Tirana, Albania — April 11th 1985
The foremost leader has died.
National mourning. Black flags flutter from the windows along side our national flag. Tears, agony, grief, everywhere one looks.
The television shows nothing but tributes to our fallen comrade.
I sit in the café, sip my coffee, watch the grief stricken faces of my fellow comrades. I look out the window at everyone just standing around, consoling one another, seeking comfort in another’s embrace.
I turn my attention back to the interior, continue to sip my coffee, occasionally watch the old films of our foremost leader when he was young, healthy, strong.
The café is crowded but most people don’t speak, most sit with their own thoughts, grieving, as if a member of their own family has passed. In a lot of ways, one had.
A woman sits by herself at the far end of the café. She isn’t crying or gazing at the television. She simply stirs a spoon in her coffee cup, smokes a cigarette, gazes out the window with no expression. She looks sad but there are no tears. Thin and pale, deep lines crease the corners of her mouth. I can tell that she must have been very beautiful once but either time or hardship had nearly erased all traces of it. It isn’t until she glances my way that I realize who it is.
I can’t look at her.
If it weren’t for those eyes, I would have never believed it.
“Remember what our foremost leader says,” Leotrim said. “If we slackened our vigilance even for a moment or toned down our struggle against our enemies in the least, they would strike immediately like the snake that bites you and injects its poison before you are even aware of it.”
Leotrim Marashi was the troupe’s leader and I often found it astonishing how he was able to quote from Hoxha’s speeches and writings word for word. I’d always admired Leotrim. He was one of the most ideologically pure men I had ever known. He was right about what the foremost leader said. There were enemies about, waiting for the right moment to destroy us so I saw it as a great honor when he ordered our group to participate in the continuing construction of the bunkers. It had been an on going project since I was born and the bunkers were everywhere — from the beaches to the mountains to the vineyards and pastures, and even the graveyards. Hoxha was absolutely convinced of a coming ‘two front war’ and we had to be vigilant. Who were we to question him? He knew what was best for us. He always had.
By the time the project made its way up north to Vermosh, there was plenty of work to do, insufferably hard work but necessary. Little by little new members of the group turned up, some from my own town, others from towns around the region. Wherever we were needed.
Leotrim was a bit older than the rest of us, already twenty-three and nearly at the end of his tenure. We all looked up to him, worshiped him in fact. We did everything he told us to do without question or complaint. A man of conviction, discipline. We all knew that one day he would move up in the ranks and become a very important member of the party. Perhaps one day he’d even meet Hoxha himself.
On the morning the new members arrived I was surprised to see so many girls among them. The chapter I belonged to consisted entirely of boys and according to the initial rumors many of these girls had come up north from Tirana as volunteers. They were different from the girls I had known in my village — more sophisticated, adult.
They didn’t pay us any mind when they first arrived, although the boys had immediately tried to get their attention. The girls were immediately smitten with Leotrim, whose commanding presence must have been hard to resist. He was a man — tall, well built, masculine, handsome. We were barely out of puberty — skinny, awkward children. For the rest of us, it was just like being anywhere else, particularly school, where it was ultimately the girls who chose who they wanted to pay attention to. Leotrim didn’t have that problem. The girls literally threw themselves at his feet, gazed lovingly at him, giggled whenever he was near. The Alpha, and he relished this position as well as his official one, though he tried hard not to show it. We saw it.
I never had any animosity towards Leotrim because of this but I did feel that the arrival of the girls was going to cause problems. Three of the boys, Bashkim, Kostandin, and Kreshnik, were always making eyes at them, flirted with them, did whatever they could to gain their attention, whereas I tried to maintain some semblance of professionalism. We weren’t there to play games.
But there was one girl — Edona Hysaj — and she was by far the most beautiful of them all.
I fell in love with her the instant I saw her although I didn’t outwardly show it. She was taller than most girls her age — thin, with long black hair, pale skin and plump, fleshy lips. Those beautiful green eyes, how they seemed to hypnotize you whenever they gazed at you. Whenever she was around I felt like a little boy — awkward, shy, inadequate.
I noticed right away that she knew one of the boys, Bashkim, and they appeared to be very close. I later found out that they grew up in the same village, practically on the same street. Needless to say I did feel some envy towards Bashkim but there really wasn’t anything I could do about it nor was I about to embarrass myself by making my feelings known to everyone.
The truth was I never liked Bashkim much and I was always a little suspicious of him. He didn’t take things seriously, often joked around, teased the other boys, and more often than not, wandered off to read those books of his, dozens of them, books that seemed highly suspicious at times since he always tried to hide them whenever Leotrim or I approached him. He acted a lot younger than his sixteen years in many ways and I often thought him an embarrassment to the whole troupe.
