Jemma L. King

The white fairy


The rectangle of tarmac, with its chalky squares of snakes and ladders, talismans of hopscotch and concentric circles, took on a blueish tone as the darkness infused the playground. Isabel stared into the rain’s assault, the last of the oak tree’s leaves dancing in the schizophrenic wind. She was safe inside her classroom and comforted by the wet weather that adults would dismiss as ‘terrible, dismal, awful’. Even as a five year old, her brain had made the connection between the leaves gathering underfoot and the impending arrival of Father Christmas. The giver of Barbie dolls, teddy bears and this year, she hoped, a Sindy Caravan in deep candy pink. Her mother had taken to bouncing Isabel on her knee and squealing, ‘who’s coming soon?! SANTAAA!’ and Isabel would exclaim noisily and wish it were so, right now. The other reason she loved this weather was because her father might take her to Attingham Park, or Haughmond Hill, or one of his other favourite places and Issy could jump around in her Greenclaws wellys, splashing about in puddles, her brown pigtails flapping in the breeze. Greenclaws was her favourite programme. There was this giant caterpillar-man with a big round face called Greenclaws. Greenclaws had a magic tree in his house. It had a door and every week, they’d open the door to find a new magic thing in the hollow (an ice cream plant! A woolly jumper plant!). Issy loved it. Her mother would make her a Dairylea sandwich and she’d sit squashing the bread together and quietly mouthing ‘what kind of plant is it!’ at the exact right moment.

Christmas was coming. Santa was coming. She steeled herself inside against the excitement that suddenly made her tummy feel tight. She looked to the big pile of gift-wrapped shoeboxes that Mrs Richardson had asked everybody to bring in. Isabel had managed to obtain just one from her parents who threw everything away fearing accumulative mess. Neat and tidy, neat and tidy. She had just the one and her father had wrapped it, lid and lower part separately, in red paper with cartoon Rudolf faces repeating across its surface. Class 1b had also spent the last few months filling a shopping trolley with chocolates, toys, pasta, toothbrushes and this stood proudly in the middle of all of the tables. This effort, Mrs Richardson informed them, was for the ‘orphans of Sarajevo’. Isabel had a vague understanding of what this meant. This meant girls and boys without mummys or daddys. Although she didn’t know where it had come from, she also had a solitary mental image of rows of cots with metal bars, children cowering towards the back of these mini-prisons like abused dogs in rescue centres. Perhaps Mrs Richardson had shown them a photograph.

The next morning the children were sent up to the trolley one by one to pick out items for their boxes. Isabel went first and selected a small mesh bag filled with foil wrapped chocolates in the shapes of Christmas trees, a lilac flannel, a tin of peaches and for the pièce de résistance, a soft bodied felt doll. The doll wore a long white dress and had long blonde hair. She had wings and had a little star-tipped wand stitched to her palm. Issy put them in her box and closed it up before handing it to Mrs Price who checked the contents and began stacking them up. As Issy handed the box over, she imagined a poorly clothed little girl receiving the box in her metal barred cot. Issy felt conflicted, happy to have done a nice thing, but also like crying. She started thinking about the chocolates in their mesh and wished she could eat them. She wondered if Christmas would be soon.

***

Josip awoke against the corner of a concrete wall, the coldness of the surface leeching into his body. His throat felt hard from the convulsions of sobs that wracked through his chest just a few hours previous. His pyjamas were soaked and he didn’t even attempt to identify why. Six floors up, the street outside sounded unnaturally close. He could hear voices speaking languages he didn’t understand and noises of large things being dragged and moved. Shouting, crying, sirens, car alarms. He opened his eyes and found that it was still dark, but a dusty mist throbbed through the room illuminated by some faint light source. His mouth and nose were both coated with a fine granular substance that tasted like a dank alleyway. As his eyes adjusted to the dawn’s gloom, he could see the outline of Dragana’s small body splayed on the floor to the side of the coffee table. He could now make out the shining patent strap of her shoe and traced the shape of her foot and leg beyond. He could clearly see her head pointing upwards, her blossom of curls dulled by the thick smog that continued to lather the room. Something wasn’t right and Josip’s dulled thought processes tried to parse the fact that the bottom of his sister’s foot was facing her elbow. ‘Dragana!’ he yelped, suddenly aware of the throat scratching material abrading his voice. In the bruisey light of the emerging day, he could see her left eye sideways on. It was matt and barely reflecting the dismal glow. The eye continued staring at the naked bulb hanging from the ceiling, unlit. Thoughts became too dense to deconstruct and they bled into one another sleepily. He tried to focus on the dust clouds. The sickly light gathering strength behind them clarifying the bigger particles’ movements. It reminded him of the time that father took him to Goat’s Bridge on the Miljacka River to watch the rosy starlings reel and swarm like a gigantic magnetic field drawn by unseen forces. He’d fallen into a meditative state watching them. You couldn’t predict the next pivot that the flock would make but they performed in perfect synchronisation, dramatic falls, balletic ascents. The dust did the same, rising in waves and falling in spirals that fattened and dissolved on the hard arms of padded chairs and the polished surface of the kitchen table. As Josip’s eyes refocused, he acknowledged the absurd vision beyond the looping mist. The front wall of their apartment, the one with the orange wallpaper, the one with the school photographs on, the one with the sockets for the TV, the one with the large window in it looking out across the street? That wall was gone. He tried to move, but his arms and legs felt leaden and heavy.

