The last stork flew away
—Lasgush Poradeci ("The End of Autumn")
Walking on Pisha Street one gray afternoon—the sort of afternoon from which only dreary things can be expected—I happened upon R.P. standing on the curb opposite me.
R.P. was the drollest person imaginable. It was too late to avoid him, even in a shameless way. The narrow street made that impossible. It would have been better simply to yell from afar: I hate you, you bore! than to pretend not to notice him.
Alas, there was no time for philosophizing. He stepped off the sidewalk cheerfully and crossed the street. This is not the end of the world, I told myself. You will repeat the same "Hello, how are you," mechanically, idiotically, until this torture ends, and each goes his separate way.
"Hello, how are you?" he said, shaking my hand.
"Hello, how are you?" I repeated, without bothering to hide my lack of interest.
Bastard! I thought to myself. Why can't you understand the misery you cause? The most maddening thing about this man was precisely his obliviousness to the vexation he provoked in people, a vexation that many displayed quite openly.
If you yourself know how you are, why bother going out? (And if you don't know, that is worse yet.)
"So, anything new," he asked for the third or fourth time in a row, while I kept thinking: How can such a person be alive; how can the ground hold him up?
"Nothing much, anything new with you," I said.
"Nothing much, just the usual."
Villain! I wanted to scream. What terrible stroke of fate put you in my path, on a day as hopeless as this, when I so desperately need the antithesis of monotony.
"Well, see you," I said with the same droning voice, surprised at how the sentiment "I hope never to see you" could be so calmly translated into its opposite.
"See you," he replied and shook my hand, after which I almost groaned in his face.
I had already advanced several steps when I heard him calling me. I spun around as if someone had shot me in the back. I could not believe my ears—could this evil really be so insistent?
My dismay was so grossly apparent that he couldn't help but ask, "What's wrong?"
What's wrong with you? I almost yelled. But he, cheerful as always, continued:
"I forgot to tell you. Did you hear? Lasgush Poradeci has been having an affair this summer."
My voice had grown so feeble that he asked, "What?"
"What do you mean, what?" I asked.
We kept trading "whats" like those pedestrians who try to get past each other but keep blocking the other's way instead, until finally he came out of the trance.
"What is so incomprehensible? It's a love affair. A story of women, as they say."
A love affair. A story of women, I repeated to myself. I wanted to say: hold on, how dare you, the most clueless of all people, bring news like this? News like this during this winter . . .
Meanwhile my resentment toward him was slowly leaving me. It was more or less like stripping the metal armor from a fortress. Even the lightest wind could cause me to bow before him.
He kept standing on the sidewalk, grinning ear to ear, perhaps aware of his belated appeal.
"This made an impression on you, hm? Of course. He is eighty years old after all . . . "
I kept looking at him pointedly. Did he expect me to hit him, or bow to him in apology for the years of denigration, or do both at the same time, until we both ended up either in the police station or the psych ward?
But neither of those things happened. A third thing took place, the most unbelievable of all mad actions involuntarily conceived by a daydreaming brain.
In a careful, almost pleading voice, I said, "Would you like to have coffee?"
He opened his eyes wide. I looked sideways in order to avoid their unexpected glimmer. For years now nobody invited him anywhere. He was abandoned by everyone: work colleagues, college friends, those he had supported when their girlfriends left them, those he lent money to, those he brought flowers while they were in the hospital, drunkards looking for drinking buddies, second cousins, childhood friends. He was even abandoned by those who leave last: fellow masturbators on Sundays, at the ravine . . .
Meanwhile, I was not only extending him an invitation, but also grabbing him by the elbow, pulling him toward the entrance of the closest café, as if I was worried he would escape me.
When I left the café, the winter afternoon, the sky, the street, even I myself, were completely altered. "Funny, what an impression this has made on you," R.P. repeated three or four times; in a matter of seconds, he had transformed from a Neanderthal into a normal contemporary man. "I never thought it would make such an impression on you."
The word impression was much too feeble to convey what I experienced when I first learned the news, which over time amazed, intoxicated, and shocked me. In fact, now that I had left R.P. and was wandering the boulevard like a madman, I was engulfed in a wave of exhilaration. Lasgush Poradeci had a love affair that summer . . . Over and over I endlessly repeated these words, as if they were encased in the forgotten ringing of church bells.
"Funny, I never thought you cared about gossip like this," R.P. had said. I did not bother to disagree with him openly; I simply laughed on the inside, as I wanted to laugh now at his mad words.
Could he really see things this way? Could ordinary words be used to describe what now appeared to me like a heavenly sign?
So powerful was this sensation that I looked up, hoping to find traces of that sign among the immobile afternoon clouds, the same clouds that only a short while ago appeared like a symbol of bureaucratic inertia.
I had always loved Lasgush Poradeci with an unusual love that held within itself sorrow and reproach. But both the love for him and the sorrow and reproach were of an unusual dimension, out of the ordinary, almost mysterious.
