One sunny afternoon in 1986 on the outskirts of the village Baranda near Belgrade, Krsto spied on his stepmother as she salved her legs after stepping out of the claw foot tub. She peered at the open window inquisitively, as if sensing an intruder; the radio on the cabinet beside the sink reported high unemployment rates and recession. When his stepmother realized it was Krsto who spied from the white lilac bush, his silhouette showing through the lace curtains, she turned toward the cabinet facing the window, scooped another handful of lotion from the jar, and continued to salve her legs, carefully, as if she were ironing doilies or rolling dough paper thin; thus at age twelve Krsto began his career as a little spy.
On the way to deliver his stepmother’s canned plum butter to his uncle’s pastry shop, when Krsto was thirteen, he spied on Ivan, the neighbor; Ivan snuck whores into his barn during the cold months when his wife remained indoors. The dusty plank walls of Ivan’s barn were gapped so that Krsto’s breath glided between them, above mounds of piled straw, while his red cheeks pressed against the barn’s slivered exterior. Had Ivan turned from grunting, Farah, Farah—he repeated this for every whore—he would have inhaled the same air Krsto exhaled. But he never turned. Unaware that Ivan knew he was there, Krsto went on spying with his hands working in his unfastened pants, watching Ivan emit the usual gurgling fart with the last groans of sex.
When he was fifteen he followed old ladies, returning from market, who stopped to pee in the forest along the country road. Sometimes he would wait until the exact moment when they were squatted, peeing, skirts lifted, knobby knees pointed toward the road, and then he would crash about in the undergrowth causing some of these old ladies to stand erect and look around, forgetting to lower their skirts, their behinds crinkled, resembling startled faces. Eventually the old ladies caught on: they chased him away with brooms, threw eggs from their market baskets at the bushes where he hid, and told his stepmother. By the time he was sixteen, Krsto began to acquire a reputation in the surrounding countryside.
“That young man thinks we don’t know he’s watching us,” they said to Krsto’s stepmother as she poured cups of sweetened kava slowly simmered from an ewer made of copper. The old women nodded in agreement with each other, holding their tiny cups beneath the tips of their long noses. They commented randomly on the kava’s aroma and the delicacy of its foam, sniffing the chocolaty residue that remained in their empty cups long after their third and fourth servings. Feeling jittery and satisfied, the old women sauntered single file down the steps from the veranda, along the plum treed driveway toward the main road, stopping here and there to comment to each other about the jars of plum butter Krsto’s stepmother had given them, the same plum butter made famous by Krsto’s uncle’s pastry recipes. Krsto listened the entire time from behind his cracked bedroom door while sucking on a large spoonful of his father’s smuggled Nutella. From all that he had heard of their conversations with his stepmother, he could not help but think that they enjoyed the game he played. They always left in high spirits and in a few days they would turn up, individually, at his uncle’s pastry shop where he worked to purchase strudla or ask for more jars of plum butter.
Krsto scrubbed the floor and washed the sliding glass doors of the pastry display cases at his uncle’s shop in order to earn spending money, but mostly to peer at lady shoppers. Sometimes he ran the pastry shop on his own, replenishing the pastries his uncle had baked in the early morning, until closing time. He earned enough dinars to attend the cinema on Fridays when he rode south to Belgrade with his father who worked in administration at the electronics design firm Yugotron. It had never occurred to Krsto to look in his father’s briefcase in case there were magazines—the kind that featured gregarious Hungarian women straddling main guns on T-55A army tanks. Krsto needed to sense life in voyeuristic terms; otherwise, his emotions were as dry as week old strudla.
In early March of 1991 when Krsto was seventeen, a young woman visited the pastry shop. She was from the village Njivice on the Island of Krk. He was sweeping nearby when she bent forward to inspect the contents of the glass cases that contained soft baklavas, warm plum butter-stuffed strudla, and palacinke (crepes) filled with farmer’s cheese. He could tell right away that the young woman was from out of town; she didn’t run her fingertips beneath the edge of her sundress and lift it, with a smirk, to reveal the bottoms of a one-piece bathing suit the way local girls did to make fun of him. She bent severely, yet gracefully, at the waist as she inspected the desserts. In fact, the young woman turned her head to look at him at the same time that her most private parts peered from beneath her short rosy sundress. Krsto did not know it at the time, but she was the first and last woman he would ever touch.
