Aleksandar wasn’t going to believe me. I knew that even before I turned the door handle. He’s never believed me. But I went into the room and told him:
“Aleksandar, there’s something wrong with the ballpoint pen you brought from work.”
“For God’s sake, Viktoriya, you’re disturbing me! Can’t you see I’m busy? Go and find yourself another pen, I’m not interested! Here…”
He snatched a pen from his desk and threw it at me angrily.
I wanted it to gouge out my eye—then he’d feel sorry—or at least to injure me in some other way. But a pen can’t hurt me much, and he only ever throws those sorts of things. He knows that if he throws anything else he might regret it. Is there any greater pain than regret?
I often feel sick with regret when I shriek at the top of my voice because I’ve burned the beans again, and that wakes Marko. Then Marko cries and cries, he sees me screaming and crying and doesn’t know why, and I feel like hitting him to make him stop crying. That makes me feel so sorry and ashamed that I can’t stand myself.
If Aleksandar felt sorry like that maybe he’d mellow a little. Unfortunately his projectile pen just struck the door and made a dent in the wood. Whenever I see the dent I’ll remember this day, I said to myself. Perhaps he’ll remember, too, when he sees it. But now he turned his back on me and began hammering away at his keyboard.
I wanted to explain to him that the pens really didn’t work, but he wouldn’t listen. Just then I thought the problem was to do with the pens themselves, but now I think I know what was going on. I took a pen and a few sheets of paper and started. Even though I didn’t know exactly what to write, I thought I’d come up with an idea. I wanted to begin like this:
I tried several times, but the pen wouldn’t work, so I scribbled on the margins to try and get it to write.
Soon the paper sported various swirls and scribbles like little hurricanes. I also drew a tornado before starting to write again.
The same thing happened:
I drew several more little hurricanes on the paper, but each time I moved the pen towards the middle of the page it stopped writing. Perhaps something’s wrong with that part of the page, I said to myself, so I tried writing a bit lower down—but again it didn’t work. Maybe the middle of the sheet was incompatible with the pen, who knows why… I took another piece of paper and a new pen. The same thing happened again, and what was even zanier: this time I tried to do a scribble in the middle of the page, and in the middle of another, and another, and it was almost as if the scribbles and little hurricanes were secretly in control of the pen, dictating its movements and multiplying themselves, but the paper seemed to repel all letters.
This had to be a crazy coincidence, and that thought cheered me up a little. How could I make Aleksandar happy in the evening when we went to bed? I’d tell him the whole story in detail so he’d find it interesting. I know sometimes I make stories drag on, and then he says: “OK, OK, that’s enough blah. Now, where were you and what were you going to tell me?” I don’t know if he’s just impatient or whether I really am so tedious!
I asked myself how far this madness with the pens was going to go. I tried almost all of them. Not one of them would write a single letter, but they all wanted to draw little hurricanes and tornadoes. I even felt as if the paper itself was pushing the pens and making them draw squiggles. It took quite some concentration to stop them scrawling. Then I mustered my strength to overcome the invisible force and write a letter of the alphabet. There, at last! After all those round, swirling shapes it looked razor-sharp—probably sharp enough to cut you if your fingers strayed too far down the pen.
I just had to tell Aleksandar about all this. I’d planned to tell him when we went to bed, but now I changed my mind—I’d tell him once all the pens had failed. Perhaps he’d try them then, and we’d laugh together.
But Aleksandar grabbed another pen from his desk and flung it at me, whoosh, and turned away again. As I looked at him from behind, his balding head seemed so sad. His whole head seemed tragic. There were a few unruly, greasy hairs on top and a kind of downy fuzz. The skin that showed through had tanned a little and didn’t look as deathly pale as the bare patch at the back above his flat, flabby neck.
I hadn’t written anything for ten years, so perhaps the pen Aleksandar hurled at me would help. I took this pen and a new piece of paper and began to write.
