Mara’s first letter came in the autumn of the late 1980s. The fact that she had gotten my address in Switzerland, as she explained at the beginning, seemed incredible to me, almost mysterious. She lived in Dalmatia, in a town I had never been to. She wrote me a two-page letter, mentioning more than once that she was a lesbian, probably the only one in Dalmatia, if not the whole of Croatia. For a number of years, she had been visiting her uncle in Zurich and particularly her friend Uli, whom she had met at the city’s lesbian center. Uli was therefore the only lesbian she knew. But on her last visit to Zurich, her Swiss friend had assured her that she was no longer the only lesbian in Yugoslavia. There was at least one other in the country who had been to several international conferences. The lesbian center archive had received a report from a conference, along with the list of names and addresses of the participants. And so Uli found the address of another Yugoslav lesbian and passed it on to Mara.
She replied to my first letter on seven full pages. At first, she did not believe I even existed, so she decided to wait with her life story. Seeing as I participated in international lesbian meetings, she also assumed that I surely must have moved to some Western European country by then. She did not know much about what was happening in Ljubljana; the lesbian and gay movement was barely mentioned in the Croatian press. So I sent her some information about our groups and the lesbian bulletin. I wanted to be as supportive as I could to my new Dalmatian friend; the nineties were approaching of course, the time when words and phrases embodying whole concepts began to enter general usage: empowerment, gay affirmative therapy, awareness groups, silence equals death, fight against social isolation, lesbian ghetto . . . Mara responded by describing her isolated, private fate. More than anything, she wished for a lover, a true partner, but in her environment, that was virtually impossible. Even talking about it was barely acceptable for reasons of personal safety. She had sent a personal ad to some Croatian magazine, writing that she wanted to meet an intimate friend “who was not a stranger to love between women.” A couple of days later, she received a kind letter from the editor saying that she completely understood and supported her in her quest for love, but that, unfortunately, such an ad could not be published in the lonely hearts column, as the editorial policy did not allow the advertisement of questionable sexual practices which, unfortunately, also included lesbian love. And so, in addition to her kind rejection, she also sent her back the money for the ad.
It was clear to me that there was not much I could do for Mara in that respect. So I simply invited her to come to the lesbian film festival in Ljubljana, telling her that she could stay with me in my rented room, if she did not have a problem with that.
Her reply came after nearly two months, which was a little unusual, given our regular correspondence in the past. She was excited and wrote that she was in love with her coworker. Happily in love! That the impossible had happened: she had invited her for dinner and, over a nice fish and a bottle of wine on the table, she took a chance and confessed her love for her. Her coworker Ana was very understanding, she even said that she really liked Mara too, but had never considered that there could be anything more to it. And after a couple of weeks of constant companionship, their friendship had grown into something more. Much more, in fact.
In December, when the week of the film festival began, Mara did come to Ljubljana, even though her Ana could not take time off from work. I was slightly nervous as I waited for her at the train station, the way I had sometimes been uneasy and anxious before when I was about to meet someone I knew very well through letters, knowing that no matter what, a complete stranger would soon be standing before me in person. As soon as Mara got off the Split-Ljubljana train, I knew it was her, although she was completely different of course than I had imagined her based on our correspondence. She had shoulder-length dark hair, a brown suede jacket, Levi’s jeans, and sneakers. All that she brought with her was a medium-sized bag with a single strap over her bony shoulder. She smiled at me briefly when she saw me and held out her hand. After exchanging a few short questions and answers as we were leaving the station, it was clear to me that she was the reserved and quiet type. That was what I was most afraid of. I had never been good at taking initiative in a casual chat. And so, by the time we were on the bus on our way to my apartment, we were already more or less silent.
We did not talk much in the next couple of days either. In the evenings, we went to film screenings, and during the day we tried to stay out of each other’s way as much as possible. If I made us lunch, she did not have any special demands, she was happy with whatever was on the table. Otherwise, she only drank water and did not smoke. She was not even bothered by the fact that there was no radiator in the bathroom; she told me that she was used to unheated spaces from home. Apparently, out of some conviction that the cold could never be that bad in their parts, Dalmatians did not have heating at all in the wintertime.
On the last day of the festival they were showing the German film November Moon about two women in love during the Third Reich. The woman who had been hiding her Jewish lover in her apartment all through the war and even applied for an administrative position in the Nazi propaganda department in order to avoid any house searches by the Gestapo and was generally trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, was accused of collaborating with the Nazis after the war. A group of women grabbed her on the street and punished her by shaving her head. Her Jewish friend, who dared to go out into the free streets for the very first time, found her lying on the pavement in the middle of the city, beaten, disgraced, with a crazy look in her eyes that did not bode well.
In the evening, I offered Mara a glass of wine, although she had been strictly ascetic until then. She accepted.
“I can’t get that film out of my mind,” she said, staring at a corner of the room. “How high the price you have to pay for love is sometimes, don’t you think?”
