The disease. A disease that is not discussed, disclosed, or discovered on time, and when it is, it is too late. It appears without pain, it comes quietly and insidiously, but it destroys and sows misery twice as much as can be imagined; it comes from without, multiplied and mutated, and its aim is to combine its constituent parts into one – in the center of the body. It first attacks the toes and fingers, then the hair, which whitens before the eyes, enters through the mouth and nose, through the eyes and through any skin not covered with clothing and, very slowly, like a thief, starts to burrow into the body, and a person does not sense that anything is happening: in the blink of an eye – as the saying goes. Its numerous parts, as if bearing a message, meet in a person’s soul and become one; one that neither aches nor burns, nor does it move out of place, but the man who carries such a disease remains a victim for ever: cursed until the end.
It was a day for bathing and the parting of hair on the side, a day for changing clothes, for shaving, for counting up the toddlers, for inhaling incense, for holding teary eyes against those of the Holy Mother, a day for the chiming of bells, a day about the time when the photograph was invented in the wide world, a day when – thank you God for giving him that name – Trendafil ahead, his two children and one wife behind, marched off to be photographed for the first time in their lives, cheerful but still confused, calm but still weary.
They clung one to another – his wife and the small children – so as not to become lost in the city bustle nor lose sight of him, who rushed several steps before them, all dressed up in fresh village attire as if for a festival, making room with his elbows among the vendors, customers and loiterers, among djamalaries and janissaries, Arabs and chestnut-roasters, the hodjas and the imams, the thieves and the trouble-makers, and he had neither shame nor subtlety in his shoving.
By them passed the windows of the kodjabashi and the makers of sweets, the glitter of the goldsmiths’ golden teeth and the dark looks of the thieves hidden in even darker lanes; by them passed the stores with linen and silk, the courtyards for coffee and tea, and none of these places, no matter what, would stop, because Trendafil would not allow it.
He paced ahead like a madman, pushing and kicking, but attending to his coat – so that no one would crumple it – turning behind to see whether his family was following.
And they ran after him without breath and without words, though the eyes of the children and the eyes of the woman were stuck like dung to the windows of the clean, inviting stores, and if it were not for the photographic event awaiting them, perhaps one of them would have been lured by these attractions, would stop at one of the windows and shamelessly say, “I want this” or “I want that,” and then Trendo would have to loosen his pouch and produce some of the ducats and napoleons that he kept stashed away for special occasions since the day of his wedding.
The disease grabbed Trendafil when he and those following him stopped in front of a shop window with photographed faces turned in different directions, with colorful or touched-up cheeks, both women and men, both Turks and Arnauts, who had let their souls become forever imprisoned on small square plaques and so soullessly wandered somewhere in the wide world. A gentle pleasure mixed with fear descended upon the selfishly shriveled souls. Their blood boiled up from their feet toward their heads. As they stood in stunned excitement, their faces resembled pictures at which, it seemed, the pictures in the window looked. It appeared that every one was happy until the moment Trendo, who had already gathered courage and resolve, as head of the family, said:
“I’m going to buy an umbrella!”
Because it was a day for photography and kissing icons, everything, literally everything, could enter the plans in the woman’s and the children’s minds, everything, even the fact that eventually, after so many delays, persuasions and arguments, they all decided to have their photographs taken as mementos, and to have them hung on the wall as do the merchants in linen, silk, and coffee – but such a thing as a simple umbrella could not be imagined by anyone but Trendo, who saw it standing upright and proud in the very same corner of the window that displayed the photographs, and it, of course, was for sale.
Certainly, the woman, not believing what she heard, asked him to repeat himself, which he did, and she asked him again, and he answered again. He reminded her that it was never his intention to be photographed, that he had thought about buying an umbrella for a very long time, and the reason he did not say anything until now was because he did not want to implant a thought in his wife’s mind that might prevent his buying it.
Therefore, the first visible sign of the presence of the disease in him can be marked from the moment when, in front of the photographer’s window, he proclaimed that he wanted an umbrella and only an umbrella, like a small child, even though he was advanced in years. His small children also looked at him in puzzlement because of this new turn of events. Anyway, it became more than clear to his wife, especially after he most clearly told her, that he, Trendafil, wanted to become, if not a rich man, then at least a gentleman, and how else can one notice that virtue in him if he has no umbrella?
