“Time away should’ve brought you out of your shell by now,” Haris said with his back to Reina from the balcony of the resort in northern Montenegro. “It’s more than you just being burnt out, isn’t it?”
Their suite looked out onto endless rows of black pines dusted in December snow. The Dinaric Alps loomed with grandiosity in the background, donning all white, and the crisp cool air smelt of newness and infinite possibilities. Dusk’s silence deafened, as though someone had turned off the world with a single switch.
Reina twirled her hair around her finger and stared at the gouache oil portrait on the wall of a woman with big red lips, three quarters underwater.
“I’m trying my best here sweetie,” Haris continued, tightening his robe, “I really am.” He took a sip of the ‘Welcome Rakija’ they’d been given on the first day. “You’re just too closed off.”
Reina walked to the window and examined the view. The ground as far as the eye could see was a giant bed of cotton wool balls. Below, smoke from the chimney of what looked like a gingerbread house you buy from the supermarket at Christmas time, billowed and curled. A black station wagon belonging to a lone A-frame house at the edge of the forest a few metres away, was almost entirely buried in snow.
“I’m not closed off. I just don’t like people.”
Dawn was grayscale and the sky was pearl. Glass daggers stretched out from underneath awnings. A snowplow engine was busy somewhere in the distance. The resort felt to Reina like a snow globe or a Christmas card, come magically to life.
She and Haris went down to breakfast so early that it was just them and an elderly couple from Germany watching the snow fall onto the already hidden parked cars. Even Zvonko, the stray Husky who appeared each morning for pats, cuddles and biscuits, was nowhere to be seen.
“Cafe latte, for you sir and miss,” a waiter Reina hadn’t seen before, whose name tag read ‘Lazar’, said in a strong Slavic accent.
Like all waiters and staff at the resort, Lazar’s face was more than half concealed by a mask. What was left of him were thick black caterpillar eyebrows and a surprisingly deep voice, given his short stature and fresh skin. Reina watched him from afar while he stood poised behind the bar area in a metallic red bow tie and matching vest, awaiting to accommodate their next request. She wondered what he thought of his uniform. Did he iron it himself? What were his interests? How did he spend his days off? Who loved him, and who did he love?
Reina thought about how wonderful a world would be where everyone could ask these questions to strangers and it wouldn’t be seen as inappropriate.
Her eyes fell upon a single panel of the window next to their table that had become misted with breath. She hovered her hand over it and felt aurora’s frost from outside. With her index finger, she began to write in Japanese kanji. In-appropriate. 不適切. Fu-teki-setsu. Reina’s finger danced against the windowpane as she performed each stroke order. Left to right, top to bottom. In-appropriate. 不適切. Fu-teki-setsu. She gazed at the characters smeared into the glass. Staring into them, through them, beyond them. In-appropriate.
She was 23 when she’d been a receptionist at the medical centre in Sydney. All day she had watched in awe as the doctors performed healing miracles on patients, and most interestingly to Reina, with such nonchalance. She felt so full of love and admiration for the two doctors she worked most closely with, that one lunchtime, she went out and bought two pretty blank cards. She wrote different personalised messages on each in her best handwriting, thanking the doctors for the work they did for the patients, and for being such an inspiration to her, an aspiring healer herself. Before they left for the day, Reina handed them the cards.
That was on a Monday.
Four days later, she was being fired.
“May I ask why?” Reina sat in the principal doctor’s office, winded with shock but refusing to show it.
“Ah— just a culture-fit issue,” he said looking away, his beady eyes hiding behind black oval glasses.
“I’m confused,” Reina said. “I’m extremely efficient. You said so yourself last week. The patients love me.”
Sweat beads had formed on his bald brown head. “Yes, I—I am aware of all that.”
Reina folded her arms and pursed her lips. “Then what exactly is the problem? I’d like to know.”
That’s when he blurted it out.
“Look, what you did to Dr Tang and Dr Stein with those letters you wrote was completely inappropriate, alright. Nobody does that.” He’d finally made eye contact with her, his face crumpled up. “What were you looking for with that anyway? Trying to steal doctor’s pads or something are you? Is that why you wanted to work here?”
