MIGJENI (1911-1938) – prose

0
3525

| Culture & Arts |

Read also:


Migjeni



[ New Books from Elsie and ‘Dukagjini’ ] – by Stephen Schwartz

 

REFRAIN OF MY TOWN

 

“Sir, sir, please sir, please give me something!” That’s the refrain, the beautiful refrain of my town. When morning awakens in the streets, when the sun’s rays begin to scatter between the legs of passersby, and the shadows of cars and carriages begin to slide along the ground, the refrain on the sidewalks starts up, the beautiful refrain of my town: “Sir, sir, please sir, please give me something!” Who could possibly express the beauty of this refrain? Mozart? Beethoven? Ha, ha, ha! Only the sidewalks of my town know how to sing that melody and only its inhabitants hear it. And they like it. For the people there love music.

From morning to night they hear the same refrain and are never bored by it. They’ve never chased away (or given a penny to) a singer yet. No! They are great music fans. The refrain sounds especially beautiful in the twilight: the streets of the town are take on a romantic air (like that which you see in colour pictures). People satisfied with their daytime activities go out for a bit of nightlife. The sky smiles like a virgin and everyone’s lips long to give it s sensuous kiss… and in the midst of it all, the beautiful refrain of my town. Can you imagine such joy?

I don’t know if what I’m going to tell you now is a dream or a nightmare.

“Sir, sir, please sir, please give me something!”. A boy, some ten or twelve years old, like a pretty little puppy (white, black or reddish-brown) leaping up and down to lick its master’s hand, limps along behind a gentleman. He gives a light and gentle tug at the seam of his coat, very gentle, for he is afraid of waking the wrath of the lord, of a god, a devil, the wrath of this gentleman, I mean. He therefore gives a gentle tug and whines, “Sir, sir, please sir, please give me something!” But the gentleman is lost in thought: the new season is beginning!

The season! the season! Always the season, and as the season changes, so does his wife, his children and he himself – whatever the season calls for. Preoccupied by such thoughts, he paid no attention to the little beggar who, wasting no thoughts on the season, reflected to himself on how well the gentleman must have dined, how warm his coat was, how fine his shoes were… Carried away by such thoughts, he gave a stronger tug at the gentleman and whined more loudly, “Sir, sir, please sir, please give me something!” Suddenly, the gentleman gave a turn and slugged the little beggar in the face. “You good-for-nothing,” he snarled and departed without giving anything. No, or rather, he did give the pale face a slug.

A groan from the child’s breast attracted the attention of passersby. “Hey, look,” someone cried out, “the little beggar is trying to steal something”. The people thought that the boy had attempted to pick the gentleman’s pocket and had therefore been slugged. The blood flushed from the little beggar’s heart into his face and like a stalked bird he gathered all his infant force to flee. He spurted off, relentlessly pursued by fear, and only came to a halt when his face and back were bathed in sweat. A hole, a tiny hole that I could crawl into somewhere far away and die of hunger – that was his only thought. Another boy, a bit older, saw the little beggar running and cried out with a laugh, “Hey, you twirp, where are you off to? Hang on! Don’t you remember what we decided? That I’d throw a handful of coins in your face and that you could keep them… Will you keep your promise?”

“Alright, but don’t throw them hard. And let me cover my face with my hands so that you don’t blind me.”
“OK, let’s do it. What are you trembling for? You’re not afraid, are you?”
“No… but I’m hungry.”

“So, you’re not afraid…” and hurled the money in his face, the coins scattering with a jingle. The little beggar, the poor boy, didn’t move his head, but then weakly got down on his knees and, smiling, began to pick up the pennies. A red drop shone on his forehead in the sun. It was blood.

No, no. It was no dream, but a nightmare when a singer, inspired by the refrain and by these events, though falsely inspired, sang deceptively:

On the mercy of the merciless
The little beggar survived.
His life ran its course
In dirty streets,
In dark corners,
In cold doorways,
Among fallacious faiths.
But one day, when the world’s pity dried up
He felt in his breast the stab
Of a new pain, which contempt
Fosters in the hearts
Of the poor.
And – though yesterday a little beggar,
He now became something new.
An avenger of the past,
He conceived an imprecation
To pronounce to the world,
His throat strained
To bring out the word
Which his rage had gripped
And smothered on his lips.

Speechless he sat
At the crossroads,
When the wheels of a passing car
Quickly crushed
And… silenced him.

