Blesok no. 22, August-September, 2001
The Lame Historian
He arrived sometime in the evening, when the first street lights came on in the city, and, with crutches under his arms, entered his small one-story house, not far from the two rows of poplars. He entered the room that he used both as a kitchen and a bedroom, his eyes fixed on the door. He immediately pulled the string on the pear-shaped night lamp soiled by flies, which immediately lit his entire face. Both eyebrows were not revealed at once, but one of them was sufficient to disclose all his bile. He tossed his hat (he had worn it summer and winter for the last ten years) carelessly on the couch, and he put on his thick-framed glasses, after cleaning them with a soft, thin piece of cloth. He eventually sat in the corner covered in dust from the couch, where he used to sit all the time--a place between the light-orange night lamp and the open drawer. Burdened with the many headaches that troubled him constantly, he turned his back to the window in spite. He sighed loudly through his nose as if to expel the rage from his chest, and with his enfeebled hand he removed a stack of papers from the drawer: documents, manuscripts, and other thick piles, pale from the hands of the sun. He scattered them on the carpet just as the light of the night lamp was scattered. He himself did not know why the hell he had so mercilessly strewn the papers that had consumed most of his life. It seems that he did it when the cigarette between his lips went out. Perhaps that is why both his heart and brain now started working together.
Suddenly, he placed his mangled fingers on the spilt papers with sharp angles. He turned them over and jumbled them up as though he were kneading the dough of his mind, then he poked his short pencil into one of the papers with bent ends, whose back had been stained by coffee long ago. He remembered immediately that it was on this very table that he had spilt coffee when his wife was collecting her clothes from the house, to move in with her parents, never to return. Although they were married five years, he never felt happy. They fought each other over nothing, they did not talk to each other over nothing, they threatened each other over nothing. When they argued they forgot why they poured out such anger, which had steamed between them with their spite, which grew like donkey hooves, why, why… Their life continued in this unacceptable way until that dismal afternoon the professor lost his left leg in a traffic accident. That same day she found out about her husband’s bad fortune she vanished without a trace, forever. She married a second man, but it seemed to her that there would be a third. She argued with each of them as she had with the first, and any who came afterwards were told about the value of the abandoned one.
This coffee stain reminded him of the day she first threw her shoes out onto the street, together with the clothes, then her husband as well, while his leg was still bleeding. It reminded him of the time she grabbed her bundle and, slamming the doors, disappeared like a storm along the road lined by the two rows of poplars. Now, after four years of utter loneliness and non-stop intellectual work in peace, he wanted to scratch around in this scribbling, like a mole picks over husks with its paws. Perhaps it is only to forget certain things, and to call up memories of the one who fled. He felt as if it were happening over again today, the cup filled with freshly ground coffee was spilt at the very moment, when she, out of rage and hatred for him, decided to burn his only white shirt. And with his shirt she also threw into the stove his notebook with his manuscript on ancient history, on which he had worked diligently for four years. In further vengeance she splashed his ink bottle against his forehead in an attempt to blind him. This happened as if today, in front of the same mirror, in the same room, among the walnut furniture.
Then his unfinished coffee cup spilled on his bleeding leg and on the front side of the paper. His coffee spilt out, but the anger remained in his heart. He clenched his jaws in pain as he plucked a hair from his mustache. That is all he remembered.
The professor focused a ray of light onto the manuscript--notes in two, even three colors on the crumpled documents, here, between the two pages of heavy cardboard the color of dried figs, where he kept her letters without any particular care, sent from time to time after their separation. He left the envelopes unopened after he received them from the postman. One boring night he read the last letter only, the one she had sent registered. He opened it in some kind of rage, when he received the two reviews from the publishing house, which rejected his manuscript, with a remark that both the facts and the process were wrong. He placed this letter, and the other unopened ones, under his head, quite crumpled. He placed them there to remind him of his former wife with her carelessness and psychological disorder. The professor at this moment of complete loneliness remembered the new line, which instead of starting with Beloved or Detested One, started with “Hey, you trained horse, you lame dog… if only your other leg were broken too, you stupid ass!”
