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Darkened Vision by Josip Novakovich

Darkened Vision

by Josip Novakovich

Pavle, attracted to women who wore glasses, married Zora when she could still see. Through her glasses, her irises looked magnified, removed, and, even when dry, brilliantly tearful. Not that the glasses had been the key factor in his attraction to her, but they had enhanced her; she had looked dreamy and sensuous. Her dim vision had perhaps enhanced him as well; who knows whether she would have married him if she could have seen him in focus. Looking through her blue irises to the crystals of green and black, he dreamed. Her look grew dreamier and dreamier and steadier and steadier until it became clear that she was blind. He bought her a pair of black glasses as if preparing her for the eclipse of the sun.

Wherever he went, the black glasses hovered in his mind, and the eyes behind the glasses loomed accusingly, as if he had blinded her. It is not always true that the blind feel the seeing more than the seeing feel the blind—at least it wasn’t in his case. He developed a sixth sense for her. Cutting wood miles away from her, he saw her sitting on the wooden steps in the sun, moving her ears and expanding her nostrils.

She sat on her steps, her ears moving like a hawk’s wings in landing. She could hear Pavle’s vehicle on its way home from a mile away, he was sure.

At home, she monitored his every motion, suspecting he would leave. When he opened the door, she asked, “And where now so late at night?” Most often she said nothing, and he felt the question all the more, “And where now so late at night?”

Late at night, out of their house came snoring that sounded like a saw cutting a knotty log of oak. Pavle was hiding in his snore from his wife’s flesh. As he slept he felt her ears moving unhappily, and he would wake up and toss and turn in bed until he fell asleep again or lust took possession of him. He touched her and she embraced him like an octopus. To him it seemed she felt more than he ever could. A smile of knowledge floated around her lips, forming two spiraled dimples. He shook, as if to shrug off his skin, like a snake in the spring. Her limbs turned into electric eels. He shivered like prey whose strength was being conducted away. His revulsion ignited his marrow and returned to him his strength doubly. In heavy weightlessness, as if in water, they twisted around each other. Sensing the commotion of slimy marine wonders in the ocean underneath, he tried to swim to the surface, away from the maelstrom swallowing him into the underworld.

The carnal storms between them were rare. The oceanic horror stayed with him, concentrated in the image of the iris-less whites bulging beneath her black glasses. The mutilating, empty eyes watched him as his helper, a crimson peasant, lifted logs onto the platform of Pavle’s vehicle, as Pavle pushed the logs onto a vertical motor-propelled saw.

Pavle worked accurately and rhythmically, as though regretting that not more skill was involved so that he could be proud of his handiwork. There was something encouragingly simple in the repetition of motions in work—the sensation of becoming mechanized and infallible. There was also something discouragingly simple, which bored him and prevented him from becoming a machine. As he pushed a log, the high-pitched sound of the disk saw grew lower and lower until it reached the midpoint of the wood—it was not clear which moaned more, the steel or the wood—and then higher and higher, to buzz freely when the wood slid off. His helper poured water over the saw, as if baptizing the steel, lest it overheat. During breaks, Pavle and his helper poured slivovitz over their throats, lest they overheat. As the helper tossed a mouthful of brandy from one cheek to the other, his face grew redder, his irises bluer, and his eyeballs whiter. He swore against the government. The government had collectivized his land, reducing him to bare hands no one but Pavle would hire. Old people sat in chairs and, under the pretext of entertainment, watched the work being done; now during the break they were ready to joke, but Pavle’s mood quieted them. Pavle charged his services uniformly. Old and poor people he charged so little that he made no profit. He charged them like a judge who, despite the evidence that you committed the crime, pronounced a mild sentence on the account of your extenuating passions.

Having finished the work in one yard, Pavle moved to another backyard, and yet another. He was in the paradoxical position of being thankful that there was more wood to be split asunder, and of waiting for it to be finally over with.

