Faruk Myrtaj lives in Toronto, Canada. Since his first book in 1985, he has published poetry, short stories, novels, essays, and translations, including translations of a number of Canadian authors. One of his books won the award for the best book of short stories for 1996. He has also worked as a journalist. Faruk Murtaj is member of The Writers’ Union of Canada.
By Faruk Myrtaj
Years had passed since Shpend Shpendi neither counted, nor confessed his age. He enjoyed the dawn of days, the dawn of sun, the food, awakening from the naps and awakening again, mornings. If on occasion sleep shied away from night, he didn’t ponder to find a reason. He stepped out in the balcony to look at the world and the stars, till morning came. He didn’t fear aging. Simply was curious how the blessed was going to arrive.
He had never smoked, never changed the mountain tea for the city’s coffee, on weddings held a glass of water, instead of raki. They saw him keeping busy and took seriously his words that he had decided to live indefinitely. Life hadn’t allowed room for Shpend to become schooled, but anyone who knew or met him, would find it hard to believe it. Nor when he said that “books shorten people’s lives…because they tell what so is…”
The house of Shpend stood as on claws on the mountain side, among an oak forest. Close to two miles down, at the bottom of the mountain across, a narrow road twisted and turned that for whatever reason was called a road for cars. Among the folk, few were the people who like Shpend remembered that during the last two wars two foreign cars had passed on that road. No more than that, he swears. The closest town was so far away that it was better to think it didn’t exist. To get there you had to leave the livestock unattended, had to take off while was still dark outside and come back after the sun had set. Some relatives, who had relocated there on grounds of a common revenge, waited on them with longing, but they themselves had not returned the visit. They didn’t say out loud “thank goodness we’re out of that place”, but the old Shpend sensed also what was left unsaid. “And, if you don’t come, neither would we come to bother you.”
All are born alone, but leading life without a soul around is much like death. Shpend Shpendi kept swearing “on religions that are many” and “on country that is one…”, even when those in power declared him “unhappy person with villig’s chief, and later “kulak”, even he didn’t know that kulaks were class enemies of the poorer peasants, and were described by Lenin as “bloodsuckers, vampires, plunderers of the people…” They tried later to let him think they trust him giving the right to hold a gun, since a few miles away stood the state border, but Shpend refused.
“I have promised on someone’s death bed to not lay so much as a finger on iron …” he said. He bowed his head as though doing so enabled him to close his ears and it was useless to keep the hopes up. Also the plough tip, as in the olden days, was made out of wood. “I haven’t bothered anyone, and I don’t expect anyone declaring a war on me,” he said to the newcomers.
Sometime later he refused to vote, even though those in charge brought the voting box right to his house. They warned him that they were going to declare him enemy, but it was clear that it wouldn’t change a thing. Neither for him, nor for the government. He lived at the end of the world they couldn’t possibly locate him elsewhere. Later he refused to join the cooperative, they demanded he put it in writing and he agreed. Without wavering he signed the declaration of refusal. As he knew how: dipped his finger in the ink of the box of the state stamp and pressed it on paper.
From that moment he was declared not desired. Shpend Shpendi and the State from then on had no business with each other. It snowed and the roads were blocked, the August sun burned, the beast howled outside, but no one cared about the Shpend. The old man enjoyed the solitude and prayed, hopelessly, that the same fate fell over the government as well. While shaking his head he said that this darn state was the first, of his centurion life, to hold a grudge with anyone owning anything. For this reason he wasn’t caught off guard when the city officials dug up again the story of the gun’s opposing, thought forgotten.
All knew that Shpend Shpendi had never held a gun. Even when it came to invaders he used to say: “All who are coming get up and leave one day… Why waste blood?” And he smiled. This bothered some people. It was common knowledge the invaders would soon leave, but some demanded to see them off as soon as possible. Shpend tried to understand the thick heads that wanted peace through war, but found it hard to wrap his mind around it…. When standing amidst their crowds, he asked in a low voice those who were closer: “Hey, blessed, how come you never explained to me the word martyr, so I can nod my head like the rest of you…Man gets killed, dies, closes his eyes, whereas you say he fell for freedom…Aren’t you confusing our freedom with his death?!”
There were no signs of foreign enemies at the border, and peace shouted out of the radio, when they called him to town. The old man cleaned and shaved himself as if getting ready to end the ball game. He put on clean clothes and said good bye to the old lady and to his sons as though he were leaving the country for good.
“Who knows what the state has on its mind. There could be an empty cell in prison and the state could make me its owner! Don’t you worry if I don’t come back soon…”
He felt good the short time he walked until he reached the main road. He got in the first car that stopped, certain that all drove to town. To find the building where he was asked to go, he questioned the people: “Where did the folk get punished,” although not quite sure the same fate expected him too. Those waiting for him seemed anxious, troubled, seeing him in the court of justice; they invited him inside a chamber, set him to face a couple of face paid to play as a jury, but lacked patience to listen. After a short while they announced to him that in the name of people he was being sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Just as a collaborator. They used this word for at the time the word pacifist was not in circulation yet. They arrested him in the chamber for he didn’t asked forgiveness and refused to hold a last speech. “We owe the last word to someone else!” he said, looking toward heaven.
