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IF I WERE NOT SO DEPRESSED, I MIGHT EVEN BE HAPPY. IS IT RAINING out? I can't really see what is happening. I might be happy if this insidious pain were not driving me crazy. But in the final analysis, it is probably better the way it is. I am going back to where I swore I would never return. There is nothing to keep me in this country anymore, so I am off. I wouldn't have left if they had just let me live my life. No, it's not the rain I hear. It's the roar of the sea that swells and softens bones.
It will break my heart to hear you scream when you see me. Oh Mommy, what I would give to be able to throw my arms around you! But I will have to endure your screams without being able to comfort you, to stroke your head lying on my breast. Shhh, Mommy, I'm home now. It's all over, the pain is gone. I am back and there is no more need for sighs or regrets about things you once promised me. We can put up with anything if we only stay together: with venomous thoughts, the treacherous sun, and even the icy blue color of the moon. I will not be able to say a word, and God knows how I will be able to endure it.
I was determined not to go back, certainly not as down and out as I was at that time, or as disfigured as I am now. I didn't want to go back at all. I wanted to stay here, although there was nothing keeping me in this country. You are so stubborn, you'll never get anywhere in life. Right, I am stubborn, or rather, I was. Leila, you'll never stand on your own two feet unless you're untarnished.
In the daytime, my determination was crystal clear and definitive. But nighttime made a traitor of me. During the very few nights that I actually slept like other people do, I dreamed of returning Back Home. I would get off the ferry; it was the kind of sunny day you only get Back Home. Enough sun to drive you mad. I would disembark, breaking into tears, and throw my arms around my mother, her tiny figure standing in front of me with her head resting under my chin.
"Shhh, Mommy. See, I'm back."
Around us as we embrace are stray dogs roaming through the garbage strewn in decay all over the jetty. Children with beautiful eyes are prancing about. Suitcases fly through the air in the direction of waiting relatives, and policemen with faded uniforms and envious glances are scratching their butts. There is enough dust to powder your eyebrows and the sky is deafened by the merciless honking of horns.
We stand there with our arms around each other. My mother's eyes are staring into my soul, and my eyes are looking out at the scorching heat. In my dreams I often arrive Back Home in summer and when I awake, I'm really happy. I glance around my little room, the venue of my nightmare, and am enthralled by the homecoming and the reunion. It is still night. I go back to bed and try to sleep and return to the solace of my dreams. I know that I will change my mind in the morning and will revert to my decision never to go back. But it is still night, and I long to savor the illusion.
I close my eyes and the story begins where I left it. My mother, myself, my grandmother who hobbles on her right leg, Aurora who is still alive and has not stopped growing, my father following closely behind us with all the luggage, all of us under the inquisitive glance of the lazy and noisy city. We have thrown our arms around one another, and with my left hand I can feel Aurora's beating heart. "Leila, I've got so much to tell you," she says to me passionately.
She takes hold of my hand, still measuring the beat of her heart, and stares into my eyes. I look straight ahead out of fear that my glance will betray me.
"You will tell me how it was, won't you? About all the things you learned and about all the good-looking men you met over there."
"Of course I will, Aurora, as soon as we have time."
I laugh and try my best to sound cheerful. It is a strange feeling because I actually am happy. After all, this is a happy dream.
Grandmother mutters something or other. She has only one front tooth left and her tongue wraps around it like a piece of pastry. We don't understand anything she says, and the three of us laugh-Aurora, Mother, and I. Grandmother imitates our laughter, a bit uncertain at first, and then bursts into a giggle of her own. This saves me from the embarrassment of it all. We set off for our elusive home. Behind us we can hear Father gasping, cursing the heat, and juggling the bags from one arm to the other. We set off for nowhere. Then my dream comes to an end. Once and for all.
There are no passengers in this part of the harbor, in front of the ferry. A man, around fifty-five years old, is staring at his shoes and smoking a cigarette, which has turned to ashes right to the filter. The ash is bent downward and from one angle it looks like an extension of his finger. The man's hand is shaking, as is his head with its tufts of gray hair at the side. His glance remains fixed on the tips of his shoes. If he were to look up, he would be betrayed by the tears dripping onto the asphalt without ever touching his cheeks. But the man does not want to weep. There will be enough time for that when his wife screams in horror and despair. The man already knows he won't have the strength to endure it. For the moment, he is just trying to keep control of himself. Finally, the ash falls from the cigarette, part of it blowing away as dust and the rest landing on the tip of his right shoe. The man rolls the filter through his fingers until he grasps it by the end. He has no matches and stuffs the butt in his pocket. A policeman taps him on the shoulder.