[Një refren i qytetit tem, originally published in Illyria, 15 July 1934, from the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 122-126, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]


 

FORBIDDEN FRUIT

 

A thirty-year-old. Unemployed, he stands in front of the movie theatre signs, on a work day. Pttt. he spits, turning away from the signs. He has the impression that someone called him, but no, no one called. No one needs a worker. And so he continues with his daily activities: He takes a look at the signs in front of the movie theatre. Pfff. They know how to live, he says and approaches the signs to study them at close hand. The same film as always is playing: an attractive girl standing beside a good-looking young man. The worker looks at them with envy. He has a dislike for the leading man and give him a nasty stare. He spits and looks down at his shoes. Even he doesn’t know what it is, the incarnation of his shoes, his worn out old shoes. He bends over to tighten them with a bit of string. Oh, he groans as he straightens up. He wanders off, along the sidewalk of course. You can even go barefoot on the sidewalk. Why not!

He moves slowly, taking it easy. Like a man without a job. Others saunter by too, but not at ease, more in a hurry. How good it is to be able to take it easy, to move slowly like a gentleman. But, what am I saying? Is it really a good thing to move slowly and take it easy? Yes and no! No and yes! It depends. For a gentleman, it’s a good thing to walk slowly, it’s good for the digestion. For a working man, it’s not good. Why? You know. Our worker walks slowly and takes it easy. Just like a gentleman. That’s the way the times and the world are nowadays. If you want to be a gentleman, you can. Our worker doesn’t want to be a gentleman or imitate one, but the times. He doesn’t like it. He just doesn’t like their pompous ways. Not that it bothers him, it’s just… well, you know.

Bong, bong, bong, bong. Four o’clock in the afternoon! How cruelly the bells resound in a worker’s guts. The bell tower of the church strikes four and resounds in a worker’s damn guts. Four! Four! Four! Four everywhere! And why four? Why? Arguing. Revolt. Almost a revolution. A revolution in miniature. It resounds. A cannon… No! the starving guts.

Our worker continues to loiter in the streets of the town. He is looking for work. Like his fellow-workers in Berlin and London. Nowhere is there a loaded truck for him to unload. Nowhere is there a traveller with suitcase in hand in need of a porter. Nowhere! Nowhere! No one wants his sweat. Nowhere a couple of lek to be made.

The worker stops in front of some shops and stares into the window. He takes a look and savours our romantic era. He is in front of the store window of a stationary display. Behind it are postcards of movie stars. He grits his teeth. Out of anger he raises his fist to… But there are laws! And police! The consequences flash through his mind. He turns from the stars in disdain and spits. He continues his way and spits again. He looks to the left and to the right. And spits again. Starving and in rags he saunters past the shops full of “forbidden fruit” (a tale from the Bible).

An instinctive desire yearns to find expression. Our worker gets control of himself once again! Laws! Police! To play it safe, he folds his hands behind his back. His hands are strong, powerful. They could even seize the devil by the throat and strangle him. But the law protects the devil, too.
Bong, bong, bong, bong! How long is it going to last?

[Moll’ e ndalueme, originally published in Jeta dhe kultura, 20 July 1935, from the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 132-135, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]


 

THE STUDENT BACK HOME

 

In one of the cities of Central Europe, Nushi was reading the letter which the postman had just delivered. He recognized that it was from home the moment he received it. Yes, the white, rectangular envelope conjured up visions of the one-storey house with the little yard full of flowers. He then saw his father, who had written the letter, returning home at dusk and bringing nighttime with him. Comings and goings were extremely uncommon the moment he closed the door behind him. Patriarchal custom was violated only rarely when someone would come to announce a birth, a death or the arrival of an unexpected guest. A law, and what a law it was! Whoever violated it would spend the whole night with the sensation of having tread on something cold and slimy like a snake. This was exactly the feeling Nushi had whenever his father looked at him. It was as if he had trod on a snake. This was one of the reasons why he was in no hurry to return home. He had been studying at the university for over three years now and could still not bring himself to return home for Christmas or Easter. “What will I do there?” he would say to himself.

But the letter he received now gave him a definite deadline. “Your sister is going to get married in a month and, as her brother, you must not fail to be there.” Such was his father’s command. At the beginning, Nushi felt quite pleased about the matter and was happy at the prospect of returning, but when he thought about it at length, his enthusiasm dissipated. He was the type of person ruled more by intellect than by emotion.

***
“Is this really the same yard I left three years ago? I could have sworn it was bigger,” Nushi thought to himself as he glanced about to see if anything had been built in it which might have made the yard look smaller. There was nothing new. The same trees: the fig, the plum, the vine trellis and the same flowers. The roses were in their usual place, and just beyond them was the honeysuckle bush. When he entered the house, the rooms seemed so tiny. The furniture looked as if it had never been touched by human hand. Everything was exactly where it had been, as if it were destined to rot on the spot. At the same time, everything seemed smaller. Nushi then discovered the cause of this optical illusion. His mind was still on the large buildings and broad squares of the city he lived in. Yes, everything now seemed smaller to Nushi, everything except his brothers and sisters who had grown. They were bigger than he had imagined them while abroad. He noticed that his mother had lost a tooth and that his father’s forehead was wrinkled and his moustache now grey.