Haris was admiring her handiwork on the glass. “What does it say?”
Reina awoke to another pastel coloured day. Purples and pinks, greys and whites, all painted masterfully into the sky. The trees on the mountains looked like an artist’s afterthought, hurriedly drawn and accidentally smudged into the land with thick black ink.
When they arrived at breakfast, Zvonko was already lying at the door of the cafe staring out at the new morning. She and Haris sat in silence, entranced by the view.
The parking lot looked as though someone had sprayed whipped cream all over the cars and the road while everyone was still sleeping. You could make out the shapes of the vehicles and you could see which one was a 4WD or not, but nothing else was visible under the hours’ worth of snow.
“I can’t tell which car is mine, can you?” the South African man’s booming voice entered the mute cafe.
Haris laughed, and Reina permitted herself to produce a tiny smile.
She had heard the South African over the course of their stay more times than she’d actually seen him, and he’d always been alone and trying to peddle something to someone whilst telling them about his business. She’d first witnessed him in the lobby talking at the manager, Dejan. From the way Dejan was nodding and making minimal physical or facial movements, he looked more like a hostage victim than a conversation participant.
Reina wanted to know about him though, the South African. How he felt about being on his own at a resort filled with couples, and what his life was like as a South African living in Montenegro, anyway. What business did he own? Did he miss South Africa? She wished he would tell her all about South Africa.
“So you guys here for skiing or what?” the South African was a long way from home and warmth, yet somehow, he was sporting a short-sleeved t-shirt and looked surprisingly comfortable.
Haris lit a cigarette. “We’re just here to enjoy all of—this,” he said, gesturing outside.
The South African paused pensively for a moment, then narrowed his eyes at Reina and pointed at her. “And you’re from?”
“Australia,” she said.
“But you’re also something else. What are you?”
“She’s half-Japanese,” Haris answered, taking another drag.
Reina glanced up at the South African, met his eyes, and then looked back down at her plate.
Vigilant to keep her gaze low, Reina’s attention wandered slowly around the table until her focus landed on an upside-down version of herself peering out from inside a shiny soup spoon. Upside down, her nose looked like a beautiful heart, with two big holes in it. Reina picked up the spoon, captivated by the girl trapped inside. She sensed she was trying to tell her something, with each weighted blink. Time passed and passed as Reina stared back at her.
Turning the spoon over, the girl was no longer upside down, but now imprisoned behind a spider web of silver scratches made by Father Time. Reina brought the spoon higher so she was face to face with it.
The girl in the spoon wasn’t smiling.
At 20, Reina’s boyfriend Vasily had introduced her to his friend from high school, Nat Straightland. She’d heard so much about Nat over the months before meeting him. Rejected by mean girls, no one ever giving him a chance. All of their friends’ circle made fun of him. When Reina finally had a chance to meet Nat, she was determined to make a difference. Show him that not all pretty girls were mean, and that they could be accepting, kind and understanding too. She wanted him to know he could change the way he thought about women. Reina spent a lot of time that evening at the party sitting with Nat, listening to his stories and getting to know him. All the while she nodded attentively and smiled her big, beautiful smile, showing love and compassion to everything he said. At the end of the night, she gave him a giant hug and held him tight, wanting to transmit all of her caring energy his way.
Later, when she and Vasily returned home, Reina felt full of joy in her heart that she’d done something wonderful for someone, and in the shower she felt happy thinking of more opportunities to help Nat in the future. She gently turned off the faucet, still smiling, and pulled the shower curtain open.
Vasily was standing there. He’d been waiting.
She jumped. “You scared me,” she said, holding her hand on her heart.
“What did you do with Nat tonight?”
“What do you mean?”
In an instant his face was pressed against her ear. “What. Did. You do. With Nat. Tonight?”
Reina didn’t want another scar.
“We talked,” she said holding onto the towel railing to keep herself steady. “Well, he talked. I listened.”