I shrugged. I guess so, but at that point, I did not have to pay anything, I was happily single.
“In times of war, many people pay dearly if they truly love someone,” I said after a while.
“True,” said Mara and unexpectedly gestured toward my pack of cigarettes.
I nodded in surprise as she lit herself a cigarette, casually inhaling and exhaling smoke like an experienced smoker.
“This is an exception,” she said, holding up her cigarette. “I light up sometimes. I also lit myself one when I was coming on to Ana. What was it I wanted to say again?”
“Actually, I said that in times of war, love costs everyone dearly,” I said.
“But we are in war all the time, kužiš—get it?”
She started telling me the story about her quest for love. When that magazine had rejected her ad, she completely gave up for a while. She started thinking of moving to her uncle’s in Zurich, where she at least knew Uli. She was bound to meet a lot of friends through the lesbian scene there sooner or later. But one night, she was lying in bed, unable to go to sleep, not knowing what she was to do. Should she even persist and go on living this miserable existence? She could not remember why she eventually started thinking about how many literary protagonists had sold their soul to the Devil for various earthly pleasures. She could not think of a single woman protagonist who had done something like that. She was toying with a fantastic idea that she could be the woman who would sell her soul to the Devil—in exchange for a lover. Only she did not know how to go about it; how on earth did a lonely and desperate soul get in contact with Satan himself? With that question in mind, she finally fell asleep. When she woke up the following morning, her head hurt and she thought that she had heard thunder in her sleep.
“But that can’t mean anything,” I said carefully, as if kindly reminding her that superstition, after all, was without any real foundation, as she surely must know.
“I know, I know,” she said distantly, still absorbed in the story. A few days later, her eyes fell on her coworker Ana. All of a sudden, it seemed to her that she was different, more open and understanding than others. Not only smart, but also subtle and attractive, though inconspicuous. Then she thought that Ana was indeed special. So very special that she not only fell in love with her, but also dared to believe that she could return her love. Or would at least know how to keep quiet if she turned her down. And she would almost certainly turn her down because she was not a lesbian. Eventually, Mara took a chance and asked her out to dinner. She swore to herself that she would try this direct and risky move and if she failed, she would have a strong reason for seriously considering moving to Zurich.
“You know the rest,” Mara said.
“I can’t believe I met such an interesting girl as my Ana. That we love each other . . . I only hope that we will leave some day, before we suffocate in Dalmatia. We have a problem neither of us had known before: constant and systematic hiding.”
Naturally no one knew the true nature of their relationship. Not their parents, nor their friends, least of all their coworkers. Mara knew what her family thought of homosexual scum, she knew too well how her sisters would sometimes make fun of the foreign faggots who were beaten up when the locals tracked them down on some beach and how their father would spit out of the window with disgust hearing their tales. All of a sudden, Mara and Ana started behaving very cautiously toward their relatives, like thieves who knew that the only hope they had, besides of course luck, was not being caught stealing, otherwise they would have their fingers chopped off.
“Well, things are not that much better here,” I said.
“But . . .” Mara had no need for my comments. “And children are the worst. Ana and I often go for a walk because we can’t be alone anywhere, unless my family or hers are not home. We walk along the beach, find some secluded spot, sit on the rocks and talk. We never touch in public. It has happened more than once that a bunch of elementary school kids turned up and I had no idea at first why they were fixated on the two of us, what was so interesting to them about two grown women sitting and talking. Ana once said to me in horror: ‘Children know!’ They have no reserve and scream out loud that we are dykes or start giggling, asking which one of us is the man and if we shared a dick between us. They say all the things that our colleagues at work would never dare say out loud, though some of them probably think something even worse, and that our families prefer not to be aware of.”
“You’ll leave one day,” I said.
“That’s what keeps me going. But there’s something else.”
I was afraid there was something wrong between them as well.
“No, no, we love each other very much!” she assured me. “But I get scared sometimes when I dream about this weird man that’s haunting me. I dream that I’m walking down the street, I’m usually late for work, and all of a sudden, I find myself on the outskirts of the town, all alone. In one instant, I’m on my guard, I think that something creepy is going on. There is something ominous in the air. Something sticky. Although I’m out in the open, I feel completely enclosed, confined. I turn around and suddenly an old man is standing behind me with a bike. He only watches me from under the cap hiding his eyes. But I feel it on my skin that his gaze is burning like coal.”
“And what happens then?” I ask anxiously. I myself am a bit frightened, but that makes the story all the more interesting.
“Nothing.” Mara shrugs. “I see him in my dreams over and over again, suddenly standing behind me, or just feel that he is somewhere outside my field of vision, like the bogeyman from American horror movies. And then I wake up. Here’s what scares me the most: that the Devil is going to take my woman away the same way he gave her to me.”
I am almost certain that I have dreamed about this man or at least imagined him.
“Does he have anything with him?” I ask Mara.
