Vanja Artak is an astrophysicist from Aarhus, Denmark, where he teaches math and physics at a high school. He came to Denmark as a fugitive in 1993, and a lot of his stories are about the war-torn country of Yugoslavia, and about the struggle of being stuck between two cultures.
His work has previously been published in the online literary magazines, Five on the Fifth and Chicago Literati.
A LITTLE DEER’S MOTHER
Her little fingers already smelled like popcorn.
"Why do you eat so much before the movie?" he asked.
She looked into the half-empty cardboard box.
"You ate some on the way here, too," he said.
"Only a handful," she said.
"I'm sorry they're cold already," he said. "It's a long walk. Longer in winter."
"I like them cold," she said, gnashing another one. She showed her missing teeth and smiled, the popcorn temporarily filling the holes.
"You remember where to go?"
She groaned, kicking her head back. "You have to ask every time?”
He noticed her bleeding from her nose and wiped a sleeve over her face.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
He looked down. There wasn’t any blood.
“I thought you had a bugger,” he said and laughed.
“Dad!” she said. “Can I go now?”
He looked at the line that was forming outside the door leading into the cinema. There was a man outside, collecting tickets. He was young, perhaps in his twenties. Late teens even. He’d noticed him looking at her, twirling his fingers and wiping his sweaty brow.
“You have your ticket?”
She showed it to him.
“Good. I’ll be here until you’re inside. Then I’ll wait on the other side, all right?”
“You don’t have to wait here. I can go alone.”
He looked up at the ticket boy. “I’ll stay until you’re inside.”
“Dad, I can go by myself.”
The ticket boy nodded at some other kids, tore their tickets in half, gave back that little sliver you throw away anyway after you find it in your pocket months after you’ve seen the--
“All right. I’ll go.”
He let go of her, watched her seep into the queue like a baby deer into the forest. He watched her even as he walked away, watched her crimson hat disappear into the crowd. He glimpsed her get her ticket torn apart.
It was cold outside. It wasn’t winter, not astronomically, but judging by the frost permeating his thin jacket and the ball of snow in his hand, it might as well have been late January.
Three movies had ended while he’d sat there. After the first one, only a handful of people had left the cinema. They were all old, holding hands, laughing in the snow, the cold twinkling in their eyes. He heard them talk about how wonderfully funny the movie had been, how they wished the world was like Jack Nicholson had made it. Now they would go home, return to their empty life, and he wondered if old people like them noticed a young father sitting there like trash among the dumpsters. Maybe he was a memory passing their minds, not even there. He almost waved at them, but instead let them pass unburdened by the pains of youth.
When the second movie finished, there came a lot more people. They burst through the doors like a flood through a dam, seeping into the alley all around him. Coats and purses and rucksacks and umbrellas scraped against his knee, the thighs of men and women and young girls passing him at eye level. He noticed a girl in the crowd, her hair black and hard. She was already smoking, acting like there was no one else there, and soon there wasn’t. She supported her elbow with her right hand, her chin lifted up, and he imagined who she might be waiting for. The girl looked back at him, but somehow through him, like she didn’t bother with him there. He wanted to stand up and tell her he was waiting for his daughter.
“Why aren’t you in there with her?” she would ask, and he would defend himself the way he had practiced while in the bus or in the shower. The script triggered, and he got up without noticing his body was moving. He talked without a voice, moving closer towards the girl, who still didn’t acknowledge him. He lifted his finger and said, “Dirty slut,” but the same instant she disappeared, and he was alone in the alley, a faint whir emanating from within the cinema as if it was giant camera recording him. He rubbed his hands against his face and sat back down.
By the time the third movie finished, endless women seemed to pour out of the cinema. Not a man in sight, not a single boy, not a single girl. There were only women. They were of all types, tall and thin, short and fat. There were polished women, beaten women, upheld women, grieving women, joyous women, and late women. They all came out at once with their wigs and painted nails, hordes of heels against the cold pavement. He pushed back against the brick wall behind him, thinking that staying still would keep him invisible and safe. Their perfumes, every scent from exotic Brazilian fruit to soles of leather, sent his brain into a frenzy of memories. His whole life passed before his eyes, and every one of these women was in it. He drank with them, danced with them, enjoyed their company in bed. Some had blue and yellow eyes, some with no colour at all. Some had barely any eyes to begin with. This piece of human mythology, these marble giants rushing through the alley, laughing at their own names and their future graves, stole his mind like it was a purse. They slowly emptied through the alley, like wine spilling from a bottle, red and lustful. It spilled in gulps, spilled in waves, spilled in splashes like semen, and he looked up at the empty exit, and there she stood, the empty box of popcorn in her hand. He teared up and rose clumsily from the trash like a drunk man, gallivanting with dizzy temples towards his daughter. He shook when he hugged her, cried when she told him the little deer’s mother had died.