‘Dragana!’ Nothing.

Josip had been hysterical when they found him. Before they had arrived, he’d staggered out of the position the blast had left him in. His increasing consciousness had been equalled by his rising fear – the sort of fear that is real and physical and sickening. He’d found his parents and then the screaming began. His mother’s arm lay on the floor besides the collapsed front wall. He tried to pull on it but the arm was grey and unresponsive. Josip’s screams filled the room and his head. He stood in the middle of rubble and chaos, his upper body buckling, eyes tightly closed, shaking, shaking, shaking. His ‘Professor Balthazar!’ pyjamas were thin and covered in piss but he couldn’t feel the cold. He stayed in that position, emitting an unconscious siren call for help until the door burst open. He felt his body heaved upwards as though he were no more than a stuffed teddy. He bobbed in rhythm to the footfalls of the running man who carried him through the concrete corridors and down the concrete stairs, to the street below.

*

Marija stared at Josip’s smooth eyelids. Luckily, he’d gone through the phase of crying the second he awoke. One month on, he’d developed a sullen demeanour instead but at least that gave her something to work with. The orphanage really was the stuff of nightmares, how else was he supposed to take it? Perched on a hill, the building had all the appearance of being empty, or haunted. Its walls were painted sulphur yellow but that had peeled off in patches and most of the windows were glassless holes. Some were boarded up but others were nakedly bordered with sharp teeth. Marija looked around the room and sighed. Twelve cots in this room alone. Four babies, eight young children. The damp had thrived on an industrial scale so the walls of this makeshift nursery were blotched with patches that looked like millions of flat black sea anemones up close. Colonies of tiny furred circles. She lived with the rest of the teenagers in the bedroom next door. The adults had fled as the Siege had intensified and now the older children, like Marija, were forced to steal to feed the others. They dined on one meal a day – dry bread and mayonnaise usually, all eaten in silence in a dingy kitchen with no windows. Marija looked down to her lap, at the parcel. Another boom of an exploding shell vibrated loudly through the walls. Marija’s heart doubled its pace before a second of no consequence passed. Not this time. Josip’s eyes opened and he mewled yawningly at Marija.

‘Josip!’ she greeted him. ‘Josip, guess what I have for you.’ She held the box towards him and shook it carefully to generate some excitement. ‘Saint Nicholas came while you were sleeping. The loud noise just now? That was his reindeers’ hooves against the roof’. The boy regarded her. ‘I swear!’ she protested, ‘open the box Josip’. Josip sat up abruptly and for the first time since the ‘incident’, his thoughts were preoccupied with something else. He reached for the box and perceived immediately from the shifting weight inside that it held many things. His fingers tentatively traced the pattern on the paper. Rudolf, reindeer, Christmas. His throat choked with uncertainty. Was it Christmas? Christmas was the time when daddy would stand him on the chair so that he could stir the česnica, when the angel came with the presents? His bottom lip trembled. ‘Come on’ Marija said softly, ‘open it’. He tried to distract himself by thinking of the contents of the box. But he hadn’t asked for anything so how could there be anything? He wished for a ball to play with, a toy car to race around. He lifted the lid nervously, slowly, and there she was. He looked searchingly at Marija who misread his muddle of emotion for disappointment with the doll. She picked it up and gasped dramatically, ‘this is amazing Josip, this is, is…the white fairy of Bosnia. A good sign, you are very lucky!’

‘The white fairy?’

‘Yes, the white fairy. Did your mother tell you the stories of the white fairy?’ He shook his head ruefully. ‘Ok, so I shall tell you one’, she leaned forward conspiratorially. ‘There was once a beautiful Queen, her name was Katherine and she was Queen of all Bosnia. She had long blonde hair and the prettiest face you’ve ever seen. Well, war came and the Queen was frightened so she fled and nobody knew where she went’. Josip focussed on Marija’s freckles, it was odd how some of them continued onto her lips. ‘Some say she went to Italy, some say that she died in Bosnia, but do you want to know the weird thing?’. The boy nodded, ‘even hundreds of years after it happened, people say they see her, in the woods, in the forest, wandering through…’ ‘What does she look like?’


Marija, satisfied that she’d drawn Josip out, placed her hand on the doll. ‘She wears white, all white, fur and lace with gold embroidery delicately sewn into the fabric. She has a wand and rides an untamed white horse. If you see her, you get a wish. Peasants and shepherds have seen her. They’ve talked about it. There was this one man and his field wouldn’t grow crops. He saw her in the forest, and although she frightened him at first because she had suddenly appeared out of nowhere, she offered him a wish and he wished for his crops to grow. The very next day his fields had grown so much corn that he and his family grew very rich indeed. And she gives sweets to children – sweets that not even royalty have tasted.’

