Leisure was approaching. You recognized it in your bones, the tourists said. They added that you knew it was there because you could not sleep at night. There was that pleasant itching in your skin. Number 111 was an odd little planet that had nothing interesting about it. Soon, people became accustomed to the odd mountains that rose and fell apart under their feet during Leisure. Leisure ended and the shuddering hills vanished. The mountain chains turned into flat and dull plains, which slept serenely until the next Leisure. Then the land swelled without warning, hills jumped out of the blue, mounds jutted out, wriggled and writhed before they all evaporated without a trace. The squirming hills made no difference to the tourists.
The precious thing about Number 111 was Leisure. You observed no laws—you simply did whatever you pleased, the tourists bragged. You could slit anybody's throat. Blood made no difference, they knew, for during Leisure no one could die. Tourists admitted that they felt pain, yes, but neither they nor the targets they chose met their maker. Death was virtually non-existent because guys like me collected the mutilated bodies and took them to Perna.
Perna was the plateau that regenerated ripped intestines, slashed chests, and torn viscera. Leisure made you kill and kiss, the wealthy tourists told me. Nothing compared to that bliss. You just had to catch the fragrance of Leisure. That was easy to do. Leisure didn't make me feel its fragrance. It only made me hate the Perna plateau.
I didn't want to be a body collector anymore, but there was big money in it.
There was a jar on my cupboard I looked at day and night. That jar made me feel crazy. There is hope, I said to myself. There is still hope she might be back. There's still hope. That was why I didn't leave the darned planet.
It was the tag sewn to the collar of her shirt that made it clear she was one of the regulars. "Nadya" her tag said. It had three blue notches on it, and that meant she'd been at the holidaymakers' beck and call three consecutive Leisure spells. That was an awful lot.
She was pretty, of course. All the regulars were. Women, children men, all were very attractive. I'd been working as a body collector on Perna for years, and not a single body of a regular target was plain. The plateau rejected dirty bodies, squashed chests or disfigured faces, but it readily took bodies without fingers, hands, or eyes.
I was greedy. They paid well for perfectly clean bodies that were in good shape. They took them from you, checked them, then put the bodies on the flat ground. "They" were the machines the guys from the earth installed five Leisure spells ago.
The Perna plateau was peaceful all the time. No hills sprouted from it at times of Leisure, and its soil didn't quake. There were no rocks there, not even sands. The plateau was smooth like ice. I guessed it was Perna that exuded the smell that killed the pain and healed the injuries. No one knew for sure. Perna simply cured you during Leisure.
"Don't touch me!" Nadya had said.
If the organs of a body were defective, you didn't get a cent for it. The Plateau didn't regenerate sick lungs or infected spleens. So I checked the organs myself and replaced the malfunctioning ones. It was worth it. I had a lot of money; unfortunately a lot was never enough. I wanted to buy a plot from the healing plateau, and I could well afford it. I was the richest body collector on Perna.
Nadya was screaming in pain when I found her. There was nothing extraordinary about that. She was one of the regulars, and they all screamed. They came to Number 111, lured by the prospect of quick money. I felt kind of sorry for them. Some rich clients had favorite regulars and booked them well in advance. Often clients and regulars got drunk together, waiting for Leisure. The regulars had contracts and everything was perfectly legal, even experimental sex. Perna cured all regular targets, and no one died. Nothing was interesting any more.
When I saw Nadya, I froze in my tracks. I knew.
Nadya's left ear was missing. There was no bleeding, no wound, just healthy pink rims where normally an ear should be. There simply was no ear. At a certain point, I caught the thin, sweet smell of the ocean.
Few could catch the smell of the ocean on Number 111.
I could. And I knew what the smell meant.
The Insurance Agency paid me to find the bodies of the wealthy clients and take good care of them while I dragged them to the plateau. The clients paid me, too. They wanted me to have their organs inspected, because an injured organ caused wrinkles on the cheeks, hardly visible wrinkles, it was true, but rich guys hated them all the same. I made big money doing something dangerous for the big shots: they paid me most dearly to ward them off from the water.
The Plateau was helpless before the ocean of Number 111. The water was transparent. It dissolved everything that fell into it: shoes, hair, bones, and bodies—no matter how rich their owners were. So the bigwigs paid me to steer them clear from the ocean. I often grabbed them before they collapsed from a mountain that squirmed under their feet; sometimes the land split, and water gushed out from the hideous crack. The bad thing was that the plateau could not regenerate any tissue that the ocean had dissolved. I tried once. I dissolved a wisp of Nadya's hair in a jug of water.
