THE HIGHLAND LUTE
(Lahuta E Malcís)
(In 1858, despite four long centuries under the Turkish yoke, the Albanians had not abandoned their will for freedom. The Tsar of Russia, hoping to extend his influence in the Balkans, writes a letter to his friend, Prince Nikolla of Montenegro, suggesting that the latter take possession of a piece of northern Albania to keep the Turks on the defensive, and promising assistance. The letter, borne over hill and dale by the Tsar’s personal messenger, arrives at the court of Cetinje and finds favour with the Montenegrin ruler who convinces the valiant Vulo Radoviqi, commander of Vasoviqi, to ready his bandits to lay waste to Vranina on Lake Shkodra.)
||Help me God as you once helped me,
Five hundred years are now behind us
Since Albania the fair was taken,
Since the Turks took and enslaved her,
Left in blood our wretched homeland,
Let her suffocate and wither
That she no more glimpse the sunlight.
That she ever live in sorrow,
That when beaten, she keep silent.
Mice within the walls wept for her,
Serpents under stones took pity!
But when a steer is first yoked under,
Oxbow weighing hard upon it,
There's no sense at all to goad it,
It will balk, not pull the ploughshare,
Only crisscross fields at fancy,
And make trouble for the farmer,
Will refuse to till the furrows
When alone or with another.
So it is with the Albanians,
Under foreign yoke unwilling
To be slaves, pay tithes and taxes.
Always have they wandered freely,
None but God above them knowing,
Never on their lands and pastures
Would they bow before a master.
Never with the Turks agreeing
Never out of sight their rifles.
They waged war on them, were slaughtered,
Just as if with shkjas in battle.
Therefore, when the Turkish ora
Started to lose power, weaken,
When her drive began to crumble,
Russia day by day beset her
And the tribesmen of the Balkans
Began to flee the sultan's power,
Did the Albanians start to ponder
How to free their native country
From the Turkish yoke and make it
As when ruled by Castriota,
When Albanians lived in freedom,
Did not bow or show submission,
To a foreign king or sultan,
Did not pay them tithes and taxes.
And Albania's banner fluttered
Like the wings of all God's angels,
Like the bolts of lightning flashing,
Waving high upon their homeland.
But the Prince of Montenegro,
Prince Nikolla the foolhardy,
Yes, foolhardy, but a nuisance,
Gathered weapons, gathered soldiers
To attack and take Albania,
To subdue the plains and mountains
Down the length of the Drin river,
Right down to Rozafat's fortress,
There to plant his trobojnica
Place on Shkodra his kapica
Make it part of Montenegro,
Leave a bloodbath there behind him.
Sat the Turk there in a stupor,
Teardrops from his eyes did tumble,
For the shkjas he could not counter
Now that Moscow had surrounded
Stamboul and besieged the city.
The Seven Kings, they did take counsel,
There they talked and pondered evil,
- may their evil thoughts consume them! -
To deliver fair Albania
To the hands of Montenegro.
To their feet rose the Albanians,
Deftly girded on their weapons,
Swore an oath to the Almighty
Like that once sworn by their fathers
In the age of Castriota,
Some with shoes and others barefoot,
Locked their flocks in pen and corral,
Some with food and others hungry,
Left their sisters, wives and mothers,
Their eyes tinder, hearts gunpowder,
Like a snowstorm in a fury
Did they set on Montenegro.
By the Cem that was the border,
There the heroes did do battle,
There Albanian, shkja in combat
Fought and slaughtered one another,
They grappled, wounded, slew each other,
On the ground were heaps of bodies
Left as food for kites and vultures.
Handsome youths lay strewn all over,
All those mountain hawks, the heroes.
Nor did their poor mothers mourn them
For with suckling breasts themselves
They'd driven back the shkja invaders.
Once the shkja advance was broken
Did the Albanians hold assembly,
Sent stern message to the sultan
That they'd pay no tithes and taxes
Neither to that Prince Nikolla
Nor to Stamboul, to the sultan
They'd no longer show submission,
They now wanted independence,
For Albania was not fashioned,
Made by God for the Circassians,
Nor for Turks, their Moors and Asians,
But for mountain hawks, those heroes
Whom the world calls the Albanians,
That they keep it for their children
For as long as life continues.
When the Turk had read the message
He was filled with rage and anger.
How he set upon the land to
Eat them up alive, those tribesmen.
But the Albanians were resolved
He'd not devour or invade them.
They had come to a decision,
For their land they'd muster courage,
If attacked by king or sultan.
