The Master of the Mahala

Kalina Maleska

Artwork by Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee

When I heard my son’s cry in the five seconds I had my back turned to him, I knew at once that it had something to do with Mitsek’s son. “Klara, Klara, your son’s hurt,” a woman next to him was shouting. It was Natasha, our neighbor from the second floor. My son’s mouth was bleeding, and he held a tooth in his hand; it was his first, and until a few seconds ago his only, permanent tooth. And now it was gone.

“Mitsek’s son?” I asked.

“Yes, yes,” they both confirmed.

Years ago, Mitsek (the nickname he still uses) was a skinny little boy from our neighborhood, our mahala. Now he was a corpulent man—whose voice could be heard several miles away. When we were children, the strongest boy in the neighborhood, Salle, used to send Mitsek and his friends to buy some cigarettes. They would bring him the ones he ordered, but Salle would hit them for bringing the “wrong” cigarettes. On the playground, we used to stand in line waiting for our turn to slide, but Salle would often push us off the slide, striking everyone who stood in his way. I was fast, so I usually escaped his blows, unlike Mitsek who was a slow runner.

Nowadays, every time my son and I go for a walk in our mahala, Mitsek sits on a bench telling those around him how “the kids today don’t know what life is”. “In our time. . ." Mitsek begins. “In our time, you know. . . ” he continues. The others confirm they do know. “In our time, you know, it was much better than today. . . ” Sometimes, once or twice a month, he manages to finish the sentence: “In our time, you know, it was much better than today; these kids today—they are so spoiled, it wasn’t like that in our time: we’d get into fights, that’s how we grew up, that’s how we learned about life, became tough. How would I learn to fight if my mommy and daddy were always around lecturing me about justice?”

Since Mitsek and his wife are never around while their son is outside playing, it took a lot of time to find them. Finally we saw the mother.

“Look at what your son did to my son,” I complained, pointing at my son’s bleeding mouth and fallen tooth.

“Oh. . . That’s how kids grow,” she replied.

“So, you won’t tell him anything?” I was angry.

She made no comment.

The following day we did not go out because my son was still afraid of Mitsek’s son. Mitsek, on the other hand, did not refrain from ringing our bell. When I opened the door, his T-shirt was spread in front of me—since I am rather short, and Mitsek is pretty tall, my look went somewhere above his stomach.

“Why the hell were you talking to my wife? You’ll talk to me whenever something concerns my son.”

I tried to explain what happened the day before, but he was repeatedly interrupting me: “And if I ever heard you say you’d teach my son anything, you’ll face consequences—make no mistake about it! I’ll teach him a lesson, not you.” Now I tried to interrupt my childhood acquaintance: “But I don’t want you to. . .,” but Mitsek wouldn’t listen. “And I’m really fed up with all of you, coming to my door every day to complain about my son,” he was shouting.

“And to tell you the truth,” he added, already descending the stairs, “that’s how kids learn to be tough. That’s how I became strong, not calling my mommy and daddy to interfere.”

“You haven’t become strong at all. You’ve just become a bully like Salle who was always mistreating us,” I shouted after him.

Mitsek turned around and I saw his flashing eyes and his raised hand a moment too late to retreat. When I was already on the ground, he spat on me: “See, I am strong, after all,” he laughed.

My dentist removed my four broken front teeth, and we made an appointment for dentures.

Several days later, my son and I, toothless but proud, went for a walk in the neighborhood. We first spotted the family of foreigners who moved into our neighborhood several years ago. The Taylors, they were called, and they often rode their bikes as they did now. When their daughter and son wanted to play soccer with the other children from the neighborhood, the local children were always trying to avoid them. It was not that they had something against the Taylors, and it was not that they didn’t speak English—most children in Skopje seem to speak English. The problem was that the girl and the boy always demanded the presence of a referee. Mitsek laughed at this idea more loudly than anyone else: “Come on, play, where the hell do you think you are, some world cup? They want a referee, the spoiled brats!” he always shouted.

When the Taylors saw us, they stopped.

“What happened to you?” the woman, asked looking at our toothless mouths.

My son, who speaks English better than me, told them.

“You should call the police,” the father advised.

“Yes, why not,” I said, and indeed that idea had not crossed my mind at all before I heard it from him. Then I thought—if I reported Mitsek to the police, he would at least have to pay for my dentures.

The police came. They asked questions, wrote something down, told me I should have reported the incident when it first happened, and left. Mitsek spotted us. “It seems, when you were a little girl, you only went out with mommy and daddy, huh? So now you’re like—oh, Mr. Police Officer, please save me from Mitsek. Well, my mommy and daddy didn’t follow me everywhere to deal out justice.”

“That’s why you don’t have a sense of justice,” was my comment.

Mitsek’s fist pushed me on the ground for a second time. This time, all seven teeth on the lower right side fell out.

I learned my lesson. Whatever Mitsek says, I will not say anything back to him anymore. But he won’t chase me away from my mahala.

Two weeks later, my son and I were out. My son played with his friends. Then they decided to slide. He and a few other kids were sliding one after the other, then waited in line before taking the next slide. After a while, Mitsek’s son appeared, pushed the kids off the slide—one of them cut her hand on a rusted spike—and started sliding all alone.

