Lazer Stani is an Albanian writer. He published the short story collections Mystery of Shadows, Unaging of Santa Maria, One Goes to Bregence to Die, The Red Phoenix, Sobbing in wood and Time for a Bride. He has been awarded two prizes for the best short story collection of year in 1993 and 1996 by the Albanian Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, as well as the yearly prize for the best book published by Eurorilindja publishing house in 1995.
By Lazer Stani
Something dramatic must have happened, I thought when I saw the postman’s pale face as he entered the clinic hurriedly and he said in a frightened voice: “Doctor, do you treat bewitchery?” I was taken aback by this silly question. I had never been asked about bewitchery before.
“Bad news, doctor, this bad news is killing us,” said the distraught postman. “As if everything else wasn’t enough, now we’re dealing with bewitcheries.” The postman turned his eyes to the bookshelf and gave a good look at the books, like he was browsing for one on treating the bewitched, but he didn’t see the dreadful word in any of them. He asked me fearfully if they taught us anything at university on how to treat the bewitched. “They did,” I replied, half-jokingly. “Doctors learn about every evil that afflicts man.”
“Ah,” said the postman, his eyes widened in surprise. He knocked on his pate with his fist, and said that we needed to go and treat Lena of Markaj’s daughter, Alina, who had been bewitched. “You have to do me this favour, doctor,” begged the postman. “Word has come out that it was my wife who cast the spell.” He blushed, he was embarrassed, his hands and knees were shaking. “I swear, doctor,” he whispered shyly, “my wife can’t even thread a needle, let alone cast a spell.”
I told him to relax, as I would go to Lena’s house in the afternoon and visit her. The postman kept staring at me with a scared and incredulous look. He had probably been threatened by the bewitched girl’s relatives, or who knows, the threat had probably come from the mayor. He could not keep a witch in his staff. That would ruin the authority of the village administration. “I’ll go and see her in the afternoon at any cost,” I promised. At that, the postman sent a thousand thanks and blessings my way. I saw him out at the health centre’s yard, and I shook his hand tightly, like a man who keeps his word.
That same afternoon, when Lena saw me make a turn towards her gate, she warned me off. “I have no daughter who needs a doctor,” she said in an angry voice, looking at me with her cunning villager’s eyes. “It’s pointless that they told you to come. Doctors do not treat bewitcheries.”
A toneless, manly voice was heard from the inside, saying: “Bring the doctor in, you brazen woman!” “Bring him in,” he said, “you’re bringing disgrace on us.” Lena let me in, and I made my way towards the house, where her father-in-law, who could barely stand on his feet, appeared at the doorstep, supporting himself with a crooked cornel-wood walking cane. Lena followed me, her head bowed. The old man invited me into the guest chamber and ordered his daughter-in-law to immediately make coffee for us and to bring the raki bottle and two glasses. “Welcome, doctor,” he said. “And pay no attention to that birdbrain; she’s lost what little mind she had left when her daughter got sick. She’s completely out of her head.”
I sat on the sheepskin-covered divan as the master of the house ordered me to, and I threw a glance at the poverty-stricken but clean room. A calendar of two or three years ago with a seaside scene was hanging on the wall.
Inside some wooden frames manufactured in the village workshop, there were numerous family pictures, photos of dead grandparents, a yellowed wedding picture of a couple wearing a national costume, photos of children and relatives. On the mantelpiece, there was a picture of the state leader in a carved frame, happily smiling at the master of the house and the guests in this guest chamber. My eyes were caught by an empty space on the wall, left by a picture frame that had been removed. For a while, I tried figuring out whose picture that might have been, but I couldn’t come up with anything. In that moment, as if he were reading my mind, the old man said: “We have taken off the picture of the sick girl. Her mother gave it to her own sister, so that she can take it to a good man who can write an amulet for her. They say it cures bewitchery and evil eye.”
