I love mysterious houses and unusual objects in them, and I love stories about houses and unusual objects. Told or written.
And in real life those houses and these objects seem to seek me out, too. They just happen to me.
Kotor is an ideal location for such two-sided experiences, although I’ve grown a bit tired of this town. To be fair, it can’t constantly ply me with wonders. Or so I thought in November 1998, headed for the presentation of M’s and my “collaborative” book, Two Tales from Kotor, to its home town.
– Be sure to bring a fur coat – a friend of mine from Kotor told me over the phone just before the trip.
– You think it’ll be that glamorous – I replied – red carpet, spot lights…
– No, not that, it’s the Bura wind!
I’ve stayed in Kotor in winter, in summer, in the spring, but never in autumn. I don’t know the sea gale; I’m familiar only with my dry-land, Pannonian Košava, a dry, fierce, barbaric and nomadic wind.
Dear Lord, the Bura is fiercer! An aerial hydra with a hundred heads whose tentacles pierce through to the marrow of every tiny bone. Everything they touch they wrap around and tie into an air-knot: people, stones, fireplaces, animals, trees. Tame Mediterranean indeed! A fur coat is no match for that damp cold. It’s but a fake psychological factor that, having wrapped yourself in an animal, you’re wearing seemingly double insulation. Both leather and fur.
Still, I was more than grateful to my friend for her furry travel advice.
– I have two surprises for you about the book presentation. You’ll be thrilled! – she whispered to me when I arrived in Kotor.
– Don’t tell me you’ve found the Kotor table from my story?
– You’re asking a bit much! It’s not that…
There was a third surprise as well, an unpleasant one. The hotel we were booked into.
We always stay at a guesthouse with a funny name for Kotor – the “Vardar” hotel. A completely unsuitable name for a suitable, gracious stone structure in the center of town. This time, probably because of the celebration of Kotor Day, all the guests were booked into a socialist-style giant settled at the very end of the bay – the “Fjord”. In its case the name fits, at least it’s sea-related, but not the visual appearance as well. The pretentious building, wrapped in the November Bura wind, with but a handful of guests, looked grotesque. Like an abandoned ocean liner. In the apartment intended for us the wind blew so gustily through all its sizeable pores and sores that the gale outside seemed more dignified that this quasi shelter.
– How will we even spend the night? – I thought – Thank goodness I brought my fur coat. I can use it as a cape and as a nightgown.
I could hardly wait for the surprises my friend had promised, to warm up a bit. Surprises warm you the best.
The book presentation was to take place in the auditorium of the music school, a lovely hall I was familiar with from our previous business trips. Beautiful plastering, arches, elaborate baroque chandeliers…
– Go on, take a peek inside before it starts, see how I’ve arranged the stage for you… And then I’ll take you to the main surprise – mysteriously said my Kotor friend, who always saw me off from her town with two presents: a heap of interesting stories and a bouquet of local herbs, which I dry and use as seasoning.
Wow, I was so impressed with how she had set up the stage. The tables for the speakers were covered one in plush, the other in brocade, and their draperies were interwoven with real ivy; seven-stick candle holders; heavy carved armchairs – a classy atmosphere. Decoration without sparkly water and dusty ikebanas with fake flowers!
– It’s started well – I thought – despite the Bura that was growing stronger as night fell.
I’m never tired in Kotor. After just a few hours my Belgrade, inland tiredness wanes. As if I’ve been aired inside and out with that mixture of sea and mountain air in the Boka Bay. My thoughts become clear, almost translucent, light; everything falls into place, simply clicks.
– Maybe this stay will air out M’s mental room as well – I thought as I followed my friend to the next surprise.
Namely, my husband had been wrestling for a few months with his novel, under the working title Triangular Room. He couldn’t seem to find the right form for it. The novel resisted in all sorts of ways, mostly in terms of structure, although now that I think about it it’s not a matter of academic terms, but a complicated alchemist business. Works of literature are living things, homunculi of sorts. So he let the novel sit, decanted it from time to time, checked its temperature, measured its specific gravity… But those are all small interventions. The novel floated in computer limbo like an unborn child, nude.