I once brought this to Leotrim’s attention, even professed my concerns about the books he was reading. Leotrim said he would handle it but I don’t think he ever did. Bashkim kept right on clowning around as he always had, kept sneaking off to read his books, and I knew that if Leotrim had spoken to him about it, Bashkim would have fallen into line. It also didn’t help that Edona was always with him and more than once I had seen Bashkim showing her his books and it would cause great concern whenever I saw her taking an interest in them.
I put up with Bashkim and his behavior and even ignored the fact that Edona had often stopped what she was doing in order to spend time with him because we were too busy at the task at hand to make an issue of it. The bunkers were being constructed at a furious pace. I had my hands full with my squad to have time to pay much attention to Bashkim and Edona. Still, I couldn’t help but notice since I could barely take my eyes off her.
At night, when back in the barracks, I behaved just like the other boys, would clown around a bit and even engage in conversation with Bashkim now and then. Still, I tried my best to keep him at arm’s length. It was only after Edona arrived that I started to pay closer attention to him.
I feel the tears welling up in my eyes but they’re not tears for Hoxha. I do my best to keep from crying but it isn’t easy. I dab my eyes with a napkin, dare to glance at the lonely woman across the café. She’s staring at me, her elbow propped up on the table, the cigarette between her fingers, the smoke curling into the air. I look away.
“The canon of the Sharia and the Church, closely linked with the laws of the bourgeoisie, treated women as a commodity, a thing to be bought and sold by the male. Just as the bourgeoisie had made the worker into its proletarian, so had the savage ancient canons of the sharia, the Church, feudalism and the bourgeoisie reduce woman to the proletariat of the man…”
Every morning before beginning work, Leotrim would gather us all in front of his quarters and quote the foremost leader to remind us how important our work was for the nation. This particular morning he had specifically chosen a passage which dealt with women. The girls loved this of course and as Leotrim spoke they couldn’t take their eyes off him. I tried not to either, out of respect, but I couldn’t help notice Bashkim and Edona standing just a little too close and whispering to one another, not taking any of it as seriously as they should have. I tried to get Bashkim’s attention but I may as well have been invisible. The other boys? They were too busy trying to steal glances of the girls who stood there playing with their hair as they gazed lovingly at Leotrim, enraptured by his undeniable charisma.
I looked over at Bashkim and I saw him lift his shirt to reveal the paperback he had tucked down the front of his pants. Edona glanced at it and smiled. He clandestinely tucked his shirt back into his pants to hide the book, then turned his attention to Leotrim, pretending to listen. It was at that moment that Edona noticed me watching her. She held my gaze for a moment. I felt flush, the back of my neck begin to sweat. I quickly looked away, embarrassed.
“No force, no torture, no intrigue can eradicate Marxism-Leninism from the minds and hearts of men,” Leotrim said, again quoting Hoxha.
I thought I heard a snort and immediately turned my gaze towards Bashkim and Edona. When I fixed my gaze on Edona, I saw that she was struggling not to burst into laughter. Bashkim reached for her hand in an attempt to prevent this from happening but she covered herself by breaking into a wide smile and taking Bashkim’s hand. I looked away, again feeling flush, tried my hardest to listen to Leotrim’s address but I could hardly hear a word he said. I kept seeing that image over and over in my mind — Edona’s slim, delicate fingers taking hold of that foolish bastard’s hand.
When Leotrim finished speaking, I immediately gathered my squad and marched them off to the work area.
I finished my lunch and left Kostandin and Kreshnik to themselves.
There was still a little time before we had to get back to work so I decided to take a walk and try to clear my mind. I took a moment to gaze out over the river, towards the mountains — the Bjeshkët e Nâmuna, or ‘accursed mountains’ — which extends to eastern Kosovo and Montenegro. According to local folklore, the nearby villages were founded by three brothers, Seli, Vuli, and Neli, in which the villages of Selca, Vukli, and Nicki were named. It is a very ancient place, where the Kelmendi, who are said to have descended from Illyrian tribes, have inhabited since the Bronze Age. Archeologists have found artifacts that prove as much. I was always proud of this heritage and I imagine the region didn’t look much different now as it had to them, except for some of the more modern homes and roads. The fresh air, the rugged landscape, the inviting river and vegetation, I never understood some my colleagues’ eagerness to move south to the capital. I sat down, stared out towards the river, allowed my mind to wander. Here, it seemed, that time had stood still.