After serving half of the sentence he refused to appeal in order to get out before time due to his age. He was over sixty then, but was convinced that he would keep on living for another thirty or forty years. He did time till the last day and got back to the village with the same mindset he had left.
“You have no idea how good we have it here. Away from governments,” he told his sons. With eyes glued to the youngest. Because, once hearing the word city, he couldn’t get his mind out of it.
The Old Shpend spoke his mind. He didn’t order anyone around. Nor his sons. Never did he stopped his son from going to town, to get lost there for two or three days, neither did he asked what he had seen and done that side of place, but believed and hoped to God that none of the boys would build a life away from the village. In fact, although he kept his thoughts to himself, he sensed life was getting harder and harder for the Shpend. He covered his sentiments by saying: “Man was not having an easy ride those days”.
The youngest son turned eighteen and had to join the army. So, he had to carry guns. The old Shpend didn’t like it, but he didn’t rush to decide for his sons. He alone was to follow the last wish, not them. Let them decide as they see it fit.
The day the government’s men showed up at his door to give the news, his son was not there.
“He must have been headed your way…” the old man replied to them.
“The government can’t be lied to…” they reminded him.
“My boys have never lied to me. I have never asked them to.”
“You shouldn’t keep him home without serving”
“I know …” he said.
“Sign that you got the notice”
They brought out the ink, for they knew how the old man signed. He dipped his finger in ink, the finger was placed on paper, the official pressed over the finger roughened from the daily works that by now had reached a century and, following the law, they left. The old man went by the brook, let the finger soak in water, and rubbed sand over it. He didn’t want to keep on looking at that ink.
The boy didn’t come home that night. Neither did he show up later, nor on the days that followed. For a long time no news came from him, but the old man kept his cool. His mind was at ease and his spirits up.
The man in uniform showed up again, after a while. They asked. They asked about the son again.
“I have sent him to you… I want him back from you when he is done with the army,” said the old man.
“We will bring him! We know where he is, we know…”
Nothing was expected to change: they were thorns in government’s eye even before the boy’s departure.
Two years of the army time went by and they did not brought him. Some more time passed, while the life of Shpends kept on unchanged.
The younger son came back home the day he brought the news; the city’s government had crumbled. A month after it had happened. The old man grabbed his son by the head put it on his chest and it. “Go inside, to your mother…She has missed you. Neither I, nor the government…”
Shpend Shpendi knew that in this life everything comes to an end. But not always death is the end. Often is something else, even worse than death.
“You’ll come with me. All of you”, the boy told them.
They looked him straight in the eye: As though they were looking at a dead man walking among the living to cause confusion.
The old man smiled.
“We are good here. If it is better for you, go back to where you came from.”
“I’m preparing the papers for all of you, dad. They won’t take long…I’ll come and get you”.
“May we be alive and well…”, said the old man. Thinking that he would never see his son again…
Three months had passed when the boy came back. With a small car that could come so far down the street, where some half a century ago the army war trucks had been seen, and a bigger car parked on the main road leading to town.
The old man began to cry; together with his old lady, the mother of his sons. The next day they mounted both of them on the gray mules and headed down the road, where the car stood. Next they were on the main road and after a few hours arrived at the airport. They had seen airplanes only flying high in the sky. During the war. Most recently, during the last war about the country’s northeast territory. It was the first time when the airplanes seemed to him like the spring’s birds. Now they were in one of them. The old man held tight on the seat handles, the old lady at his arm, but worried they were about the boys, their wives and their offspring.
As long as a man is alive he must care over matters worse than death.
The hours of travel were too long and during them he slept and awoke several times. He stood buckled the entire time. To get the old man and his wife off the plane they brought a wheel chair. Once outside, they stood in line with a lot of people, of every race and color. Speaking every sort of world’s language. A world of Babylon. They moved ahead one after the other, entering the customs office.
Shpend Shpendi thought that precisely there he could embarrass his son. He feared they might ask him to read or to sign. It was going to be known even here at the end of the world that he couldn’t read and write. They directed him in the separate room and he began praying to die soon before being embarrassed. At least no one would find out he was the sons’ father. But from the corner of the eye he noticed that the other’s in front of him didn’t have to sign. They took only their finger prints. Which made him happy. He had used to sign with finger all his life.
“This is nice. Man is born and dies with his mark…”
The youngest son smiled. He had been worried about the long air-trip, not over the inking of the finger.
Shpend changed life at the start of the new month. The moment he heard in the country where he had arrived everyone could carry a gun. He didn’t say anything but closed his ears and eyes with his own hands and breathed deeply in his soul.
Translated by Aida Dismondy