The next day Joanna ignored the vial of grey vasic and walked out of the room that looked like a prison cell, that had been designed conceptually as a prison cell, and onto the streets of Ljubljana.
It was eleven in the morning and, even though the Triple Bridge was only a few streets away, it felt like it would take a decade for her conscious self to drag her there, a decade of passing one Slovene face every ten minutes, of the castle trap the night before, of the slight pang of disgust and failure and inability to trap the thing, of other distinct moments that weren’t quite distinct enough to override the horror show at least a year old now.
She thought it out and came to the conclusion that
a] the day was just a regular day
b] disgust was pointless
c] the things Slovenes did at eleven in the morning on what might’ve been a weekday were boring.
She turned on an actual heel and walked back to the hostel, picturing the vial of grey vasic in her head, but half a street in she got jumped by a bookshop, a bookshop she hadn’t noticed before despite being in Ljubljana for nearly a year, and inside the bookshop was a book on Slovene folktales and on page 57 was a chapter headed Krsnik.
As with the other books she’d read, it was all in Slovene so she edged over to a woman nearby and was about to ask her to translate but then she noticed a young man with a green bubble jacket and she asked him instead and because she was alone and it was a weekday the man said, ‘okay, I’ll do it because you’re pretty, but why…
…are we standing up here at two in the morning on a weekday? It’s freezing, why don’t we go back to my place? There could be animals here, or muggers, Slovenia has bears too, not usually here, but there are trees, they could be hiding behind the trunks over there. Safer at my place, for sure.’
Joanna told him to stay where he was and wait until she’d gone completely round the corner of the castle wall. She didn’t tell him that he was actually there because the racist American guy she’d given her number to the day before, or two days before, hadn’t called and she needed a replacement, even if this one wasn’t quite as vile.
‘I don’t understand.’
She realised she’d spoken in Cantonese so repeated the same line in English.
‘Was that Chinese you were speaking?’
‘Don’t move, don’t speak.’
‘Okay, this is getting a bit weird now. Hey, where are you going? You haven’t even told me your name.’
She waited around the corner for ten minutes, listening for the tell-tale screams.
Just a few ‘hellos’ from the bait.
At several points, the wind performed a generic whistling noise, but that was probably out of pity.
She managed another ten minutes before giving up.
‘Can I move now?’ the Slovene asked, as she came back and picked up the camera.
‘Did you hear anything? See anything?’
‘Yeah, the castle wall.’
‘No. Why? What are you expecting?’
She turned and walked towards the path, regretting the lack of grey vasic in her pocket. It would be a slow journey back, and this man would probably follow her most of the way.
‘Hey, are we going back to my place now?’ he asked when they got back onto the street at the bottom of the hill.
She walked a bit further and saw zero people on the street. Not that surprising for that time of morning.
‘Yes,’ she said, turning back to give him a brief smile then continuing on towards the river.
He followed her trail, asking if that was some kind of weird Chinese sex ritual they’d been doing up there, and how long she was staying in the city for and…
‘I need the toilet,’ she said, pointing at something around the corner, possibly a bar.
‘No problem, my place is ten minutes away.’
‘I need to go now.’
‘Well, I don’t think they’re open,’ he said, pointing at the bar.
‘I know the owner.’
‘He stays open till three, special service. Wait here.’
‘Okay, if you really have to…’
The man went over to the railing by the river and threw pieces of snow into the water, thinking ahead to the future sex he was about to have and if there would really be any difference between Chinese and Slovene. He’d heard they were quite passive, but that could’ve been Japanese.
Yeah, it probably was, he thought, flinging more snow. Passive girls didn’t make guys stand outside castles at two in the morning.
Actually, what time was it?
He checked his watch and saw he was forty-eight minutes off. But if it’s nearly four, and a weeknight…
No one could lie that serenely.
About knowing the owner of a Slovene bar.
After all that castle shit.
Realising she probably could, he ran around the corner and saw a dark, snowy alley without people, and a bar that was very much closed.
Future sex changed quickly to past sex
to the last girl he’d been with
who’d dumped him for a Serb
a six foot three Serb.
How could a Chinese girl see the same thing
after such a short time?
what did I do wrong?
what did I say?
‘It doesn’t make sense,’ Joanna told the photo back at the hostel, ‘it happened the other twenty-two times, why not tonight?’
The photo didn’t answer, so she put it down and replaced it with the vial of grey vasic and the knife which hadn’t scared her for how long? Four months, six, eight?