His lips were curled like he was smiling but his eyes weren’t.
Suddenly his hand was at her throat and squeezing.
“You made me look bad in front of my friends tonight,” he said, tightening his grip.
She could hear the sounds of the present moment beginning to fade away. He pushed her jaw upwards, forcing her on her tiptoes. Then, with a shift of his weight and a slight of hand, her body sunk to the floor of the bathtub. She was glad she hadn’t lost consciousness this time. She didn’t like being taken to That Place.
He spat on her forehead.
“Cock tease slut.”
Saliva dripped onto her eyelashes.
He fixed his hair in the mirror and walked out.
The snow had fallen so heavily overnight that none of the guests could move their cars out. A six-foot something boy was out front working hard to dig each car out with a big red shovel. Reina observed his wiry frame in a thin Adidas tracksuit, paving away at the concrete snow banked up under the front bumper of each vehicle. He routinely wiped snowflakes away from his eyes with his inner shoulder as they fell and fell onto his face. His black tracksuit was almost entirely white with soft fresh snow. Haris once joked to Reina that Montenegro was a country of people in tracksuits. After a minute straight of persistent shovelling, the boy paused, mopped his brow, looked up to the sky and puffed his cheeks out.
Haris glanced up from the crypto currency updates on his phone. “He’s what? Ten, fifteen years younger than me?” He shook his head and made a tut-tutting sound. “Lives, right? Paths, timing, luck—wrong turn, right turn—and then there’s me and there’s him.” Haris shook his head again, but this time, slower. “Thank god my parents got out.”
Reina pondered how the boy shovelling felt about life. What secret dreams and talents did he have? Did he actually like the snow? What did he want for his future? Would he ever ‘get out’?
Reina watched as the snow was dug and tossed, dug and tossed. The motion was monotonous. Hypnotic. Someone had left the cafe sliding door ajar, and Reina could hear church bells carried on the wind. She watched and watched. Snow kept falling. The boy kept shovelling. The church bells kept ringing.
In Wakkanai, the most northern point of Japan and just 43 kilometres from Russia, winters got to below -14 in the day and -25 at night. It snowed for most of the year. Announcements in the supermarket were in both Japanese and Russian. Reina had lived there when she was a teenager, right next door to a tiny Catholic Church overlooking Cape Shouya. The priest always gave her mandarins. She was pale and blonde back then, so the Russians thought she was one of them, and would offer her sips from their hip flask to keep her warm while she waited for the bus.
The snow was a fairytale for Reina. It was a place where things were safe and pure and nobody could hurt you. She’d never been hurt in the snow.
“What’s on your mind, sweetie?” Haris asked, looking at her full of love, as he always did.
“Do you think if you’ve been one particular way for a long time, that you need to be that way forever?”
Haris leaned back in his chair, outstretched his arm across the vacant seat beside him, and looked like he was searching for an answer written somewhere in the air.
“I’m of the belief,” he began, moulding his chin, “that unless you’ve been a certain way from birth, you can be any way you like.”
“How would you stop being one way and start being another?”
Haris reached across the table for her hand. He picked her palm up delicately, and pressed his mouth against it, never breaking eye contact. “I’d say wanting to is the how.”
Dejan was always there at the front desk of the resort. They’d been there for ten days now and he’d been there too. From eight am when they passed him to go on their morning walk, to eight pm when they came downstairs for cake. He was always there, on the other side of the Perspex, smiling with his eyes behind a light blue medical mask. He always winked at Reina on her way outside, making her feel happy and childish. She found him handsome in a Daddyish-way and gentle too, with his slightly receding hairline. Each day he wore a different pattern of checkered shirt and spoke softly, with consideration. Reina couldn’t tell how old Dejan was. Maybe early forties or even fifties. She wondered what he was like after-hours. Was he as lovely when he finished work at the end of the day? What would he be like if she bumped into him on the street? What kind of sex did he have with his wife?