– Here we are. The second surprise!
I was taken aback. We were standing in front of the Maritime Museum.
– So you did find the table! – I laughed.
– No, no, this is even wilder!
We were greeted by the managaress. So these are female surprises: unexpected, strange, brave, imaginative…
– Dear Jasmina – said the manageress – the town of Kotor has decided to give you an unusual gift, which, to be true, will only last for one night, like in a fairytale, but the gift is precious. You may choose any piece of jewelry from the museum’s collection and wear it to the book reading. You can even keep it for the night. You will return it in the morning.
– This gesture of ours is an exception – she continued – but we wanted to console you since you haven’t found the table from your story. I mean… everything strives towards materialization, as a museologist I know that full well. I work with objects as much as with their spirit. I know this balance and imbalance.
– Of course, you would be signing out the jewelry – she added, as I was stuttering words of gratitude, truly stunned and shaken.
As soon as I got over the surprise called – signing out jewelry for one night – time concerns started to get to me. Mathematical concerns even. Female mathematical equations. How much time do I have until the beginning of the book reading, how long will selecting and trying on the jewelry take, how many pieces of jewelry are there in the showcases.
When I saw there were four showcases, I was horrified.
– Oh dear, this will be like shoe shopping in Italy – I thought, panicking – first I like every pair, when I want to buy them none are right and in the end I buy Italian shoes in Belgrade.
Do you know what I selected after what seemed to me endless browsing through necklaces, brooches, rings, pins, clasps, earrings, buckles… Golden male rosary beads!
There! I couldn’t decide on anything other than rosary beads that would be transmuted into a necklace, at least for an evening. It’s only fitting: literary work is (about) all kinds of transformations, anyway. So a 17th century male rosary with large, gold beads turned on my neck into an expensive female strand.
The book presentation went perfectly. I was overcome by a feeling of having settled a debt towards this town, and then firmly resolved that Kotor wonders in my life were to stop. The Bura was calming down, all interviews were over, we survived the night relatively unfrozen, I returned the rosary beads on time. We had two more whole days left to freely wander the town, examine the market, watch the public festivities put on for the town’s holiday, see the ring dance of the Boka navy…
On Sunday, the last day of our stay, the wind started blowing from the south. Rain began pouring down like in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the kind you feel will never end, the scents of damp and illness unraveled, and an undefined anxiety crept into the people, the town, the land and the sea. Droplets of sweet rain sprinkled with salty sea and carried by the wind seeped into our room, unstoppable. The wetness clung to the walls, the beds, changed the flavor of the water, unleashed a sadness in every corner of each being and thing.
– The male Bura is a hundred times better than the female south wind – I thought.
Why am I suffering both winds in a matter of days – I pitied myself – why am I to spend my last evening here in a suicidal atmosphere where a person can’t choose between all the reasons to slit her wrists.
I decided I’d kill myself because of the upcoming dinner in the socialist-style monster of a hotel restaurant.
We went downstairs to said monster. We were the only guests. After all the festivities, sports manifestations, performances, cultural happenings (as the phrase goes), everybody had left.
– They cleared out in time – I grumbled – before the south wind picked up.
Only one table was still set. Ours.
Everything looked surreal. The huge dining hall, the blinking light of the remaining bulbs shining on a few metal buckets and dirty rags collecting the water from the sky above Boka; rain was seeping through from the most incredible places, from the marble tiles, from the once expensive and now worn wooden boards on the ceiling, from Potemkin’s villages… Our lone table with its half-greasy cutlery and plastic dessert spoon was waiting for the tinned soup to be brought out with the watered-down mashed potatoes and burnt Wiener schnitzel.