I told the old man that I wanted to see the sick girl. He thanked me, and I followed him down a dark corridor; then we went upstairs to the second floor through a wooden staircase that creaked under our feet. He opened the door to a dimly lit room, and the smell of stale air stung my nostrils. Five or six women were sitting by the bedside of the sick girl, who tossed and turned, moaned, endlessly uttered meaningless words, spoke names of men and women and continued saying meaningless words again, extended her arms and her fingers, contracted, her neck contorted, her eyes rolled back into their sockets. The women were astonished to see me; they stopped their conversations and guessed about the illness, turned their heads my way and stared at me, looking disturbed and perplexed. I approached the window without saying a word, I opened it, and the fresh air of the afternoon flooded the room. I then asked them to turn on the light.
“She can’t stand the light,” replied a woman in her forties, who seemed troubled by my visit.
“Turn on the light and get out, all of you,” I said. “Only the mother shall stay.”
The women rose, dissatisfied, and got out, one after another. The sick girl strove to get up off her bed, screamed and tried to bite whatever was close to her. She bit on the pillow, and she squealed, waggling her feet. “It’s strangling me, it’s strangling me,” she shouted and yelled.
“See, doctor, see what they’ve done to my daughter,” said the woman. “May cholera kill them all and leave none. They drove her crazy!”
Without delay, I pushed her long hair away from her neck, and I started massaging her nape, her hairline. I unbuttoned her shirt and rubbed her chest, her thighs. The girl kept moaning and uttering meaningless words, stretched her fingers, lifting them up into the air, stretched her legs, writhed, sprawled, recoiled as if she had been bitten by a serpent. Time and again, she tried to lift her head and bite me. I asked the mother to get out, to leave me alone with the girl. She might tell me something she could not say in her mother’s presence, I justified my request that the mother thought was strange, so she obediently got out, closing the door behind her. I heard women’s voices in the corridor and the question that was repeated many times: “What is he saying, what is the doctor saying?” No answer was heard, and the women kept jabbering on with frightening stories of bewitchery that had occurred ages ago but that were still remembered and recounted with such trepidation and dread that one would think they had only happened the day before.
When I was left alone with the sick girl, I kept rubbing her chest and I leaned her head against my chest. She tried to grab my hand and squeeze it, she ragingly pressed her body against mine, she screamed and moaned, she twisted as if poked with spears all over her body. As I was massaging her feverish body, I thought about my early readings about her sickness, those written in the ancient papyri of Kahun, Ebers, up to Hippocrates. As students, we always taunted the girls quoting phrases like “the woman was made delicate and suffering-prone by nature, and only coitus with its invigorating effects can cure the female languishment”. A scandal broke then, when one day, I asked the cardiology professor, a good speaker of Latin, what the word coitus meant. The professor was infuriated, and he threatened to have me expelled from university if I tried spreading such decadent theses again. “And so that you know,” he yelled at me, “the Americans have removed hysteria syndrome from the list of neurotic illnesses since 1987.” I wish the professor was here, in this dim and distant village, so that he could knock his head against the primitive illnesses that were ruining these people’s lives.
I entered my hand between her legs and kept rubbing her most intimate parts, slowly at first, and then harder. She squirmed, squeezing my hand very hard between her legs. I felt like my hand was going to be cut off. After a while, a hushed groan came out of her chest, her arms fell down and her powerless body fell on the bed. I just tidied her clothes a little bit, put a pillow under her head and covered her with a quilt. I went and closed the window and opened the door. I asked her mother to come in, and whispered to her: “Let her sleep! She will be fine when she wakes up.” “Doctor, is she going to be healed?” the mother asked me with her broken voice. The mother was weakened, her face looked really pale, and her voice trembled after every word she said. She seemed like she was finding it very hard to breathe.
I told her that no one was allowed to go into her daughter’s bedroom until she woke up. The mother put another heavy quilt over her daughter’s body. I advised her that every time her daughter got these bewitching symptoms and hysteria she needed to have a shower with pretty warm water and a massage. “Poor me, I know nothing about these things,” said the mother to me, as she seemed to trust me in every word I said now. “Please heal my daughter from this terrible disease, please, please doctor. Please promise me that you will come back again to visit her!”
