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Robert Elsie

Albanian Literature | Classical


Ernest KOLIQI, 1960

Ernest KOLIQI, 1960

Webdesign J. Groß




    Shuk Dija set off slowly in the direction of Arra e Madhe. A light breeze from the hills across the Kir river had begun to give relief from the heat of that July afternoon. The alleys and the walls were still broiling even though the sun was now low. He had no problem with the heat for he had just gotten up from an afternoon nap. He washed and refreshed himself at the well. So much time had passed since he had been able to enjoy the well water of Shkodra, water so sweet that it was the source of many a legend. He dressed carefully, aware that many people would be observing him from behind doorways and through the slats of Venetian blinds.
     Shuk Dija was on his way to Arra e Madhe to pay someone a return visit.
     Upon his arrival in Shkodra, after many years of absence, numerous relatives, friends and well-wishers had dropped by. Returning such visits had always been a nuisance to him, yet this time, it was a pleasure to visit his distant relative Shaqe, because he had spent so much time with her as a child. They had had a lot of fun at her house, out in the yard. The longer one is away from the sites of childhood games, the more these sites are wrapped in reverie and the greater is the desire to see them again. From the very first days of Shuk's return, every corner and every object, from the smallest nooks and crannies of the house itself to the farthest streets and alley, evoked in him long-forgotten memories, and filled him with dreams and impressions, some pleasant and others nostalgic, yet all of them somehow new and strange to him.
     Strolling with the lazy steps of a passerby who has plenty of time on his hands, he observed everything with particular interest. The walls and gardens of the neighbouring houses were all familiar. Yes, he could remember them, but in his memory they had all been vague and enveloped in a golden mist, like some legend, and this had made them all the more enticing. Even now, seeing objects with his very own eyes as he passed among them after so many years of absence, he discovered their new and unexpected charms: the slanting facade behind the leafy mulberry tree, the garden wall with heavy clusters of fragrant honeysuckle, and the alleys full of shade and mystery. Everything evoked in him recollections of fine verdant parks and landscapes, and made him want to run barefoot over the grass.
     He fell into a daydream, oblivious to the curious glances of those watching him from the doorways.
     While he was abroad, sitting alone at a table in a café amidst the din of a big city, he used to think about Shkodra, his thoughts flying home on the wings of his imagination. He would find himself roaming the streets, entering a reclusive garden and stepping on the green grass. "Imaginary journeys," he called them, those visionary walks through the distant town of his birth. Now, after several years of absence and longing, reality proved to be just as beautiful as his dreams.
     All of a sudden, he awoke from his thoughts and said to himself:
     "Have I lost my way?"
     He looked to the left and right to get his directions, trying to find the way as he had remembered it as a child.
     "Oh, it's back there, behind me..."
     And indeed, he had passed by the little side alley. He hurried back, found the passageway, and arrived at a gate, dark and scarred by the weather. The cobblestones in front of it were worn, too, with weeds growing thick among them.
     He knocked at the gate, as if he were knocking at the magic entrance to the lost world of his childhood.
     He could hear the echo of clogs coming across the courtyard. A ruddy, oval-faced housemaid then opened the door. She blushed awkwardly for a moment, as she had never met him before and scurried off in the direction of the house. Abandoning her clogs at the foot of the stairs, she scuttled up the steps to inform the lady of the house of his arrival.
     Amused by the maid's insipid behaviour, Shuk closed the door behind him and headed slowly towards the staircase. With what delight he looked around him! The yard was exactly as it had been the last time, except for a stone wall which now partitioned it from the neighbouring yard, where a fence had once been. The house was freshly painted and remodelled somehow, but he could see no other changes. The same open veranda with the wooden stairs, the window frames with iron bars. Everything was as it had been in the past.
     Shuk's eyes fixed on the little gate leading to the garden around the back of the house, when a woman's voice echoed from the veranda:
     "Oh, Shuk! Come on up!"
     There, at the top of the stairs, was Shaqe with her hands behind her back, trying hurriedly to undo the white apron she was wearing. He went up, embraced her, and entered the living room.
     Here, too, everything was as it had been.
     Shaqe, sitting across from him, began to speak:
     "You wouldn't believe it. I swear to God, I did not recognize you a few days ago when I went over to see you. It's amazing how the years pass! I remember how tiny you were. I can still see you playing in the garden. My God, you gave me a hard time when you were little! Do you remember why? You would bring all the kids from the neighbourhood over here... Do you remember when you used to come and spend the night here? Lush, may his soul rest in peace, used to talk about you a lot when you were abroad."
