The following is a story of desire and memory. It comes to us from Franci Novak, a poet and story writer from Slovenia. Novak’s debut story collection, Podnebne spremembe (Climatic Changes), was originally published in Slovene by LUD Literatura. This English translation is by Olivia Hellewell. Hellewell has previously translated short stories and poems, and her first book-length translation, None Like Her by Jela Krečič, was published by Istros Books and Peter Owen Publishers in 2016.
— Benjamin Woodard
The first thing I remember is the first bonfire and that drunk guy who came staggering out of the woods with a big log on his head, grinned, and then threw the piece of wood into the flames. It flickered fiercely, it was as if a storm was brewing over the fire, it was beautiful and magical. It was then that I summoned up the courage to go up to him, he was sat on the other side of the bonfire, on a bench, with friends, I asked him if he wanted to come and dance with me, his friends smirked and cracked jokes, the way boys usually do. I watched him all evening, I knew that it was him, that he was the right one that I had to have for myself. He was meant for me. I felt awkward, I was trembling inside myself, not that I let it show from the outside, but I knew that I had to do it. I led him away from the bonfire, away from his friends, and then the two of us danced; it wasn’t easy at first, then he yielded to me entirely, even starting to lead me over the pebbles which ground beneath our feet. We went back towards the bonfire where we talked and made jokes and stared into the flames, some girl was dancing around right in front of us, she was swaying back and forth as if making love to someone.
Whenever someone threw something onto the fire, thin red veins pulsed into the dark air, a fountain of sparks erupted again. The two of us were drinking a sweet spirit from a glass and our breath smelt strongly and intensely, but neither of us was bothered as we kissed; we had our eyes closed, as did the girl who was swaying with a glass in her hands and laughing and bending her knees.
A few of us stayed right up until morning, I remember the large warm rocks around the smouldering bonfire and the tiny lizards that darted over them.
But then I also remember those things before, even further back; it’s crazy how I return to the past so easily, how like lightning I dart back and forth, like lizards over warm rocks: I remember how I had longed for a boyfriend months before. I’d had guys, just like all girls my age, but I no longer wanted to search for anyone else, I wanted a boyfriend to just—materialise. So I took a piece of paper and described him: tall, dark-haired, slender, friendly and so on, I filled the entire piece of paper with beautiful handwriting—the best I could manage—and more, I imagined him in every detail. I pictured him vividly, how he moved, how he smiled and spoke, I really did imagine everything about him, then I jotted that image down, with all the details, on the piece of paper, even though I couldn’t jot all of it. But the image was complete, the pen and paper didn’t know how, but it would know how to see the image, how to create it out of the components I’d noted down, I thought to myself at the time. I pinned the paper to the wall, there above the table, and just beneath it made a mini altar. I wasn’t religious, not in the way others wanted me to be, but in my own way; I’d got a figurine of Mary and baby Jesus from somewhere, but any god would have been fine, it could have also been Buddha or some other god, as long as my image found a way, a passage. I stood the figurine in a corner of the table and surrounded it with flowers, and then I placed a whole armful of tea lights around and lit them, making my room quiver and prance in the flames. Then I put my hands together and prayed for my wish to come true.
If you truly wish for something, your wish comes true, for your wish affixes itself to strings of energy, that’s what’s written in books, that’s what I’ve read, a wish is like a plectrum which glides along the strings of a guitar and compels them to release a certain sound: the sound of your wish coming true. And what is written in those books is true, that is just how it happened, there I am once again, sat with my boyfriend, the drunk guy carrying a big log on his head, the dancing girl bending her knees, a fierce flickering, as if a storm is brewing above the fire, beautiful and magical. The two of us are sitting and dancing, sitting and dancing, his breath smells of strong, sweet spirits, my breath smells too, I look at him and quiver, he is here, my wish come true, we drink and we kiss and we chat long into the night, right up until morning.
And then there’s one other day I remember too, the one when the two of us went for a walk together: it was around a month after our first bonfire, it was an unusual day, the wind was blowing, storks were hovering high above in the sky and the white track that we were walking along was sunken in tall, wavy grass, like a long white tongue with small birds hopping along it. Our hair was tangled, I felt the wind on my body like a third body, we held each other’s hand and walked. A thick smoke swirled in the air, we heard the crackling of branches and leaves and noticed how smoke was coming from a bush beside the path and thought that the bush must have burnt down spontaneously like in those biblical tales; then we caught sight of people who were stood behind and setting fire to the abundant undergrowth. We laughed at their stupidity. I stroked the long, slender grass. We passed a woodpile, I placed my palms on the planks, on their skins which were warm from the afternoon sun.
“Why don’t we light a fire too,” I said. I took out a lighter and tried to light one of the planks with it. He pulled an amusingly serious face and looked around worriedly. I wanted us to play, but he was too serious for games, it seemed like he didn’t understand. I burnt my fingers from holding on to the lighter for a long time.
“I’d need petrol to light that,” I said to him with an entirely serious look on my face. “Shall we go and look for a can?”
He looked at me in astonishment, almost frightened.
“Just kidding,” I smiled, then we lit a joint behind the woodpile, it was getting dark, the clouds were piling up in the pure red sky, the wind blew and the tall grass rustled. For a moment it seemed as if he wasn’t beside me at all, so I had to take hold of his hand in order to feel him.
Then for a few months we lived together, the two of us went to lectures and worked, we never went out anywhere, only for walks nearby, or to the cinema or nearby town. He had his own flat, we cooked together and talked together and loved each other. It was nice.
But one day the fires came back, what had to happen, happened.