“You finally made it,” said his father, seeing him. Nushi was touched to see his father and wished to express his feelings, but his father simply shook his son’s hand. Nushi found no adequate response. When he gave his sisters a hug, they seemed to be unsure as to whether to kiss him or not. Only his mother embraced him without hesitation, the smack of her kisses resounding in the room.

One evening, in the midst of a conversation with his engaged sister Agia, she exclaimed “Mother!” and rushed off to the kitchen. “Mother, Nushi says that girls like me, even the married ones, go to school.” She broke into convulsions of laughter at seeing the expression on her mother’s face. “Don’t laugh like that, the neighbours will hear you. It is not in good taste.” The daughter gave no reply. She was so absorbed at the stories her brother was telling her that she could think only of those marvellous lands where girls were not kept indoors, where they could go out for a walk with the boys without shame, where they could dance. Oh, how beautifully they must dance!
“Nushi!” she called out from the kitchen, “will you teach me to dance? One of my girlfriends has been driving me mad, boasting that she knows how to dance.” (Just you wait until Nushi teaches me how to dance! she thought as she dried a plate). The brother took his sister by the hand and began to show her some steps, and it was dancing arm in arm that their father caught them.

“Are you not ashamed of yourself? You’re going to get married tomorrow! And you, “he said, turning to Nushi, “you are no longer a little boy. It is a good thing that you got back early tonight!” added his father with a scowl on his face.

His sister went back into the kitchen and Nushi excused himself, saying he was tired.
“Tired in your own home? No, nothing like that ever happened to me. That seems to be why you had such difficulty finding your way back home.”

Nushi did not know what to say. He did not know how to talk to his father. When he was a child, he understood him far better. There had been a time when his father was more than just a father in his imagination. He was an ideal, an ideal of childhood dreams. But that time had passed. Nushi now realized that his father was one of a thousand fathers like him in town, one of the many who are busy transforming their children into living anachronisms, into images of themselves, worthy heirs of a sombre past.

“I’ve been told that you were out walking with some boys who are not of our faith.”
“But they are my friends.”

“Your friends, are they? Haven’t you been able to find better friends? Are there no boys of our faith here?”
“I simply happened to meet them and couldn’t just leave them like that, dad. But all right, from now on I will only go out with the boys you approve of,” Nushi replied in an attempt to appease his father.

“Very well. Listen to your father and you will not regret it. You should keep the company of people you can learn from. What can you possibly learn from the company you are keeping now? Boys of that faith will never become good men, whatever school they may attend. Listen to your father.”

And Nushi listened. He wanted to be an obedient son. How could be not listen to the father who had given life to him, who had raised him and done so much for him? Anyway, what choice did he have? Nushi listened, though against his own will. He paid attention to his father’s words and endeavoured not to frown. His brothers and sisters sitting around them paid attention to everything that was said, too. They were all ears. How could they fail to listen? His mother was also listening from the kitchen, filled with a sense of awe at the learned words of her spouse. A whole family, enclosed within the walls of the house and within a patriarchal environment, was now preparing to face the future.

“I hope they don’t put me to shame,” thought the head of the family to himself, casting a glance at the members of his household. “They must never put me to shame. I must hold them back, tighten the screws as much as possible, retain them until they suffocate and burst. How difficult it is to raise children nowadays! How hard it is to keep control of the girls! In the old days… Do you realize, children, that when I was your age… when I first began to earn a living… so that, thanks be to God, you would have enough to fill your bellies…”

Nushi listened. Everyone listened. Who would dare not to listen? Nushi did so and thought to himself, “Perhaps experience in life has made this man so strict.”

One evening, Nushi began to miss those distant lands, that city where he was studying. He loved his home, or to put it more exactly, he loved to see his family sitting around the fire: his parents, his brothers and sisters, but there was a strong sentiment which tied him to those distant lands – those lands where you could live and enjoy life to the full, however you wished, young or old, philosopher or simpleton. Nushi was aware of the appalling contrast between those lands and his own home. Being young, he was captivated by their marvellous and he meditated upon the reasons why his country was so backward. He began to hate those reasons with all the passion of his youth. He hated the past which was yet so close to him, as was his father. As a parent, his father was close, but as a representative of society and as an individual, he was a long way off.