Then, I heard a woman’s laughter. I waited a moment to try to discern the direction from which it came. There, on the other side of the downward slope toward the valley.
I crept toward the edge of the slope, doing my best to remain as quiet as possible. Again, a woman’s laughter, this time a playful giggle. When I reached the edge of the slope I saw Bashkim and Edona lying on the grass. Bashkim was laying on his back, his head resting on his clasped hands. Edona was practically on top of him, bestowing little kisses to his neck and lips. The paperback which Bashkim had hidden in his pants was lying open, face down on the grass.
I slipped behind the tree, tried to listen to them but I couldn’t hear them. I gradually inched my way closer, concealing myself within the bushes. They no longer spoke. Instead, Edona pressed her lips to Bashkim and he freed his hands in order to hug her close to him. I watched them kissing, touching one another, Bashkim’s hand slipping inside Edona’s uniform. When Edona’s hand slipped down the front of Bashkim’s pants, I ran off.
When I glance at the woman again, to my horror she stubs out her cigarette, stands up and starts walking towards me. She’s much thinner than she was, nearly emaciated. Her once slim and sexy figure is gone, nothing left under the loose fitting outfit which would have once hugged every contour of her body. Her hair is now peppered with grey, limp and much shorter than it once had been. The only thing that hadn’t changed were her eyes, still as hypnotic as they ever were, still a sign of life behind them. Again, I look away.
For the rest of the afternoon I remained quiet, retreated inside myself. I threw myself into the work and only spoke with my squad when I had to. I think they knew something was wrong, judging from the looks I was getting, but I did my best not to let on that anything was wrong.
I couldn’t get the image of Bashkim and Edona out of my mind and felt a chill run up my back whenever I pictured her soft, delicate hands reaching down the front of his pants. I have no idea what happened after I ran off, if anything, but when I saw them return to the work site with their clothing disheveled and Edona’s hair tied back into a ponytail, I knew what had taken place.
Later, when work was done for the day, I ran into Bashkim as I washed up and readied for dinner. He stood next to me, washing the dirt and grime from his hands, neck and face, but he didn’t say anything to me. He looked at me once, smiled, then went back to washing himself. Then he quietly walked away.
Seething with anger, I marched right over to Leotrim’s quarters, knocked on the door but there was no answer. I went straight to my barracks, lied down in my bed. I had lost my appetite.
She moves the vacant chair away, drops her pack of cigarettes on the table.
When I finally look up, she just stands there staring at me.
Without asking, she sits down. I can’t even look at her.
It was sometime in the middle of the night when I heard something outside my barracks. I sat up in bed, heard the muffled voices coming from just on the other side of the wall.
I went to the window, peered out. Just to the side of the window, I could see Bashkim’s arm, shoulder. There was no doubt who the girl was. I listened:
“Once we’re finished here and get back to Selca,” Bashkim whispered.
“I don’t know if I could wait that long,” Edona said.
“I know, I know, but we can’t focus on that right now. Once we’re in the university, then…”
“It seems like it’s taking forever.”
“Summer’s almost over.”
Then there was silence. I couldn’t see what was going on. I quietly crept out of the room. Once outside, I kept myself pressed against the wall of the barracks. When I peered around to where the window was, I saw Bashkim and Edona kissing, his hands roaming all over her backside. I felt flush and had to look away.
“I hate this,” Edona said.
“I know but we have to,” Bashkim replied. “Just a few more weeks, that’s all. It will all be over soon.”
He pressed her against the wall and kissed her again, more passionately this time. Edona undid her ponytail, her black hair spilling across her shoulders.
“Did you get a chance to look at the book?” Bashkim asked.
“I didn’t understand it,” Edona said, then in a low whisper, “Where did you get that?”
“Let’s just say a friend of mine got it for me. Where is it? You didn’t leave it lying around, did you?”
“I hid it under my mattress. The girls won’t look there.”
When I peered around the corner of the barracks, they were kissing again.
That damn book. Under her mattress…
“I thought it was you, Gjon,” she says.
I look into her eyes, hold her gaze for a moment. I can’t think of anything to say.
She manages a smile, though it isn’t exactly a friendly one. More sardonic. When she does the lines around her mouth etch deeper into her face. I try to smile but can’t. Instead, I gesture towards her pack of cigarettes. She nods. I light one.
She sits back, runs her slim fingers through her hair. It falls back across her face, the absence of its former luster more pronounced. She looks as if she had aged twenty years.
