by Julienne Busic
June was still wondering years afterward if she had done it on purpose, as though the answer would explain everything else that had happened in her life since the day her world – or, more accurately, her leg – had collided with Sheila’s.
All she’d known about Southerners until Sheila showed up at school was that there were lots of black people down there and everyone stuck “y’s” in words where there weren’t supposed to be any – thus rendering most of what they said incomprehensible to normal people – and then added a lot of extra syllables so it took twice as long to say what you wanted to say, if you’d had anything to say in the first place.
Sheila kept to herself the first couple days, seeming to know instinctively that homo sapiensis was inclined to take instead of accept what was given freely. Slowly, the other girls began to orbit, like small, self-conscious planets, their revolutions becoming smaller and smaller as she drew them finally into a snug circle around her. June took the initiative, looking her boldly in the face.
“What’s your name?” she challenged, hands on hips.
“Shayyyala”, the new girl answered matter of factly. Her black, coarse hair was cut in a pageboy, with thick twirly bangs that brought to mind a handlebar moustache mysteriously displaced to her forehead.
“What kind of name is that? Shayyyyyyyyaala!” June mimicked, distorting her mouth so that it hung like a loose rubber band.
The other girls giggled, some involuntarily, just enough to preserve the status quo.
Sheila gave them a smile, calmly standing her ground. “Just a raygular nayam”.
A regular name, June scoffed. Everything about the girl was irregular. She didn’t even look like a girl, really. The way her dress hung, like a plastic sack slung over a dry stick in the ground. If she’d been in overalls, everyone would’ve thought her name was Butch or Chuck, with that tough, pinched expression on her face, as though she were a lot more accustomed to pushing than pulling. If that was how they dressed girls in the South, they could keep that South down where it belonged. Which was in the South, June thought with a smirk.
There was nothing else regular about her, though. She seemed to have finely tuned antennae that picked up the smallest signals and then went right on and broadcast them to the rest of the world. How she’d stop and inspect things, pick them up and roll them around between her fingers, like she was getting ready to pop them into her mouth or absorb them into her skin: a leaf that had gotten stuck in a hedge, a whorly abalone shell out on the playground.
“It’s so iiiiintercate” she’d marvel, holding the leaf up to the sun. “See the little network of veins, almost like a human being’s!” And then everybody would just up and abandon June to gather around Sheila, staring at a stupid leaf as though they’d never seen one before. “Look, June!” one of the girls would say. “It looks like a skeleton with the sun shining through it!” But June looked away, cricking her neck at such an angle that it almost got stuck in place, like when you crossed your eyes and then they wouldn’t go back to normal no matter how hard you tried. “It’s just a leaf, a dry, old leaf even the tree didn’t have a use for” she’d mutter under her breath.
And the shell, the performance she coaxed out of it! Just the previous week, June had explained to everyone that when they held a shell to their ear, what they heard depended on the day of the week: on Mondays it was the roar of the Atlantic Ocean, at a spot just north of Coney Island, where they had the big amusement park and wooden sidewalks with slats your feet sometimes got stuck in, and then you had to call the fire department; Tuesdays a little fast flowing river near her grandma’s house in Gearhart, Oregon; Wednesdays the waterfall some guy had tried to dive down and ended up splitting his head against a rock (he survived but was now a “vegetable”, though she wasn’t sure which one); and so on and so on….
When Sheila picked up the abalone and held it to her ear, after rolling it between her fingers for what seemed like forever to June, showing off as usual, like when she said the leaf was “intricate” and then pretended she knew what it meant, the others piped up immediately: “It’s Friday so it’s the creek on 13th Street!”
Sheila was puzzled. “What do you meeeeyan, what creek?”
“On Friday, it’s the creek! What you hear depends on what day of the week it is,” they told her proudly. “June taught us all about it!”
Sheila was silent for a moment, just staring at the shell. Then she looked up and shrugged, as though she was apologizing for something she had no choice but to do. “Actually, what you hear is the sound of your own inner eeeeeeyer.”
The others turned to June expectantly, eyes and mouths a perfect circle. “Whoever believes that is a crouton”, she told them angrily. Sheila wasn’t the only one with a big vocabulary.
And that wasn’t all. Some days Sheila would bring “Southern” food in her lunch pail and let them try it. Disgusting stuff called okra that looked like green, stringy snot when you spooned it up and had the same consistency, too. “It’s like eating boogers!” June cried as she spit out her first and last bite. “Big, green, slimy boogers!”
As expected, everyone else liked it, or at least said they did, and some even had seconds, probably just to curry favor. June was mystified in spite of herself. What did everyone find so special about that raggedy girl?