I felt nostalgia for the era that had died in him, just as much as, if not more than, for his beautiful verse. This era was also difficult to pinpoint (not the era of the king, or the republic, or before the liberation); no, it was another era that could be traced back to all three, but also nowhere at all. More than him personally, I loved in him the touching dream of something vanished. The irrecoverable. The impossible.
For years he was there and he wasn't. They steered clear of him; he was absent from all ceremonies. He would be admonished perhaps right in the midst of a ceremony, at the height of the merrymaking. But this was like the admonishment of an icon, since he himself, just like everything connected to him, was of an unusual makeup, abstract, evanescent . . .
Something had been abandoned that should never have been abandoned. A dream had been trampled. From our brutally lit meeting halls, it felt as though he, the great absentee, had taken the measured splendor of the old lampposts in order to decorate his own sarcophagus.
He was too far gone. We could not turn him around . . . His golden casket was slowly departing our boring assembly halls full of empty, malicious words. But a piece of ourselves was being buried with him.
How many times, with the despair of onlookers witnessing a sinking temple, had we asked: was this migration of the poet really inevitable? Could we not have kept him a little longer? Less for his own sake and more for the sake of our salvation.
We all knew it was inevitable, that he had no place in this time. The thought that we too had no place, but were fighting tooth and nail to carve one out for ourselves, depressed us.
So this treasure was leaving Albania . . . When suddenly, just as we had no hope left, the poet had come to; the dream shook its luminous mane. He, whom some with malicious joy and others, like us, with grief, referred to as dead, had suddenly done something extraordinary—a living act that made everything else seem dead by comparison. He had done something befitting a poet—out of time, forgotten, chivalrous, punishable by the local party committee, by the meetings, congresses, and by the doctrine itself.
A love affair at the age of eighty in a small provincial town where the building of the party committee looked bigger than anywhere else . . . This was like hearing bells of faded cathedrals from the thirteenth century, a time when Albania was more noble perhaps.
Was this his way of avenging being forgotten? Or was it a challenge against the daily swamp, the monotony of the assemblies, the rules of socialist realism, endless meetings that called for the education of writers by making them more knowledgeable about life, responsibilities to the party, simplicity, militancy?
As if in a chaotic swirl, I remembered the writers' meetings, the insults, the petty secret machinations and humiliating self-criticisms, the transfers for reeducation and productive work in ditches; the words "we must be simple, we must be simple, we must be simple"; the shirts that became more and more disheveled; the wrinkles on artists' necks that spread in unexpected directions. One could immediately tell the wrinkles of old age and illness apart from those accrued under the sun of the cooperative.
The bitter taste of a writers' meeting where the "liberal authors" were condemned would linger for a long time in the Writers' Club. But even more hopeless than those were some other meetings, where everything was untrue, starting from the semi-errors of the authors to the semi-gloomy face of the politburo member in attendance. Perhaps a new genre of meeting was being devised, where the ones to be eventually extolled would be first criticized, or maybe even a fourth kind, where God knows what would happen.
Though filled with angst, people also felt a real thrill along with their fear at these dramatic meetings. Whereas in the other meetings, where everything was false, doubly false, or a falsehood within another falsehood, so it could be protected in case the shell of the first lie cracked, one felt as if in a desert so endless that the eye could only see whorls of sand in every direction.
Lasgush Poradeci once came to one of these meetings. In his old-fashioned black suit and wide-brim borsalino hat from the thirties, he looked like he had just stepped out of a funeral casket.
He found a place in the side of the auditorium where no one bothered him, because those sitting nearby did not seem to recognize him. All the attention was centered on the two future martyrs, B.R. and T.K. That whole week the capital buzzed with talk of the courage—the mad, premature, and perhaps exaggerated courage—of their literary heroes. Years earlier, they had been criticized for a similar madness regarding the atmospheric climate in socialist realist art.
"Ah, it cannot be denied that they are brave. It is not for nothing that they say the race of poets has the courage of madmen."
It was this whisper that made Poradeci put on his black suit from the ceremonies of old and come.
There was deep quiet in the auditorium. The two people criticizing themselves wore dramatic expressions on their faces. In between them was the lightly flushed face of the politburo member listening to their self-criticism sternly. We, comrades, have been and will always be on the side of the positive hero, but our mistake is that we did not explain our idea clearly. Any shortcoming of the hero, any human flaw, such as extreme trustfulness, can damage the cause. As for the weather in our novels, for which we were criticized seven years ago, we were and still are for the dominance of spring weather, of blue socialist skies, against the fog, and especially against the rain . . .
The first sign of softening in the face of the member of the politburo provoked a wave of emotional frenzy that took control of the room. By God, the party was so generous.
The two prodigal writers would receive congratulations at the end of the meeting (good for you, you risked your head for your art, but the party understood you, just as seven years ago, when you had the mad courage, oh what courage, the courage of poets, to say that a small cloud, a slight fogging due to the light wind, made the socialist sky more believable). Everyone knew by now that in future meetings, when this dramatic event would be remembered as past history, the politburo member with his graying hair would pat them on the back and say: "Ah, you were real rebels back then, do you remember?" And they, somewhat embarrassed, with blushing faces, would respond through a smile: "As they say, youth moves with the northern wind, comrade R . . . "
Lasgush Poradeci did not manage to see the peaceful conclusion of the meeting. At the first mention of self-criticism, he slipped away without being noticed, just as he had walked in, returning to his sarcophagus once again.
