Blesok no. 15, June-July, 2000
Prose


The Drowned Man

Slavko Janevski


    Never before, in the long chain of their years, had the twelve elders sitting in front of their houses seen a drowned man floating in the calm waters of the lake, gliding to the shore, coming to rest on the wet sand, and as is the case with the dead, prone, motionless, barefoot.
    Probably because of the heat with which even June is generous, the arrival of the corpse caused no great stir in the fishing village. Most men and women were behind the walls of their houses. There were no children. However, in a little while, a few young men, fearing some misfortune—an investigation, a hearing, suspicion—gathered around the drowned man and realized immediately that he was not a local, not from their side of the lake. His clothes of thin white linen seemed too big for him. The drowned man had fragile bones and was not swollen or blue. He seemed to be asleep in the rain—about to wake up.
    With some concern that what he was doing was illegal, one of the fishermen knelt beside the corpse and removed some weed or grass from his face. From the incomplete frame of the gently curved eyebrows two eyes gazed at the fishermen. But what eyes! As if alive! Saved from the layers of murky slime the pupils shrank. The man kneeling by the corpse straightened up. He took a step back but said nothing. The others were also silent. As if they had always known what to do in such situations, as if rituals were a part of their lives, they raised the drowned man from the wet sand. They laid him gently in a wooden boat. Two of them, paler than before, rowed out to the middle of the lake. The watchers on the shore remained silent. They waited in a huddle, indistinguishable one from another, with set white faces.
    A hundred paces from the shore, the twelve elders with dignified apostolic faces sat in what shade there was in front of their houses. They brushed away the flies and inhaled the rosy scent of the oleanders. Suddenly they began to sing with the nightingale voices of angels.
    Before the sun spilt blood over the reedbeds, the boat returned with the two rowers from the burial. The drowned white-clad man had been entrusted to the water where, the fishermen believed, his soul would rest on the soft bottom.
    Just as a water bird was announcing the dawn from its altar in the reedbeds, the sound which ripens the figs, the twelve elders with apostolic faces left their houses and again saw yesterday's unwelcome visitor. On the shore, where the shells glistened in the night foam, lay the drowned man clothed in white linen. The sight was too much for their morning strength. Now they were shorter of breath than they had been the previous evening when they had sung with faith. They turned to the sun, to their god with a white fish in his mouth, and crossed themselves. “Our dead we respect. It is harder to be close to the dead of others,” they thought.
    Immediately after that, before kneading the dough with holy water, the women also noticed the drowned man, whose appearance had been kept a secret from them. But even without asking, they knew what had happened the previous day. Before the otters began to hunt the perch and bronze-scaled bream, the women had taken over the ritual begun by the men the day before.
    The shadows of the two poplars, between which lay the wooden fishing boats, began to dwindle and the cicadas announced the heat of the day. In one of the dry tops of the poplars a raven croaked clumsily and drowsily, like a deacon. And then the second part of the burial ritual began. The oldest of the women, a wrinkled saint, placed an earthenware pot and a lighted candle beside the head of the drowned man and tried without success to close his eyes with the palm of her hand. It did not discourage her. She slowly took from under her apron two metal coins, raised them to her lips, and then placed them on the eyes of the dead man. The other women stood around her, and she, harder than flint, told them that the young man had come to find a bride. If they returned him to the water motionless and barefoot, he would be found again on the shore the next day.
    A little further from the drowned man stood the old woman's daughter. Lame, although not ugly, asked how he had floated to their shore. They did not answer her. They removed their girdles of old coins and placed them around the neck of the drowned man. They hoped that their generosity would appease the lake. Under the weight of the girdles the dead man would stay under water.
    Loaded with old coins, the drowned man resembled an enormous white fish, but with flashing scales only on his chest, where fish do not have them. Without mourning, although that would have made a better end to the burial, the women raised the body and placed it in the nearest boat.
    This has never happened before. Spiders moved in opposite directions. Some headed for the warm water of the lake, others crossed the sand towards the houses of the fishermen. The eight-legged monsters, with protuberant eyes, entered the hearts of the elders. They sucked every drop from their hearts and the hearts of everybody else.
    This dream, or a similar one, sprouted in the breast of the night.