All the disagreements and misunderstandings arose from there being so many individuals under one roof, so many beloved and at the same time, detested beings. Living with them was like being faced with the dilemma of an operation. To amputate the leg and live, or not to amputate and die. A tragic alternative. Nushi was aware that it was not his father’s fault for being the way he was. He was the product of his environment, of the society in which he grew up. It was for this reason, too, that he still cherished a paternal affection for Nushi, although he could never put it into words. But did his brothers and sisters love their father? He recalled the feelings he had had for his father as a little boy. The feelings were inspired more by fear than by love. His sisters now trembled at the sight of him, and his brothers showed absolutely no desire to spend time with him. They disappeared whenever he arrived.

“What would you be doing now, Nushi, if you were still abroad?” said Agia, interrupting his thoughts as she entered the room in her lively manner.

“It is the time of day for a walk, so I would probably be out walking with one of the guys or with…”
“Or maybe with a girl, ha ha,” countered his sister with a giggle.

“Yeah, why not? It doesn’t matter there whether you are out with a boy or a girl. Here everyone goes crazy if they see a girl walking with a boy. There, no one pays any attention whatsoever. Everyone minds his own business.”

He was filled with nostalgia for those distant lands as he described to his sister all the beautiful things he had seen and the way people lived there. He told her about important public events and of the little scandals which had occurred. Agia listened attentively. From time to time, she interrupted with a question. The expression on her face changed constantly during the course of her brother’s tales. She would let out a cry of astonishment without even realizing it. Nushi spoke with all the power of his emotions so that his sister would understand everything, unaware that his words were gradually giving birth within her to a dream which would surely never be realized, which would torture her young heart. She would sigh and lament, “What good is it to be alive here?” – a lamentation heard more and more often in our country. Nushi grew silent and reflected on the fact that his sister was now engaged and would soon be married off to some good-for-nothing.

Linked by memories of a common childhood, Nushi was extremely fond of his older sister. They had grown up together. On cold winter evenings, shivering under the blankets, they used to cuddle up and listen to one another’s hearts beating. Their bodies warmed to the murmur of a long fairy tale and they sensed the presence of something new and foreign, something as yet unknown to their bodies which now, in the warmth of the bed, was coming to be, was growing and rocking them to sleep. When their mother came in and saw them sound asleep in one another’s arms, she felt a sense of joy, but also an ever so slight sense of jealousy which clouded her bliss for a moment.

Nushi knew his sister well. She was still the same Agia she had been as a little girl. Vivacious and full of joy, but not as inclined as her girlfriends to romantic daydreams. She had no time for dreaming, as she had to help her mother with household chores: washing the dishes, sweeping and polishing the floors, and looking after the constant needs of half a dozen brothers and sisters with whom God, as they say here, had blessed her parents. Agia had no time for reveries. Nushi was aware of this fact, as he was of his sister’s beauty. What he did not know, but wished to find out, was what his sister thought of her coming marriage, of her marriage to a good-for-nothing. Nushi had spoken to his future brother-in-law on several occasions. All that he could recollect of him was the banal smile of a swollen, pallid face, the utter boredom of his mutterings, his bad teeth and his apish snobbery.

Such was his future in-law. “He comes from a good family and is a competent businessman,” his father had remarked. That was enough for his wife. By the next day, everything had been settled. And Agia? Agia is a good and clever girl and listens to her parents (which amounts to the same thing). When she first caught sight of her fiancé in the living room, or rather through the keyhole, she paled slightly, but no doubt out of emotion – nothing else. “He’s a bit on the short side,” noted her aunt, “but he’s loaded with money. What a lucky girl you are!” Agia was doubtful of her luck and grew morose. It was only when Nushi arrived that she recovered some of her liveliness and that her laugh could once again be heard throughout the house.

Nushi still did not know what she thought of the marriage. One night, when their father happened to mention the up and approaching marriage, Nushi and his sister exchanged glances. She then got up and went into the kitchen. Nushi remained silent as his father talked, and thought about his sister’s glance. She had given him such a startled look that he now understood. Nushi understood everything from one glance. It was a much-used means of communication in such families in which no one had the right to speak freely.

The next day, Nushi happened to return home to look for a book. He was not expecting anyone to be there. In his room he found Agia with her hands over her eyes to try to cover them. He approached.

“What is the matter, Agia? Why are your eyes all red?”
“From the smoke…”

Nushi was suspicious and went into the kitchen, but there was no fire on.

“Why have you been crying, Agia?”
“I wasn’t crying,” said his sister, endeavouring to smile.
“Yes, you were.”
“I was not,” she countered, rushing out of the room as if she had work to do.

From a distance, Nushi tried to elicit some reaction from her by giving her a smile, but it was to no avail. On leaving the house, he realized why Agia had been crying. He recalled the look she had given him the day before. He wanted to go back into the house, but he knew that Agia would be too ashamed to say anything. Shame, and especially shame on the part of engaged girls, is yet another link in the chains which constrain life here. How should an engaged girl not be ashamed when she knows that she is being sent to her husband for the sole purpose of going to bed with him?