“I will come for sure, every time you’ll ask for me,” I promised her.
We walked downstairs, where many men and women were gathered as they learned about the doctor’s visit to this young lady’s house. Tens of voices asked me at the same time, “How is she? What’s wrong with her?” “Bewitchery,” I told them, and all were astounded as if lightning had hit them. A rowdy murmur spread quickly in the hall and in the sitting room where the men were sat. “Bewitchery, bewitchery, bewitchery,” they started whispering to each other in fear, ready to run away from this jinxed house. I told the mother to accompany me, and I went out without saying anything. At the door, I advised her once again to give to her daughter lots of fruits, to give her honey every day and to bring her every week for a visit to my clinic. Meanwhile, I would try to find the right medication for her.
“Your daughter wasn’t bewitched and she will recover,” I told her, just to make her calm, without being sure myself what would happen the next day.
When I came back to the clinic, the postman was waiting for me at front door.
“Did you visit that young lady doctor, what’s wrong with her?” he asked me.
“Hysteria,” I replied to him.
“Is hysteria a form of bewitchery, doctor?”
“It’s worse than bewitchery,” I said, and I entered the clinic, leaving the process of wondering behind the door.
The news that the doctor could cure the bewitched spread very quickly through word of mouth; it went from one village to another, and after one week, when I arrived to the clinic at eight o’clock in the morning, there was a big crowd of people, women, men and the elderly, waiting at the front door of the clinic, pushing each other about to be seen first.
At first, I wondered that an epidemic had broken out suddenly, but once the first patient came in and told me that her neighbour, a malicious evil witch who envied his beautiful wife, had bewitched him, I realised that I had put myself in big trouble.
“What’s going on?” I asked the tall man who was standing up in front of me.
His forehead was covered in big drops of sweat, and he was feeling very anxious. “Doctor, I’m not anymore a real man in bed,” he said, completely exhausted, in the end. His face became very pale, and he was feeling embarrassed and ashamed. “Bewitchery,” he said, “nothing else, because up to now, we were doing great.” I was afraid he was going to collapse in front of me, as he was totally exhausted, so I asked him to sit on the chair; thus, we could talk calmly. He obeyed, sat down quickly and turned his head aside, so I could not see his eyes. I asked him if he drank or smoked, if he had suffered from any collapse or enlarged testicle, if he had suffered from any bad illness in the past, but he said that he didn’t drink or smoke, and he never suffered from any of those things that I mentioned.
“Take off your clothes and lay down on the bed, I’m going to examine you,” I told him.
“Sorry, I can’t doctor,” he said. “Don’t dishonour me, please!”
“For what dishonour are you talking about?” I said to him loudly, “lay down on the treatment table, or get out and do what you want with yourself.”
The man felt embarrassed, drew a deep sigh, stood up and slowly walked towards the treatment table, and with his trembling hands he untied the belt, lowered his trousers up to his knees, but didn’t put down his underpants. He stood up beside the treatment table, as he was going to be hanged, and after a little hesitancy, he laid down, slanted, showing me his spine.
“Lie on the back and pull down your underpants,” I said to him with a harsh voice, as if I was a military commander.
“My genitals have been checked once,” he murmured; “it was when I went to the military service.” The doctor said, “Normal”, and a young military officer who was taking note of what that the doctor said wrote that word in a thick register. When I started checking his genitals, he turned his head toward the wall and shuddered, as I thought he was not breathing.
“Normal,” I said to him, too, at the end of this examination. The man felt extremely happy and nearly jumped on me; he put on his clothes quickly, and, fully relieved, said to me, “I told you, doctor, it’s bewitchery.”
I wrote a prescription for him, and, when I gave it to him, I said: “When you lie in bed with your wife, just meditate like you are lying there with any other beautiful and attractive woman, any of those who, with their beauty, could raise the dead from graves.”
One, like our veterinarian’s wife, said something to me, murmuring.
“Like the one that you fancy the most, in your village,” I replied to him.
“But, what to do with that witch?” the man asked me with fear.
