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Robert Elsie
Albanian Literature

Albanian Authors

 

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Teodor LAÇO, 2001

Teodor LAÇO, 2001

Webdesign J. Groß

Teodor LAÇO

 

THE PAIN OF A DISTANT WINTER

    Each autumn, as soon as the days began to shorten and the forests were covered with a blanket of golden leaves, the man began the long journey to his native village. It was a tiring journey at his age and in his precarious state of health. Neither his wife nor his daughters could understand what attracted, indeed compelled him to undertake the trip. He had begun making these visits at a time when, though still full of strength and vitality, he looked back with pain and regret at the long-gone days of his youth. Eleven years had passed since that day in March. It had been a muddy spring, the time of year before the leaves begin to bud under a clear sky, though one not without a hint of grey from the cold weather which still held sway. He had sold his mother’s house for a ridiculous sum of money. It was an old cottage, so dilapidated that had it been left unoccupied for a year it would have collapsed. Up to that day, the spirit of his mother had kept it standing.
     He left part of the money from the sale of the house with close relatives to pay for the upkeep of the grave and placed the rest in a savings account. When he married, he used it to buy some bedroom furniture and a refrigerator.
     The sale had been a perfectly normal transaction, the kind made by dozens of people, so there was no reason for him to feel guilty. And yet, the muddy spring and the spending of the money had cast a shadow of culpability upon his soul. This feeling seemed to him to be due less to the sale of the house than to the death of his mother in his absence, for he had been unable to persuade the old woman to leave her village. He was still a bachelor at the time, living in cramped rented quarters which he shared with another man, and thus was unable to invite his mother to live with him. But he could have organized his life differently. He could have married earlier, as his mother had wished, found an apartment and invited the old woman to come and stay. Although she was strongly attached to her village, she was even more attached to the prospect of grandchildren. But no one can change the past, and so he had no choice but to come to terms with reality, which he did, though not without a certain regret for that which might have been. He imagined the long lonely nights his mother must have spent in her room all alone, the unbroken silence that must have weighed more heavily upon her than the layer of snow upon the rooftops. The day he received the money - proof that the old house no longer belonged to his mother - he was filled with a sense of shame.... Over and over again he had plunged into a whirlpool of memories and endeavoured to recall the events that first caused him such anguish. Strangely enough, though, his memory had never taken him back to that incident in his childhood of which he had only become aware during his trip the previous autumn.
     It had been a long autumn with an ever so gradual transformation from green to gold. There were still warm days like those at the beginning of summer. Indeed the illusion of summer was disturbed only by the autumnal colours and by the rarity of birds. He persuaded himself that, with such weather, it would be a sin to go by vehicle and decided to set out on foot. He had been walking for two hours and still felt full of energy. Like a child he delighted in taking shortcuts down untrodden paths through the long grass and bushes, not knowing if they would lead him back to the road. Resting on one of these paths in the shade of a lonesome fir tree which had not grown quite as high as the others, his childhood seemed to surface out of the past and sit down beside him. There it squatted, insolent and stubborn, and began telling him a story, like a long forgotten folk tale...
     Once upon a time there was a little boy who was so in love with books that he quite forgot his childhood friends and their games. At night, when the light from his petroleum lamp began to waver and shadows appeared in the dark recesses of the room; as the fire in the hearth, singing an interminable song, crackled and hissed, characters would arise from the yellowing pages of his book and climb into his bed as if to warm themselves under the woollen covers. There was room for everyone under those covers and he could make them do whatever he wished. Robinson Crusoe could climb into a boat with Long John Silver and play hide-and-seek and other games. Slowly his eyelids would close and he would tremble, in anticipation of the dreams that would make everything easy and possible. At dawn, he would abandon his night of wonder with a sigh of relief that he was now awake, and at the same time with a sigh of regret at the knowledge that daytime would be so much more mundane than the adventures of the night.