Across the football-field-sized room M. shouted out towards the kitchen the famous question from crime stories and horror movies:
– Is anybody there?
The shout drew a skinny person of indeterminate appearance from the kitchen, walking lazily in his civilian clothing, greasy to match the cutlery. He was pushing a seemingly empty serving cart, but no trace of a waiter’s uniform.
– Who is this guy of mixed identity? – I asked my husband.
He just shrugged.
The person came up to our table and sleazily rubbing his hands in the semi-darkness asked, instead of the expected – what would you like for dinner:
– And how is the writer this evening?
To this unusual greeting M replied without missing a beat:
My ego was bruised. The stranger’s face did seem like that of a person who hardly reads at all, but still… Not only men are writers.
– You’ll be served shortly! Soup, mashed potatoes and schnitzel coming right up, and dessert – he said with a mysterious smile – a little later.
Then, to my surprise, he really did extract from the bottom shelf of the cart our cold soup that already had a skin on top, the watered-down mashed potatoes and burned schnitzel. After that he took his leave.
– What on earth is this and who is this? – I asked.
– There’s nothing to be surprised about. You can feel the south wind for yourself. There you have it! – replied M. and started wrestling with the meat and his blunt knife.
– You don’t want any soup? – I asked, cheered up a bit – Say, do you think dessert will be a famous Mediterranean apple or hazelnut parfait? Haven’t you ever noticed the similarity between the menu in socialist-regime kindergartens and hospitality establishments of the renowned kind! But, really, what was all that about dessert?
– He was uncertain whether to bring us a scrawny little apple or hazelnut parfait! That’s what it was. There’s no mystery there.
– I’ll have the parfait! I’ve made up my mind.
After a while our slow-moving “waiter” appeared without the cart and without dessert dishes, came up to the table and with sudden determination said:
– You know, I have a box here with secret compartments. Perhaps you’d like to take a look? It’s perfect for you!
– Where? – asked M. readily.
– Well, here, in the kitchen.
– Let’s have a look, then
– Should I bring dessert or the box first?
– The box – decided M.
– All right, I’ll bring the apples and the box.
He slipped off into the glaring kitchen, lit like an operating room, which we could see a corner of from our gloom, and returned with the cart. On the upper surface he had “served” a large rosewood box edged with brass; the lower shelf held two withered apples.
Then the “waiter” laid the box onto the table and, transformed, began opening it like some kind of magician. There’s no use in my describing what it looked like… It looked like the architectural essence of Kotor. Simple and demure from the outside, an ordinary rectangular box. On the inside, a series of imaginatively organized spaces. Each level, by moving lids, tiny doors, shutters, compartments, drawers and cubicles, hidden nooks, transformed its actual size and shape. Reduced square footage gave way to wondrous cubage, symmetry suddenly evolved into asymmetry, the expected into the unexpected. I was enthralled. And the delightful scented dust that had oozed from it…
– My name is Gavro. I’m from nearby, from the hill. The box is from the old captain family of D, I have their candlestick as well, I can bring that too… I mean you’re a writer, perhaps you’ll be interested in the box, there’s another secret chamber, with two compartments for coins and rings, I’ve seen them with my own eyes, there’s even a coin inside… I can’t seem to remember now how to open it – Gavra struggled to feel his way to that space – This is a ship’s box for writing and for valuables, who knows when it’s from…
– It’s a lovely box – said M – but we’re not interested!
– What do you mean!? – stuttered Gavro – If it’s meant for anyone, it’s meant for you… you write…
Although I was astounded by my husband’s reply, this once again bruised my writer’s ego, because Gavro meant it as male singular, not bi-gender plural. And my husband meant bi-gender plural and didn’t even ask me.
– Simple! We’re not interested – M. remained firm.
– Should I at least bring the candlestick…? – poor Gavro kept on trying.
– Good night!
I was on the verge of tears.
