Sila sat on the top bunk of the youth hostel with the flooded basement, the only hostel in Vicenza apparently, and read from the book he’d traded his Slovene to Romanian dictionary for
Monogatari of Northern Italy
which used the word monogatari cos it was written by a Japanese woman who travelled the world looking for the demons she’d read about on the internet and when she didn’t find any, the alternative was to write a book about them instead and make enough yen to do the whole thing again.
Her name was Ritsuko Takano
though online she wrote as Fox Volant.
The folktale that Sila had focused on was the one that sounded familiar to the missing men he’d been reading about online, the reason he’d come to Vicenza, fifteen young men over the last seven years, which didn’t sound strange on its own, but when you heard that they’d all gone missing near a town in Northern Italy, a town famous for carpentry, during winter, during heavy snowstorms then it began to sound like something cabinet related.
Joanna was on the bottom bunk, the cover of the German book showcasing itself to the rest of the room, which basically meant no one as they were the only two people there.
‘You ready for this?’ Sila asked for the third time, getting back faint breath and muttered German. ‘Okay, I’ll take that as a neutral vote.’
He tried the first line, ‘many years ago,’ but his throat was a bit dry, forcing a cough and then a series of saliva swallows before a second attempt.
‘Many years ago, in a small town near the border of Italy and Austria, there lived a beautiful young girl called Damijana. She was the daughter of the local woodcutter, his only child, and he was well known to spoil her. All the young men in the village wanted to fuck her…’ A cough, unconvincing. ‘…marry her, but found it difficult to a] please her father, and b] please Damijana herself.
Every young man would take it in turns to visit Damijana, always in the summer when it was pleasant to do so, and try in various ways to impress her. I’m using the phrasing from the book by the way, pleasant to do so is not me. Okay. So they visited her and, the strongest of the men from the village, he would lift fallen tree trunks to show how strong he was.
‘See how strong I am,’ he said. ‘I will protect you always and keep you safe from others.’
And Damijana would reply, ‘but who would keep me safe from you if we disagreed.’
‘We will never disagree.’
‘Silly man, marriage is a constant battle.’
‘What do you know of it?’
‘Men are barbarians, women are not.’
‘That’s ridiculous, I’m not a barbarian, what are you talking about?’
‘You see. We already disagree.’
Another man, this one smart and self-satisfied, learned of her disregard for physical prowess and, sensing muff opportunity, came up with a new plan. He borrowed philosophy books from the local library, had some lens-free glasses made by the local optician and then took himself and his new disguise to Damijana’s home. He opened one of the philosophy books to a random page, sat on a tree stump outside her home and posed in a similar way to the local intellectual Eduardo del Nortoni, even though the rest of the village remembered the lies he’d told about speaking Japanese.
Sila stopped and looked over the bunk at Joanna, who had put down her German book and replaced it with her computer screen.
‘Yeah, that was an insert…they didn’t really know about Japanese back then.’
Joanna muttered something in Cantonese.
‘Okay, back to the story. Clever guy sitting on the tree trunk, philosophy book.’
Sila flicked a page over, grimaced, and flicked right back.
‘See how smart I am, how deep I am,’ the clever young man said. ‘I will always stimulate your mind, and outwit any trouble-makers who attempt to erode our perfect home, and, to a certain degree, tolerate any disagreements we may have from time to time.’
And Damijana replied, ‘but how would I be able to stimulate your mind, if you already know everything from your books?’
‘Nonsense. I do not claim to know everything.’
‘Oh, what is it that you are short on?’
‘I don’t know. I suppose I wouldn’t know the lack until it danced in front of me.’
‘Perhaps I could help you to fill in some gaps?’
‘Yes. I am sure there are skills I have, that you do not.’
‘Well, first of all, I could teach you how to cut wood.’
‘Nonsense. I can cut wood. I can cut any wood, with only one strike.’
‘Oh, I see. Then, I could teach you how to row a boat.’
‘A boat? I know how to do that. In fact, not only can I row one, I can build it too.’
