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Robert Elsie

Albanian Literature | Modern

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Lindita ARAPI, 2005 (Photo: Stephan Boltz).

Lindita ARAPI, 2005
(Photo: Stephan Boltz).

Webdesign J. Groß

Lindita ARAPI

 

THE MUTE MAIDEN

    He is dead now, and they have all gone away. I am alone. Now that its spectre has vanished, I have moved into mother's room. It was there that I wrote the tale of the mute maiden and have resolved never to speak again.
     In the beginning, I did not understand what this decision really meant. I was actually only amused by the thought that everyone else would have to work hard at trying to understand me - that they would be frustrated and saddened. I saw myself as a wall of impenetrable silence they would never be able to break though. Later, the situation became unbearable for me, too - so unbearable that I thought I would burst and disintegrate. Sometimes I had the impression that my head had been split in two and that my brains were oozing out without my feeling it at all. This sensation became so strong on occasion that I was convinced my head was finally empty... and I was relieved.
     It was at that time that the words, which used to flow out of me so profusely, began to wither and dry up until there was no sound left in me at all. Perhaps as a result, I began to put my thoughts to paper. One needs time for this new form of communication and I am happy that I now have all the time I need. Nothing that bothers and torments other people in their daily lives, worries me. I watch the days go by out on the veranda and puzzle at the forms and contortions of eyes and hands. I am amazed that the passing bodies still move the way they once did.
     I don't know how long it has been. Quite a few days must have passed because I have forgotten a lot of what happened. The memories come back to me in fragments and I cannot link them to one another or put them in order sufficiently to make any sense out of them. Nonetheless, I will try to retrieve what remains in the recesses of my mind and set the splinters free. Perhaps they will come to life again.

* * *

    Whenever father entered the room, we girls would stand up and drop whatever we happened to have in our hands on the bed - knitting or an apple with the first bite taken out of it. I would always close my book and, because I was the smallest, approach him to help him take off his jacket.
     "Hi, daddy. How was your day?" my elder sisters would say with a mixture of smiles, dread and shyness on their faces.
     I never managed to open my mouth at the proper time when he was in the room. An incomprehensible murmur lodged somewhere in the back of my throat whenever I gave him a hand to prepare for his nap. It was all part of the family rituals that began every morning when the door creaked open and the huge shadow of my father appeared in the hallway. These rituals were nothing more than a way of getting the stagnant waters of family love and devotion flowing again. As far back as I can remember, we always took the same posture. There were always the same tokens of respect, the same fear and the same tardy reaction on my part when my sisters greeted him. My habit of not opening my mouth at all when father got back from work dates perhaps from that time. I never managed to greet him properly. All that succeeded in squeaking through my teeth was a meek 'How was your day?' I would approach quietly to hang up his jacket and then fetch some hot water to wash his feet.
     Whenever I knelt in front of him and massaged his feet swollen from his exhausting work, I would think how strange his toes looked. I wondered if I would recognize them if they were somewhere else. And then I would hear his deep and gentle voice inquiring about me.
     "How were your marks at school today?"
     I was good at school and rarely got bad marks. If I did, I did not try to conceal them, as my sisters did, but rather showed them off to my father. It amused me to watch him get upset, and I would listen to his tirade patiently without letting it bother me at all.
     I remember the secret pleasure I took whenever I succeeded in putting him in a bad mood - whenever I stopped being daddy's little girl.
     "Where are your brains, child? You're not concentrating in class. Look at the marks you're getting!" he would shout.
     "I never had any brains, daddy" I would say, teasing him.
     He would look nervous whenever the children he had raised, like his own flesh and blood as he was wont to say, began to use his words.
     Every time I replied using his expressions, I was severely punished. I would be locked in the bathroom with nothing to eat until my father decided I had suffered enough. Sometimes the little pleasures I took with him were so severely punished that I spent the whole night in the bathroom, without light and heat. The bathroom was a terrifying place. Cowering in a corner in the dark, I would whine, afraid all the time that the neighbours would hear me. Abandoned in my little corner of the world, I remember praying fervently to a star I could see through the window, hoping that God would be there and heed my plight. I later took revenge by not talking to my father at all for days on end. My silence lasted even longer when I came to realize that he fully understood what fear and trepidation I suffered in the bathroom, and continued to hold me captive there. My rebellion as a child went so far that I dreamt of running away, of forcing my desperate parents to search for me and comprehend at long last just how much they had hurt their little girl. My daydreams always ended like fairy tales. I would return home to my smiling and caring father who would stroke my hair, and we would all live happily ever after.