"You can go aboard now. This way. Come along with me."
The policeman is young, about ten years older than Leila. He gives the other two officers a sign and they come forward to get the coffin.
"No," replies the man, giving a cough, and stares at the three officers, one after the other, as they stand erect with their arms dangling at their sides. "I'll get it myself."
"Are you sure?" the first one mutters, but his voice remains unheard. The man picks up the coffin and lugs it toward the gangplank. They follow. They give him the keys to a cabin, but he shakes his head and continues down toward the bow of the ship.
"You'll be better off here, Daughter. We can go in later if you want."
The three officers follow, keeping right behind him. They can't get a word out. The man places the coffin carefully on the deck, whispers something to it in his language, and then turns to them. The officer in charge returns his passport, his driver's license, the police documents, the autopsy, the authorization from the hospital, the authorization from the police in Back Home, the photos of Leila before she turned into a corpse, and photos of Leila as a corpse.
"This is where our job comes to an end."
His lips are quivering and he endeavors to enunciate more assertively. The other two look out to sea toward the seagulls and ships, and at the rust and oil shimmering on the surface of the water.
"You understand me, don't you?"
"Yes, I do."
"Do you have ... other children?"
"I once did." The three men exchange glances. One of them shrugs.
"I had another daughter. I buried her two years ago."
"Oh God," the youngest officer murmurs to himself, "what a day!" He would like to get away but is ashamed and, instead, stuffs his hands in his pockets and tries to look as if he does not understand what is being said. "God, what a day!"
"Sir, we would like to express our deepest sympathy. You know, if you ever come back this way ... or if there is anything we can do for you ... I have two sons, twins of kindergarten age ... I mean, I'm a father, too...."
The officer in charge is overcome with emotion, and the other two are now trembling more than the tufts of gray hair on the man with the coffin. They shake hands with him, one after the other. He looks at them, a withered, shriveled old man whose voice seems to have left his body completely and taken refuge among the plywood boards of the coffin. He is not able to thank the officers. "Why do you abandon me now, stupid voice?" The muscles in his neck grow tense as if he wants to say something, but nothing comes out. He gives up and wants only to be left alone. If the scene lasts any longer, he knows he will scream and Leila beside him will be frightened. He doesn't want to frighten her.
The officers go their way. The man sits down on the deck, searching through his pockets for his tobacco and cigarette paper. It's time for a smoke and he begins to roll himself a cigarette. "This will get me back into shape." Silence from inside the coffin. Two seamen shout something about an approaching fishing boat.
It takes him a long time to roll the cigarette, which he eventually lights.
"We'll be leaving soon, Leila."
The stevedores are arguing about how to load the cars onto the ferry. The man smokes and seems to have found salvation in the strong tobacco. What luxury, to have a whole ferry to yourself. You don't even see that in the movies. He and Leila are returning home, and there is no one else on deck.
When he went to book their passage for the return journey, the men at the ticket office had looked askance at him.
"You are the only passenger returning to Back Home. Do you know what is going on in your country? There's war-everything is in flames. Are you sure you really want to go back? Hundreds and hundreds of desperate people are arriving here every day and no one is traveling in the other direction. No one wants to set foot in that country. You understand me?"
"There was war when I left the country, gentlemen, and there will be war when I get back. I know what I am getting into."
They looked at him as if he were crazy. He had to explain to them that the coffin was not empty and that his daughter's body could wait no longer. She had left home three years ago and he had now come to take her body home. After all, he had to get her under the earth before the body began to putrefy and stink. The officer was shaken and made a gesture as if to say, "Enough." He said he wanted to inspect the documents. It was a complicated business with a corpse.... On the wall behind the officer was a large color poster of a young woman surrounded by three children, posing like a brood hen with her chicks.
"We're leaving now and we'll have a rest when we get home. After all, what's keeping us here, Leila? What do you think?"
