For the benefit of visitors other than those from former Yugoslavia, I'm posting a short story in English, first published in Croatia in 1999. Hope you like it!
It’s sunny morning in the space port, the first after five grey days of continuous showers threatening to wash the hotel away into oblivion. Lukas is absorbed in the collected Tezuka, book three, the size of the phone-book. Suddenly, the door bell tears the morning peace apart. Lukas looks up as the entrance membrane opens and a woman with a luggage in her hand enters the vestibule. She must be about thirty-five, attractive, black-haired. She looks around, as if assessing the place, and then comes to the desk and puts her suitcases down.
“Please, do you have a double-bedded room?” A man enters immediately after her, heavy bag hanging from his shoulder. He’s older than the woman, his face is refined, his hair streaked in first traces of grey. He wears dark glasses. Lukas expects him to take them off, and it is only then that he notices a folded white cane in the man’s hand and realizes he’s blind.
“Room 109, Madam”, Lukas answers immediately. He always knows which rooms are available, he almost takes pride in it. “It also has a bath and a kitchenette. And it’s on the first floor, you don’t have too much stairs.” For a moment, there’s a barely noticeable twitch on the man’s face. Pity is the last thing he wants. “And it’s also dry”, Lukas adds quickly: a dry room is jackpot in this climate. The woman passes their IDs to Lukas. They’re married. Miryana and Lavoslav Veltz. Lukas reads the data quickly as he gives them their key-cards. And then his eyes stop on their occupations and, as the couple climbs the stairs, he hopes that his amazement wasn’t too visible. Because, Lavoslav Veltz is a painter ...
* * *
Two weeks passed since the Veltzes checked in. The day nears its end and the first purple of the twilight pours across the sky, as if spilled from a cup. It is time for the Veltzes to return, Lukas muses as he sprays the lantern-fungi with nutritious solution. They respond with contented purr and pale yellow light that tears the semidarkness of the vestibule apart. The Veltzes go out every day, weather allowing. He, wearing the somewhat outdated white suit and wide-brimmed hat, dark glasses and the white cane. She’s always next to him, in a flared skirt and a white blouse, her hair under a silk kerchief, carrying a sketch-pad under her arm. To Lukas, they look as if from some dated movie, living in a time-line of their own, lagging behind for centuries, and enjoying it in some privately quiet way of theirs. And maybe that’s why he likes them so much.
They usually don’t return until late afternoon, tired, but with the sketch-pad filled with new Lavoslav’s thumbnails, sketches and drawings. Tumbledown wooden houses by the river, some abandoned, some dangerously not, waiting to be carried away by the murky flood. Impenetrable rainforest covering the hills above the spaceport, trees almost suffocated by vines. Huge starships on the apron, waiting for their freight to be loaded. Streets flooded after night cloudbursts, market stands filled with fruits, stares from the moving, whirling mass of humans and aliens. Brief, passing moments in lives captured by the stroke of pencil across the paper. “Excuse me, we need help!”
“Right away, Mrs. Veltz.” Lukas lays down the sprinkler and follows Miryana out to the porch. Lavoslav waits next to a large root tied to a collapsible wheeled frame. The root, dug out of earth a long time ago and thrown aside, resembles some ominously twisted hand, gnarly, knotted fingers clutching greedily at some unseen treasure. The fingers are overgrown by thick velvety layers of lichens and mosses, patches of dirty grey under the soft red and green and yellow. A fine subject, Lukas approves as he and Miryana bring the frame into the vestibule. It takes them some ten sweaty minutes to rise the heavy root to the first floor and wheel it into the room.
“You are so kind, we could never manage ourselves”, Miryana wipes the sweat off her forehead as she puts the root away into the corner of the room. “In other hotels, they certainly wouldn’t even let us bring it in. Are you for some drink?”
“Not now, I’m afraid”, Lukas declines Miryana’s offer with his hand. “Lantern-fungi await me. They have to be marry and happy, or I’ll end up in the dark.”
“Perhaps tomorrow afternoon? Around five o’clock? Tea?”
Lukas wants to refuse, he likes to keep a distance of courteous formality between himself and his guests. A matter of experience, long and occasionally painful. But he notices Lavoslav touching the canvases, delivered several days ago, stacked against the wall. Lavoslav chooses one and tries the texture of the weaving under his fingers. And Lukas recollects sketches and drawings, his curiosity becomes almost unbearable. “All right”, he agrees finally. “Tomorrow at five.”