With the broom in his hands, he swept along the base of the display cases, inching closer and closer to the young woman until his sweaty elbow squeegeed the baklava cabinet with a rubbery squeal. She jumped at the sound, her platinum ponytail bouncing.
“I didn’t see you there,” she said, clutching her satchel to her chest so that her knuckles bulged a bony white. She reminded Krsto of a startled hare, standing there with both hands held against her breasts like that. Being close to her was unlike watching Ivan with whores in the barn, for Krsto had seen only Ivan’s pockmarked buttocks working away; the rise and fall of a bare breast squeezed between Ivan’s grubby fingers. In Krsto’s imagination he had always—as he grappled in his pants behind tightly closed eyes—erased Ivan from the scene or smoothed the wrinkles of the old ladies’ backsides. His stepmother’s body, her blotchy as sausage skin legs and tired breasts following gravity as she stepped out of the tub, remained unique; she was the only completely nude female Krsto had seen.
The young woman pointed at the baklava with a peach fingernail and said, “I’ll take that one, right there!” She had chosen a medium-sized dessert located only inches from her body. Normally customers slid the glass doors open and selected their own desserts before paying at the counter, so Krsto stood for a moment, looking puzzled, with the broom in his hands, waiting for the young woman to step back from the cabinet and slide the door open. But she did not. Instead, the young woman smiled at Krsto. She smiled in a way that suggested she wanted him to retrieve the baklava for her. When he leaned the broom against the case and stepped closer to the young woman, he expected her to step aside. Instead she remained standing so close that her hip touched the glass door, which meant Krsto would have to brush against her in order to slide the door open and pick up the baklava. He hesitated, pondering his predicament.
“Well?” she said, raising her eyebrows slightly. Her chin was tipped toward her chest. Her mouth as blushed as a bitten strawberry caught Krsto’s attention as he stepped nearer. He wanted to touch her. She stimulated his senses: her lemony scent mixed with suntan oil; the feel of her slick skin against his forearm as he reached into the case; the smell of honey and nut glazed phyllo rising from the display case as he gently slid the baklava she’d chosen onto his palm. When he presented the dessert with his shaking hand, the young woman was so close that he thought he could hear the shift of her hips as she leaned toward him, feel her breath tickling through his yellow t-shirt. The baklava slid from his hand, making a pat sound as it hit the floor. He had hardly knelt to pick it up when the young woman, her right thigh pivoted forward so that her skirt pressed into Krsto’s face, lifted the rosy pleats of her sundress over his head. When he looked around he saw patches of pink light shining through the rose embroidered fabric onto the warm caramel skin of her bare pelvis. He was beneath an umbrella of roses, inhaling lemons and honey, so close to her his own breath circled through the mound of her pubic hair that tickled the tip of his nose. And just as quickly as he’d found himself beneath this umbrella of exhibition, the young woman removed her sundress from around his head, leaving him to breathe the pastry shop in'”a mixture of bakery smells the strength of which Krsto had not fully realized before. His state of surprise was not shaken when she grabbed his hand and pulled her body against him. Placing his arms around her waist, walking backwards, he led her down the hallway to the back room, never removing his brown eyes from hers.
The air in the room reeked buttermilk sour and the freezer hummed cold air on Krsto’s goose-bumped buttocks as he groaned in an attempt to mimic Ivan—the only man Krsto had seen performing sex. The young woman pretended not to notice his clumsiness and lack of restraint: the way his unskilled navigation resulted in a series of frustrated pokes, the slobber that dripped from his eager tongue into her ear, and the single thrust finish. It was clearly his first time; as soon as he entered her, he came. She patted him dry with a baking towel—she’d already experienced a variety of men, including the older man whom she had recently married'”straightened her sundress, lit a cigarette, and grabbed her satchel while Krsto pulled up his shorts. He wanted to say something to her, anything.
Words escaped him.
“I need to return to the inn—someone’s waiting,” she said. She turned and walked down the hall to the front of the shop, circumventing the baklava-smeared area in the center of the floor. Krsto followed a few paces behind, but stopped when she reached the front door and exited without looking back. Bells chimed as the door closed behind her.
