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a short story
by Zoran Zivkovic

translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic

Mr. Prohaska collected his fingernail clippings. He'd been doing it since the age of eight, when he cut them by himself for the first time. He was so proud of the fact that he'd managed to cut them without his mother's help and without doing himself any harm that he decided to save the ten little sickles as proof of this feat. He'd had to do it in secrecy because his mother certainly wouldn't have let him keep them. He put them in a little plastic bag and stuck a label on it with the date. Letters were still giving him trouble, but at that early age he was already skilled with numbers. He then put the bag in a hidden place.

Approximately two weeks later, when the time came to cut his nails again, he hesitated but a moment before putting the new little sickles in a bag with the date on it. There was no long-term decision behind this; that would only be formed later. He simply felt it was a shame to throw the nails away. It suddenly seemed that doing so would be throwing away part of his body. True, he was no longer physically connected to the nails, but this did nothing to lessen his attachment to them. They might have separated from him, but he could still keep them close by. Sadness filled him at the thought of the many nails his mother had cut off before he turned eight and which were now lost forever.

He continued to collect his nails in an orderly fashion, but the passage of time brought the problem of where to put the little bags. Every year there were twenty-five to thirty more of them. The shoebox where he kept them was not easy to hide; his mother almost found it two or three times. He felt no relief until his early twenties, when he left his parents' home. His fingernail collection at that time contained more than four hundred little bags that filled all of three shoeboxes. That's when he was finally able to put it in order and go through it without the constant fear of being caught doing something unseemly, although he wasn't the slightest bit ashamed of his secret.

He did feel ashamed, however, of keeping something he cared about so much in such an unsuitable place as a shoebox. It seemed like sacrilege to him; he had to find a more dignified repository for his unique collection. Although he still wasn't earning very much money, he nonetheless managed to set aside enough to order five hundred specially fitted cigarette cases. Had he been richer, they certainly would have been made of solid silver, but under the circumstances he had to be satisfied with silver plating. Every cigarette case had a date engraved on the lid and the inside was lined in purple plush with two curved rows, each containing five sickle-shaped indentations.

It took several months to transfer the nails from the little bags to the cigarette cases. It was a tedious and exacting job. He did it with great patience, meticulously, consumed by the constant fear of getting it wrong. It was extremely difficult to ascertain the finger from which each nail had been cut. He finally got the hang of it and then all he needed was a quick touch to place a given sickle accurately in the proper indentation. He proudly considered himself a genuine expert in this type of identification.

The collection was finally lodged in a suitable repository, but one day as he gazed at it with pride an uneasy thought spoiled his pleasure. What if a burglar broke into his apartment? He would certainly head straight for the cigarette cases, particularly since there was nothing else of any value. Perhaps, in his haste, he wouldn't even check what was inside them. Later he would certainly throw away the nails because for him they had no value. This possibility horrified Mr. Prohaska; he had to prevent it at any cost. He rushed to the bank, rented a safe-deposit box and without a moment's notice started transferring the cigarette cases. He felt no relief until the last one was secure.

He went to the bank once a month to deposit two new cigarette cases. He always spent a considerable amount of time in the safe-deposit vault, enjoying the sight of the neatly stacked little cases. It was on one such occasion that an unexpected thought yet again shattered his moment of pleasure. It all started with an innocuous reflection as to whether the safe-deposit box he had rented was large enough to accommodate all his future nails.

Naturally, he could not know how many more nails there would be, but as a good mathematician it was not difficult to calculate that if he lived to the age of eighty-seven and a half years, the safe-deposit box would be filled to the top with cigarette cases. If he were to live longer than that he would have to rent either a larger box or an additional one if there were no larger boxes. This particular problem had a solution. But not the ultimate problem, one that hadn't crossed his mind before and suddenly struck with all its might. What would happen to the collection after his death?

He needed to prepare for this eventuality as soon as possible. True, there was no reason to worry, he was in excellent shape for his age, but disease is not the only cause of death. Various calamities are lying in wait, beyond our control. The worst thing possible would be for him to die a sudden death, before he was able to arrange for the permanent care of his collection. The safe-deposit box would be opened as part of his estate, necessarily divulging his secret.

This had to be prevented by all means. Yes, but how? Perhaps he could rent another safe-deposit box, not under his own name this time, but anonymously, so that his death would not result in its being opened? The box would still be opened at the end of the rental period. All right, then he would rent a box for a very long period. He wasn't quite sure how long that really long period should be -- various durations crossed his mind, from one century to an entire millennium -- but they told him at the bank that safe-deposit boxes were rented for a maximum of twenty-five years.

This certainly did not seem sufficient to him. He left the bank depressed, and this dismal mood never left him. The situation only worsened when he remembered another undesirable fact that had slipped by unnoticed. The nails on a corpse continue to grow for some time. He couldn't do anything about retrieving the lost fingernails of his childhood, so he simply had to make sure he got these. Should his collection be missing what might be its most important specimens? So, what should he do? He'd be dead and unable to cut his nails in the grave. Whom could he count on to cut them in his place?

Although this problem never left his mind, he couldn't find a solution -- until one rainy afternoon when he least expected it. The solution struck him in a moment of profound enlightenment. It was magnificently elegant in its simplicity, like a mathematical formula. He felt like dancing with joy. He refrained, of course, as a man accustomed to well-mannered behavior, although no one would have seen him vent his exultation.

If death was the main obstacle standing in his way, then there was only one way to overcome it, once and for all. Mr. Prohaska firmly decided that he would never die.

© Zoran Zivkovic 2006, 2007.
Translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic

This story is published here for the first time. It is part of Zoran's new story suite, Twelve Collections and the Teashop (PS Publishing, May 2007).

Twelve Collections and the Teashop

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