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Uršuľa Kovalyk: Moonmaiden

Midnight. The round moon shines through the half-closed Venetian blinds, cautiously lighting up the room, so as not to wake anyone. It turns the dust on the old furniture into golden sand. Marta is not asleep. She has been waiting a long time for the house to fall quiet, to die down, for the last sound to fade into the regular breathing of her husband and children. Only the creaking of the parquet floor, the faint cracking of the cupboards and the ticking of the clock disturb the realm of sleep from time to time. All is quiet. There are not even sounds from the street, just the clicking of the hands on the broken clock marking off the time in the square. For a while, Marta lies in bed, silently watching the strip of moonlight. Then she gets out of bed and quietly slips into the next room. She sits down in an armchair, pressing her knees to her chin. She hugs her bare heels. Silence and darkness. Marta loves silence. After whole days thinking, rushing about, doing chores, listening and talking, she can at last ponder all the trivialities of the world. The trivialities of her world. She cannot always manage this, sometimes dropping off from exhaustion before her body even touches the bed. But today she has succeeded. She is alone at last. All by herself. Her eyes run over the furniture, the ornaments, cupboards and carpets. The room is different in the night. The night has its own magic. It smoothes sharp edges, turns coarse materials to velvet. Even the huge piano, which Marta hates so much, which gets in the way and always has to be polished, has turned into the black wing of a rook. Marta likes rooks. They remind her of the night. They remind her of silence. The moon moves, rolling on to another part of the sky. A sharp strip of light cuts through the room. "Like scissors," she thinks. She holds out her hand. In its light, it becomes translucent, smooth, moon-like. The cracked skin disappears. "It is a beautiful hand," thinks Marta and holds out the other. For a moment she turns it over, watching the beads of sweat, now the colour of silver. Marta sits in the armchair. It is dark. Everyone is asleep, the room is dumb. She sits in the armchair and the strip of moonlight caresses her hands. She likes that. She begins to move them, as if washing them. Then she immerses her toes in the light, her knees and breasts. Her elbows, tummy and shoulders. She bathes her whole body in the white light of the moon.

Marta gets up and quietly tiptoes across the room to get the mirror. She picks it up and immerses her face in the light. It is yellowish-white, with a touch of silver. Her wrinkles are gone, her moles and spots, too. Her face is smooth and translucent. Perfect. Like the skull of a skeleton. She bares her teeth and wags her tongue. "Moonmaiden," says Marta. The woman in the mirror says so too.

The moon takes another leap, rolls over and along like an orange ball on the black carpet. The light falls on the wall and licks the picture. An old picture. Marta had forgotten all about it. She hasn't looked at the pictures on the walls for a long time. It is a photograph really, of a little boy with a fish on his head. He's standing on the seashore. The sea is grey. She cut it out when she was still a young girl, from some magazine, she can't remember which. She's forgotten. But now the moon is lighting up the boy, the enormous fish glistening on his head. Marta looks into the boy's eyes. How can he carry such a big fish? All these years. On his head. She gazes at his emaciated body, torn clothes and bare feet sinking in the sand. His lips parched from the sun. The fish's eye staring dully up at the sky. Suddenly, the boy moves. He slowly turns his head, scratches his knee and puts the fish down on the ground. "Marta," he says, "my fish is hungry." Marta starts, opening her mouth in surprise. For a moment, she can't believe it. It's only a picture, she tells herself, but she moves closer to get a better view of the fish.

It's true, the fish is emaciated and its ribs are protruding from its skin. Its huge, yawning jaws dumbly gulping air. "I'd forgotten," says Marta. "I forgot long ago." The boy rolls the fish over from side to side, the sand sticking to its thin body. The fish slowly moves its eye to look at Marta. "Your fish really is hungry," she says and takes it in her arms. It is light, like a roll of paper. Like a dry leaf from a tree. Somewhere in her little finger, she can feel the weak beating of its cold, fish's heart. She strokes it with her hands, bathes it in the narrow strip of light and kisses it. She holds it to her face. She rocks it and fondles it, pats it and sings to it. The fish grows larger. Its body fills out, its skin softens, its ribs disappear and its eyes take on the sheen of a fish. Very soon, the fish is quivering in the moonlight. "Moonmaiden," says the boy. All is quiet. Everyone is asleep. The moonmaiden stands in the middle of the room, holding the quivering fish in her arms. She hands it back to the boy in the picture. He smiles. He smiles and throws the fish back into the sea. He stands alone and his feet sink into the grey sand. Somewhere in the distance can be heard the murmur of waves. The moon rolls along to the other end of the sky. Suddenly it is dark. The strip of light disappears, and the rook's wing becomes a black hole. Marta remains standing for a long time in the darkness scrutinising the picture. The boy says nothing. His large eyes just gaze pensively into the darkness. She feels a sense of relief. She goes to lie down and sleep.

