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Robert Elsie
Albanian Literature

Albanian Authors



Eqrem BASHA, 2001 (Photo: Robert Elsie).

Eqrem BASHA, 2001
(Photo: Robert Elsie).





    From half a metre away, everything on the dingy whitewash of the damp wall - all the stains, the finger prints, the droppings left over by the flies and the cobwebs, - resembled a grandiose painting which evoked a myriad of associations - new and repeating forms as well as amazing ghostlike shapes. Was it the murky drops of water trickling downwards, was it the dampness of the wall itself, or was it rust from the reinforced steel which had made its way to the surface? It could also be mildew, moss or lichens, which would thrive under the favourable conditions offered by such a tiny room. It was, at any rate, a strange and enticing world which enabled him to forget the shooting pain in his ribs. His heavy, weary eyes seemed to be searching in the filth for the reason, or one of the reasons for his presence there. There must certainly be a reason somewhere in that sombre and airless hole.
     There seemed to be no one else present in the room, but he had been given orders not to turn around, and he followed them strictly.
     At one point, he heard the door creak open. A slight breeze wafted over his body. Someone had entered. One, two or several people. He could hear steps of varying intensity and felt for a moment that someone, one, two or several people, were standing right behind him. He heard someone, one, two or several people, breathing and then the steps fading away. They wandered off in the space he imagined to be behind his back. Somewhere not far away from him a light flashed. Tobacco smoke then spread through the room, a smell which seemed to revive him somewhat. He raised his head to catch a whiff of the smoke, his eyes followed the trickle of water in the corner of the room up to where the wall met the sloping ceiling. The more he looked upwards, the less prints of bare feet could be seen on the dingy whitewashed surface. He stretched his neck a little as if to open the pores of his weakened body to the fresh air which had entered the room through the open door. But this time, all he got was thicker smoke which smothered him like a fist of cotton wool. He took a deep breath, inhaling smoke into the depths of his lungs, and now felt the shooting pain all the more.
     The person who entered the room, or one of them, then departed. The door closed and the fresh air was gone. But the tobacco smoke became more and more intense. He could hear various steps in the distance once again, way behind his back. There were two of them, or perhaps three. Yet, no one spoke a word and, although it was not absolutely still in the room, silence reigned heavily, as if beside a pond of stagnant water. The tobacco smoke brushed against his eyelashes. It singed them ever so slightly, calling for tears that had long gone dry. One of his fingers moved. He cast his eyes down at the bruised and blackened hands which were folded over his tightly pressed together knees. He endeavoured to move his fingers, but to no avail. They remained flat and unmoveable, like pieces of meat glued to his naked knees. Further down towards his bare feet, he saw his toenails, discoloured and far too long. Under the little toe of his left foot was a pool of dried blood which had formed around him. Its dark ruddy hue, now with a tinge of pale yellow, made him quiver and struck a nerve on the ridge of his foot. The involuntary movement broke the crust on the recently coagulated blood, causing it to move - the snail which had taken refuge in the slimy shadow of his battered body. It moved.
     "We always lean them against the wall. Why did we leave this one on the floor here turned over?" someone asked. Was it the one who had remained in the room, or the echo of the other one who had just gone out? "Why don't we just get rid of him?" intoned the voice with the sentence he had heard so often recently. So there were two of them, or perhaps three or more. The cigarette smoke became thicker and filled his lungs.
     "Let him shit his pants first," said one of them. The first, second or third of them.
     In fact he had just pissed his pants full and the sentence suddenly made him aware of the strong burning sensation he had felt between his thighs, drenched with the sticky, salty urine. Perhaps he could move a little, just raise himself up enough to unstick the material from his bruised thighs. No, he wasn't allowed to. All movements were strictly watched, or to put it more exactly, forbidden. And thus he lay, cramped in the position he was in. Not daring to move his eyes from the pool of blood, he stared at a drop of urine which glided down his shinbone until it came to rest. The footstool with its wicker seat, crooked and shaky as it was, would betray any movement, so he had to keep his balance, remain immobile. But this presented no great difficulty because his body was stiff now anyway.