     Gradually, the boy began to read hunched over his books as if to devour every one of the letters that opened to him that wide world full of mystery. His mother scolded him, though only half-heartedly, for her son was the at top of his class in school and no good student could do without books. To please his mother, the boy would raise his head and hold the book at arm’s length, but then the letters would begin to move like a trail of sluggish ants, causing the magic to vanish. He was ashamed that he was unable to keep his promise to his mother and, in order not to appear disobedient, stopped reading while lying on his stomach. His mother would perhaps notice that he no longer drew his eyes to the book but the book to his eyes.
     The mother mentioned the problem to his teacher who told her that he thought the boy was a little short-sighted. This disability could be remedied with a pair of eyeglasses, but to get them, she would have to take him into town to see a doctor. She had decided to wait until the snow melted, but by the middle of February, the boy had begun to suffer from severe headaches. She became frightened. It was clear to her that she could no longer wait until winter was over. She had made the trip from the village into town several times since becoming a widow and was not at all bothered by the cold weather or the solitude of the journey. The only obstacle was the snow, for every afternoon from sunset until late at night there would be a heavy snowfall that covered all traces of the paths. Every morning she rose early and heard herself say, "More snow again". She waited a whole week for the snow to stop until she heard from other travellers that the road was clear.
     ...The boy felt a chill run down his spine the moment the path led them into the semi-darkness of the grove of fir trees. He shuddered and felt a knot in his stomach. The forest was large and little light penetrated this far. They were surrounded by silence, like that which reigned in the middle of the night when he waited for his dreams. But the silence was full of sounds, the incomprehensible language of nature which not even the snow could muffle. It startled him, like a covey of partridges beating their wings in preparation for flight. He gasped for air, realizing that the panting that followed him like that of an invisible dog was his own. He glanced at his mother. Her cheeks were red with cold but her face showed no trace of anxiety. He thought to himself that she probably could not hear the noises in the forest. Maybe there weren’t any after all. But perhaps she was growing deaf in her old age or perhaps the sounds were muffled by the black shawl that covered her ears.
     Suddenly, he held his breath and bent forward. He thought he could hear a voice, different from the noises he had been hearing, a voice that sounded like a long howl of anxiety - a lament and a threat at the same time. The savage howl resounded down the bare face of the mountain but the raging storm prevented him from determining quite what it was. Did she hear it or not? he wondered. His mother had stopped a bit farther on and had her back turned to him. He was not sure whether she was waiting or listening. He trudged on through the snow to reach her.
     "Did you hear that?" he asked in a strangled voice. His mother took off her woollen gloves and stroked his hair, which was covered in melting ice.
     "It was nothing," she replied.
     "Take off your shawl and listen," he stammered.
     The snow, melting under the warmth of her hand, trickled down his forehead.
     "Perhaps it was a dog," she said.
     "Or a wolf!" replied the boy.
     "Wolves are afraid of people."
     "But not in the winter. They are hungry now, roam in packs, and..."