‘Yes, but do you know how to swim? If not, I can teach you that. I have a duck ring in my room, and some floats in the attic.’
‘Little girl, I knew how to swim when I was two years old.’
‘I could swim to Albania and back before you’ve even completed your first stroke.’
Damijana bowed dramatically and walked back towards the front door of her cottage.
‘Where are you going?’
‘But you have yet to tell me your decision?’
‘About your hand in marriage, of course.’
‘Oh, that is easy. You do not need me, you already have yourself.’
Another man, not particularly handsome but extraordinarily sly to compensate, heard both these stories and, being the only man left in the village who hadn’t tried to impress Damijana, went to her cottage, sat down on a tree stump and started to cry.
‘Oh, how modern I am, how comfortable with showing my true feelings,’ the boy said when Damijana came outside to investigate the sobbing noise. ‘I will let you chop wood, and read books and do whatever it is you want to do, and I will not say a word.’
And Damijana replied, ‘then I might as well marry my bookshelf.’
‘Wipe up your tears,’ she said throwing him a tissue. ‘Fucking pussy.’
Sila looked over the top of the book to see if Joanna had noticed the ad lib.
If she had, she wasn’t showing it, unless she was channelling the car thief from that black and white Serbian film he’d watched 40 minutes of once.
Sila mumbled something in Slovene and continued with the story, repeating the wipe your tears line then scrolling down to:
It was true that Damijana was a little harsh with these young men, and there were nights where she would feel a little guilty at humiliating them so much, but then her father, who had witnessed every attempt on his daughter’s body…daughter’s heart, told her not to be silly, they deserved every bit of it as not one of them was the equal of her, just as he was always 12% less good than her mother.
‘But father, though you are right, I must also accept the reality of my situation. I am a woman, my life expectancy is short, I must marry before I am 21 so I can pump out five kids before I die of smallpox.’
‘No, young Damijana, you are wrong. You do not need to marry, nor pump out five kids. As long as you remain kind-hearted, it will be a good life you have led.’
‘Thank you, father, that is good of you to say. Though I admit, it would be nice to try at least one other man before I expire.’
‘Nonsense, my sweet daughter. No other man can take care of you as I can. Certainly not those idiot tadpoles in the village.’
‘Sorry, father, I did not mean to offend.’
‘They do not know what it takes to make you happy, they are amateurs, children. They’ve probably never even had a whore.’
‘Puerile boys with puerile minds. Now, up to bed with you. I’ll be along shortly.’
Damijana waltzed up to bed, undressed and tried to warm up both sides of the bed so her father would not be angry when he came up.
As she moved her legs like a bicycle, she tried to remember the day her mother had left, but it was difficult, she was too young back then.
The only image she could bring back was her mother resting on the tree stump with red paint smeared on her dress. Yet, it was so long ago now that she couldn’t even remember if her mother had spoken or wept.
Nor could she remember if her mother ever smiled, though she was sure she must’ve as father was a smart and caring man who could crack a gargoyle if he put his mind to it.
Feeling oddly dolorous, Damijana looked out of the window in an attempt to distract herself and saw a leave fall from the branches of a nearby tree.
It was Autumn already.
Beginning of the Alpine devil’s breath.
‘Warmth,’ she muttered.
Sila stopped, listening for sounds or mutterings on the bunk below. ‘You still there?’
‘Then I’ll continue.’
He re-read the previous paragraph, a bit confused about the dolorous bit, then moved on past the squiggly line.
‘Throughout the season, Damijana continued her daily routine of cutting wood and reading books selected specially for her by her father. In terms of mood, she was both contented and forlorn as the boys from the village had stopped visiting her even though it was not yet winter.
Perhaps she had been too harsh after all. Not that she liked any of them, but the attention she received was diverting when the only other tasks she had to perform were washing clothes, cutting wood and tending to the vegetables.
Soon enough Autumn passed and winter swept in, and young Damijana found that she had more free time on her hands than usual as most of the wood had already been cut and stored. She spent this time on her own, walking in the forest, kicking snow, and sitting by the river watching its skin turn to ice.
