In the autumn of 1942, as the destruction and horror caused by the Second World War was gradually approaching its peak in the Balkans and the Soviet Union, Kuteli returned to Albania, which was itself on the verge of disintegrating into open civil war. It was during these war years that Kuteli, at his own expense, was able to publish most of his major works: Ago Jakupi e të tjera rrëfime, Tirana 1943 (Ago Jakupi and other tales), a collection of seven tales of peasant life; Kapllan Aga i Shaban Shpatës. Rrëfime - Rrëfenja, Tirana 1944 (Kapllan Aga of Shaban Shpata. Tales - Stories), five short stories written between 1938 and 1944; Këngë e brithma nga qyteti i djegur, Tirana 1944 (Songs and cries from a charred city), a collection of folk songs; Shënime letrare, Tirana 1944 (Literary notes); and Sulm e lotë, Tirana 1944 (Assault and tears), a collection of modest nationalist verse written by Kuteli and a fictitious friend named Izedin Jashar Kutrulija whom Kuteli claimed to have met in Prizren in May 1943. Also in this period, he edited a collection of the verse of Fan Noli (1882-1965) entitled Mall e brengë, Tirana 1943 (Longing and grief), and published a number of works on the finance and monetary system.
Mitrush Kuteli set the pace for the short story in southern Albania and managed to attain a higher level of literary sophistication than most other sentimental prose writers of the period: Milto Sotir Gurra (1884-1972), Foqion Postoli (1889-1927), Haki Stërmilli (1895-1953) or Kolë Mirdita (1900-1936). He derived many elements for his tales from the Tosk oral literature he had heard as a child, using them to create crystalline motifs of village life and a lively narrative style. Kuteli's syntax and lexicon are elaborate and his diction is often compelling. The peasant themes and the mixture of folksy humour and old-fashioned adventure made his tales popular with broad sections of the reading public during the war and thereafter. In some of his short stories one senses the atmosphere of nineteenth-century Russian prose, of Nikolay Gogol and Ivan Turgenev, whom the author had read and particularly enjoyed in his earlier years, and of Romanian prose writer Mihail Sadoveanu (1880-1961).
At the end of the Second World War Mitrush Kuteli, now an executive at the Albanian State Bank, was a leading figure of Albanian letters. On 15 February 1944, together with Vedat Kokona (1913-1998), Nexhat Hakiu (1917-1978) and Sterjo Spasse (1914-1989), he founded the fortnightly literary periodical Revista letrare (Literary review), which had a significant impact on Albanian culture during its short life. He was also a founding member of the Albanian Writers' Union, which was set up under the direction of Sejfulla Malëshova (1901-1971) on 7 October 1945, and a member of the editorial board of Albania's first post-war literary journal Bota e re (New world).
Kuteli managed to survive the transition of political power in Albania until the real terror began in 1947. During a purge which ensued after the Albanian Communist Party had come under Yugoslav domination, he unwisely disapproved of the proposed customs and monetary union between Albania and Yugoslavia. As a member of an official delegation to Yugoslavia, received among others by writer Ivo Andri? (1892-1975), he is also said to have expressed a critical attitude to the Serb re-occupation of Kosova, a stance reflected earlier in his Poem kosovar (Kosovar poem), published in 1944. Upon his return to Albania, he was arrested and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.
For Kuteli, as for most writers of the late forties, life had become a nightmare. He survived the first two years of his prison sentence (April 1947 to April 1949) in a labour camp near Korça where inmates were put to work draining the infamous mosquito-infested swamp of Maliq. Working and living conditions for the prisoners were unimaginably harsh, and Kuteli, amidst such horror, attempted suicide. But with the elimination of Yugoslav influence in Albanian party politics, the open persecution of Kuteli subsided and he was released. He returned to Tirana and was allowed, like Lasgush Poradeci and a number of other suspicious intellectuals, to work as a literary translator for the state-owned Naim Frashëri publishing company.
Zhdanovism, which had penetrated and taken thorough control of what was left of Albanian literature in the fifties, made it expedient at the time to translate Russian literature to serve as a model for the introduction of socialist realism in Albania. Kuteli willingly acquiesced by producing noted translations of recognized Soviet authors such as Maksim Gorky, Aleksey Tolstoy, Konstantin Paustovsky, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Fadeyev and Nikolay Ostrovsky. Aside from these writers recommended by Soviet cultural and political advisors, Kuteli also managed to publish some translations of his favourite Russian authors of the nineteenth century: Nikolay Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Ivan Krylov, and Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin.
In addition to these many translations from Russian, and others from Romanian (Mihai Eminescu, Mihail Sadoveanu), Spanish (Pablo Neruda), and French (André Maurois, Paul Eluard), etc., Kuteli is remembered in particular for his prose adaptation of a collection of Albanian oral verse, including the heroic cycle of Mujo and Halili, in Tregime të moçme shqiptare, Tirana 1965 (Early Albanian tales). He was also able to publish some verse and tales for children, the safest pastime for Eastern European writers in the Stalinist period. A novel on an Illyrian theme remained unfinished. Mitrush Kuteli died of a heart attack in Tirana on 4 May 1967, bereft of the honour and recognition due to the man who had made the short story a popular genre in Albania and who, had politics not interfered, might otherwise have been the leading prose writer of the fifties.
The Muddy Albanian Soil
I love you, muddy Albanian soil,
I love you
Like a wolf loves the forest,
Like a wave loves a wave,
Like mud loves mud.
Up to my knees
I am into you,
For I was born
Like my Father,
Like my Grandfather,
I love you, muddy Albanian soil,
Up to my waist
And above it,
I am into you,
And I cannot stop
For I do not wish to.
For you bind me
And captivate me
And with wormwood.
For my Mother
And my Father
And my Ancestors
I love you, muddy Albanian soil,
Like death itself.
For I am deep here,
Deep into you,
Up to my knees,
Up to my waist,
And up to my neck.
And how I would love to get drunk
To hug you
To embrace you,
To be embraced,
That you absorb me
As you absorbed
My ancestors, absorbed
Oh, my noble-minded,
I love you, muddy Albanian soil,
Sweet as honey,
Bitter as wormwood,
I love you
Like a wolf loves the forest,
Like a wave loves a wave,
Like mud loves mud!
[Balta shqipëtare, from the volume Sulm e lotë, Tirana 1944, p. 55-57. Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie.]
THE AUTUMN OF XHELADIN BEY
Xheladin Bey did not know why he felt such a void in his heart on that November morning. It was an emptiness like the core of a worm-gnawed chestnut, a gorge in the mountains, an uneasiness, and an infinite and ubiquitous feeling of disgust...
Surprisingly enough, it was not that bad of a morning. The final, fading poplar leaves were spiralling downwards outside his barred window, and the sky was clear and placid. The birds, whom we humans imagine not to feel pain or sorrow, were chirping merrily around the bey's mansion, in the fields and orchards, and up in the sky. He, however, Xheladin Bey, the son of Shemsheddin Bey and grandson of Xheladin Pasha, or the "Great Bey" as everyone called him, the absolute lord over lands and people, felt a void in his heart. There was a bitter taste in his mouth as if he had been eating saffron, his palate was dry, and his tongue was as raw as a buffalo hide. Now and then, a sharp pain would jolt through his skull.
The Great Bey had never paid much attention to his health or to his emotions up to then. He was of a hearty, robust disposition, and a husky fellow with enough physical strength to make mincemeat out of any of his opponents. Xheladin Bey was the wealthy heir of an estate so great that he had never even bothered to measure it. The tenant farmers, the peasants and the rabble saluted him with hand on heart, as did the infidel women, and no one dared to call him by name or to look him in the eye. Even if he were to order them to lie in the mud so that he could walk over them, as one stamps on clay to make bricks, many of them would not hesitate to do so. Xheladin Bey held both the carrot stick and the whip in his hand, enough to make the inhabitants of the plains as submissive as sheep. They did not fear so much for their own lives as for those of their young children, and strove to avoid worse treatment by him. How could they complain? To whom could they turn? Who would deign to listen to them? Would they gather their few possessions and take flight? Let them flee, but where would they go? The same miserable fate awaited them everywhere. The other beys and pashas possessed whips, too, and stewards to use them. All the fertile land belonged to the nobles. There was a saying: all pigs have the same snout. Those who had gathered their belongings and fled in the dark of night, bearing their infants in baskets and lugging their old people on stretchers, vanished like a drop of water in the ocean. Nothing more was heard of them. Those who remained behind stayed put where they were. They grew wheat, but ate only cornmeal themselves. When there was no more good corn left, they ate rotten cornmeal and arum which they cooked over a slow fire until it was soft and mushy, as if they were cooking the brains and legs of farm animals in their own grease in an earthen pot. They heard neither the throbbing of the heart nor the chirping of the birds. From time to time, the plague would spread, reaping old and young. Whole homes and villages were left empty. But once the plague receded, they would sprout again and multiply, like so many mustard seeds.
