Steps through the Mist

A November 2007 BookSense Notable Book
The winner of the 2008 Gold Award for Superb Craftsmanship from the Detroit Club of Printing House Craftsmen

Five women of various ages face, each in her own way, what seems to be the deterministic trap of Fate: a freshman in a girls’ boarding school with the strange ability to share other people’s dreams; a young woman in a straitjacket, desperately trying to locate a very particular future; a middle-aged skier refusing to be just a puppet on a string; an elderly fortune-teller with insufficient faith in her own trade; finally, an old lady whose very precious alarm clock is suddenly broken. And engulfing all of them, a strange mist through which no-one can see clearly…

“Serbian speculative fictionist Zivkovic’s latest novel to be released in the US (after 2006’s Seven Touches of Music) isn’t so much a literary work to be read as it is one to be reveled in. Like a great work of abstract art, this surrealistic novel—about five women who contend with fate in very different ways—is layered with subtle symbolism and nuance, and should be savored slowly so that the profound, and sometimes disturbing, existential underpinnings can be duly discerned. […] This montage of stories is as enlightening as it is entrancing.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Simply stated, Zoran Zivkovic is one of the most visionary and talented speculative fiction novelists in the world. Among his European contemporaries, his work stands as true literature and holds up to any challenger.”
The New York Review of Science Fiction

“Zivkovic’s characteristic empathetic surrealism works with a special elegance here, summarizing beautifully the existential redemption fantasy can afford.”
Locus, USA

“Once again [Steps through the Mist] definitely serves to demonstrate that Zoran Zivkovic is a writer of great talent and vision, a man for whom the mists are perhaps a little clearer than for the rest of us.”
The Alien Online, UK

More reviews can be found at the Aio Publishing website.

Stories from the book have been published in the UK (Interzone: September, November/December 2002, January, February, March 2003), in Finland (Tähtivaeltaja: February 2003), and in France (Les moutons électriques: Fall 2005).

The story “Alarm Clock on the Night Table” was broadcast by BBC Radio 7 on 11 March 2007.

Editions:

  • Polaris (Serbian and English, 2003)
  • Narodna Knjiga (Serbian, 2003)
  • Minotauro (Spanish, 2004, as a part of the Historias imposibles omnibus)
  • Laguna (Serbian, 2004, as a part of the Nemoguće priče omnibus)
  • PS Publishing (English, UK, 2006, as a part of the Impossible Stories omnibus)
  • Aio Publishing (English, US, 2007)
  • Zavod (Serbian and English, 2009, as a part of the Nemoguće priče / Impossible Stories omnibus)
  • DuMont Buchverlag (German,2011, as a part of Der unmögliche Roman omnibus)
  • Blodnjak (Slovenian, 2011)
  • Cadmus Press (English, Japan, 2016, as a part of the Impossible Stories I omnibus)

Polaris Serbian edition Polaris English edition Steps_through_the_Mist_Narodna_knjiga_2003 Minotauro Spanish edition Laguna Serbian edition PS Publications UK edition Aio Publishing US edition   impossible-stories-i_english_cadmus-press


An excerpt, translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic:

Disorder in the Head

Miss Emily opened the door to the first-year classroom at the girls’ boarding school. The quiet murmuring of twenty-six freshmen subsided and they all stood up as though by command. They were wearing identical navy-blue dresses that went down to the mid-calf and buttoned up to the chin, completely plain, without the least embellishment. Even the buttons were covered with the same blue cloth. Only the white collars of their blouses interrupted this uniformity, varying slightly in shape. Not a single girl wore her hair down; they all wore braids.

Miss Emily’s brown dress was of the same plain cut as her students’ uniforms. There was a small brooch pinned to its left side that almost blended into the background. Her dark hair, streaked with grey despite its lingering thickness, was pulled back in a bun. Her tiny eyes gazed mouselike through her round wire-framed glasses. The low heels of her high-topped shoes did not add much to Miss Emily’s height. She was still shorter than most of the sixteen-year-old girls who were now waiting, motionless, for the signal to sit down.

She went up to the desk and set down a stack of papers and a leather glasses case. Her eyes passed over her students and she nodded briefly. The room was filled with the rustling of dresses and scraping of chairs, and then she too sat down. She set her spine firmly against the back of the chair, from where it would not move until the end of the class, as though glued in place. Only her head in lively movement would be at variance with this stiff body.

First she concentrated on arranging the objects in front of her. In addition to those she had brought, there was a small vase containing two purple wildflowers, a wooden pen holder, a long thin pointer, a large globe, and a glass half filled with water, covered with a linen napkin. She did not strive for any special pattern. The priority was that everything be lined up, to offset any impression of randomness. She abhorred disorder, both external and internal.

“Good morning, young ladies.” Her feeble voice matched her stature.

“Good morning, Miss Emily,” chimed twenty-six voices all together.

“I hope you slept well. From what you have written I can see that some of you are not getting the rest you need at night, particularly at your age.”

She stopped talking and laid her hands on the pile of papers in front of her. It was a collection of dreams. Whenever she commenced teaching a new class, the first thing she did was have the freshmen write down their dreams of the previous night. This was the best way to get to know them. Nothing spoke more eloquently about the girls than what they dreamed. This was where they showed their true nature. In addition, dreams are the first indication of the disorder that threatens to overwhelm young minds. And it could only be thwarted if discovered in time, before it seriously corrupted the personality. After that it was very difficult, perhaps even impossible, to remove.