One morning in late December, she was sitting alone by the river, as was her habit, when a young man walked past, whistling a tune.
He saw her sitting there and quickly altered his path to join her.
‘Hello there,’ he said, strangely jejune. ‘Are you going for a swim?’
‘Excuse me?’ Damijana looked at the river, the top covered with a sheet of ice. ‘You can’t swim here, you’ll freeze.’
‘Unless you are half penguin.’
‘The animal. In the zoo of Venezia.’
‘Do you mind if I sit down here?’ he asked, ignoring her words and pointing to the patch of grass beside her.
Damijana shrugged, slightly annoyed.
‘I shall interpret that as a yes.’ He lowered the stick and bag combo he’d been carrying on his shoulder. ‘Or possibly a spasm.’
Damijana tried not to, but couldn’t help letting out a small laugh.
‘Ah, signs of life…’
She stopped the laugh quickly and instinctively looked back in the direction of the cottage to see if her father was watching.
‘You seem worried. Are you expecting someone?’
‘Yes,’ she lied.
Damijana did not answer. Instead, she stared at the ice on the surface of the river.
The young man took the silence well and lay back on the grass with his hands resting behind his head. A few minutes later he got back up, said it was quite hot and removed his shirt.
‘I have a strange body temperature.’
Damijana glanced back and saw what the young man was doing but she couldn’t look at him for long as…she didn’t know why, but…how on earth was he feeling hot? It was close to zero degrees.
‘Is your boyfriend coming soon then?’ asked the young man, now shirtless.
‘I don’t have a boyfriend.’
‘Then who are you waiting for?’
‘I’m not waiting for anyone.’
The man leaned forward, picked up a pebble and threw it at the ice. It landed, made a marginal crack on the surface and then skidded along to the other side. ‘You know, some people would say it’s dangerous for a woman as pretty as you to be all by yourself like this.’
‘Some would say it’s dangerous for a man as well.’
‘And why would they say that?’
‘Local history, I suspect. You see, in the last ten years, there have been sixteen hangings in the village, and seven of those hangings were women.’
‘A fair representation.’
‘Yes, fair, but each one of those women was hanged for the same offence, that of killing a man.’
‘Self-defence, I assume.’
‘Two of them, yes. Self-defence.’
‘And the others?’
‘One of the women would not say the circumstances, therefore it is impossible to know, but the other four women were hanged for the exact same thing: sitting by a river on a winter’s day, enticing passing strangers to sit with them, passing men to be exact, seducing those men, having sex with those men…then slitting the throats of those men and throwing their bodies into the river.’
‘Under the ice?’
‘Yes. And the strange thing is all four women claimed they could not remember a thing. Neither the sex nor the killing. Nothing. Some say that they were possessed by an evil spirit, but I am not so sure.’
‘That cannot be true.’
‘All of it.’
‘It can, it is true. You may go to the village and check the records if you do not believe me.’
‘I may do that. Later. If I have time.’
The young man looked at his bag and, to Damijana’s surprise, did not go anywhere. He picked up another pebble and threw it at the ice.
‘Are you really not cold?’
‘I am not.’
‘Not even a little?’
‘I told you, I have a strange body temperature.’
Damijana picked up a blade of grass poking out of the snow and threw it onto the ice. She stayed a while longer, not wishing to seem nervous, then stood up and told the man it was time for her to go back home.
‘Will you come here again?’ he asked, stroking the hairs on his arm.
‘Why do you wish to know?’
Damijana tried to think of another question, but could not, and what’s more, couldn’t think of a good reason why she was even trying to prolong this encounter. She did not know this man, she didn’t want to know him, he wasn’t particularly clever or interesting, he wasn’t-…
When she got back home, the cottage was empty. Assuming her father had gone into the village, she went out back and took some logs from the pile.
As she put them in the basket, she thought of the young man.
It was true, she did not know him or like him or want to know him any better, but it was also true, conversely, that she didn’t care, did like him, and did want to know him better. Specifically, she wanted to know how he could lie on the snow without a t-shirt in the middle of December. And if he really was going to go for a swim. Was he mad? An escaped criminal from Innsbruck? Maybe he was just someone who was a little bit heterodox.