* * *
Lukas takes a look at his watch, it’s ten minutes to five. The membrane is before him, red 109 glitters in the semidarkness of the corridor, red triangle beneath the digits. Lukas touches the triangle and rings the bell. “Come in!”, Miryana replies from the inside. Red triangle changes its colour to green and Lukas enters the room.
Miryana and Lavoslav sit before a canvas on the easel. Paints, cleaning rugs, cups and jars, painting knives, brushes neatly arranged on the table next to them. The root became a mythic monster on the canvas, alive in the inextricable knot of lines. Lavoslav dips a brush in the paint on the palette. Lukas follows him with his eyes as he skilfully goes around the sketch, laying down dark brown background. Miryana watches the canvas and Lavoslav’s movements tensely. At that moment, she becomes aware of Lukas’s presence and her eyes sway from the canvas. “You’re early!”
“Miryana!” Angry and begging at the same time, Lavoslav’s hand stops above the canvas, suddenly insecure, paralysed in the midst of a movement. Lavoslav’s hand reminds Lukas of a robot with a malfunctioning camera that he saw once. He can almost hear helpless buzzing of the servo-motors as the blinded processor tries to decide what next. Miryana immediately returns her gaze to the canvas and the hand completes its stroke.
Later, as Miryana puts the kettle on. “You wish to know, don’t you?” Lukas tries to deny it, but Lavoslav interrupts him. “You’re not the first one. I owe part of my success to my ... condition. Perhaps even bigger part, critics never liked me. Too much colour, triviality of motifs, I don’t follow trends. So they write.” Resentment in his voice is tangible. “But, people like to buy paintings painted by the blind painter. It’s a good subject for chitchat. Goes with tea and cookies. And they can only guess how I manage to do it.”
Suddenly, Lukas understands. It’s so obvious! “You and Miryana. You are connected telepathically?”
“Miryana is my sight”, Lavoslav nods. “I read her thoughts, as those who have no idea use to phrase it. And I see everything she sees. When I work, she sits next to me and I look at the canvas through her eyes. Sketch, paints, everything ...”
“Without her ...”
“Without her, there’s no light ... Nor colours, it’s all just one big black ...” Then Miryana brings the tea and sits next to Lavoslav. He takes her hand in his, tenderly, with love, but Lukas sees a spasm of fear in that touch, like a child afraid to be left alone in the dark ...
* * *
A month passed. It is late afternoon and it’s showering outside. Torrential rains last for days now. Lukas thinks of the Veltzes, rains interrupted their walks. Only Miryana goes out, for an hour or two at most, to run errands in the city. It takes her somewhat longer today, she left after lunch and still didn’t return ... Suddenly, a bell rings and a police woman enters through the membrane. Lukas looks at her questioningly, police doesn’t come here often. “You have Miryana Veltz staying at your place?”
“Yes”, Lukas replies. The police woman removes the hood from her head and takes off her cap, running her fingers through her blonde hair, looking for words. She’d rather be somewhere else now. She’s young and they sent her to do what nobody else wants to do. With chill creeping into his heart, Lukas realizes something terrible happened. “What’s the matter with her?”
“There was a disaster. A land-slide, down on the bank, the river washed away part of a street ... There are many victims, we don’t know how many yet. Rescue party recovered her body, we searched it. Found her ID and your key-card. Was she staying alone?”
“No, she was with her husband ...” And as he takes the police woman upstairs, Lukas musters his courage. He’ll need it, he knows he’ll need it. “Room 109. I’ll tell him.” The police woman gives him a grateful look as they pause before the room. Lukas rings the bell, the triangle turns green and the membrane lets them in. Just one glance and Lukas, almost relieved, realizes that Lavoslav knows. He saw everything that Miryana saw. He saw her death, too.
And now he sits before the canvas, holding a flat brush in his hand. His sketches are scattered around, some torn, some crumpled in helpless fury. The tubes are squeezed empty, all the colours are mixed on the palette into one. The brush dips into a dense, sticky mass. Heavy, oily drops drip as the brush searches for the canvas. A desperate stroke filled with grief, then another, and another. From one edge of the canvas to the other, horizontally, vertically, in all directions. More paint, the brush collides with the canvas, dark brown background and the root disappear beneath it, stroke after stroke. The root like an ominous hand, twisted, gnarly, knotted, the grey under the red and green and yellow, covered by the thick layer of black. In the silence of the room, as it showers relentlessly outside, one world becomes a big black, without light, without colour, just the black.