“Take off a hair from your testicles, and throw it into her garden, so the bewitchery will be turned back to her,” I said.
The man put the prescription in his pocket and begged me not to tell anyone about this shameful bewitchery. I told him not to worry about this, because doctors do not ever tell anyone about their patients’ sickness, or bewitcheries. He thanked me and left, and I had the impression that a vague hope revived within him.
The second patient who entered was a bald man with thick, opened lips and badly protruded and crooked teeth. His name was Shan. He was the first person that I got to know in this village, and I never liked him. When he talked, he always kept his eyes looking at our feet, staring at our shoes, as if investigating them to find out traces of any mud, or any defect that the shoemaker had made; he acted like a professional boot blacker or a shoemaker.
“Hi, Shan.” I asked him, “What brought you here?”
“You better say, what nightmare brought me here?” he replied to me with his rumbled voice. “My wife has been bewitched,” he said.
“How has she been bewitched?” I asked him, without knowing if he was joking or whether perhaps something serious had happened to his wife.
“The rebellious Jinn led her astray,” he said, without hiding the anger that seethed within.
“And you come here to be visited by me instead, and not your wife?” I asked him chidingly.
“Doctor, don’t play games with me,” he said menacingly. “I know that. I asked a wise old lady, and she told me that spells could easily pass from one body to another body.”
I stood up, approached him and told him in a low voice but wildly:
“Get out now, and don’t come anymore here to tell me nonsense, okay. If your wife is sick, bring her here to be seen by me; if she is not sick, just go, go now and get lost!”
Shan’s forehead went red from his swelled veins.
“Doctor, I’m telling you that, you better take away the jinn from my wife,” he said and ran out closing the door promptly.
The third patient to come in was Gjika, a crabby man who didn’t talk to half of his neighbours.
Straightaway after he entered without greeting me, he brashly asked:
“What about the animals’ spells, doctor do you heal them?”
“Since when did you start to call yourself an animal?” I replied to him, just to teach him a lesson about the fact that he couldn’t beat me with his cynical words, like he usually did with other people.
“I’m not kidding,” he said, “I really am not joking. My cow has been bewitched, its milk is gone. Until two weeks ago I got ten litres of milk from it, now not even a half litre. Its tits dried overnight.”
“Go and bring your cow to the veterinarian,” I told him.
“The veterinarian is useless, he doesn’t know how to put a rope on a donkey’s neck, doctor,” said Gjika.
“Get out now!” I said to him emphatically. “I don’t heal your cow’s spells.”
“Doctor,” he said, “spells have occupied all the animals in our farms. Our animals are gone crazy. Do you remember Leka, the man who used to go hunting, he had the best hunting dog in our village.”
“Just a day before yesterday, his dog was seen playing with a rabbit in the meadows. Mark Kola’s goats don’t like going anymore to their stall, as if there was shelter from any monster. Nobody can saddle the horses anymore. Believe me doctor, all the cattle are gone crazy, they have been bewitched. Everyone here is suspecting that the spells of that little monster of Markaj have spread into the bodies of all the cattle of our village,” Gjika said finally, moving quickly his small, disgusting eyes.
“Get out! Get out!” I shouted at him.
He left, and I heard him screaming in the corridor. “Don’t waste your time here. The doctor doesn’t accept healing our bewitched cattle. Poor those who had this bad luck,” Gjika yelled.
There, in the corridor, curses burst out very loudly; people there started fighting and pushing each other. I heard sounds of window glasses breaking and the front door collapsing with a big blast.
Then silence fell. When I opened the door of the clinic, there were no people there. All had left in a hurry. Only the postman with his pale face standing still at the collapsed front door.
“Doctor, I have an important letter for you,” he said, and gave me a brown envelope with many seals and stamps on it.
I took the envelope, saw that was from the Ministry of the Public Health, and I was about to throw it in the bin. I was really tried from these troubles here and their endless letters guiding us about the terms and deadlines of the vaccinations, seasonal diseases, epidemics and other advice about how to prevent those illnesses.