She can imagine no other possible relations with the man she is going to marry, since she had never even exchanged a word with him. Shame? How can she be anything but ashamed? They say that only dishonourable girls have no sense of shame. Shame is therefore a necessity, and it is one which impedes them from raising their voices to defend themselves against those who decide on their happiness. “I don’t want to!” No, such an utterance has never been heard up until now in our family from an engaged girl. Any husband, whoever he may be, is at least a man.

Nushi was resolved to tell his father that he did not approve of Agia’s marriage. It was a difficult decision and he had to wait for the best opportunity to speak to him. One evening, when his father was in a particularly good mood and seemed willing to talk, Nushi endeavoured to express his opinion on the marriage.

“Well, who else do you think we could find for her? Indeed, where will your other sisters ever find a husband like him? He is from a good family, is wealthy and is the most industrious young man in the bazaar.”

“Yes, but nowadays, father, girls like to take a good look at their future husbands.”
“You don’t mean that we should have asked her for her opinion, do you? What could she possibly know?”
“She is not happy about it.”
“Only at the start. With time, she will be happy with him.”

That is all I have been able to accomplish for Agia, thought Nushi to himself and was enraged at not having been able to do more for her. He lost confidence in himself. “It was your only opportunity to show the strength of your character, of your mind and of your love to save someone precious from the clutches of such fatal customs. But what chance did you have? How could anyone lead a sane life in such an atmosphere? You have striven in vain to make your own contribution to society, to do a noble deed. At the very first attempt, you have failed.” Such were the thoughts that kept him awake through the night until he finally fell asleep towards dawn.

Agia stopped asking him questions about the marvels of those distant lands. Her mind was on the good-for-nothing husband she was to marry. The more she thought about him, the worse he seemed. “A guileless individual.” she overheard her girlfriends saying. Agia felt a sense of revolt taking possession of her, a revolt which had become apparent in her attitude to her brothers and sisters, and occasionally to her mother. From time to time, she would fly into a rage, drop a cup, a plate or a glass, or break something she happened to have in her hand. When her mother complained about the broken dishes, she countered sharply, “I didn’t do it on purpose,” and ran off to hide in a corner and weep.

Nor did Nushi tell her any more about the marvels of those distant lands. He only spent the time at home that he had to. His father reprimanded him for coming home late at night, but he simply gave no reply, and the sermon was thus brought to an abrupt end. When he noticed the preparations being made here and there for the wedding, he was reminded of a film he had once seen. It was called ‘Ecstasy,’ the story of an unsuccessful marriage.

“We mustn’t allow anything to put us to shame,” said his father. “Everything must be made ready for the wedding. Everything must be in order. Take care not to forget a thing,” said his father to his mother.

The wedding went off well. Everyone had a good time. There was raki and wine galore. Weddings are not an everyday happening. They must therefore be occasions of joy. To the health of the beautiful bride! To the health of the host. Many a toast followed to a clinking of glasses and a ‘down the hatch,’ from which songs now resounded, like the unoiled, squeaking wheels of an ox cart.

God knows the singers themselves were well enough oiled. The women were busy singing a song about stuffed vine leaves. They all talked at the same time, each of them listening to no one but themselves, and giggling about. In the corners were the children, munching on something or other for the most part and amazed to see their mothers in a state of excitement such as they had never been in before.

“Why is Agia getting married?” asked her younger, seven-year-old brother.
“Daddy told her to.”
“I know that daddy told her to, you idiot, but why is she getting married?”
“My mommy is married, too, and so is yours.”
“That’s true. But why do they get married?”
“So that they can go to bed with their husbands,” intervened a older boy of nine.
“How do you know anyway?” asked Agia’s brother.
“It’s true. My mommy goes to bed with my daddy,” replied the precocious lad.
“Don’t say wicked things or I’ll tell on you at school,” said the nine-year-old, before departing in search of something sweet.

All during the wedding celebrations, Nushi felt sick to his stomach. He could not get into the spirit of things, with all the noise and to-do. He needed to help arrange things and deal with the guests. He was obliged to greet and talk at length with cousins he had never seen before and tell them all about his stay abroad. His eldest cousins inspected him with great curiosity and wished him well. The younger cousins smiled and showed their unbound admiration for him. Nushi felt nauseated. He did his best to get into the spirit of things, to drink with the guests and even to sing with the women, but all the time he had the impression he was making a fool of himself.