Thus the Turk and the Albanian
Seized each others' throats and strangled,
Smashed each others' skulls to pieces,
Crushed them like so many pumpkins!
Fire broke out then in the Balkans.
The shkja, in anguish that Albania,
Freed now of the sultan's power,
Might not fall into his clutches
As he had foreseen the matter,
Set upon the Turk like lightning,
Like the wild boar with the jackal.
They did haggle and did grapple,
Scuffled, wrestled, bit and murdered,
Rifles volleyed, cannons battered,
Blood in torrents swashed the clearings,
Over fields and through the thickets,
'Til at last, midst din and clamour,
Of the Turkish yoke released,
As she'd wanted, was Albania,
Free at last, as God had promised,
But no, brothers, do believe me,
Not as Turk or shkja would have it.
That the Turk begrudged our freedom
I can understand, but don't know
What got into Prince Nikolla,
Forcing to submit Albanians,
Crush them under heel, enslave them,
And to seize that land where once
In ancient times Gjergj Castriota
Brandished in a flash his sabre.
Nor did he show shame or sorrow
That he'd caused the two such bloodshed,
Both Albania and Montenegro.
Moscow gave him heart and courage!
In Petrograd the Tsar of Russia
Took an oath before his people,
To be heard by young and old there
Not to celebrate a Christmas,
Not to take part as godfather
In baptisms or in weddings,
Not to wash or comb his hair more,
Not to take part in assemblies,
Ere he'd entered into Stamboul,
Ere he'd made himself the sultan,
Ruler over land and water,
Cut off all of Europe's trade routes,
Banning all their sales and buying,
Letting no one start a trade up,
Holding Europe in his power.
Should she even seize a breadcrumb,
She would end up in his clutches,
Captive in his bloodstained clutches,
Which were deft at theft and stealing!
But the sly old fox was clever,
Cheater in both words and letters,
One whose falseness knew no equal,
He knew well what lay before him,
No light task to enter Stamboul,
No light task subjecting Turkey
Without his own neck in peril.
So he schemed and started plotting,
Set the Slavs upon the Turks, to
Have the Balkan shkjas attack them,
Get accounts cleared with the sultan,
Let them first solve all their problems,
Troublemaking and deception,
Then from Russia would he come forth,
Lunging like a bear in ambush,
And attack the Turks like lightning
To eradicate, destroy them,
Never did he once consider
That his deeds might plunge the planet
Altogether into mourning...
When the tsar had finished scheming,
Did he go back into his chamber,
At his desk he wrote a letter,
Wrote a note to friends in Serbia,
Friends in Zagreb and in Sofia,
That the shkjas should all join forces
From Budapest to Çanakkale,
All as one should work together,
Keep at bay the sultan, harried,
Keep him worried and incited,
Day and night they were to hound him
On his roads and at his borders,
Make demands and ultimatums,
That their actions seem haphazard,
Though designed to cause his downfall.
Thereupon, this Slavic scion
Wrote a letter to Cetinje,
To the prince with all the details,
There to spin his web and swindle:
"Greetings to you, Prince Nikolla
Greetings from the Tsar of Russia,
I've heard of your reputation,
Heard you're quite a daring fellow
Heard you are a skilful speaker,
Foes, they say, pale at your shadow.
But, it seems, such praise is groundless
For you sit there in Cetinje
On the rocks with half a sandal,
A laughingstock the world has made you,
You bring shame to friends and in-laws,
You go begging, plead for breadcrumbs,
While the Turk who is your neighbour,
On his haughty brow a turban,
Heavy pleats are in his trousers,
He's devoid of care or worry.
If you look, you cannot see him,
Mounds of pilaf piled before him.
Say, have you been mutilated?
Or been somewhere earning wages
Or been serving as a farmhand
That of you we've lost all traces?
No, good man, it's not becoming
For the bandit of Cetinje
To remain at home compliant
And help women with their spinning.
Have you never glimpsed Albania,
Seen all those majestic mountains,
Viewed the verdant fields and lowlands?
Have you never ventured out
To carve yourself a piece of land there?
Why then sit around and daydream?
If you don't get yourself moving,
Saint Nich'las and God won't help you.
If you act, luck will be with you,
As the ancient saying has it.
As for rations and for weapons,
Ask me and I'll give them to you.
Come on, put on your kapica.
Should the sultan try to harm you,
I'll not let him touch a feather."