In fact, the more she thought about it, the more he reminded her of her father.
If I go back, she wondered, what will happen?
She knew the answer and, although it would no doubt anger her father, she decided she didn’t care in this moment as she was young and what was the use of being young if you couldn’t make mistakes?
Besides, her father might actually like the man…and his unusual ways.
Placing the basket of logs next to the hearth, Damijana walked quickly outside and onto the forest path that would lead her back to the river.
There were many voices in her head, telling her to turn back, to walk faster, to jump on the man as soon she saw him, to slit his throat and dump him under the ice on the river, but none of them lasted more than a second and the only one to repeat itself was the prompt to walk faster.
When she got to the patch of grass that she’d been sitting on earlier, her heart sank, as did her adrenaline levels.
The young man was gone.
She looked up and down the riverbank to see if he’d moved positions, but there was no one around.
Maybe he’d found his way to the cottage, she thought, and was about to turn back when she glanced towards the river and saw a large hole near the middle.
Had that been there earlier?
She moved closer and, to her horror, the man rose up suddenly from the water beneath. Or the top of his body at least.
What was he doing?
‘What are you doing?’ she called, but it was too late as he was already back under the ice.
She stood frozen on the riverbank, waiting for a sign that could force her to skid across the ice and pull him out, and, after ten, fifteen seconds, that sign came as the man’s arm sprang upwards from the hole, quickly followed by his mouth, gasping for air.
‘Wait, I’m coming,’ Damijana shouted, taking off her outer garments to reduce her weight.
‘No,’ the man shouted, spitting out blood.
‘Too cold. You’ll freeze.’
Damijana stopped with her shirt halfway over the top of her head and stared at the icy surface. The man was right, this river was a death trap, her father had warned her never to go near it when the surface was frozen. But if the man had gotten out that far without breaking the ice along the way then…
She looked towards the man and saw that he was going under again. Moreover, the ice around the hole was turning a faint shade of red, blood, she assumed, but why?
What had happened?
Had he slipped and cut himself?
The man’s head disappeared under the surface and came back up a few seconds later to repeat the words, ‘too cold,’ before going back under.
Damijana remembered her mother resting on the tree trunk and her father’s words, ‘as long as you remain kind-hearted, you will have lived a good life.’
Slide, you fool, she told herself and, stepping carefully down onto the ice, she started to skid across.
Her father was right, the ice did not feel thick nor firm, but, by using a combination of baby steps and widely distributed body weight, she soon made it to the hole.
‘Hello?’ she called.
He was nowhere to be seen so she took a breath, slapped herself in the face a few times then lowered herself into the water.
She pictured the fire back in the cottage to try to combat the sudden sensation of ice being injected into her veins, but it wasn’t quite enough.
Keeping her eyes open, she searched and scanned and investigated, but it was dark down there, and there were a lot of reeds in the way.
Gods, where did he go?
The river wasn’t that deep, he couldn’t have sunk far.
She surfaced and looked around, hopeful that he may have made it to the bank of his own strength, but he was not there either.
Taking another deep breath, she punched the edge of the ice hole, waved her arms, slapped the cold out of her face and dived back down, this time seeing the sleeve of his jacket through the reeds almost immediately, and swimming over to grab him.
He was exactly as heavy as he looked, but she’d been cutting wood for nearly four years, and could just about manage to drag him up to the surface.
When they caught air again, he was unconscious and he stayed that way until she’d pushed him up onto the ice, across the surface and back onto the riverbank.
Ignoring the shivering of her own body, she laid him flat on his back, put her ear against his chest and then gave him mouth to mouth, just as her father had instructed.
It didn’t work.
There was blood all over his head, a lot of blood, so she lifted him up to locate the wound and quickly discovered the answer.
There was a huge gash running down the back of his skull, so deep she could see parts of his brain.
She dropped him on the snow and tried to vomit but nothing came out.
Who had done this to him?
‘Actually, it was your father,’ said a voice right next to her.