“Doctor, all the village is gone crazy,” said the postman, gazing at me with his frightened eyes.
“Help me to lift up this collapsed door and to put it in place,” I said to him, “and leave the crazy village alone!”
Without saying even a word, the postman took off his jacket, hung it on the fence along with his bag, grabbed the collapsed door, lifted it up as if it was a piece of cardboard and put it in place.
I had no idea how his arms were so powerful. Although he had broad shoulders and big hands, his legs were short and crooked, and I always thought he was kind of half-disabled.
“Doctor, I’ll never forget what you did for me,” he said when we finished with the door.
“What did I do?” I asked him
“You healed my wife,” he replied. He turned and went away very quickly as if he was in a hurry to deliver somewhere an important letter from the government.
By late afternoon, Lena came to the clinic and told me I should go back to her house to visit her daughter. Throughout the week, her daughter had been much better, she said, but last night her illness started again, she was squirming in bed all night, talking mad, meaningless words, but, although very tired and terrified by the fear that her illness could come back, she had heard her uttering her doctor’s name, “Gjon, Gjon, Gjon,” while exhaling and squirming.
“I knew that she was calling you, doctor, she was like begging you to heal her from that malicious illness,” said Lena, looking at me straight in the eye, knowing very well that her words would make my soul and body shiver.
She took off a schoolbag that she had on her shoulder, put it on my desk and started to take out of it some gifts that she had brought me: a pot of honey, two bottles of wine, two large pieces of feta cheese, a bag of nuts and two big quinces that filled the room with their odour. She kept searching in the end of the bag, and took out from there a white table cloth, she opened it and showed me the roses that she embroidered on its four corners. Alina had embroidered these roses last winter, she said.
I didn’t know what to do: if I didn’t accept these gifts, Lena would be upset and, who knows, may be offended. To accept them was nonsense. In the meantime, I did not understand why, in the midst of these gifts, she brought me table cloth with four flowering roses, embroidered by Alina.
Lena, just as if she secretly had entered into my distorted brain, told me that they were very well off, her husband was working for more than twenty-five years in the mine, and that they had everything that they wanted in the house. He really had lived all these years away from home; however, he made a lot of money, so as to afford not one, but three families.
He needed five years more, and after that, he would retire, and then he would return home for good, so they would all be together again, she said.
She went quiet for a minute, drifting in her thoughts, fixed the collar of her shirt, and while rubbing softly her chin, she said: “It was Alina who put the tablecloth in the bag! If you don’t take her gift, I’m afraid that she’ll get very sick again.”
While Lena was telling me how eagerly Alina was waiting home for us, I got my bag, medical equipment and some different tablets; I took some more soothing drugs from the shelf and put them carefully in my bag; however, I knew very well that I was not going to use them.
I was locking up the front door when Lena said that I was invited to stay at their house for dinner and sleep over, and so should close the door with two locks.
It had almost had become dusk when we went to the two clinics and to the riverside, which led to the home of Lena.
Along the way to her house, she never stopped talking. She told me how unlucky she was since that day when she got married and came to live in this village with insane people.
The father-in-law and the husband, she said, were nice people, hard workers and quiet, but most of the other neighbours in the village were really wild and crazy. “God forgive me,” she said, “but it is as if the devil has left behind all of his children here. The village is full of villains and hot-headed people. She told me that, in her village, there were six insane men who wandered on these narrow streets from morning till evening without talking to each other.
Toqi, the son of Palaj wandered all day by the riverside, taking different kinds of stones and dropping them at his front door garden. Once, he found a stone that looked like a heart; it was a very big stone, so that three men would be needed to carry it. It was himself alone who took it, put it on his shoulder and brought it home.
“The other man, the son of Martinaj, as they call him, sorry doctor, I forgot his name, yeah, Gjon is his name, I’d say, he wakes up every morning, climbs the hill of Naughty Stone, and there he sings songs for the dead people.”
It sometimes happened that Gjon sang a song about some villagers who were still alive and in very good health, but out of the blue, after two or three days, they died. In our village, when people want to curse someone, they say, “I wish Gjon will sing a song about you!”