     Lush was her late husband.
     Shuk was delighted and had a smirk on his face, but gave no reply. The sound of Shaqe's voice had stirred something at the bottom of his heart, reviving memories of the past and of long-forgotten joys. He closed his eyes and plunged into the memories, all of his years away from Shkodra vanishing as if they had never existed. Once again he was that restless little child eagerly hopping around in fun and games.
     Shaqe continued:
     "Oh, Shuk, poor Lush was so attached to you! As I said, not a day went by without his mentioning your name... Lin was still at school... and when Lush passed away, I had to take him out and send him to work at the market."
     Lin was her son.
     "How I wish that you could have been at Lin's wedding last year! I kept saying to everybody: 'What a shame that Shuk won't be attending the wedding.' It was a marvellous reception. And he couldn't have found himself a better bride! But, where... where is she? Come on in now! Shuk is a good friend of ours. You don't have to get all dressed up."
     Shaqe rose to see if the young woman would enter. From where he was sitting, Shuk attempted to have a look at the garden, through the window. Its view was not obscured, but from where he was sitting he could see only part of it, and the giant fig tree, whose branches now reached up to the windowsill.
     Oh, that garden... the verdant playground of our childhood...! Shuk had not seen it for ten years, but he remembered every corner of it - all the trees and shrubs, every bit of grass. Even the tiniest things bore memories.
     While he was abroad, it was this garden which grew green every spring in his heart.
     "Here, this is Lin's bride."
     Shaqe interrupted his thoughts when she returned with the young woman.
     They all sat down and talked. Shuk said a few words here and there, just enough to cover over silence and nostalgia, so that his absent-minded behaviour should not be misunderstood. All the while, as they stared he looked at the bride out of the corner of his eye.
     She was not unusually pretty, but there was a warmth which emanated from her face and which made her immediately attractive.
     She was dressed in a native costume: shiny, black breeches, a silken blouse, a red apron, a necklace of medallions on her breast, and a string of small gold coins in her hair. She kept her eyes to the ground, looking at the white handkerchief she was holding in her hands which were adorned with many shining rings. From time to time, she would look up, but when her eyes met his, she would lower her head at once, batting her eyelashes.
     Shuk felt as though he had always known her, and his initial curiosity vanished when he saw the soft features of her face, a characteristic of many of the women of Shkodra.
     "I was unable to take Vida with me when I went to see you after you got back because she was spending a few days with her relatives," said Shaqe.
     Vida was the bride's name.
     With this, she began praising her virtues: she was a good worker, didn't talk much, was neat, and was just the perfect match for Lin.
     The young woman blushed and lowered her head even more. Shuk kept his eyes on her, but he was not really interested for he had plunged once again into a daydream.
     "Where would all those girls who played with me in the garden be now, I wonder? Of course, they're all grown up and many of them are married now. Perhaps I have already seen them on the street, and did not recognize them. Some of them may even have died..."
     He cast his mind back to Dusha, who had been his closest friend as a child. He had carried the memories of her with him when he left Shkodra and had guarded them carefully through his years of wanderings abroad. Dusha, that pale and skinny little girl. Of her delicate features, only her big black eyes showed any vitality. He had taken her under his protection, and none of the other children would dare to have harmed her. He used to give her walnuts, paper for making kites, spools of thread, knucklebones for playing jacks, and little figurines. Once, he remembered, he wanted to give her a beautiful box with a pen holder, a pencil, an inkwell, and an eraser in it. His uncle had brought it from him from Trieste. She wouldn't take it. He begged and cajoled to no avail. Nothing in the world would convince her to accept the present.
     Where would Dusha be now?
     Except for her name, he know nothing about her; neither who her parents were, nor where she lived at that time. He had met her down in the garden, and only now did he understand why he had always wanted to come and play here. It was his desire to see and spend time with Dusha. He had heard nothing more of her in ten years of absence, and a strange feeling now caused him to believe that she might not have survived the years, skinny and fragile as she had been. He imagined her somehow lying in the Fusha e Rmajit cemetery, and grieved at the thought, seeing her dead before his eyes, his little sister.
     Shaqe then spoke:
     "Lin will be back from market soon. He would be very disappointed if he missed you. Can you wait for him, Shuk? I am going to put a bottle of raki out to chill in the well and make you some nice appetizers. Do wait until he gets back! He won't be very long..."