She glances out the window, stares at an old man and old woman holding each other in an embrace. The corners of her lips twitch, not quite a smirk, not quite a burgeoning smile. Just a movement. Unreadable.
I still don’t know what to say to her.
Edona kept the door unlocked. I opened it slowly, trying to keep the creaking of the hinges to a minimum. When I opened it enough to slip though, I waited a moment, looked around the barracks to see all the girls sound asleep.
There was only one empty bed.
I took off my shoes and left them by the door. I had to move quickly.
Once I reached Edona’s bed, I placed my hand under the mattress and felt around until my hand finally made contact with my target. The book was small enough to put into my back pocket. I did so without bothering to look at it.
I picked up my shoes and ran off towards my barracks.
I went into the bathroom and locked the door, removed the book from my pocket.
At first I just stared at it, unable to believe what I was seeing. How was it even possible?
I put the book back in my pocket.
Then I went to see Leotrim.
“Why, Gjon,” she says.
I couldn’t answer. I take a drag off my cigarette, fiddle with my coffee cup.
The noise within the café becomes far too loud, distracting all of a sudden: the television, the clinks of the spoons and forks against the cups and plates, the sobbing, the desperate groans of the bereaved.
I want to do nothing more than to jump up and run out of the café but I can’t move. I look into her eyes, remember.
At first I was the only one who noticed the black sedan. It crawled up the road, then turned off towards the worksite itself.
The two men who got out of the car were obviously Sigurimi. One could always spot them immediately but then again they made no secret that they were there keeping an eye on you. To the untrained eye they looked just like anyone else. It was the way they carried themselves that gave them away. They were both young men, in their thirties, and they had that look on their faces which said they were eager to do their job. I felt my stomach turn because I knew why they were there. I watched them go into Leotrim’s office.
Konstandin noticed them too, came over to me. “What’s going on?”
“I’m not sure,” I lied.
Konstandin looked around. “No one else saw them.”
“They will soon enough.”
“I better get back to work, then” he said. “I don’t want any trouble or give them any reason to notice me.”
He jaunted off back to the rest of the squad. I watched him. He didn’t say a word to anyone, went back to mixing the concrete.
I went back to the task at hand. It was only a matter of time.
I looked around the worksite and noticed both Bashkim and Edona weren’t around. I had an idea where they were. I dropped my spade and wandered off towards the river, to the slope where I had seen them the day before. Sure enough they were there, lying on the grass, kissing, touching. When I saw that — and the way Edona looked at Bashkim — all guilt was suddenly flushed away.
Just like that.
“You have nothing to say to me,” Edona says. “I don’t know why I’m not surprised at this.”
An old woman let out a mournful groan, beat her hands against her chest. I look at her, more as a way to avoid having to look at Edona.
“Look at me, Gjon.”
I do, reluctantly. Her eyes stare directly into mine. I’m hypnotized.
“I just want to understand why.”
I don’t know what to say to her, feel the tears welling up in my eyes again.
By the time I returned to the work site, Leotrim was standing in the doorway to his office. When he saw me, he waved me over. I immediately dropped the spade to the ground, wiped the wet concrete from my hands onto my shirt.
Leotrim didn’t say a word to me but I could tell from his expression that he was proud of what I had done. I stepped into his office to see the two men sitting in the chairs before Leotrim’s desk. Leotrim pulled up a chair for me.
“He’s the one who reported this to you?” one of the men asked.
Leotrim went behind his desk, removed the paperback from the drawer, handed it over to the man.
The man looked it over, using his thumb to flip through the already flaking pages, pieces of them falling like snowflakes on his trousers. “Not a good job at all,” he said, passing the book over to his partner. “Very cheaply done. Seems like we have an underground press in operation somewhere.” Then to me, “You said you found this under the girl’s mattress?”
I just nodded.
“And you said that it belongs to a comrade Bashkim?”
Again, I nodded.
“At least its in Albanian,” the man’s partner said. “Someone translated this. Took a lot of work.”
“Indeed,” the other man said, taking the book from him. He put the book down on Leotrim’s desk. The crude drawing of Jesus Christ staring up at me. “And a book by a Greek, no less,” he added.
I had no choice but to tell them everything I had seen — their trysts, the secret way they had spoken to one another, the clowning around, not taking the task seriously, and probably the worst offense, their mocking of the foremost leader’s words. This, coupled with the contraband book, meant only one thing.
“Are they out there now, on the work site?” Leotrim asked.
“No,” I said. “They’re off on one of their trysts. Near the river.”
Leotrim’s expression was serious. “Can you show us where?”