“And the other one, yeah, Maka, the daughter of Thaneve, goes from morning to evening from one house to another, begging people to show her their hands, and after gazing at their hands, she goes completely into shock, murmuring to herself and hitting her head very hard with her fists.”
“Dear God,” she said, “there is another cracked man in our village, Andre is his name. He was a history teacher, a very good teacher indeed, poor him, he went mad. Some say that he went insane because he read too much, but some other villagers say that he went crazy after he caught his wife in bed, having sex with that policeman who is in charge of our village.”
“Now, he roams the streets barefooted with an old history book under his arm. Talking to himself all the time. When he sees someone walking toward him, he goggles his terrified eyes: “Turks, Turks,” he says! “Turks are coming back.”
Lena took a step ahead of me; she stopped and gazed at me: “Doctor, are there in the other villages as many insane people as here?” She asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“You are young,” she said, “how could you know that? You finished your university studies just last year.”
When we arrived near her house, she stopped, looked around, then she raised her head and gazed at the sky, where the first stars had begun to appear.
“We arrived,” she said finally, with a big release, and a warm, welcoming smile on her face.
When we entered the sitting room, we saw Alina adding some pieces of firewood to the burning fire.
She looked towards us, and I was suddenly stunned by her staggering beauty. Her face had something magic, I thought instantly, something like the beauty of fairies, from which many men went mad when these fairies suddenly began appearing to them in the solitude of a forest, in the moonlight, or in ruined places, where no man has ever been before.
I felt as though a perplexing heat started wandering through my body, burning me once in the back and after in the chest, once in the neck and after in the belly.
I tried to smile at that young lady, but I’d say I probably twitched so ugly. Lena felt excited, she said to her daughter, “Here, I brought the doctor here for you”, then quickly left for a while and came back after a few minutes holding a tray with coffee and sugar in one hand, while in the other hand, she was holding a jug of water.
“Make a coffee for the doctor, please,” she said to Alina, then she grabbed my bag from my hand, put it on the table and helped me take off my coat. “Here is warm,” she said. She went out again in a hurry and returned shortly with a huge basket of fruits and put it on the table. Her husband’s father, who lived with them, was not there, and when I asked her about him, she told me that he had gone to his sister in the neighbouring village and would come back the next day. From the sofa, where I sat, I looked again at the pictures hanging on the walls of the living room, and at the tablecloth, which was also embroidered with red roses on the four corners.
Alina brought me the coffee, she put the cup on a small table in front of me, and filled it full, overfilling, I’d say, as I certainly was going to spill immediately after touching the cup.
“Have your coffee and then visit my daughter,” said Lena. “I am going to cook the dinner.” Alina was standing, staring at the crackling fire in the fireplace. Tall, with a straight body, and hair that poured gracefully over her long neck, she looked as if she had just come down from an edge of the sky to shake the lethargy of the men on the earth.
How did I not notice this rare beauty when I visited her for the first time, I thought. What kind of a gullible man am I?
“Drink your coffee, doctor, before it gets cold,” said Alina, without turning her head towards me. I obeyed like a child, I drank my coffee quickly with two or three sips. I said thanks to her for the very good coffee she made (in fact, she put too much sugar in it). I don’t know why, but it just appeared in my mind: the Modilianit portrait “Girl in white nightgown,” which I had seen somewhere in an album in the studio of a painter in our capital city.
Perhaps this was because in her voice was flowing a kind of sorrow and incomprehensible pain, some chemical fatality that enters deeply into tissues. I asked her to tell me how she was feeling in the last days and whether she had any pain. She turned to me and said that she wanted me to visit her in her bedroom on the second floor.
I followed her up some wooden stairs, we went through the corridor which was lit-up by a small lamp, and entered her room. She turned on the light and sat in the corner of her bed, with her hands on her knees. I asked her again how she was feeling, what was distressing her.
“Nothing, doctor, I feel good now,” she said. “Just, I see you in my dreams every night”.
“How do you see me?” I asked again.