     He was about to add that in February the pack follows the she-wolf and that he had heard that a pack of wolves had once torn a hunter to pieces somewhere, but he thought better of it and bit his tongue. His mother must know as well as he that a pack of wolves might be coming their way. She seemed about to say or do something unpredictable. But she said nothing and did not move from the spot. Her face grew pale. There was not a shadow of doubt in his mind that the danger he had conjured up was now a reality and that the evil was approaching with awesome rapidity. Tales about wolves flashed through his mind and, horror-stricken, he rushed towards a fir tree standing alone in the middle of a clearing. Its trunk was thick and the first, half-withered branches were high up, but in his desperation he managed to heave himself up onto a solid branch. From here, he could see his tracks in the snow below, like those of some slithering reptile. His mother followed him, taking short steps. She leaned against the trunk of the fir tree, resting just long enough to get a grip on herself. He climbed up onto a higher branch, shaking snow down upon her. She brushed the snow from her shoulders without looking up. He felt that she was unwilling to look at him. He climbed still higher. From here, he could see the wintry white expanses of the bare forest with a few dark spots here and there. He could not make out whether they were moving or not. If they were not moving, they were probably juniper bushes which had managed to shake off their covering of snow. Otherwise...
     He listened again, and again heard the muffled howl borne by the wind through the dense fir tree. His mother heard nothing and remained silent. She looked so small and defenceless below him. He was ashamed of himself for having gone so far up and climbed back down to the withered branches below.
     "Can you hear anything?" he asked again.
     His mother gave no reply. She seemed to shrug.
     "Come up here into the tree. It’s safe here," he said.
     "No, I can’t," she replied.
     The boy could hear the howling again, this time closer than ever. It was not echoing off the face of the mountain but coming straight out of the dark forest towards him.
     "Try anyway," he insisted. "Here, can you reach my hand?"
     "No, I’ll never make it," said his mother. "Don’t come down any farther. Stay where you are, son."
     On hearing this, the boy realized that his mother had no intention of moving from the tree trunk she was leaning against. Even if one of those miracles from fairy tales occurred and the cottage of a woodcutter with a solid door appeared before them, she would not budge from the tree. His hands and then his whole body began to freeze. His lips grew numb and his teeth started to chatter.
     "Mother, my hands are freezing. Where are my gloves?" he asked.
     "You dropped them when you ran off," she replied.
     She rolled her gloves into a ball and threw them up to him. For a moment, neither of them spoke a word. Absolute silence reigned in the forest. The boy looked up and spotted a squirrel on a branch. It sat there proudly like a host receiving guests. It stretched and shook its bushy tail, sending a shower of snow onto the boy’s face. He wiped it off. The squirrel scurried farther up the tree and a whole branchful of snow tumbled down onto his face. It scampered about, quite at home, with little concern for the huge uninvited guest freezing in the cold down below who could not punish the little animal for the chilly dusting of snow on his hair and shoulders.
     The wind came up again and he had the impression that it had taken the eerie howling off with it in the direction of the stream. The squirrel launched a pine cone it had been holding in its front paws. He climbed down slowly, with his cheeks aflame as if they had been slapped, and with the tips of his fingers freezing and aching terribly. The stiffness in his limbs caused him such pain that tears welled up in his eyes. He could feel them turn to ice on his cheeks. He wanted to say something but was incapable of uttering a word. His mother took his hands and rubbed them in the snow until he could feel them again. Neither of them spoke a word.
     They continued on towards town.
     The boy never did learn whether they had been in great danger that day. He remained quieter than ever long afterwards, roaming about the house as if searching for something he had lost, but his mother never brought the matter up again.
     Many years passed before the anguish of the incident surfaced from the recesses of his mind where it had slumbered so long finally to burgeon forth into conscious pain.
     Every autumn when the leaves began to turn, he visited the grave of his mother in a distant village.

