Returning from Cappadocia,1F the bus stopped at Avanos.2F All the tourists got off and began crawling around the city. The day was warm and clear, with an abundance of sun and purple light. The houses lined the steep slope of the hill and looked like one big well-lit shop window. In front of the houses and along the winding lanes were displayed varieties of colourfully painted pottery, jugs, mugs, plates, pitchers, coffee cups, vases, vessels for oil, for wine, for grain, as well as spouted pots of copper. There were other pots too, of unknown purpose. They were well fired, richly braided and ornamented in eastern style. Obviously, all the inhabitants of Avanos were great potters. Almost the entire city was covered in pots. Human voices arose, echoed, and vibrated from the pots like bees hovering above a hive.
Gjuvezia Dubrovska and Sija Hadzibanova were dazzled. They looked everywhere but didn’t know where their eyes should rest first. Their eyes skimmed over the glazed pots and were blinded by the glare of the sun. They liked everything but they couldn’t buy everything.
They stopped before a pottery shop and the potter invited them in. The girls trembled at his invitation. They were seized by a strange chill coming out of the opened door. The pottery shop was actually a deep cave that had been expanded by masons on several occasions. However, they trembled not only because of the cold, but also out of fear. They sensed that something was about to happen to them, that something would catch them unawares. The potter disappeared into the shop, reemerging with a tray of two earthen cups full of cold wine. The cups had golden rims that melded with the wine.
– Come in, said the potter, his mouth full of throaty tenderness.
The girls raised their eyebrows wondering what to do. They hesitated. But the potter steadily held the tray before them. A light smell of vineyards, oak barrels and musky wine cellars rose into the air. The girls looked at each other, questioning only with their eyes. From this they gathered courage: in one motion they reached for the cups and lifted them. Their lips touched the golden rims and they sipped from the wine. Its smoothness rippled their throats, first upward, then downward. They sipped again and felt it blissfully spread through their veins. It opened their eyes, enlarged their pupils. They then raised the cups twice more and drained the wine. The potter collected the cups and withdrew into the workroom. Without hesitating, Gjuvezija Dubrovska and Sija Hadzibanova followed him. Encouraged by the wine, they merely smiled and stepped in. Now nothing could stop them. Their faces flushed as though a nettle had brushed their cheeks.
They entered with the smile they had before, but the cold emanating from the walls of the cave stiffened their lips. It also drained the blood from their cheeks. They felt like they were in a deep grave illuminated only by the stingy light coming from outside and from a single naked light bulb inside. Above them hung stone arches that seemed about to crack and crumble any moment. In the workroom were lumps of kneaded clay and several upright potter’s wheels for shaping the pots. But the wheels were unused, as if no one had touched them for years. And there wasn’t a single potter in front of them. Only God knows where they had gone. The floor was swept clean. From the uneven walls there hung unfinished pots and some reliefs of awed human faces. The potter walked along the narrow corridors that linked the adjoining low-ceilinged side-chambers, constantly explaining something. His words gushed, running one before another like a torrent of water. The girls followed him without hearing a thing. To be exact, they could hear him talking but his words told them nothing. The wine warmed their breasts, but they felt the cold from without. As if a drizzle had soaked through their clothes and tingled them with cold. And they were dressed lightly, only in summer dresses. They wore open sandals on their feet, without socks. And so they felt chills throughout their bodies. They felt hairs stiffen on their bodies, growing where they had not appeared before. Especially when they saw the numerous locks of women’s hair hanging like drying heads of rye. One might think that they grew from the walls, winding through its cracks. The girls stopped, glancing quickly from the locks of hair to the potter and back again. They looked like fledgling birds trapped in a cage, raising their wings, clawing at the bars, turning their heads without knowing what was happening. Then the potter took a pair of scissors and, breathing heavily, asked them:
– Do you want to be eternal?
It was only then, as he uttered these words, that they felt the heaviness of his breath. The raspiness came from deep within his lungs. It was fearsome to listen to the cracking and whistling that stormed through his lungs and his throat. The girls were puzzled both by his question and by his breathing. Sija Hadzibanova was the first to come to her senses. She looked at her feet as if to check that they were still there and then fled quickly. She darted out between the potter and Gjuvezija Dubrovska. And Gjuvezija Dubrovska remained, dreamily looking at the potter. She couldn’t understand how in an instant her head rested in his hands. She heard the click of the scissors and saw how a lock of her bountiful hair alighted from her head and flew like a summer cloud before her eyes. The potter tied the hair on one end and stuck it in a lump of wet clay. He planted it into the clay. Then he asked for her name and family name, for the date of her birth, for her birthplace… Gjuvezija Dubrovska answered obediently without one sign of protest. Actually, she did not know what she was doing.
