I follow the tramlines into a haze of blue fog, shot with neon light. Just beyond is a sunlit hill, bristling with church spires.
I’m hoping to get to the top before dark.
The street is narrow and flanked with gloomy walls layered with the tattered remnants of posters. Below is bumpy bitumen. I walk with eyes downcast to avoid tripping.
A woman emerges from an alleyway, wheeling a bicycle, the rear weighed down with a bundle of kindling. She hops onto the seat and takes off with a grunt and clatter of chain.
I run a gloved hand along a hedge and tweak the foliage. Raising my fingertips to my nostrils, I inhale the sharp tang of rosemary followed by a base note of damp leather.
On a blast of chill wind, my nose and cheeks sting. A plastic bag, pirouettes, mid-air.
A man with stooped shoulders approaches and opens his lips as if to toss me a friendly greeting. On a second look, he swallows his words, and climbs concave steps with a heavy tread. He disappears into a doorway.
Once again, without having opened my mouth, I’ve been identified as a non-Croatian speaker. What is it about me that gives me away? My face, my skin, my bearing, my gait? It can’t be my clothes as I purchased them from a secondhand shop, here in the city.
The street widens and begins to sparkle with shop windows displaying zlato, gold, and srebro, silver jewellery, with many of the pieces fashioned into acorn shapes, the traditional Croatian symbol for prosperity.
The air becomes filled with the warm fragrance of burek, pastries filled with spiced meat, from a hole-in-the-wall bakery somewhere, nearby.
I pause to window-shop and a kitten the colour of smoke swirls around my ankles. From my pocket, I pull out a handful of čvarci, crispy pork rind, and place it on the ground. The kitten gobbles up every chunk; even licking up the crumbs with a minuscule tongue. I stroke its spine. Its jutting ribs shudder with purrs.
I resume walking and the kitten crouches down low, emerald eyes, beacons against the grey of concrete.
When I look back a few seconds later, the kitten is gone.
A solitary man sits at a plastic table outside a restoran, scanning the menu in the crimson glow of wall-mounted heaters while sipping from a glass of dusky beer. I dawdle, hoping to catch his eye, maybe even a smile — after weeks of solo travel, I’d love to eat a meal with someone on the other side of the table.
His head swings round at the sound of stiletto heels striking cobblestones. A beautiful woman floats across the square, her red coat a billowing sail.
I pass by, unnoticed, unseen.
I reach the top of the hill. The sun is shining and church bells reverberate in my ears. I turn up the collar of my coat, the wool snug against my chin, and retrieve a bottle of blood-warmed honey rakija, brandy, from my pocket.
I take a long swallow. A fire dragon roars down my throat and curls up in my belly.
I watch an old man feeding pigeons, his feet anchored to the earth, body bent into the shape of the wind.
I take another swallow and the fire dragon snarls.
I become weightless; a disembodied and voiceless spirit.