Ivan Srsen



(an excerpt)


Uhunoma entered the cell. Amanda was sitting on the bed with her palms behind her head. She seemed relaxed, but she was carefully monitoring Uhunoma’s movements.

“Sorry about that morning thing.” Amanda said. “Should’ve beaten you harder.”

Uhunoma moved away from the bed, not knowing what to expect.

“Ha ha, come on, don’t be scared, I’m too tired to hit you now. Come, sit!”

Uhunoma didn’t want to sit on what only last night was Nana’s bed, especially next to this violent kid. Amanda was probably five or six years younger than Uhunoma but she punched like she’d been boxing since the age of nine. But what other option did Uhunoma have? She cautiously sat on the very edge of the bed, so Amanda would have to lean forward to hit her.

“You think they’ll re-schedule the visit to the supermarket again next week since it was cancelled this week?” Uhunoma asked, straining to remove the discomfort from her voice.

Amanda looked at her like she’d just declared her desire to bed a turtle, or eat soap for breakfast. “Of course not,” she righted herself in the bed before Uhunoma could react and get up, and then put her hand on Uhunoma’s shoulder and told her the truth through contemptuous giggles, “supermarket outings are every second Thursday of the month and that’s it. Oh, my illiterate African warrior, didn’t you read the prison schedule? You gotta wait for next month, but it’s not certain they’ll put you on the list again.”

Uhunoma seemed to lose her voice. She wanted to say something, stand up to Amanda, but she didn’t have the strength to do it. Her desire to have someone feeling compassion toward her prevailed, even if it was Amanda.

“Am I ever going to get to that payphone?”

“You are not,” Amanda said with satisfaction as her pupils dilated. In the cell’s shadowy afternoon darkness Amanda seemed like an unreal being from the fantasies of lustful men. The whites of her eyes shone in the dimmed light, her pretty young face seemed to relish its own lines, and her pink palms touched various parts of her body, as if communicating with each other and playing some game of seduction, this time on Uhunoma. Perhaps it was unconscious? Or is being convinced of one’s own beauty also an expression of superiority?

Uhunoma swallowed her pride once again and tried from the beginning. “Could you help me make a phone call?”

Amanda first laughed, for about ten seconds. Then she got into Uhunoma’s face, close enough that Uhunoma felt her warm, sweet, somewhat heavy breath, but she didn’t budge. Amanda stared into her eyes, studied her lips and nose, like she was checking if some cheap and pretty dress wasn’t a knock-off. Uhunoma also looked at Amanda’s clean face, radiating youth and wildness, with no tribal scars. She was still a child, an aggressive spoiled child, the kind who wanted to fight, prove herself. Uhunoma cracked a smile, thinking about what Nana would do if she were put in a cell with Amanda.

“What are you laughing at, jungle girl? Y’all is just cut up bitches. Fucking with no feeling. I’d kill myself if I was you. Tell me, what’s it like being without a clit? What’s it feel like? Wait, wait, don’t tell me, I know, it’s like being a man, only with no dick!”

Amanda was right and Uhunoma wasn’t hurt too much by this. Almost all the girls from Benin City whose parents left the village to live in town were circumcised. It had been done for centuries. Uhunoma enjoyed sex, but she couldn’t say if it’d be better if she weren’t circumcised. Her peers didn’t do it to their children, which was enough of an answer to the question of what’s better. She silently wished that Amanda would get circumcised. She hoped she’d fall under some short-sighted aunt’s razor blade.

“Besides, what you need a payphone for anyway?” Amanda said. “Ain’t y’all in Nigeria got special powers? Ain’t y’all into voodoo, ain’t y’all fucking witches? What you need a phone for when you can connect with your thoughts. What’s it called? Telepathy. You can talk to Africa for free!”

The arrogant American just couldn’t stop, and it was becoming more and more interesting to Uhunoma.

“A minute of that phone call is worth more to me than all the telepathies of the world. I need to hear the voice of the people I love, to know they’re still alive,” Uhunoma said, more to herself.

“What are you mumbling?”

“Nothing, I’m wondering who invented the phone.”

“It wasn’t the Nigerians, that’s for sure!”


The next day, as a punishment for the fight in the cafeteria, the warden made all the inmates stay in their cells all day. The warden didn’t often interfere with prison routine; he signed off on hiring new guards, vacation schedules, invoices, prison menus, intakes and releases of prisoners. Few of the prisoners had ever seen him. There were no conversations with the warden or speeches by him for the prisoners. They knew the warden only as “The Voice” sometimes heard over the PA system with notices in German that pertained to the running of the whole penitentiary. “The Voice” was always cold, a little sad, it sounded like a teacher heading for retirement and increased the feeling of melancholy throughout the prison’s population. None of them blamed him personally for that. Nothing was different this time around as he read the decision on the disciplinary measure of a one-day lockdown. It was a long day for all the prisoners.