On her way out a wave of warm air blasted her and shook her bones like an earthquake. She almost fell, almost fainted. When she recovered, she saw Sija Hadzibanova. She sat on a stone, hunched and weary. Her jaw quivered, her lips trembled, muttering a faint prayer.
– What’s the matter with you, asked Gjuvezija Dubrovska.
– I’m scared, said Sija Hadzibanova.
Gjuvezija Dubrovska reached for her hand and tried to lift her up. The palm was sweaty and wet. It felt like holding mud and silt.
– What’s the matter with you, repeated Gjuvezija Dubrovska, you are soaking wet.
– I’m scared, repeated Sija Hadzibanova. You scare me too, she said, almost out of her mind. Her whole body was quivering like a feather.
– Calm down, said Gjuvezija Dubrovska, the fear’s only in your mind.
– What did the potter do to you, asked Sija Hadzibanova.
– Nothing, said Gjuvezija, he only cut a bit of my hair.
– Maybe that’s why I’m scared, said Sija Hadzibanova.
– But he cut my hair, said Gjuvezija Dubrovska.
– That’s why I’m scared of you, said Sija Hadzibanova.
– Look, started Gjuvezija Dubrovska, but stopped short. Actually she didn’t want to hear what she would say. The fear of Sija Hadzibanova started to invade Gjuvezija Dubrovska. It gnawed at her like a pox, like a horsefly. Suddenly she felt deceived and robbed. Although she knew that hairs are often cut and even shaved, she understood it as if a part of her head had been taken. And she began to feel her head and search for the scar that the potter had made.
When she returned, she believed that she left more than just a lock of hair in Avanos, and that she had come home completely empty. She soon felt something whirring through her head. Something like a wind blowing through the dry leaves of a forest. My goodness, she said, it’s not lice crawling on my head. Maybe it was from the dirty hand of the potter, she thought, or maybe it was from his scissors. And she started to scratch above the forehead, behind her ears, along the back of her head. Under her nails dead skin clumped, but she felt no itch. As if she were scratching the head of another. But when she looked at her hands, she couldn’t believe her eyes: clumps of hair were tangled around her fingers, as if from a sharp comb, a rake. And then she felt on fire, seized by flames. She shouted:
– Mother, come and see!
– To see what, asked her mother.
– I have something in my hair…
– Don’t be silly, said her mother.
– It’s true, said Gjuvezija Dubrovska, I can hear a sound. A snail grazing, a caterpillar crawling. And my head is whirring, she said.
– Your head is whirring, said her mother.
– Look, said Gjuvezija Dubrovska, stretching out her hands.
– What made you pluck your hair, you wretch?
– Something else is plucking it, said Gjuvezija Dubrovska.
– I don’t see anything, said her mother.
– And I don’t see anything, said Gjuvezija Dubrovska, but I hear it. Some disease has invaded my head and I can hear the trembling of the hairs.
– It’ll pass, said her mother, there’s no muddy water that does not clear up.
– This isn’t passing away, said Gjuvezija Dubrovska, I’m afraid to touch my head. My hair falls off at every touch, it drops like a falling dew, she said.
– How long has this been?
– I don’t know, said Gjuvezija Dubrovska, since yesterday or the day before. Maybe it started in Avanos when a potter cut off a lock of my hair. And since then something keeps whispering: when do you want to die and how long do you want it to take? And where do you want to spend your life after death? And I know that a person dies all his life. As soon as one is born one begins to die, said Gjuvezija Dubrovska.
Her mother stood above her and listened speechlessly. She thought her daughter had a high fever and was raving in delirium. She hid this thought but only asked:
– Who fooled you into leaving your hair behind?
– The potter, said Gjuvezija Dubrovska. He said: here you will remain eternal, always alive. Even after a hundred or a thousand years. This lock of hair will justify you and always be witness to your youth. It will never go gray or old.
– God forbid, said her mother. You let her see the world, and she comes back without her head. How could you let yourself be shorn like a sheep, you wretch, yelled her mother, biting her lip and then reproaching herself for what she had said. She didn’t know how she could have let such words pass her mouth, words of curse and bad omen. She had never yelled like this before. She felt sorry and started crying. I should be crying for you, mother, said Gjuvezija Dubrovska, who stood up and embraced her. And then, embracing, they cried together.