He did not even reply to the congratulations of the women guests when he happened to enter the bride’s room. Agia stood there, as erect and pale as a candle. “Come in. Don’t be ashamed,” the women said to him as they arranged the bride’s veil. Nushi wished only that the whole ceremony would be over with as soon as possible. Let Agia depart whither fate, or more exactly her father, had consigned her. Perhaps she will come to love her new husband, as his father had said, he thought to himself.

“No, I have never seen a bride weep so much on her wedding day,” said one of the women when, as custom decreed, they came to escort her to the house of her new husband.
“Well, there is no reason why she should not weep. After all, she is leaving her parents, and her brothers and sisters.”
“I heard that Agia did not even want the boy,” said a third woman with a sigh, turning away from her companions.
“Indeed. But what better husband could she possibly find? They say the lad is wealthy enough and is from a good family.”
“Yes, he is.”
“You probably heard that from what’s-her-name trying to get the lad for her own daughter.”
“No, on the contrary. I, too, have heard that Agia did not want the boy,” said a fourth woman who could not help herself from breaking into the enigmatic gossip and who had her eyes fixed upon the doorway all the time.
“It was strange. She wept the most when she said farewell to her brother. Poor Nushi. The tears were welling his eyes, too.”
“Yes, it is a pity. You can see that they’ve married her off by force.”
“Well, after all, what does it matter? We were all married off by force. Where had we ever met our husbands beforehand? They married us off to the first man who asked. If a Gypsy had been the first one to ask, they would have given us to him. That is our destiny,” exclaimed a woman with a masculine face.
“I feel sorry for Agia. She is a good girl,” said the youngest among them.

“Well, were we any worse?” countered the woman with the masculine face, and scowled at her companions.
Two days after the wedding, Nushi went to visit Agia at her new home in order to say good-bye, since he was soon to leave the country. When he announced his departure, she began to weep and did not stop crying until after he left. At the gate, she threw her arms around him and hugged and kissed him so warmly and tenderly that he never forgot that the moment.

***
Social conventions are inviolable. Woe to those who try to contravene them. At least, they seem that way. May the aura of decency in our city shine forth untouched. May the light of our day-to-day social relations shine forth like polished shoes in the mud. And if a woman suffers in anguish from having to sleep with her elderly or ignorant husband, and loves another, what does it matter? It is of no importance. Marital relations are sacrosanct. That is what the church says at any rate. There is only one catch. No scandals are allowed. Do anything to avoid scandal. Scandal is as lethal a danger to one’s honour as a 42 degree temperature is to one’s body. Society begins to languish at a certain temperature, and if you wish to maintain your honour and your immaculate reputation, take care that the temperature does not surpass a certain threshold.

At the market in our city, when people sing the praises of a young man, they use various attributes, as they would elsewhere. Among the most usual of these attributes is ‘son of the devil.’ Any apprentice in the market whom they call thus will do well. It means that he will be someone of importance. Not that he will become a millionaire, but that he is skilled enough to learn his profession well and to satisfy the demands of his master. One of these young men was Luli, an apprentice of Agia’s husband. And what a ‘son of the devil’ he was. Without Luli, Agia’s husband would never have had much success in his trade. That was the opinion held by the other members of his guild who were all interested in getting Luli to work for them. But in vain. Although Luli was only twenty years old, he refused to leave his master who had no reason to be unsatisfied with him.

When Luli first saw his master’s wife dressed as a bride, he was overwhelmed by her beauty, and by the ugliness of her husband-to-be. Up until the wedding he had looked upon the man simply as his boss, as the storekeeper who paid his wages regularly and generously. He found it difficult to imagine that this man was the husband of a woman as beautiful as Agia. In his mind, Luli had formed an opinion of him. His master sat behind the counter and watched how his apprentice was handling the sales, weighing goods, receiving payment and bringing the money to him. Seated at his desk, he would give a toothless smile to those under his command. Luli was by no means afraid of him. He felt as little fear as one might feel for a slightly older colleague.

But now that his master was married to such a beautiful woman, there was an unconscious pang of dissatisfaction in the depths of his soul. This instinctive discontent, which Luli, the simple apprentice of a merchant, was unable to analyse, expressed itself from time to time in anger and jealousy. “What a fool. And what a beautiful wife he got for himself!” Luli once confided to a close friend. This opinion of his master crossed Luli’s mind again and again. The friend, smiling and pulling Luli’s arm, had only made things worse by agreeing with him.

***
Three years later, Nushi returned home, having finished his studies in medicine. The optimism which had given him the strength to complete his degree as a doctor was still with him when he arrived in town. The whole world now revolved around him; his friends, cousins and acquaintances all revolved around him like the planets around the sun. He was the epicentre. At least, that was the way it seemed to him. And a fact it was. Nushi wondered why, but he had no time to reflect on the matter. He was too caught up in a series of greetings, visits, luncheons and dinner parties, and in new, select acquaintances.