[Dhembja e një dimrit të largët, from the volume Një dimër tjetër, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1986, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and first published in English in in Description of a struggle. The Picador book of contemporary East European prose. Michael March, ed. London: Picador 1994, p.  267- 273]

 

ANOTHER WINTER

    Another long winter arrived, with heavy snow which refused to melt away. At night, in the moonlight, the ice covering the swing out on the veranda sparkled like a scratched mirror and the smooth frame cracked. It reminded him of that winter day he had been frightened of the wolves, a day that had vanished like a forgotten dream of which there remained only a lingering sense of uneasiness.
     In fact only a single spring, summer, autumn and winter had passed since then.
     That winter, something happened to his mother that was a source of wonder and mystery to him for years to come. People said that his mother was struck by a serious illness that winter, an illness from which she never completely recovered, but he thought otherwise. He was certain at the time that a miracle had taken place, one of those inexplicable events that seem impossible to us and make us laugh when we grow older. That day was the longest and most difficult day of his life. He knew that from then on nothing would ever again cause him such anguish, because his experiences as a doctor in the long years that followed had served to inure him to suffering and death.
     He spoke to no one of what had transpired. Back then, he knew that if he told any of the adults what he had seen, they would simply smile condescendingly at him, as if to forgive him for talking such nonsense. After all, they themselves had fabricated many a fairy tale. So he preferred to keep quiet. For many years he firmly believed that he had witnessed a miracle, and had he not become a doctor he probably would have believed it his whole life.
     On that distant winter afternoon, he was sitting in a corner of the living room, leaning on the window sill. The sill was so broad that he used it as a table on which to do his homework. Snowflakes struck the window like sleepy butterflies. The logs on the fire hissed and crackled and the cat snored in its winter quarters above the stone hearth. His mother slept in another corner of the room. She had fallen asleep right after lunch and she was so still that he hardly dared turn the pages of his book. He watched as the path leading to the barn was slowly covered by snow and thought about his mother. His thoughts were sad ones, since his mother had taken ill last autumn. Since then, she had shrunk so much that when she lay in bed with her legs drawn up, she looked like a little child. She staggered sometimes, and when this happened she would lean against the wall or against the door frame, as if nothing had happened, and give a little laugh, to reassure him that she was all right. She didn’t seem to realize that he was no longer so innocent that he would believe everything he was told. He already knew that adults were capable of dissimulation. His mother pretended she was well, and this charade saddened him more than her state of health. He never heard his mother complain. From time to time she told her friends that she saw stars before her eyes, but they simply replied that this was nothing unusual and that the same thing happened to them, too. His mother said this so nonchalantly that he assumed it was some sort of game for adults only in which children for some reason were not allowed to take part. He thought it gave them pleasure to close their eyes, shake their heads back and forth and see stars, twinkling as they do in the month of May.
     He turned from time to time to watch his mother sleeping in the corner. She lay with her back to the fire, and a tuft of grey hair stuck out between the brown cap and the scarf she was wearing. He watched the fringe of the woollen blanket rise and fall with her breathing and was surprised at how tranquilly she slept. She never used to take a nap in the afternoon. He had heard that sleep was one of the best remedies for her condition.
     A robin was pecking at the window. It beat its wings and rubbed its scarlet breast against the window pane. He wanted to open the window and throw a few crumbs of bread out to the little bird but was afraid that the sash would creak and wake his mother from her sweet dreams, from the sleep that would help to cure her...
     He closed his reader carefully. Outside, the snow was still blowing and it was gradually getting dark. His mother would soon awaken and light the overhead lamp. She used to save fuel by lighting only the lamps with small wicks, but since her son had begun wearing glasses she lit the main lamp.
     It was dark now and she would have to get up to feed the goats, he thought as he opened the window. The frightened robin flew off and disappeared into the falling snow. A gust of cold wind entered the room. His mother did not wake up. He glanced at her apprehensively and closed the window. The heavy snow continued to fall, blanketing the yard, the plum trees in the garden, the roofs of neighbouring houses and everything beyond them in a heavy mantle of silence. This great silence also seemed to harbour something unknown, something unfathomable and evil which might strike without warning. It seemed to him that this evil force had entered the room with the wind. He realized he was perspiring, and assumed it must be because of the fire. Taking off his sweater, he went over to his mother’s corner of the room. It must have been warm in the room because the cat had abandoned the heat of the hearth and had curled up on his mother’s woollen blanket instead. His mother did not stir. Looking at her, the boy felt a twinge of pain in his chest. The cat and the fringes of