Tea lights were burning on the tables of the bar, in the half-light the DJ was dropping some crazy good house, we drank sweet, intoxicating drinks and danced, me and my friends, he and his friends. Before we set off to the party he said that he didn’t want to go, that he’d rather just be with me, that he was fed up of these so-called friends and useless parties and that he was already past all this. But I said that we had to go out, because people had to get together and re-establish contacts and build networks, like ants, colliding with each other all the time with those flickering, quivering feelers. So we just went, it was great, we all danced. When it came to the time that we’d all been waiting for, we ran out with glasses in hand and watched the fireworks. Shadowy figures ran across the car park in front of the bar and placed trembling rockets on the floor until blinding flames spurted out of them; the rockets shot into the sky, sparks hissed through the cold winter air and explosions rattled the window panes; the floor was illustrated with glorious patterns of light and a translucent smoke was carried away across the car park; it was like the start of some insane, new war. Light and shadows, the whistle of rockets and the smell of gunpowder settled into our bodies whilst fires bloomed in the sky.
Some guy wearing tattered gloves and a hat that was too big for him was stood in the car park, looking gloomy with a starting pistol in his hand, whilst the reflection of the fires slid along the metal of the cars like flowing magma; I felt sorry for him, but I knew that not everyone could be a wish come true and that’s the way it had to be. I looked into his eyes as I walked past, all the others looked away.
Then we returned and everyone sat around the table together, we ate, drank and talked, it was happy and noisy. Sometimes I looked at him, at my boyfriend, I saw that he couldn’t wait for the two of us to leave, but I didn’t want to go yet. The waitress came over to us and lit some sort of strong spirits with a lighter, we were drinking cold blue fire, we were drinking fire, the drink extended warmly in my body, I stood up to go and dance. I was wearing insanely good shoes, really tight light-brown boots, then I went to the bar and drank more blue fire; when I went back to the group and sat on a stool, I wanted to dance with him but he didn’t want to, as if his body was numb, he just sat and watched as if he were half-dead.
That guy with the tattered gloves and the hat that was too big came inside, he just came inside with his starting pistol in his hand; a throng of people gathered, everyone looked at him askew, because he was not anybody’s wish come true. The guy fell to the floor, the gloves came off his hands and the hat skidded across the floor. When he got back on his feet, I slipped a glove back on his hand and popped the hat back on his head, as if I were putting a new man together, while the others were laughing; then I stroked his face, his sad, angry eyes shining like tiny fires.
I went back to sit next to my boyfriend, people were still laughing at the guy, who’d left the bar with the starting pistol in his hand. Then it happened, I don’t remember too well, it was like a dream: I was gently embraced by a veil of smoke, it wrapped itself around my legs like a playful cat and crept up and tickled my skin and my shins from the inside. I felt a warmth in my boots, on my heels, burning me, it seemed as if I were burning from all the fire that I had drank; something in me was kindling, the fire was glowing, I jumped on the table and danced with burning boots, like in some film, but I only remember fragments, only still images come to mind: someone brought some water and poured it on my feet, someone else took one of my boots off, we were all laughing a lot, I remember fingers stroking my bare foot and the smell of burning, thick and intoxicating like the trains that once used to pass through my village. I cried out: “Find me the one who threw his fag end at my boots, find him, kill him”, but my voice was like the voice of another, separate and outside of my body. A glass smashed on the floor, from it slowly grew a damp star, blue flames shot out from the glass.
I took off my second boot and walked around barefoot for a while. I went back to him, my wish come true. He’d been sat at the table the whole time and he didn’t budge, he was just watching; I sat on his knee and asked him if something was wrong, he stroked me and said that nothing was wrong. He asked me if it stung at all and if everything was ok, without looking me in the eye. Then I asked him if he was ashamed, and he said he wasn’t ashamed, but I knew and I got angry, I sat on his friend’s knee and said to him that if he was ashamed of me I’d go with someone else who wasn’t ashamed of me. I then drank a whole load of other drinks and sat on his friend’s knee and danced barefoot on the tables.
He came up to me, drew me in towards him and said that I wasn’t capable of love. I stared at his talking mouth, his face turned into fire, went up like a piece of paper thrown into the flames; I didn’t tell him how big, how enormous the love inside me was, how in a moment of complete clarity, complete focus I cautiously look around, how I slowly, tenderly, lovingly let go of the burnt-out cigarette onto my boot, how I feel a slight sting, a slight ignition, a warmth down there, how I then dance, I light and extinguish my own fires, how I am my own fire myself.
When I stepped outside, everything was insanely open, winter was vast and free and thousands of fires trembled above, and a shot fired from a starting pistol burst into a single white flame in the sky.
— Franci Novak, translated from the Slovene by Olivia Hellewell
Franci Novak is a poet, who after leaving secondary education took classes in theory and practice at Ljubljana’s School of Art. His first poetry collection, Otroštvo neba (Sky’s Childhood), was published by Mladinska knjiga in 2011. In 2010, Novak was awarded the title of Knight of Poetry for Pivec Publishing House’s Poetry Tournament, marking the best unpublished Slovene poem of the year. His first collection of short stories, Podnebne spremembe (Climatic Changes) was published by LUD Literatura in 2014.
Olivia Hellewell is a literary translator from Slovene and is currently writing her PhD thesis on ‘Translation and Cultural Capital in a Small Nation: The Case of Slovenia’ at the University of Nottingham, UK. In 2013 she was awarded the Rado L. Lenček prize by the Society for Slovene Studies for her essay on translating the poetry of Dane Zajc. Olivia has previously translated short stories and poems, and her first book-length translation, None Like Her by Jela Krečič, was published by Istros Books and Peter Owen Publishers in 2016.