Photo by VANJA ČERIMAGIĆ
Among the White Flowers
I KILLED A BOY TODAY. Shot him in the neck. Left side. Pulse throbbing in the stomach. Now I know it can. Briefly. It stopped. Cold blood turned the warm body cold. My heart continued beating in my chest. Beat after beat. Beast. I inhaled. Accepting a life’s end. He never saw his mother’s face again, but his mother saw his. Insipid. Distorted. Stained. Sticky. He was ugly. People are ugly when frightened in exhale. Their crooked jaws, stretched eyeballs, and the indelible fetidness of flesh are hidden beneath the white flowers my mother grows.
HER FLOWERS HAVE BEEN used for many graves. She grows them, singing to them. Picks them, stroking their petals. Sells them, wordlessly. She knows. Each one she places into a customer’s hands, she says, is a soul on its way to the Garden. She smiles, looks at me, places her scraped hand on my cheek, and whispers: “My good boy.” It has been months since my arrest. Mother’s steps are lighter. She’s dancing again. In melody. In rhythm. In a joy I hate. That time—it was winter—missus district attorney, as she likes to be affectionately called, went easy on me. I robbed a shop and threatened the clerk with a knife. “But I don’t believe there was an intent to kill,” she said to my mother.
“He’s a minor and it’s his first offense, so I’ll be lenient. Six months in the correctional facility should do. Mind you, though, next time I’ll not play nice. He’s on a treacherous path; I’ve seen many like him. In three years, he’ll be an adult and tried as one…” Mother stayed quiet. She was looking through the woman. She didn’t look at me. Not even through me.
“I know his family history. Abandoned by the father—living in such conditions. His brother…” Mother’s eyes twitched—I could see it—but she remained silent. Not a word to me.
“So I understand these children’s sufferings. My heart aches for them, it truly does. That’s why I’m taking all these circumstances as alleviating.”
Alleviating. Unfortunate address, gloomy life story, blotted family line—while real, what difference do these make once you introduce fear to another’s existence? Once you put death on another’s face.
I went to a “bad boys’ hotel,” played games there, ate good food, and heard all sorts of future plans from my fellow inmates. One taught me how to pick a lock. Mother didn’t visit. I came back home. It is now summer.
“Better quit now while you can, boy.” No greetings. She was washing dishes. Her back turned to me, perpetually bent.
“Nothing to quit.” I went from the kitchen/everything room to the bedroom/everything-else room. A piece of wall crumbled and fell on my bed. I blew in its general direction. Absurd.
“Quit now, when I tell you,” she called.
“Nothing to quit.”
“Come here, eat your dinner. I’m sending you to your aunt’s farm. A bit of hard work hurt nobody.”
“No fucking way,” I mumbled.
“What did you say to me, boy?”
“I said I’ll stay here.”
“With those brutes you’re hanging about with?”
“They’re good to me.”
“They? Good t—?” She threw her spoon into the water we ate as soup. “Like they were good to your brother? I never raised a hand against you, but I want to break every little bone in that skinny body of yours. Should’ve smacked some sense into both of you!”
I never talked back when she mentioned my brother. He was stabbed in the chest. Seventeen times, they said. His face was ugly. Twisted and sticky. I knew who did it. Police didn’t. His friends did. I went to them. I felt the strength, berserk, in my bones. Adrenaline. I would make the other guy pay. I would. Missus district attorney spoke about a place called university. Missus district attorney is an idiot. She hears stories, but she has never seen my mother’s white flowers. The only pretty thing in the slum. My town is not what you call a perilous town. My street is what you call a perilous street. They put us all—broke and dangerous alike, no-future scum—there for a reason. So they would know where we are. Hoping we would kill each other off. We are ruining the country’s image, a politician said.