But this time, I was determined not to let him go. “It’s not nice to push other kids,” I said to Mitsek’s son, “I know your father doesn’t mind you doing that, but you are a smart boy, you should teach him what fair behavior is.” The boy was looking at me with surprise for a few seconds, and then slid down. He ran again to climb the slide, but I stood on his way. After a while I moved, but I lowered my arm in order not to let him through, and said: “You should wait for your turn. That’s fair, isn’t it?” He tried to push my arm; I did not move it.

All of a sudden, a microphone, on which “JWNewsW” was written, appeared before my face, as well as a lady journalist who was holding it, along with a camera operator behind her. The journalist spoke English.

“I’m reporting live from Skopje. We are on a local playground. I hope you can see behind me how cruelly the adults here treat children, and what’s more—here she paused dramatically for a few seconds—they treat cruelly other people’s children, not only their own. Madam,” she addressed me, “madam, could you, please, tell me your name?” “Klara,” I answered obediently, a little confused. “Klara, how dare you hit a child?” I did not quite understand what was happening. For a moment I thought it was one of those modern versions of "candid camera", but Mitsek’s stomach, approaching me with incredible speed and his angry facial expression, which I saw when I slightly lifted my head, were a clear indicator that this was no joke.

“You’ve hit my child, you damn cow?” Mitsek shouted at me, and started hitting my legs with something he was holding in his hands—I could not see what it was. The journalist and camera operator tried to stop him. “Sir,” they were trying to explain, “we know that you are upset by this brutal attack on your child, but please, have confidence in the institutions. Calm down, don’t upset the children.” All of the children on the playground were screaming.

The next time I went for a walk around my building was a week later. My son did not want to come with me anymore, although I was trying to teach him not to yield, not to show weakness. Perhaps, he was too young to understand that. With splints on my broken legs, crutches in my hands and a toothless mouth, I was walking around our neighborhood looking for Mitsek—just so he could see I was here, and that I was not afraid of him. But Mitsek was nowhere to be found. After a while, I felt relieved that was not there, so I sat on a bench, and opened a newspaper. Several children were playing soccer. Among them were the two Taylor kids, and their father was acting as a referee. The other kids were irritated —now that they had a referee, they could not break the rules of the game. Soon, however, the referee’s cell phone rang, so he had to withdraw his presence from the pitch. I was reading a newspaper, enjoying myself for a while before the loud voices on the pitch made my reading difficult. I lowered my newspaper. At that very moment, Mitsek’s son was aiming his foot directly at the knee of the child who had the ball in his legs. He hit the boy so hard that it seemed to me like the boy’s knee flew out of the leg. The child fell, and a few seconds later his knee was so swollen that it looked at least three times bigger than the other one. “Foul, foul!” the children from the injured boy’s team were shouting. “There was no foul, no foul!” the boys in the other team were shouting back.

I got up.

“What do you mean there was no foul? Don’t you see the boy is hurt?” I shouted as well. “I am the referee’s replacement, and I’m giving you a red card,” I said to Mitsek’s son, who was swinging a stone in my direction. He missed me. I used my crutches to walk toward him. Mitsek’s son took another stone, but I was now close enough to grab his hand and push the stone down. At this moment, the “JWNewsW” journalist appeared, addressing her viewers with an excited voice. She finished her report with the conclusion that it would be best to call the social services. Then I saw Mitsek approaching me with a knife covered in tomato juice—Mitsek and his friends often made snacks with tomatoes and cheese while they were sitting outside, so they always had a knife for this purpose—and as soon as he came in my vicinity, he swung the knife. The next second I saw my left ear on the ground. Then Mitsek turned toward the child injured in the soccer game, and said: “Oh, what the hell—you’re making a problem out of this trifle, spoiled brats? This is how you’ll learn to be tough.”

Well, now I was so angry I decided not to wait for a few weeks. Instead, I went out the next day, with a bandage around my earless head, broken legs, crutches to help me walk, and a toothless mouth, going right to the playground where Mitsek’s son was holding the seesaw on one side, not allowing the children on the other side to get down.

“What are you doing?” I shouted without thinking, no longer worrying either about Mitsek or the journalist, “Let the children play!” Suddenly, unexpectedly, the son screamed as loudly as he could: “Daddy, daddy, the same woman is hitting me!” Never before have I heard Mitsek’s son shout so loud, and I was astonished.

“Klara, Klara, watch out!” I heard behind me the voice of my neighbor Natasha. I turned around. I saw, just a few inches away, Mitsek’s hammer flying in the direction of my eyes. After I died from this blow, my family, in accordance with my previously stated wish, cremated me. Wanting to leave a mark of my futile resistance, the members of my family spread my ashes around the slide and the seesaw as a monument to remind the future generations that I fought and lost the battle against violence in our mahala. Several days after they spread my ashes, Mitsek’s son was playing around the slide. While running, he slipped and fell down, so some of my ashes went into his eyes. Mitsek, who was close to his son for the first time since I can remember, started jumping over my ashes angrily. “I’m reporting live from Skopje once again. The story of injustice does not seem to end. The woman named Klara that we were reporting about in the past few days, today almost blinded with her ashes the poor child, victim of her violence,” I heard the voice of the journalist who was also treading on my ashes.

translated from the Macedonian by Kalina Maleska