When it came time to choose teams later for the basketball game, it was no surprise that Sheila was one of the first chosen, even though nobody knew yet if she had the slightest athletic ability.
“Can’t you see she’s knock-kneed?” June hissed at her team captain. “She’s going to start a fire from all that friction just running down court!
She did have athletic ability, though, and she was fast, twisting and gyrating, deftly snatching the ball from the opponent and dribbling away before she knew it had even been lost, weaving in and out, changing direction without even looking, as though she had giant bug-eyes posted all over her body, legs moving so fast they looked like they were going backwards, just like in the cartoons.
June tried to take the ball away from her several times, but Sheila was too quick. She found herself panting, her mouth as parched as the Kalahari in the Ninth Circle of Hell. Coming up here like she owned the world, June thought bitterly. She took a deep breath, summoning her last reserves of energy from a dark, secret place within her, and tore after Sheila, who was rocketing down court after a loose ball only seconds before the final whistle of the game. Trying to horn her way in!
An ominous force appropriated June’s legs, transformed them into powerful iron pistons propelling her towards the basketball, which was spinning toward the foul line.
Then suddenly, time slowed, as though it had gotten stuck in molasses and couldn’t fight its way out. June moved dreamily forward, taking giant steps that seemed to cover miles at a time. Sheila approached from the other direction, jaw clenched in utter concentration, and then suddenly, as though she’d had a shuddering epiphany, spread her arms in a perfect swan dive for the ball.
In a last desperate effort, June, too, spread her arms and took flight. They collided in the air just inches above the ball. As they fell, time got completely mired in and came to a dead stop. Sheila lay spread-eagled on the gym floor beneath her, and their eyes locked horribly for a split second. June’s body was suspended in the air, hovering over her like a vulture. And then she swooped and was suddenly speeding downwards, toward Sheila, and it was as though there were universes between them, she fell and fell, her hair blowing back in the wind she had created, her eyes tearing up. And in that last second, just before she hit the ground, when she could – or could she? – have moved her own leg two inches to the right or two inches to the left and missed Sheila’s leg completely, she watched it crash down instead against Sheila’s knee. There was a thundering crack, as though a giant pair of hands had taken the world and broken it right down the middle, and then she heard someone in the background cry out “Merciful God!”
June didn’t think she herself had been hurt. She got up, shook her head, and swung her legs and feet back and forth to be sure. Sheila just lay there, looking up at June without expression, as though she were mulling something over in her mind. Her leg was bent out at a crazy angle seen only in horror movies or roadside accidents, and June noticed a smooth knob of some sort which had almost penetrated the outer skin of her knee, like the tiny head of a foetus struggling to be born.
“You thank Shayyyla’s a wiyyerd nayam”, she managed finally with great effort, and then grinned. “My brother’s Ruuuufus! Now that really IS weeyyerd!”
The next day when Sheila appeared in class with a big white plaster cast on her leg, June was the first to write on it: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” June didn’t really know what that was supposed to mean, it was something biblical she thought she’d heard in Sunday school, but it didn’t matter; Sheila seemed to understand. She nodded her head sagely, and when June dared to look into her eyes, she saw whole cities emerging from a desert, mountains rising up to shatter the sky, a roiling sea, and she thought she even saw herself, reflected back in them.
Julienne Busic is an author, translator, and essayist who lives in Rovanjska, Croatia. She has studied in the United States and Vienna, Austria, and holds a Master’s Degree in German and Linguistics. Her short stories, essays, and columns have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers in America and Croatia (“The Barcelona Review”, “The Gobshite Quarterly” (contributing editor), “Verbatim: A Language Quarterly”, “Inside”, “The Bridge-Most”, “Outsider Fragments”, “Kolo”, “Aleph”, “Jutarnji List”, “Vjesnik”, “Vijenac” and “Tema”). She has published three books, “Lovers and Madmen” (Gray Sunshine Press, 2005), which won the Croatian Writer’s Society award in 1997 and is now in its seventh Croatian and second English printing, “Your Blood and Mine” (Ridgepath Press, 2008), and the just-released”Living Cells (Ridgepath Press, 2012), a novel based on the true story of a Croatian “comfort woman” during the Serb occupation of Vukovar in the early 1990s.
Julienne Busic has also translated and edited several Croatian authors for publication in the United States: “Survival League” by Gordan Nuhanovic, “Zagreb-Exit South” by Edo Popovic, and “American Scream” by Dubravka Oraic Tolic (Ooligan Press, Portland, Oregon), and “The Tiger is the World”, (Xenos Books, 2012).
She is currently working on a screenplay from her new book, “Living Cells”, about the “comfort women” of Vukovar, Croatia.
photo by Angela M Campbell