the blanket seemed to be frozen, immobile, as if no one were breathing under them, though just a few minutes ago... He patted his mother on the shoulder. She did not move. The greyness of dusk reflected in the window, and the faint light which did penetrate the room veiled his mother’s face in shadow. He placed his hand on her forehead. It was like touching an arabesque windowpane. His blood froze, but he told himself that perhaps she felt so cold because his hands were so hot. He shook her more forcefully. She had slept much longer than she usually did. She must wake up. It was time. The goats were bleating hungrily. It was time to light the lamp. In response to his shaking, she turned over on her side and remained there. The twilight fell on her gaunt face. The dark shadows withdrew and were replaced by reflections from the snow outside, pale and ghostly. His mother would not open her eyes. He didn’t know what to do. He felt weak and helpless, as if he were once again a tiny infant.
     "Wake up, mother", he begged, numb with fear.
     She gave no answer.
     "You’ve slept long enough," he cried and shook her again.
     The cat was startled and scurried off, stepping on her lined forehead with its paws as it did so, but even this did not wake her. The incomprehensible evil that had remained suspended all this time within the silence of the twilight now became tangible; the window blew open by itself and in rushed the cold winter wind. His heart contracted and the anguish pent up inside him for so long was released and there was nothing to do but weep. But even his weeping was muffled. He had lost control of all his senses. Only his hands continued to move mechanically back and forth over his mother’s face, over her grey hair, her cold forehead, her stiff eyelids which refused to open. He entreated her with cries, prayers, threats and meaningless words. All he could remember later was the feeling of shrinking, of returning to his infancy. How long did it last? A moment or an hour? He would never know. His strength and reason had given way to a wave of anger at himself. His mother could not be dead. Death could not be so deaf, so mute. He recovered his faculties for a moment, bent down over his mother and put his head to her breast. He thought he could hear, very faintly, the beating of her heart. Perhaps she had just fainted after all. He took a jug of water and sprinkled some over her face, but it remained motionless. He was overcome once more by a feeling of rage at his own helplessness; but in the midst of this rage a new thought occurred to him, like a lamp suddenly shining out of the darkness for those who have lost their way and abandoned all hope. He recalled his mother telling him about the time she was in the hospital in town, about the doctors and the miracles they performed. In our room, she had told him, there was an old woman at death’s door. She was nearly gone when a doctor arrived, forced her mouth open and gave her a glass of some syrup. The old woman came to, and was able to leave the hospital on her own long before his mother was discharged.
     In the darkness, the boy groped towards the cupboard where the sugar was kept. He filled a glass with water and quickly stirred in some sugar to make a sweet syrup.
     Then he sat his mother up, supporting her with the pillows against the wall, and pried open her lips. They opened with surprising ease, as if his mother was acquiescing to his actions. He poured some syrup carefully into her mouth, taking care not to spill a drop. He saw a muscle jump in her neck - the first sign of recovery, he thought. Tears welled in his eyes as he whispered her name. It was a call from the heart, a call of pain and sorrow, a call of jubilation. Her mouth moved, and with her eyes still closed, she murmured, "Where am I?"
     "You’re here in your bed and I’m right here with you," he replied.
     She opened her eyes, looking very weak and frightened. Only then did he realize that he should have acted sooner. He ran out to call the neighbours. Two women, friends of his mother, came in. One of them went to fetch Uncle Miti, a tall, thin bespectacled man who was reputed to be the wisest elder in the village. Uncle Miti questioned him at length about what had happened but he could find no explanation either.
     "Make some coffee with lots of sugar!" the old man ordered. He caught sight of the glass on the window sill, with some undissolved sugar still in the bottom. "Did you do this?" he asked, as his glasses slipped down his nose.
     The boy nodded.
     "Your mother’s guardian angel must have whispered in your ear," said Uncle Miti.
     Uncle Miti was a religious man, and when the boy grew up he often recalled the old fellow’s superstitious ways with a smile. He himself believed that it was only the miracle of his own will that had kept his mother alive. Throughout the spring and well into the summer, he would sit beside her in the afternoons and watch to make sure that the fringe on the blanket was rising and falling with her breaths. But the crisis did not reoccur. She seemed to adapt to her illness. She ate little and grew gradually thinner, and yet she could not keep still for a minute. People said she was like the branch of a cherry tree, constantly bending in the wind and yet never breaking.
     When he became a doctor, he learned the explanation for this "miracle." His mother had fallen into a diabetic coma, in which one loses consciousness and for which doctors recommend sugar as a cure. Perhaps his mother’s guardian angel really had whispered in his ear that winter’s day so many years ago, and perhaps, despite all the scientific explanations, he really had witnessed a miracle.

[Një dimër tjetër, from the volume Një dimër tjetër, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1986, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]