Ashamed, he put his former wife’s open letter, a letter with much tastelessness, many threats and slanders, among the negative reviews of three double-spaced pages, sorry and feeling ridicule at the same time. Immediately afterwards he got up wanting to crumple them all together: the letters, manuscripts, and documents. He cursed his former wife, the publishers and their two reviewers, and threw everything at once into the fire. In the long tongues of the flames the daily newspaper filled with sad news also burned, a captive of the stove. Massacred children in Vietnam, the sale of some private villas on the Adriatic coast. In the room facing south only the window remained, and the light of the lamp, and the sorrow in his eyes.
There was complete silence. His coat hung on the rack, its sleeves hanging down, the collar torn, and two buttons missing: an old coat that barely reached his knees. Next to the coat, also in absolute silence, lay the Pelican fountain pen on a new manuscript on ancient history. The ink had dried, along with the type-400 flour bread, and the dish of beans, three days old.
The middle-aged professor lived one day at a time in this one-story house near the rows of poplars, because the house was scheduled to be demolished the next afternoon, to be replaced by a transformer for the new neighborhood. The next day at dawn, before the officials appeared in their cubicles, the professor was in front of the community affairs office, his hands in his pockets, his hat pulled down to his ears, and an unshaved beard.
“I came!” he proclaimed briefly, as if a historical figure.
The person in charge draw a long red line, made some calculations, finished with the row above the line, and when he looked at his watch and saw it was not yet time to accommodate the public, he crossed his arms. But seeing the professor’s persistence in breaking with custom, claiming that he was breaking the rules and official ethical norms, he rubbed the wrinkles on his forehead and addressed the professor.
“What do you want?” he asked curtly.
“A new two-bedroom apartment in exchange for my two-bedroom house on Poplar Street,” he answered as if from a rifle.
The man in charge lifted his eyes. He stared long at the professor, looking above his shoulders where a transparent layer of dust lay, as if he lived in a mill.
“What do you want?” he asked again to destroy his self-confidence.
“A two bedroom apartment, because today they're knocking down my house by the poplars,” he answered, pressing his manuscript under his arm and looking across the office at the new development where he hoped to have his apartment.
The official rubbed his gold tooth, tightened his tie, combed his black hair in front of a round mirror, and, after snorting as if he had horse flies in his nose, took the register of the citizenry from the shelf and with the tip of his pencil checked all the names that started with the letter Q. He bit his lips in a show of surprise, and after putting his pencil back in its place, he addressed the professor.
“I’m sorry, comrade, but according to us, here in our carefully maintained documents, you are deceased,” he said, and over his name and surname underlined in red, he added another line—signifying certainty of death.
The professor, as if hit by a bullet, took a step forward. He carefully looked at himself to see whether he was really alive, dusted off his shoulders, and spoke as if in front of a history class.
“Pharaohs, emperors, four social systems, and two world wars are deceased. But the history professor Qazim Qella is still alive. Indeed, he was mortally wounded by the reviewers' bullet, but he remained alive within the Trojan Horse.” When he remembered that he was not writing history at this point, but looking for a roof over his head, he mopped up the river of bitter sweat with his hat and took a deep breath, as if to remind the clerk that there was still life within his chest.
“We can’t meet the needs of the living, much less extend a hand of mercy to the dead,” the person in charge said, blood boiling in his head as he drew another red line of death under the name and surname, with the same pencil--as if he were making sure the professor was buried.
“When did I die, then?” he said, trying to come up with the name for a cannibal, as if in ancient history, because though he had a head like a drum, he still reserved some empty space in it for understanding. “I do consider myself dead in history, but not in life,” he added loudly, just to convince the respected gentleman that he had lived in just this way. He lived near the poplars with one leg, like a widower, beaten with worries. He had a disability pension and not a single person who loved him…
“What you claim is true. You really were born the year you say, but you died in nineteen sixty-five. You have been dead to this very day. During this time no changes were carried out. Also, during these years the municipality had no headaches with you,” the official said to convince the professor that he really had been buried four years ago.