She cut her arm and waited until the room changed to the panel of the sky outside and the facades of the buildings and it was weird, there were no people intruding this time, maybe they’d heard about what she’d done, maybe she was becoming Krsnik herself, a stupid thought, but a hopeful one, too.
If she were Krsnik she could go back to their cave without needing man ID and then she would know, she could find him or at least find the body and then switch to the next part of the mission, resurrection spells, resurrection demons, voodoo, whatever did the trick, and when he was back they could loi han again, go to Iceland, go home, get married at 35, have kids and bring up those kids and make sure they didn’t become spoilt little shits or bullies like she’d feared and then, then she wouldn’t need to keep standing near this creepy- looking tree every night and
there she was again, standing next to the creepy tree
and that’s where the images stalled
and stayed the same until the sky
slide cut into blue
which was the great thing about Slovenia
it was rarely grey.
She sat down and watched the tourists coming up the hill to the castle entrance and waited for the dark to come back but after checking her watch she realised the dosage was done and the only way back down was the path, then the streets then the doors.
With the aid of her Slovene to English and English to Chinese dictionaries, she worked out that the man who’d translated the Krsnik chapter wasn’t as bright as he claimed to be.
In fact, the more she read, the more she doubted that he was Slovene at all.
Luckily she hadn’t given her number, or even her e-mail, to him
She turned the page to 61 and tried the next sentence. Twenty minutes later she had:
‘Although Krsnik are typically portrayed as aggressive, some stories have depicted them as melancholic, poetic creatures, who spare victims if they are of a similar vein.’
Spare for how long? Permanently?
And what was the criteria?
Would Yute Long qualify as melancholic? Or poetic? He’d made a few zines before. He’d been depressed. He played the clarinet.
Would that be enough?
She tried the next sentence for elaboration, but it was no good, the topic had moved on. She checked her other books, the ones she could read, but they made no mention of poetic creatures or spares.
Why would that one mention it but not the others? Where were these other stories?
Putting on her jacket, she went outside, around the commune snow patch, took a cigarette from a random Indian tourist, stopped next to an antique wardrobe that someone had probably abandoned and continued her thoughts.
How long would he be spared? Would they keep him prisoner? Maybe he was out already and looking for her. A whole year? Maybe he was in a coma? Maybe he was…
The wind blew hard and the antique wardrobe shook a little.
She looked over, calculating if the stubby little legs would hold. Seemed stable enough. Though if it had been thrown out, it didn’t really matter if it fell, stood or exploded.
The cigarette died out and so did the breeze.
She looked for the Indian tourist again and saw him vanishing inside the bar opposite.
Pursue or not?
The wardrobe shook again, more dramatically, the doors bulging outward as if someone was stuck inside.
With no wind?
She held her ground for a few seconds then, pulling the blade she used for the grey vasic out of her jacket pocket, edged slowly towards the wooden beast.
As she got close, it stopped shaking. There were sounds from inside, some kind of language maybe, it was hard to tell. She held the blade ready and reached for the handle.
More sounds from the other side, definitely words.
She pulled her hand back and whispered, her heart full of hei mong,’ Yute Long, is that you?’
The wardrobe doors burst open, one of them coming off its top hinge and hanging down, limp.
A dust cloud spilled out
and then a man
holding a bloodied green knife.
‘… … … … …’ she said, stumbling back and falling into piled-up snow.
‘… … … …’
‘I don’t know what that fucker was,’ continued Sila, brushing the dust off the dried blood stains on his partially shredded jacket. ‘But I killed it.’
‘… … … …?’ she asked, still on her ass, knife point down in the snow next to her.
‘Or I think I did.’
‘… … … …?’
‘Wounded it definitely.’
‘… … … …? … … … …?’
‘Thank god for green knives.’
She crawled off the ground, still high, and trailed Sila into the bar opposite where he let her touch the scar on his neck and said, ‘don’t know why it’s healed so quick, but it still stings.’
‘Did you see anyone else? Any other men? Skeletons even? Did you really kill it? Did you see where you were? Did you die and come back or did you just get cut a little? Where did that scar come from? Was it the monster? Did you talk to it?’
Sila batted away the questions, saying she’d asked the same things for the last hour, and asked the woman behind the bar [in Slovene] for another pint of Slovene brand beer. She asked if he wanted one for his girlfriend too, but he said no, she’s not my girlfriend, she’s a witch who tried to have me killed.
‘Just now. A few hours ago.’