* * *

    I often recall the words of my mother. She held the view that I had long been my father's pet. Whenever he got back from work, he would always bring me a piece of chocolate or cake. Later, when he noticed that I was showing signs of maturity, he would talk to me as he would to a guest in his house - to someone he had to take care of.
     After the death of my mother, my elder sisters got used to him and his melancholic silence. They accepted him the way he was and laughed at my worries when he changed his behaviour towards me. They tended to his every need like two guardian angels, for whom the word of a man was absolute.
     I had only gotten used to his eternal silence and, whenever he did utter a word, I would take fright and drop what I had in my hands. I was amazed at how artificial he sounded when he spoke. I felt alright when he wandered about the house in silence, but I only really felt safe when he was in his own room. Then I was free to do whatever I wanted, to try on a new dress or to use my mother's lipstick.
     The dark blue door to his room was usually kept locked, even when he was not at home. I had such a longing to sleep in that room again, as I had done when mother was alive, when she would let me snuggle up to her breast.
     When I was forbidden from entering the room, it turned into a magic place. I would glance stealthily at the door whenever it opened and I would look inside whenever my sisters entered to take my father his tea in the evening. At the time, I puzzled over why one sister would go in one evening and the other sister the next evening to take father his dinner or to help him get ready for bed. Later I got used to the idea. It became a daily ritual, something which was simply done, in particular now that mother was no longer alive. After all, someone had to look after my father. My sisters were grown up now, ready to 'take husband,' as my aunt would say. They would spend their time knitting for their dowries and pondering about their future spouses. Their conversations were interrupted only when my father entered the room, when the subject immediately changed. It was unheard of in a house of girls to talk about men - that I knew - and for virgins, it was considered quite shameful.
     "Father is the shame of the house," I would say, teasing them to drive them out of the room. But I was in fact the shameless virgin of the house, inspired by all the books I had read.
     My view of men at the time was one of a suit of clothes, cut out in coloured paper. They were more intelligent than girls. That is why I drew them with two heads. I remember, when I showed the drawings to my sisters, they groaned and predicted I would have a hard time with men when I grew up.
     "Meander from man to man, she will..."
     "I'm going to have three husbands: one in a green suit, one in a blue suit and one in a black suit like your girlfriend's husband." I would tell them all about my future husbands and make them laugh.
     "Look at her, she still has milk dripping from her lips," my eldest sister Lily would shout to tease me.
     And this did infuriate me because I had been doing my utmost to appear older, especially with my friends, to whom I would reveal the love stories I had overheard from my sisters. "What do you mean by milk on my lips? Alright, then, I'm going to have one husband, just one husband," I stammered and ran out into the yard.
     "Quiet. You'll be the shame of us all. Everyone is listening. Be quiet!"
     But I paid no attention to them. The more they told me to keep quiet, the louder I would become.
     "I want a husb..., husb...," my voice trembled until I lost control of it completely and stammered, "housebird."
     I looked up and suddenly saw my father staring at me. I lowered my head and waited for retribution to follow. But instead, he passed me by and went into the house, muttering, "Can't we find that girl a budgie or something? Otherwise she'll whine all day."
     There I stood in the middle of the yard with a finger in my mouth, not at all relieved that I had not been punished. Father had looked at me as if he had seen me for the very first time, I thought to myself for a moment, wondering at the strange father I had. Then I went off to the rabbit hutch to play with the animals I so loved. I could while away the hours there, talking to my tiny friends, as everyone called them. Whenever I was sad, I would go out to the rabbit hutch and tell them my problems.
     I would have long forgotten this minor episode, had it not been the prologue of what was later to come.

* * *

    I got up early that morning and was full of energy. No one else was at home and I was glad that there would be nobody there to push me around. The fact that the day started out well was actually more related to events of the night before than to the fact that it was one of my rare mornings alone.
     On the evening before, my aunt had given me some white lace panties, like the underwear the older girls wore. It was the first time that I had ever worn such clothes. I put them under my pillow and could hardly wait for my sisters to come home so that I could unfold them piously on the bed like a flag.
     It was 9:00. I shuddered every time the metallic clang of the clock echoed through the house. Somehow, I hated the sound. It made me shiver, like a cold shower. I looked up automatically and saw a key turning in the doorlock. It was my father.
     He smiled when he saw me with some books in my hand. I acknowledged his presence curtly, as I was waiting for my sisters to arrive. I wanted desperately to show my new secret to someone and a novel, mysterious instinct made me speak.
     I watched my father's steps as he went into the bedroom. He said nothing, obviously not wanting to make me nervous. I hesitated for a moment and then... walked towards the bedroom. Pushing the door ajar, I entered the room for the first time. He turned around, looking somewhat perplexed. "Hey, little girl, what are you trying to hide from me? Have you got a piece of candy or something?" he said jovially.
     "No," I replied coyly and spread my new panties out for him to see. "Look what aunty bought me. Look how nice they are. I'm going to wear them tomorrow for my birthday. Sonya wears them, and now I'm going to wear them, too," I beamed. "Like they wear when they get married," I added, posing with the panties in front of me.
     I blabbered on and did not even notice the change in the expression on his face. It had flushed.
     "Come on over here so that I can see you," he whispered.
     "They're not like the clothes they show on TV," I said, approaching.
     "This is the day you have been waiting for," he murmured, stroking the panties I was modelling. "You're on the lookout for a man. It won't be long now, I see. But before that..."
     I stood back. "What are you doing, daddy?"
     Without warning, he threw me onto the bed with his hands of iron and began to rip off my clothes one by one. I cowered, petrified that he would choke me to death, and tried to push him away. "No, no, daddy, no!"
     "Listen, I was the one who gave you life... I gave you your life, you know, and I am the first one to stroke you, to touch you and make you ready for a boyfriend." He could hardly breathe.
     "I want to be the first one. Then you can have the others, I..." He foamed at the mouth and forced his way between my thighs.
     "No, you mustn't, daddy!" I screamed, full of shame, despair and disgust.
     The ceiling began revolving like the globe in a geography class. The last things I saw were the oceans and continents spinning out of control.

* * *

    When I opened my eyes, I was drenched in tears, all down my neck. There was a whisper in my ear. It was cold, so very cold. I got up slowly, pushing off his arms which wanted to help me.
     I did not know whether I still had a body or whether it had been blown away like the autumn leaves in the wind.
     I turned to look at him once again. The distorted expression on his face struck me like a knife through the heart. He was so far away now.
     "Father, I worshipped you. You gave me the gift of life and will always be first. But the day will come, father, when you will pass away. And you will have to die soon, for if you don't, I will kill you with my bare hands. I will kill you, father!"
     These were the last words I ever spoke.

[Memecja, written in May 1996. Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]