It is evident that among the peasants and rabble, there were hotheads who would not accept their lot and would try to cast off the yoke. But Xheladin Bey, who was the third generation of rulers in that backwater of the Father Sultan's great empire, had taken measures to ensure that nothing got out of hand and to see to it that they were minus their heads before they could raise temperatures in other heads. For such deeds, there were his stewards, "my braves," as the bey called them, flunkies and bootlickers as they were secretly known to the rest of the population.
Such was the situation!
Being a bey or landowner involved a certain amount of wheeling and dealing. Proceeds grew and were passed on from one generation to the next, from father to son. Xheladin Bey, for his part, knew well how to use and dole out privileges, one by one or altogether, as the case might warrant. He had, in addition to this, covered all his bases. He could warm himself in the sun, body and soul being devoted solely to that "Light of God on Earth," Father Sultan, to whom he would on occasion send tokens of his loyalty in the form of gold coins and fair-cheeked maidens, i.e. samplings of the choice produce of his land. Nor did he forget Kapu Aga, the Grand Vizier, the Sultan's mother, the great adëm, the zealous keeper of the Sultan's harem, so that they might look the other way whenever he chose to expand his estates along the coast, occupying some craggy bit of land, a forest clearing or some abandoned plot. He did not get involved in the squabblings of the mighty, but whenever a messenger arrived to inform him that Father Sultan was at war somewhere or other, be it in Kurdistan, Arabia or in never-never-land, the bey would dutifully second a caravan of recruits and armed fighters who would lose their heads in the battles in question. More than anything else, the bey relied upon his father-in-law, the son of a minister, and on his other in-laws who were all gentlemen of high standing.
Despite all of the above and many facets of his life not mentioned, kettles and cauldrons were filled with gold mahmudiyes from the time of the late Sultan Mahmud, with the gold and silver medjidijes from the time of the late Sultan Medjid, with napoleons, sterling and other gold pieces from the realms of Christendom (no matter that they came from the lands of the infidel: they were made of gold and would not rust). His assets grew and increased every year. Despite all the whiskered warriors on his payroll who would let not a bird pass without leaving a feather behind and who had to be nourished on fat meat and white bread, Xheladin Bey felt a great void in his heart (yes, right in his heart) on that mild autumn morning.
The bey was alone in the large hall of his sumptuous manor with its thick, fortress-like walls, and windows protected each by two bars of wrought iron curling like the horns of a ram, and a latticework through which the sunlight penetrated as through a bramble bush. He was dazed. His surroundings hurtled around him like horses on a threshing floor. But no, they were not his surroundings, it was Xheladin Bey's brain that was spinning. He did not understand what was wrong with him. He was not ill, for he had a good appetite, and those who are well nourished, it is said, never get ill. When he was younger, he had once, it must be admitted, caught the French disease, as they say, a token from a certain portly gypsy woman, a singer in Manastir, which he had been visiting at the invitation of the Vali. But it was nothing serious. An old, and now forgotten ailment. An elderly physician had cured it with a salve made of mercury, cloves of garlic ground in a mortar, and other ointments. Some time later, however, his whole body was covered in red blisters. These, too, were cured by an ointment and his skin once again returned to its smooth and clean state. His hair then fell out but, thanks to a red fez with a tassel on it, he was able to hide his bald skull. Someone told him that if you had an illness of this kind, you could get rid of it by passing it on to someone else. You got it as a present and gave it as a present. Everyone knew that. A certain wealthy bey had got rid of his consumption by secretly spitting into the food he offered to his guests, and they relate that he recovered entirely and lived a long life. With the passing of time, many of the bey's guests and friends happened to fall ill, but what could he do about it? Everyone's fate was written by the hand of Allah. Was it fair for them to enjoy good health while he, a famous and noble bey, was to be ill and get weaker by the day? Were they to live and he to die? Xheladin Bey therefore chose the same path. He sent for a young maiden. The younger, the better, they said. Young girls have thin and warm blood, and this thin and warm blood would dilute, heat and cleanse his thick, old blood. So the bey had his way with the maiden and subsequently gave orders that she be taken away somewhere where no one would ever see or hear of her again. He then spread his French disease around as much as he could, to women and young male lovers, and was cured of his ailment for good.
And look at him now in the great hall of his sumptuous manor, his surroundings hurtling around him like horses on a threshing floor. He felt his skull throbbing and lit himself a cigarette to get rid of the spinning and to help himself concentrate. He drew long puffs, but the tobacco, which was normally savoury and aromatic, now tasted bitter. He bit into the cigarette and cast it into the fireplace.
What was happening? Was the bey ill? No, he had been in the best of health the previous day. It is true that he had overdone it a bit the night before with some strong raki and various tidbits, meat from the hunt doused with vinegar and garlic. All very tasty. It was fresh, lean meat which he had torn to pieces with his own hands and devoured, throwing the bones away and thereafter sucking clean each one of his five fingers. He had been in merry company and there had been much singing and dancing. Some of the gypsy maidens, with skirts rising like banners in the wind and with gold coins stuck to each of their foreheads, had swirled and swayed their hips to set the bey on fire. In short he had rather overdone it, but this was nothing new. Ever since his youth, Xheladin Bey had been a man given to the pleasures of life. He had often spent the whole night out, either in villas near and far or in the huts and hovels of the poor where the air was stale and it smelled of many purulent odours. Indeed, even at home, in the wing of the manor reserved for his male guests, the bey had rooms of his own for personal use, in other words for orgy upon orgy. When he had had enough of the white flesh from the harem, and when his wife, the Xhixhi Hanem, was away visiting the palace of her father, the pasha, he would wander through the night, bedding whomever he pleased. The drums beat outside his door until the bey had finished the deed. The bey called it a divine deed, but everyone else called it the devil's doing. When he had finished and was satisfied, he would throw a handful of coins out to make sure that the poor people understood he had a heart of gold.
Everyone knew his ways, especially those who had under-aged girls in their homes. This is why families endeavoured to marry their daughters off as young as possible, to absolve themselves of the danger and to preserve the family's honour. But even if they sought refuge in a buffalo horn, as the old people said, Xheladin Bey would find them, for the fragrance of a fair maid is like that of an apple. It spreads throughout the orchard. Whenever he found a trace of them, he would snort like a stallion feeding on oats. His lust was to be fulfilled, for better or worse. For the better, too, of course, because if the situation warranted it, the bey could be as sweet as honey. We all know what charm a bey possesses when he smiles. His teeth sparkle, his eyes flash, the skin of his rosy cheeks shines, and the tassel on his fez bounces about merrily. Folk forget their tribulations and say: "What a fine fellow the bey is in his old age! He radiates like the sun in the month of May." So spoke the naive, but those who were less naive knew very well that Xheladin Bey, that fine fellow, was more like a savage beast snarling and attacking from behind and could wipe you off the face of the earth.
He had a saying which his grandfather had taught him: "Every living thing which is born and raised on your land is yours. Take it and do whatever you wish with it."
Whenever it was necessary to sow the seeds of terror, the bey would order his warriors to begin cleansing. People would disappear without a trace, just as birds leave no mark in the sky. He did not forget what his grandfather, the pasha, had told him, "Keep and increase what you have. Chop off the head of anyone who endeavours to rise above you. Do not let anyone trespass upon your lands and domains who is more clever than you. Keep on good terms with those who are greater than you. Always take note of which way the wind is blowing and where best to warm yourself in the sun! Otherwise, do whatever you wish. You are second only to God!"
From time to time, some poor peasant at the end of his rope or some brigand would rise and load his rifle, but the earth could not hide him for long and grass was soon growing over his tomb. Xheladin Bey made sure of that.
Now, after the pleasures of the previous night, Xheladin Bey felt a void in his heart. The room seemed to be revolving around him, his head throbbed and his cigarette tasted bitter.
He lay down on the divan, folded the palms of his hands behind his head on the pillow, crossed his legs and tried to find some peace and calm.
Suddenly, the brittle boards out on the veranda cracked and the handle of the outside door turned, as then did the handle of the second door. The hinges creaked and four or five servants entered the hall, bringing with them a bowls of warm and cold water, soap and towels. They were led by a dark-skinned, heavy-set woman wearing a thin scarf. She addressed him gently: "Good morning, my lord. How are... How is my lord? Your Sheqere wishes you well. We are all at your service," adding other effusive complements. The servants repeated her words timidly, but in an inaudible murmur. Xheladin Bey got to his knees and began to wash, splashing water copiously about him and drying himself with the towel to "ohs" and "ahs" of satisfaction. He still had a bitter taste in his mouth although he had rinsed it in cold water.