The morning is different. The mornings are always different; full of agitation, laughter and shouting. The children make chaos in the house. They get dressed, shout and fight. They slam doors. Marta gets the breakfast, putting hot toast on a plate. Steam rises from the teapot. Butter melts and they all sit around the table. Her husband munches his toast, crumbs falling from his mouth. The children squabble. Their hands leave greasy prints all over the table. They poke each other, ask questions. Endlessly. It makes her feel giddy and her hands shake. She isn't even hungry. She goes into the living room to prepare a shirt for her husband. The room is different in the morning. The rook's wing is gone, the furniture is covered with ordinary dust. The chairs have sharp edges. Marta looks at the picture. The little boy is standing in the sand on the seashore. She opens the cupboard. The smell of clean linen soothes her nose. "Marta," says her husband, "it's time to go." He points at his watch. She hands him his shirt. "Have you noticed?" she asks. Her husband is putting on his shirt and the pleasant smell clings to his body. "What?" he says, doing up his buttons with fingers as thin as the legs of a spider. That boy in the picture hasn't got a fish on his head anymore. His gaze wanders to the picture. "He never did have a fish on his head, Marta," her husband replies. Marta feels puzzled. For a moment she hesitates. Then she remembers the mirror, and the moonmaiden. The narrow strip of light. "He did last night," she says. Her voice sounds confident. "On his head," she says to her husband, looking him straight in the eye and holding his chin in her hand. "And that fish was hungry; I fed it and then he threw it back into the sea. That's why he hasn't got it now." Marta is still looking into his eyes. Her husband stops doing up his buttons. Clearly disbelieving, he goes over to the picture. "You must have been dreaming," he says and wipes the dust off the frame. "I felt its ribs in my hands and the faint beating of its heart," she added, not giving in. He sighs. Marta sighs, too.

"I must be going, it's time," says her husband and quickly knots his tie. He puts on his coat. Picks up his keys. The children run out to the car. Marta watches them from the window as they squabble about who is going to sit where. They pull each other's hats off and kick each other. Her husband shouts at them. They fall silent. The car blinks its rear lights. To say goodbye.

For a while, she walks around the house, the rooms now seeming unfamiliar to her. She notices the mess lying around. Heaps of dirty clothes scattered everywhere. Scraps of paper. Chewing gum stuck to the furniture. Hidden yelling. Piles of questions and future replies. Before she gets down to work, she'll make herself a cup of coffee. She sits down in the armchair, in front of the picture. She puts her feet up on the table. The boy in the picture says nothing. Marta sips her coffee. All is quiet. The boy in the picture stands and says nothing, she sips her coffee and somewhere in the depths of the sea a shiny fish swims.

From the collection of short stories Travesty šou (Travesty Show, Záujmové združenie Aspekt, Bratislava, 2004), translated by Heather Trebatická.

Uršuľa Kovalyk (1969)
Feminist writer and dramatist, studied social work and is currently devoting her time to the question of homelessness. Some of her short stories have been published in the magazine Aspekt (1999, 2000) and in the collection Poviedka (Short Story, 2001). Her debut was a short story of prose works Neverné ženy neznášajú vajíčka (Faithless Women Do Not Lay Eggs, 2002), which was followed by a collection of prose works Travesty šou (Travesty show, 2004) and she has also written two books for the Theatre of the Homeless: Krvavý kľúč (The Bloodstained Key, 2005) and Oktagon (Octagon, 2006).

From the outset, she has presented herself as a daring feminist writer, who knows how to express her own strong opinions. She has a healthy shamelessness and power of invention and, in her own words, she is not interested in what others think of her texts. Her prose works always provoke discussion. For her, prose is a free space in which she can achieve self-fulfilment. In the Travesty šou sellection of stories, her personality as an author with her own style and attitudes to life can be clearly seen.

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