Krsto stood in baklava at the center of the shop with his sandals swathed in honey and crunched nuts. He watched the young woman walk down the cobble-stoned street beneath a sky of low black clouds, until she disappeared around the corner of an adjacent stone building. Thunder rumbled nearby. He walked over to the cash register, as he always did at the end of the day, and emptied its contents into an envelope he then stuffed into his pocket.
After a few moments of standing alone in the shop, Krsto looked down at his feet and, upon moving them, discovered that the soles, covered in honey, made shck! shck! sounds. He realized it was about ten minutes past closing time and locked the door. He walked to the back room, found a clean washrag, ran warm water and soap on it, and returned to the front to scrape the phyllo dough and honey from the tiles. As he scrubbed he thought of the many times he’d spied on Ivan. The young woman was better than any of Ivan’s whores. Unlike the odor of aged matrimony reminiscent of his stepmother’s bath, her scent was youthful. He laughed aloud at himself for having startled old women into revealing their backsides. Krsto now realized that he had no fervor for his stepmother, the old ladies, or Ivan’s whores. His past experiences waxed commonplace now, leaving him with the knowledge that he’d have to work harder to fulfill his desires. He thought of his parents: they would vacation in Hungary all summer, as they did every summer, leaving him alone in the house. He wondered what it would be like to hold the young woman in his arms every morning and afternoon, until evening crickets chirped in the swelling moon.
He decided to find her. With these daydreams lodged in his mind, Krsto left the washrag on the floor and nearly tripped over the broom he’d leaned against the display case. The broom clanked to the floor as Krsto’s hand grappled to unlock the front door.
At least thirty minutes had passed since the young woman left.
Krsto realized he did not even know her name. He could tell she was from the south: her accent was Croatian. He did not know her age or why she was visiting Baranda. He only knew that she was passing through and that someone was waiting for her. The thought occurred to him that he might never see her again unless he asked for her phone number.
Raindrops as large as plum pits began falling from the sky just as Krsto opened the door and ran toward the corner of the stone building, desperately trying to decide which of Baranda’s two inns he would inquire at first. Geranium blooms: red, pink, and magenta, lackluster with the ambience of evening, sat in window boxes kept on second story window ledges along the street. A dog emitted an unconcerned bark on the fringe of the village. Fish whisked the surface of their pools for gnats at a nearby fish farm. Krsto’s confusion mounted as he ran in the fresh raindrops. What if she left while he was asking for her at the wrong inn?
By the time he had run three street corners from the pastry shop, water streamed down his bare legs. The dusty cobblestones sponged rainwater, cradling it in muddy puddles here and there. The marigold-colored light from the window of a small inn shone through the wet evening from the end of the fourth street corner. He was soaked when he reached the front door and grasped the handle of the doorknocker, clanking it twice against a brass panel. There was a shuffling inside and then a pause before the innkeeper opened the door, letting the rain in.
The innkeeper, a plump woman with a round face and three white whiskers jutting from her chin, squinted at him.
“What can I do for you, Krsto?”
She used the sole on the foot of her slipper to scrape the shinbone on her other leg. Rain pounded the tin doorframe between her feet.
“I’m looking for a young woman,” Krsto said.
The innkeeper raised her eyebrows. She removed her bifocals from her face and let them rest against her bosom, suspended from a lanyard around her neck. People in this village were a bit nosy.
“Why?” she said. She continued to alternately scrape the soles of her slippers while she talked—first on one shin, and then on the other.
“She forgot her order,” Krsto said. This explanation spilled from his lips effortlessly, as if he were stating a genuine sentiment to a loyal lover. He stepped back from the inn door a few feet, bent his head forward, and swiped drops of rainwater from his hair with the palm of his hand. The drops thwacked against the cobblestones.
“She’s already far away I’m sure. She and her husband drove off at least fifteen minutes ago.” The innkeeper shook her head and continued, “It’s about time it rained. How’s your uncle’s business?”
“Yes, she just married a man from Vienna and they were on their way to honeymoon in Patras, I think.” The innkeeper smoothed the front of her polyester nightdress and tucked one hand into her pocket.
“Did she leave an address? Anything?”
