The arrival of “The Balkans” cinema in Bobovo was greeted by everyone as a great event. The children took baths as early as dawn, the donkeys were penned so as not to bray during the climax, and the yard and streets around the house of culture “Ano Balabanov” were sprinkled with spring water. Almost a whole hour before the beginning of the show the people gathered quietly in the yard in front of the building, carrying all kinds of chairs, benches and cushions. The hall where the film was shown was vacant, which was why everyone had to bring something upon which to sit during the screening. As soon as they entered, those with small chairs sat in front, while the others, according to height, arranged themselves from the stage to the entrance, and often even beyond the door, to the porch. From there one could see only a piece of the screen, but even that was enough to get the message.
The films that came to Bobovo most often were very old, abridged, scorched and melted, and the captions, during almost the entire show, walked across the screen and across the wall, and the people had to search for the words even on the ceiling. Before midnight they all silently returned home, but the chairs banged for a long time into the night against the fences, the dark gates and the lanes. The people returned to reality, though even in darkness, many of them, lying on their backs, turned their heads searching for the captions that ran across the walls.
Those were the so-called usual features. However, there were also special features. Once a month “The Balkans” cinema came unannounced, exclusively because of the effort and wish of Nono Besonov, the old projectionist and drunkard. He arrived at dawn, and as soon as he did so, chocked the wheels of his jeep with stones and immediately hung upon it a cardboard sign saying: “The Balkans – For Children.” In other words, it meant that the film was exclusively for children, only children. Later I learned that he did it only so that he could drink freely and fling the bottles around the hall. He could even sleep if he wanted to. He could also mix up the reels if he wanted to. The children always had fun, even when instead of a film they saw only their own hands and ears on the screen.
The special features started in the afternoon and ended some time before dark. There were films that were shown to us many times, but there were also films that seemed new to us only because Nono Besonov projected them from end to beginning, or upside down. Anyway, he never looked to see what was spinning on the machine. For two hours, with crooked necks we watched as people walked on the ceiling and listened as Nono howled, sprawling across empty bottles of brandy. Most often he was so drunk that he didn’t know the wall from the screen. Those features were the most interesting for me. In them the heroes retreated, and the cowering faces of the victims relaxed, reversing fear. Only when the hero sat and the victim entered some hole would Nono quickly change the reels, and everything would be as in normal films. At the same time he would clap his hands in the darkness and yell loudly for us not to be afraid of the shooting. “All films with shooting are made by the victorious! Everything will turn out O.K.!” he said, a small bottle dangling from his mouth like a pipe.
The films in which everything was scrambled and turned upside down, so that they resembled nothing like reality, I always retold to my grandfather, who immediately invented stories about Bobovo and burst out laughing. Removing his dentures he would say that life is much nicer if run through the machine of Nono Besonov. Nothing in it should be taken as real, but yet it is life. “Imagine,” Grandpa would say, “imagine if our history were put into the hands of Nono Besonov! Ah! How beautiful and funny it would be!” he said, perched on the fig tree, picking figs for the black jam that he made once a year for us and guests. He yearned to invent such a machine in which he could put the entire Balkans and then sit in the dark, and enjoy watching the confused armies and commands go astray across the hills. For grandfather all wars were silly.
The children themselves sometimes entered the films of Nono Besonov – some from one and some from the other side of the screen. While he slept they ran through the darkness, swallowing the dust that throbbed, narrowing like a funnel from the screen to the wall, to the hole of the black machine from which it sprang. Through a funnel of colored light many hands flew, trying to catch the rabbits, the cats, the warriors, the monkeys and the horses that ran across the walls. Meanwhile the children yelled loudly and the pictures spoke as if alive.
The youngest tilted and stretched their skinny necks to follow the film that walked across all the walls and along the ceiling while Nono Besonov slept, leaning on the machine that hummed and tumbled all the dust in the hall. Nothing bothered them. The children enjoyed the fact that in the films that Nono brought to Bobovo just for them the dead would suddenly arise. There were as many killings as you like, but none of them were final. That is why death was funny and constantly repeated. Perhaps to make life interesting.
Although Nono Besonov, holding the bottle in his mouth like a pipe, said that everything we saw had been drawn, we, of course, did not believe him. “Who can draw something that is alive?” we said to him and laughed. He also laughed, clanking his teeth against the bottle.
In the darkness, while a wild party continued on the wall, Elena and I sat on a bench that grandfather had inherited from his grandfather from the time of the Young Turks’ Revolution. On the right side of the plank was a false map of some buried treasure. She sat right on that map, watching the film, suffering from a girl’s first love sickness. She thought of Boris who, for almost a whole year, did not come to Bobovo, even for the weekends. She loved him so much that she often admitted to me in all honesty that she would die if Boris ever stopped loving her. In the darkness, as if by chance, I touched her moist palm and she trembled, shaking as if touched by an unknown film hero. I wanted to embrace her in order to comfort her, but she had grown too tall for me. My arm reached half way up her neck. She moved aside and continued to tremble while watching the film. She knew that in these films of Nono Besonov no one ever died for good, but yet she was afraid for anyone for whom death lay in wait.
– If only I could revive all the dead whom I have loved…, she whispered.
– It can happen! I said.
– If only everything could go backwards and start from the beginning, she said.
– It can happen! But would I still be sitting here with you? I said.
– Look, justice never prevents tragedy. Justice always comes too late, she whispered.
– Tomorrow I’ll revive Grandpa, I said.
– How? Will you erase death as if it’s one of these drawings? She asked.
– You’ll see. Death can also be erased, the same as it erases life, I finished, just as the film finished, even though Nono Besonov still struggled to fix the blinking rectangle glued to the ceiling. Who knows how he rewound the film on the machine after we left. In the alley between the street lined with lindens and the street of horse chestnuts, a woman’s long head of hair, like a ghost, fell before us from the darkness of the ageless trees. The hair fell right in front of Elena, and she clutched me and screamed. I dropped the bench with the map. It banged onto the cobblestones, bouncing several times like a frog.
– Don’t be afraid, birdies, I am aunt Esena Varvarska! Don’t you know me by my smell? I washed my hair with lemon juice and violets. Can’t you smell? She said, gathering up her hair from the cobblestones. I had to find you. Your mother is dead! She said, grasping Elena’s hand. Elena withdrew it in fear, screaming and sprawling onto the ground. Ten horse chestnuts fell upon us.
– Wait! Esena Varvarska called out.
– Witch! Elena screamed, crawling along the alley.
– Why didn’t she tell you? Said Esena panting behind us like a dog. She should’ve told you.
– Tell her what? I said, bouncing the bench once more upon the stones.
– Tell her that Aleksandar Belibikov is her father! Said Esena. That Boris is her brother! She said. And Boris will find out. One day he will receive my letter with a red seal, Esena said, disappearing into the shadow of the church.
That night we unsuccessfully tried to extract Elena’s mother from the crook in the horse chestnut. In the morning she slid out herself. We merely raised her to the table and dressed her in her nicest dress, one that had not yet been chewed by the mice. When I went to call the young priest Elena tore up the dress. In the afternoon her mother Maria was buried in the grey raincoat of her deceased husband. A few days later Elena hanged herself from the acacia in the Belibikovs’ yard. She clenched in her mouth a letter with a red seal. She did not wait for me to tell her that death can be erased, just as it erases life. She decided to leave me alone to revive Grandpa and to swim across the dark river alone.
From “Change of the System – Anthology of Macedonian Contemporary Short Stories”, Skopje, 2000, MAGOR.
Translated by: Zoran Ančevski and Richard Gaughran