Thus the tsar wrote his epistle,
Taking great care, did he fold it,
Fold it and with dark wax seal it,
Giving it to his young herald,
For the prince of Montenegro.
In his breast the herald placed it,
Limbered up and started running,
Left the plains and dales behind him,
Crossed the lofty mountain pastures,
Forded rivers, mountain torrents,
Travelled over land and water,
'Til one day, while running westwards,
Did he finally reach Cetinje,
Tattered jacket, shredded sandals,
Did he give the prince the letter
Which the tsar with wax had folded.
The prince received it, broke it open,
Opened it and read the letter,
Three times did the prince peruse it,
Three days long he pondered on it.
Thereupon he sent a message,
Summoned Vulo Radoviqi,
Commander of the Vasoviqi,
That he come down to Cetinje,
Notwithstanding roads and weather.
Like a goshawk did he fly there
Off to meet the gospodari.
Vulo the Commander, summoned,
Had once been a wily hero,
Earth itself could hardly hold him,
None went raiding there without him,
Sans his word was nothing taken,
Nor was murder 'venged without him,
Nor could maidens ever marry,
Nor was judgment ever taken.
And the Turks of Montenegro,
He was at them like an eagle,
Kept their heads bowed in submission.
Once, this Slavic scion set out
On the road down to Cetinje,
There opened a woollen blanket,
Stretched it out across the roadway,
Far and wide he told the people
That no Turk of Montenegro
Was to cross it without paying
Toll and poll tax of one ducat.
That was quite a feat of daring,
Made him famed throughout the country.
Vulo's glance was like a windstorm
And his eyes, they flashed with fire,
His thick eyebrows like an oxbow
Bristled roughly like a boar hide,
Ear to ear his branch-like whiskers,
Like two ravens in a noose caught,
Tall, his head reached to the ceiling.
Such a man, if you had see him,
With his garments, shoes and weapons,
You'd have thought he were a drangue,
And the prince did dearly love him,
Loved that Vulo, listened to him
For he was a clever thinker,
Was a man of keen perception.
Therefore did the prince call for him
That he hasten to Cetinje.
Thus came Vulo to Cetinje,
Notwithstanding roads and weather,
Like a goshawk did he fly there.
When Vulo had reached Cetinje
Warmly did the prince receive him,
Took him in and paid him honour,
Offered him tobacco, coffee.
Then began the conversation:
"Where've you been, Vulo, you rascal?
Like a lonesome wolf you've vanished,
Never come here to Cetinje
Where you've friends, blood-brothers waiting,
Who above all else do love you.
How're you faring, any problems?
How are things in Vasoviqi?"
"You I wish long life, God willing,"
Turned and spoke Commander Vulo,
"This year for us, gospodari,
The harvest has not been abundant,
Much bad weather have we suffered
I don't know what now will happen,
How I'll save my farm and family,
For our stocks of food are dwindling."
"Oh, come on," the prince responded,
"Has a bandit ever hungered?
Is a falcon ever meatless?
You can bring in double harvest,
All you need's a bit of booty
To sustain your cows and oxen
And to feed your tribe and village,
Not to mention home and family.
Hark my words, Commander Vulo,
Listen to the gospodari,
Find some thugs as mean as serpents,
But as light and swift as goshawks,
Lie in wait among the bushes,
Then go pounce upon Vranina,
Kill and slaughter all you find there,
Burn the houses all to ashes,
Rustle all the spoils around them,
Loot and ransack, pillage, pilfer,
Both by daytime or by nighttime.
This is why I sent the message,
Summoned you here to Cetinje
For I'm once more feeling tempted
With the Turks to start a scuffle,
Fight the Turks and decimate them,
For it seems to me improper
Turks and shkjas should sit together."
So the prince explained the matter,
Convinced him of all the details,
Both of them went on discussing
How to act, what they would need to
Bathe in blood the town Vranina.
When the two had reached agreement,
The prince did bid him stay for dinner,
And some money did he give him
And a muzzle-loading flintlock,
Stock of which was silver-coated,
Unequalled in Montenegro,
Even on a shelf it scares you,
All the more when with a fighter,
All the more when held by Vulo,
With his teeth he'd bite through iron.
Vulo, to his feet then rising,
Bade farewell to Prince Nikolla
And departed for the mountains.
On his way did Vulo ponder
How to lay waste to Vranina,
As the prince had bid him do so.
[Kangë e parë - Cubat, from the volume Lahuta e Malcís, Shkodra, 1937, p. 3-15, translated by Robert Elsie]