After work he drove home slowly. He did not brush sawdust off his clothes. It stuck to his sweaty forehead. As he passed the house of a brother of his, he did not turn his head. His nephews and nieces stopped playing and stared at him in awe, whispering. Pavle had left the church, and for him who renounced Christ, it would be seven times more difficult to be saved than it would be for a nonbeliever.

Pavle, aware of his wife waiting for him, feared her bleak loneliness. Hearing the engine, she went into the kitchen and put several dry pieces of wood into the stove to warm the meal she had prepared by touch and smell.

Zora did have a social life—she chatted with her neighbors. Her sister-in-law walked her to and from the church, talking to her.

After sermons Zora held her chin up as if surveying a vast space. She puzzled over the voices, discerning vague family resemblances. She nodded her head and leaned it against her right palm. The sounds gave her clues of the past when she had dreamed of the future. Now she dreamed of the present, through the past, recognizing the voices she had known twenty years before and construing a picture the way someone gone to Australia daydreams about the people in the Old Country, across two oceans in either direction. Foreign friendliness murmured around her, clothes rustled, bones crackled in handshakes, lips smacked cheeks. God-bless-yous reached her ear, startling her whenever she realized they were for her.

Palms touched her right hand; the fingers embraced it like many small arms, gently. She shivered from the touch and loved the hands that reached out to her, out of the ghost world now made corporeal. Sometimes she knew the hands and not the voice, and sometimes she knew the voice, but not the hands, and sometimes she knew the hands and the voice, but not the lips that moistened her dry cheek. When the lips and the fingers parted from her, she stood in the pew, like a stone that the river passes.

Soon no one would address her anymore—the voices murmured, dissolving into the slow muddy-brown river. She had tried to imagine how the people looked, what colors they wore, and in her mind flowed only the old brown watercolors.

She created a world from a few sensory clues. The clues were torn, unnumbered pages of one ceaseless novel about a country that had exiled her without explanation. The wind tossed the pages away, so that she worried whether she could recapture the plot.

Every day after dinner, Pavle walked—slowly, moderately, as though he deemed reaching his destination not much preferable to being at any particular point in the walk. He was neither fat nor slim, and dressed neither poorly nor richly. This moderation gave him a gentlemanly air. If he had not had much success, well, he could repair that—each step well done and each precise unstrained gesture of his hands created an aura of dignity, not of enthusiasm or tragedy such as illusions spur. He seemingly walked neither in the path of Hedonism nor of Stoicism, but between pleasure and pain, unperturbed. His light brown hair, combed back, receded in the front, but he made no attempt to hide the recession.

In Pavle’s nostalgic manner you could suspect that he savored forbearance, the way he drank wine that was neither too sweet nor too sour, yet sour enough to excite his Adam’s apple to leap.

No matter how drunk he was, he did not swerve from his straight path. And the black glasses haunted him and asked, “And where now so late at night?”

One Sunday evening Pavle took a walk under orange clouds. His countenance bore a self-absorbed expression, though his self absorbed him least of all. He walked somewhat impatiently, as if wishing that the street blocks were shorter, over the bridge into the park’s alleys of clipped tree crowns and fountain snakes squirting water through their eyes. He breathed in the cool air and smelled moist amber leaves. When he came out into the clearing for the rails, coal steam and smoke hovered and the rails clanked, though the train was out of sight.

He entered a beech grove, dark, though the tips of the trees glowed with the sun. He drank cold water from a spring and let it flow over his arms to cool his blood. He climbed a steep hill into the oak grove to a Jewish cemetery overgrown with bushes. Pavle took a brief rest, leaning against a tilting tombstone. The cool air moved noiselessly, making the flushed treetops quiver before they sank into darkness. When he reached the top of the hill, the sunshine had left even the high evergreens and withdrawn into the clouds. He walked onto a gravel path, where a dog began his fervent cold war against him from behind a wooden fence. The narrow space below the planks could accommodate only a closed muzzle. The dog had a dilemma: to bark without showing his teeth or to show his teeth and be quiet. He alternated, and occasionally found a hole through which to do both.