Krsto tapped his foot on the wet stones in the entranceway. Sure the young woman would return, he felt a well of faith in his breast, a sort of filling up of excitement that signaled, to him, that he was cast in a role that would determine their fate. He believed lives fell into place, that God knew he had the answers to repair near misses of destiny on rainy nights in the village Baranda. This notion wound his innards and throbbed in his veins convincing him to believe that he would lie in bed with the young woman all summer while his parents were on vacation. By the end of summer, before his parents returned, he’d be eighteen and would be the young woman’s husband. Loose ends, such as the man she was said to be honeymooning with, would disappear, leaving the perfect life, corners rounded and tucked exactly, like folded dough.
The innkeeper turned out of the rain-splattered doorway. “Come inside,” she said.
Krsto followed her, his t-shirt suctioned to his torso, water streaming down his calves and into his leather slip-ons. She shuffled behind the check-in counter and opened the guest register. He was impatient to see the young woman again. He stood with his nose pointed toward the base of the check-in counter, watching drops trickle from tips of his own hair onto the polished floor.
“Can I have the address?” he said.
The innkeeper peered above the rim of her spectacles, the corners of her mouth pressing downward.
“I don’t think they’ll come back for pastries,” she said. “Unless they happen through on their way back from Patras and regret forgetting the first time. Maybe they know about your uncle’s plum butter.”
Krsto heard only half of what the innkeeper said. He was out the door, running down the darkened wet street toward the road home. The rain came down heavier and heavier on his face; the runoff in the street splashing over his slip-ons. He felt a mixture of panic and elation. He would steal his father’s Peugeot, drive to Patras in order to scour the streets, sleepless, in search of the young woman. The massaging rain prodded his spirit as his hands cut the air along his ribcage and his legs strained to meet his impatient brain’s demand to run faster. He hit the gravel road leading home, remembering that in haste he had forgotten to lock up the pastry shop. He would have the hell beat out of him in the morning if he didn’t secure the door before his uncle arrived. Then his thoughts shifted back to stealing his father’s Peugeot, driving through the Republic of Macedonia, crossing the Yugoslav border into Greece. All of this made forgetting to secure the pastry shop insignificant. After tonight it would not matter how many doors he left unlocked. He would leave Baranda, never to return.
His footsteps were inaudible beneath the myriad of sound waves flexing in the storm. He pretended his feet kept rhythm with his heartbeat, each splash like blood thrust outward from within his aorta. Raindrops doused the night in the same way blood flowed through his arteries and capillaries, thinning as it dispersed into his limbs. He counted his footsteps: One, two! One, two! but lost his place when thunder crashed and the shadow of his parent’s driveway melted into view between a line of vine-covered fence posts.
Lightning struck behind the candlelit house—Krsto surmised the storm had knocked the power out—outlining the veranda railings that zigzagged silhouettes of shadow and light in his path. The black Peugeot sat as if waiting, hood glistening from the mist that blew under the roof of the carport. His passport would be in the glove compartment where his father kept it for their trips to Germany. He wouldn’t even risk going into the house. The key would be in the ignition, as it always was. He opened the car door carefully, shutting it only halfway to avoid making noise as he situated himself in the driver’s seat and felt for the ignition. He turned the key and the engine sputtered to life.
Krsto put his left foot on the clutch and shifted into first gear driving slowly out of the carport. The tires crunched along the gravel driveway past fence posts—onlookers in a bewildered crowd, hesitant to step aside. He was leaving them behind, whitewashed figures smeared with rain.
Several hours into the future, the morning after Krsto left home, on the island of Mykonos in the Aegean Sea—not in the city of Patras—the young woman held her old husband’s hand as they walked the beach at low tide. A cement platform about three meters above sea level supported the village: white buildings with azure, orange, evergreen, and brick red balconies stretching the width of their cubic fronts. Green algae-covered rocks fringed the beach between the sand and the cement platform. The husband stopped to examine a pebble, holding it up to the drifting sun in order to test its transparency. The young woman continued walking, causing her arm to stretch at length and, since she did not release her grip on her husband’s hand, she whirled back toward him when he stopped, leaving a swirl of disturbed, wet sand beneath her sandaled feet.