     The door opened again and someone entered the room. Or someone left. He couldn't tell the difference. At a distance behind his back he could hear whispering but could not distinguish what was being said. They seemed to have reached an agreement. Perhaps something was going to happen. He listened attentively and endeavoured to understand what had taken place. He heard paper and something like the scratching of a pencil. It sounded as if someone was signing a document, a signature at the end of a decree. An order had possibly come and they had to fill out forms or sign declarations. A badly worded sentence had been crossed out or a new one had to be added. They had reconsidered the matter.
     He seemed to hear someone say: "Why don't we chain him to the wall?"
     The glistening snail bathed in its slime had advanced somewhat. It had now reached the corner of the room, near the lower, dark-coloured part of the wall where the footprints were the clearest. It was the only point which shone in the dark. Its shell rose like a Tower of Babel over the rotten floorboards which held back some of the moisture oozing down the wall through the mildew. It advanced slowly, shining like a glowworm under a spiral vault and without paying the slightest attention to what was happening around it. It was a volute among a thousand scarabs from some distant sphere, slithering forth in the ubiquitous mould and dampness, the sweat of the world, through nettles and over cold stones. But what was this gastropodous hermaphrodite doing here in front of his aching eyes? From what dark hole had it emerged? And in what filthy corner of the wall did it intend to lay its eggs, only to become the ancestor to generations of such beings slithering about in the very same filth, with the very same persistence and eternal patience, leaving behind them glowing trails, rays of slime betraying the paths taken, constantly inseminating, fertilizing itself and then depositing in the wall, from out of the right side of its head, the fruit of its hope?
     In the slanting ceiling above him, right over the scarlet wounds on his now shaven skull, there was a tiny window which was never opened. The angle at which the rays of light fell upon the wall enabled him to tell the time of day, even to the exact hour on occasion. Now in the late afternoon, the rays fell obliquely through the window so that the light was at the very level of his eyes. It was like a shining white rectangle in which all the filth, stains and streaks on the damp wall had miraculously vanished. This surface of light which stemmed from and seemed to belong to another world was like a fairy tale garden with terrifying decorations and ornaments made of peeling whitewash, filth, fingerprints and footprints, remnants of thousands of other lives right in front of him, constantly changing. There was almost no movement on the white surface. It was pure magic, a surrealist world of dreams and illusions, pure and unadorned, but containing all the hidden structures and impressions of a white painting in a frame. There, he could see his own little world, and projected all of his dreams into it. There he called to mind everything real which he had not believed, or everything believed which had not been real. He could cast flashes of light, bolts of lightning, magic sparkles at it, transforming it into a thousand hues even more resplendent, otherwise hidden from his sombre world.
     The officer then entered the room, accompanied perhaps by someone else. One of them, at any rate, held a higher rank because he could sense the unease and hear the shifting movements in the little room. There was a clack of heels and then silence, broken at last by the officer with his rough and ominous voice
     Silence once more, and then the officer spoke out again:
     "Has he moved?"
     "No," was the reply.
     "Is he still holding out?" he asked again.
     "Yes," came the answer.
     "Has he been groaning?" he asked.
     "Yes," they responded.
     "Doesn't matter."
     He could hear footsteps. Probably an inspection. The crack which accompanied the footsteps probably stemmed from the whip which the officer was wont to beat in the palm of his hand all day long.
     "It stinks in here," he said.
     "Let's set him against the other wall," someone proposed.
     "He's not allowed to," was the frigid and sullen reply.
     "He can't see much."
     "Why do we lean all of them against the wall and this one with his face to it?"
     "That's what the order says."
     "Yes, sir."
     The officer left the room, beating the whip in the palm of his hand as usual. The steps echoed behind him in the little room. Perhaps the others had left the room, too. One of them, two or three.
     For a long while he could hear only his own light breathing. He felt the biting pain in his ribs. Neither the big maps and pictures he had observed on the wall in front of him, nor the footprints, nor the traces left by the raindrops trickling in through the window down the wall through the mildew and the mould would be able to help him. It was evening now. His bones were awake and his wounds had opened. Only the trail left by the snail glistened now on the sombre surface of the wall. The shell carried on upwards towards the ceiling, towards the shining window which had now grown dark, and towards the sun which had most certainly gone down by now.