The Heart of the Matter

    Some hidden current in the water carried the drowned man to the opposite shore, where the people from the fishing village never set foot. The drowned man lay at a spot crossed by a hundred paths, and it seemed he did not know which one to take. He was the center of a clock which counted neither days nor nights. His time was not measured in hours: it was compressed into a single petrified moment the stillness of which took no heed of time: it did not even contain the word after: his eyes were open: two unripe cherries rested in them: on his chest lay girdles of silver coins and on his tongue an unspoken word.
    Between two hoots of an owl, a bird which pecks the seed of lightning from the clouds, water, his homeland, came for the drowned man, and embraced him with warm arms. It drew him and took him away. He gave himself up to the tamed waves and the weeds covered his youthful face which had never felt the imprint of a woman's lips… The current carried him from the southern shore where figs crack open, to the northern shore, to the fishing village. The moon hung above the smokeless roofs like a silver medal on a ribbon. A transparent cloud came near; had it arms it would have peeled the moon like an orange.
    The night prepared to disperse its eternal herd of shadows. Soon the day would release from its bosom twelve swarms of bees. They would scatter the sun's pollen to the four points of the compass. It was the 22nd of June, the midpoint between one equinox and another, as the elders calculated.

An Epilogue with a Reason

    It happened. This is what and how…
    The prints of bare feet descended the ridge where under the snow lay the remnants of a nomad's sheepfold. With his thumb in his mouth (he thought better that way) the forester was faced with a puzzle: if the unknown person's behaviour or intentions (it could not have been the devil) were illegal, then who was it and why was he barefoot? Sucking his thumb brought him no answer. Weighing up the distance with his eyes, the forester decided to follow the footprints. The unknown person had gone to the left, then to the right, and then, in a curve, returned to his original direction.
    The crystalline bells of the snow chimed softly in celebration. The forester did not hear them. Nor did he taste the warmth of the breeze which greeted him from the south, from the cradle of spring.
    The footprints, deeper now and already filling with water, ended at the sharp edge between snow and earth, between day and night. On one side there was winter and a clear sunny sky, on the other a warm summer night.
    With a cold light at his back and his eyes probing the dark blueness, overwhelmed with the sense that he was dreaming for the first time in his life, the forester kept on and arrived at two poplars beside the lake-shore where wooden boats were beached. The prints of bare feet, curiously visible even at night, disappeared, or maybe reached their destination in the water. It was a time when nothing stirs and nothing is heard, and the man who had come out of the snow and the day sat exhausted on the sand. From there he could watch the lake and, at the same time, keep one eye on the village, a hundred paces from the shore.
    Crouched in the shadow of the two poplars, two widows of night with sighing roots, he saw what happened an hour later, half a year later, a century later.
    From a small, one-dimensional house a shadow emerged and limped towards the lake. It had to be either a woman or a girl. Noiselessly, she reached the shore and stood motionless, her face turned towards the smooth surface of the water, which reflected neither life nor the death which the forester had never considered. Then the surface of the water was broken by something from an immeasurable depth, something which could be both a large dead fish and a man dressed in white. The shadow which had gone down to the shore stepped into the water. Without hesitation, in the trance of a sleepwalker, it moved further. The dark torso neared the large fish or the man in white. Soon there was nothing in the water. The actors of this unnatural scene sank into the colourless depths like two insects disappearing into the heart of a giant flower.
    On his feet now, the forester stood helplessly, unable to find a logical explanation for what had happened before his very eyes. He did not know where to go, how to return to the mountain, to the ridge, to the snowy plateau. He began to look for an exit from an unfamiliar world. He breathed heavily, painfully. Around him there was more darkness than air. By instinct he followed footprints. Not of bare feet. His own. His strength ebbing, he emerged into the day and the snow. He sighed out the night. His breath formed a depressing indigo cloud, which, floating away, took with it all his memories of the night.

Translated by: Zoran Ančevski




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