Sonja spent it doing lots of push-ups and sit-ups while her lazy cellmate, the Russian Elena, ate chocolates sent to her by someone on the outside. The next morning Sonja was at peace. She waited for the doors to open and then slowly stepped into the hallway. Ivona’s cell was only about 40 feet away. Sonja arrived at Ivona’s door, which was ajar, and gave it a light push. Ivona was sleeping on the top bunk, and the lower bunk was occupied by a girl shuffling through a deck of cards.

“Ciao,” Sonja greeted the girl quietly in Serbian.

Dobar den,” the girl replied in Macedonian.

The conversation between the two continued in a strange mixture of former Yugoslav dialects.

“What are you doing?” Sonja asked curiously.

“I’m looking into the future.”

“What do you see?”

“Nothing special.”

“Thought as much.”

Ivona was still asleep. Her dark eyebrows seemed to twitch every couple of seconds.

“You know her?” asked the girl.

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Look out, she’s a wild one. Sometimes she wakes up in the middle of the night and shouts, says some nonsense, then falls asleep again. I ask her what’s wrong, she doesn’t reply, and just when I think she’s fallen asleep she starts yelling and screaming again. I’m used to it now, but man, I tell you, if they move her to another cell she’ll have problems.”

Sonja caressed Ivona’s hair and she opened her eyes. Her lips moved into a small smile. Sonja replied with a smile. She leaned on Ivona’s bed and moved her face closer. Ivona gave her a sudden kiss, like a child quickly kissing a parent just because she’s happy. Sonja then gave Ivona a much longer, more passionate kiss. Ivona hugged Sonja and started frantically pecking her cheeks, chin, ears, hair. Tall and supple, Sonja grabbed the much shorter and smaller Ivona, lifted her off the bed and lowered her on the floor next to her. Ivona flinched for a moment, to which Sonja gently bowed down and gave her another gentle kiss. Ivona turned to the Macedonian, who was still sitting on her bed and arranging cards.

“I didn’t see anything,” the Macedonian said without lifting her eyes, “but go easy with that cuddling in the hallway. You’ll be in trouble. Kid, you’d best play a slave to Claudia Schiffer here, walk behind her, nod your head, never speak before her, or the old hags will see through you and you’ll become a toy.”

“Hey, I’m not a dyke,” Ivona shouted at the Macedonian, still holding Sonja’s hand.

“Of course not.” Sonja pulled her closer and kissed her, for half a minute, maybe even a minute, after which they straightened out their hair, tucked in their shirts and left the cell. Sonja went first, Ivona followed.

“Good luck,” said the Macedonian.

You can’t be sure you’ll do your time without problems, even if you vow before arrival that you’ll obey the guards, stay out of trouble and try your best to repent for your sins. Prison is not that kind of institution. It’s not a workplace where you came to invest a certain effort to earn your paycheck and the respect of your coworkers, make friends, and possibly qualify for a mortgage. It’s not an association you enter because of a certain belief, or a political party full of likeminded people, not even a shelter for the homeless or lepers. Prison can’t be compared to any existing institution. Prison is, in a sense, the intersection of all paths. Whether you’re off to work, to a robbery, to market or on vacation, you’ll end up in prison. Just like pangs of hunger are inconceivable to the well fed, and a sick man can’t imagine how healthy people can walk the Earth and how little chance there is of that, so a prisoner does not believe in the existence of free people. Of course a prisoner yearns for freedom every minute of the day, but the very fact that some higher power, this force of law, puts them in a narrow cell with one window, sometimes without a window, says that nobody’s free. Anyone outside will say: “She comforts herself with that thought, but if any one of them ended up in prison they’d change their attitude soon enough.”

Sonja walked down the hallway, followed by Ivona. Now any alliance and any help were more important than defiance and heroism. If they had stood by the fence and kissed, which they wanted more than anything, first the guards would punish them – such behavior in public was not permitted, though in private it was a different matter. But the more severe consequences would come from the other prisoners. The envious and jealous ones liked to cause problems for anyone who found some degree of comfort; the evil preferred blackmail.

“Ciao, girls,” the Italian Cristina greeted them. “That old Ghanaian who sits at lunch with you had a heart attack the night before last.”