Damijana looked round, startled, and saw the young man staring back at her, rubbing the back of his head as if he had nothing more serious than a slight itch.
‘Though, I am very impressed by your courage, Damijana.’
‘How are you talking? Your wound?’
The young man smiled and turned his head. Somehow the wound had healed.
‘It’s gone,’ she said, amazed.
‘Of course it has.’
‘Human? No, I am not.’
‘You look cold?’
‘What are you?’
‘You’re shivering.’ He leaned across and put his hand on her forehead, holding it there for a few seconds.
Damijana stopped shivering.
‘Better?’ he asked.
‘How did you…’
‘But…I don’t understand. Who are you?’
‘It’s a bit of a cliché, but I have many names, even around these parts. I believe the more superstitious people in your village would refer to me as the devil. The as apparently there can only be one.’
‘You’re the devil…’ Damijana had heard the name spoken by her father, and all the baggage that came with it. ‘You?’
‘Do not fear, I am not here to harm you. In fact, just the opposite. It is a reward you shall receive.’
‘I have visited many humans over the years, centuries, whatever time measurement it is that you use. I have performed the same test in various ways, and I have to say you are very much in the minority.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘It is simple, a matter of human nature. Most people, when tested, choose to watch me die. An understandable choice, but not a noteworthy one. Some feel guilt, others empty my bag. A rare few like yourself, however, choose to foolishly risk your own life to save that of someone you do not know.’ The stranger stretched out his arms and rotated his shoulders. ‘Granted, part of you wanted to fuck me, so there was a little selfishness inherent, but mostly it was a selfless act. And as I’ve always said, selfless acts are rare and the people who perform them should be rewarded.’
The young man stood up and carefully opened the bag he had been carrying earlier. Damijana watched him, not really believing that this was really happening. The devil? Here? There was a whole world out there, why would he bother with a girl in a forest in the middle of nowhere?
The man finished opening the bag. Inside was a small bottle of green liquid. He took the stopper out and offered it to his saviour.
‘What is it?’
‘Drink and find out.’
Damijana looked at the texture of the liquid and started to feel sick again. She shook her head and mumbled, ‘I can’t.’
‘Suit yourself,’ said the man, and threw it in her face.
The girl screamed even though it did not hurt at all. She wiped her face clean and asked the man why he’d done that and what kind of reward was it, throwing green stuff in someone’s face, but the man had already picked up his bag and was walking away.
‘Wait come back…’
‘You may go to your father now. Tell him what happened today.’
‘Yes, tell him that you saved me.’
Damijana looked towards the path leading to her cottage and then back at the man. ‘Is it true what you said? That my father did this to you?’
‘It can’t be. My father would never do that.’
‘Of course he would. He’s done it before.’
‘You know what I am referring to, Damijana.’
‘Quiet now.’ He returned to Damijana and kissed her on the lips. She did not resist. He slowly ran his hand down over her breasts, up her thigh and onto the place only her father had touched.
‘Please…’ she said, not even sure herself if she was offering resistance or subjugation.
On hearing the word, the young man pulled away and told her again to go and see her father, tell him what happened that day.
Then he walked off, departing from the path and vanishing quickly among the trunks of the trees.
Damijana stood there, her back aching.
She did not want to think about the devil’s words, so she started walking along the snow-coated path back to the cottage, but soon enough, as the cottage grew closer, she started to think about what he had said, about her father.
It was strange, her father was not a perfect man, but he was no monster either, and the idea of him hurting anyone, killing them, was ridiculous.
As she entered the cottage, her father was already putting the logs onto the hearth.
He saw her come in and reeled back in shock before rushing over to wrap her in the blanket hanging next to the door.
‘You’re soaking wet, where have you been?’
‘I am not cold.’
‘How can you not be? It’s winter, you fool.’
He pulled her over to the fire and took off her clothes, sitting her down on the rug her mother had made and wrapping her in the blanket.
‘If anything were to happen to you…’
‘I am fine, father.’