As he left, perhaps instead of cursing us he repeated a prayer for us, as if for those no longer among the living. For years, they considered him dead, but surely this was how he also considered us. The cold moonlight illuminated the quartz fragments in the desert where everything—even mistakes—were lifeless.
That meeting was his last public sighting. We had awaited his reappearance for so long, without considering whether we deserved it. We had racked our brains as to what shape it would take, without ever guessing correctly. All expressions of our life were inappropriate for him: the dreariness, the literary fervor, our dribbling, the scandals, and even potential handcuffs. Clearly, he expected nothing from us since that meeting when all his hope had eroded. The question was whether we had any right to expect anything from him.
He tarried. But suddenly, in our most deafening day, in the darkness, in the un-day, he took pity on us. Driven no doubt by pity, he remembered to make the biggest bequest a dead person can make: a love story.
We had finished our second coffee when R.P. said for the fourth or fifth time, "Funny what an impression this made on you. Truly funny."
I wanted to scream at him, "Ah, so you think what you told me was something ordinary? That's how it seems to you, you troll, you ant bearing a diamond ring without knowing it, you moron?"
In truth, all these were only shadows of offences. The kernel of my annoyance toward him had long grown rusty and instead of those insults, I wanted, almost eagerly, to express my gratitude. Then I could tell him that the great stork was giving Albania a gift on his way out. That Lasgush had finally done what he had long foretold in his poetry: he had been resurrected from the dead. I even wanted to invite R.P. to sing the hallelujah with me.
Suddenly, an inkling of doubt cut into my intoxication.
"In fact, you surprised me as few have," I said. "But I wanted to ask: are you sure about what you told me?"
"Naturally," he answered.
"Could it be a fantasy, or an ordinary piece of gossip?"
The confusion in his eyes horrified me. I wanted to scream: listen, you have the right to bore the entire world, to even bring down buildings with the dreariness you emit, but you do not have the right, do not have the right . . .
"Listen," I said, grabbing his hand, "don't you by any chance, I mean, do you perhaps remember the name of the woman?"
"The name? Yes . . . I think . . . Ah, yes, I think her name is Anna G."
"Anna G," I repeated. "Anna G," I said to myself two or three times. How is it possible that everything had been so handpicked in this story, starting from the woman's name?
He now glanced merrily at his coffee cup; surprised and even a little sad that fate had rewarded him only so late in life.
Years ago, when people were avoiding his dreariness, he had probably dreamt of the hour of vengeance.
The thought of vengeance worried me a bit. I could not determine what shape it would take, but I realized that getting up and leaving as quickly as I could was the only possible defense against it. To make myself scarce like his college friends, the drunkards looking for drinking buddies, his cousins, the divorcees, the masturbators on Sundays, at the ravine . . .
To disentangle myself from R.P., before it was too late . . . without giving him the chance to avenge himself . . . without listening anymore to him . . . to him or to anybody.
To leave without seeing anybody. To go directly . . . there. To the small resort town. Where . . .
He opened his mouth to speak, to finish, perhaps, an interrupted phrase. Or to voice yet another oppressive "What else is new?" "Don't," I said to myself. Then, speaking aloud, I yelled, "Don't!" and got up. Due to the abrupt movement, the cold coffee that I hadn't managed to drink was spilled.
From the street, I could see him following me with his eyes, completely stunned, and, as always, alone. But I had no time for sympathy. I had only a single thought: to leave as soon as possible. To go directly there, to the place where the impossible had happened . . . the breach.
The journey to Pogradec was long and dull. The bus stopped time and again in small towns that looked dazed by the heat. In sidewalks, in front of cafés or hair salons, where "work, education, vigilance" could be read in the glass window displays, pedestrians stood still and followed the bus from the capital with numb eyes.
Further, the police searches grew more and more frequent. The traveler next to me nudged me lightly with his elbow, drawing my attention to the two policemen coming toward us.
"Aha, yet another search," I said and turned my head toward him in order to share with him my displeasure, naturally only a roundabout displeasure about these frequent searches in the midst of this heat. But, to my surprise, his eyes were coated with a mist of admiration.
He reached over to my shoulder with his head, nearly placing his whole weight on me, and whispered, "They say the great one has gone to Pogradec, like every summer."
"Aha," I replied. "That's why all this . . . "
Thrilled that he had shared this secret with me, he nodded affirmatively.
"Lucky those who have him in their midst every summer," he said in a dreamy voice.
"Naturally," I replied.
Thankfully, by this point one of the policemen had entered the bus and was checking internal passports.
After the search, the bus continued on its way and I pretended to be dozing so my neighbor would stop talking to me. The thought that stuck in my mind was: The two of them were there in the same little town: he, the great absentee, nearly forgotten, almost a ghost, and the other, omnipresent, with the portraits and colored citations that covered everything, from grass and stone to human bodies during athletic exhibitions.