‘She tried to kill you?’
‘No, but she assisted. Anyway, I don’t really wanna talk about it, I just wanted to tell someone. Have a witness in case she tries it again.’
The barwoman stared at Sila’s scar, the dried bloodstains on his jacket. ‘I’m confused. Are you talking about the Cabinet play?’
‘Ah, forget the beer, I’m leaving.’ He put on his jacket [which only had two main tears, actually; one on the collar, one on the left arm] and zipped it up tight cos it was still winter outside and the adrenaline of the monster attack had finally worn off. ‘I’m leaving,’ he repeated to the Chinese woman.
‘We haven’t finished our conversation yet.’
‘I’m off, witch murderer. Hope that fucker gets you next time, if it can still walk.’
‘My name is Joanna.’
‘Don’t care. You’re lucky I don’t call the police.’
‘I’ll buy you another drink.’
‘And anyway, Joanna’s not even a Chinese name.’
Joanna nodded at the bar woman, who pulled down a new glass and started pouring. ‘We can go back to my place.’
‘Did you not hear me?’
‘Yes, I heard you. My Chinese name is difficult for foreigners to pronounce. It takes a lot of repetition. But we can go back to my room and I can teach you.’
‘No thanks, murderer.’
‘You wanted to go back before, didn’t you?’
‘Sure, before I knew you were a murderer.’
‘I’m not a murderer.’
‘I didn’t kill anyone. In fact, I told you not to come, if you remember?’
‘The fuck you did.’
‘I left you in the hostel room, but you insisted, you followed me to the hill. I never force anyone to come up with me. You build your own platform, not me.’
‘Followed you…’ he muttered, shaking his head at the pint put down in front of him by the barwoman then drinking some of it. ‘Hang on…never force anyone? You mean you’ve done this to others?’
‘I did not say that.’
‘Fuck, I’m an idiot, of course you have. You said you’ve been up on that hill for three weeks.’
‘Actually, nine or eight. I don’t know the exact dates.’
‘Hez fucking bollah. Nine months?’
‘It’s unimportant. What matters is you and your unexpected escape.’
‘Escape, right.’ Sila blanked his own beer and reached for the woman’s, Joanna’s, drinking a good third of it. ‘God, I hate this city. Really fucking hate it. It’s like Chernobyl, only no-one left. No one turned out the lights. I don’t even know why I came back.’
‘We can buy some wine and take it back to my room, talk about what happened with the Krsnik.’
‘Even Ukraine’s better than this shit.’
‘Where it took you, how injured it was, anything else you saw.’
‘Are you listening?’
‘I need to know, it’s important.’ She put her hand on his arm, rubbing slightly. ‘Please…’
Sila watched her make an ‘S’ sound a few times then laughed. ‘Fuck. You don’t even remember my name, do you?’
‘It begins with S.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Ha, I knew it.’
‘Tell me. What is your name?’
‘It’s difficult for foreigners to pronounce.’
‘Žižek? No way.’
‘Ah, Slivic was someone else. Yes, I remember now, you told me in the café. Sila.’
‘I know you’re angry, even though it wasn’t really my fault, but…please can you just tell me what happened with the Krsnik, after it took you?’
‘Just the location would be enough.’
He muttered something in Slovene and drank some of his own beer, covertly staring at her reflection in the mirror behind the spirits shelf. Her face was the size of a small moon, and moon faces had always been attractive to him, ever since Enid Blyton put one at the top of a tree, but this was still the woman who’d forced him next to a nightmare forest and watched him die, or watched him being taken away to die, to probably die, that was the monster’s plan, he was sure she’d known that much, and besides, Ukraine really was much better, unless you were from Ukraine and had the same brain wiring he did, in which case Ljubljana was way better, or Japan, or China
no, not China, that’s where she was from
and the only thing he knew about her was the nightmare forest murder thing so
‘I’m not telling you a fucking thing.’
‘Leaving time.’ He looked for his jacket on the back of the chair then realised he was already wearing it. ‘Goodbye, murderer.’
‘You can’t go, you’re the only one who…’
Sila walked out of the bar, stood outside in the snow for a few seconds then went back inside and put a 10 euro note on the counter.
‘You’re paying the rest,’ he said, not looking directly at her moon-like face cos if he did, he’d probably find himself back on that hill again with that fucking monster
or that fucking monster’s brother or
sister or cousin cos
he’d stabbed that last one pretty good
and pretty deep and
in the chest too so
that original fucker had to be dead.