I’d never asked for a disciple, but having a disciple had benefits. When my lessons were over, one of my pupils – wandering, satchelled, by herself – would bring my coat to me with an air of routine, as though bringing my coat to me were something she was required to do, as though we had agreed she was the best person for the job. In the same spirit of fake obligation, I found myself talking to her about my life awhile, with the image in my mind of a man loading a donkey with a heavy stack.
In class, too, Daša tried to prove she was the most attentive and practical in the ways that mattered. But I have no desire to teach my class to obey or trail after authority.
Just once, I thought, could Daša come to school in clothes other than that black turtleneck? There was something about it – it was a rebuke. This was it: the turtleneck made it seem like everyone else had come unprepared, deserved less. She was like that with me, too. There was an intensity that seemed to say, ‘I am here to replace you in this classroom one day.’ Even when the children wore costumes for carnival, Daša arrived in the same turtleneck. She was a cat, and I, in my conical hat and veil, swallowed her up, my cape and long hair housing the small child as I craned over her for protection.
As I went to fetch my coat myself at the end of that afternoon, dabbing at flecks on its leather, I saw Daša lecturing the row of bags that waited in the corridor. At eight, all the soft things about her were already missing. When she spotted me noticing her, she advised me to go to the cobbler about the nail lodged in my boot. I looked through her the way the other children did.
That was the first time I experimented with being distant with Daša – and Daša understood. No, there was nothing, never anything worth saying to her. Clearly, she was fascinated with people who refused, time and time again, to support her. She still carried my coat to me in the weeks that followed, though after the day of the carnival there was a tense feeling. After that, I also found myself returning to the same old issues over and over, and becoming interested in off flavours – butter that tasted like blue cheese, wine that gave me vertigo, music that was dissonant – probably because I felt misunderstood.
Then, a few weeks later, a day came when no one arrived to pick Daša up from school. In my office, her eyes wandered up toward my collection of green and blue glass bottles on the window ledge, until they circled back and bit into me.
She assumed everyone at home was busy.
The walk to Daša’s home wasn’t short, but the evening was fresh, and I wouldn’t abandon her again. She followed me, tower blocks castling above us, grey against the grey sky.
As we passed the pet shop with the mice, Daša became liquid and tentative, her guard gone. I pushed the door. Inside, Daša held one brown satin mouse away from the group. She was so absorbed that I allowed myself to watch the girl who was lost in the mouse. Daša perched the mouse on a shelf, telling it that it was elegant, widening her eyes. The mouse looked sceptical as Daša spoke for it, making it deliver some kind of philosophical meditation or sermon from its perch. She coddled the mouse, calling it her very little one, then turned on it and worried aloud that it had developed a bad character, become a princess. She decided the mouse would benefit from a firm approach, bemoaned its laziness, its lifestyle.
She told the mouse that it shouldn’t trust – she pointed at a patchy sibling. She mentioned a mother mouse whose oval face floated away if the mouse didn’t stay close, a father mouse whose failures gave the mouse a nausea that made its whole body feel like it was zooming in and out of view. But the more she played, the more inscrutable Daša was to me. The mouse had the ability to make her look threatened, then comforted. I had the urge to stride away, to be on the go. With the nail in my heel, I hoofed around the carpet with its pattern of splashes, head down, like a bull circling a ring.
I asked a shop assistant about a cage I was looking for. The assistant told me that no, she didn’t think there was anything like that around here – maybe . . . She walked toward another room.
From the shelf, I picked up the mouse and held it in front of my chest.
Daša waited for the mouse to climb onto her arm of its own accord. She put it up her jumper, as though pregnant. I found it adorable and laughed. Daša said, ‘She wants to come home.’ It was the work of ten seconds for us to drive open the blackened door together and hurry out.
Then, like in a miracle, something funny happened to my hearing, as though Daša and I were separated from the world by an inlet of deep water. Giddy, I could see her ahead of me in the street, occasionally taking the mouse out to let it sniff the air. The branches grew leafier as we roamed north. Fireworks changed the clouds to cloth.
By the time I’d caught up, Daša was quiet for once, eyes forward, holding her pocket. I asked about her family life, and Daša told me about a device her mum had invented to electrocute pests. ‘She’s completely lost it,’ Daša said. ‘The kitchen is filthy.’
The cold had fallen fast. A man crouched, immobile, beneath the green light of the sign to the corner shop on a residential square.
By the entrance, Daša asked me to buy her some food. ‘Yes,’ I said, keeping her close to me. ‘Can I have bananas?’ she said. ‘Absolutely, you can have bananas,’ I said. In the aisle, Daša grabbed glossy bottles, garnered an armful of energy cans, and handled various bags of sweets and collapsed plastic packets, layering them thickly on the till. The pain in my heel had returned, and this time it was as angry as a hammer, and more precise.
I paid. We went through the door, which was defended by the cowering man. From a bin, the man produced a leaning stick – had he known it was there? placed it there? – and sprang. He brought it down, aiming for Daša’s head. The awful stick – it missed. The shopkeepers came out to watch. For my part, I clipped quickly away toward a street lamp under a tree, aiming for the shadows that spread across the tarmac like lace.
Did I know Daša hadn’t followed me? I think I sensed that she hadn’t moved from under the green sign, but believing is a more complicated manoeuvre. When I looked back, I felt a jolt – some forgotten, tearful part of me becoming magnified. Why would you stay with a person wielding a broom or an axe? Small, distasteful, unmanageable, Daša seemed to tower on the other side of the square. An arm was outstretched, an exchange taking place in which she had participated, a little coming together of heads. The light glanced across Daša’s face as she read my pose, the way I hoisted up the bag of junk food, presenting it as an offering. She shivered as she considered me, then broke away in another direction. She danced toward high hedges that encircled a front garden, filled hedge-to-hedge and to the brim with rose bushes. Pink roses pierced the dark like a laugh. A door opened. Daša’s mother was there. The man stood on the pavement holding the mouse.
Image © Met Museum