"Another search," said my neighbor with the same admiring expression on his face. Without opening my eyes, I stuck my hand in my jacket pocket to take out my internal passport. In the meantime, my neighbor had taken his out and even opened it on the page where his photo and name were, all in an effort to lighten the burden of the policeman. But, as it seemed, the other did not appreciate this overeager behavior. After he took it from his hand, he closed the passport and began to leaf through it himself, by wetting his thumb, as did the majority of policemen when they leafed through passports.
The policeman turned the pages of the passport one after the other, while from the corner of his eye he looked at the traveler who was progressively losing his confidence. As the traveler's budding sadness colored his confusion, disbelief showed on his face: "Is he really questioning me of all people?" And then the beginnings of dissatisfaction, or a smile that asked for help. All this made for the most pointless mini-drama I had ever witnessed.
The search was finally complete, the bus took off, and from the dusty windowpane I could see once more the policeman outside following my neighbor's face, full of suspicion and utterly ridiculous resentment.
I laughed on the inside for a bit, but then, in order to become more sober, I chided myself for getting so caught up in the nonsense of foolish people instead of focusing on agreeable things. I should have thought, for instance, about how Anna G would travel down the same road; when during searches she would open her small bag with a small mirror, in order to take out her passport; how afterward, she would close the bag with her fingers with the pale nail polish on the tips (nail polish cold like hovering death). And all this was carried out with the kinds of movement of which only women who have known sin are capable.
The paved highway, as if trapped between two stripped gravel roads, inspired sorrow. The bus motor groaned louder and louder at every turn, and the smell of petroleum grew increasingly unbearable. Maybe this was the point when the petroleum could drown out the smell of Anna G's perfume. The perfume had been carefully selected, borrowed perhaps from an older woman, and it had similarly served another love story from another era.
The sorrowful humiliations of the road would not end, and another search took place. This time the policemen were accompanied by a civilian, a sure sign that the searches would be more serious from now on. The deafening silence that fell on the bus showed that the travelers understood this. My neighbor nervously offered his internal passport, but this time all the policeman's attention was focused on me. His eyes had a tired luster, as if he were always on alert about something.
"Why are you going to Pogradec?"
His question was so sudden that I nearly lost my wits. It was perhaps the only question that I did not want to be asked. It was easier to give explanations about more complicated things than to answer this simple question. Several answers were on the tip of my tongue: I am going on vacation; or to visit my daughter who is a teacher; or for a wedding or funeral.
"You don't know why you're going?" he said with a mocking smile. It seems I had inadvertently shrugged my shoulders as people do when they want to say: "I don't know."
My neighbor had opened his eyes wide, eagerly awaiting his chance to give his reason. My numb mind could provide no rationalization for the trip, no alibi, however naïve.
The travelers were all facing my way. Is it possible that a person does not know why they are traveling? How can one not be suspicious in such a case?
The eyes of the civilian grew even more piercing. I could feel his second question, the most terrible one, emerge in them like the drowning person on the water's surface. Do you know Anna G?
That's what it was.
Like a suddenly released spindle, my brain went from being numb to dizzy. That's what it was. That disgusting lackey, R.P., that ordinary insect we always looked down on, must have been a dangerous provocateur. For years he had been hoaxing, taunting, and trapping us.
Oh God, I thought, how did he manage to denounce me so quickly?
The other questions in the civilian's eyes were clear now. You think we did not notice her journeys? Did not notice the mysterious journeys of Anna G, particularly during vacation season, when the Leader happened to be in Pogradec? You think we just swallowed her story with Lasgush Poradeci?
I wanted to say: you made up this whole story yourselves too? The way you made up everything else, like the rebellions of writers during the writers' meetings, like the sabotage with petroleum . . . but here he interrupted me angrily: you made up that one yourselves.
For a while we got mixed up. You. Us. The suspicion that Anna G had dangerous intentions toward the Leader was now being discussed openly. I imagined the nail polish on her nails as bloodied.
You were enthralled by the supposition that she was coming for the poet. Because this is what you like, to make poets surpass leaders.
According to him, instead of coming to the resort town to admire the Leader from afar, like hundreds of people ready to stay up day and night just to see him once, I had lost my head after a trick of a mad poet; in fact, I had even interpreted it as a divine sign.
In a moment everything got mixed up in my head. I could not catch his reasoning: Anna G did not come to Pogradec for the poet, but for the Leader, that part was clear. What was difficult to understand was whether she came to make love or to murder.
"This civilian is crazy," I thought. He might as well say: "She is coming to do both."
In truth, when a woman goes to a man, in the majority of cases, she is looking for both. But I could never envision his policeman's mind as capable of this kind of convoluted idea.
To my surprise, his shadow lost its former weight when he first entered the bus. As though he felt this, he looked at me somewhat differently. There was suffering in his eyes, almost a prayer. Those eyes seemed to be telling me: Keep regarding us highly . . . meaning, be afraid of us . . . at least until we get out of the middle of nowhere.
