Aunt Jelena

Aunt Jelena
This article is a preview of the LARB Quarterly, no. 41: TruthBecome a member to get this issue plus the next four issues of the LARB Quarterly.


IN HIS REVIEW of Marina Gudelj’s debut short story collection Fantomska bol (“Phantom Pain,” 2020), Kruno Lokotar describes the flares the stories set off while staging the everyday dramas (and traumas) of village life on the Dalmatian coast that surface without so much as a spark—like “an intangible limb, a self-alienation, an amputation from the fullness of life itself.”

Running just over 30,000 words, the 16 stories collected in Fantomska bol are not wanting for voice despite their brevity. Gudelj’s characters—largely women of various generations, who are diversely related—have a certain energy, call it spunk or charm, spirit or feminism. The challenges, then, of translating the stories speak to the strengths of the writing: the variety of dialects (prevalent among them, local variations of Croatian in Dalmatia, which has a history of being a semicolonial region of the French, Venetian, and Ottoman empires), the distinctness of each narrating voice, and the conciseness of the prose.

While Gudelj’s work has not gone unnoticed by award nominations, “Aunt Jelena” is only the second piece to appear in English translation, following the 2022 publication of her short story “The Witch” in Turkoslavia Journal.

And this little story speaks—screams—for itself.

—Ena Selimović


Lately I have trouble telling apart funerals from other, happier gatherings. The family arriving after a long journey. Friends, acquaintances, and, huddled in some corner, the oldest of the crew, triumphantly outliving the rest. The obligatory chatter of catching up.

“Jelena was by her side when she departed,” my mother whispers from one acquaintance to another, as though she’d been at the bedside herself.

“What can you do when sickness grabs holda ya …” says one of the ancients.

“How many times you say it came back? Five, six?”

“Two,” my mother says and heads toward me. She presses me to her chest and says: “She’s at rest, now you can rest too.” She doesn’t release me from her embrace, and her thoughts tighten around me. She wants to say: “Now you can come back to us.”

“She suffer a lot?” someone throws in. Everyone falls silent. Having a front-row seat to death, now that was worth something. I wriggle out of my mother’s arms, ready to respond, but quickly change my mind: I want to say that she didn’t, to soften her dying, keep up this charade, then return to my aunt’s apartment and sit in the chair beside her empty bed.

Instead I say: “Every day she begged me to spare her suffering.”

That was true. When the illness confined her to bed, when all that was left of her was a skeleton cellophaned in skin, every day she begged me to kill her. She insisted that the end seemed longer than life itself, and that it wasn’t fair. I considered it. As the days wore on and her skin became more transparent, I began to see it as a merciful gesture rather than an act of killing.

“And did you?” someone ventured from the far end of the table. My mother was out of sight, but I felt her knees go weak. The others were shifting in place, making the sign of the cross.

Aunt Jelena was my mother’s younger sister. Grandma Marica, their mother, was a diligent, anxious, ugly woman. Her genes had in their totality been passed on to my own mother, as though they’d had to move on, possess their next inheritor, piss on their territory. And just as thoroughly, as if satisfied by their prior performance, they’d passed over Aunt Jelena, allowing her a serenity and beauty unknown to our family.

I was born a few days before my grandfather Marko’s death. Until then, Aunt Jelena had lived under the thumb of her parents and sister. She’d fought to satisfy their diligent nature and dedicated herself to housework on top of an eight-hour workday. She bent to the will of her hard-working, parent-approved, long-term boyfriend.

My mother later regretted naming me after Aunt Jelena. She worried that, with her name, I would inherit everything Aunt Jelena had inside her. I always fantasized that my birth had set her free. As though by taking the name I’d lifted all expectations from her and transferred them to myself, the name like a rejected organ, transplanted, in some sort of faux medical experiment, to test if it might serve someone else.

It wasn’t until I started school that I met my namesake. Before that, I knew of her. I feared her like other children feared the bogeyman. For the gravest childish offenses, I’d be told I was just like her. But since she failed to appear at any of our family gatherings, by some childish reasoning I reached the conclusion that she was as unreal as a witch or Santa Claus.

My mother anxiously tracked every change in me. She stopped brushing my hair when my first golden locks darkened. My round face grew elongated, and my movements lost their compulsion. The name was catching up with me. Jelena snuck outside magic’s shadow and took shape in words invented for the needs of reality: Spendthrift. Traitor. It was then that I began to believe in her existence.

Once, I mustered the courage to ask my mother where this Jelena was.

“Don’t talk nonsense!” she snapped with the full-body tremor that seizes old village women at the mention of the devil. It’s forbidden to talk about her, you are not to tempt fate. God, Satan, and Jelena were not to be mentioned, and their names were to be abbreviated at all times as on Glagolitic monuments.