‘A wish?’

‘Yes, a wish. Hey, maybe you can wish on the doll? She might have a bit of the white fairy magic eh?’
Josip cuddled the doll tightly and scrunched his eyes closed, concentrating.

*

Later that day, the children, those aged from seven to fifteen, took to the market. They would usually return with their thin nylon pockets and the linings of their jackets misshapen with bread, wood and cigarettes. If they were lucky, they’d manage to snaffle the odd meat pie, or chunk of cheese from street vendors in the bazaar but this was a serious rarity. The stalls were fewer now and the pickings thinner. Even adults with money struggled to purchase the basics to sustain their families as Sarajevo’s main supply routes had been all but cauterised. The UN had given the most desperate families flour, and many in this grossly shrunken market were now trading in flour as currency. Despite the desperate shortage of both customers and suppliers, some of the sellers took pity of the bands of wan, poorly dressed children, some of whom were in T shirts despite the snow on the ground and the visibility of breath. They would put the oldest loaves closer to the edges of their stall and turn a blind eye as lean hands with dirty finger nails darted out, squirrelling the bread briskly into threadbare concealed compartments. At seven years old, Josip was deemed old enough to do the rounds and was being apprenticed by Marija and the others in sleight of hand. He had yet to do the deed but watched with great anxiety as the others showed him how to do it. Mummy and daddy told him never to steal. He could remember visiting this place with them. It was busier then, sprawling with stalls and people, talking, laughing, arguing. It smelled of the nutmeg that he’d sometimes have in his bedtime drink, and raw meat, you could smell the bloody slabs of it a long way from the butcher’s stall. And fish. He loved looking at the rows of cod, their densely leopard printed yellow-grey bodies, the odd solitary whisker on their lower lips, the pale golden eyes fixed on all eternity. The family would go to the café at the end of Baščaršija, past all of the small stone arched doorways and the shops selling rugs or finely turned jewellery. They’d order pita sirnica, a sort of cheese pie with flaky pastry that would leave greasy spots all over Josip’s clothes.

‘That one there’ whispered Suljo cocking his head towards a fruit stall. A low tapping of gunshots released themselves in a street not far away. The seller was deep in animated conversation with two of his patrons and they all looked up and around before giving each other brief ominous looks. A further three were scanning the table’s anaemic offerings – navy beans and tomatoes spaced out to give the table a dishonest appearance of abundance. He knew he had to do it. The children began to move towards the stall without making eye contact with either it or its owner. By osmosis, Josip followed.

His senses became hyper alert and he watched as two Catholic choir boys, apparently in slow motion, flew through the street, their sandy blonde hair bouncing with each forward motion. Their ornate white robes elegantly swelling outwards and then collapsing back in on themselves like the wings of a bird in flight. They were rapidly approaching the wooden doors of their church and now Josip could see that one of their wings was injured and a slick of warm crimson was growing through the fabric, waterfalling out of the sleeve. ‘Do it now!’ hissed Suljo. Josip reached out and as his palm approached the largest tomato, he hesitated and made eye contact with the seller. Josip’s trance was broken and his hand fell back, his eyes still on the seller, the lump in his throat involuntarily quaking. But it was too late, the seller grabbed his arm, ‘what the hell do you think you’re doing?’ A percussion of gunshots pierced the air as the aggressors banked the corner at manic speed and entered the marketplace. The usual mash of women’s screams, men shouting, people diving behind cars, beneath stalls. The bullets belted out like fireworks, each demanding the ear’s attention, confusing the instinct to jump away from a loud noise. Josip felt himself winded and thrown back on the pavement. The back of his head rested on the smooth alien pillow of the cobbles and their cold leaked into him like a northern wind. His right hand lay in the gutter slushed with filthy snow. It felt as though one of the men were standing on his stomach but he had seen them run past him, their guns outstretched like bionic arm extensions, popping and smoking at people beyond his eye-line. This end of the street fell quiet as the drama moved further south. The boy could see the vendor underneath his table, cowering and looking at him with concern or pity, or both. Josip’s breathing became shallow and heavy, his extremities felt remote and the only heat he could perceive came from his chest. The slush in the gutter developed a pink hue. Josip was close enough to see the movement of the colour making its way as though in stop motion, the red bleeding through sharpened fractals of ice. Then the full weight of the blood blushed through, a strong thick vermillion. The street fell absolutely silent, the air thinned and brightened. Beyond the rotten food and beyond the pages of newspapers clumsily sticking to the wetted street, he saw hooves. They strode towards him with a relaxed determination. He allowed himself to look upwards beyond the handsome proud flank of the chest muscles, beyond the shining mane and the haughty averted gaze of the horse. He could see a woman silhouetted against the bleached light surrounding her. She dismounted and walked towards him, the delicate layers of her gown floating in the micro-climate of her sorcery. She knelt beside him, the symmetry of her elfin face disturbed only by one glacial tear falling down her smooth white cheek.