I wanted to tell him: You think I spoke lightly of the state petroleum, or about the promises of petroleum workers to exceed quotas, in honor of the 8th Congress? No doubt, you wanted to include this in your report as well. You wanted to write that between kilometers 137 and 141, he (meaning I) blamed the petroleum smell for smothering the perfume of Anna G, unable to hide his nostalgia for the latter.
Now I was so indifferent that my mind escaped him and traveled to the northern town from where Anna G had left for Pogradec by bus. I imagined her putting on her perfume before the old mirror with bronze edges, across from a cold icon that belonged to another faith.
It was as if my mental disassociation completely shattered the man from the secret police. A movement of the bus was all it took for him to lose all form, and for me to wake up from dreaming.
It was the same dreary and dusty road, with few kilometer markers, some pushed aside from collisions. One of them, removed and then carelessly replaced upside down, made me laugh to myself. Read backwards, the number 147 said 741, which, besides making the trip five times longer, also put us in a whole other direction that made a mess of every investigation.
A bit further, at the entrance to a small town, there were placards yet again with faded letters. In between the calls for loyalty to the state, vigilance, and a clear conscience, there were real workers' promises on the eve of the 8th Congress (Anna G's promises of eternal love...)
I shrugged my shoulders to avoid sleeping again. I had heard that it was dangerous; an abrupt turn on the brake could make you fracture your neck.
We arrived in Pogradec in the afternoon. As always after a long trip, the little town appeared even more dead.
Despite the premature heat, tourist season had not yet begun.
After I settled into my hotel, I walked around the city's only main street. Under the unforgiving light of the sun, the window displays looked even more decrepit. In the glass, as everywhere, there were more slogans, maybe even more than two years ago when I had been here on vacation. Men's pants, convenience stores, education, vigilance, shampoo . . .
At the entry of the building that housed the Party Committee, two policemen joked sluggishly with each other.
Heat and the small provincial town; the hunters' club; barber; center for the education of neighborhood number 6. No sign that the miracle had occurred here. That Anna G had visited one April evening . . . one evening during the month of April . . .
The doubt that maybe this story was nothing more than one of those fantasies made up in small towns came back to me in a most insidious manner. R.P. could have been sincere (it took a while for the bad feeling about him to go away), but rare pieces of gossip, like big rivers, spring from distant sources. I had an easy enough time imagining its source in a purer place, next to clean alpine lakes, for instance, where avalanches were born, but cold reasoning refuted this hypothesis. From the mountains descended fantasies of a different nature. This one was born, it seemed, here in the midst of the hopeless dreariness of the small town, where in plain offices, women with short haircuts would lift the telephone receiver with abrupt movements and pronounce, even more abruptly, words such as: Comrade Gafur has called an urgent meeting. Love letters never arrived here, because everyone knew that letters were opened.
As I looked at the new and ugly buildings, I could imagine how foreign and scandalous Anna G would be here.
Now I could not make out whether the hunger of the city had invented her as a requiem for itself, or whether Lasgush Poradeci gave Anna G to the city, unable as he was to build a small church and a fountain for his little town (as many famous Albanians had done), or to transform its architecture. Whether he had given her as a gift or as a punishment no one could say.
I knew the street where the poet lived. I also knew the house that he and everyone else called the tower because of its unusual appearance. But I did not know what was preventing me from going there. Instead of heading to his street, my feet were inadvertently taking me to the lakeshore. And then, I think I understood. I almost understood what I was supposed to do. Before I went to see him, I had to be cleansed spiritually at the lake that had been the subject of his many beautiful verses—by the poplars of the old tourist hotel, at the courtyard of the medieval monastery full of moss, which had been transformed into a cheese warehouse years ago . . .
This wandering continued for two hours. The waves of the lake were full of hidden emerald splendor, as if from the bottom they reflected buried jewels that would serve a purpose again one day. By the half-crumbling belfry of the monastery, the place where the bell had been removed still seemed to ache. A sad tranquility, wide and ethereal, had taken over my whole being. I understood that now I was ready to go to him.
I was crossing the square in front of the Party Committee when someone called me by name. A little earlier, I had longed for a meeting with someone I knew, but now I did not need anyone.
It was the old director of the puppet theater whom I had gotten to know during my vacation, two years ago.
After the first few exchanges of "how are you," "it has been a long time," "what brings you to these parts," an awkward silence reigned.
"What is new here?" I said for the second time, precisely in a way I could not stand when others said it.
"What can there be? It is a province here, nothing happens. News comes from where you are coming from."
He was perhaps surprised that I expected something from him (he told me this later). Meanwhile doubt struck me again, this time, wild and inhuman doubt. There had been no love story for the poet, there had been no Anna G, no bronze mirror, no perfume from another era. There was just heat, and the petroleum smell that does not get out of your clothes for days. And, of course, promises on the eve of party congresses.