They followed me out and by then everyone saw them and knew what was going on. Everyone’s eyes were on us, including the girls. I led them to the top of the slope, pointed them out.
The man removed a camera from his pocket, began taking photographs of them in the throes of passion. I had to look away, more out of not being able to see Edona in such a position than anything else. After they had taken enough photographs, they turned away, started back towards Leotrim’s office.
I didn’t go back with them. I picked up the spade and began applying the cement to the bunker, getting ready to set the bricks into place.
Maybe a half hour went by, I’m not sure, but I looked up and saw both Bashkim and Edona coming up over the slope towards the worksite. They didn’t have time to be warned about what had been happening all morning.
Before they knew it, the Sigurimi appeared, took them away.
“Five years in Spaç,” Edona said. “That’s what they gave me. ‘Ideological crimes’. They only agreed to release me because I admitted that Bashkim had a library of forbidden books and that he had a contact who supplied them to him. I didn’t want to say anything, didn’t want to betray Bashkim but what choice did I have?”
“I thought it would be a reeducation camp,” I tell her, unable to look her in the eye because I knew it was a lie.
She sits back, crosses her arms in front of her. “Really, Gjon? Did you really not know what happens when they take you away?”
I don’t have an answer for her. I’d heard about what happened in the camps but I never believed it but over the past few years my colleagues had informed me about what went on there. I never wanted to believe that our foremost leader would ever treat his own children in such a manner. I’ve since learned that Spaç is one of the most notorious prisons in the country, built on the side of a mountain in the interior of the country. The working conditions there can only be described as medieval. The thought of Edona having been put through that…
“I’ve been under surveillance since they released me. They’re probably here right now watching us.”
I look around the café. Anyone there could have been the Sigurimi and if so, I knew now that I was on their radar for simply being seen with Edona.
“Yes,” Edona says. “That’s how it feels. I don’t care anymore. They’ve already ruined my life. What more can they do other than kill me. At this point, it might be preferable.”
I feel a sob get caught in my throat, my eyes fighting back the tears.
“I’ve been living hand to mouth, working at a factory making toys for children that no child even wants to play with. Any ideas I had about working at the university are over. I’ve been barred from an academic career as a condition of my release.”
She’s lucky that she’s even alive. Many who go off to Spaç never come out. The few fortunate ones that do, they’re lives are never the same. They are never the same.
Edona reaches for a cigarette. I light it for her. She inhales deeply, sits back in her chair as she exhales a large plume of smoke. She fixes her gaze on me, the corner of her fleshy, pale lips pulling to one side. “I just don’t care anymore,” she says, “and this is not a social visit. I want to know if you heard anything about Bashkim.”
My stomach turns.
“Don’t try to tell me that you don’t know,” she continues. “Men in your position know everything. The least you could do is be honest with me.”
Again, I feel a sob catching in my throat. She hates me. I can’t blame her for hating me. Had the situation been reversed, I would have hated her with every ounce of my being. I want to apologize but I can’t muster the courage.
There’s no telling what she had experienced in Spaç but I have a general idea. They sometimes worked the prisoners to death in the mines that were dug out of the mountainside. I don’t want to think about it. I keep picturing her as she was when she first stepped off the bus, how stunningly beautiful she once was. There is still beauty there, if you looked hard enough, but she’s clearly a shell of her former self.
“Bashkim, Gjon,” she says, staring into my eyes. “What happened to him?”
“He was sent to Qafë Bar,” I say.
Tears well up in her eyes, her lips quiver. “Is he…?”
I slowly nod.
Tears tumble from her eyes, down her wan cheeks, drip off her chin onto the table.
Last year there was a revolt at the prison. The organizers and many of the participants were executed. No one knows for sure how many were killed. No one knows what became of the bodies. Bashkim was one of them.
“I was holding out hope,” Edona says, crushing her cigarette out in the ashtray, “but I should have known better.”
“I’m sorry,” is all I can say.
She just looks at me, those hypnotic eyes staring into mine. She doesn’t say a word. There is no hatred in her eyes but there is sadness, a loss of hope. As I look at her, despite the wretched condition that she’s in, I still feel love for her. I begin to cry, reach out for her hand. She yanks it away. “I’m sorry,” I croak.
She stands up, picks up her pack of cigarettes and her lighter, looks down at me. When I look up at her, I can hardly keep my eyes open due to the tears, can hardly catch my breath to say anything. Without another word she walks away.
I follow her out of the café, begging, pleading with her for forgiveness but she ignores me, keeps walking. I stop, realize that I was not going to push my way through the crowd of mourners, watch her disappear into the sea of bodies along the avenue.