Gavro dejectedly put the box back together like a Rubic’s cube and left.
All that remained were the apples.
I didn’t understand a thing. My head was spinning, but I was silent, almost mute. Man, I was gripped by a fever. I couldn’t believe it! A box with worn, faded felt, a slope for writing, wooden tubs for goose quills, a compartment for ink, with a seemingly endless number of secret cubbyholes, intelligent, imaginative, of flawless proportions, seams and folds. Perfectly built, like a pyramid. A box from Kotor – a wonder! Appearing out of the blue, having survived storms, gales, changed so many owners to get to us, despite everything and then: “We’re not interested!”
It was Our box, by writers’ right, by metaphysical right, by divine right, if we’re going to take it all the way… The ultimate “gift” from Boka and Kotor. How could it not be actually, tangibly ours.
We dragged ourselves back to our room in silence, suddenly bone tired, aged, knackered… The storm was raging outside, the broken balcony door had opened in the meanwhile, despite the chair we had placed in front of it, the curtains were all twisted and turned into wet snakes… The beds had soaked up the damp and now looked like wet graves…
A night of endless persuasion began. A writers’ and couple’s duel.
SHE: Why on earth did you say that…!
HE: It’s some kind of trap!
SHE: Oh, what trap, can’t you see it’s happened to us again…
HE: Happened or not, we cannot take it from Boka, from Kotor. Anyone else could, but not us…
SHE: You and your “historic” fairness… He’ll sell it to someone else and again it won’t belong to Kotor. And it belongs to us by higher right of ownership, it was waiting for us, it’s a substitution for “my” table from Kotor, it’s a thousand other things that confirm our title to it. Oh, God… How do you of all people not understand…
HE: Oh, I understand perfectly well, and you know I do. And because I do understand better than you, it cannot be ours…
SHE: This is madness! Masochism, sadism, the list goes on.
HE: No and no!
His – No – was as heavy as the only exit from a labyrinth closing forever.
We sit in silence. I start weeping, inconsolably, hugely, harder and heavier than all the rain above Kotor. I lie down in the wet bed and soak it further with my tears.
– What if we bought it and gave it to the Maritime Museum. It could stay in Kotor and we could come and see it sometimes… – I sense a glimmer of hope through my sobs.
– The box isn’t a puppy, and Kotor isn’t a zoo…
– Oh it’s too late anyway – I choke on my tears – poor Gavro won’t be there tomorrow at breakfast. I’m sure his shift’s ended. It’s over. Lost forever…
– Not poor Gavro, poor us! In any case you should be happy we got to see the box at least…
At that I started crying even harder.
– I didn’t even see it, I was so excited. And Gavro must have left, their weekly shifts end on Sundays, he must have been covering someone else’s, why didn’t you at least take his phone number, address, last name, anything.
– Who knows if he even exists?
– You know what, I’m going to divorce you!
I spent a wakeful night, incredulous, miserable for having been thwarted, crying, half-delirious. In a semi-slumber I searched for “my” Kotor table again, and as if through multiple mirrors kept reaching locked doors hiding the mystery table, only to see the bolted doors shrink and turn into compartments for coins and rings. The ones Gavro couldn’t find when he was opening the box. The box’s last secret, its last hiding place, the box’s womb…
– I’ll never find out what those compartments look like… And I could keep all my rings in them so nicely. It would be my Kotor jewelry box, who cares that it’s a male box. a ship’s box, a captain’s box – I consoled myself in my mind – the owner determines its purpose and gender. Instead of a telescope – a necklace, instead of a compass – bracelets – I mused on – the maritime maps and ship’s log would be replaced by my diary, the navigation through my life. But now, I had a rosary-necklace for one night, like Cinderella. Jewelry I signed out… I’m left without both jewelry and jewelry box, just because they’re male objects…
– Although, now that I think about it – I continued – it is somehow a writing box after all… That slant when it’s opened, the trays for quills, the inkwell… one compartment can even hold a shotgun… Oh whose is this box, mine or M’s, male or female? We’ve both written a story about Kotor, we both love it, the actual city and the one we’ve dreamed up. Hm, if our book Two Tales from Kotor is androgynous, let the box be androgynous too. A bi-gender box: for writing and for rings – I resolved my dilemma.