Time passed slowly and heavily for Gjuvezija Dubrovska. The days went by in suffering, the nights in fits of insomnia. And when she did fall asleep, she would have eerie dreams. Her head was constantly in the hands of the potter. He kneaded it like clay, he placed it on the wheel and shaped it into various forms. It was horrible to see how he moved her mouth onto her forehead, her eyes onto the back of her head, and her ears under her chin. And how, then, with a swift move of his thumb, he would put them back in place. Then he would put her head into the kiln and bake it together with the other pots. And when she felt the heat, she would awaken in a cold sweat. She told the nightmare to her mother, who didn’t know what to do. She sought help from God, took her to the clinics. The dermatologists were surprised and puzzled: everyone had a different diagnosis and prescribed different medicines. The roots of the hair need to be awakened, they said, the soil needs nourishment. As if they were talking about melons or a vegetable garden. They removed fat from her diet and introduced vitamins and minerals. And then she swallowed everything they gave her and rubbed on everything they prescribed. There was no improvement. The rust in her hair remained: it gnawed, plucked and worked without rest. Time went by very fast. And finally the doctors gave up. They said: some insidious disease is eating the roots of her hair. Some unknown parasite, some bug, a fungus, whatever…
– And the solution? Her mother asked with tightness in her throat and bitterness in her mouth.
– Every disease is a natural condition, they told her, and one does not die from every disease.
Gjuvezija Dubrovska began thinking that everyone was ridiculing her for her misfortune. There were days when she didn’t want to talk to anyone. She only stood with teary eyes looking into an unknown distance. But most often she kept her head on her lap. In the moments of deepest depression she didn’t talk even to her mother. But her mother never left her alone. And honestly, she had no one to leave her to. Her father had passed away right after she was born and she never knew him. But her mother clung to hope. She always believed that there was hope, but it was necessary to find its address. Only those who have little faith are hopeless, she said. And then she took her to healers, witch doctors, herbalists. They blew, and spit, and whispered above her head, trying to unravel the spell. But their remedies were of no use. Help usually comes late, thought her mother, but to wait for it is a waste. And she never stopped to wait. She started rubbing on wine vinegar. She had heard that Jesus Christ, when crucified, asked for vinegar. Just to moisten his lips. And his disciples, or his angels, brought it to him in secret, to bring him back to life. Gjuvezija Dubrovska said:
– I saw his suffering, but he doesn’t want to see mine.
– He sees everything, her mother said, but he chooses to see what is most urgent. There are greater misfortunes to be seen on this earth, she said.
Gjuvezija Dubrovska’s head stank of vinegar for days on end. But her hair kept falling. Sometimes she was seized by rage, and sometimes she fell into despair. Sija Hadzibanova visited her at times, but stopped. She didn’t know how to console her. Or maybe she was afraid of the incurable disease. Gjuvezija thought that people were disgusted with her. She said: how little beauty there is in life, and how much pain. Only when people need you, she said, only then do they remember you. She felt weak and helpless, forsaken and forgotten by everyone. Her mother tried to encourage her with carefully chosen words. There are worse things on earth, she said, but not all of them end badly. God is great and merciful, and good follows every evil, she said, and continued to rub her with other ointments. She rubbed her with camomile tea and cattle dung. Gjuvezija’s head stank of droppings and she thought she had been dumped in some village dunghill. She was disgusted with herself, but she never opposed her mother. And her mother was restless: she always changed the remedies. She started to apply compresses soaked in mashed nettles and birch bark, wrapping them around her head like diapers on a baby.
– No, mother, said Gjuvezija Dubrovska, my hair will never come back.
– Never say “never”, retorted her mother.
But Gjuvezija Dubrovska’s head grew balder, more hairless every day. One could take count of the hairs, which stood like blades of singed grass. One could pass a hand among them without touching them. She started to fear looking at her image in the mirror. She actually saw what she was most afraid of. Her eyebrows started to fall off, then her eyelashes, and finally all the hair on her head. She saw only the bald skin bruised with unpleasant redness and scabs. Then her mother said:
– You will go back and take your lock of hair from the potter. The spell must be in it, she said.
– How am I to go like this, said Gjuvezija Dubrovska, everyone will avoid me. It’s enough to see me and run away, she said.
– Wear a scarf, said her mother, it’s a custom there for the women to cover their faces.
– They also wear a third eye embroidered on the back of their shirts, said Gjuvezija Dubrovska. To see in front and behind, she said, to ward off the evil eye.