Then something miraculous happened. I’d written what I guess you could call a line of verse. It was meant to be prose at first, then poetry, and later perhaps poetry in prose, or whatever. But this really was like a verse. I looked at it and smiled. And then the miracle happened: all the ink flowed down out of the pen and spread over the page, flooding it. As if the verse had started crying in blue. What kind of pen was this that Aleksandar had given me? Do pens have a life of their own? It reminded me of when I was little and thought everything was sentient, and now this object was having its fun and playing up on me. Had the bump shaken up the ink and ruined the pen? I don’t know, I’ve never mishandled a pen to find out if the ink leaks when I write afterwards. Was the pen crying because Aleksandar was so rough to it? What a silly, childish idea! I still feel awkward for thinking it, although it doesn’t surprise me that such things can happen to a grown-up woman.
I really wanted to tell Aleksandar and show him what had happened. Now the paper looked like a strange cave, and the letters I’d written were hidden in its dark. I could have shown Aleksandar the leaking ink that very moment, but instead I wrote the same line of verse again.
Once again the ink started leaking, but this time the patterns it made were different. It looked as if the letters had melted and left little puddles around them. The page was like a waterlogged landscape of ponds and pools! It was such a nice sight and made me smile once more, but soon I started to feel sorry that the verse was gone. This time I just had to show Aleksandar his remarkable pen.
“LEAVE ME ALONE, I’M WORKING,” he barked as I entered the room with the sheets of paper in hand. For a moment I even wanted to stay there at the door to annoy him. Then he’d throw the glass ball at me that I bought him ten years ago when we first met. He started calling me “glass ball” as a nickname, and I wonder if that’s perhaps what I’ve become… A few days ago I went out in the evening with my old friends from uni. They were really boring; all of them have grown older, and they don’t talk about anything except their kids. We were all cooped up in a little room in a new café, and the coat stand was behind me. One of my friends reached me his overcoat, and when I turned to hang it up I heard him whisper to Ivana next to him: “Hasn’t Viktoriya got fat!” When I heard this I wanted to pull my blouse down over my bottom, but I was busy hanging up his overcoat; it was smooth and kept slipping off the coat stand, and I kept bending down and picking it up; my clothes bunched up and I became more and more ball-like. Maybe I should have stopped for a moment and straightened my blouse so he’d realize that he’d hurt my feelings—then he’d feel uncomfortable and regret what he said.
I knew Aleksandar wouldn’t throw the glass ball at me because that would cast him in a bad light. It was heavy, and if anything serious happened he’d be afraid I’d tell others.
So I closed his door again and put the paper on the kitchen bench. I thought I could show it to him at lunchtime. He’d be hungry and perhaps see things differently—he’d berate me a little for disturbing him when he was writing, and then we’d make up again.
It occurred to me that I didn’t have to use a pen—there had to be a pencil in the house somewhere. I don’t like writing with pencils because they go blunt so quickly, and then the letters bunch up, grow fat, and look grubby, and I’d constantly be getting up to sharpen the pencil. But I hadn’t written with one for so long and perhaps the disadvantages wouldn’t bother me so much now, so I went and looked for one to write the line of verse with.
By the time I found a pencil the verse seemed to have changed. My first version was so much nicer, but it was gone. It’s like when you dream of a lovely poem, a story, or especially a piece of classical music: you hear all the instruments of the orchestra and imagine you wrote the piece. A wonderful feeling. It’s much better than dreaming of verses, however wonderful, because you can write them yourself—but who can compose a symphony? Anyway, I always forget what I’ve dreamed, just like I now forgot the verse I’d come up with before. It seemed to have been erased from my mind.
I needed some time to think up another.
Another miracle happened. Or was it no miracle that the graphite slipped and came out the top of the pencil? In any case, it was a great coincidence after what had happened with the pens that day. As fascinating as this all was, it was also beginning to sadden me. Was this some kind of plot against me? Why did the pens and pencils hate me? Was it perhaps because they weren’t mine but Aleksandar’s? Everything is Aleksandar’s, and when he gets angry at me everything in the house is angry at me too.
I tried a different pencil, but it also kept playing up on me; the graphite at the tip got used up instantly, as soon as it touched the paper. It was as if the paper was toxic—the graphite crumbled and spilled over it like powder.