A car passed by and raised a cloud of brown dust. Pavle held his breath till the dust settled. The veins on his forehead protruded crookedly.

 

An insomniac rooster shrieked somewhere in the neighborhood, and his shrieks echoed from the vineyard hills on both sides of the road that split into a broad one flanked with houses and a narrow one entangled in vines. At the forking road stood a cross with a porcelain Jesus. The thorns of his crown were so large that he looked like a contrite, defrocked Statue of Liberty.

Pavle came to the small whitewashed house where his mistress Katitza lived. The door opened as if by itself, and no one came out. Soon after his entering, a lantern was lit. The town was suffering one of its usual blackouts, sinking into the previous century from which it had never quite emerged. Around the orange flicker of the lantern golden rays formed a halo.

Guitar sounds pulsed from the house, dispersed by the winds over the dark vineyards. Pavle’s voice, deep and unsonorous, carried melancholy melodies from Croatian Zagorye, “Wine, wine … you are my porcupine; Rhein, Rhein, why can’t you decline,” and so on in that vein and in other veins to be filled with wine.

The following morning, instead of Pavle walking in the park in his leisurely Sunday manner, a voice went from mouth to mouth, through the ears of many. It traveled somehow as slowly as he had walked. Pavle had died making love to Katitza.

Dying in his orgasm—while Katitza had passed out from alcohol—he clasped her tightly in his embrace. By the time she woke up, he was dead, and cold, and well advanced in his rigor mortis. She could not get out of his grip. She screamed. At dawn, late drunks swerved by the house on the way home and listening to her got erections and admired her orgasmic passion and envied Pavle’s skill and prowess.

At sunrise, when the screaming had not ceased, people who had gone to bed early, happy, sober and wise noticed there was something unearthly and unsettling in the shrieks. When they broke through the door, they saw a green woman with bulging eyes clasped by a yellow corpse. The icy corpse and its feverish prisoner were taken, naked, to the People’s Hospital. Only when the doctors had cut his tendons could his embrace be unclasped.

When two male nurses brought Pavle on a stretcher into his home, they found Zora seated at the table, tirelessly waiting. She walked to the corpse and touched it with the tips of her fingers. His hands were wrapped in thick layers of cloth, like boxing gloves.

For all Zora knew, the night had killed Pavle. While her neighbors went out to buy a casket, she washed and oiled his body. Her neighbors helped her bend his arms backward, enough to slide him into his shirt, and then the arms sprang back and the hands met in unison as if for prayer. In the varnished fir casket, supine, he looked like a dead dignitary of the church contemplating the vastness of God’s grace.

She placed four candles around him, one toward each corner of our square earth. It was so blazingly hot outside that the heat seeped in through the bricks. Zora’s calico tomcat sniffed the corpse, crying like a sick baby. Waving his tail about, he knocked down a candle. The tablecloth caught fire and the flames licked the casket greedily and obscenely. Zora grabbed a pail of water from the chair and watered the fire. The flames went out and the wood resin hissed in steam. Zora blew out the remaining candles. The heat continued to radiate through the walls, entering the corpse, which swelled like a leavened loaf and pressed against the squeaking wood.

The mortician couldn’t close the casket. To his suggestion that he pierce a hole in the corpse so the air and water could leak out, Zora declined, and the mortician then nailed laths of wood he found in Pavle’s workshop atop the casket to increase its depth. He hammered on the lid; some nails peered through the wood outward, others inward, and only a few sank straight into the wood.

At the funeral, when the brass band took a break, half a dozen paces away from the hearse one could hear the crackling of casket wood. The corpse continued to bloat. A putrid smell spread through the cracks and permeated the steamy heat. Frightened by the stench and the creaking, the horses foamed at the mouth. The coachman barely restrained them from taking off at a gallop like dogs with tin cans tied to their tails.

In front of the hearse walked only women; behind, the relatives, and after them only men. Zora walked with her son and daughter holding her by her white-gloved arms; beneath her dark glasses tears flowed past her red nose.