Something strange happened. When Leisure began and hills popped up, quaking and breaking as if the land were ocean, I heard somebody say, "Don't take me to the Plateau."
I recognized the voice. It was Nadya's. I thought I was only dreaming or hallucinating. The voice kept on mouthing the same words—now crooning, now raving. I recorded it many times, trying to rule out the crawling suspicion that it was my imagination shouting at Leisure.
Body collectors often went crazy. Ordinary guys feared us and said we, the collectors, were freaks. We didn't feel the pleasure of Leisure. We were greedy and mercenary.
I was the greediest among them.
Yes, Nadya's voice was there, real and soft, recorded by the most expensive equipment you could buy on the market. One day I threw out the jug in which I had dissolved a wisp of her hair. My hut was cozy but inexpensive. I could never be sure when a hill would push its way up to the sky under the floor of my living room, destroying my home in a matter of seconds. The day after I threw out the jug, the steep slopes around my hut screamed at me, "Don't take me to the Plateau!" The hill where I poured the water became Nadya's voice.
After a week of screaming, the hill broke, ripping open the valley, and I saw a figure in the blue distance. It was Nadya I saw. She approached me, looking beautiful, so beautiful I forgot everything else, the wiggling hills, the stalking valleys, the rich clients and their targets. Then suddenly all was quiet. Nadia was gone, the hills disappeared. Leisure had come to its end.
Ends came abruptly, without warning. They always took me by surprise. The quiet I enjoyed so much in the past was now unbearable. There were no mountains, no quaking ridges and gorges; the ocean was peaceful dead water I could swim in with some of the regulars. I got drunk with them. I often made love to the prettiest women free of charge. That was illegal, of course.
Nadya was different. She'd been collected three times before I stumbled upon her. I could smell a dying man from two miles. I could feel the moment when the mountain would crash down, interring the bodies—my only hope of getting rich. I sensed the tremor before the crests of the hills ripped the low sky. I fought the dust that suffocated the regulars and marred their bodies.
Nadya was pretty, but if you were pretty and a woman you were in store for a hard time. Wealthy clients made you a target. Their lawyers paid you a lot to keep quiet. Pretty women were desperate for money. I had seen a woman dance on a thin layer of ice over the ocean during Leisure. I worked for a client who paid me to scoop a pail of water from the ocean then he made his target dip her finger in the pail. The water dissolved the finger in a flash and remained clear, transparent, quiet. A scream rent the air; that was the target's scream, but only experienced body collectors could distinguish it amidst the roar of the rising and folding mountains. I had found eleven women's bodies without fingers.
I did my best to make the missing finger grow again; I kept the bodies for a week on the Plateau. Nothing came out of that. I had made love to women who had lost their hands.
"You can't imagine the bliss during intimate contacts after that," one woman, a client, told me.
"After what?" I asked her.
"I think the target's ear I dissolved gave the water fear and excitement. My sex life improved incredibly after that."
I was an avaricious man, a very avaricious one. My client was very rich.
"What was your target's name?" I asked her out of curiosity.
"As a rule, I don't ask my targets their names," she answered. "But this time the girl was particularly good looking. Her name was Nadya."
I froze in my tracks.
"Do you think I can convince Nadya to dip her breasts into the water for me?" she asked.
I hit the woman. I hit her hard.
It was the first time I hit a client in my life.
I knew Nadia had only one toe on her right foot.
"Doesn't it feel awkward that way? Doesn't it hurt?" I asked her when I took her out of the plateau.
"No," she said. "I feel no pain at all."
"You gave that bitch four of your toes." I said. "You should have made a fortune by now."
"A fortune is not enough," she said. "I want to buy Perna. I want to buy the whole planet, its Leisure periods and its nasty water." A smile crept on her lips. "Then I'll blow it up."
"You are crazy," I told her.
"I am," she whispered.
Then we made love. It had never been so beautiful with other women, maybe because I was sorry for her. Loving her was magnificent, like loving the wind. She didn't feel like a regular. She was gentle and brittle. She was lovely. I had rarely felt sorry for anybody before.
"I have a bad headache," Nadia had said. "My head throbs. Please, kiss me on the forehead."
I kissed her forehead. It was smooth like a child's. Then she fell asleep smiling.
"My headache is gone," she said when she woke up. "It's beautiful when you kiss me."
"I don't want you to go with other clients," I heard myself saying. I didn't mean to. The words escaped my lips. Thank God she didn't say anything. Imagine a toeless regular sobbing on your shoulder! I hated the thought of it. Thank God she had kept silent then.