Then I calmed my grandmother with an album filled with photographs of my mother and Aunt Jelena posing together on the beach holding ice cream cones, or wearing kooky children’s glasses, or with cotton candy covering half their faces. In those early pictures, my mother was almost unrecognizable, not simply because she was a child, but because she had none of the anguish so striking in photographs of her in adolescence. Aunt Jelena, with her long dark hair, wearing a blouse that tied at the waist and a dress whose hem rose far above her knees, seemed to be pulling my meek mother into the frame, and it appeared as though my mother had agreed, but only for an instant—she’d soon bolt off, fleeing for solitude, far from the shared blood that pumped through their unmatched bodies.

I discovered, after Grandpa Marko died, that Aunt Jelena and my mother had inherited the old family vacation home. Jelena sold her share, quit her job, broke up with the boyfriend who’d won everyone’s approval, and set off with some grimy, paint-smeared artist. The family later caught wind of them in newspapers. The artist had apparently caught a break and was living off his brushes. When Jelena sold her share in the house, her branch of the rather hideous family oak was cut off. No one heard anything from her until a phone call from the artist ruined my mother’s 45th birthday party. Aunt Jelena was very ill. Some alien intruder was threatening to occupy her body. Grandma took pity on her and went to visit despite Jelena’s plea that no one come, to avoid the awful sight of her. My mother respected her wishes, only calling her once. When Aunt Jelena recovered and embarked on a long trip to an archipelago in the Southern Hemisphere, my mother said: “What a luxurious way to be ill.”

It was Aunt Jelena who eventually reached out to me. She would call and hang up unless I answered the phone. We didn’t meet until I was old enough to come and go from home as I pleased. I reveled in our covert meetings and in wandering through her art gallery while she finished work. I loved replacing my mother’s cooked lunches with a snack of pizza, and spending time with Aunt Jelena, which led me to question my very essence, the changeability of my nature, my hunger for the unknown, never served in our home. She’d won. Over the years, she became even stronger, even more inventive, surer in everything she did. Hard decisions she loved most of all. Making them seemed to rejuvenate her and cause her stolen beauty to flood every room she entered as though to spite my mother.

The greasy artist, my uncle Martin, was flattened by a stroke the day I started college. After the funeral, sparsely attended by our side of the family, I packed my things and moved in with Aunt Jelena. The last days of her life were like those first days after my uncle’s death. She was reliving his death, made all the worse because she’d died there once already, in that same bed whose sheets she hadn’t let me change for months, hurling a lamp at me if I so much as tried to take my uncle’s pillow, the bed she left only for the bathroom. That bed from which she served me the truth.

She’d met Uncle Martin at some protest and fallen so in love that she detested those parts of her life that weren’t marked with his presence. He was a painter whose talent wasn’t easy to monetize, so Aunt Jelena used the profits from her share of the vacation home to buy a modest commercial space in the city center. The first few years, she and Martin lived there with a bed and a hot plate behind a partition. From that hole, in time, she created one of the most treasured galleries in the city. She pushed Martin to paint while she wrote articles about the brilliant artist, his success in New York, the soaring prices of his work, and, slipping in what was left of her profits from the vacation home, pitched them to newspapers. Once they were published, she organized an auction and made enough money to rent an apartment.

Uncle Martin transformed from a Sunday painter into a self-assured exhibitionist, the type who shouts his order before he’s even fully in the bar. He sparked the imagination of girls much younger than Aunt Jelena, but she loved him. She still felt like everything untouched by him was vapid. She knew about the sociology student he could barely stand to leave. That was how she came to her next hard decision. She fell ill. When he returned home one morning, he found her crying on the sofa with some made-up diagnosis of a fatal disease. She was treated in the best clinics, and Uncle Martin left her side only while she underwent treatment in the stark white room of a private clinic. He forgot about the student, forgot all the other women except the one whose feet he now massaged, the one he read Andrić to when she felt unwell, the one he accompanied to the cinema to see an Eastern European film. After she made him love her again, Aunt Jelena requested new lab results to reflect a full recovery. No one revealed any of her lies, neither the bribed journalists nor the bribed doctors.

“Who likes talking money?” she asked me.

So really, Aunt Jelena was struck by illness only once. It took hold of her as intensely as Aunt Jelena took hold of life.

“I didn’t,” I answer those gathered at her funeral. I only spared her last hard decision.

LARB Contributors

Marina Gudelj has written for as long as she can remember. Her debut short story collection, Fantomska bol (“Phantom Pain,” 2020), was nominated for several awards. She lives in Split, where she teaches Croatian language. Her free time is spent more unpredictably.
Ena Selimović is a Yugoslav-born writer and co-founder of Turkoslavia, a translation collective and journal. Her work has received support from ALTA, ACLS, and NEA. She holds a PhD in comparative literature from Washington University in St. Louis.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!