Almost there

Jul 6, 2020

 

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I observe mom’s brother digging in his documents, searching for the traces of Nikola. In the cupboard shelf slightly above his head, there are piles horizontally stacked on top of each other. He pulls out folders, then pushes them back. A piece of chicken is on my plate. I lean sidewise and whisper to the woman next to me.

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My mom is now sitting next to her brother. We are six persons at the table. With a smile, I send the piece of the chicken to rejoin other not eaten wings and drumsticks in the middle of the table. The pumpkin dish was superb – I compliment our host sitting opposite, the wife of mom’s brother. The other two people have arrived from Slovenia to see me after my absence of five years.

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On the walls, there are the three paintings made by Nikolina, the oldest granddaughter of mom’s brother. These are two studies of architectural space and one portrait of a young woman. We lunch in a flat with a panoramic view of Banja Luka. The flat is built in the 1980s on the first step of a hill entering the city.

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Sometimes I remember my father carry me as a child under this hill. While writing this, I notice that angle from which I view this memory is slightly above our heads. We are in the parking lot under the flat. It is midnight illuminated by yellow street lights. As he holds me, he stumbles and falls on his knee. There was one last step before the car. This accident did not wake me up, and his knee never recovered.

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Not far from Banja Luka is a cottage around which mom’s brother grows an orchard with pear trees.

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Before lunch, I am sitting on the couch under the paintings. My father used to sit there while getting drunk on pear-brandy. I would often fall asleep in another room after playing with my cousin. Father would carry me downstairs, from the fourth floor to our family car parked under the flat. Behind the flat and its hill is an unknown world. I requested him once to drive me over there, to see the hill behind. Then I learned him to whisper.

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After my third pear-brandy, I inquire about the missing close-up of two horses. One in front of another, the horses used to gaze at the guests from the wall. I thought it was a black and white photograph. Mom’s brother instantly recalls his Italian friend who made this drawing of horses. After a short personality sketch, I picture him as a Renaissance master. During the last civil war, among many others, he was designated to be systematically abused until he left the city’s territory.

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The hill in front of Banja Luka is named after a family of landowners. At its footnote, I have reopened the issue of Nikola’s times in Berlin. Mom’s sister, out of nothing, declares that the current ‘Tsar of the Northeast’ is taking good care of his people. A few seconds of disorientating silence follows. I add: His daughter is okay in the Netherlands, that’s for sure. The husband of mom’s sister cements the leftover awkwardness: Ah, she is the one that does acrobatic rock&roll.

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Our unofficial family photographer and archivist has recently sent me the pictures I might not have seen. And so I encountered Nikola‘s face for the first time – uncanny and familiar. Included was the selection of the last two decades of family gatherings that I missed. It is a disquieting sequence, a very different series from the pictures I previously collected. Everyone was abruptly older, digitally deformed, or in other ways unfamiliar.

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The last time at the hill step, slightly above Banja Luka, no one was taking pictures.

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