“Nana?” Sonja asked.

“Yes, that’s the one, Nana. It looks like the old girl barely made it. She’s plugged to machines in the infirmary, but she’s recovering. They took her to the hospital, if they hadn’t, she’d have died.”

Sonja knew there was no reason for the Italian to invent such a story. Cristina was in her late thirties, the headscarf wrapped across her forehead did little to contain her long auburn hair. Loud and always smiling, she was on the pulse of prison gossip. She knew most of the prisoners by name, and always tried to resolve conflicts diplomatically. No one elected her to that position, and no one else wanted to do it, but it fit her perfectly. Prisoners knew they could trust her and would approach her with personal issues, explaining their cases, details of the trial, appeal procedures. Cristina would listen to all of it carefully, and with a peculiar ease she’d also remember it. The entire prison thought of her as their ombudswoman, though she preferred to think of herself as a “union representative.”

“When are they bringing her back?” asked Sonja.

“When she recovers,” Cristina answered.

Sonja searched for compassion in Ivona’s eyes. It was possible that Ivona didn’t feel anything for Nana, that she didn’t care, but Sonja wouldn’t be able to forgive her for that. That would extinguish the ardent desire, the happiness Sonja felt for finding someone she could share all the disgusting and drab days of her faded existence with.

But before she could read anything in Ivona’s eyes, Ivona grabbed Sonja’s palm and held it tightly, undetected. The grip was comforting and removed from the cold, sober face of a Herzegovina girl sacrificed by some two-bit criminal on one of his forays into the West.

Sonja turned, pulled her hand out of Ivona’s and moved quickly toward the toilets near the mess hall. Ivona followed her. Sonja briefly turned around to make sure nobody was watching, then swiftly got into one of the toilet stalls and pulled Ivona in with her. Ivona grabbed Sonja’s breasts and began to squeeze them.

“That hurts,” Sonja complained as she took off her top.

“Try mine,” Ivona replied, taking off her top as well.

In the narrow stall cramped by the toliet, the two women embraced one another. Sonja’s breasts were small, with pert nipples, and Ivona’s fairly large for her frail stature, with small round nipples.

Ivona kissed Sonja’s belly, tracing the lines of the muscles: Sonja’s torso looked like it belonged to an athlete preening on the track before the race. Ivona then began to unbutton Sonja’s trousers, which swiftly dropped around her knees, leaving her standing there in panties two sizes too big.

“The janitor gave them to me,” she justified herself.

“Fuck the janitor,” Ivona laughed grabbing Sonja’s ass.

One of Sonja’s hands slid into Ivona’s tracksuit and slipped beneath the panties, easily finding a warm welcome. Ivona started moving up and down and moaning softly. Using her other hand Sonja covered Ivona’s mouth so no one would hear them; Ivona sucked on two of the fingers. It didn’t take long. Ivona rubbed herself faster and faster against Sonja’s rhythmic hand, after a few shuddering pelvic motions, growled like a wounded dog and bit Sonja’s fingers. Sonja had to bite her own lip in order not to make noise. Ivona almost collapsed to the floor, Sonja barely kept her from falling; her body seemed to have changed, it became heavy and relaxed. Sonja hurried her to put her top back on and tie her hair in a ponytail, and she herself was soon dressed again. She motioned to Ivona to go out first, which she did, swiftly closing the door behind her. Sonja leaned on the wooden wall of the stall and waited for some time to pass, breathing in Ivona’s scent, which filled the small space and reminded her of lilies of the valley.

IVAN SRŠEN Born in 1979, Sršen has been involved with publishing since working in a bookstore during college. In 2007 he started the Zagreb-based independent publisher Sandorf and he is also an editor, translator, writer, and literary agent. Prior to Harmattan, published in 2014 by Durieux, Sršen had published a book of short stories (Skela – bajke iz automata za kavu /The Raft – Fairytales from the Coffee Machine, 2010) and a popular study on the history of Zagreb’s libraries (Povijest zagrebačkih knjižnica /History of Zagreb Libraries, 2010; co-authored by Daniel Glavan).

He has translated from English, Croatian editions of Get in the Van by Henry Rollins and The Real Frank Zappa Book by Frank Zappa. Along with two other translators he is currently translating selected works of Robert Graves while still writing novels and short stories as well as editing Zagreb Noir for Akashic Books.


About the Translator:


MARINO BUBLE is a Croatian translator who graduated in the English Language and Literature program at the University of Zadar. He translates from English to Croatian and from Croatian to English.