For Sara and her family.
‘Next.’ Thump. Thump. Thump.
The terminal was silent save for the rhythmical beat of the immigration officer’s chops. Thump. Thump. Thump– a foreshadow of the mechanical chickens strewn on street vendors’ carpets across the city, their drumstick wielding wings ironically beating a hollow tattoo on a plastic drum; an echo of the monotonal stare of the street vendor, an old man in a faded leather jacket sitting on a dusty rug, restlessly motionless as I walked past him in my desperate search for a café.
I was pacing the streets because I happened to have a few hours on my hands, as the museum I was supposed to be visiting had a ‘special exhibition’.
You might wonder why a special exhibition might cut short my visit. Well, said exhibition consisted of two things— the sword and helmet of Skanderbeg, glittering in a glass case in a dimly lit room, surrounded by a guard of honour. A shuffling line slowly moved forwards as people stood in front of the glinting hilt of the cruel sword and the eerie goat’s head on the helmet, imagining images of slaughter and flowing blood, aided by the tapestries on both sides depicting glory from a bygone era and the scarlet stained uniform and flags in the room.
These were the remnants of a unifying force against foreign ambitions. A force so important that they thought it necessary to close off the rest of the museum for the exhibition, which was why I was pacing the streets. One can only stare at two things for so long. On the streets, I passed sign after sign– Café Firenze. American Boutique. Paris. The Stars and Stripes hung side by side with black eagles bathed in scarlet, fluttering from windows and flag posts. The décor of every shop was a blueprint of whatever western city its sign had. In the drive to imitate, the imitation became more original than the original.
I continued pacing the streets- I’m very indecisive when it comes to picking a café. You might say that I’m indecisive about most things in life. I’d say I’m indecisive about things that ‘don’t really matter’. I’m like the picky girl with a limited budget. One café might be too conventional, the other trying too hard to be alternative (bicycle wheels and old violins hanging from the ceiling set off alarm bells in my head), another too expensive. It wasn’t long before I called my friend for help.
She recommended a certain café with an entrance in an alleyway. This could only be a good sign, I thought. And it was there where I met the woman who could not love animals.
I walked into the café. Although dimly lit, the fuzzy warmth of the orange light was a gentle gust of warm wind that expelled the chill. I was looking for an empty seat when a woman came up to me, calling my name. She was a friend of my friend and guessed that I was the ‘guest’ my friend was talking about. She had a mystical look; her hair was tied up into a bun, her long skirt trailing around her short yet sturdy frame. She had thick eyebrows with two dark whirlpools for eyes, offset by the glistening scarlet lipstick on her thick lips. She gestured at me to sit down, and I sank into a dull brown sofa.
‘How do you like it here?’ I said I really liked it. ‘What do you think about our country?’ I hesitated— I never know how to reply to that kind of question without sounding clichéd. An ‘Oh it’s beautiful’ would sound too conventional. So I said I wanted to know more about the place.
‘This is a very strange land… some of us live lives that only exist in your imagination.’ Her voice was low and firm, her English tinged with traces of the mountain air. ‘Our lives are lessons…’ and she went on to tell a tale of the mountains. A tale of a little girl who lived with her uncle who was a butcher. He kept many animals, cows and pigs mainly, and she would play with them. But soon, she realised that they never stayed. They would go into a shed in her garden with her uncle and never come back out. The cries from the shed seemed almost peaceful to her; she never gave it more thought, and her uncle never talked to her about it. She soon learned to accept the passing and goings of the cows and pigs, always grateful for their presence, but never becoming attached to them.
Instead, she directed her affection towards a stray cat that would come round every day. She would try to approach it with a small piece of fish, slowly edging towards it, and it would always linger just out of her reach; they would circle each other for hours, dancing a tentative tango. Usually she would give up and just throw it the piece of fish, but one day, the cat allowed her to stroke it. A month later, it would come into her living room and curl up in her lap, its feline heat the warmest feeling she would ever experience in her life.
One day, she followed it to the shed. She stayed outside, overwhelmed by the stench. She heard her uncle inside, heard his angry voice shout ‘So it was YOU who’s been stealing the fodder!’, heard its cries, no longer peaceful. She didn’t talk to anyone for a month.
‘And thus the mountains taught me a lesson.’
I was silent. Thankfully the waiter came with our coffees. A layer of quivering white foam floated above the black liquid, like the snow tipped mountains towering around me, both of them grounding the souls of their people.
‘Look around you…. This is a place where the kanun laws are still followed in some areas of the mountains, where blood feuds go on until there isn’t a male member left to kill or to be killed…’
Her scarlet lipstick glistened, and I looked out of the window. The shadows of ivory white minarets and crosses merged to cover the city like an exotic carpet. I could feel her clairvoyant eyes scanning me, and maybe then she already knew that her words would echo in my mind as I sat on a bus two day later on my way out of the city, looking at flocks of dark chickens with blood red crowns being herded along by stooping figures wielding thin sticks; staring in shock as one of them strayed away from the pack and onto the road; shuddering as the bus hit it with a resounding
Thump. ‘Next’. There was crying in the line beside me. A child ran after her mother, who was being led away by uniformed men. In his tantrum, he threw his toy car to the ground, which skidded forwards across the border. ‘Next’. My turn. I stumbled forwards— oblivious, as the sound of the boy’s car faded away.
The Blobbing Fish.