Even at home, things had now changed for Nushi. His brothers and sisters behaved differently in his presence. The word ‘doctor’ seemed to exude an odour of drugs which evoked a fear of illness. His brothers and sisters lost their fraternal love and now looked up to him and admired him. Nushi noticed that even his father behaved differently in his presence. If Nushi happened to return home late at night, his father made no remark. On the contrary, his father spoke to him cordially, asking him whom he had seen that day and whom he had just been out with. His questions, now devoid of the bitterness and irony of the past, evinced an objective interest. He also began talking to Nushi of the career which the latter would soon being embarking upon.

“The time has come that I will need your assistance because my business is not doing well. Up to now, I have managed to keep it going, but things are getting worse. What a relief it is that you have finished your studies. Your sisters are grown up now and you will have to give a bit of thought to them, too.”

Nushi smoked his cigarette, observing the fumes rising, and through the smoke, saw the face of his father speaking gently, especially when he mentioned Nushi’s imminent work as a doctor. Whenever another member of the family showed up, he changed his tone and became somewhat more severe.

Nushi of course, being a doctor, was also something of a psychologist. He studied his father’s behaviour attentively both in his presence and in the presence of the others. A new thought took violent possession of his brain. He shook his head as if trying to rid himself of it. He had come to the conclusion that the so-called family spirit was nothing other than egoism. Nushi remembered having read something about this in a book. It was true. If his father’s attitude towards him had changed, it was due to the fact that Nushi was about to start making a living. One might consider it quite normal for a father to expect assistance from his son to support the family, as his father was no longer in a position to do so.

But Nushi’s reasoning was more radical, more left wing, as they say nowadays. Three years ago, although Nushi was already grown up, his father behaved like a tyrant, whereas now, though still no angel, he was striving to be Nushi’s best friend. Three years ago, you were not even allowed to open your mouth. You were nothing in your father’s eyes because you had no earnings. But now, with prospects of a fat income looming, it was “I salute you and I tip my hat, or rather my black fez to you.” It was thus, in the form of a dialogue, that Nushi studied the situation, although with little pleasure.

He refused to subscribe to the new material doctrines or to admit that there was no ideal family and that the love which we regard as sincere, only reflected material or physical interests. Nushi shook his head, wishing to rid himself of the thought which was destroying all his sacred ideals which had been wrapped in a veil of mystery. Like a drowning man clinging to a raft, Nushi clung to that mystery to preserve his illusions. But the values he held sacred were in vain because he was beginning to realize that the mystery in them, like a lifesaver on the high seas, was nothing but deception. And yet it was a deception which he clung to because he needed it, even though he knew it was a lie.

After three years of marriage, Nushi had seen Agia change considerably. She had not had any children as yet, but her waist and thighs had expanded and she looked pregnant. The blossom in her cheeks was no longer what it had been, and her eyes which could once look deep into his soul meandered and only crossed his from time to time, just enough to remind him that she was talking or listening to him. Nushi was surprised at the change, considering the fact that married sisters usually show even greater affection for their brothers. On leaving her house, he had the impression of not having visited his sister Agia at all. Perhaps she was just being bashful, he said to himself. That evening, Nushi told his family that he had visited Agia and that she had changed a lot. On hearing him, his father turned to his mother and noted: “What a fool her husband is. Is he waiting for me to go and tell him to fire his employee?”

“But he cannot run his business without him. You know what a clever worker Luli is,” replied his mother gently, giving Nushi a furtive glance. “If he doesn’t mind, why should you be bothered?”

“Are you serious? Haven’t you heard what people have been saying?” countered his father, raising his voice and looking at Nushi.

Nushi said nothing but the conversation almost took his breath away. The blood rose to his head. He soon regained his composure though and began thinking about what his parents had been saying.

Perfect harmony reigned at Agia’s house. No disputes, fights or ugly scenes, as they say. Perfect harmony reigned. For example, when her husband got home from shopping or from work in the evening, Agia did her best to see that everything in the house was in order so that he could rest after a hard day’s work. They even asked one another how the day had been, if there had been any problems or if anything new had taken place. Agia carried through with these family rituals in a cool though sincere manner. Her husband, more emotional, went further.

He would approach Agia and pinch her cheek with his two fingers smelling of fat, as one would pinch a little child. He would stroke her hair or the nape of her neck and look longingly at her figure. Then, relishing in conjugal bliss, he would light a cigarette, have a glass of raki and begin to talk about his day at work. Agia would shuffle back and forth in the living room, doing this and that, listening to her husband and answering now and then.

