Written by Tea Hvala
Translated by Maida Alilović
Illustrated by Jakob Klemenčič
After lunch and a short rest my grandmother and I were standing in front of the house again. With our hands on our hips, we stood inspecting pieces of scrap metal that once formed a tin roof, but were now lying in the grass; the aftermath of yesterday's ravaging. The day had been sunny and hot, but already in the early afternoon, humidity lay heavy on the high plain, followed by thick, dark winds from the south and a downpour that riddled the entire village – including my grandma’s house, exposed on the edge of the plain, naked and treeless. A strong thrust of wind came hurling up the hillside, toppling the flowers, blowing the laundry away and lifting the tiles that came plummeting into the backyard. In the morning, while we were clearing up the debris, a clear sky was stretching above us, pretending it knew nothing about it.
Early on, we picked up and piled the soaked logs; before lunch we set out to gather the tiles and we were left with less than half an hour of work. I put on my gloves and climbed the ladder. My grandma handed me another piece of sheet metal. I pulled it towards me, measured the distance; with difficulty, I managed to throw it in with the other pieces. The slightly wet corroding surface was slipping from my hands, the thin metal was bending on its own weight and with every throw it undulated above the ground. I worked reluctantly, convinced that the sheets of metal and the panels weighing them down will be landing in the grass with the next storm. When we were finished, I told my grandma that it would have been better to have used something heavier instead of the poles.
“Yes,” she said, “we could bind the roof with a rope,” but instead of grabbing the idea instantly as usual, she gazed towards the gateway. She slowly nodded to a man, who lifted his hand to greet her and was approaching slowly. In the other hand, he was holding a leather briefcase and seemed rather classy, too classy in fact to be selling thin air.
“I didn't want to startle you, you could have been hurt,” he said and shook my hand. He didn't introduce himself; he only smiled and looked at us both, although I was still standing on the top of the ladder. It finally dawned on me that he was cross-eyed, and that in spite of his appearance he must be selling thin air.
“What will it be,” I was short, but he didn't hear me. He turned to my grandmother and said that he could see we had a rough time yesterday.
I would have told him to go to hell, but my grandma had already hurried to tell him that in these parts the storm was not as violent, that it was much worse in Tolminsko and Idrijsko, a child was killed! The man was sympathetic, how could he not have been. Then he put down his briefcase and passed me a panel in his crisp white shirt. My grandmother got nervous and told him he would soil himself, but he calmed her down every time he handed me another pole. I was left with no choice; I took the poles until we weighed down the entire roof. My grandmother was thanking this cunning man for the help and I knew I had to come down as soon as possible, step in between, start small talk about weather and let him know we won't buy anything – before my grandma invites him in. But meanwhile he had already asked where he could wash his hands...
In the kitchen he stepped to the washing sink and supposedly for the sake of conversation asked where all the men of the house were. I laughed and asked if he missed them. He ran one eye over me.
“Do you live here?” he asked.
“When I need to,” I tried to avoid answering, but it was too late; he turned to my grandmother and repeated the question. Blind and deaf for our battle, she began explaining how she lived with her husband, who was at that time away, but is otherwise at home, a retired mason and carpenter. I was waiting for her to naively add that he has an unlisted workshop across the yard, but he only works for people who know him, and there is no danger that they would report his activity, although one should be careful, because in this day and age you never know who you're dealing with. Surprisingly, she said nothing. She was standing by the stove, Cross-eyes was lingering by the dining table and had at least that much courtesy not to sit without being invited to. I found a spot on the chest by the door and took out a cigarette from my pocket, although I had never smoked inside before. Cross-eyes opened his briefcase, laid a compass on the table and two rods, forming the letter L. I lighted the cigarette. He cast his left eye over me and asked my grandmother where she slept. She shifted nervously.
“Over there,” she said and looked up. “But I haven't always.”
“Do you sleep with your head facing the north?”
“No,” she said, “I’m turned this way.” She pointed to the apple tree under the balcony and Cross-eyes had to consult his compass.
“You know,” he said, “that's not best for your health. Have you been sleeping there long? ”
“No,” she said, “I married into this village. Before, I was living in the hamlet on the hill over there. You can see it from this window.” She did not utter its name. Her birthplace was more sacred than the kitchen in which she worked and ate for forty years. She kept staring through the window, so I told him to take a seat.
“I mustn’t,” he was quick to respond, “a radiesthetist who sits down before finishing his job, is no radiesthetist at all.” Cross-eyes is a dowser, that explains all the annoying questions and the rods! I blurred out: “Why? Are your feet perhaps less sensitive to radiation than your behind? ” My grandmother jittered, looked at me fearsomely and rushed to the man. She apologized for my rudeness and I could have screamed of anger and misery. I wished he would finally leave, wished he hadn't come in at all! With a rope or wire, with poles, no matter what, my grandma and I would be fixing the tin roof, but now ... I lighted another cigarette. The dowser held the rods and positioned himself in the center of the kitchen: it was show time. My grandmother collapsed onto a chair and in his sly manner he began explaining how the natural human position is either upright or lying, whereas sitting is unnatural, for it causes the spine to bend, creating an obstacle for the bodily ‘forces’. He pointed the long ends of the rod towards the floor, waited for them to stop moving and then lifted them, creating a right angle with the floor. The rods parted slowly and remained in the position until he lowered them again.