"You ask what is new here, and I am surprised that you, coming from the center of events, ask for news from this backwater! What can we unfortunate ones have to tell? Monotony, senselessness . . . Well, a little while ago Lasgush nearly made a blunder of everything."
He moved his hand, as if to cast it aside, just as people do when with this movement they want to underline the insignificance of what they have just said, as if it only deserves to be stripped from memory immediately.
Without even noticing that belittling movement, the kind of movement that otherwise would have made me jump at his throat (how dare you, puppet buffoon, speak like this about the feats of the poet), I got fired up. Liberated from the weight of doubt, I could barely restrain myself from hugging him outright.
He kept shrugging his shoulders and smiling like a dunce.
"Have you heard about it too? The news has traveled all the way to the capital?" He shook his head. "Oh boy, he embarrassed us all."
"I don't think it's an embarrassment," I said, "quite the opposite, in fact . . . "
He looked at me pointedly.
"This is what Gjergji, our painter, says too, but I disagree. We had an argument about it."
"I don't think it's an embarrassment at all," I continued. "Instead, it's an honor for everyone . . . I wanted to say, for all of us . . . artistic people."
"Oh God," he said. "Those were precisely Gjergji's words."
"When things like these happen here, that means you are no backwater. It seems you are the center . . . do you understand me, the center."
He listened to me, doubly surprised, not only because I thought this way, but because the painter Gjergji thought this way too.
It was impossible to tell him the truth about why I thought what Lasgush had done was incredible, so I preferred to use the same reasoning as the painter. I knew more or less what dissatisfied artists in the half-empty cafés of the province said to each other. Insulted by the indifference of local officials, who remembered them only when they needed official concerts during the holidays, they would complain for a while over the cognac glass, and then they would take heart, remembering their great forerunners: their fame, the way princes had honored them, the women they had had. Then, of course, in the haze of cigarette smoke after dinner, came the empty, grand statements about the artist's need for love, for its rejuvenating powers, particularly during the autumn of one's life. Until, as a result of things getting progressively more heated, there came the overused phrases that made one want to scream, or to get out of sight as soon as possible: please tell me, does anybody remember who was Minister of Culture during Shakespeare's time?
I could not believe that the painter Gjergji went farther than this. At most he could only have come up with a foggy version of my thoughts. While lecturing, drunk, about the rejuvenating powers of art, Goethe, Titian . . . he rebelled against the daily bleakness.
"I'll introduce you to Gjergji, you'll like him," he said.
"I have the other in mind for now," I answered. It took a few moments for him, and me along with him, to understand what I had intended to say with the word other; was I referring to the poet's love story or just the woman who partook in it, Anna?
It referred to both and to everything else connected to them.
He told me about the story (he gave up calling it a blunder, and instead used the word scandal, a word from the capital, but seeing that I was frowning all the same, he gave that one up as well, making do with the colder word story). The story had begun in the month of April, when Anna G, who had come to Pogradec from a Catholic northern city, began to stay for hours on end, even in the evenings, at the poet's house. The first whispers about a love affair between the two, which at first sounded incredible due to the poet's advanced age, instantly, automatically became more believable due to the halo surrounding the poet's past. According to the painter Gjergji, maybe this is how this story would continue, believed by some, disbelieved by others; this is how it would subsist, dividing people who for years had never been divided by anything into two large groups. According to the painter, it would continue like this forever, until the poet's death, perhaps even after his death... until a piece of evidence was found that proved everything. And the piece of evidence was incontrovertible because it was written in the poet's own hand. A notebook with near 50-60 pages, titled The Visits of Miss Anna G to My Tower. Everything was described in it: the meetings with Anna, the conversations, the amorous moments, marriage plans.
"How was this discovered?"
"Eh," he said. "There was . . . how do I put this . . . a kind of trickery involved. Two women, his new neighbors, who would clean up around his house every week, managed to steal it in secret."
"He was so caught up in his thoughts he didn't even notice. It's possible he even forgot he had jotted down those notes."
"Meaning the notebook is still somewhere, outside his house."
He nodded his head affirmatively and, looking pointedly at me, said:
"I can find it for you, on the condition that you don't muddle things up; meaning, you don't start yelling: pettiness, spitefulness, or I don't know what."
"It never even occurred to me."
"You might, due to the respect you have for him."
"I promise, I won't."
He smiled cheek-to-cheek, pleased with himself.
"You'll see that we provincials are capable of something too . . . You will have the notebook in your hands within the hour."
In an hour it was indeed in my hands—thin and brittle, like all great wonders; it was filled with a characteristically diminutive script that I now recognized from manuscripts included in the old, luxurious volumes of his poetry. The Visits of Miss Anna G to My Tower. While I kept reading and rereading this title, I realized how much and how hopelessly I had wondered about its existence. But it was real, just like the whole story. Real and astonishing . . . They had been searching for oil all year for nothing. To overcome financial difficulties, people would prematurely try to believe that new reserves of chromium had been discovered; that we would receive loans from West Germany; that England would finally return the gold it had claimed since World War II . . . None of which had actually happened. They had discovered only one treasure, but nobody knew about it.