‘I will never let you go out alone again. Never.’ He rubbed her shoulders through the blanket, moving down briefly onto her breasts before seeing the rug and moving back onto the shoulders. ‘Tell me, Dami. How could you get so wet? How? Were you near the river?’
Damijana tried to say swimming pool but instead the words, ‘in the river with the man,’ came out.
Her father stopped rubbing.
‘The man that you killed.’
She instantly regretted such impudence as her father had turned as white as a sheet, but her back was hurting even more, as if her spine was trying to break out of her body.
‘I didn’t…’ her father stuttered.
‘You killed him because we were talking…because he wanted to touch me.’
‘You killed mother too.’
Her father staggered back, taking half the blanket with him.
‘Chopped her with an axe.’
Damijana did not know what she was saying, yet part of her wanted to say it and another part of her was in too much pain to stop it as her spine was torn halfway out of her back and…
Her father sank to his knees and started praying to the forest gods as he watched his daughter’s spine exit her body, then wailed as she folded in two on the cottage floor.
‘Dami…’ he sobbed.
But sobbing was not enough as the spine floated through the air, paused briefly as if to look at him in disgust, then shot through his throat and burst out the other side.
The father gargled blood briefly then fell to the floor with a soft thud.
Satisfied, the floating spine returned to Damijana’s body and began reinserting itself bone by bone. The skin was pulled back over to cover the wound and the blood sucked back in and when it was done, Damijana opened her eyes and screamed.
Outside the snow got heavier, so heavy it looked like someone was outside the window holding up a canvas of White by Paul Darrow.’
Sila laughed and lowered the book.
‘Sorry, that last part was me…the snowing part was right but…it didn’t say Paul Darrow.’
He peered over the bunk at Joanna and saw her pupils moving in front of the book, but it was unclear if she was listening or not.
‘You probably don’t know who he is…’
She picked up the Slovene dictionary next to her, put it on top of the other book, which Sila could now see was written in his native language, and started finger scanning.
‘Can you pretend to listen?’
Some muttering in bad Slovene.
‘What happened to the German book you were fake reading?’
‘I’m trying to focus.’
Sila pushed further out over the bunk edge and read the cover of her new book: Slovene Myths Since 1475. ‘You know I’m from Slovenia, right? I actually speak Slovene…the thing you’re looking at.’
She turned the page of her dictionary and scanned for a word, saying ‘ah’ and nodding somewhere near the bottom.
‘Fine, I’ll keep reading my monogatari and…you can do what you’re doing. Pretending to read Slovene. I don’t care.’
Sila turned the page of his own book, thought about keeping it to himself then decided, no, I’m gonna force it on her too, just to annoy her.
‘Many years passed, and soon the tale of the girl who murdered her own father, and possibly her mother too, was forgotten.
New people from faraway countries came to the area, most of them seeking respite from cruel Counts and lecherous Lords. Some stayed awhile and moved on while others liked the area so much that they settled down to raise families.
One winter, after chopping wood in the forest on the other side of the lake, the side that fed the river which had once run close to Damijana’s cottage, two men, a father and his son, returned by boat to their home.
However, in the middle of the short trip, a huge blanket of mist appeared out of nowhere and cocooned the lake, making it impossible for the two men to complete the crossing. Not only mist, but a snowstorm too.’
Sila turned the page.
‘The two men settled down for the night inside a nearby cabin and, after eating some bread they’d packed that morning, they pulled the blankets off the cabin wall and wrapped up tight next to each other on the floor. They were so tired from their day’s work that they quickly fell asleep.’
Joanna put the dictionary and the Slovene Mythology book down and rolled off the bunk. She walked over to the desk and picked up her wallet and the room key, dropping both in her pocket.
‘This isn’t a new story by the way, it’s actually…it’s connected to the other one, the spine girl. Hey, where are you going?’
Joanna walked to the door, opened it and kept going all the way out of the hostel.
Sila thought about following, lurking behind her shoulder on the street and telling her the rest of the story, but then vetoed as a] it wouldn’t really matter if she understood the background or not, and b] just like that night on the hill in Ljubljana, she clearly didn’t give a shit.