Scarborough freelance journalist Nina Dragicevic, 39, wrote a short story on a dare from her husband. When “Cardinal” captured first prize in the 2017 Toronto Star Short Story Contest, that “changed my life,” she reports enthusiastically. Five years later, Dragicevic, who also writes under the pen name Nina Dunic, is ecstatic to once again win the top prize in one of Canada’s top short story contests. She hopes the recognition ignites publisher interest in her just-completed, pandemic-written novel.
The path was new enough, young enough, that you had to walk with feet single file and pick your footfalls carefully between the tree roots and rocks rising out of the ground. Sometimes the branches overhead dipped low and you had to duck beneath them, sometimes the trees crowded close on either side. But the path wasn’t long and soon you were at the creek, a small clearing near the water.
After first seeing it, she didn’t actually go there for a couple of months. She only looked down onto the creek from the fifth floor balcony where she sat drinking iced tea or lemon water throughout the day. She had been a formidable drinker in her younger life but after her husband died, her body snapped it off; she thought it might have gone the other way, two bottles a night. Forgetting to eat, losing weight. But some silent, mysterious survival instinct in her took over and she could hardly have a glass of wine without feeling ill, almost overwhelmed with it. But she liked having a cold glass of something in her hand — tea or water — sitting alone on the balcony. Sipping and looking out.
There was a break in the trees’ canopy and she could see down into the clearing. There was an ancient, heavy branch — almost a trunk in itself — slung low across the ground and that’s where the teenagers sat, smoking cigarettes and joints and drinking beer. And sometimes she saw them, a boy’s white T-shirt glowing in the open space between the branches. The girls wore tank tops, had long shining hair.
More and more, she watched them from the balcony. She was retired but had worked so many exhausting years as a nurse, and then nursing her husband at the end, she had forgotten to make hobbies or interests for herself — ways to pass time that felt worthy of a day, even just an afternoon. She struggled to fight off the sense of meaninglessness with the hobbies she tried; they were all amusing little tasks but she could not truly care. How did people become interested, and even engrossed? Looking forward to it? And she felt that way sometimes about people, the other women at the classes, the hobby groups. Or even the women in her building, down in the lobby. She was cut off, somehow; yet she had so much time.
The teenagers left cans and bottles around the creek. That bothered her. And after a few months of watching them she decided to go down herself, waiting until they were not around. She brought a garbage bag.
She walked through the dim path carefully and came into the clearing, a circle of sunlight resting on the ground. She looked around. There were cans and bottles at the edge of the trees, some of them filled with cigarette butts. She sat on the branch instead, still holding the bag in her hand. The creek was near-silent, clear water moving gently across the brown mud and rocks below — it was a nice place to spend time, she thought. Hang out. She thought of her husband. She had met him late in life and his youth was well behind him, a fossilized echo of the young man he had been. She didn’t know anything of his younger self, if he hung out with girls in the woods, if he ever got anywhere or only went home with longing. He had been a quiet, reserved man after a long shyness in childhood. He had been a good deal older than she was. She stood up and started putting cans and bottles into the bag. She gathered what she thought was enough and brought it back to the building, emptying it into the recycling chute, the bottles clattering hard, the cans making thinner sounds. She put the butts in the garbage.
So she went again a month later, picking up the loose ends of a restless afternoon. Weeks’ worth of restless afternoons. This time she found two empty condom wrappers — different brands. At first she was horrified in that reflexive way she felt about almost anything teenagers did. But she calmed down; at least they were using condoms. When she was young, they would be parents. And then a true horror story would begin. At least they were only wrappers, the used condoms themselves were not around — cast into the river? a big finish, a final salute? Bravo, she thought. And after she thought it, she laughed. Bravo!
It had been almost 30 years and still the late-term miscarriage stayed with her as fresh and reliable as morning. Leaving that hospital with her only child left behind, cold. She thought of the teenagers like the creek, fresh water moving across an old river bed of mud and rocks — they were always new, the path was always old. And in a way, a tender way, all of them were her children. She saw them as belonging to her somehow. But far away.
There was a boy she saw often by the water and she realized he was popular; tall and lean and shoulders jutting like a wingspan. A specimen, she thought. It was easy to recognize him because of the white T-shirts he wore, tightly. His hair was dark, his skin slightly less — the white shirt was bright as a flag.
She started to recognize some of the girls too. Occasionally there would be another boy here or there but it was mostly him. Sometimes he was with one girl, sometimes he hung out with a couple of them, he would be talking, they would be laughing, handing a small joint around. She felt another reflex — she didn’t like him.
It was a weekend morning, Saturday or Sunday, she didn’t remember; she was entering the clearing with a bag and caught her breath with surprise. A girl was there.
The girl was sitting on the branch facing away and had not seen her approach.
There was a moment to back away quietly but she hesitated behind the girl, holding the garbage bag, looking at her back. The girl was wearing a light purple tank top and black cut-offs; she was tall and lanky, her shoulders dark from the summer sun. Her left forearm had a large tattoo — how old was she? — and she saw the tattoo as the girl lifted her arm up to her face and then back down, smoking a cigarette.
“Smoking with your left hand, that’s unusual,” she said to the girl. In decades working as a nurse she knew how to disarm strangers; friendly but something unexpected and personal, something about themselves.
The girl turned around, twisting her upper body, startled. Her face was long with a thin, upturned nose. Her eyes were guarded, her mouth pulled small. There was something of a startled bird in how she looked, a lanky, long-necked bird.
“You must be left-handed then,” she continued, and smiled for encouragement.
“Yeah,” the girl said.
“Not many left-handed girls, it’s rare.”
The girl said nothing, nodding — self-conscious and uncomfortable around a stranger, even one as old as a grandmother.
