The first chapter of my debut novel Grind. It follows the story of Ziva, a post Balkan war migrant with an astonishing gift. Using an ancient art passed down by her grandmother, Ziva predicts the future with chilling accuracy, and understanding the cost, has sworn never to divine her own truth.
My brother is awake. I can hear him thudding his way into the bathroom. There is a chorus of hacks and vigorous spitting followed by the gush of running water. Another night of drinking has taken its toll. Elica is in the kitchen, in front of the stove as always, her grey-golden hair tied in a bun, a few strands curling about her ears. I watch her shuffle about, her hands moving swiftly over the hotplates, belying her graceless form. She is a strange woman to look at. Her movements as a whole appear mechanical, jerky, and clumsy, like one of those cheap toy robots. Her hips swivel as she walks, her legs lurch out from beneath her. She seems to slouch perpetually, thrusting out her groin like a magnet for men, the remainder of her body in tow. And yet her hands are skilled, out of sync with the rest of her, as if they are not actually hers. Sitting at the table, flicking through yesterday’s paper, I wait for her to speak.
“Ziv, will you read for me today?” She asks as she pours three cups of coffee. The murky liquid flowing sonorously into the tiny porcelain cups.
“Sure, ‘Labour Gain Ground in Battle for Seats’,” I chime, knowing she meant something else.
“You know what I mean Ziv, read for me, you haven’t done it in god knows how long. I have questions, I need to… know...” she hesitates, her sure hands fumbling momentarily.
“Need to know what Elli?”
“I’m scared Ziv, I…” Her lips tremble, straining to hold back her words.
“Scared of what Elli?”
“I’m… I’m pregnant Ziv,” she confesses, her mouth curling into an unsure smile.
“You’re not surprised?” I smile and take her hand. I have seen pregnant women before. I’ve seen how their ankles swell, how they lean back ever o slightly, how their skin has more colour.
“I am happy for you, for both of you.” We embrace briefly, happily, and I gently rub her belly. She sighs and relaxes in her chair, whatever invisible weight upon her shoulders falling away.
“Ivan wants this child but… I’m not sure. We don’t have money for babies Ziv; we barely have money for us.” She fiddles with her spoon and with downcast eyes takes a sip of her coffee. I watch her drink. Her lips redden with the heat, her hands shivering against the cup.
“I don’t know how we will manage. Now I’m pregnant I won’t be able to work like I used to. Ivan will need to get another job…” she stops talking and turns her head slightly, like a dog does when it hears something in the distance.
“Things will be fine Elli, you will see. In our family things are always fine. We make things work. It doesn’t matter what happens, we always make things work.” I sip my coffee, calmed by its warmth.
“I know Ziv, I… I just want to hear it after you’ve read it, you know. Quick before Ivan comes in, you know how he is.”
“Alright, alright I’ll read for you.” I slouch back into my seat and take another long sip. The flush of liquid rests momentarily upon my tongue, tickling it, then rushes to my stomach. Eyes closed I feel the flash of heat running through my body. Shadows creep into view.
I take hold of her now empty cup and circle its rim with my finger, a trace of coffee sticks to my skin. I look at it, enchanted by the dark, brooding texture. Elica is waiting, her hands fidgeting with themselves. A knuckle cracks under the pressure of the fingers above it. I can sense her nervousness, her anxiety; her breath is infrequent, sometimes drawn out and deep, sometimes shallow and rapid. I rotate her cup slowly, wondering, watching. I search the black coating for signs, for tiny images of metaphor, of life. Closing my eyes, I hold the cup in my palm; allow its remaining heat to radiate through my flesh. Elica shifts in her seat. I ignore her. If she wants me to read she must be patient. These things do not work on a whim. They are gradual, precise. But to explain this to her now would only increase her anxiety. She knows this is how it works anyway.