When the attendants and their superior had left the room, the youngest servant in the household entered, a little girl with cheeks like a freshly plucked peach and wire-thin eyebrows. Her eyes, veiled in long lashes, could not be seen because she kept them fixed to the ground. She was wearing a flowered dress, neither too long nor too short, and a pair of embroidered sandals from Istanbul. She was the most recent of his acquisitions, an orphan brought to his household as a gift by a village chieftain wishing to get into his good graces. The bey was delighted by this young creature and deflowered her the night of her arrival. He had huffed and snorted like a water buffalo in the marshes and she had whimpered like a lamb being sent to slaughter. The same thing happened for many nights in a row. Her companions, the other servants, were jealous of his attentions, but in vain. The wretched girl, bereft of her soul, lived through nights of terror. If she could have, she would have fled that abominable bey and house of torment - naked, barefoot and starving. But there was no escape. The windows were barred, high walls surrounded the courtyard and her every move was being watched. She thus submitted, as her companions had done, and shared the bey's bed whenever Sheqere ordered her to do so.
She entered the hall bearing a golden platter on which there was a yellow coffee pot and a large cup without a handle, decorated with stars and the moon. The bey observed her with lust in his eyes, and smiled for the first time that day. Then he collected himself. The servant was still attractive, with her long white neck and her breasts, neither too small nor too large, concealed within her embroidered bodice. The bey was a keen observer and saw everything. But the girl had changed somehow. Her face was paler and her belly and thighs had grown. Could it be?...
He addressed her.
"Guria (as they called her, though no one knew her real name), go and open the window."
The servant obeyed immediately. She put down the platter with the coffee pot and cup, and supporting herself on the windowsill, opened the shutters. Light flooded into the room, and with it, a brisk autumnal breeze.
"That one, too," ordered the bey, his eyes fixed on Guria's body.
The girl stretched to open the second window, the trimming of her dress rising to reveal her lily-white calves. More light and fresh air penetrated the room. The bey felt better. He gave a shiver and jumped to his feet.
"Open the other one, too, Guria!"
She stretched once again to reach the shutters, revealing the veins in the back of her knees. When she turned to recover the platter, she found herself in the strong embrace of the bey, who was pressing her against his hairy chest. The great bey stank of raki and burped several times, emitting a stench. Guria trembled and turned away from him as best she could, but the bey, a man of great strength, gripped her all the more tightly and kissed her neck. His lips were burning, dry, and his whiskers as rough as the mane of a boar. He dragged her towards the divan, groping at her breasts despite her cries of pain. Guria waited in terror and disgust for what was to happen. If there were only a deep well or high cliff to throw herself from, to put an end to her suffering! If she were only away from that soft divan, far from the repugnant Xheladin Bey who was squeezing and biting her.
Suddenly, the ardour within his swollen veins failed. He turned pale and dizzy, and pushed her away, staring at her with his bloodshot, protruding eyes.
"Are you going to have a ...?" asked Xheladin Bey.
"Yes, that's what the lady told me," she stammered.
"Who told you?"
Sheqere supervised the work of all the servants and was known as the mistress of the house, though she was sterile and the bey had never had any children with her.
Initially, Sheqere had satisfied all of Xheladin Bey's precocious desires and this for many years, even when other inclinations had arisen in him. After his marriage to the Hanem Bey, he continued to lust after young girls and handsome fair-skinned boys. Later, when her complexion had begun to show its age and not even quicksilver could cover up her wrinkles (she was several years older than the bey), he bestowed upon her a sumptuous dowry and married her off to a blacksmith living on his estates. The blacksmith was much younger than the bey, but this was no impediment because the mistress was well versed in the art of love from experience she had gained at the time of Shemseddin Beu, the father of Xheladin Bey. Always of a gentle disposition, she kept the keys to the cellars and a rod with which to beat the servants. The blacksmith was satisfied with the arrangement because he was now virtually a relative of the bey, an attribute which carried with it distinct advantages. He had got hold of the "silk thread in the carpet," as an old folk song put it.
On the subject of in-laws, it must be noted that Xheladin Bey had quite a number of such relatives. He was wont to send them the household servants he was "finished" with, once he had acquired fresh ones. In this, the bey followed the example of the sultan, the "light of the world," who bestowed on his viziers, pashas, courtiers, aides-de-camp and other officials of the realm, far and near, fair odalisques who had shared his bed and to whom he had given liberal dowries. The great statesmen of the empire, the viziers, pashas, courtiers, aides-de-camp and beys of all sorts were honoured to consider themselves brothers-in-law of the "light of the world" and to have children with such beautiful species as had left their girlhood in the sultan's bed, and were happy to prop up their own little realms in the shadow of the great sultan. As to virgins, there was no lack of young maidens on their estates. They simply took whomever they wanted.
It was Sheqere who recruited the girls, mostly minors, orphans and other children without support, to satisfy the carnal desires of Xheladin Bey. She did her utmost to make them presentable and to teach them what to do and how to satisfy their lord and master. She herself was content with her blacksmith, who was strong enough to break a horseshoe in two with his bare hands, who worked all day with hammer and anvil and who smelled of the beast.
The bey approached Guria, toying with her pearl necklace, and asked her, exhaling an unbearable stench which arose from his guts, "Do you know if the Hanem Bey knows?"
The bey did not understand whether she was referring to herself or to the Hanem Bey, and added whimsically, "I shall take my kahva out on the balcony." This was what the bey called his coffee, having heard the word pronounced as such by his brother-in-law and the latter's wife.
The servant carried the platter out onto the balcony, poured some now cold kahva into the cup, without cream, and returned to the hall.
"Very well. You may go." said the bey.
With tears in her eyes, Guria bowed and retired, tripping over the thick carpet in her embroidered sandals. She knew from hearsay that the servants in the bey's household who got pregnant would be put to... She had reason to weep. Who should she be most afraid of: the Hanem Bey, her rivals or the bey himself? For a moment, she forgot the deep wells and high cliffs which had obsessed her earlier and thought of returning to the hall to prostrate herself and beg: "Have mercy, my lord, do not kill me! Let me go somewhere far away." But she did not come back.
Xheladin Bey remained in the hall all by himself. He had changed his mind about the coffee out on the balcony and paced around the room. At one point, he stopped in front of the mirror in one of the doors. In it was another man staring at him with protruding, swollen eyes, folds of wobbly skin hanging from his neck like the wattle of a turkey, and deep wrinkles on his forehead. Here and there in his bristly whiskers were grey hairs. Under his nostrils, at the point where his moustache divided into two halves, were hairs tarnished and yellow from tobacco, those of an old man.
Was the mirror at fault?
No, the shining mirror, embellished with stars and crescents in one corner, was not at fault. The change in his appearance was the result of years and years of orgies and debauchery which Sheqere had imposed upon him, making him drink gin and clove-scented spirits. Now, for the first time, Xheladin Bey noticed how those years had altered his face. He went over to another mirror, but the result was the same. It revealed a flabby-skinned fellow with wrinkles and swollen eyes. He adjusted his fez, pushing it to the top of his head, and then pulled it back down over his brow, as he was used to wearing it. How he now envied those wretched peasants who lived on nothing but cornmeal and buttermilk, and whose skin was as smooth as a raven's feathers.
"You are getting old, Xheladin Bey."
Who spoke out? He turned and looked around, yet there was no one else in the room. The bey had been talking to himself. It was a habit he had got into some time ago. He would often talk to himself and answer his own questions. Those around him knew about this and pretended not to hear him, feigned that they had not noticed him mumbling in his moustache as it rose and fell to the movement of his lips. They knew the old adage: "Even if a bey turns into a harmless donkey, take care not to ride him."
Again the echo: "You are getting old, you are getting old."
A cold shudder went down his spine. He was not so distressed by the years past as he was by the prospect of the years to come. In the towns and villages, a new generation of young maidens was growing up. He used to see them on their doorsteps or in country lanes, full of lice and covered in dust and filth. Now, there was nothing more to be seen. They were locked away in their homes. They would certainly be attractive by now, but who would get them? Who would be first to taste the delicious honey, to pluck the sweet grapes and fruit of his estates? Xheladin Bey was getting old, Xheladin Bey was getting old.
The bey began to quiver and almost fainted on the Persian carpet. He took several steps forwards and sat himself down on the edge of the divan.
"And after old age?" he wondered.
"After old age?" he replied to himself, "You know very well what comes then... the grave."
