When I returned to Resen I was no longer young, and the city had grown old as well. The door of the Tourist Hotel swung like an old man, loosely hanging on loose hinges. And everybody I met was older but still familiar. Only the mosques, still white, looked at me from the hillsides, and, higher on the hill, the church tower with a smile on its mouth.
Rako said to me, “You’re the first to get off that bus in a month.” The suitcase was pinching my hand and I went into the café to rest. I had been to many countries and my eyes had admired many wonders, but man is tied to his place, and one day everybody goes back to where he came from. I returned to Resen. Cara dyed her hair on Saturdays; Josif went to the newsstand in the morning and, sitting next to the salesperson, read all the newspapers that came to our town.
Our town was a box. I had a horse, a white one, and in the morning I rode into the gardens and mountains. The horse trotted along the fields, around the foliage and stones, green waters, a spring that it leapt over easily. When it got tired, I would let my horse take a breather, let it graze as I lay under the pear trees and took a nap.
One day Josif said to me, “What do you intend to do? Work or leave?”
He hated idleness. No matter how much he loved me, I was his only son, and he couldn’t stand watching me sit around. I kept quiet and looked over his head. Then I said, “And what will I get if I work? I don’t want to work.”
He kicked me out of the house. Along with the horse. Then I found an old carriage at the dump. I fixed it: it needed two wheels, and I stopped at the square–maybe somebody would get off the bus, a passenger from far away with huge suitcases too heavy to carry, and he would ask for a ride. I tossed hay in front of the horse, and I dozed while I sat on the front seat with the whip in my hands. I had found an old leather cape with a hood, and when it drizzled I didn’t move from my carriage; I just covered my head with the hood and watched my horse giving off steam in front of me, thumping with his hooves. There was no greater pleasure for me than those rainy afternoons, when there was nobody moving on the square or in the park, just us, the old carriage, the white horse, and I, sitting silently in the middle of waters that flowed around us and poured into the drains of the town’s sewage system. At those moments I was a happy man.
The horse sometimes snorted violently, like a giant. Then its body would shake, and the droplets fell from its hide. We had grown together, as if one creature, I, the horse, and the carriage. In the back, over the back seat, I raised the leather hood, but on summer evenings as the sun set I would let down the covering and then a sparrow would land on the back seat. When the whole town put out its lamps in the evening, I left our place in front of the Tourist Hotel, and in the morning the city sweepers cleaned up the mess we had left behind.
After nine months of futile waiting, a woman got off the bus. The conductor unloaded her large trunks, locked with heavy bolts, and closed the door. The woman looked at the empty square, at the roofs with broken tiles, at the street lights with broken bulbs. The woman had no age, just a leather jacket like my cape, shiny and new, and a small leather bag where she kept her keys. The porters ran off when they saw her trunks, they went into the bakery, and I saw them at the windows nibbling warm bread. Iko, an idiot who stuttered and whose hands and lower jaw trembled, approached her and reached out his hand. The woman had nothing in her little bag but her keys, and she turned away from him. In the park there was only a monument, the bust of a killed partisan, and near it a garbage can. The woman looked at me for a long time, at my carriage and my horse, and I was excited under my cape. I could barely keep my own jaw from trembling. The horse in front of me chomped its hay rhythmically. Then the woman came to me and pointed to her trunks. When I lifted them and put them on the back seat, I saw that they were light, as if there was nothing in them. They also smelled of old age and damp basements. The woman sat on the back seat, the carriage swayed, and she unbuttoned her jacket. I waited. There was a lot of dust in her hair and other traces of the kilometers she had traveled; her eyes were the color of northern seas, but I waited to hear her voice, because only the voice betrays the soul.
She had the voice of a newborn baby. Like someone who gives an unconditional order, knowing it will be obeyed, not because of the threat of stern punishment, but out of some deeper impulse.
“Take me to your place!” the woman said.
My whip on its own smacked the horse’s behind, and the animal bristled and flew along the cobblestones. I saw that at the door of the Tourist Hotel all the guests had come out to look at me.
I lived far away, on the hill planted with pine trees, at the old barracks. For a long time there had been no army in Resen. When I returned I had found many houses deserted, with couches and armchairs, family photographs on the walls, embroidered tapestries and sheets, with all the intimate things a human life might leave behind, but I wanted to live in the barracks. I was sentimental. The weapons and the past glory made me optimistic. When I would return at night with my carriage, I passed the long corridors alone with a candle, imagining that my army slept behind the many doors of the former bedrooms. And my horse was not alone in the big stable full of dividers and mangers. In the yard was a forgotten tank and three cannons, directed toward the town and the road, and I could feel like their protector without fear of contradiction from the decay and negligence.
The woman had a key for the barracks. She had a key for all the doors in Resen, and I was convinced that she had a key to my heart as well. And I was scared that she might wish to open my heart, because it was filled only with old inkwells, twisted nails, and metal cleats. The gate of the barracks had not been locked for a long time, nor did anybody in the town keep anything locked. Everything valuable was considered to have been taken away by the twentieth century, to the big cities and America.
“This is where I live,” I told the woman.
She didn’t look at me, she didn’t look at the barracks, nor at the mute city in front of us. It seemed that she knew us all very well.
I unloaded her trunks and took them into the mess hall, which was full of wooden tables and toppled chairs. I had not gone in there before, and I don’t know why I brought her there that night, maybe because she was a woman and I thought she belonged there. Next to the dining room was the kitchen.
She handed me the keys from her little bag, and she ordered me to open the trunks. One was full of small, cloth soldiers. Among them there were generals, officers, and horsemen, but most numerous were the infantrymen. The soldiers had windup keys on their backs, and I thought they must have been her son’s toys.
But she had no son.
The second case was full of townspeople. Among them I found myself; and Iko from the Tourist Hotel; and Raka, who didn’t know how to read but liked to watch foreign movies; and the painter Tashe Cheva, who went to Switzerland; and Simo Bunde, my friend from school who lived in Skopje and had three children; and the highway bandit who moved to Australia; and Verga’s Borche, who lived in Toronto, Canada; I also found my mother, with her funny dyed hair; and my father, with a wart on his forehead; and many others I knew, and some I didn’t know, some yet to be born.
I wanted to travel with those old trunks and the woman in the leather jacket in a big ship, to countries across the ocean, with noisy ports that awaited us with huge cranes and music. I wanted to disembark onto the quays of those ports with the woman on my arm, and the crane would transfer our trunks after us. I thought, if I crossed an ocean, I could forget everything. But the woman had the voice of a newborn baby, and she didn’t want to travel anywhere. As if she had said, I have traveled a lot, I want to rest a bit first.
Then the woman arranged the tables together in the dining room. She made a big square, as if for a wedding, and she started winding up the dolls. I started running toward the door, and there, on the threshold, I stumbled and fell. As I lay like that I remembered that life could be understood as a game, and that eventually everything is a continuum, that we are masters at one end, and toys at the other.
In the morning the reveille bugle sounded. A ruthless voice slammed the door, and I heard a familiar, stern voice over my head: “Wake up, comrades soldiers! A new day, new work to be done!”
At the window a nightingale sang.
Translated by: Elizabeta Bakovska