“Radiation should be measured in every room. Even if your bedroom is, as you say, above the kitchen, it doesn’t mean that the forces are as strong as in here,” he played smart. With his rods apart he headed towards me. When he walked, they trembled and began to draw near to each other. I sat firmly on the wooden chest, where only dry wood was stored: matchwood, sawing and paper that in my knowledge only radiate heat and light. Perhaps it was the ironbound bottom, if this ancient chest even had one, that caused it, but then again it might not have mattered, now that the radiesthetist was standing decisively too close. His rods were pointing at me, with the right one he aimed directly towards my eye and goggled at me with his cross eyes.
“You see,” he established, “radiation is very strong here and you’re smoking.” I didn’t ask what difference the smoke made; I dodged him and ran to my grandma. He was still standing by the chest. He asked whether there was running water anywhere near.
“Yes,” I hurried, “you missed the plumbing for less than three meters!”
“I’m talking about subterranean waters,” he responded,” they emit magnetic radiation that harms our well-being and in the long run, causes disease. Madam,” he addressed my grandma, “didn’t you mention you had health problems?” Who doesn’t at her age, I grunted to myself and my grandmother began to list her thyroid, kidneys, blood pressure thankfully, but was rudely cut off by Mr. Doctor, who had established that her chest and neck have long been exposed to radiation.
“I’m not left with much time anyway,” she sighed in disappointment, causing professional duty agitation with Cross-eyes.
“Madam, don’t say that. You’re still young. I told my mother, who must be older than you, that each year, if nothing else, means twelve monthly pensions, Twelve! You have to look after yourself. Once the disease spreads, there is no turning back.” He looked at me with his deviant eye.
“Disease is like subterranean water. At first, it runs deep underground, but suddenly it erupts above. You see?” I smiled and shrug my shoulders.
“You know, sir, in these parts the ground is porous, limestone, and here, water usually runs underground, but then it disappears even deeper.” My grandmother smirked and it looked as if the dowser had surrendered. He sighed and slowly nodded, laid aside his rods and finally took a seat at the table. I marched towards the sink and poured him a glass of water.
“Have you heard of the Murmuring Rock?” my grandmother asked him. “You know, back home in the village, they said there once was a massive rock in the woods and it murmured. If you leaned your ear against it, you could hear a murmur, as if a river ran inside or underneath it. At one time the rock split in half and a big crevice was formed, so big in fact, an entire person could walk into it. Fresh water came running out, because there was a spring inside the rock. But the ground there isn’t limestone…”
“Madam, on the top of the Brkini hills I came across subterranean springs and rivers, but people didn’t believe me. Like you, they tried to persuade me this was impossible in such rocky parts. But I also met people who were searching for water with a dowsing rod and found it. They didn’t know how it functioned, but they saw it worked and that was enough for them.” He waited for the words to make a proper impression and repeated that beneath the house, close to the wooden chest, there must be subterranean water.
“I don’t know,” my grandma said, “all the springs are on the other side of the village, where the limestone ends and that green stone starts. When we didn’t have plumbing, we went to fetch water there, by the well. The water is there, horribly cold water,” she added.
“There’s water here, I’m telling you,” he persisted, “but I don’t know where it springs and it is difficult to estimate how deep under it runs.” He finished his drink, put down the glass and his eyes went for the brief case. He seized the rods.
“Can I give it a try?” I was in haste. “I won’t demagnetize them, right?”
“Go ahead,” he sighed, “hold them, they’re not magnetic, they’re chrome. Nothing special indeed.” He pointed to the shorter end, the handles that were inserted into the metal so that during dowsing the spinning part remained loose. I picked them up and carefully sat on the chest, for the rods were swinging left and right with the slightest move. I straightened my back and stood astride. I firmly held the handles and lowered the points. I waited for them to completely settle down and then I rolled them upwards, as he did before. They were pointing into his direction, and then the left point really moved, quickly followed by the right one into the opposite direction. I held my breath and pressed harder. The space between the ends kept increasing, they pointed each in their own direction, forming a straight line, and then the left one in a single move, swung ninety degrees and stopped on my chest. Not one, they both stared at me!
“What’s wrong with you,” I heard the radiesthetist, “you don’t have to press so hard, I never do. Drop them!”
I would have, but my palms, as if they weren’t my own, only held on tighter to the handles. I felt the pressure from my fists moving towards my shoulders and neck, binding me, holding me in a vise. In my abdomen I felt a different kind of pressure, a tingling that pushed onto my stomach, bladder and intestines. I wanted to run to the bathroom, but I couldn’t, I remained seated on the chest, still holding on to the rods. I could barely tell my hands apart from the floor, it got so dark suddenly. Where did my grandmother go? Instead of her, I saw some sort of whirling in the distance, sparks or stars, dancing in circles. They swarmed and twinkled, pulling and sipping me in their direction, and if I leaned forward into the darkness, it seemed like the pressure slackened. So I leaned again, and fell directly into the whirl. It caught on and twisted me and the pressure was gone instantly. I was thinking how everything is over now, but my body became too real and my own the very second I supported myself on my arms and looked about. I was sitting – on the floor by the chest. There were the damn rods. Let them lie, I was encouraging myself, I’m the one that has to get up. I leaned on the chest and got up. I slowly hobbled to the doorway and by the door I saw my grandmother and the dowser standing in front of the house. They were staring into the pile of wood that was covered half an hour ago. Why were the tin plates lying on the ground?
“What happened?” I asked, and my grandmother turned around abruptly, startled.
“God help us,” she said and squeezed pass me into the kitchen. She returned, carrying the rods, and handed them to the radiesthetist in silence. He placed them into his case and left without saying goodbye, without asking what the rods were doing with me while the tin plates were flying in the air … or I was doing with them? My grandmother stared at his back until he disappeared behind the corner. Then she told me to get up on that ladder as quickly as possible.
Published in Stripburger nr. 48.