A cold sweat broke out on his forehead, moistening the edge of his fez. He was as pale as a corpse. He had seen many dead bodies and heard daily of people who had passed away, but such people, he said to himself, were fools. Only fools died - those who have nothing to eat, those who spend all their lives driving their oxen or bent over a plough. He, after all, was a bey, Xheladin Bey, the son of Shemseddin Bey, the grandson of Xheladin Pasha, robed in silken garments and rocked in a cradle of gold. He was not like the others, the chattel, whose wives gave birth out in the fields, who wrapped their infants in rags and lulled them in wicker baskets instead of in cradles. There was only one Xheladin Bey in that part of the empire, only one of such fine lineage.
Suddenly, his convictions faltered.
"Yet," he murmured, "my father died and my grandfather died. Were they fools?"
Answering his own question, he replied this time with a Turkish word which Xhixhi Hanem was wont to use: "Afedersin, Afedersin!"
Then in spite of himself, he began to wonder - does not Xheladin Bey have two arms and two legs like everyone else? Should he not work like everyone else to feed himself?
At this point, he could retain himself no longer, and began guffawing. "Who has ever seen a bey, the son of a pasha, out in the fields driving oxen? Just imagine!"
He was amazed that he could even have conceived of such a terrible idea. How could he, a wealthy bey, a temiz, i.e. a 'clean' man, although in fact he stank from internal putrescence, possibly lower himself to the level of the rabble on his estates, the unwashed and hungry masses whom God, greater than he, had appointed to grow wheat and raise herds? Certainly, there were fair maidens among them...
"No, no," he declared to himself in Turkish, as the Hanem Bey was accustomed to do.
The bey shouted so loudly that the whole room echoed. He went out onto the balcony and sat down cross-legged on the low divan. There, he lit himself a cigarette, from one of the ones which Sheqere had rolled for him and licked with her own spit. The balcony was enclosed like a cage with twisted spheres of wrought-iron the size of the rings of a barrel which rose up the stone wall above him. From here the bey could look out, but no one could peer in. This cigarette was more agreeable than the last. He stretched over towards the cup, raised it to his lips, but then put it down again. The coffee was cold. He frowned and clapped his hands twice.
A young, barefooted servant entered, whom the bey no longer bedded because she was too old. She had reached the age of eighteen and would soon be dispatched to tend the geese. The servant wanted to ask him what he wished, but she dared not speak. Petrified, she stood there with her arms folded over her well-developed breasts, too large for the size of the rest of her. The sun coming in through the latticework cast stripes of light and shade over the bey's face and body. He looked terrifying, like a vampire. She held her tongue.
"Girl, whatever your name is..." said the bey, "my coffee is cold. Let the other girl bring me another one."
The 'other girl' was Guria.
The servant left the room as silently as she had entered it. Neither her voice nor her steps were to be heard.
The bey turned to one side. People were coming and going in the courtyard below. They knew that the bey was out on the balcony. They could not see him, but were aware of his presence from the cigarette smoke rising through the iron bars, and from his muttering.
The bey's manor had been constructed on a hill, almost at the end of town. The settlement, or kasaba, as he preferred to call it, was fair to behold. It consisted of a few two-storey houses, quite a number of huts, white minarets and grey bell towers, all enveloped in the mellow light of that sunny autumn day. Most of the shops and all the inns catering to the market; some of the homes; the vegetable gardens; fallow lands now covered in thorns, thistles and weeds; and all the corn mills belonged to the bey. Zylfo collected the rent from the tenants and delivered it to the bey at the end of every month.
Nothing in the bey's kasaba ever happened without him being involved. Every morning, notables from the surrounding countryside would arrive to pay him homage or, as they were wont to say, to "have coffee with the bey." They brought with them news of recent events: who had been killed, who had died of natural causes, who had arrived and who had departed, who had been punished and why, who was buying and who was selling, what caravans had been plundered, who had got married, who else was to get married, and other such gossip. They would take their orders and set off without delay, each returning to his own chores and duties. On rare occasions, when something important happened or the arrival of some high dignitary was announced - a governor, a circuit judge, a military commander or an emissary from the imperial palace - the bey would come out to greet his guests himself, but more often, it was his deputies, Zyko and Zylfo who acted on his behalf. The bey would rest on the balcony or go up to the small room in the tower with its four windows from which he could observe events on all sides. On other occasions, he would sit on a cushion behind the curtains, as the sultan in Istanbul was wont to do. People would hear only his cough or the clap of his hands, which caused all hearts to freeze on the spot. The bey clapped his hands!
Of course, the village agas and muftis also visited the bey's manor to tell him of their concerns and, as one can imagine, none of them ever arrived empty-handed.
But on this particular day, Xheladin Bey had no desire to deal with such details. He felt a great void in his heart.
He turned from the town and looked out towards the fields. The closest ones were yellow. Others were brown, and some, in the shade of the cypress trees, were still green. Where the cypresses stood, were the graves of the dead, lots of dead because the peasants were "accustomed" to kicking the bucket all at once in great numbers, in particular their children. Out in the fields there were many empty, abandoned homes. But let us leave the peasants to their concerns and embark upon a more agreeable subject - the estate.
Virtually all the land stretching out to the horizon was his, including all the graveyards and the hills to the left and right. It was all his, but to what avail? The bey was indisposed that autumn morning. Why? He was getting old... Just last night they had brought him a tender 'quince for the plucking' like Guria. No, younger than she had been. Guria was fifteen, whereas the 'quince,' whose name he could not remember, had been only thirteen. They had sung and revelled all night with a "Yarnana, yarnani" and then a:
Fair that maiden to a tee,
Let me have her with raki..."
But this time, Xheladin Bey, absolute lord over lands and people, was not able to rise to the occasion. This time, neither the gin nor the clove-scented spirits, nor the raki did the trick. Xheladin Bey was getting old. The maiden arrived as a virgin and left as a virgin. And yet she was a good-looker: eyebrows made up with oak gall, fingers painted in henna, fair eyes and dimples.
The bey felt frustrated and ashamed. He, the grand bey...
At that moment, something else occurred to him. On whom would he bestow all the property he had amassed and all the money he had collected? All the kasabas, all the farmland? Of course, his wife, Xhixhe Hanem, was of a noble family, the daughter of a pasha and the granddaughter of a minister of the court, but she was sterile - a barren womb. The minister had been a friend of the sultan and was a pasha himself. Through her, the bey had made his way into high society and had substantially improved his lot. He was on the point of being appointed pasha. But now, to whom would he leave all his lofty titles? There was only one thing he could do. He would have to take a second and a third wife, women who could have children. All the courts on earth and in heaven would give him the right to do so, but Xheladin Bey, the great Xheladin Bey, was afraid of angering his father-in-law, his brothers-in-law and all the rest of his wife's family, right up to the Sublime Porte. He was particularly afraid of Xhixhe Hanem herself, that stubborn old camel of skin and bones who seemed to have been raised not on milk and honey, but on grasshoppers roasted in ashes. When she walked around the balcony or across the room, all the skin and bones seemed to crack, like the bones of the old judge of Libohova, whom they called the devil himself because he hobbled and took bribes. The judge's bones even cracked when he sat down on cushions and went to bed. But hers were the skin and bones of the daughter of a pasha and the granddaughter of a minister of the court, and she covered them up with dresses made of fine pink silk and with a green vest embroidered with gold and diamonds. Other precious gems adorned her headpiece, her hair, her neck and her knuckles, and her fingers which were painted with henna.
She and her brothers were waiting for Xheladin Bey to pack his bags - one way or the other - for they were after his money. They knew, of course, that the bey prowled about the village and countryside like a cur in rut, but that was the way men were, so they left him to his habits. There was only one thing they did not want to see, and that was a second marriage - a new wife and new relatives.
Xheladin Bey looked out and found no solution. It was as if he had been blindfolded. His mind was obsessed by the matter. To whom would he leave his good name, his titles and his wealth? To a second wife? No, he couldn't. But then to whom? He should have solved the problem long ago. It was autumn now, and the bey was getting...
He came to, muttered, answered himself, and then cried out: "Damn the pasha's daughter and damn the pasha, too! I will do just as my grandfather did! If she gives birth to a son (the "she" in this case was Guria), I will wed her and take her as my second wife. And then, let the chips fall where they may!"