– But aren’t you a writer as well – asked a voice from within me.
Now that confused me. To this day, as I’m writing these lines, I don’t know whether I’m a writer. I have some kind of identity struggle. Psychological, doubtless. And marital, of course. I deny being a writer, yet I write. That’s fishy business. But if I dive into this dilemma I might stop writing altogether. It’s better that I not know who I am on paper, and continue to do my job. So the answer I gave that question from within me was a compromise: female writers, apart from writing, sometimes wear jewelry as well.
Day dawned. Sunny. The storm – gone without a trace. Looking out of the window at Boka I hate its enchanting beauty, I hate myself, I hate my husband, I hate our auras that constantly attract these things to us like viruses for which there are no vaccines.
We packed in silence, each our own things, like strangers who had accidentally ended up in the same room, and went down to the restaurant for breakfast.
In the huge dining hall there was once again only one laid table, two plates, like in that fairytale… I forget its name.
Half-frozen margarine, jam and chamomile tea with lemon – were brought by Gavro! In the same clothes from last night, civilian, with the same undefined expression on his face. He set our breakfast down on the table in silence. Despite the shock of seeing Gavro again, I noticed the green specks of mould that remained on the table cloth. A trace of the box and a sign that last night had indeed happened.
Cool as a cucumber and without a hint of surprise, my husband announced:
– We called a friend of ours last night. He collects antiques and would like to buy the box. But you will have to bring it to Belgrade, to the address I’ll give you, within one month at the latest. We will give you the down payment, and the rest will be paid by the buyer when you deliver the goods.
Cool as a cucumber and without a hint of surprise, Gavro replied:
– I could do that, but just think, I could sell it almost for double the sum, by keeping the down payment and selling it to someone else.
Feverish and stuttering, a last hope spoke up from within me:
– You’re not going to con anyone. I know. Montenegrins always keep their word!
A sliver of a smile appeared on Gavro’s face:
– That’s true. So I’ll bring the box next Saturday at six a.m, just give me the address.
Cool as a cucumber and without a hint of hesitation, M. gave the down payment and our address.
In the airplane I finally asked my husband:
– What if Montenegrins don’t keep their word? This is the dusk of the 20th century. No longer mythical and epic times.
– Never mind. Money is the sacrifice we had to lay on the altar of the Box and Kotor.
* * *
We returned to Belgrade that afternoon. An icy wind was blowing. A flatland wind. An inland Bura.
As soon as we set foot in the house M. sat at his computer and started writing, hurriedly, feverishly, without pause, like a man possessed.
Late in the evening I finally got to him and to the question:
– What on earth are you writing so breathlessly, as if an axe were hanging over your head?
– The Triangular Room for which I couldn’t find a suitable house, the proper shape, opened up to me through the box. I’ve inhabited the box from Kotor with words, it was the missing link, the key… There is no more Triangular Room, I’ve written The Writing Box.
– You say, “I’ve written the Writing Box”, but that’s a pleonasm – in shock, this stupidity was all I could think of.
– I have to write fast, so I don’t forget it. You know yourself we might never see it again. Yet its structure is so suitable… you can’t even imagine, all its layers fit my novel perfectly.
– So you’re packing your novel and moving into my jewelry box!
– You move in too! Who’s stopping you? – he said and turned back to his virtual manuscript flickering on the screen, dove into the virtual box in his, by nature, virtual memory and continued writing.
I was left alone. Alone to the core. Millions of light years from my husband. I thought: perhaps I should write as well, so our two solitudes could bring us closer…
And so began a week of great anticipation. A week of looking forward to Saturday.