“In my dreams, you are bad, doctor. You always leave, run away, while I need you, I need you to save my life…” She paused a bit, then, with a very sad voice, she added: “As you saved my life on that day.”
She lay down in her bed and unleashed a deep sigh, and she started panting with desperate anguish.
Her right hand stretched out towards me, frozen in the air. I hurried to unfasten the buttons of her shirt, and entered my hand between her breasts, rubbing them lightly, then I dragged her body close to mine. I grabbed her body.
I kissed her willingly, lovingly, as I had never kissed a woman before. Then I pulled her and squeezed her tightly to my body, so hard that I felt her breasts crushing under my chest, and I whispered in her ear: “you are so beautiful!”
“Do it, do it, do it like that day,” she said, squeezing my body to hers. I never in my life had stronger warmth than the warmth I had at that moment. I thought I was dying, I thought I was in paradise.
I put my hand under her dress and pulled her panties down, until they went down to her feet, then we both lay in the bed next to each other. I do not know how long we stayed in bed hugging, half an hour or a lifetime, but when we woke up and went into the corridor, she grabbed my hand and said happily: “You’re the best doctor in the world!”
Her mother, who was waiting for us at the dining table where the food was ready, said loudly, from the ground floor, “How is she, doctor; is she better?”
“Yes, yes, mom, I’m much better,” answered Alina, instead of me.
After dinner, I insisted on going back to the clinic, but Lena did not let me go; she said there was no chance I could leave their house that night.
“Don’t even think about it,” she said. “Never, ever! You are going to sleep here and that’s it. We have enough rooms and beds for all.”
Sometime near midnight, Alina and Lena brought me to sleep in a room on the second floor, where the wooden ceiling was carved with some strange figures; a star of David in the centre, and, on the outer circular shape of it, some mystical figures. I lay down in bed and fell asleep immediately.
Late after midnight, I opened my eyes in the dark, and for a few moments, I was not sure where I was. From the window, which looked out on the back yard of the house, there was a dim light from the moon. This frightening silence scared me. A grim wariness invaded my soul. The ceiling above me looked like the ceiling of a temple abandoned centuries ago, and the bed on which I lay looked like stairs lifted into the air.
I turned and I squeezed the pillow to my face very hard. I heard someone’s breath coming from the other side of the room. Perhaps there was a stranger lying down on the sofa nearby my bed, staying awake and observing me while I was asleep. Or, perhaps I was simply in a dream, and I couldn’t wake up. Suddenly, I heard some gunfire, and my body unconsciously jumped up.
Several rifle shots, somewhere very near here, were followed by other gunshots coming from afar, from the outskirts of the village. The dogs began to bark from all sides, we started to hear voices of frightened people into the streets. “Fire, fire!” shouted a woman with her loud, thunderous voice. I heard the sound of the door and steps of people rushing around the house. “Katerine, Katerine, Katerine!”
What is happening? The scared voice coming from the yard was Lena’s. Her neighbour said something that I didn’t understand. “Crazy people! Stupid! Mad!” shouted Lena at the top of her voice, from her garden, cussing and cursing the inhabitants of this village. I turned on the other side in my bed, without being sure if I was dreaming or awake. The door of my bedroom opened hastily, and I saw the shadow of a woman entering the room in a hurry.
“Doctor, doctor, are you awake?” asked Lena with her trembling voice.
“Yes I am awake,” I said doubtfully.
“They burned the clinic,” she said. “They put it on fire, and they said that the doctor was being roasted inside like a pig.”
I jumped out of bed, but Lena ran towards me and grabbed my arm tightly. “Do not move! And don’t turn on the light,” she said to me.
After her, it was Alina who entered the room, crying bitterly. “Be quiet!” said Lena to her. She told us imperatively to stay quiet there in the darkness.
“I am going out to find out what is going on,” she said.
Lena went out, leaving us in the room, poorly lighted by the curved moon. Alina was standing beside my bed, sobbing quietly. We could hear some wild, strident voices coming from outside. All the men and women of the village had gone out in their yards and on the street. They were screaming, swearing, cursing. After half an hour, Lena came back.