The husband slid the pebble into the front pocket of his tan slacks. As he did so he leaned toward his wife, inhaling close to her ear: lemons and suntan oil.
“When I was here in 1983 the island was covered in snow,” he said.
“I can’t imagine it,” she said, unaware that a zygote was traveling down her fallopian tube toward her uterus where in approximately ten days it would begin to draw nourishment from her body. Several years later in the village Njivice on the island of Krk, after developing into a teenage boy, the zygote would eat unreasonable amounts of Nutella from a spoon and fart each time his grandmother lectured him.
Krsto, accelerated slowly down his parent’s driveway, imagined Patras as he’d seen it depicted in photographs this time of year: the numerous white buildings and apartments, all about ten or twelve stories high, determined in neat rows upon the flat ground before the gulf; the stubby palm trees, broad fronds surrounding orthodox churches with red roofs domed against a dry landscape of distant hills; a single stairway, broad and inviting, leading down to a city street parallel, almost pointing out a strange mountain, a bulbous mound, situated across the gulf from the port. Krsto smiled. He smiled because he knew he would be holding the young woman’s hand when he saw the domed churches, the strange mountain, and the sparkling sea for the first time.
Slipping from this daydream, he looked in the rearview mirror to confirm that his parents had not heard the car leave the driveway. He opened the car door that he’d left half closed and slammed it securely before he turned left, speeding toward Baranda where he planned to follow roads south to the Macedonian border. He reminded himself how simple it had been to cross the border into Vienna and from Vienna enter Germany, although he had never attempted such a journey without his father. He did not know the law; in fact he was not even supposed to be driving.
The windshield wipers made a flop-flop sound, rhythmic and rubbery, as Krsto squinted to make out the edge of the road through the downpour. He spoke aloud, telling himself how interesting it was that the storm should collide with his departure. That thunder and lightning could not stop him, if that’s what it had in mind. He played with knobs in the dash, causing the wipers to swipe fast, fast, slow, slow, fast, fast, and he pressed the turn signal switch on and off. He was prepared for the journey, he thought. Yet he had not counted the money that he’d taken, nor did he know the price of fuel, or how many miles drive it was to Patras. Even as the hours extended further into the night, he remained alert, noticing the curves in the road, the ascent of slopes and descent of valleys. The road leveled long enough that he could relax and imagine the scent of lemons and suntan oil, the caress of his own skin against the young woman’s, that he would see her soon.
He did not foresee, however, that as he slowed to approach the next curve, a solid white cow would step from the bank, startling him enough that he would swerve toward the gulley-side of the road, but not without grazing the cow first. The cow’s knees would buckle on impact, her stout body flying onto the windshield causing the Peugeot to roll several times in midair and slide to rest upside down near a shallow creek 85 meters below the road. Krsto did not imagine that the white cow, with several grunts, would lift her front legs from the side of the road where she had fallen, rise to her feet and weave, stunned but barely limping, along the dark road until she would find a trail leading down to the creek where she would drink and swish her tail and lick her wet pink nose as the sun peeked through the morning vapor that rose from the gulley in a carpet of fog.
After a satisfying drink, the cow ambled slowly away, stopping to stretch her neck occasionally in order to pinch fresh buds from sapling trees, until she vanished into the fog. Not long after the cow moved on, a wallcreeper—a small gray bird with crimson wing feathers outlined in black—fluttered from the treetops, alighting the misty landscape with color before landing on the axel of the overturned Peugeot. The wallcreeper’s head tipped curiously toward the glistening remnants of the shattered driver’s side window where Krsto lay halfway on the ground, body limp and covered in drying blood—a deep burgundy, dull in comparison to the wallcreeper’s crimson wing feathers.
Egyptian vultures, always the first to arrive, circled overhead for several minutes before gliding rather clumsily to the ground beside Krsto, where they shook their white punk head feathers and squabbled over food rights. The air remained dustless when the vultures landed on the damp earth and decided, after some deliberation, to begin pecking the soft flesh over Krsto’s jugular vein. One of the vultures, more gray than white, plucked out one of Krsto’s filmy eyeballs and galumphed off, wings flapping, triumphant at having scored a favorite body part. A fox waited in the bushes beneath an evergreen tree. This would be an easy day.