This is what I was thinking that evening when I went to dine at the dreary restaurant hall. Some volleyball players, traveling for God knows what tournament, were eating noisily. Further in, some people with glum faces, and in attire that revealed from afar that they were from the Ministry of the Interior, were waiting to be served. I kept thinking back to phrases and to whole sections from the marvelous thing I had just read.
After dinner, I went up to my room. I stayed in bed for a while and then I went out on the balcony. The lake looked black and frightening. This was how I remembered it during moonless nights. It seemed as though through that incredible darkness it was readying its azure color for the next day. They said that UNESCO was charting a project for its preservation. No PEN-club of European writers had ever remembered Lasgush Poradeci.
I felt cold. I went into the room. The numbness caused by the abyss of the dark waters would not let me clear my head. Now I remembered that the suit and the black borsalino hat Lasgush Poradeci had been wearing on his last outing emitted the same luster. Underneath that borsalino he had thought up his best verses. And thought about Anna G, of course.
I imagined her again in the dreary bus from the capital, but now I was too sluggish to distinguish what I had imagined from what had really happened. I was mixing it all up with a memory of a novel published years ago in Moscow, where they told the story of a Soviet girl who had fallen in love with the dead Alexander Blok. You will have everything after death, I said to myself. He would in fact have everything afterward, but he would never understand, just as the lake would never know of the poems he had composed about it.
Northern swan, you rushed to catch him still alive, I said to Anna G in my mind. Later, when we are no longer here, everything will be easier. But you had the brilliant thought to rush . . .
Before knocking, I looked at the tower for a while, trying to visualize how Anna G had entered. I imagined her hesitance for a while at the door, her lowered gaze, the look of a woman entering a space she knows she should not, the push at the side of the door, then the light ascent up the wooden stairs . . . Carefully, as if trying to preserve the shadow that she must have left behind, I went up the stairs as quickly as I could; this way, I thought, they would creak as little as possible.
Lasgush knew me immediately. He had that same smile as the year before, but colder still, or maybe I thought so because I had unwittingly fallen prey to the clichés of artist cafés and expected the rejuvenating effects of love on his face. But he had broken this cliché just like all the others. Love-making, if one were to insist on finding its traces, appeared in that face through coldness. It was a loftier cold, with a marble-like smoothness that grew flaky at the cheeks and cracked at the eyes. It was like the crack of a glass surface; from below, the blinding light trapped in his skull would periodically shine through dangerously.
"Thank you for this visit," he said without moving from the low couch.
Behind him was the window, and through it one could see the branches of the apple tree. I had the sensation of being in a crystal world where any careless movement could break everything, so I was being very careful not to say something not thought through. I was equally afraid of routine conversations: how has your health been, etc.
"I want to thank you for receiving me," I said, evaluating how I could tell him, circumspectly, about the delight inspired in us all by the simple fact of his being alive; he dwelled among us, like the most valuable jewel . . .
It was always difficult to begin a conversation with him. Unlike the last time, when I had to be mindful with him as with the meek, easily extinguished light of a candle, now it was the opposite: I had to protect his frozen Olympian rigidity from ordinary limpness.
How could I tell him that although his books were as always forbidden, although he, himself, was absent everywhere since that depressing meeting, he occupied the people's minds time and again. Among three or four phrases, all of which commenced with although, I was trying to choose the most appropriate one, when he, as if guessing what was on my mind, put an end to my torture:
"It is the poets who create the nation, this is known. They, the government leaders," he pointed in one direction, as if to show the angle where they could be found, "pretend to have forgotten us whenever they do something. But they keep thinking about us: What will Lasgush say about this? What will the poets say?"
"That is exactly right," I said.
A short while he shook his head, watching his hands. Here and there, the icy smile would be suspended in midair, hardly following the movement of his head.
"They pretend they have forgotten us, but they keep thinking about us," he repeated slowly. "Beginning with him, their leader . . . By the way, what is he doing, is he still alive or did he die?"
I was shocked by these words. To pose such a question about the Leader of the land, he whose portraits, accompanied by the words "Long live, long live, long live," filled walls, shops, bookstores, was more than astounding. And the question was posed by none other than the forgotten poet, about whom officials of all levels, no doubt including the Leader himself, with spite, jealousy, and ignorance, would enjoy saying: What is he doing, still alive, or did he die?
He was ten years older than the Leader, but it nonetheless seemed natural to him to ask that question. More than personal vengeance, it was indifference.
Будь полегче с поэтом сударь. Be gentler with the poet, sire.
This line in Russian, whose author I could not recall, immediately came to my mind, in the same pitch as the forewarning cry let out: careful! Except that cry was not directed at my fellow speaker, but to him, the other.
He had been harsh with the poet. Worse still, instead of openly attacking him, he had done so insidiously, with petty spite, as if by a jealousy-driven vendetta.