* * *
The first wife of Xheladin Pasha, his grandfather, had been infertile, too. She was attractive, a good woman, but barren. The pasha loved her deeply and did not want to hurt her feelings by taking a second wife. But how was he to live without children? One fine summer's day, as he was standing at the barred window, he saw a peasant enter the courtyard with a little girl, who was following him like a tiny lamb. The peasant was wearing leather sandals and the girl was barefoot. He approached the pasha's fountain, drank some water, splashed a few drops in his eyes and then, moving over to make room for the girl, he took a red handkerchief from his belt and wiped off his face and neck. The child imitated her uncle. She drank some water, splashed a bit in her eyes, but did not wipe her face off because she had no handkerchief. She let it dry by itself. Her cheeks were rosier than ever. There was no one else in the yard. The tiny girl glanced around and then raised her skirt a little to wash her leg under the tap, to rid it of the dust of the road. When she finished the one leg, she did the same to the other, rubbing it hard. The lower part of her legs contrasted with her thighs, which were as white as starch in the sun. She took another sip and again splashed water into her face two or three times. The pasha observed her from behind the barred window and found her attractive. He was a man of war, no real womanizer, but the girl pleased him, and he sent his steward down to get her. "Come along, the pasha wants to see you!" The peasant was terrified, but had no choice but to follow. It was an order from the pasha. He entered the palace, leaving the child at the doorway. "Bring the girl in, too," ordered the pasha. She followed, wetting the carpet with her feet. The pasha looked at her and was even more attracted to her. "Let her wait outside." The steward and the girl withdrew. The pasha turned to the peasant and asked him who he was, where he came from, what relation he was to the girl, and where he was off to. The peasant told him his name and that of his village, which belonged to the pasha. The little girl was his niece, the daughter of his late brother. She was twelve years old. He was on his way to market and intended to marry her off to a man who had promised him one hundred piastres, three sheep, a suit of clothes, a kerchief and some other things. The prospective husband was, he noted, a wealthy man, the son of someone or other. He had three additional wives and many sons and daughters by all of them. Some of these children had already left to get married and had children of their own who were older than the girl whom he now wanted to marry. She was to serve him in his old age. The pasha listened and then said, "Enough, I understand. You may depart, but you will leave the girl here because she belongs to me. She was born on my land. I will decide whom she marries!"
"Please, my lord, I beg you! She is an orphan, and I have already accepted a down payment from the man." But his protests were in vain. The pasha was not to be swayed. "She belongs to me and I will wed her myself." He took a purse out of his pocket, counted out five hundred piastres and gave them to him with three silver medjidijes, promising him, in addition, a pair of oxen, five sheep and other things. The steward then entered the room, tugged at the peasant's sleeve and accompanied him to the door. The peasant was satisfied. He had got over five hundred piastres, a pair of oxen and five sheep. But he was also frightened. "Please," he said to the steward, "don't let anything happen to me! I have children of my own and my brother's children at home, too. I am afraid that the fellow who gave me the down payment will take revenge." "Don't be afraid," replied the steward. "Tell him that the pasha has the girl. If he wants to take revenge, let him come here!"
The pasha bedded the girl that very night, and on the following ones, too. When she was with child, he sent her to a distant village to give birth. She had a boy. The pasha was over forty at the time and kept the matter a secret. At least, so he thought. Sooner or later, however, word reached the ear of his wife. She was not angered, but rather delighted, and said to the pasha, "My lord, why have you concealed such good tidings from me? Your happiness is my happiness. I am the way I am. I can bear you no children. You have done no wrong, my lord. It is God's will. Marry the maid and bring her here with the boy. I will love him as if he were my own. I will rock him in a golden cradle, and I will wrap him in silken swaddling clothes that he may grow and ensure the continuity of your lineage."
The pasha was surprised, but realised that his wife was speaking from the heart. Tears welled in her eyes and her voice betrayed deep emotion. He thus sent for the peasant girl with her little son, and married her. His first wife kept her promise. She wrapped the lad in silken swaddling clothes and rocked him in a golden cradle. Never was she impatient with the younger wife, who was as fair as the moon but who had no more children. The boy grew up and became Shemseddin Bey. The pasha died several years thereafter, but not without having made his son promise to marry young and have lots of children. Shemseddin Bey lived up to his promise. He had numerous sons, of whom only one survived, Xheladin Bey. The others died in warfare to gain high office and land. Shemseddin Bey increased his wealth many times over, filling kettles and cauldrons with gold coins, for he was a greedy fellow and took unfair advantage of everyone under his command. He heaped his great storage bins with grain and corn, opening them only in March or April when famines raged. He kept retainers for the sole purpose of plundering caravans. He pretended to send his officers out to chase the thieves whereas, in reality, all the mules, horses and goods from the caravans were already in his stables. At a price, he would restore some of the goods to their owners, only to rob them again. He would visit villages and farms as an unwanted guest, eating and drinking to his fill. When he was finished, he would demand "tooth money" for the suffering of his teeth as he ripped through piles of roasted meat. Often, his men would pilfer whole herds of sheep and goats. The shepherds and shepherdesses would weep and implore him, but to no avail. Shemseddin Bey was deaf to their appeals. On one occasion, however, an enraged shepherd whose herd had been stolen, raised his long rifle, shot at the bey, and took flight. The bey was not killed, but was wounded in the buttocks. Poor Shemseddin Bey could no longer ride his horse or walk on his own two legs. The wound became infected and was treated by drainage. He suffered from the injury for many years, lying on his stomach in bed, until he died, to the joy and satisfaction of the peasants and rabble.
All the wealth which he had inherited from his father, the pasha, and everything he had amassed himself was passed on to his son, Xheladin Bey, who was more interested in wine, women and song. To ensure his lineage, Xheladin Bey, as noted, had then married the daughter of a pasha, granddaughter of a minister of the sultan's court - that old camel, all skin and bones, known as Xhixhi Hanem...
* * *
"Yes," cried Xheladin Bey after having considered the matter, "I will do just as my grandfather did!"
When he raised his head, he saw Sheqere standing in front of him, holding the platter with the coffee pot and cup.
"Who are... what are you doing here?" he muttered and rose to his feet.
Sheqere gave him a broad smile. She bent over and poured him a cup of hot, steaming coffee. The bey sat down again.
Xheladin Bey had been a good-looking fellow - tall and husky, whereas Sheqere was shorter and more portly. Despite this, she knew that if she stood on the stoop of the veranda she would have to look down at the bey and he would have to look up at her. This was out of the question, so she quickly sat down cross-legged and spread her pleated bloomers out over the floor. Then she looked up at the bey, who was slurping his creamy coffee. Sheqere embarked upon the conversation.
"The poor thing is petrified, my lord. Who knows what the wretched servants have been saying to her? They are all so envious, both ours and the servants of the others," she uttered, pointing in the direction of the apartments of Xhixhi Hanem.
"Do they know that she is with...?"
Sheqere nodded. "Yes, my lord. They have terrifed her, pretending that my lord is going to slay both her and the infant. She has been in tears constantly, which is perhaps normal when one is pregnant for the first time, but she has begun raving, too. She claims that they are going to throw her down a well or seal her in behind a brick wall. She wants to flee to the mountains and says she would rather live among the wolves." Sheqere laughed.
Xheladin Bey lit a cigarette and blew a pall of smoke over the cup which Sheqere had filled with coffee once again.
"What nonsense! I am not going to kill her."
"She is afraid of the favourites in your retinue, of everyone."
"No, no, there is no reason for her to be afraid."
The bey then pulled Sheqere towards him and whispered in her ear: "Do you understand? If she gives birth to a boy, I will do as my grandfather did." Sheqere listened attentively and nodded.
"Wonderful, my lord! What a brilliant idea! Just leave it to me. I will deal with everything. I'll find her a place to stay and will raise the child myself. You are a handsome man and she is a good girl. The child will be my little dove! They will all be so envious!" she continued, nodding and making clucking sounds with the tip of her tongue on her palate. When she was finished, the bey placed his hand on her fleshy shoulder and squeezed it so tightly that Sheqere winced with pain.
"Do you understand, Sheqere? Do exactly as you have said. When you bring me the good tidings that she has given birth to a son, I will give you a water mill as a present."
"May it be, my lord."
"You can go now."
Sheqere rose with a sigh of relief because the bey's brutal grasp had caused her shoulder to ache. Her bloomers flew in all directions like chaff on a hayrack when torn into by a famished water buffalo. She smoothed her pleats and was about to retired. The bey gave her a lecherous look, and the desire of old now rekindled within him. He put his cup down and said:
"No, Sheqere, don't go yet. Lock the door and come over here."
Sheqere was overwhelmed. "Oh, my lord, and to think that your heart still beats for your Sheqere!"
She bolted the door and returned to him, her hips swaying as they once had. The large sequinned embroidery on her blouse shone in gold as she coyly undid the buttons, one by one.
On that October morning, Xheladin Bey, son of Shemseddin Bey, grandson of Xheladin Pasha, regained his virility and became an "associate" of his brother-in-law, the blacksmith, Sheqere's husband.