On the left-hand side of the front desk, next to the tissue box and a silver bell, sat a brass figurine of a fox. The tail was disproportionately larger than its body, and even though its torso was poised to move forward, its head was turned back, staring at its tail. Dejan had told them earlier in the week that a tourist from the Isle of Man had given it to him as a gift.
“Guest from Isle of Man said it is Celtic belief that fox is symbol for need to be wise and think on your feet. So, I keep it here as kind of reminder.”
Reina approached the figurine slowly, treading softly, as though if she walked any louder, it would know she was there. It smelt like gold coins.
She was 17 when she’d worked at a hostess club in Tokyo, where she got paid to look pretty while drinking champagne and whisky with married men. All she had to do was sit with them at the table in a cocktail dress, light their cigarettes, laugh at their jokes, and tell them how wonderful and interesting they were. It was a dream job for Reina.
One night, her boss Toshi, a sweet little old man of about sixty, with grey hair and a high-pitched voice, asked her to stay back after work. She nervously obliged, terrified she was going to be fired.
“Some Sake?” Toshi had asked her, when all the other girls had gone home.
“Iya kekkou desu,” no thank you, she bowed. She’d seen those ads and knew better than to accept a drink from anyone. Even her boss.
“Green tea frozen yoghurt then?”
“Hai. Arigatou gozaimasu.” She never said no to dessert.
Reina had a few spoonfuls, and suddenly her eyes opened to morning streaming through the skylight, and her boss, looking impatiently into her face. Blinking, she realised she was lying perfectly straight on her back in the middle of the floor of the club. Her vagina ached and she knew something was terribly wrong. She never slept on her back.
The frozen yoghurt bowl was gone.
“I’ll drive you home now.”
They sat in silence all the way.
She hadn’t wanted to go to the hospital, but her friend Haruka had insisted, and they went together. When the hospital called back days later with the toxicology report, she was busy getting ready for another shift. She put them on speaker while she did her makeup. Thick enough to look glamorous, light enough to look like a child, had been her senpai’s advice on her first day.
“Takahashi san, I regret to inform you that we did detect Rohypnol in your bloodstream.”
Reina worked at The Pink Fox for a few more months, until the colours of the day changed from green to yellow, and the trees began to lose their leaves. She acted the same. He wasn’t as sweet.
Dejan was asking her something.
“Do you enjoy your stay, miss? Everything is fine for you?”
Reina looked up at Dejan, and then back down at the fox. It was still focused on its heavy tail.
She thought for a moment.
“May I take Zvonko for a walk?”
“Of course,” Dejan said, “he is happy when anyone love him, and for sure, he will love you back.”
Reina smiled. A medium-sized smile.
The sun was out this morning, and the snow was a glow-in-the-dark white. To Reina, the snow looked like ice cream that had only just been opened from the container.
Haris was flipping through indecipherable scribblings in his notebook. “So I’m thinking that today, we’ll go and inspect the Black Lake. Now apparently, a banished monastery lives at the very bottom.”
Reina’s eyes widened.
He chuckled and tapped her on the nose. “It’ll be all iced over for us, though.”
Miya Yamanouchi is a writer in South Eastern Europe whose words appear in magazines, books, textbooks, news outlets and literary journals across the globe including Europe, North America, the Middle East and Africa. She holds a Bachelor of Counselling and is a Master of Communication student with a 90 plus average. Her journalistic work can be found at Balkan Insight and The Sarajevo Times where she has reported on post-conflict issues including landmines, mine victims, transitional justice, genocide denial and ethnic tensions. In August 2020, Miya took her first ever creative writing class at university where she discovered a love for writing fiction and poetry. Since then her poetic work has been published in Poets and War, SpillWords Press and Poetry Atlas, while her flash fiction stories can be found at Friday Flash Fiction, 50-Word Stories and 101 Words. Her first ever short story, ‘A Tale From The Black Ink Sea’ was published in Drunken Pen Writing followed by SpillWords Press, where it was shortlisted for Publication of the Month. Miya has lived on three different continents and an island in the South Sea, and is currently learning her third language. Her writing reflects her multifaceted personality and unique, diverse life experiences.