Authors: Ismail Kadare
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
The governor cursed himself for not having taken the initiative in encouraging Dull Baxhaja to learn some English. Added to his other skills, he would certainly have made a better job of it. Had he not managed to learn a bit of Latin in double-quick time when he'd had to spy on the Bishop of ShkodÃ©r's conversations with local priests? And on top of that, hadn't he learned to speak Romany almost fluently in order to help track down a horse that had been stolen from the king's stables?
Well, he sighed, to comfort himself, how can you know where the next foreigner is going to come from? You may get geared up for an Englishman, but how do you know it won't be a Turkish tourist or a Japanese visitor or God knows what else who turns up next on your doorstep? It really was a devilishly tricky business.
His eyes wandered back to Dull's report. The conclusion was a real masterpiece, and the governor was sorry not to be able to quote it verbatim in his letter to the minister. “Look, he's bringing up the English issue again, damn him,” the governor exclaimed. What if he concluded his report without explicitly raising the language question again but referring nonetheless to the awkwardness of “deaf” surveillance, in other words of relying solely on the visual observation of suspects? That would provide the opportunity for transcribing every word of Dull's philosophical reflections on the relationship between the eye and the ear in the trade or craft of surveillance.
The governor reread his informer's paragraphs before putting pen to paper. Masterful! he thought, in utter amazement at the skill of the phrasing. It's Shakespeare and Dante rolled into one! For as the governor will know.” Dull had written, spying is above all an art of the ear. The support of the eye is only a secondary, not to say superfluous, issue. Besides, all the great spies had poor eyesight, not to mention those who were quite simply blind.
"What a capital fellow!” the governor mumbled. "No two ways about it, he's the devil himself."Â And so he began to copy out what Dull had written.
HERE AM I? HE WONDERED
. How did I get here? Clumps of hair brushed against his chin, then on his nose, and as he opened his eyes with a start, he nearly screamed in terror, thinking he saw the long russet fur of his childhood teddy bear or toy fox nearly burying his face. But he quickly got a grip on himself and pushed back the blanket that had worked its way over his head in the night.
Day was breaking. The dawn's gray light trickled in through the half-open shutter of one of the room's narrow windows. The misted pane gave an even more ashen hue to the light. Bill turned toward Max's bed and saw that his friend was still asleep.
The Buffalo â¦, he mused. So here they were on a gray winter's morning in this legendary inn, where you went to bed under those thick, long-haired blankets that are indigenous to the Balkans. Their adventure had truly begun. There was no turning back now, even if they had wanted to give up. Brrr! It was freezing! But the low temperature was bracing and filled him with joy. Getting out of bed slowly and carefully so as to make as little noise as possible, he stepped daintily across the creaking and groaning boards to the window. His eyes rested on a low sky that seemed to have had its heart torn out by some unknown cataclysm.
The smell of roasted coffee wafted up from below. It must be time to get up, he thought, and he dressed and descended to the ground floor.
“Good mornings sir,” said the innkeeper, who loomed suddenly before him. “Did you sleep well?”
“Good morningâ¦. Yes, very well, thank you."
Bill noticed on his right a door that opened onto a ground-floor room piled high with bunks, crammed side by side. Most of them were empty, but in two or three of them you could make out shapes wrapped in heavy blankets.
“The main quarters,” the innkeeper explained. “That is the way in all the inns in this region. All of them have large common sleeping quarters, and one or two private rooms for special visitors, such as yourselves. You see, folks are very poor in these parts.”
A few minutes later, he was walking along the road that wound its way across the plain. The bushes by the wayside were laced with frost. A hedgerow or two, no doubt planted so as to mark off the land that belonged to the inn, passed to his rear as he walked, leaving him completely alone and undisturbed. “What peace!” Bill muttered. That was an understatement. It was no ordinary peacefulness. A thrush's song underlined the otherwise total silence. But the high-pitched screech was not prompted solely by his footfalls. It seemed more like the sign of some unseen agitation, as if, for some reason, dream beings had decided to disport themselves on this very plain.
Bill felt an unaccustomed eagerness and energy welling up inside him. All of a sudden, at this early-morning hour, everything seemed possible. He felt he was strong enough to tackle the problems of the universe to alter the length of the day, to change the seasons rhythm indeed to correct the rotation of the earth on its axis. As for Homeric poetry, he would solve that puzzle easy as pie.
He did not know how long he had been walking along in such a mood. Turning around, he saw the inn in the far distance. Max must be up he thought.
By the time Bill got back Max was indeed downstairs, drinking coffee with the innkeeper.
After eating breakfast, the two men went out together and took the same road Bill had walked on earlier. It was still as peaceful but Bill noticed that the inner joy that he had felt had faded. The edges of the plain were blanketed in fog. Now and again a few black birds would swoop out from the mist as from another worlds coast low over the plain, and then vanish into thin air like ghosts. Two or three times they thought they could make out the peaks of BjeshkÃ©t e Nemuna, the Accursed Mountains, through the fog.
They had talked of them so often in New York and throughout their journey that they were now dying of impatience to see them. Their original plan had involved starting their research with a trek up into the mountains, but when they learned that winters there were really hard,, that the cols were almost impassable and that living conditions on the heights were extremely rough, they thought better of it. All the people they had managed to contact who knew anything about northern Albania persuaded them that they would stand a much better chance of meeting rhapsodes at a place where several roads met, such as the Buffalo Inn, than in any of the few hamlets they might encounter on a trek through the mountains.
The previous evenings the innkeeper had assured them that
players did stop over at his inn at least twice in every month. In the old days it was different, he had said with a sigh; we had singers here almost every night. But it seemed that those days were gone forever. Anyway, they should not worry: they would definitely meet some rhapsodes.
