Early in the morning the hallways of the Cancer Institute were so empty and quiet, they seemed nowhere near the crowded city of Belgrade, but in another world. While Slavka cleaned the gray linoleum floor, she felt she was navigating a giant, unusual labyrinth where every swipe of the mop might open a passage, as happened in fantasy movies she sometimes watched with her daughters. The passage could lead to the past, when she had just started to live with her husband by a sparkling creek in the peaceful mountain foothills in Kosovo. Or it could lead to the future, when her daughters would have jobs and families of their own, and no longer depended on her meager salary at the Institute.
But now she only arrived at the door of a women’s bedroom, where four patients shared a space that would fit two. The air was heavy with the smell of their breath and skin. Toiletries were crammed on tiny nightstands, towels hung on metal headboards. Slavka tried to be as unnoticeable as possible.
“I know you,” she heard a voice say from a bed by the window. It sounded more like sleep murmur than words addressed to a person in the room. Yet Slavka paused for a moment. When she slowly turned her head, she caught a face of an old woman, resting on a raised pillow.
“Ja te poznajem,” the woman repeated a bit more loudly. Her gaze was set firmly on Slavka, who leaned her mop against the wall and stepped towards the head of the bed.
The two of them hadn’t talked before. Slavka observed her closely, imagining how her cheeks might have looked at some fuller, happier times.
“Where have we met?”
“I know your husband.”
Slavka was sure that the woman was mistaken. Her husband had gone missing over three years ago and had never lived in Belgrade, nor anywhere outside of their village in Metohija Valley. The Serbian village had vanished in the end of the Kosovo War and remained only on the fading maps of memories of the few surviving refugees. Even her own daughters no longer clearly remembered how their village and their father actually looked.
“My husband went missing in Kosovo,” she said.
People usually offered condolences when they heard this, told her how sorry they were. But the old woman shook her head.
“He’s here, in Belgrade. I saw him,” she said, closing her eyes and falling into a state of half-sleep and half-coma, which Slavka had witnessed too many times at the Institute. No one could tell if she’d wake up again or not.
Slavka remained standing for a while, watching the woman’s lips in fascination, willing them to speak again, offer some new information. Then she gathered herself, realizing how bad it would look if someone noticed her staring at this poor, dying woman. So she took the mop in her hands and started moving toward the exit of the room as calmly as she could, still cleaning the floor.
But she felt a surge in her chest, a wave exploding under the buttons of her uniform. This was the first time since her Dušan had disappeared that someone was talking about him as if he weren’t unquestionably dead, lost forever without a trace. This was the first time that she was unable to focus on her morning duties at the Institute, wondering what action to take.
Of course, she should call the Center for Missing Persons. The problem was that she had to wait for a few more hours, because it wasn’t a kind of institution where someone would be present at all times, as nothing urgent had occurred since the end of the war. Some unmarked graves had been discovered and some remains had been identified. There had been gatherings and protests, to remind the public of all the families that were still devastated, still waiting to find out the truth about their beloved. While no one seemed to hope that victims could emerge alive, she heard a gentle voice in the back of her head, saying that nothing was impossible. Maybe a miracle was just happening—maybe someone was putting together clues from different sources—and Slavka’s call was a piece that could complete the picture.
She made her way to the Nurses Office, which was often empty at this time; the night shift was doing final checks before departure, and the morning shift had not yet arrived. But Nurse Danica was standing right next to the phone, adjusting her earrings in front of a wall mirror. She was taking off silver hoops and replacing them with turquoise stone medallions, which matched the color of the blouse that was showing under her unbuttoned hospital coat. Slavka decided it was better to come back in a few minutes, because Danica was quick with this kind of activity. Other nurses gossiped that she was overdoing her outfits, changing jewelry and nail polishes more often than underwear, but Slavka didn’t mind it. Danica was young and unmarried, and was doing her job very well, arriving earlier and leaving later than required, due to the infrequent bus schedule from her place on the outskirts of the city.