“Great, and with what money will you buy an umbrella? I hope umbrellas sprout out of your head!” she said, trying to salvage whatever she could out of the situation, and she continued by asking him if he thought that after buying the umbrella he would immediately be received among the rich, he, Trendafil the grave digger, he, Trendafil the gardener, he the plasterer and builder, he the garbage man and beast of burden, he the louse-ridden seller of hay.
“No, I’m going to buy an umbrella!” he said, his eyes sparkling as the eyes of the others darkened.
“And what about your vow from yesterday in which you said tomorrow, tomorrow we’ll go get photographed, as we cheerfully spread the table before you and rubbed your back out of joy?” she said again, even though her voice was drowned out by the alarmed screams of the children, who sensed a quarrel.
And then she added, as a final word, that the children needed to have shoes bought for them, that the kerosene and salt were almost gone, and…
None of this mattered as he yelled at the top of his lungs, and despite the great crowd of people coming and going, some of them turned to look as he barked, “I’ll buy an umbrella when I say I’m going to buy an umbrella!”
There was no further discussion. Trendafil’s eyes were no longer his, his pupils narrowed down to the well of his longing, at the bottom of which the disease thrived.
He took out his handkerchief and began to wipe the back of his boar-like neck. He turned left and then right to see whether anyone cared if he bought the umbrella from the very same place where one was bought by Trajko the dunce, or Mitre the gentleman, or Josef the priest, or Lady Magdalena for her son-in-law Milan, or even Tripun with the two daughters that he married off to merchants.
Trendafil was no longer the same man he was yesterday.
The disease had already spread through his whole body, it slyly arrived at his gall bladder and moved into his stomach, and because it found nothing of interest there, left everything intact and continued to search for a small corner of the body until it saw Trendafil’s soul shrunken in fear into the tissue of which, without delay or doubt, it dug its dark claws, showing it intended not to leave but to stay. The more it pressed into him, the less he recognized his own wife, her face contorted because of his stubbornness, or his own children, who started to scream as they saw and felt that something was amiss, or the passers-by who started to circle around the family.
In those moments Trendafil saw only himself, how with an umbrella in his hands he joined the other big shots of the neighborhood as they strolled together with him up and down the market place.
The disease was already governing the world.
He pushed his wife with all his might, saying “get lost,” and she, losing balance from the shove, fell over the two children, and the three fell onto the ground. Her words rang out in vain, “for my own sake and that of the children, don’t waste the money on nothing…” It was no use, so she tearfully gathered up her rags and her children and, leaving, yelled in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “What good will it do you, you black devil, Trendafil, an umbrella in a country where it never rains?”
Once he was alone in front of the window, he shooed the people off with curses, grave diggers’, plasterers’, and even those of the carriage-drivers,
then he pulled a small knotted handkerchief from his pocket, untied it, counted the money, and boldly stepped into the shop.
It was noon, more yellow than ever, when Trendafil, perhaps happier than ever, exited the photographer’s shop upright and proud in his peasant garb: with a fez on his head, bloomers which tapered into his upturned leather shoes, a white shirt fastened around his waist with a sash, a black felt vest. In his right hand he clutched a long black umbrella and glanced here and there among the suddenly stirring crowd. He took several steps down the street and stopped with his feet apart, leaning on the umbrella as if being photographed. And really, he did not remain unnoticed: he was greeted by Albanians, Turks, Arnauts, Egyptians, Arabs, Azerbaijanis, Kurdistanis, and who knows what else.
And what more can be said about Trendafil’s face: it was rounded and funny, lost in its own pleasure – he and his disease were happy.
But suddenly the people rushed headlong as they never did before, the women started to scream and the children to cry, the horses to run, the donkeys and mules to bray, the shops to close, and the quince trees to quiver. And unseen chaos rushed along the narrow lanes: it stampeded in its own flight like a river, like lava, like the end of the world. Tongues of fire were visible in the distance, shots were heard, and the sounds of people dying.
Yes, it was the day for bathing, for going to church, for buying Turkish delight and halva, for sipping coffee, for strolling and being photographed, and, well, even for buying umbrellas, but it was also a day for rebellions and unrest, for fire and brimstone, so Trendafil fell on the cobblestones with a blood-spattered shirt and vest, with his shoes torn off, his face frozen in smile, with the umbrella squeezed between his hands, trampled by the mad, panic-stricken crowd.
So he died, but the disease remained to rule the world.
From anthology of Macedonian short stories “Change of the System”, Skopje, 2001, MAGOR.
Translated by: Zoran Ančevski and Richard Gaughran