I wander through the patterns of coffee; weave my way along hidden paths, watchful for signs, for that momentary glimpse of something, a spark in the din. I see a number, two numbers, four and seventeen. I note them in my head and continue my search. The coffee remnants eddy about like clouds of mud. Images form themselves and vanish in the same movement. I try to pluck them from the abyss, but they move so fast, I cannot place them. Elica sighs, waiting for me to say something. I ignore her again, she has sat through this before and knows to wait, knows not to speak until I offer something. I search through the haze of mahogany, again expecting to catch a glimpse of something. An image forms this time, that of a bird. It is perched atop a streetlamp, its wings readied for flight. Its head is cocked, as if its stare is fixed upon something. I cannot see what it is looking at, but it has a predatory air. I study it; watch as its movements direct my gaze. The lamp is on; its light shining onto a wet road, the weight of rain lingers in the air. I can smell it, that fragrance of wet tarmac. The bird waits and though wants to fly, doesn’t, knowing that it is ensconced in the canvas that is the cup. I turn to Elica and notice her apprehension. She is fiddling with her napkin, fingers twirling it over and over, wrapping it around her hands and then unwrapping it.
“I see a bird Elli,” I pause. “It sits on top of a lamp, a streetlight, like the ones outside. It is ready to fly but is waiting. You’re about to make a big decision, a successful one. It will be hard at first, but ultimately you will both be very happy.” Elica, relieved, places the napkin beside her saucer and leans back in her chair.
“What about the baby Zivvy? Will it be alright?
“There are clouds in the cup, storm clouds, it will be difficult to begin with, money will be tight, you will argue a lot, but the pathway is lit up and the bird watches over you.” I look up at her anxious, with nothing else to add and she slumps a little, her lips curling momentarily, twitching. “Make your wish Elli.”
She takes the cup and presses firmly into its centre with her middle finger, a thin coating of coffee attaching itself to the tip. I take the cup back and twirl it again, delving for its secrets. Inside I can almost hear a drum beating, faint and distant, as if in the bowels of a mountain, growing louder, coming closer. I see rocks tumbling, large boulders crushing everything in their path. I shudder slightly; a spear of cold suddenly impales me. I look away and shake my head, my fingers loosen their grip on the cup and it slips from my hands and tumbles to the floor.
“Ziva! Are you alright? What happened? What’s wrong?” Elica springs from her chair and clutches at my arm.
“I’m fine Elli, fine, I’m ok. I just… lost focus.” I look at my fingers, stare at them dumbfounded, wondering why they suddenly lost strength. Elica holds the back of her hand to my cheek.
“You’re cold Zivvy, are you sure you’re alright? Should I call doctor Skoropanovic?”
“No, no I’ll be alright.” I stand up, a little shaken and dizzy, and collect myself. I notice the shattered cup laying in ruin on the floor. Its pieces form a sinister jigsaw puzzle, each misshapen shard containing the same thing. A large black rock.
“What are you women doing in here? What the hell is going on?” Ivan bursts into the room, unshaven and red, his bloodshot eyes fixed upon the broken cup on the floor. Who did that? We don’t have money to replace cups all the time. He moves to the cupboard and in swift, practised movements, takes a bottle of rakija, unscrews the lid with his thumb and forefinger, skols and puts the lid back on.
“I dropped it. It just fell from my hands,” I say, looking up at him, barely aware of his comments. He snarls and sits at the table.
“You been reading again eh? Did my wife ask you to perform that mumbo jumbo witch bullshit again eh? Picku mater Elica! How many times have I told you? I don’t want that shit in my house.” He looks at me, his cheeks puffed and red, blustering like balloons in a sauna. “And you Ziva, while you’re in my house I don’t want you reading. I never liked that old bitch or the shit she taught you. No good for anything. Fucking superstitious gypsy shit!” He spits as he speaks, his words a semi-drunken slur of ageless hate and ignorance. “Elica! Where’s my goddamn bloody breakfast fucken’?”
She hurries to provide for her husband. I look at her and promise myself that I will never be that servile. Will never hurry like a mouse for a man, ashamed of myself and embarrassed of who I am. I turn and see the cup on the floor, Ivan watches me, says something but I cannot hear him. He is a blur in the background of my mind. All I see is rocks. Big black rocks. It is cold.