     In the shadow of his bare right foot, a little spider was silently weaving a web by attaching colourless strands between his foot and the wall. The web stretched to the leg of the stool. But he was too weary to watch it. His neck had become a rusty, ungreased axle. He watched the last drops of urine trickling down his thighs, causing the dry skin to itch. He saw the spider from the corner of his eye as it, unconcerned, continued to spin its web, a home built to last a thousand years. Given the state his body was in, it would at least be able to enjoy part of its retirement there.
     The shining patch on the wall had vanished. There was darkness everywhere. Behind his back he heard a slight cough, enough to remind him of the presence of the night watchman.
     Night had fallen, just as it had so often before. The shining patch on the wall was gone and forgotten, and all the stains had vanished. No footprints could be seen and no noise was to be heard. The pain in his ribs had returned with a vengeance, as had the burning sensation in his chest, the ache in his back and the numb feeling in his legs. The wall had closed in upon him, like the curtain at the end of a play before the lights in the theatre went on. The glistening snail had probably retreated into its shell or continued to march up the infinitely long wall in search of the sun.
     Another day rose behind his back. The curtain opened and the performance began anew. The maps, the trickling water, the stains, the footprints, the lines and traces left over in the peeling whitewash appeared once again. The number of footprints had increased, or his eyesight, which had been weakened by the long night, could only see the part of the wall where they were most prevalent. What was definitely new was the network of slimy trails which the snail had left behind it during the night. And it was quite substantial. The wall now looked like the roof of a tent made of coarsely woven silk. Perhaps the poor snail had lost its way in the moonless night, or the setting of the sun had confused its sense of orientation. But nothing seemed to have stopped it. It covered the whole surface of the wall and was now stationary in the middle, unmoved, right at the level of his eyes. It was exhausted or was perhaps stopping momentarily to gather strength.
     The shining rectangle was now somewhere behind his back. The light would later fall obliquely over his body and cast the shadow of his torso down towards his feet, reminding him of the paintings of Francis Bacon. Later, the rays would fall on his knees and on the lower, filthiest part of the wall, before they gradually rose towards the top and brought another day to its inevitable conclusion. But today, there was something new: the network of trails which the snail had left behind glistening in the sun's rays like filigree, had almost blinded his sight. It was so beautiful that it made him forget the shooting pain in his ribs and the wounds which covered his body. He could hardly hear the noise and the shuffling of feet behind his back. The breeze which wafted over him every time someone entered or left the room, the tobacco smoke, and the noise of papers and documents were all now insignificant, were no longer part of his world. The rectangle of light, now right in front of his eyes, sparkled like a waterfall of emeralds and diamonds. The light fractured into a whole spectrum and created one picture after another. In the corner, the snail, now revived, set forth on its definitive, straight and unimpeded course towards the sunlight. The rays of light wandered upwards and forced him to raise his head a little. All the while, the usual words were being exchanged behind his back:
     "Is he holding out?"
     "Has he moved?"
     "Any groaning?"
     "No matter..."
     Behind him, too, were footsteps shuffling back and forth, the beating of a whip in the palm of the officer's hand, the draught when the door opened, the smell of tobacco, a coming and going. Back and forth, paper and the scratching noise of a pencil. Steps, more steps. Someone came into the room, then another, a third. One of them went out and one came back in.
     "Why do we lean all the others against the wall and this one with his face to it?" another one asked.
     "Why don't we put him out of his misery?"
     "I want him to shit his pants in horror first,"
     The usual, insignificant conversation. The drops of urine had dried up. No more followed. His breathing slowed down. He lay unmoved. The crooked and shaky footstool with its wicker seat and no back made no more noise, and the white rectangle with the bedazzling, glistening trails left behind by the snail filled him with new joy. He did not know when he had last eaten. Sure that he would hold out, he became awesomely courageous as he lay in front of the eternal wall.
     "Kill me! What are you waiting for?" he might have said, had he had the strength. But it was of no importance. Beyond the glistening trails there was no more wall left. He felt something glide over his neck, something which gave him new strength and energy. He plunged into the silken cords, into the blinding light, and sank. Further and further he fell. What floor was he on now? From what heaven had he come? He could feel no ground under him.

[Marshi i kërmillit drejt dritës së diellit from the volume Marshi i kërmillit, Peja: Dukagjini, 1994, p. 123-133. Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]