and he lay naked on the dock, as the line of cousins and uncles and aunts grabbed hold of the thick folds of his skin, pulling themselves atop him.
“You are family, yes? You help. You protect us, the child. Your sister’s child.” He couldn’t see Deborah or Petar. Did not know if they had been left behind somewhere along the way. There was a fire burning his belly now. The child, yes, the child must be safe.
“Our blood is your blood.” Aunt Katica whispered. Her tongue flicked out, forked, to tickle his ear. “Is good now.”
And then she twisted her grip, and he was rolling off the pier into the Adriatic. Inside him, there was an inferno, and the air hissed and twisted into strands of steam that braided above him. He was heavy, so very heavy. The waves lapped over his face and he sank, Aunt Katica’s words whispering in his brain.
The water felt cool against the heat of his skin, and he did not struggle. He could feel all the cousins inside him, the thick muscles of their bodies, their quiet strength seeping into him. There was a fierce joy to it, as if all the empty parts of himself had suddenly been filled with presence. He opened his mouth, and the water rushed inside.
Somewhere he could hear Sarah’s voice: I don’t want to see who you are becoming.
Her face was turning away from his, and his heart felt empty, bombed out, each word dropping with an explosive force that shattered memories of the two of them together, dreams of the future he had once thought they might share.
His tears mingled with the salt of the ocean, his skin felt hot and molten, moving and sliding, until the water burst in. Then it cooled and grew hard. The shape of it was strange and unfamiliar. His blood sang with a thousand new voices that drowned out the destruction Sarah had wrought. They were with him. He was them, could feel the ache in his bones, bones like the mountains that ringed the country, protective, imposing. He rubbed up against the coastal rock, and felt a screeching kind of pleasure as the sharpness of it made channels in his skin for the water to seep through.
He took it all inside of him, drank in the jewelled water of the Adriatic.
His muscles began to respond again, and he stretched, feeling all those bodies, not as a weight, but as a wonderful fullness. He lifted his head, and water streamed off it.
There stood Aunt Katica on the pier, flame-eyed, beautiful in her grimness, but smiling, smiling down on him.
“Yes,” she said with a sibilant hiss. “You grow big now. Beautiful, beautiful boy.”
He opened his mouth, and a tendril of smoke drifted out to wreath around her like a coronet. Then he tensed, corded the thick, ropey tendons, the great bulk of him, and lifted himself out of the water. His body was long and sinuous, gleaming in the light of the moon, and he curled his body around her. She touched her hand against his massive, sloped forehead. Her nails traced along his snout, and around the bunching muscles of his jaws.
They would come again, he thought, remembering the patchwork rooftops where the bombs had fallen. A flicker of anger burned through him, inferno-hot, and with it something like joy. They would come again.
It is good, he thought. He was hungry.