“Study, you little prick! Keep getting those As. Take mum and leave this shithole,” my drop-out brother, four years older than me, said on his way out. That evening—it was winter— Mother was picking white flowers for him. She picked them with care, stroking every petal. “I’m laying my son to sleep,” she whispered. My brother. Sleeping among the white flowers. He won’t see his mother’s face again. He won’t smack my forehead again. I checked for bruises. They were gone. I’m still checking for scars. Squinting. My head hurts. There are none. Should’ve smacked me harder.
Today, I would’ve been halfway through high school. I’m smart, my mother says. I study quickly, she says. I am smart, I say. I learn quickly. You need to have someone watching your back, I learned. So I found protection. With it—power. Breath for a breath, I decided. Brother for a brother. I knew who stabbed him, and I was going to pay him back. It was only fair. I would make him live.
Yesterday, I watched the boy. The entire day. His family was packing. They live just next to the market where they sell vegetables. Where my mother sells her flowers. Two mothers greet each other every morning. Their building will be pulled down, I heard. The road will be extended—the rich need to get to the place of riches faster. The older son doesn’t live there. His family is afraid of him. He only comes to give stuff to his younger brother. Clothes, food, some money. If his folks find the gifts, they throw them all out. My new friends know where to find them. They love these discarded presents. It all becomes theirs. Scavengers. I watched the family preparing for the move, carefully covering their corroded belongings. The mother was muttering how she’ll finally take “him” away from here. Wherever. Far away. “Him” was the boy, I concluded. The little brother. Precious even to the cold-blooded murderer of brothers. The kid spent the entire day lying on the ground, refusing to leave his home, as he called it, his bro, as he called him. Protesting. And his mutt sleeping right behind him, always around him. I never had a dog. “I can’t feed another mouth,” my mother said. “We’re lucky if we don’t start eating dogs soon.”
Friends gave me a gun. It’s easy to get one. Or many. They taught me to shoot. They know how to; they’ve done it many times before. Butchers. I found him today—on the abandoned playground where his brother used to play basketball. Nothing there. Silence. Fragments of what was and what might have been.
I shouted: “Your brother killed my brother.”
He saw the gun and barely moved. Fear began slowly twisting the lines on his face. Chin. Mouth. Cheeks. Eyes. Darting in different directions. I flinched. This is what he looked like in exhale.
“Who are you?”
“Brother of the brother who sleeps among the white flowers.” I responded melodramatically, heroically, I thought.
“I don’t know who your brother is,” he stuttered. His pupils seemed to get larger by the second. His mouth opened wider by the second. He aged by the second. He was no longer twelve.
“Fuck you! You don’t have to know! He killed him!” I felt a smack on my forehead. I saw the benign smile and crescent eyes. They stretched. The irises imploded. From them, red grime and thin, grey veins oozed, dissolving the skin and the flesh. I saw a crooked jaw and void eye sockets among the white flowers.
The mutt was barking beside the boy. Threatening me. Warning me not to harm something so beloved. His bark turned louder. It split. Echo of a bark’s echo. He crept closer. The boy moved. Just slightly. Defying the laws of terror, calling the dog back. Barking echo. Dogs all around me. Teeth decaying faster. Grinning at me. Stench of blood and mud. Eye sockets, hollow, watching my hand. I fired. The mutt cried. He exhaled. I inhaled. The boy cried. He ran. Towards me. Grin grew wider. I fired the moment he started kneeling next to the dog. He was no longer twelve. He was much younger. He exhaled. I exhaled. I inhaled.
TODAY, A BOY DIED IN MY HANDS. I shot him in the neck. His pulse was throbbing in his stomach, and then it stopped. His eyes were pinned to the dog’s, his hand clutching the fur. Cold blood turned the warm bodies cold. My heart is still beating in my chest. They’re coming for me, the older brother and his blood-brothers. I have people watching my back, too. It’s how it’s supposed to be. No alternative. I’m going out now. My mother’s asleep. I'll see her face tomorrow. Or my mother will see mine. I’ll bring her flowers. “My good boy,” she will say, smiling at me. Or two mothers will lay two boys to sleep among the white flowers. One or the other.