We had told Vuk, who was ten at the time, the whole story, the mysterious fairytale about the wondrous box with secret compartments, so the poor thing was counting the days.
On Friday evening he said:
– Maybe we shouldn’t go to bed tonight, we should wait for Gavro… if we fall asleep we might not hear the doorbell and the box will vanish!?
We feared the same thing, but told him:
– Gavro is like Santa Claus. Sometimes he comes on time, and sometimes he’s a little late.
– In any case – I added – whoever finds the compartments for coins and rings gets cake!
At six a.m. on Saturday morning, less than a week after we had first seen it, the box arrived. Vuk and I had, of course, slept through its actual entrance into the house, so, at least for us, it had appeared out of the blue. It was simply there before us the moment we opened our eyes.
With trembling excitement we admired it for the first time in the light of day. It was just as magical as in the semi-darkness. Seductively secretive, and perhaps even more beautiful.
We spent several hours unfolding it, looking it over, admiring the “architectural” idea behind its whole made up of parts, used a magnifying glass to read the box’s English origin inscribed in one of the locks. But that last secret chamber with the compartments for coins and rings we, too, were unable to find. We knew exactly where it was, but we couldn’t discover the mechanism to disclose it.
Then I, pedantic housekeeper that I am, started disinfecting it with antiseptic. You never know, spores of dangerous marine illnesses with complicated names could be lurking somewhere.
As I was wiping it down, millimeter by millimeter, I suddenly touched a spot and something popped out! A secret door opened and behind it we could see two tiny compartments. With miniature ivory handles. One was like a drawer, and the other was made up of circular indentations for coins of various sizes. Vuk grabbed the one with the holes and found a coin in one of the cylinders… from 18 hundred and something, the last two numbers were worn smooth.
– I get the cake, people, I get the cake! – I shouted excitedly.
We slid the compartments back into their slot, closed the secret door, and then… once again we couldn’t find how to open them. M. and I both touched the walls inch by inch… nothing.
– Where did you touch it, think! – yelled both my men as one.
– I don’t know, I don’t know! – I cried in despair – I’ll clean it all over again, surely I’ll find it…
– Give me the box – Vuk said with sudden authority. – I’ll find those compartments once and for all!
With his stubby little fingers, seemingly ineptly, he began feeling the box as if it were the keyboard of a computer, mobile phone or machine of sorts. And of course, he did find once and for all that elusive spot, the innermost essence of the box.
– The box is mine and the cake is mine! – Vuk concluded.
* * *
Whose is the writing box? Milorad got a novel out of it, The Writing Box, I got a story, Compartments for Coins and Rings, and Vuk a wondrous toy. All in all, the novel and the story belong to Kotor, and the box is finally our property. These lines are the definite end to a moral banter.
 In the book Two Tales from Kotor, my story was called Three Tables and was about an esoteric detective search for a mystery table.
2 A river in FYR Macedonia (translator’s note).
3 Of course I don’t have to point out that the heating wasn’t working, that the balcony doors didn’t close, that the quartz comfort heater had only one functioning tube, etc, etc.
4 I love bouquets that can be eaten after you’ve enjoyed them aesthetically. Even my wedding bouquet for my second wedding was made of aromatic herbs. It smelled divine. It still does. That bouquet I didn’t eat. I tossed it to my sister at the wedding, of course.
5 The Wiener schnitzel had, naturally, been burnt in rancid oil. (I’m adding the note about oil just to avoid any confusion).
About the author:
Jasmina Mihajlović was born in Niš (Serbia). She is a writer, literary and hyperfiction critic. She is also chairwoman of Bequest of Milorad Pavić, famous Serbian writer and her late spouse. She is member of the Serbia Literary Society. Her fiction has been translated into the English, Russian, Greek, Ukrainian, lovenian, Azeri and Georgian. Above short story is from her collection, Travel Album.