“Between the dates your excellency has mentioned, professor Qazim Qella indeed tried to write ancient history. He did this in his house, among the two rows of poplars, in a room facing the sun, and not in a grave. History is not written in a grave as much as it is forgotten.” The professor provided this explanation with his bones trembling, because out of time, or before time, they had buried him.
“Can you show me part of this written history as proof that you are still alive?” the clerk asked, stretching out his mottled hand to take the text of the written history.
The professor kept quiet, but his eyes all at once filled with tears and his hair stood up under his hat. He shuddered in fear. He was afraid of the reviewers as if they were gravediggers. But he had nothing else now to prove that he was alive, that he had worked in his own house, that… he hoped to rewrite the rejected manuscript, to uncover new historical evidence, to sow the seeds of a new plant before the gates of life. Eh! A sigh formed deep in his chest, as if he were tearing facts from the dead flesh of history. The professor stood in the office on two petrified legs: one of them stuck in his shoe, the other of wood. He had nothing, absolutely nothing as proof of his own existence. He had no children; his wife had abandoned him; his friends had not visited since he decided to rewrite his ancient history, because he had no time for small talk; the neighbors had closed their shutters, because as a widower he had no place among their families. For a year he wrote regularly to his only brother, who had moved to Turkey, but after he received no answer, he crossed him off too. Only one student, after he had given him part of his pension, would deliver him bread, liver, fruit, a piece of cake. In this way he spent four years—quite dead to his town.
For a moment, it seemed to him that the whole office buzzed like a beehive. Three other clerks, after checking on the cause established for his actual death, were left speechless. Then, one of them, who appeared wisest, rose to his feet in attention as if taking an oath before his work gloves, thought for a while, and said: the professor’s death is not imaginary. I remember when his former wife came to us, her eyes flooded with tears, and publicly announced the death of her legal spouse, the result of a traffic accident. She received fifty thousand denars for funeral expenses. After that day she left the city, and the professor was never seen again. The signatures of his former wife and two witnesses assuredly testify to the fulfillment of all obligations towards the deceased. And we have fulfilled our obligation. Qazim Qella, a professor by profession, has been transferred to the death registry, and consequently all of his debts—two unpaid loans, some unpaid electric bills, have been declared null and void.
The professor lost his patience. He slapped his forehead and said: Listen, you blessed things! The dead Qazim Qella, the history professor, here I am in person, God damn you! I’m right here, alive, thank God, with two arms, one leg, here—he started thumping his chest.
“You need to verify that you are alive and are a professor by profession,” one of them said without lifting his head.
The professor was left with nothing to do but clutch his crutches under his arms and go back where he came from. When he got home, he saw clouds of dust rising above the roof of his house. The workers on the municipal project had begun the demolition a half hour earlier. He felt as if he had broken his other leg too, and he yelled as loud as he could: “I’m alive, alive, but I need to convince others that a living man lived in this house. Here, in a tiny two-bedroom house a professor has been giving life to ancient history for quite a while.”
“Ancient history needs nothing from a dead man, since it died a long time ago itself,” the clerk had said.
That night, on a bench of his former school, Qazim Qella sat down to write an affidavit testifying that he still lived, despite the fact that life took no account of him. He lived in hope, though life pointlessly took his leg, snatched away his wife, leveled his house, rejected his manuscript. Attempting to enter history, he had entered the grave. After he convinced himself with indisputable facts that he was really alive, he thought of something unusual. He leafed through the other manuscript and wrote in its margins: “Ancient history also requires no grave, but it requires a testimony—it is then that it lives its life, when people consider it dead.”
Translated by: Elizabeta Bakovska