Outside, one could hear the clang of the blacksmith's hammer as he shod the horses. Inside, Sheqere's bloomers lay spread out over the floor of the hall.
"That you still have a passion for your Sheqere, my lord!..."
"It is only you, Sheqere, only you that I want," responded the bey, wheezing like an asthmatic stud.
Sheqere put her clothes on, buttoned up her blouse and was about to depart, when she remembered something.
"My lord, there are some people waiting outside to see you."
"Who are they?"
"No one of importance. Townspeople and peasants come to tell you their tales of woe."
"Their tales of woe? Let them tell their woes to Zyko. I am indisposed today."
Zyko, the bey's principal steward, was a short and devious fellow who hobbled and made life a living hell for anyone who came to see the bey.
"I am indisposed. Tell Riza to get the horses ready and to saddle the sorrel mare for me. I think I'll go hunting," ordered the bey, pointing vaguely to the plains outside, "and out for a picnic. I will take seven men with me. Get out my riding garments, Sheqere."
"As you wish, my lord. Are you satisfied?" she asked with a smile on her face.
"I am fine, Sheqere."
"I am the one you love, my lord."
The bey put on his green velvet jacket with the silver trim and buttons, which he always wore for the hunt. Sheqere sat down in front of him and buttoned up the lower part of the jacket, down to his knees. Then she tied his boots, feeding the long laces through the eyes, one by one. She was about to gird the cartridge belt around him when there was a knock at the door. Sheqere opened it. A group of young servants flooded in, bringing breakfast with them. Xheladin Bey sat down at the low table, taking off his fez. He began with the fat chicken broth with balls of grease floating on it, slurping and munching loudly, as was his wont. It tasted sour from the slices of lemon in it (Sheqere knew what was needed to get rid of the stench of his belching). He then proceeded with white chicken and turkey meat, and with a roast of lamb. For dessert, there was sweet cake drenched in treacle and sprinkled with ginger, cinnamon powder and cloves. Stuffed to the hilt, he undid his jacket and smacked his lips to sighs of "oh" and "ah." Satisfied, he licked his fingers and went over to wash his hands. He then returned to stretch out on the divan, leaning on his pillow. His glance lingered upon the bones on the floor and the leftovers of meat and cake crumbs spread over the table.
"You know, the Lord Almighty thought of everything, but there is one thing he did wrong. He gave the same stomach to everyone, both to the rich and to the poor, who have nothing to eat. That was a mistake. I have just had my fill of breakfast, in fact a bit too much. But who is going to eat all the leftovers? No, no, that was a big mistake."
This was a bon mot which the bey often used in front of his guests when they were feasting. Now he had no guests to entertain, and repeated the thought to himself, staring gluttonously at the table covered in leftovers.
For a moment, he forgot the hunt, Riza and the sorrel mare which was waiting for him in the courtyard, as it stamped on the cobblestones with horseshoes fashioned by the blacksmith. He forgot the hounds and the stewards, too, as his eyelids grew heavy. But soon thereafter, he got a grip on himself, stood up and girded the cartridge belt around his protruding belly. Seizing his rifle, he departed. His 'braves' were lined up waiting for him, with their hands over their hearts in a sign of respect. They hastened to help him mount the mare, some holding the stirrup and others folding their hands under his foot to heave him up. It was not an easy task, for the bey was by no means light. Finally he wrestled himself onto the sorrel mare and set off through the gate out in the direction of the plains. He led the way, with his 'braves' behind him. Scurrying around them at the front and back were the hounds.
It was a fine, sunny day. The fields and woods were bathed in light. The road was excellent, dusty in some parts, but humid in the shadier sections from the dew of the night. Migrant birds in v-formations were flying high above them, beating their wings. The hounds, with their snouts to the ground, sniffed at the roadside and bushes.
At a turn in the road, a group of peasants appeared with their carts, horses, mules and donkeys heavily laden with grain, onions, leeks, squashes, fruit and firewood which they were transporting to the bey's manor. When they saw the bey and his party, they brought their animals to a halt and froze at the edge of the ditch with their hands over their hearts. The bey did not even deign to look at them. He was now in a spirited mood, glancing around with his bloodshot eyes. The previous night of debauchery with his boon companions was now far behind him in the mist. It was a forgotten memory, or rather the fading nightmare of a long winter's night.
He had envisaged himself being chased by a pack of wolves and, however fast he advanced, they were constantly closing in on him. He had screamed, but no sound was to be heard. Xhixhi Hanem had also faded in the winter night with the wolves.
Xheladin Bey was now in an excellent mood and sang to himself. The riders behind him could hear his voice, but could not make out what he was singing.
Suddenly, a stench filled the air. The bey and his braves rode past the corpse of a dead donkey, all blood and gore and with its legs in the air. As they passed, they disturbed a group of feeding jackdaws. The birds rose into the air, casting their black shadows over the riders. They cawed bitterly, settled upon a ploughed field, rose again and then returned to their feeding.
The bey lit himself a cigarette to overcome the smell of the carcass. In the fields of standing corn bobbed white, red and yellow headscarves here and there. Then they were gone. Xheladin Bey had a reputation, so the women and girls took cover immediately in the cornstalks.
Further on, the air was fresher and brisk as it is in autumn. For a moment, he thought of poor, terrified Guria with child.
"To hell with her!" he stammered, throwing away the rest of his cigarette.
There was one thing he could not forget though: the failure of his virility the night before. It remained embedded in his mind like a nail, though Sheqere had satisfied him that morning, as she used to. He seemed to hear her suave, cooing voice: "I am the one you love, my lord. Go and do whatever you want, but remember that I am the one you really love." And Sheqere was right. Xheladin Bey did love her. Somehow, he even regretted having given her to the blacksmith. Then he said to himself, "She still belongs to me... I can have her whenever I want..." The bey spurred his sorrel mare on and set off like an arrow.
He later sent one of his stewards forth to inform the elders of a certain village that he would be honouring them with his presence for lunch, and then spurted into the woods in search of game.
The hunt went well that day: turtledoves, partridges and pigeons. He shot the fowl, and the hounds and stewards brought the game back to him.
The bey had lunch outdoors in the countryside, near the fountain of the old pear tree, a site he had chosen himself. He was exhausted from the hunt and so the bottle of raki, chilled in the fountain, and the tidbits did the trick to quell his appetite. Indeed he ate enough to still four appetites, though he had only one stomach, now stuffed to the hilt.
His braves were sitting a short distance away from him on a hillock, and were eating, too. The bey stretched himself out to one side on a rug, supporting his head in the palm of his right hand. The men of the village, almost all of whom were the bey's tenant farmers, had abandoned their daily chores and disputes to come and pay their respects to him, as custom dictated. They huddled in a group about ten paces from him. Some were standing, others sitting or kneeling, all waiting for some sign or order from their lord. Others continued to serve the bey's braves who were feasting on bread and meat and throwing the bones to the hounds. Near the bey were only a few nobles, with heavy silver chains and medals on their chests and a constant "yes, my lord" on their lips. He threw to each of them one of the cigarettes Sheqere had rolled and licked with her own spit.
The sunlight was pale and gentle, as if it had been filtered by a sieve. The bey was expounding on the affairs, great and small, of the empire, and on the sultan, the "light of the world," who had stuffed all of Europe into his pocket. He had drawn a ring through its nostrils and would make it dance like a bear. Soon Father Sultan would take out his long sabre and make mincemeat of all the European kings, great and small, and would spirit their women and girls off to his harem in Istanbul. The leftover females would, of course, be distributed among the leaders of the Empire. He added that Father Sultan was recruiting solders, showering them with clinking pieces of gold and silver. At this point, he noticed that very few men had come to pay him homage, and inquired:
"Is that all the men they have in this village? Where are all the others?"
"A little boy has just died, my lord, and they have all gone to cremate the body," said one of them.
"And some woman has died, too, sir, a young bride."
"A burial, you say? Two deaths in one day? There have not been any cases of the plague, have there?" he asked with a laugh, but also with a hint of trepidation in his voice.
"The plague? No, sir, but there is fever about. Even yesterday..."
The bey was no longer interested. He never inquired about deaths. "These damn peasants multiply like mustard seed... They die in droves and the next day there are even more of them around if they get enough cornbread to eat. Their sows are virtual breeding grounds."
Without waiting for a reaction, he changed the subject. "By the way, you owe me wheat and corn, and more firewood, too. I want oak this time. And you haven't delivered any honey. Have you forgotten who you are? Otherwise I will send Zylfo and Zyko to get the job done." The villagers listened, with their eyes fixed to the ground. "We have already sent you the wheat and corn, and delivered the firewood, too, my lord. The last delivery was made yesterday." One then mumbled hesitantly, "Perhaps Zylfo has kept it for himself," but the bey did not hear him, for no one ever dared to speak out loud in his presence. The bey carried on.