“They burned the clinic,” she said in despair. “People say that they had soaked it with so much petrol that the flames spread instantly across all the building, and is was impossible to save or take out anything.”
She came and stood beside my bed, touched me on the chest, stomach, shoulder, face.
Now, they were waiting for the flames to be extinguished, and after that, to go there and take out the doctor’s skeletons. “They said that they were going to do that job in the morning,” said Lena in panic. I got up out of my bed and went to find my clothes that I had left on a chair. I began to get dressed slowly in the dark, but I couldn’t find socks.
“Turn on the light, please,” I said. “I want to get dressed and go.”
“Where will you go,” she asked me. “If they’ll find you, they’re not going to let you escape alive from there.”
Lena leaned on the floor, moved towards my bed, looking for my socks. She found them and gave them to me.
“Wear them,” she said.
Suddenly, even that faint light coming from the curved moon went away, and the bedroom was plunged into darkness. One of the ladies there found my hand and squeezed it tightly.
Perhaps it was Alina’s hand, or maybe the hand of Lena. I was stunned, and horrified, so I was unable to concentrate on my thoughts. I was thinking that I should flee from here immediately now, I should disappear forever from this village, because every second of me staying here was just going to put my life at a greater risk.
If they were going to find me, they would certainly chop me into pieces. I started thinking about all the ways to get out of the village, the main roads and the secret footpaths, but all seemed lethal for me. They could have ambushed me anywhere, behind every rampart, every tree, every stone or bend. “You are a coward, coward, coward,” a voice inside me was resounding. A voice of evil, a mocking, disdainful voice. I gathered all the inner power that I had inside me, and with an aching voice, I said to myself in the dark, “I have to go.”
The two ladies seized me in the dark, squeezing me hard with their arms, sticking their fingers in my body as if they were hooks.
“We are not going to let you go anywhere, you are not going,” said Lena, and forced me to sit down on the bed.
“I’m going to go,” I said again. “I have to go.”
“What about Alina, who is going to heal my Alina?” whispered Lena in terror at my left ear. She continued to speak anxiously: “My Alina, my life, my hope, who is going to heal her, who?”
I was probably hare-brained at the moment when I said: “Alina can come with me.”
Both ladies there took a deep breath for a moment, then Lena told her daughter to go and get dressed. They both left the room in a hurry; I heard something falling down, then the doors of the cupboards and drawers being opened and closed in haste. Finally, Lena came back to me, with my bag in her hands.
“You both should go now!” She said. “You have to get out of the village before dawn.”
I followed Lena, walking slowly, clinging to the balustrades of the stairs, until we came down the corridor of the ground floor, which was dimly lit by a candle, where Alina was waiting there with a small bag filled with her belongings in her hand.
We went out through a small back door that led us to the backyard of the house, passed a wooden gate in the back garden which was full of trees, all three of us walking in silence over that soft and moist earth.
At the end of the garden, Lena stopped; she hugged both of us, murmured about something, perhaps saying a prayer or a wish, but we were not able to hear it, then advised us again to follow the pathway towards the stream, until we arrived at the hazelnut yard, and from there, she said, we had to head off in the direction of the beech forest, following a pathway that would lead us to the next village.
I grabbed Alina’s hand, and we crossed the rampart at the end of the courtyard, walking on all fours, in order not to fall, and after that, we entered a narrow path through the thorns and thistles that led us to a narrow path near the river. In the village, we could still hear people shouting and dogs barking angrily, while lit-up torches could be seen, moving in haste, up and down on the streets. After a while, on the carriageway which connected the village with the city, we heard the sirens and horns of the fire rescue vehicles, which were coming one after another, although now it was too late, because everything was already burned up.
We kept walking in the dark through that strange pathway, and we had no idea where it was going to lead us to, walking without even saying a single word, silent as two ghosts that were going to be melted and dissolved, as soon as the last star in the sky fades away and the first ray of the sunlight touches the peaks of the mountains on the horizon.