One year later, almost to the day, Gjuvezija Dubrovska returned to Avanos. The bus made a very short stop. She got off and vanished into a large cloud of exhaust and hot dust that trailed the bus. When the dust settled she noticed that she was the only person who had gotten off. She squinted her eyes in disbelief. Little did she know that she would find the city in front of her completely empty. Lacking were the crowds of people selling or buying as well as the piles of pottery in which all languages of the world mingled. She stood alone on the road like a blinded owl. Dust nibbled at her eyes and sand scraped in her mouth. Her shadow had escaped from under her feet and she couldn’t see it anywhere. There was bright sunlight everywhere, but it didn’t explain anything. The sun was hung high in the sky, as if it had always been there, as if it had never moved from there. It was some other sun, much bigger than ours. Bigger, at least, than the sun Gjuvezija Dubrovska knew. Good Lord, she said, have the people fled before me, or have I entered a deserted city? But the road sign could not have been lying to her: it still bore the name Avanos. With a confused expression she walked aimlessly along the empty and winding lanes. Then she noticed that all the gates and windows of the houses were closed. Not a living soul appeared, not a single breath of life. Not a single dog to bark, nor cat to scurry. A heavy silence pervaded everything, producing a sickness of the soul. Time, as everything else, was stopped, nothing was moving. Even her breath stopped, tying itself in a knot. She ascended to the potters’ shops, but their shutters were drawn. Good Lord, she repeated, could the whole town really have moved? While wandering around she had a feeling that someone was following closely behind her heels. At times she could even hear the footsteps. But when she would turn, there was no one. I must be hearing my own footsteps, thought Gjuvezija Dubrovska. In such silence one can hear anything. Even the beating of your heart can sound strange, even your breathing…
She mustered courage to knock at a gate, but no one answered. Then she stood before another gate wondering whether to knock. When she was about to do so, she felt as if somebody were watching her from above. She glanced from the corner of her eyes. But when she raised them towards the window, there was nothing. Only the wing of one window was ajar. It was the only open window in town. At least it seemed so to her.
She swerved toward a lawn among the houses and began to shout: Hey! Is there not a living soul, is there not a living soul? She yelled at the top of her voice, but no one replied. Only the echo of her throaty voice returned from the steep and winding lanes. She cried: is there not a living soul, and only the last word came back to her. The other words stayed trapped within the blind walls of the town. She didn’t know what else to do. She was seized by panic and started to run down towards the bus station on the road. She believed that some bus would pass and take her away from there. She knew that everything in the town was mysterious and threatening, and the only reasonable thing to do was to flee. But while running down the street, again she felt someone running behind her. The footsteps she heard remained at the same distance. It dawned on her that her flight must be caused by a pursuer. And she kept running, panting, not knowing how to restore her torn soul. Sweat trickled down her sleeves and loins. Her scarf was drenched and her eyes filled with salty drops. The salt gnawed even deeper at her pain. It burned and pinched her entire head.
When she arrived at the bus station on the road, a long time passed without her turning around to see who was behind her. Standing like that she merely asked:
– Excuse me, is this Avanos?
– “Avanos”, she recognized her own voice. When she turned, she was terrified: ten steps away she saw herself. Gjuvezija Dubrovska stood before Gjuvezija Dubrovska. They looked into each others eyes without saying anything. The one nothing to ask, the other nothing to answer. Was it so because they were different? Because the Gjuvezija before her still had bountiful hair and wore no scarf. She had the same summer dress and the same open sandals on bare feet. She even had the same smile on her face that blushed from the wine of the potter. The only thing missing to repeat the scene was the presence of Sija Hadzibanova. So Gjuvezija Dubrovska beheld herself from the year before. Truly, she saw herself as if through a cracked or steamy mirror, but she thought it was a result of the heat. At first she felt joy at not being alone in the town, but then she noticed that the elongated shadow of the other stretched as far as herself. Whereas Gjuvezija Dubrovska had no shadow. Ever since she returned to the town, she had never seen it. Despite the strong sun her shadow did not appear. Could it be that all she had and was, had been taken by this one from Avanos? A person without a shadow is a dead person, Gjuvezija Dubrovska told herself, realizing that one of them was one too many. And suddenly she began to feel faint, too heavy, her body failing, out of control. Her head began to spin, her legs to grow limp, her whole body to become numb. She melted in the heat, shrinking like a candle. And the one before her began to fill her entire vision, growing, extending almost to the sky. Standing like that, dizzy, she felt stronger than ever how unbearable life is when one leaves it. And before she vanished altogether, with her last crumb of consciousness she realized that the eternity that the potter promised her was something that passed from one place to another. Moreover, she understood that she had come there to die before her own eyes, to witness her own death. But she also saw where her life remained.
And then the sparrows flew low, like stones tumbling down the road. Who knows from where they came or why they were here, to the place where the ember of Gjuvezija Dubrovska’s life faded to ash.
Translated by: Zoran Ančevski and Richard Gaughran, from the “Change of the System: Stories of Contemporary Macedonia,” Skopje, 2000, MAGOR.
1. Cappadocia is famous for the churches and dwellings of the early Christians.
2. A city in Anatolia, central Turkey.