From the feast of the Holy Healers to that of the Holy Cross, that is, from mid-July to late-September, the soul of Nikola Mihail was expiring, and before each sunset he proclaimed, “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!”
That autumn afternoon Nikola raised his head from the bed several times, looking into the yard as if expecting someone to pass through the backyard wall. When the last red trace of the sun grew gray, he stood up from the bed and sat on the stool beside the two-winged window.
– It’s time for their evening prayers, said the old man.
After almost three months of lying in bed he dressed himself and went into the kitchen. His son Boshko was sitting in front of the television watching some war movie. His daughter-in-law was sewing something under the lamp. The heavy smell of the boiling stew nauseated him, but the children’s diapers, hanging around the wood stove, filled him with peace and tranquility.
– You’re up, huh? his son sighed.
– I’ve decided to break open the gate.
His daughter-in-law cut off her breath and turned her eyes toward her father-in-law. His son nervously produced a cigarette from the box, spun it in his fingers, licked it, and took a deep draw in order to light it through the door of the stove.
– When? the son asked.
– Now, the old man replied.
– Did you decide now, or you’re going to break it open now?
– You are going to do it!
– Whoever walled it up, he should…
– You shut up! Boshko interrupted his wife.
* * *
The following morning, before sunrise, Nikola and his son Boshko stood by the wall, marking off with scratches the place where the gate once was, which, for a hundred years connected the houses of Grandfather Mihail and Grandfather Sabit. For one of the families it provided an easy route to the mosque, for the other easy access to the gardens in Cair and to the cemetery.
When the son climbed up the ladder and knocked loose the first brick with a hammer, the old man sighed deeply.
– You know, Nikola said, when Grandfather Mihail died he was carried out to the cemetery through this gate by a bunch of drunk people. They tripped, and together with the coffin, tumbled into the yard of Grandfather Sabit. Those who were in front were all bloodied and bruised, and Grandfather was lying on top of them. We ran to help them up and to return the deceased to the coffin, but then Grandfather Mihail stood up and looked around him angrily. When the drunks saw him, they ran wind sprints across the yard of Grandfather Sabit. After that day Grandfather lived another ten years and the gate became known by the Turks throughout Gazi Baba as “Cennet Kapicik,” the Gate to Heaven. But after you were born, your mother, you know, as I’ve told you before…
– I know, I know, others have told me too, his son confirmed, handing his father a second brick.
– Before the flood, continued the father.
– I know everything that happened! his son cut in nervously.
– Before the flood, in Skopje, the old market crafts started to die out. For days on end no one passed over the thresholds of the stores. We decided to close ours, and I looked for a state job. I still can’t forget the taste of pickled peppers, four days a week we ate them stuffed with rice, and three days stuffed with beans. In those days Grandfather Sabit, whose trade was to make wooden sandals, spread the word that Grandfather Mihail made the most beautiful wooden sandals of all, and then the business started to take off like crazy. It went so well that we didn’t know what to do with all the money. It thrived for us, but for Grandfather Sabit it withered. Your Grandfather Mihail immediately started sharing work with Grandfather Sabit, but your mother intervened. She often ran back to her family, and before she would return she insisted that the gate be walled up.
– The times are bad again, nothing works, the son said, handing his father another brick.
– Such is the market. Every ten years things flip around, sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad, but we’ve always had enough for our humble life. You should trust that in this world all people are happy and that it will always be that way if we just pray to God in the morning and before bed. But we blocked their way to the mosque and they’ve had to go around the upper street to get there to pray.
Nikola brushed his hands on his shirt and ran both palms down from his wrinkled forehead to his beard. He raised his head to the sky, where he saw Grandfather Sabit opening the gate and heading for morning prayer before sunrise, knocking at the window and calling for his neighbor Mihail, and they floated off together, one to the mosque and the other to the market to open his store.
– We must hurry, it’s dawn already, the old man said urgently.
– There’s time, the son replied.
– For Easter, continued Nikola, we took the first dyed eggs through this gate to the house of Grandfather Sabit, and for Biram we were the first to enjoy their baklava. Eh! There was nothing lacking whenever either house awaited guests. Hell, we would go without food ourselves, as long as we had enough for guests.
– I don’t want to dispute what you’re saying, but times have changed. Everyone cares only for himself. No one cares about anybody else, his son murmured.
– Do you know why work in the market isn’t good?
– I know what you’ll say. Without a guild there’s no market.
– Trust is gone, and you care only about business, son. You just buy and sell.
– It’s safer and cheaper that way.
– But you’ve neglected the craft.
– What else can we do?
– What else? You should start creating something, not just grabbing the phone and saying “give me this, give me that.” Your Grandfather Mihail and Grandfather Sabit, whenever things didn’t work out were…
– I know, I know!
– If you know, why don’t you start doing something genuine? You and Grandfather Sabit’s grandsons have wives of gold, and you’ll see that God can help you. Neighbors are given by God, son.
Boshko stood gazing at the other side of wall, as if some miracle had occurred. He waved with his hand, as though beckoning his father up the ladder to take a look, but at the same time it became clear to him that the old man could not do it and that the ladder could not hold them both.
– What is it? Climb down so I can come up!
His son waved him away.
– I can do it, I’m telling you. Climb down!
– Nikola ascended the ladder, quivering like a slender drumstick tapping on a drum. When his dry hands reached the place from where the bricks had been removed, he took one more step and clutched at air; the ladder sunk into the wall, causing him to flap his arms as if flying across Cennet Kapicik. Before he found himself on the grass among the fallen bricks in Grandfather Sabit’s yard he felt that the light within him would never be darkness.
He saw that Cennet Kapicik, behind the thick wall, had never been removed.
– You should be at prayer by now, Nikola said to Grandfather Sabit’s grandson, who, kneeling beside him, watched the sun rise through the opened Cennet Kapicik.
Translated by: Zoran Ančevski and Richard Gaughran, from the Change of the System: Stories of Contemporary Macedonia, Skopje, 2000, MAGOR.