"Off to the storehouse with you," he ordered, pointing in one direction. "Fill the sacks and pay off your debts. The government needs great funds. I will give you letters of recommendation for my father-in-law, the pasha. He has sent word that he is in need of soldiers. The Empire is at war, and war brings money. There will be booty galore for the having!"
Stretched out there with an extinguished cigarette butt between his fingers, he fell into a slumber, lulled by the gurgling of the fountain and the rustle of the fading leaves floating down around him. As soon as he was sound asleep, the notables with chains hanging from their chests peered at one another and tiptoed backwards in retreat.
The 'braves,' having eaten their fill, stretched out on the grass, too, picking at their teeth with toothpicks they had made for themselves. Near them were the hounds with their fleshy, red tongues hanging out.
When he woke up, Xheladin Bey noticed that he was enveloped in a woollen blanket which Riza had covered him with. He threw it off, sat up and rubbed his eyes, saying:
"I fell asleep!"
He sat there for moment and then added:
"Shall we be off, Riza?"
"As you wish, my lord."
They got up, but did not return home. The good weather and the pleasures of the hunt kept them in the countryside until sunset. There rifles and guns ravaged the bushes for some time.
To their misfortune, they came upon no human game - no women or fair maids in any of the villages they passed through. Word had already spread that the bey was out hunting. "Damn peasants, they keep their sows locked indoors." From time to time, they saw some old hags loaded down with firewood, but what use were they to him? They were like salted goat meat. The bey did not want old goat meat, he wanted the flesh of young partridges.
He climbed a hill covered with wild almond trees. Riza followed, with the baskets full of game. The horses were waiting in the distance at the other side of the road. A whistle would have sufficed to call them, but no one whistled. Below him there was a grove of acacia trees and a water mill which creaked every time the bucket turned and poured out its water. They heard some high-pitched voices, those of young girls in the distance, giggling and calling to one another. The bey came to a stop and gave a sign to Riza not to move. Two fat turtledoves had just settled on the branch of the almond tree above him, but the bey was no longer interested. His rifle was loaded, yet he did not use it. The twilight was now to give him possession of choicer game. The young girls from the village thought he was gone and they had come out to fetch water.
Xheladin Bey advanced slowly down the hill and approached the water mill. Around it were seven or eight girls giggling and gossiping. Some had filled their jugs and others were waiting in line to do so. In a flash, Xheladin Bey appeared before them. The girls screamed as if they had seen a wolf. They dropped their jugs and scattered in all directions. They were gone in a wink. Some leapt over the embankments, some into the brambles and others fled down towards the ravine. Many a thorn penetrated their tender flesh, but thorns were preferable to being snared in the clutches of the bey. All of them but one had dropped their jugs. The one girl who remained behind stared at the bey as a bird would at a venomous snake approaching to devour it. Her feet were heavy, as if she were riveted to the ground. A shard of the broken jug had injured one of her legs, but this was not the reason she did not move. It was naked fear that nailed her to the spot. "What a tender little dove I have here, a gift from the Almighty," drooled Xheladin Bey to himself as he approached. The maiden looked divine. She was dressed in a white blouse, and a white scarf covered her blond hair. She had a slender body and eyes as green as the reeds of the marshes. The bey scrutinised her from her slender thighs down to her calves, from one of which flowed a trickle of blood. Then he eyed her slender waistline, and upwards, her tiny breasts, the nape of her neck, her little mouth, her fleshy protruding lips, her nose as straight as a candle, the green eyes, and her white, flat forehead. "What a tender bouquet is growing in my almond grove! I did not even know about this. A goddess come from the heavens. If I sent her to the sultan, he would immediately accord me the title of pasha. But why do I need to become a pasha if I can have such a tender bud for myself? She is one hundred times more precious than Guria and all the others. I will have her now, this very night, in my bed..." The maiden trembled as he neared and touched her. Her lower lip quivered. Her breasts were heaving under the blouse which was embroidered in red and black, and tears were welling in her eyes. But the bey was not to be put off by signs of distress. He was used to such scenes. Lambs bleat when the butcher thrusts his knife into their throats, and young girls weep when they are attacked by the bey. A lamb is even more savoury when roasted on a spit, and girls are all the more delicious when enjoyed for the second and third times.
Xheladin Bey stretched out his hand. He stroked her cheek and felt a pleasant sensation, as if the prime of his youth had returned to him.
"Don't weep, my princess. The bey loves you. I will do you no harm. I will make a woman of you."
The maid trembled all the more and tried to get away, but the bey held her arm as if in a vice. Then she began to scream.
The bey was angered, but replied in a gentle tone:
"Don't do that, my princess. Don't shout. What is your name? You are the daughter of a farmhand and the farm belongs to me, so you belong to me, too. I am going to take you back to my manor and..."
Very soon, the branches in the grove began to crack as if some wild boar were making its way through them. But it was no boar. It was a tall woman, as swarthy as the trunk of an oak tree struck by lightning. The woman stormed towards the bey and, seizing the child from him, shouted:
"If you touch her, not even hell fire will cremate you, Xheladin Bey! Even after death you will find no rest!"
"Who is this mad woman in front of me?" Xheladin Bey wondered incredulously, stepping back. He had a loaded rifle in his hand, but did not shoot. Instead he retreated even further. Now it was the bey's turn to play the role of the bird hypnotised by the approach of a venomous snake. The woman turned and shouted to her daughter, "Run away as fast as you can!"
The girl was off in a flash, up over the embankment and away.
Xheladin Bey stared at the woman and said nothing. She was tall and meagre, but different from Xhixhi Hanem. From her features he could see that she had once been a beauty, whereas his wife had always been skin and bones, like the dead donkey lying at the wayside. She was a strong woman, too, with a fist to be feared.
"Off with you, you son of a bitch," cried the woman once her daughter was gone. "If you ever touch her, worms will devour your putrid flesh and the crows will pick your eyes out! No, not the crows! I will scratch them out myself with my fingernails. You have sullied so many maidens, and now you intend to sully your own flesh and blood?"
"What are you talking about, woman? I have no daughter, no children at all."
The woman flew at the bey and struck him in the belly with her mighty fist. She shook him back and forth until his bloodshot eyes were reeling.
"Don't you recognise me? Don't you remember who Maro, Kovi's daughter, is, whom you raped when she was young? You had a whip in your hand, and were strong back then. That little girl you just saw is your daughter. And be aware, I will crush you like the head of a snake if you ever do to her what you did to me! You son of a bitch from Istanbul! You are depraved, the plague!"
She shoved him away, pulled him towards her, and shook him back and forth like a rug. He, Xheladin Bey, absolute lord over towns and villages, stared at her with owl eyes and was unable to escape her blows, unable to shoot the woman with his rifle or with the pistol in his belt.
"You robbed me of my honour! May God drive you mad! You left me in shame and misery. May the Almighty pluck your eyes out!. You blackened my life. May the plague take you!"
She continued to shake him and jolt him around so brutally that he fell to the ground. Then she gathered the shards of pottery and hurled them at him - at his feet, his knees and his hands, cursing him all the time.
"May I see you in a thousand pieces, like these broken jugs! May you rot alive, just as your father rotted and was eaten by worms! May you croak at the edge of some torrent like a mangy dog! May your name and lineage vanish from the face of the earth! When has a father ever raped his own daughter?"
A hail of shards covered the bey, who lay frozen on the ground, petrified, powerless to move.
The woman seized a bucket of water and pour it over his head, cursing and insulting him. He was drenched and dazed. A clang of drums resounded in his ears: dum-dum, jing-jing. Amidst the din, he heard Dife's strident song:
"How I love you, how I do,
All my thoughts are now with you,
Your two breasts - sherbet to me,
Bring me food and more raki."
But Dife was somewhere far away. It was Maro who was standing in front of him, throwing buckets of water into his face and cursing him.
"May the wolf snatch you and devour your entrails! May you be roasted alive on a spit! May you vanish forever! May nothing evermore be seen or heard of you!"
The bey heard every word she said but gave no reply, not even a cough or a gasp as was his wont.
"May the whites of your eyes burst! May you burn alive in your grave! May the vampires consume you!"
The threats and curses continued and, what is worse, he feared that his 'braves' might hear them. Perhaps Riza was listening.
Xheladin Bey stood up in silence. He scrambled around the back of the hill and managed to reach the road where the horses were waiting. Clambering onto the back of his sorrel mare, he spurred the horse on and raised his whip.
"Get out of here and never come back! Go! May you turn mad! May you never reach home alive!" she shouted from the water mill behind him.
