Balkan Beauty, Balkan Blood
an excerpt from
STARS DON’T DRESS UP LIKE THAT
(Yjet nuk vishen kështu,
by Elvira Dones),
translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie
and included in BALKAN BEAUTY, BALKAN BLOOD:
If I were not so depressed, I might even be happy. Is it raining out? I can’t really see what is happening. I might be happy if this insidious pain wasn’t driving me crazy. But in the final analysis, it is probably better the way it is. I am going back to where I swore I would never return. There is nothing to keep me in this country anymore, so I am off. I wouldn’t have left if they had just let me live my life. No, it’s not the rain I hear, it’s the roar of the sea that swells and softens bones.
It will break my heart to hear you scream when you see me. Oh mummy, what I would give to throw my arms around you. But I’ll have to endure your screams without being able to comfort you, to stroke your head lying on my breast. Shsh, mummy, I’m home now. It’s all over, the pain is gone. I’m back and there’s no more need for sighs or thoughts of what you once promised me? We can put up with anything if we only stay together: with venomous thoughts, the treacherous sun and even the icy blue colour of the moon. I won’t be able to say a word, and God knows how I’ll be able to endure it.
I was determined not to go back, certainly not as down and out as I was at the time, or as disfigured as I am now. I didn’t want to go back at all. I wanted to stay here, although there is nothing keeping me in this country anymore. You’re so stubborn, you’ll never get anywhere in life. Right, I am stubborn, or rather, I was. Leila, you’ll never stand on your own two feet unless you’re clean.
In the daytime, my determination was crystal clear and definitive. But nighttime made a traitor of me. During the very few nights that I actually slept like other people do, I dreamt of returning BackHome.
I would get off the ferry, it was the kind of sunny day you only get BackHome. Enough sun to drive you mad. I disembark and, breaking into tears, throw my arms around my mother, her little figure standing in front of me with her head resting under my chin.
“Shsh, mummy, see, I’m back.”
Around us in our embrace are stray dogs roaming through the garbage which is strewn in decay all over the jetty. Children with beautiful eyes are prancing about. Suitcases fly through the air in the direction of waiting relatives and policemen in faded uniforms and with envious glances are scratching their butts. There is enough dust to powder your eyebrows and the sky is deafened by a merciless honking of horns.
We stand there with our arms around each other. My mother’s eyes are staring into my soul, and my eyes are looking out at the scorching heat. In my dreams I often arrive BackHome im summer. When I wake all of a sudden, I’m really happy. I look all around my little room, the cell of my nightmare, and am still enraptured by the return and the reunion. It is still night. I go back to bed and try to get to sleep and return to the solace of my dreams. I know that I will change my mind in the morning and will return to my decision never to go back. But it is still night, and I want to savour the illusion.
I close my eyes and it all begins where I left it. My mother, myself, my grandmother who hobbles on her right leg, Aurora who is still alive and has not stopped growing, my father following closely behind us with all the luggage, all of us under the inquisitive glance of the lazy and noisy city. We have put our arms around one another’s shoulders, and with my left hand I can feel Aurora’s beating heart.
“Leila, I’ve got so much to tell you,” she says to me passionately.
She takes hold of my hand which is measuring the beat of her heart and looks up into my eyes. I look straight ahead out of fear that my eyes might betray me.
“You’re going to tell me how it was, aren’t you? About all the things you learned and about all the good-looking guys you saw over there.”
“Sure, Aurora, as soon as we have time.”
I laugh and try my best to sound happy. It is a strange feeling because I actually am happy. After all, this is a happy dream.
Grandmother mutters something or other. She only has one front tooth left and her tongue wraps around it like a piece of pastry. We don’t understand anything she says, and the three of us laugh, Aurora, mother and I. Grandmother imitates us, a bit uncertain at first and then she bursts into a laugh of her own. This saves me from the embarrassment of it all. We continue on to our elusive home. Behind us we can hear father gasping, cursing the heat and transferring the bags from one arm to the other. We continue on to nowhere. And there, the dream comes to an end. Once and for all.
* * *
There are no passengers in this part of the harbour, in front of the ferry. A man, some fifty-five-years-old, is staring at his shoes and smoking a cigarette, which has turned into ash all the way down to the filter, without falling on the ground. The ash is bent downwards and from one angle it looks like an extension of his finger. His fingers are shaking as is the man’s head with the tufts of grey hair at the side. His glance remains fixed on the tips of his shoes. If he were to look up, tears would betray him and would fall onto the asphalt without ever touching his cheeks. But the man does not want to weep. There will be enough time for that when his wife screams in horror and despair. The man already knows that he won’t be able to endure it, but for the moment, he is endeavouring to keep control of himself. Finally, the ash falls from the cigarette, part of it blowing away as dust and the other part landing on the tip of his right shoe. The man rolls the filter through his fingers until he grasps it by the end. He has no matches and sticks the butt in his pocket. A policeman taps him on the shoulder.
“You can go aboard now. This way. Come along with me.”
The policeman is young, about ten years older than Leila. He gives the other two officers a signal and they come forward to get the coffin.
“No,” replies the man giving a cough, and looks at the three customs officers, one after the other as they stand erect with their arms swinging at their sides. “I’ll get it myself.”
“Are you sure?” the first one mutters, but his voice remains unheard. The man picks up the coffin and lugs it towards the gangway. They follow. They give him the keys to a cabin, but he shakes his head and continues down towards the bow.
“You’ll be better off here, daughter. We can go in later when you want.”
The three officers follow, keeping right behind him. They can’t get a word out. The man places the coffin carefully on the deck, whispers something to it in his language and then turns to them. The one who is a sort of boss give him back his passport, his driver’s licence, the police documents, the autopsy, the authorization from the hospital, the authorization from the police in BackHome, the photos of Leila before she turned into a corpse and the photos of Leila as a corpse.
“This is where our job comes to an end.”
His lips are quivering and he endeavours to pronounce his words in more assertive tone. The other two look out to sea, towards the seagulls, the other ships and to the rust and oil shimmering on the surface of the water.
“You understand our language, don’t you?”
“Yes, I understand you.”
“Do you have… other children?”
“I once did.” The three men exchange glances. One of them shrugs.
“I had another daughter. I buried her two years ago.”
“God,” the youngest officer says to himself, “what a day!” He would like to get away but is ashamed to, and instead puts his hands in his pockets and tries to look as if he does not understand what is being said. “God, what a day!”
“Sir, we would like to express our deepest sympathy. You know, if you ever come back this way… or if there is anything we can do for you… I have two sons, twins in kindergarten age… I mean, I’m a father, too…”
The policeman who is a sort of boss is overcome with emotion and the other two are now shaking more than the tufts of grey hair on the man with the coffin. They shake hands with him, one after the other. He looks at them, a withered, shrivelled old man whose voice seems to have left his body completely and have taken refuge among the plywood boards of the coffin. He is not able to thank the officers. ‘Why do you abandon me now, stupid voice?’ The muscles in his neck grow tense as if he wants to say something, but nothing comes out. He gives up, wants only to be left alone because if the scene lasts any longer he knows he will scream and Leila beside him will be frightened. He doesn’t want to frighten her.
The officers go their way. The man sits down on the deck, searching through his pockets for his tobacco and cigarette paper. It’s time for a smoke and he begins to roll himself a cigarette. “It will get me back into shape.”
Silence from inside the coffin. Two seamen shout something about an approaching fishing boat.
It takes him a long time to roll the cigarette. He then lights it.
“We’ll be leaving soon, Leila.”
The stevedores are arguing about the loading of cars on the ferry. The man smokes and seems to have found salvation in the strong tobacco. What luxury, to have a whole ferry for yourself. You don’t even see that in the movies. He and Leila are returning home, and there is no one else on board.
When he went to book their passage for the return journey, the men at the ticket office looked askance at him.
“You are the only passenger returning to BackHome. Do you know what is going on in your country? There’s war going on, everything is burning. Are you really sure you really want to go back? Hundreds and hundreds of desperate people are arriving here every day and no one is travelling in the other direction. No one wants to set foot in that country. You understand me?”
“There was war when I left the country, gentlemen, and there will be war when I get back. I know what I am getting into.”
They continued looking at him as if he were crazy. He had to explain to them that the coffin was not empty and that his daughter’s body could wait no longer. She had left home three years ago and he had now come to take her body home. After all, he had to get her under the earth before the body began to putrefy and stink. The officer was shaken and made a gesture as if to say ‘enough.’ He stated that he would like to inspect the documents. It was a complicated business with a corpse… On the wall behind the officer was a large colour poster of a young woman surrounded by three children, posing like a brood hen with her chicks.
“We’re leaving now and will have a rest when we get home. After all, what’s keeping us here, Leila? What do you think?”
I know that He can see everything. He’s hiding here somewhere around the jetty. The police searched for him everywhere and they will surely never find him. But he is here somewhere, I can feel it. I have a good nose for him now and I always know where he is and what he is thinking. Too late. I have learnt to protect myself from him, but only now that I no longer need to do so. Our love affair was as morbid and black as an unlit tunnel at night into which I had slid without a candle or a spade. I had got involved not knowing that there was no way out. The tunnel was so dark that I lost not only my way but my very being. Now, staring at my coffin, He is now abject, torn from within and put to shame by the killer instinct that he discovered within him. He is mourning me here, mourning me and is even afraid of the smoke of my father’s cigarette. What a coward!
I must have patience. The only thing I have to do is accompany my body home, where I will take one last look at my mother and one first look at Aurora’s grave. Then I will be gone, forever. It is Monday, a day which has always brought me luck. Monday, March 5th, 1997. I can see my body cut into slices like a watermelon and the man who did the job. He groans and takes care not to come out from behind the mast where he is hiding. Imagine what it is like seeing yourself in a coffin, knowing you will never again touch a human being with your hand, never again drink a cup of coffee or comb your hair. How strange it is to see the man who ripped through your body with a knife, and not to rise before him as a ghost and – like in the Greek tragedies – to howl and then vanish in the night.
He will suffer from his deed, but not to the extent that he would give himself up to the police. He knows that the investigation will be closed. For a while, they will continue to search for the murderer of a prostitute and then, the case will be filed away. There is no point in public expenditures for a whore from BackHome. And what a backward bunch they are anyway. They come here, live on welfare and we have to support them. Couldn’t we have had better neighbours than those people from such a godforsaken country? But you can’t choose your neighbours anymore than you can choose your relatives. If there is bad blood among them, there is nothing you can do about it. They are there for life. If you have a bad neighbour you can do only one of two things: either you get your hands on him or you move out. But countries cannot move out. They can move and change other things: laws, strategies, armies, presidents, allies and even their names if they want, but they can’t move away. And to get control of that pack of thieves, well, you can’t really.
The file will gather dust in the corner of some office. In it are pictures of me working the streets in those awful clothes I hated. And there are other pictures in the file of my body, slaughtered like a lamb.
The man from the criminal investigation department took the pictures humming a song which was in the charts at the time. He bent over me, taking a close-up of my neck, with his feet pressed against my thighs, and all the time, he was humming the tune. The phone rang in his pocket.
“Ciao… No, I can’t right now. Why, is it urgent? We’ll talk tonight. I’m busy now. Someone’s murdered a whore, and is she in bad shape! The guy really made mincemeat out of her.” Did I actually look like mincemeat? I am not a prostitute and never really was. Thank God I always kept my papers with me in a pocket. The police found them so they were able to identify me and contact my parents.
“OK, no problem. We’ll talk tonight. All right, we’ll go out for dinner. Something simple, all right? I haven’t got too much cash at the moment. What about a pizza? Fine, ciao. I miss you too. Bye.”
“Oh,” sighed the photographer. “Che strazio ‘sta donna.” He turns off his phone and continues taking pictures until someone give him the OK to stop.
Father wipes the sweat off his forehead. He moans as the gangway scrapes and rumbles. I’m so sorry, father. I know you weren’t expecting such a blow. Thank God that corpses don’t blush. How could I ever have looked you in the eye. I never wanted to go home alive. How would I have been able to lie to you all? How would I have endured your tenderness?
“Leila, my love, my treasure. Leila, my treasure, you’re all my joy, the best child in the whole world.”
“My teaser,” I used to repeat as a child when I had learnt to pronounce whole words. And my parents laughed. My mother, who always smelled of soap, threw her arms around me. Later, when I grew up, it was, “Leila, my treasure, take care of yourself.” I’ll do my best, dad. And now… I’m the teaser of all these guys after me, lying on me, and I try to convince myself over and over that I am their treasure.
“Who knows how much you’ve suffered, my daughter. Whatever did they do to you, my love? Say something. How can I take you back to your mother this way, Leila, my child?”
The ferry departs, rocking to and fro like an old man trying to get out of bed. It coughs twice and sets off. The sea is calm. Father bends over and kisses the plywood boards of the coffin.
“Will you invite me OverThere, Leila, once you get married to Fatos and have a beautiful house of your own, like in the movies?”
“Of course I will, sister. I promised you, didn’t I?”
“And I’ll grow up and be as good as you are.”
“You’re good already, Aurora.”
“You’re the best sister I could ever want, the most beautiful sister in the world.”
When I left home, Aurora came with me across the sea, arriving in the same harbour from which father and I had set out a few hours ago. There were light showers that day. It was the last moment I would ever see my sister, but I didn’t know it at the time.
Six months later, they sent me pictures of her corpse. Her eyes were still wide open.
They day after I saw the pictures of Aurora’s body, I consented to work as a whore. And to die, bit by bit, from that day on.
I hope you never smile again. I hope you will never even remember your name, murderer. I pray that your memory be washed away and deleted by the waves of the sea. How else could your soul endure the horror when you recall what you have done? “I love you so much,” you once said, “I would die for you.” But you are still alive and I can’t even spit in your face.
We drift away upon the gentle sea, father and me and this godforsaken ferry. No road is more gentle than the sea.
BALKAN BEAUTY, BALKAN BLOOD
Robert Elsie’s website
Albanian Literature in Translation