Behind his shoulders the branches of the apple tree moved peacefully. On any other day, I would have tried to steer the conversation to love, which was not very difficult to do with him. But after what he had said, I did not feel capable of doing so. Any other day, worried that he was not mentioning love, I would have started to think that he had forgotten in the meantime about his story with Anna G, that he had renounced the adventure, the majestic madness; I would have been ready to fall on my knees in front of him, begging him, for everyone's sake, not to give up that mission. Master, eternal knight, do it for the sake of our belov'd world. Any other day, maybe I would have told him all this, but that morning, when he asked his majestic question, everything else paled in comparison. An inner sadness cleared his gaze.
"There is a place in Homer where the sun becomes angry with Zeus, I don't know whether you remember it," he said shortly. "So the sun is angry with the tyrant, and you know how he threatens him? I will go down to Hades; I will shine only over the dead!" He smiled even more coldly than before. "Look at what a terrible threat he issued the tyrant: to leave his place in the middle of the sky, in other words, to abandon the living and to descend where there is no need for him, among the dead. Everything, in short, would become overturned, the end of the world would come, the apocalypse . . . The poet should also issue these kinds of terrible threats and not the meager whines of young ladies."
He did not stop looking at me with his frozen gaze, with the merciless flakes in-between, threatening and unavoidable like an iceberg. A short while we stayed like that in silence, and then he added: "From what I have read of your works, you are also starting to descend to the dead . . . "
I breathed more easily, as if granted clemency.
The afternoon was gray, empty, but perhaps because of that I had a hard time filling it with ordinary daydreams. After wandering among the poplars of the old hotel and in the courtyard of the abandoned monastery, I strolled a while along the beach. Above flew birds with anxious cries, the only beings in a rush in this town. Then slowly I walked backwards and forwards along the streets, trying to imagine in which department store Anna G would stop in to buy what she needed during the time she had started meeting with
him . . .
Sitting on doorsteps, old men, looking like tree stumps on which faint old burn marks from lightning could be discerned, gazed at the lake. They were friends of his youth, who spoke rarely and had forgotten half the language; who would say shkándull, instead of scandal, with the stress on the first syllable, like in old Albanian. Did they ever say: oh boy, Lasgush really embarrassed us. Or did they make do with just that word, shkándull, impenetrable like a turtle's shell, in order to express everything they thought about the dainty northern swan who had turned their friend's head.
My feet dragged me to the lakeshore. I could not get rid of the thought that the three of them—the small resort town, the lake, and the poet—had the same name. Years ago, as if the squabbles about whether the lake had given its name to the town or vice versa did not suffice, a young poet had arrived after finishing his studies in Vienna to share that name.
"May 1" Street. "Victory of Socialism" Square. "Kajo Karafili" Street. Boulevard "Enver Hoxha."
Evening fell while I was trying to find suitable roads to baptize in his name, and naturally in that of Anna G.
From afar, the lights were shining brightly in those parts of town where the Leader's vacation homes could be found. The tower of the poet was in a completely different direction. For years they had both vacationed in the same city, but they had never met. In the houses of the former many guests were received, all sorts of officials and activists, veterans, old ladies, "acclaimed artists," while he, the pride of Albanian poetry, had never been invited.
Maybe at one of the dinners a guest had mentioned one of the poet's latest follies. The other had laughed aloud: ha, ha, ha, until a black shadow replaced this laughter in his eyes. He thought he had completely isolated the poet, that he had forbidden him from living, while the opposite had happened. At another time he might rebuke: who was this Anna G; what were the Sigurimi comrades doing up north; where were their files, their investigations, and the road searches. But now it seemed too late for those. From now on, one could feel the weight of death even before its coming. Like the nighttime that allowed the stars to shine, only death, it seemed, could pull the poet out of the darkness. The last love of the poet, this deathly flower, had slipped through under the cover of death . . .
None of the guests could understand the grief of the Leader. He thought he had the poet under his control while he was alive, but realized he would escape when he died. Alas, he could not prevent him from dying . . .
Будь полегче с поэтом сударь. If the leader was told to be gentler with the poet, what could be said to the poet when his time came to judge? Be easier on the leader, poet? Ha, ha, ha.
The visits of the leader H to my tower . . . Since this had never been written and would never be written, it meant the other was lost.
I could not tear my eyes from that distant strip of lights. They had told me that precisely those days, while the trial of the family of his fallen rival took place in Tirana, he was brought videotapes where everything was recorded. Along with his wife, children, daughters- and sons-in-law he would laugh and joke, while the people they had vacationed with only a little while ago were handcuffed, stuck in the mud, with shaved heads.
It was the last summer that the three namesakes—the city, the lake, and the poet—spent together. UNESCO would now take over the protection of the lake. The fate of the city was more uncertain. Meanwhile, the poet had given all signs that he was ready to move on. Nothing had been accidental: the light colors as if from the morgue in Anna G's nail polish, the grief of the Leader, the great threat.
It was late, maybe midnight, when one of the alleys brought me to a field. It was cool; one could feel the depth of the sky and the faraway stars as at few other times. In the fall, one could see the storks from here, as they departed for faraway.
The last great stork flew away in miserable spirits.
I wanted to say: Where are you going, great stork, and where are you leaving us miserable ones.