The mare was off in a gallop, its white hooves flashing. It was dark by now, but there was still a ray of light on the horizon separating the earth from the sky. A cold wind began to blow, raising the dust along the roadside.
"What a demon! What a fury!", exclaimed the bey.
The braves, preceded by Riza on his grey stallion, were behind him. They could hardly keep up with the mare which was tearing along at full speed. The trees and bushes whizzed by like fleeting shadows on both sides of the road.
A bitter wind whistled around his ears.
Wagons laden with ears of corn were crossing the wooden bridge in the opposite direction, the cartwheels squeaking, followed by a group of peasants. He sped by like a furious gust before they even noticed him, galloping and galloping like a madman.
Some time later he came to himself, "What am I doing? I am killing the poor beast!"
He released the spurs from her flanks and pulled back the reins. The horse slowed its pace, coming to a trot. Now the braves caught up with him.
"Who was that woman?" he asked them.
As the shades of night embraced the world, Xheladin Bey caught sight of a shaft of light before him. What was the vision he saw in it?
* * *
It was springtime. The grass was fresh and the apple trees were in bloom. The bey saw himself walking over the fields. His house was in the distance. What a beautiful day! His blood was seething. Sheqere and all the other women were of no more interest to him. There was something else he had in mind, but he did not know exactly what it was. Wandering over the fields with lust in his thoughts, he came upon a young peasant girl, as fresh as a rose, the spitting image of the girl he had encountered that afternoon at the water mill. The girl tried to flee, but the bey caught up with her. She resisted ferociously, pushed him away and escaped from his grasp. She gave a scream, but he caught up with her, struck her with his whip and forced her to the ground. But she would not give up. She beat him and bit into his flesh until he was covered with blood. Such resistance excited Xheladin Bey all the more, as he used his whip upon her. The young girl had big, green eyes, like the reeds of the marshes, and sharp, white teeth. Gradually her strength gave way. The whip decided the outcome of the struggle. The bey threw himself upon her like a wolf at a lamb. She screamed once more. The women in the surrounding villages heard her desperate cries, but who would have dared to oppose the bey? When he was finished, the girl, still in tears, rose to her feet, her dress shredded to pieces and her virginity gone. Continuing to panic, she took cover under the branches of a tree and whined and whined. The whip had left bloody traces all over her body. The bey's ear was bitten and bloodied. He asked her what her name was. Trembling, she watched him like a she-wolf and gave no reply. Then suddenly, she vanished into the foliage of the grove. But the bey later discovered who she was. Her name was Maro, the daughter of Kovi. Her father had tuberculosis and lay ill on a mat in his cottage. The bey did his utmost to find the girl and take her as a servant for his manor, just as he had done by seizing so many others, but she was not for the taking. Using various means, he tried force, but failed again. The bey's bodyguards beat Kovi with their whips. He resisted for several days and then died. The bey later learned that Maro was with child. Without delay, he ordered one of his tenant farmers to marry her, and promised him a pair of oxen and other presents. The farmer, however, disappeared on the spot. He did not want to be the relative or 'cousin' of Xheladin Bey, as were the viziers and pashas of the sultan in Istanbul. Subsequently, the bey devoted himself to other pleasures, and married Xhixhi Hanem to improve his status. He had lost all trace of Maro with her green eyes. The wretched creature was now an orphan, with no one to support her. She gave birth to a daughter, worked the land and, after the death of her mother, lived alone in a distant quarter, despised and impoverished. With time, her beauty faded. Wrinkles covered her brow, but she did not abandon her daughter. Now, after so many years, she had turned up again. But the daughter was of rare beauty, and she claimed that she was his. The bey believed her... But what if she were lying? It could not possibly be his daughter! "Those damn peasants lie all the time!"
* * *
"She is lying," exclaimed the bey, and spurred his horse on.
What curses that mad woman had hurled at him! "You son of a bitch from Istanbul. You are depraved, the plague! May God drive you mad! May the Almighty pluck your eyes out! May you croak at the edge of some torrent like a mangy dog!" The bey remembered them all. She had threatened to crush him like the head of a snake. She had shoved him and spit at him. He wondered how he had put up with it all. Had be been afraid? No, no, he was the bey.
The braves listened to him muttering. It was night by now. The crickets were singing in the bushes. Above him twinkled the Pleiades. The fields and meadows were silent. Suddenly the strident cry of a jay rang in the air. The bey took fright, but remembered that he had his braves with him.
"I am going to go back and whip that mad woman. She is lying. I'll get my hands on the daughter and take her back to the manor. That is what I will do!"
He then thought of his exhausted mare and changed his mind. "No problem. I will send the braves tomorrow to deal with the matter. It is late now and the horse is worn out. I will order my men to bring the girl back to me at the crack of dawn. Riza will look after the matter. Is she really my daughter? No! The woman is lying!"
A stench filled the night air. He was passing the spot on the road where the dead donkey lay. He had the impression someone had seized him by the throat and was strangling him. "A carcass, worms? Is that what I will be tomorrow?"
Riding on, he thought he saw Riza in front of him with the girl, wrapped in a white sheet. He was delighted. He would have her, not like Maro on the ground, but in his bed. He would beat her if necessary. But he would caress her, too. Like that...
Suddenly his vision crumbled like a cottage razed and borne off by a flooding river. "But, who is Riza anyway? A simple peasant. Who were his parents? What was his mother called again? Yes, I remember, he is the son of Xhemile. A fine woman she, and Riza was an adorable lad, a real Adonis. I made him my page. Did he have a father?" The bey had seized Riza from his home and had taken the beautiful boy to live with him. He later made him his steward when the former one had grown old. Riza's father, who was not really his father since Xhemile had brought him home "before the horse" as they say, had been an old man when he married Xhemile. The bey had forced him.
The bey's thoughts continued to meander and he seemed to hear an old song he had not heard for many years:
"Oh my lad, oh boy divine,
Like a dove for you I pine,
Take care not to sip that raki,
It will only make you dizzy."
A reddish crescent moon came out, but it cast sufficient light. As the first rays caught the corner of his eye, Xheladin Bey thought he heard someone speaking: "Your boy of the past has arrived and brought with him a girl for your bed. A brother had brought his sister to their father." Come on now, Xheladin Bey. How depraved can you get? You are becoming like the dogs and the swine.
Who spoke out? No one. There was not a soul around him. Who had spoken then?
He heard horses approaching and turned. The first was that of Riza, who seemed to be carrying something white with him. He was bringing the girl back to her father. The brother was offering his sister. "I have her, father. Take my sister, your daughter."
Where did all the jackdaws come from? They blocked his route with their shadows and then disappeared. Further on, they swarmed again, cawing above his head. Among them was the black crow he had shot that morning, thinking it to have been a pigeon. It grew in size, and seemed to be almost human, singing:
You never know. Crows have three souls in them and can live three hundred years. They feed off carcasses, and then they return as vampires. No, it is not a crow, it is a vampire!
Xheladin Bey began to shake. Along the roadside were tombs covered in brambles. He thought he saw a light and heard a voice:
"Come, we are waiting for you, Xheladin Bey. We are waiting for you with a golden coffin and a silken shroud - gold and silk, like your cradle."
The jackdaws flew around his head, led by the black crow: "Caw, caw, caw."
No, they cannot be jackdaws. Jackdaws don't fly at night. They are swamp owls.
The moon disappeared behind the clouds. Darkness reigned.
Xheladin Bey spurred his mare on, raised his whip, striking the beast. The mare sped off in a flash, causing the bey to lose his whip. Suddenly a shadow blocked his path. Xheladin Bey seized the pistol from his belt and shot, but the shadow loomed once again before him further down the road.
The mare was bathed in sweat, on the point of collapsing.
* * *
Xheladin Bey, son of Shemseddin Bey, grandson of Xheladin Pasha, a nobleman who was devoted to the hunt, who loved wine, women and song, and who was suffering badly from syphilis, had gone mad. He galloped over the countryside in the dark of night, and the fields, the trees, the shadows, every object dead and alive, sang out to him:
Bring me food and more raki,
Xheladin Bey was found the next morning lying in a ditch. He was still alive but recognised no one. They took him back to the manor on a stretcher, where Sheqere tended to him. But how does one tend to a madman? How? Tied up, of course. He howled and bit anyone who approached him.
Someone informed Xhixhi Hanem who turned up without delay with her brother. Three days later, they cremated Xheladin Bey in his grave. Xhixhi Hanem gathered whatever valuables she could and returned to the palace of her father, followed by a caravan and several horsemen. She later sold off the estate.
And what became of Guria?
[Apasionata from the volume Vepra letrare 6, Tirana: Naim Frashëri 1972, p. 222-249, translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie]