by Suncica Tatic
Plav is a small town, high in the mountains dividing Montenegro from Albania. There’s a hotel, a lake, a street, a bus station, a post office and a bar. On the other side of the lake is an even smaller town, not meriting either a hotel, a bus station, or a post office. By modern standards, both of these towns are practically unnoticeable.
I’m thirteen, and it’s colder than I’m used to. Snowfall here is legendary. I’m walking up the street so slick with ice that it may very well be made of glass, and I do so slowly and gingerly. I’ve never ice skated, and I don’t particularly care to try to do it now, with the street steep and the ground rock-hard.
I’m walking away from the hotel, past the school – a small two-story building with a woodpile in front – and up to the post office. It’s small as well. The only big things in Plav are the mountains, towering and blue in the distance.
Above the post office is the public library. Even this, in Plav, is miniature. Maybe there isn’t much of a market here for books – nestled in valleys and crevices of the mountains are dozens of villages, and people here are mostly shepherds and farmers. Just that morning I woke up to see a herd of sheep wander by the hotel, a dark-haired girl walking behind them slowly and idly. The sheep are slow, too, grazing on the grass and huddling together. To my eyes, this was a strange sight. Here, that is everyday life.
Whatever the reason is – the library is a single rectangular room on the second floor. There’s a narrow wooden door, and immediately on the other side of it a single desk. Seated at the desk is the librarian. Rest of the room is filled with shelves – space between them narrow and claustrophobic – and the shelves themselves are stuffed full of books. There are leaning piles of books against the wall, books towering over the librarian on the desk, and more books nearly completely covering the window.
I pause in the doorway and stare. The books are mainly paperbacks – yellowed pages, well-worn and used. The air smells like any library air, dusty and dry.
“We have no children’s books.”
The librarian speaks and I finally notice him. His eyes are sunken into his face, appearing as two black holes. He doesn’t smile, and his voice is not welcoming. He’s tall, thin, with long spiderlike fingers and half his face hidden by a black beard.
‘Blackbeard the Librarian’ I think to myself and step inside, clearing my throat. The door closes behind me with a creak.
There’s no phone here, no other desks, no computer. On the desk by him is a box full of papers. I walk up to the desk and hand him the slip of paper from the school, and he glances at it with pure distrust.
“Hm.” He says and tilts his head in the direction of the shelves.
The books on the shelves are in alphabetical order, but I take my time walking through. I like libraries, I like books, and somehow, the librarian’s tone doesn’t scare me. If I’d met him anywhere else, it probably would – but here, it’s fine. Here, it fits.
Blackbeard’s sharp, dark eyes follow me the entire time, but after a while, he goes back to reading and I keep walking through.
There are books here older than my parents. Some of the titles are familiar, some completely foreign. I find what I’m looking for and come back to the desk. In complete silence, I take the slip from the back of the book and fill it out. He says nothing as I put it on the desk, and leave.
It’s years before Plav.
My mother collects books, and she has a small library at our home. I spend most of my early childhood there, surrounded by books I couldn’t read yet, working my way up to them as if they were stepping stones to something sacred and special.
I grow up reading about Tarzan and Fantomas and Angelique. I read my favorite books dozens of times, rereading them until every sentence seemed familiar. My first love is a book that hasn’t quite made it into English yet, written by Ahmet Hromadzic. It’s hero is a dwarf, who lives with his love, Snowflake, in a house made of red coral on the shores of the Forgotten Land. He’s an archer, a hunter, and he leaves his home to hunt. One day, a crew of sailors finds the little red house and kidnaps Snowflake – so he goes on a long quest to save her. He obtains a magical bow that could shoot stars from the sky, and sails a long time until he finds her – but she’s grown sick and dies before he can take her home again. He buries her on a foreign island, marking her grave with red coral.
He goes on to have many other adventures, but in my mind, I can’t quite forgive the death of Snowflake. My first creative endeavor is to write alternate endings. Maybe this time, the dwarf will listen to his elder’s warning and not fire the bow at the stars, shooting one of them down and angering the rest, so that they refuse to lead his boat on the right path. Maybe this time, the sailors will not anger the Winds, and the storm won’t tear their boat to pieces and carry Snowflake to the Tower of the Four Winds, so high up that clouds obscure the seas below. Maybe this time, the winds will be appeased sooner, and they’ll carry Snowflake to his boat. Maybe this time, the sailors crash before they ever reach the Forgotten Land, and Snowflake and the dwarf stay living in their house made out of red coral.
Writing is hard, so most of these scenarios stay in my head, with some of them making their way to my notebook. I write them sitting on the floor of my bedroom, in front of an audience of dolls and teddy bears. There is a large bookshelf that takes up most of the wall opposite of my bed. This is part of my mom’s book collection, and the top shelf is filled with porcelain dolls. My notebook has a cover printed with brightly colored fishes. I write with uneven letters and at first it’s a slow process. I have the book in front of me and I look at the pictures. Sentences are short and simple. I’m writing in blue colored pencil. On the first page, the words stay on the lines more or less. By the second page, I realize that this isn’t something that’s going to be graded. Nobody would even read this unless I showed it to them. The letters separate from the lines and hover between them. Sometimes, they cross them, as if they were flying away. My sentences are longer and less well formed. Little letters and big letters are the same size.