Despite being determined to keep their secret to the last, they had realized that they could not avoid confiding in the innkeeper. So without more ado, they had tried to explain it all to him as clearly as they could.
“I understand what you are saying, gentlemen." He nodded, moving his head in the same way as he did when ordering coffee from the kitchen. “I understand you perfectly. It's as if my inn had been built with your work in mind. Especially for listening twice to the same rhapsode. A rhapsode who spends a night here will come back a week later, at the most two weeks later, on his way home from a wedding, or a funeral, or from a murder he has gone to commit. For there is no other way back to the Rrafsh, there's no other road. Unless you have wings. But in winter even the birds can't fly over the Accursed Mountains.”
The innkeeper had just one reservation: would the
rhapsodes agree to sing in front of the machine? He had told the visitors how a
player always performs with a degree of ceremony and ritual, and only when there is a good-size audience. But they should not worry even on that score. On winter nights his inn often had a real party atmosphere. He would do all he could to make sure they were not disappointed. He would light the fire in the great hearth in the common quarters and ply the rhapsode with raki; and as for the recording machine, well, let's see what happens. They might decide to explain what it was to the
players, or else play a simple trick, like covering it with a sheepskin. But anyway, they were not to worry, it would turn out all right.
Bill and Max thought back to all these confident assurances as they strode across the plain. They really could not have hoped to fall in with an innkeeper better suited to help them in their work. He was a keen follower of the rhapsodes, he knew the epic singers ways like the back of his hand, he knew their weak spots and their itineraries. He was a living encyclopedia of bard lore. And what's more, he talked about it with passionate admiration. He would mention the seasonal variations in the frequency of the rhapsodes visits as if he were speaking about migrating birds. Even the vocabulary he used to talk of the singers was delicate, full of affectionate suffixes spoken so softly as to make you sigh. They really had had a stroke of luck in coming across an innkeeper like that.
As they chatted, they looked upward from time to time in the hope of making out the peaks of Bjeshket e Nemuna on the far horizon, but the vast flat plain was still surrounded by fog. All the same, you could sense the bulk of the great plateau that began over there, not so far away, really. They were in the heart of the epic zone whose magnetism had attracted them from across the ocean. The Homeric puzzle they were trying to solve must be blanketed in the same thick fog. But Bill's feelings having changed from an hour before, he no longer thought that he and Max could succeed. They were so small and powerless, maybe they were condemned to wander forever on the edge of the ghostly realm, never able to enter it. He could hardly suppress a deep sigh.
“Look over there!” Max shouted suddenly. “Are those men, or am I having visions?”
“You're asking me? You know very well that.”
Max cupped his hand on his brow. “They're men, all right." he confirmed. “Couldn't be more normal, and yet, I don't know, I had an odd feeling."
Bill figured he wouldn't see anything whatsoever emerge from the pea soup on the plain. But the black dots that had crossed the line between the two realms were indeed coming closer. Their alarm made the two friends realize why they had doubted whether they would ever find any human beings, let alone singers of epics as in ancient times, in these bleak uplands. Even if any were left, they must surely be half frozen already, at death's door, and likely to disappear before another winter or two had passed. That is why the two of them had had to hurry, to get there before it was too late, so as to grab the key to the mystery from the rhapsodes last gasp.
Neither had confided his doubts to the other, so as not to depress themselves further at the hardest times, when obstacles had seemed to be in league with each other to prevent their journey to Albania. But they had got over their gloomy patches and now as if to reward them for their perseverance it seemed the mountains were presenting them with living beings, who were walking toward them. They kept quiet until the men were very close. It was their first encounter with highlanders from the true epic zone. Their dress was identical to the descriptions they had read in ancient epic poetry, and they almost shouted with astonishment: How is it that they have not changed a thing in a thousand years? Their black cloaks had shoulder pads decorated with truncated or atrophied winglets that made you shiver. Looking on these highlanders you were looking at the boundary between men and gods' the watershed' the point of contact or of separation depending on how you wanted to see it. Epic poetry spoke of them; there was even an old Albanian word to describe them,
, or "god-man," presumably without equivalent in any language except ancient Greek. The black cloak fell over long, narrow trousers the color of milk, with a dotted black zigzag line down the side, roughly the shape of the symbol for high-voltage electricity. Max and Bill had never seen a costume like it: as if the robes of a medieval monk had been combined with the tunic a ballet dancer might wear to represent Evil onstage. The Irishmen thought they could see something Illyrian about the highlanders dress, as well as a touch of Balkan gloom, alongside something else, reminiscent of Scottish highland attire or of the denizens of those high glacial plateaus that remain unmapped by men.
“Woodcutters,” Max whispered, when he noticed that the highlanders carried ax blades on their backs.
They definitely were woodcutters, and the Irishmen were all the more sure of it because they knew that Albanians never use sharp weapons to settle scores: their rules of conduct allow that only the bullet be used for dispatching enemies. Yes, definitely woodcutters, Bill repeated to himself. All the same, those blades looked as if they could easily have been stained with the dried blood of very ancient crimes.
The highlanders drew near. Some of their features called to mind the silhouettes that you find on classical vases. But the way the men walked was not quite like a normal marching stride, for their gait had been formed and modeled by the
“Hail!” said the first highlander.
The greeting took the scholars aback, and at first they gaped in silence. Bill then managed to utter a composite version of “good morning” and m
. As for Max, he just made a gesture of greeting.
After a while the Irishmen turned around and realized that they had gone so far from the inn as to have lost it from view. On their way back, they made firm resolutions to get down to work without delay â the next day at the latest, and even sooner, if a bard should come by that evening.
All was quiet at the Buffalo Inn. They went up to their room and opened their trunks to fish out more file cards and maps. The only wall spaces left for their notes and maps were 0ver the fireplace and between the two windows (though the latter space was not really big enough).