“Don’t mind me, I’m just picking up some trash and recycling, I live in the building. I’m retired and have nothing better to do.”
The girl said nothing. She turned back around again and after a drag on the cigarette, took out her phone.
She felt a strong motherly pull toward the girl. It was an ache, both a pleasure and a pain in her body. She felt protective and fearful of the girl, with her large tattoo — how could she choose that permanence when she was so young? She would regret it. There were so many decades, so many selves, left in her life. More than anything she wanted to keep talking, but the girl would be scared off; she had to keep her here somehow.
She walked around the clearing picking up the bottles and cans and butts. The girl finished the cigarette and threw it on the grounds, rubbing it out with her shoe. The girl stood up and put her phone in her pocket; she was leaving.
“That’s a popular guy that comes here, eh?” She bent for two tall cans and slid them into the bag. “I see him a lot.”
The girl stopped and looked her full in the face, startled again, but her guarded eyes flashed bright.
Aha, she thought.
“So you know him? Tall guy, lanky like you.”
“I know him,” the girl said.
She didn’t know what to say next; she had struck something and now the girl, who had been leaving, seemed to pause — unsure.
“Yeah, popular guy.” She kept moving around the edge of the clearing, stooping and picking up. “He comes around here a lot with girls, sometimes in a group but sometimes one on one. Different girls.”
She didn’t look up but could see the girl was facing and looking at her, silent.
She kept picking up the cans and bottles. It had rushed out of her in a heedless moment, she wouldn’t say anything more about it; they were both silent for a few moments.
Then the girl spoke. “I know,” she said. And then, after a pause, “Sorry about the cigarette butts.”
She straightened up and they looked each other in the face. The girl’s eyes were hardened; her kindly nurse authority took over. “Don’t worry about it, please,” she said firmly. “I’m bored, I like cleaning it up. I like the creek, I like having something to do here.”
The girl seemed to smile a little, an attempt, and then left, picking her way through the narrow path and disappearing behind the branches, the tattooed arm hanging loose at her side.
There was something pure about them, like elements. Life was long with so much sameness and repetition, life had a way of tempering you out, smoothing and polishing you down. Teenagers were pure like animals, elemental, hot and bright or dark and cold, sparking off each other, reactive and explosive. But sloppy and blind and foolish, with bravado so charming and pathetic; they were mere children who had grown too big, still smashing into things.
She remembered earlier years when she did not like teenagers, saw something cynical in that bravado. But her only child had died before birth and it had left her so fatally humbled and longing. She saw so much wounded innocence and longing in them. And pride and vanity and struggling to pull themselves out of the bewildering madness of youth — the struggle to become someone, even only just themselves.
She still saw the boy by the creek, recognizing his height and lanky walk; they were wearing light coats now and his white T-shirt was gone. Sometimes the groups were a mix of boys and girls, sometimes he was alone with one. She went down every month or so, gathering up what was left behind, sitting on the branch and looking at the water. Leaves were being shed and covered the ground with bright yellow and orange. She went in the morning when it was unlikely the kids would be around.
She saw the girl one more time; this time she was the one sitting on the branch and the girl entered the clearing. She heard the crunching of leaves on the ground and turned around; they were both startled looking at each other. She smiled at the girl with genuine warmth and relief — until, in a sharp shock, she saw the bruises on the girl’s face.
The shock was brief, flickering through her, because of course she’d seen trauma before. The rage took over next. She was sick with it.
“Did a boy do that to you?” She was standing suddenly, facing the girl, when she blurted it out. She almost hissed it.
The bruises were fading already, starting to heal. The girl sensed the fear, and a vague warmth moved across her face. “No,” she said. “It was a girl.”
The two women looked at each other. The creek murmured behind them.
The lanky girl did something very interesting then. Instead of answering she pulled out a cigarette and lit it, lopsided, and through the soft grey smoke she grinned.
“Well then,” she said, picking up her garbage bag, still empty. “I will get out of your way.” The rage was gone from her, understanding. She was falling into thought and her movements became automatic.
The girl did not say anything as she stepped aside.
She went home, bag empty. Still understanding.
She had a glass of wine on the balcony, remembering the bitter first bite and the slow mellowing after. She missed strange things about her husband now that he was gone; details surfaced and circled down again. She even missed things she didn’t know about him and never thought to ask — about himself, as a young man, as a teenager in a purer form. Before work and repetition and time had cast him. Moments were always falling into the next one, moments stumbled over each other until whole weeks and years were gone; he died, his body gave up, and she had missed it. She was working and then she cared for him and it was over.
But she knew about his heartbreak. He had described it once only as points on a timeline — married early, she ran off with another man, he didn’t marry again until they met decades later. And she already knew that was it. Inside of him there wasn’t room for more. She accepted it the way she had accepted her miscarriage, with almost no peace, only the willingness to get through another day to see if it was less tomorrow. And a distant awareness it would never be less.
And they never spoke of it.
Love: the end of a heartbreaking fight for some kind of understanding between strangers. Strangers with an abnormal capacity for hurting each other; all of the unspoken fear around it. Young lovers were so careless and terrified of each other, always, and perhaps that made it exhilarating — but love was the ceasefire.
The girl. Those bruises on her face, they were like her tattoos; the girl wanted them done early, she wanted to learn fast and conquer. Love and sex, jealousy and violence and war, winning and losing. She knew the girl, she knew the young warrior females — even in awkward youth, they were all fire. She herself had been one. She never married until late because she had fire well into her forties. And she suspected her husband had liked women like that — the first wife.
But the girl didn’t know how much life was left and she wasn’t pacing herself. She was rushing, as children do, brave and blind. Into early pain.