“Yes, that’s right! He has an old wicker basket on the handlebar of his bike, the kind women at the market use to carry their fruit in . . .”
“But there’s no fruit in it . . .” I add.
“I never see its content. And plastic bags hang from the other side of the handlebar. There is something slimy in them, dark, it looks like big chunks of spoiled meat or a coiled-up snake.”
We finally stop scaring each other with horror stories and go to bed.
“I’m not surprised you find the old man with the bike familiar,” says Mara after I turn off the light. “Ana also thinks she’s seen him before, in her dreams, in films or just her imagination . . .”
“The Dark Man . . .” I mumble.
“What did you say?”
“In Slovenia, we call him the Dark Man.”
The following summer, I visited Mara and Ana in Dalmatia. The two of them were supposed to come to Ljubljana soon, but then I moved and they both had jobs, as well as increased workloads at the university, so we kept putting off seeing each other.
And then I saw the news showing the footage of the Yugoslav army bombing cities in south Dalmatia. One of the places was where my friends lived. I did not hear from either of them for a long time and then, one day, another letter from Mara finally came from the town under siege. She was alone, for her beloved had to leave Dalmatia with her Serbian family. They moved to southern Serbia. Ana was stuck in an unfamiliar Serbian city that she had never been to before, while Mara was stuck in her Dalmatian hometown that was under constant attack. As the postal service between Croatia and Serbia was suspended, Mara asked me if I could send her letters for Ana to Serbia and Ana would send me her letters for Mara, which I would then send to Dalmatia. I was their courier for several years. Eventually, they no longer wrote much to me, the envelopes contained only their letters for each other, and to me they would sometimes write: “Thank you!” It seemed a small miracle to me that the postal service functioned at all during the war. So that Mara, sitting by the candlelight in the basement, where all of her family had moved, could write long letters to her beloved, put them in an envelope and send them to me. I could not imagine how she even managed to post them, where she got the stamps, whether she took the letter to the post office or just put it in the nearest post box, if she could leave the house at all, if anyone actually emptied the post boxes, if there even was an intact post box to be found in the city under constant siege.
Mara’s letters for Ana were sent open; she did not put them in a separate envelope. Sometimes, when I was stuffing the numerous pages of her tiny handwriting into an envelope with Ana’s Serbian address, my eyes would steal a glance at a sentence or two. I would rather not know how much she missed her. Sometimes, she would also make a drawing of her and Mara embracing or kissing. Under one of these drawings, I read that she would go crazy if she could not touch Ana soon. And in one of the following letters, she did write to me that she had set out on a long, incredible, and dangerous journey from the besieged town to the north of Croatia and then across Hungary to southern Serbia. She had spent a few days with Ana, where her dreams of moving in with Ana’s Serbian relatives as a Croatian national were shattered. She would never be able to get a job, just like there was almost no chance of Ana ever getting Croatian citizenship after her father had been deported for working for the Yugoslav navy. Once again, they were trying to come up with new ways and plans to be together, this time for real, perhaps even in Slovenia or still further north or west, as far away as possible from this bloodshed.
In the mid nineties, an Eastern European lesbian and gay conference was organized in Ljubljana. Unexpectedly, Mara and Ana were there as well. They had been living abroad for a number of years then, first in Zurich, then Amsterdam, before eventually settling in London. They were finally able to rent an apartment together, go to work in the same city again, buy themselves a car, put potted plants on the balcony in the summer, take the dog to the vet for its shot, then finally end their long relationship, break up, remain close friends and come to the conference, each with her new girlfriend—things that are only possible when living in peace, without hiding in the basement. We talked about activism in Slovenia, Croatia, England, about new political issues, the spread of intolerance in Europe, the decline of the classic forms of feminism, the breakthrough of Slovenian psychoanalysis and the illusions of the Internet revolution. We mentioned neither the past war nor the letters that had made us allies without words.
Ever since we have become so dependent on e-mail, Mara and I only rarely exchange a short message or two. This and this is happening here, are you coming, what’s new, how is life. I am simply unable to write such letters on the computer as I used to write on paper that responds, and produces a scraping sound under the pen, until you finally fold the letter, put it in an envelope, stick on the stamp if you have it at home, or take it to the post office.
It was letters I was thinking of when I chanced upon an American documentary on the television about the recent war in Croatia. It also featured edited footage from Mara’s besieged town. I turned up the volume. Amid the noise of falling bombs and a few rare running civilians and armed soldiers on the streets, I saw a familiar figure in the background. There he stood, by his bike, his face half-hidden under his ragged cap. His eyes could not be seen. He stood there, calmly watching the mayhem in the street from the background. The Dark Man. Then he raised his head slightly and I could feel his burning eyes; he threw something away behind his back, quickly rummaged through the dirty bags hanging from the handlebar—the old wicker basket was no longer to be seen—and swayed away from the scene on his bike. On the spot where he had stood, a yellow post box was revealed.
© Suzana Tratnik. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Špela Bibič. All rights reserved.