SHORT STORY
The gash in the mountain, all crusted and dry, separating the two neighboring villages, had already been there for decades when I was born. The rains fell, the snows piled up and melted, the sun drained the soil of moisture a few meters deep; then the rains came again crumbling the weakened edges of the gash into its wide-open mouth. A few years back, the first house fell victim to its hunger. One morning, it just collapsed into the dry void below. Villagers on both ends tried to stop the conquest of this spreading monster, but to no avail: the crusted lips of its jaws had been slowly breaking up, widening the gap.
After the war, my three-street village was reduced to one pitiful main street, with a church on each end. The new church, funded by the government and erected in mere months, was glorious with crystal chandeliers and a polished white marble cross in front of the main entrance. The old church was much smaller, with a wonky set of stairs that led into its nave and a small pine bush growing out of a crack above the second story window, but it was still impressive for the community of this size. Once a week, in front of this church, men from the village would gather to discuss myriad serious issues. The process was tedious: The leader would speak, and the others would nod. At the end of the night, rakija was drunk in pints. Occasionally, given the proper stimulant, an idle, barren discussion would turn sedulous—like that evening when they shrieked about Marko Perusić’s wife who dared to stray; or when they debated the oddity of me being twenty-two and never seen with a man. The villagers drove the former woman mad with whispers. They only backed off after her husband took the poor woman back and she became pregnant with the third child. The pressure on me as an unwedded woman was enormous. But I shut them up by being in the first row at every single holy mass. I fucking hated it. The entire “council,” the entire village without a doubt, believed that strict moral discipline and faith were essential if order was to be maintained. And the order had to be preserved at any cost. It was a harsh social system, but it worked for the villagers here in these arid mountains, gray with rocks and mist.
That torrid summer day, in the bottom of the valley, the air was boiling with sounds —screams, laughter, thumping, then screams again. Bumper cars came to the valley for the first time. Rumor had it that they were a pity-gift from someone in Germany, probably an old refugee who wanted to show off his success in his adopted country. I don’t even remember the nineties and the violence, but the moment my mother’s tit was shoved in my mouth, my ears were filled with stories of the good ol’ times and the traumas of the present. The stories of the bumper-car-donor’s likes were particularly poisonous and spoken of with envy.
The fair grew around the attraction, like a colony of mold around a leaky faucet. Hundreds of people, kids, parents, vendors, and pickpocketing scum were flushed out of nearby villages to see the spectacle and make some easy money. I don’t know when the last time was that I saw my villagers so aroused, so I joined a few of them on the descent to the basin.
Down there, the air was dripping with sound, moisture, smoke, and heat. In the middle of a little clearing, on the very edge of the fair, a battery of spits was erected above piles of scorching coals. The din of the crowd carrying a limp animal grew stronger as they approached the dell. The animal’s mouth was wide open, the face petrified in the grimace of its last breath. Its swollen tongue hung from its head, bouncing off the shoulder of one of the men carrying it. The lifeless fur battled above the heads, glistening with sweat, as the procession meandered past me. I swished a fly sucking on my wet skin; its legs were heavy with moisture as it flew away and landed on the dead animal’s neck.
To the right of the dell, the crowd was piling up. I pushed myself into the fenced-in swarm that set my course towards the ride. The high-pitched screams reverberated off of the vendors’ tents as if inside a drum. The horde engulfed me. As it carried me towards the ride, it narrowed into a V and then into a chute. One by one, people rammed their way through the tight opening and jumped on emptied bumper-car seats. I leaped and landed on one. My shirt got stuck on the sweat from the woman sitting there before me. I could smell my own odor and the stench of the burned skin of the goat on a spit.
The sudden jolt of the ride dropped a strap from my shoulder. Immediately, I got hit from behind, then from the left. Thump. My body jerked. The force of the jolt first pinned me to the seat then pushed me forward. It emptied my lungs like a limp bagpipe. I couldn’t move. I was stunned, shocked by the force of it as it penetrated me. I gnashed my teeth and clawed the wheel as I was hit from behind and then again from the front. My mouth was filled with saliva; I couldn’t breathe. Thump. Hair whipped me over the face and snot flew out of my nose. I shut my eyes. The screams, the laughter, the thumping sounds. A blow from behind. Thump. The cacophony of sounds swallowed one another and were silenced by the buzzing in my head. I think my jaw was punched, but I couldn’t tell. Thump. On the side of the ride, piled on a cheap plastic table, the mountain of meat was formidable, like a carcass of a sperm whale, the air smelled of death. A frenzied competition between scavengers of all kinds circled it to grab their share. A drop of sweat slid down my nose, ran slowly over my lips bridging the gap between my slightly opened mouth, down the chin, then disappeared on my neck. Thump. The air was squeezed out of my body and through the petrified windpipe it shot out of my mouth. Thump. Hit from behind. A drunken fly flew past me, its back sparkled like that beautiful, glittery, neon-colored dress I wore at the carnival when I was five, and it landed on the remains of a sprawling bonanza. What was recently a live animal has turned into a cold, mineral monument.
Thud.
The ride came to a sudden stop. In front of me, a guy picked at a string of meat caught between his teeth. The buzzing in my head gave into the screams and laughter of the crowd. I got up, away from the seat, which was drenched in my sweat, fixed the strap and walked back into the herd of people.
It was a long, agonizing walk home up the mountain. The road was steep, covered in sharp rocks; the spreading gash, raw and impassable; the new church so bright under the mid-day sun I had to look away. My body and mind were both sore, but what choice did I have? I had to keep walking. It was a long, slow, torturous track home up that mountain.