Slavka wondered if it would be inappropriate to mention the old woman to this nurse, inquire where the patient was from. There was more and more talk about cancer epidemics among people from Kosovo, because NATO bombs used during the war had some radioactive uranium, and God knows what other deadly substances. There were also speculations that the worst was yet to come, once long-term harmful effects began to fully show.
“Excuse me, do you know where I need to check in? I have a referral,” a woman said to Slavka. The woman was in late middle age, accompanied by a daughter, whose brown eyes lined with dark circles reminded Slavka of her own daughter on the mornings when the girl was particularly tired or stressed out.
“You’re at the right place, just a bit early,” she said, showing them red chairs in the waiting area. She didn’t tell them that they’d probably had to wait for a long time, that the tight space around them would soon be more crowded than the bus they’d taken to get here, that for hours there would be at least five times more people than chairs, and that the first ones to arrive would often be the last ones to leave. Scheduling worked in some strange order, based on whose case was deemed most urgent, or had the most influential acquaintance at the Institute, or who-knew-what. She wouldn’t be surprised if she saw these two women waiting in the packed hallway around noon.
Now the hallway was still quite empty, except that a man appeared at the other end, at a place quite unusual for a patient, as it was neither close to the entrance nor to any of the rooms. Slavka felt her knees trembling, her body shaking like a brittle tree in the wake of a storm. She managed to lean against the wall, put away her mop, and take another look at the figure she knew so well. He was strong without being heavy. Straight back and wide shoulders. Impressive height. Was it possible that the old woman was right, that he was really here, not only in the same city, but in the same building?
Slavka took a deep breath and started walking down the hallway, first slowly, then more quickly and firmly, until she was almost running. When she was a few meters away, he stopped looking through the window, and turned around. She heard him say good morning, but the sound of it was wrong; the accent seemed to be from Vojvodina, and the pitch was too high. His lips moved in a wrong way, and the shape of his nose was wrong, too. This wasn’t her Dušan.
She nodded her head and hurried upstairs until she reached the second floor, where she ran into the women’s bathroom and locked herself in a stall. Tears that had gathered in her eyes spilled down her cheeks, and she let them flow down her neck and under her uniform. This wasn’t the first time she thought she saw her Dušan; he had emerged in other corners of the Institute, in the dim street light when she was going to work before dawn, in the sidewalk crowd she observed through the tram window when she was returning home. But he had never appeared more real.
Then she felt a rush of panic. She remembered that she’d left her mop in one of the most visible places at the Institute, practically at the entrance of the waiting area. She quickly washed her face and raced back to the ground floor, where she saw a few new patients and thankfully no nurse to scold her about her negligence. Relieved, she started to clean the remaining part of the hallway, trying to focus on the glare of neon lamps against the linoleum, which always exposed even the tiniest specks of dirt.
“Good morning, Slavka,” she heard a deep voice behind her.
“Good morning, Doctor,” she answered, moving toward the wall, to stand as little in his way as possible.
Doctor Popović walked briskly and seemed to be present in a hundred places at once, but he somehow managed to find a moment to be nice and polite to everyone. He didn’t treat his colleagues based on their position and reputation, and women based on their youth and beauty, like some other doctors. When Slavka had joined the Institute, he had inquired about her family and told her to approach him for any help she might need. Yet, as she watched him turn the corner, she wondered what he actually meant by that. Of course, he didn’t mean to recover a missing person; he was a human, not a wizard. But would it be appropriate to ask him to help find a job for her daughter, next year, after her high school graduation? An entry-level job in some office or cafeteria, where the girl would deal with paperwork or food, in this Institute or another clinic in the Hospital Circle. How far would Doctor Popović actually go to help?