Of course, there were always freshmen who would try to deceive her. They wrote inauthentic accounts of their dreams, resorting to invention for various reasons. Some simply had not dreamed anything or could not remember their dreams, but were reluctant to admit this. Others were ashamed of their dreams. The most dangerous, however, were those who made them up in order to outsmart her. Those were the girls in need of special attention. Such duplicity was a clear sign of a wayward disposition. What she found additionally offensive was the fact that they underestimated her. As though it were easy to deceive her! With experience measured in decades, she was able to recognize without fail not only false dreams but those calculated to poke fun at her.

Among the twenty-six papers that had been given to her at the end of the last class, she was certain that three belonged to this latter type. They were all signed, but since she still didn’t know the girls, their names meant nothing to her. All the same, she would soon see which of the young ladies considered themselves smarter than her. Nothing would teach them a better lesson than to experience a little public humiliation. They had to find out immediately that they would reap what they sowed. There could be no leniency in this regard. This was the only way to put them on the right path.

She took the first sheet from the pile and turned it over. At the bottom, next to the girl’s signature, Miss Emily had written a great warning sign in red ink: three horizontal parallel lines cut by a vertical line. She used many similar symbols, with meanings known only to herself. Generations of freshmen had done their utmost to break these codes, but none had succeeded as yet. To make them even harder to decipher, Miss Emily periodically introduced confusing changes that made sense only to her: new signs appeared and old ones changed their meaning.

“Will Miss Alexandra please stand up.”

At the penultimate desk of the row next to the window a willowy girl with large eyes and prominent cheekbones stood up. Miss Emily examined her carefully. Not at all unexpected. These freshmen who get their height early are the first to have swollen egos. They think they are special because they are taller than their classmates and nicer-looking. As if that could make them superior! But she had a remedy for such over-confidence.

“Ah, that’s who you are. Fine.” She put Miss Alexandra’s paper to one side and then took another one from the pile. “Now would Miss Theodora please be so kind as to introduce herself.”

A plump girl in the third desk of the middle row slowly stood up. She had red hair with curls that not even the tight braids could straighten completely. Her face was sprinkled with freckles. Miss Emily raised the collar of her dress a bit around her neck. She didn’t like freckles at all. They were a mark. There was always a reason for them, as shown this very instant. It was, of course, no accident that she had singled out this girl’s dream.

“There you are. Very good.” Miss Emily held up a third paper with a warning sign on it. “The last one to introduce herself is Miss Clara.”

A short girl wearing thick glasses stood up in the first row, in the desk by the door. Her head was bowed and her right hand was clutching the three middle fingers of her left hand. Strange, thought Miss Emily. Of all the freshmen this is the last one I would have suspected. She could almost recognize herself some forty years ago. But experience had taught her how deceptive appearances can be. Even though Miss Clara seemed the epitome of modesty, what she had written clearly indicated that that was merely an outward impression.

“All right. Now would the rest of you girls please take a good look at the three who are standing.”

This caused a stir. The girls who were sitting started to look around in bewilderment, staring at the three standing girls, who were just as confused. Several neighboring heads drew together and whispered. Miss Emily let the uncertainty gain momentum. She had put on this show many times and knew exactly when to speak again.

“You don’t see anything unusual?” she asked at last. All the faces turned towards her. “I don’t blame you. There’s nothing that can be seen. One would say there is nothing special about Alexandra, Theodora and Clara. But this is not so. There are things that cannot be discerned by the eye because they are hidden. Terrible things that are not the least fitting in the honorable individuals that we all hope you will become after you leave this school. One such thing is the penchant for lying.”

Miss Emily paused so that her words would make the proper impression.

“This is a very bad characteristic. It is particularly dangerous when it appears in younger individuals. A girl who starts to lie early in life will most certainly not stop there. What inevitably awaits her is a wayward life of even worse sins. All lies, however, are not the same. Although no lie can be justified, some can be understood to a certain extent. Let’s take, for example, your compositions on what you dreamed. Almost half are not true. You thought you could fool me, but that, of course, is impossible. I am quite capable of telling real dreams from false ones. I do not hold it very much against most of you, though, this resort to fabrication. You did not act out of ulterior motives. You found yourselves in an awkward position and lying seemed the only way out of it. You will learn in time that sincerity always serves you best in any difficulty you might encounter.”

Miss Emily took the pointer and started to draw it back and forth through the closed fist of her left hand.

“But the motives of these three young ladies were not in the least naïve. Their fabrications were fully intentional. They treated me condescendingly, wanting to show their superiority. Arrogance went along with the lies, and it is hard to find a worse combination. They were convinced that I would not see through them, but they have greatly underestimated me. Now the time has come to face the consequences. It is always unpleasant, but cannot be escaped. In any case, it is for their own good. Confession and repentance are the first steps towards redemption and healing.”

The pointer stopped moving. A hush filled the room for several moments.

“So? Let’s hear what you have to say.”

It was not clear which of the girls was expected to speak first. Miss Alexandra glanced questioningly at Miss Theodora, who replied with a shrug of the shoulders. Miss Clara kept her head bowed. Her eyes had become glassy and wet. The tears had not yet started to flow, but it was certain that nothing could stop them. The tension in the classroom grew along with the look of impatience on Miss Emily’s face.

“They didn’t lie.”

The voice was soft and came from somewhere in the back. A multitude of braids swung when the inquisitive heads quickly turned around to look. Miss Emily twisted her neck.

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