     Shuk answered:
     "Alright, but in the meantime I'm going to go and have a look at the garden, if I may."
     "Why, of course," uttered Shaqe. "Get up, girl! Take him and show him the garden."
     The young woman stood up, blushing.
     When they got downstairs, she opened the little gate for him and said in a faint voice: "Go on in."
     Shuk entered and began tiptoeing over the soft, green grass.
     It was like a dream. Nothing had changed, except that, now that he was grown up, the garden seemed smaller, the walls were lower, and the trees less tall than he had imagined.
     The sun could not be seen any longer. It had vanished behind the wall. A pale afternoon light devoid of vibrancy spread through the garden, the light which precedes the last moments of dusk and brings with it a certain sadness and longing for something which is about to disappear forever. Everything was still: the large, rough foliage of the fig tree, the delicate leaves of the plums which rose in a circle in the middle of the garden, the dark ivy, the honeysuckle blooming on the high walls, even the tent-shaped boxwood under the windows of the house stood quiet. No movement, as if they had gathered in silence to wait for the shadows of the night to descend upon them.
     The air, motionless within the garden, was replete with smells: the smell of ripe fruit, the scent of fresh grass, the fragrances of flowers, herbs, and plants hidden in various cool corners. All these scents, contained within the garden walls, joined to form a single fragrance as exquisite as an aromatic potion.
     Twilight, with its pale shadows, was spreading and blotting out the colours, but had also set alight a myriad of stars in that part of the sky which stretched like a silver veil over the walls. In Shuk's dreamy eyes, the garden was slowly taking on another form, an image of dawn.
     For a few moments, everything was miraculously transformed. The fresh light of springtime flooded into the garden and revived the plants, which began to grow. The silence which had covered the garden like a veil was suddenly supplanted by voices, shouts, and merriment. Among the sounds, he recognized a girl's soft voice, and his heart skipped. He was a child once again. He rolled in the grass, climbed the trees, stretched his hands out to reach the sweet figs, and hid behind the dense boxwood. At once, he stopped running and looked, in amazement, towards the little gate which was opening. Dusha, his tiny girlfriend, the playmate of his early years, entered the garden with a piece of red candy in her fingers. She walked towards him, sucking on the confection as she approached.
     "We've got a beautiful garden behind the house, don't we?"
     Shuk was awakened from his daydream by the young woman's voice. It upset him at first because her words had dispersed and destroyed his dream, but then, feeling uncomfortable because of his protracted silence, he felt obliged to reply:
     "Yes, it's wonderful. I love it because it reminds me of my childhood. You know, I often used to come here to play. Memories of the past, however fond they are, always make me uneasy. That's what happened to me the moment I entered the garden."
     He spoke and looked at her.
     The young woman, whose body radiated health and youth, smiled as she listened to him. Her eyes expressed joy and serenity. The shy expression on her face was now gone.
     Shuk thought to himself:
     "How lucky you are not to know what depression is! It is an illness which has often gnawed at my soul. If I were to tell you everything I was thinking, you would probably find me strange, perhaps even ridiculous. How lucky you are!"
     Speaking up, he then said:
     "I haven't been in Shkodra for over ten years now. You know, when you have been away for a long time, you notice even the smallest details on the first days when you get back."
     Her lips moved. Shuk waited for a moment, but she did not speak.
     The light faded and vanished. Night had now fallen over the garden. He could not see her face well because it was now dark and she was standing at a distance from him. Yet he sensed the trembling of her body, as if she were on the verge of saying something and was holding herself back.
     He thought that he might have been boring her with his talk so he walked towards the gate.
     "Shall we go back upstairs?"
     She gave no reply, but followed in his footsteps. Suddenly, in the middle of the garden, Shuk could no longer swallow the question which had risen to his lips several times.
     "Do you know anything about a little girl called Dusha who used to live somewhere around here?"
     The bride walked on behind him. As he received no reply, he continued, without turning:
     "She was not in good health and had an emaciated, drawn-out face. I don't know why, but I have the impression she may have died... These plum trees were the witness of my happy childhood. I wish they, at least, could tell me what happened. I was exuberant a moment ago thinking of that girl I once loved, and now I see her in her grave."
     At that moment, he spun around as if struck by lightning.
     With a smile on her lips, the young woman replied:
     "Don't you recognize me, Shuk?"

[Kopshti, from the volume Hija e maleve, Shkodra 1929. Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie.]