At the grave pit, Pavle’s relatives, dressed in black and white, solemnly stared at the casket from which came crackles and farts.

 

When the casket began to sink into the ground, Zora’s lips muttered so fervently that it seemed they twitched; she prayed. The ropes rasped the wood and the casket dropped into the ground with a thud. Her son and daughter nudged her to drop the first fistful of soil into the pit, but she pushed them away and shrieked a high-pitched shriek, like a doe being slaughtered by wolves. The crowd gasped and blood scurried away from their faces. As if she had heard the goose-bumped crowd’s blood rushing in sympathetic terror, she shouted shrilly back to them: “Up till now I prayed to God to bring him back to life. I believed He would. He won’t! He won’t! I can’t believe any longer!”

For days and months after the funeral, Zora grieved with complete dedication as only a blind person could. She walked to his grave every day and put down tulips and carnations. The gravel in front of the grave cut into her knees. She caressed his silvery name on the varnished cross, dug with her fingers into the soil, and moved her ears as if she could hear his vehicle from blocks away, within the hollow ground. On rainy days she came to the grave just the same and listened to the frogs leap.

In the streets, Pavle’s assistant limped, leaning on his bumpy cane. He stooped now more than when he had last worked with Pavle; his eyes were bluer, his face redder. When Zora walked past him, she swished her rod like a machete. The old peasant stood against the wall of his mildewed home, and the mortar sand behind his gaping boots trickled as though in an egg timer. Her broad nostrils sniffed the peasant’s alcoholic aura. Saying nothing, she walked past him, but on one occasion, she said, “Why are you so quiet? Are you afraid of me?”

He invited her for tea laced with plum brandy and they talked about Pavle. He kept enumerating the good Pavle had done, how he had cut wood for various widows.

“That was not necessarily good,” she said.

Whenever she walked by his home, he invited her in for tea. When he visited her, she baked loaves of bread for him. His rejuvenated look gave rise to the rumor that he had become Zora’s lover.

She continued going to the church, where she waited for the sermon on Lazarus. She whispered prayers for Pavle. Nobody dared to tell her that Pavle perhaps didn’t deserve so many prayers and so much grief.

One Christmas eve, she remained in the pews after the service. With her cane she walked to the Christmas tree, sniffed its green needles and touched its iron base where the mutilated trunk rested on the wooden floor. The veins of her fingers felt the missing roots and stuck to the resin that oozed as a heavy and frozen mixture of blood and sweat. She lit a match and dropped it. A flame burst out. The tree crackled and roared, its lingual shapes multiplied in size. She took off her glasses and smiled. The flames climbed the curtains, rushed down the carpeted aisle and entered the beams.

The church was a huge flame by dawn, a tongue of the earth licking the heavens. The flame spread to the neighboring bus garage, and the oily iron and tires joined the flame.

In the rubble of the collapsed church her skeleton coiled in the corner; she had died like blinded Samson among the Philistines, who had brought down the pillars with thousands of the enemy. After her death, the old peasant continued to limp in front of her house, his hair completely white, his blue irises ringed with the haze of cataracts. Leaning against his bumpy stick, now and then he lifted the brown hat off his head even though no one was passing by.

Josip Novakovich

Josip Novakovich emigrated from Croatia to the United States at the age of 20. He has published a dozen books, including a novel, April Fool's Day (in ten languages), four story collections (Infidelities, Yolk, Salvation and Other Disasters, Heritage of Smoke) and three collections of narrative essays as well as two books of practical criticism. His work was anthologized in Best American Poetry, the Pushcart Prize and O. Henry Prize Stories. He has received the Whiting Writer's Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Ingram Merrill Award and an American Book Award, and in 2013 he was a Man Booker International Award finalist. His latest books, Vignettes (Montreal Publishing Company), is available now at Amazon and other bookstores. Josip teaches creative writing at Concordia University in Montreal. His latest novel, Rubble of Rubles, is available now from Dzanc Books  

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