My first creative endeavor was three pages long and I spent the entire evening talking about it to my parents and grandma, reading into it more than was written.
I’m nineteen and the sky hasn’t fallen yet in New York City.
It’s a long and twisting road out of puberty for both of me and my sister, and I’m not really aware that we’re close to done yet, I’m not quite used to adulthood. I’m no longer trying to find a way to save an imaginary dwarf, and writing is just a pastime, something I do by myself for myself, something that could never be good enough for publication. I’m a business major and I work for a life insurance company, about as far from a creative field as it can get. My sister is an art school student. She’s visiting. Her sketchbooks and pencils are scattered across my one-room apartment.
One night, she sits down and asks what I’m doing, so I tell her. I have a story in my mind, a derivative sort of a story, where there’s a child who’s looking for his father, he’d never known him and when he finds him he finds that the father wasn’t anything like he imagined. I wrote a paragraph, and I give it to her to read. She sits next to me and reads it, silent for a long moment. She looks up to me and we start talking. She’s got a million questions. Half an hour later, she starts writing too, and then we’re passing the laptop between the two of us as if we were making a friendship bracelet. She writes under my paragraph, and she’s adding details I didn’t see. She writes about color and clothes and body positions, about what the scene looks like. Finally, she’s writing someone else into the story – another character. A girl. No, they’re just friends. She doesn’t have a father either, but it’s a different story. She writes dialogue easily. The picture in my head is clear – these two characters are almost standing before us, both young and inexperienced and both looking for something they can’t name. I write next, and the story is schizophrenic, told from two points of view, but filled with detail. The TV is on but one of us has muted the sound. When she’s writing, I look at the TV and watch the pictures in silence. I’m not really seeing it – I’m seeing an imaginary life unfold as if inspiration was coming from outside, and not from within my own mind. I’m seeing that she sees it too. When she’s not writing, she sketches out the faces of our characters in her sketchbook. They’re exactly as I imagined them to be.
Forty-nine pages later, it’s long and overwritten because we’re trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t work, and it’s nearly dawn, and neither one of us is quite upset about having stayed up that late.
Winter days are short, especially up here in Plav. The lake is frozen solid, a layer of ice so thick that you could drive a car across it.
I’m thirteen, and far enough away from the dwarf from the Forgotten Land to not think about him so much anymore – although he still sometimes finds his way into my daydreams – and completely unaware that one day I’ll rediscover writing with my little sister, the same one that just wrote all over my math textbook in marker.
The library is only open when Blackbeard is there. I don’t know his name, and he’s never asked for mine – although I do write it on the book slips. When he looks at me now there is a kind of recognition in his eyes, a kind of acceptance. I come in, return the book I have, and wander the shelves looking at the titles as if each one of them is a treasure on its own.
I read the Neverending Story and I read In Desert and Wilderness. I read a children’s version of The Tempest and I read Serbian epic poetry, the Iliad and Oliver Twist. I devour everything written by Ursula LeGuin.
I write a diary but it’s filled with fiction, rather than fact. In my diary, I write as if I were lost in Africa, as if I found the Ivory Tower, as if I could meet Odysseus and fly in a spaceship. My best friend likes it when I read bits of it out loud, but I don’t show it to anyone else. Writing is on its way to becoming a private endeavor, and a part of me is starting to recognize clumsiness in what I write. My writing isn’t as good as what I read, so I’m keeping it to myself. The entries are all a few pages long. I sign every entry with a different name. I don’t like to put myself in these stories – but rather, I invent a persona for myself. My friend asks if my character writing the entries based on In Desert and Wilderness would date Stas.
“Nah, they’re just friends. Stas likes Nell,” I say, referencing the other character.
“You could always have her get kidnapped or get eaten by a lion.” She adds helpfully.
I never thought of altering the story that drastically, and for a moment I can’t say anything. My friend’s mind is always on boys and dates, as much as mine is on books and libraries. It’s a funny thought, that I could just make a character get eaten by a lion. It seems too permanent to me.
Somewhere in me is an idea that one day I could make a character as real as Stas on my own, a story that didn’t depend on the framework of an existing piece, but that idea is years from growing to fruition.
My little sister is drawing on loose-leaf papers on the floor just a few feet away, tiny face scrunched up in concentration, a pile of papers spread out around her like a fairy circle, decked in colorful uneven shapes, people shapes and animal shapes, almost as if she were writing a story of her own in a language I do not speak.
My friend has to leave so I slide on the floor next to her and put the book before me like an offering.
“Hey Ceci,” I say. “Wanna hear a story?”