If her daughter had a steady salary, they could apply for a loan and move out of refugee housing, to some modest condo in an affordable suburb. Some families from Kosovo had already done that, mostly those who hadn’t lost their strongest members. Her Dušan had worked as an electrician, but he could have done countless other jobs, because he knew how to fix anything, from refrigerators to tractors, from radios to automobiles. Their old neighbors still often talked about him, the lost man with golden hands, from the golden days of Kosovo, when the Serbs and Albanians had still lived in peace, when churches hadn’t been vandalized, houses burnt. They also talked about all the things they missed: vast orchards that in their memories always smelled of blossoms, bold mountains that were always topped with a bright layer of snow. Slavka would sometimes think of her garden, of her creek with the crisp water, and her nearby monastery where she got the sweetest honey, but none of that felt essential any longer. She would have left it all behind, once again, if she could have her Dušan back.
A few hours later, Slavka, equipped with window-cleaning tools, managed to return to the old woman’s room. The woman’s eyes were closed, but it seemed that she might wake up any moment; as she tossed and turned, and mumbled in her sleep. So Slavka opened the window and started removing the first layer of dirt from the outer glass, while trying to make some sense out of her words.
“Veljko, you should have stayed,” she said, and Slavka wondered if Veljko had left as tragically as her Dušan, had gone late to help with a broken heater in a neighboring village and vanished on the way back home. And what happened to Vladimir, whom the woman mentioned before she got quiet, before the punctuated flow of names turned into plain heavy breathing?
“She sees dead people,” said another patient in the room, who appeared to be no particular expert on the space between life and death, as she was fairly young and healthy-looking, and her surgery sounded routine, prognosis excellent. No one else commented, but they stopped reading or knitting, or whatever else they were doing. For a few moments there was some strange, commemorative silence, as if they were paying respect to everyone mentioned.
“Slavka, you have a phone call!” Nurse Danica announced from the door.
While her lively voice was a bit too cheerful for the occasion, Slavka was still happier to see her than some other nurse, whose tone would convey reproach and suggest that, in the year 2002, it would be appropriate to get a mobile phone, instead of bothering hospital staff with private calls. Truth be told, nearly everyone actually had a mobile phone, even patients who didn’t own basic things like slippers or shampoos, who slept in underwear and borrowed toothpaste from others. Yet Nurse Danica observed all that with a smile, with her bright eyes accentuated by a turquoise shadow, which seemed to be a reminder that the Institute was a place where it made sense to look your best. It was the place with the most distinguished doctors in the country, where film actors and Olympic athletes were treated, and where for every tragic case, like the old woman’s, there were a few hopeful ones.
The call was from Slavka’s daughter, who avoided using the hospital number because she was embarrassed to resort to that obsolete way of communication. Today she made an exception. She called to say that she had to take emergency money from a kitchen drawer, to pay for a backpack that a neighbor of her girlfriend had kept on hold for her for over a week, since a shipment had arrived from Istanbul. Slavka had heard all about it already: how it was the best price in Belgrade, how everything else from the shipment had sold out on the first day, and how her daughter could no longer go to school, and walk around town after school with her girlfriends, carrying a torn bag they’d received from the Red Cross a year ago. So Slavka told her to take the money, thinking how she should go to the third floor as soon as possible, to remind Nurse Snežana that she was still available for a weekend cleaning at her aunt’s.
And then, after her daughter hung up, she took a deep breath and called the Center for Missing Persons. She listened to the signal on the other side: ringing once, twice, on and on, until someone finally picked up, and she asked in her calmest tone if there were any news.
“Nothing yet, gospodjo. But we’re working on a petition. You can call back next week, if you’re interested.”
When Slavka returned to finish the cleaning of the window, the old woman was deep in a coma. Pale light seeped from the overcast sky, illuminating her profile: her wrinkles twisted as river gorges, her mouth dry as a rock. If she saw the dead, could the dead, maybe, through the tiny openings of her eyelids, see this space around her? If Dušan could see Slavka, cleaning this hospital window, what would he think? Would he be sad that she was here? Or would he be relieved, or perhaps even proud, because among jobs that Kosovo refugees got in Belgrade, this one actually wasn’t bad at all? The glass was still dirty, and she continued to polish it, from top to bottom, pressing carefully yet firmly, making it tidier with each move, getting as much shine out of it as one possibly could.
Image By: Ksenia Lakovic