I know that he can see everything. He's hiding here somewhere around the jetty. The police searched for him everywhere but they will never find him. He is here somewhere, I can feel it. I have a good nose for him now. I always know where he is and what he is thinking. Too late. I have learned to protect myself from him but only now that I no longer need to do so. Our love was a morbid affair, somber as the unlit mineshaft into which I had slid without a candle or a spade. I had gotten involved not knowing that there was no way out. The mineshaft was so dark that I lost not only my way but also my very being. Now, staring at my coffin, he is abject, torn from within and put to shame by the killer instinct he detected within him. He is mourning me here, mourning me, and yet he's even afraid of the smoke of my father's cigarette. What a coward!
I must have patience. The only thing I have left to do is accompany my body home, where I will take one last look at my mother and one first look at Aurora's grave. Then I will vanish from the face of the earth. It is Monday, a day which has always brought me luck. Monday, March 5, 1997. I can see my body cut into slices like a watermelon and I can see the man who did the job. He groans and takes care not to come out from behind the mast where he is hiding. Imagine what it is like seeing yourself in a coffin, knowing you will never again touch a human being, never again drink a cup of coffee or comb your hair. How strange it is to see the man who ripped through your body with a knife and not to rise before him like a ghost and-as in the Greek tragedies-to howl and vanish in the night.
He will suffer from his deed, but not to the extent that he would ever give himself up to the police. He knows that the investigation will soon be closed. For a while, they will continue to search for the murderer of a prostitute, and then the case will be filed away. There is no point in public expenditures for a whore from Back Home, they will think. And what a rotten bunch these people from Back Home are anyway. They come here, live on welfare, and we have to support them. Couldn't we have had better neighbors than these people from such a godforsaken country? But you can't choose your neighbors any more than you can choose your relatives. If there is bad blood among them, there is nothing you can do about it. They are there for life. If you have a bad neighbor, you can do only one of two things: either you get your hands on him or you move out. But countries cannot move out. They can move and change other things: laws, strategies, armies, presidents, allies, and even their names if they want, but they can't move away. And to get control of that pack of thieves, well, you can't really.
The file will gather dust in the corner of some office. In it are pictures of me working the streets in those awful clothes I hated. And there are other pictures in the file of my body, slaughtered like a lamb.
The man from the criminal investigation department took the pictures while humming a song that was on the charts at the time. He bent over me, taking a close-up of my neck, with his feet pressed against my thighs, and all the time, he was humming the tune. The phone rang in his pocket.
"Ciao.... No, I can't right now. Why, is it urgent? We'll talk tonight. I'm busy now. Someone's murdered a whore, and is she in bad shape! The guy really made mincemeat out of her." Did I actually look like mincemeat? I am not a prostitute and never really was. Thank God I always kept my papers with me in a pocket. The police found them so they were able to identify me and contact my parents.
"OK, no problem. We'll talk tonight. All right, we'll go for dinner. Something simple, all right? I haven't got too much cash at the moment. What about a pizza? Fine, ciao. I miss you, too. Bye."
"Oh," sighed the photographer. "Che strazio 'sta donna." He turned off his phone and continued taking pictures until someone gave him the OK to stop.
Father wipes the sweat off his forehead. He moans as the gangplank scrapes and rumbles. I'm so sorry, Father. I know you weren't expecting such a blow. Thank God that corpses don't blush. How could I ever have looked you in the eye? I never wanted to go home alive. How would I have been able to lie to you all? How would I have endured your tenderness?
"Leila, my love, my treasure. Leila, my treasure, you're all my joy, the best child in the whole world."
"My teaser," he used to call me, and I repeated the expression as a child when I had learned to pronounce whole words. My parents laughed. My mother, who always smelled of soap, threw her arms around me. Later, when I grew up, it was, "Leila, my treasure, take care of yourself." I'll do my best, Dad. And now ... I had become the teaser of all those men after me, lying on me, and I tried to convince myself over and over that I was their treasure.
"Who knows how much you've suffered, my daughter. Whatever did they do to you, my love? Say something. How can I take you back to your mother this way, Leila, my child?"
The ferry departs, rocking to and fro like an old man trying to get out of bed. It coughs twice and sets off. The sea is calm. Father bends over and kisses the plywood boards of the coffin.
"Will you invite me Over There, Leila, once you get married to Fatos and have a beautiful house of your own, like in the movies?"
"Of course I will, Sister. I promised you, didn't I?"
"And I'll grow up and be as good as you are."
"You're good already, Aurora."
Excerpted from BALKAN BEAUTY, BALKAN BLOOD
Copyright © 2006 by Robert Elsie. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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