"Why don't you want me to bring you to the plateau?" I asked. In the beginning I was just curious. I guessed she made a lot of money. The clients paid generously if you agreed to let your toes dissolve into the water.
"Have you ever been to the plateau?" she whispered.
"No," I said
"I've been there a dozen times," she sat up, staring at the wasteland of blue sands that was as flat as the ocean.
"How does it feel on the plateau?" I asked. She said nothing for a long time.
"Kiss me on the forehead," she suddenly pleaded, trembling. "Please, kiss me. That horrible headache . . ."
It was the first time in my life it had felt sweet to touch human skin. I knew skin cost a lot. I often replaced parts of my client's faces, and I chose good new skin for them. Nadya's skin was odd. I could swear there were ripped hills and flat valleys in it. There was fear and sorrow in that skin.
I could have asked her to stay with me. Back then I thought she'd make no difference. She was another vanishing hill, another body I'd take money for. I didn't know she was the only woman whose headache I could turn into peace. I didn't know I'd miss the blue valleys in her skin. I didn't know I'd missed the disappearing hill only because she had walked on it, making it her hill.
The body collectors were a tough lot. I was pretty tough, too.
Nadya asked me, "Can I stay with you? I'll clean your hut, and I'll build it again when Number 111 breaks it. I'll cook for you."
"How can you cook?" I asked her. "You can't walk quickly. You don't have enough toes on your feet. You stagger."
I hated it when someone touched my things, my expensive equipment. I was afraid she might steal something. Women were cheap. Each cost less than the tent that protected my bodies from getting dirty in the dust of the rumbling hills.
"Okay," she said. "I'll go. I hope you'll be happy with your equipment."
"We may meet during the next Leisure," I told her. "You know where you can find me. I always build my hut near the plateau."
It was so quiet, a deep transparent peace that was the most precious thing on Perna. When Leisure was over, there were no tourists and no clients, no sick people who flew to Perna hoping that Leisure would last forever. There was no death on Number 111 during Leisure.
"Kiss me on the forehead," she said. "You'll do me a favor, and it won't cost you anything."
Her skin was smooth—it tasted of the ocean and the deep quiet. The mountains had vanished, and the planet was an endless blue plain.
Nadya didn't even say good-bye. I watched her go, thinking of the red, healthy-looking rims on the spot where her ear should be. Suddenly she turned around and whispered, "I think I love you." That was a silly thing to say. Love was as cheap as the specks of dust on the infinite plain.
Another Leisure spell came and ended. I made even more money, and I could now buy a plot on the plateau. I hoped I'd meet Nadya. I wondered how she coped with her headaches. I felt like climbing the hills she had slept on. I asked my clients if they'd met a thin woman with disfigured feet, yes, three or four toes missing. She'd lost an ear, too.
"You don't tell me anything in particular," the clients answered me. "All regular female targets look like the one you've just described."
"Her name is Nadya," I said, realizing how stupid I'd been. You came to Perna to dissolve your target's fingers in the water. Her name hardly mattered at all. I had enough money, and I could hire a private eye, but that would be ludicrous. No one searched for women on Number 111.
One day a big boat stopped in front of my hut. Leisure was just over, and there were no tourists, no clients. It was the spell of deep quiet when all mountains were dead.
A woman entered. She hadn't knocked on the door. I knew that woman. That was the only client I had hit in my long career of a body collector.
"This is Nadya," she said and lifted a jar half full of transparent liquid under my nose. "I splashed the rest of her on my husband. Our sex life is glorious now."
I looked at the jar the woman was holding in her hands. It was big and round, perfectly transparent. I looked at the woman. She was small and plump, her face round and smirking. Then I suddenly knew what her face reminded me of.
It was like the flat, dead outlines of Perna, the healing plateau.
I didn't know how it happened. Maybe the hills were to blame, I was not sure. Maybe a mountain spilled some water out of the jar as it pushed its way to the clouds. Maybe in an unthinking moment I poured it out of the window, or maybe another girlfriend of mine, another regular target, spilled the water in a fit of jealousy.
When the hills started to quake and wriggle, dust rose from the beach. The dust over the hill spoke. "The headache! The headache!"
The dust was Nadya's voice.
"Kiss me on the forehead!"
Zdravka Evtimova was born in Bulgaria. Now she lives and works as a literary translator in Brussels, Belgium.
Her short story collection Bitter Sky was published in 2003 in UK by Skrev Press. Her short story collection Somebody Else was published by MAG Press, USA, in 2004. Her short story collection Miss Daniella was published by SKREV Press, UK in 2007.
copyright © 2008, Zdravka Evtimova
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