“Did Luli bring you everything you wanted?” asked her husband raising his glass.
“Yes,” she replied briefly. “But you forgot to give him the pepper,” she added with a slight blush, and turned away.

“Did he bring you this? Did he bring you that?” When Agia said yes, he continued: “Yes, Luli is an honest fellow. Up to now I’ve had no cause for complaint whatsoever,” and made a zero in the air with his fingers. “In the store, I trust him more than I do myself because he’s clever. Of course, I know there are people trying to make me get rid of him by spreading all sorts of rumours, because they want him for themselves.”

Hearing this, Agia blushed right to the temples, her heart began to pound and she replied in a more than usually brusque manner: “But why do you send Luli to me during the day when you could bring what we need home yourself in the evening?”

“Well, where would I get the meat for our lunch? Why shouldn’t he come? People do talk, but I know why…” Agia wondered if there were any reasons why he should not come when she was alone at home. It was the perfect time for him to come, whispered an emotion from the depths of her being – though, as the respected wife of a merchant, she tried to resist it. But the emotion took hold of her young body and she replied to her husband:

“Don’t forget to send me the pepper tomorrow.” She wondered, too, if there was anything else she might need to order.
“All right, I’ll send it along, with some fresh meat. The butcher said they would be slaughtering tomorrow. Anything else?”
“No…”

***
Nushi knocked once or twice at the door leading to the courtyard and, seeing that no one had come out to open it, he entered and walked up towards the house, wondering why Agia had not come out. At that moment he met Luli on the steps who murmured, in a somewhat agitated manner, that he was sorry for the delay in coming out to open the door. Nushi was surprised at first, thinking that something might have happened, and then had a doubt. Hesitantly but instinctively, he ran up the staircase. He found Agia with her back to the door, one hand in her hair and the other one fiddling mechanically with some ingredients in a bowl. Turning around, she saw her brother and smiled at him, but her face was pallid.

“What’s wrong, Agia?” Nushi asked, taking her hand.
“Nothing at all, Nushi. Why?” she replied somewhat confused.
“You’re pale.”

“Yes, I have a bit of a headache, or rather, I had a headache this morning, but I’m all right now,” stammered Agia, her voice and her expression giving way to her brother’s piercing glance. Her heart began to pound in fright and her knees quivered. She would have fallen if Nushi had not been there to prop her up.

“Agia, you shouldn’t really be working so much anymore,” said Nushi, turning his head towards the window and trying to speak as calmly as possible. She tried to get a peek at the expression on his face but could only see his ear and part of his chin as he looked out of the window onto the road, gritting his teeth.

“Look, Agia,” he turned to her suddenly, “don’t work so much. The less you work, the better off you will be. You won’t have breakdowns like that. And it’s not good for you to work while you’re pregnant.”

Agia looked into her brother’s eyes and saw that he meant nothing more than what he had said, and Nushi was relieved to see that he had succeeded in deceiving his sister, in convincing her that he suspected nothing of her relations with Luli. He went on to talk about various matters, asking his sister about this and that, and she inquired about their father, mother, brothers and sisters, laughing all the time.

Nushi left his sister’s place with a smile on his face. And he was happy and relieved. Indeed, he was surprised at the joy and tranquility he felt. But an hour earlier, something might have happened. Yes, Nushi thought to himself, just like it would have up in the primitive mountains. The rifle would have spoken, so that people large and small would know what respect is, so that honour could be cleansed. Someone would have died and society would have been satisfied. Not that society is malevolent – it is just that people in our town get bored, and cleansing one’s honour with the rifle is a great sensation. It may keep you up for several nights on end, but at least it gets rid of the boredom. After all – honour, my friends – honour is not water.

It may be champagne, but it’s certainly not water. Smiling still, Nushi remembered that an hour earlier, he had been on the verge of committing an act which would have been quite spectacular and theatrical. Yet he had managed to check his emotions immediately. He now smiled at the thought of himself with a fez over one eyebrow, with a long moustache and with a rifle in his hand, standing over the body of his sister and her lover, the two of them slaughtered for having tasted of the forbidden fruit.

This manly act is what ennobles our people, say the moralists. This barbarous act only serves to reveal how primitive and ignorant our country really is, countered Nushi to himself. I may be amoral, but my way of thinking, my ideology if you will, is incompatible with what society tries to impose upon me. I make use of its morals as a screen, and make fun of them behind its back. I’m playing society’s game, just like hundreds of other people do. So, society, if you don’t want everyone to make fun of you behind your back, change your style. Get rid of all the stuffiness.

[Studenti në shtëpi, 1936, from the volume Migjeni, Vepra, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1988, p. 201-224, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]

NO COMMENTS

LEAVE A REPLY