Now I had a lot of interesting sheets to show Aleksandar. I’d tell him about the first pens I tried out and the one he threw at me, and then about all the pencils. If I explained it to him that way, perhaps he’d understand that the things were angry at me because he himself was angry. I thought I’d tell him everything when he came down for lunch; maybe he’d find it a bit like poetry. It was still a long time till lunch, and until then I could do other little experiments and show Aleksandar everything when I’d finished.
Now Aleksandar came out of his room and raced through the kitchen, past the kitchen bench where I stood. He was talking on the phone and smiling:
“Hey, where are you now? In town? Alright, wait for me, I’ll be straight there!”
“Where are you off to?” I know he hates it when I ask where he’s going or when he’ll be back, but I really wanted to tell him about the pens and pencils.
“I’ll be back soon.”
It dawned on me that I could also use his computer to write. That would tell me whether there really was something wrong with our pens and pencils; I wasn’t sure because I hadn’t written anything for ten years. Perhaps they were just angry at me, or had been damaged, or maybe all this was happening because of Aleksandar. I went to the computer and tried to type my line of verse.
I have a computer at work and use it too, but I can only type with two fingers and Aleksandar says I look like a chicken pecking at letters. I struck the keys one by one, typing the verse into the empty space that’s supposed to resemble a sheet of paper. Some bursts of really lovely poetry began to inspire my fingers and I typed for a while without looking up. Then I raised my eyes and saw another miracle—the page was blank.
Gently I pressed the “J” key. The little blinking dash disappeared but then came back again. The same thing happened over and over. I quickly typed:
There was a strange smell. The beans!
I dashed into the kitchen at the same time as Aleksandar who’d just come back in. He was all red. I could smell his breath through the smoke from the oven, the stench of the burnt beans.
“What have you done, you hopeless woman!”
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” I stammered—and burned my hands on the casserole dish. The beans were now carbonized pellets, and my hands stung and throbbed with pain. I told myself that he’d feel no sympathy because this was my fault. It served me right because I could have burned the house down, he’d tell me the next day.
Marko woke up and started bawling. Aleksandar slammed the door and went into his room. My hands came up in blisters—the pain was unbearable—so I stuck them on the sheath of ice on the top compartment in the fridge. Aleksandar came storming in like a tornado.
“What have you done to my computer? You’ve deleted everything!”
“The pens… the pencils… the paper… look… I’ve been writing,” I said to him, taking my wet hands out of the fridge again. Water began to drip onto the mess of paper on the kitchen bench.
“What are these squiggles? What on earth have you been doing?”
He started to grab my little hurricanes and patterns of graphite, crumple them up, and throw them at me. He wanted them to hurt me. I shielded myself with my swollen hands, and the balls of paper bounced off me as if he was pelting me with giant pieces of popcorn. Marko began to cry even louder, and I felt like taking the balls of paper and sticking them in his mouth just to make him shut up, but I knew I’d feel sorry and bridled myself.
I don’t know how the pen that hit me ended up being in my hand. I started writing with it. It stuck to my fresh blisters and moved slowly, but letters began to take shape one by one on the page beneath it—letters big, beautiful and crisp.
RUMENA BUŽAROVSKA was born in 1981 in Skopje, Macedonia. She has published two short story collections Scribbles (2007) and Wisdom Tooth (2010) as well as a theoretical study of humor in short stories (What’s funny: humor in short stories, 2012). She is a literary translator from English into Macedonian (Lewis Carrol, J.M. Coetzee, Truman Capote) and assistant professor of American literature at the University of Skopje.
About the Translator:
WILL FIRTH was born in 1965 in Newcastle, Australia. He studied German and Slavic languages in Canberra, Zagreb, and Moscow. Since 1991 he has been living in Berlin, Germany, where he works as a freelance translator of literature and the humanities. He translates from Russian, Macedonian, and all variants of Serbo-Croat. His website is www.willfirth.de.
Read more work by Rumena Bužarovska:
The Playground at Blesok