Blesok no. 36, May-June, 2004
Prose


Roads

Vase Mančev


    The famous historian V.M., an eminent expert on the person and time of Alexander III of Macedon, in his last work surprised the Macedonian scientific community and the curious public. That is, he did not publish a scientific study with new facts and information, but a novel entitled “The Death of Alexander”! In a way the book was unusual also because it started with death, which was a new and significant creative ploy, not just in Macedonian literary-artistic practice. It was not a facile reversal of the natural order of the things, for the impression only, but a narrative feat in reverse, ending in the birth. It was accomplished with great artistic talent, skillfully adapted to a temperate scientist’s special way of thinking, one who discovered final knowledge about maybe the most vain, persistent effort of man.
    However, despite the pleasure of having finished the book, V.M. felt empty and exhausted, a man who had nothing more to say about Alexander or himself, like a traveler, who, after many years of effort, suspense, searches, and insomnia, reaches his goal and realizes it is his creative end, that there is nowhere else to go. After reading many books (everything with genuine scientific value that had been written and published in the world concerning Alexander), and after many trips to anywhere the greatest of the great lived, waged war, or just set foot (as one who jealously protects even the most incidental testimonies of him), one blue summer morning, after he had read a flattering critique of his novel in the most respectable newspaper, V.M. finished his coffee, and, as if in a trance, suddenly and without preparation, began another journey, unusual, among other things, because he could not see its urgency, and it was not, as the others, planned. V.M. knew only that he was travelling to his birth place, to his childhood and his own beginnings, and that—ha! ha!—reversed the trip of the dead Alexander from the place of his death to his eternal home, described in the novel.
    He drove slowly, because the road had seen a lot of changes over the years, and it looked like new, at times very unfamiliar. Although he had passed over it many times, had seen all the villages and read their names, now he observed them with surprise and wonder, as if discovering them for the first time. True, in his previous travels he was involved in thoughts about his book, with the questions that occupied his scientific curiosity and need to research, and he paid only cursory attention to the beautiful vistas along the road, if he noticed them at all. It was always some other road that was incomparably more important and more interesting, the one of his scientific passion, the one through ancient Macedonian history, time, and awareness. That was understandable for a man who had dedicated all his life’s strength to another reality, which demands exceptional effort, will, persistence, and complete dedication, so that all can be mastered, advancing scientific explanation. And now that that was over, not that he was the absolute master of the scientific truth he had pursued exhaustingly for years, now that he was the emperor of the enormous work of general value to civilization, now that he had achieved the gleaming goal of his life, he could dedicate himself to reality and try to enjoy its beauty.
    He came late in the afternoon to his native village, and it took a long time before the place sparked his memories. When he stood before his yard and looked at the house in which he was born, he chillingly realized that his travels would not end at his native threshold and home. Now other people lived there; that house and that threshold were home for other children. A pair of mute eyes looked at him, and he felt emptiness, above which the world trembled on a thin membrane. He stood for a while, swaying above that emptiness, and he heard the bleating of a thousand sheep, followed by as many lambs. They left the yard, stampeded passed him, and disappeared into some wide space that could not be compared to a field, to a desert, or to a sea. He also heard among the sheep the bleating of anxious goats, wildly running, stumbling, and falling. They approached him and passed with fearsome thuds, trampling the lambs bogged down in mud and manure. And only at the end did he hear human voices, threatening calls, deadly screams, wailing and prayers, calls of mothers and children, oaths, curses, and messages. Then the noise calmed down, and a deep, endless, dream-like silence prevailed.
    Times and worlds seemed mixed up to him. The old was stronger than the new, and past reality clearer than the current one; that of yesterday almost could not be seen. He could not remember whether the roof of his house had two or four gables, whether the chimney was on the left side or the right, or whether the windows had one or two shutters. His ability to remember had been lost in the colonnades, columns, shields, beams, and stairs of the Pella palace. He could not see himself running in the yard as a child, eating, learning to fence, shoot, fight, and think. The faces of his mother and father disappeared as if through magic, replaced by the faces of Olympia and Philip, whose eyes spoke to him about the soul, and he read their minds from their expressions. The moments of holiday joy, when he probably ran in the yard with a sweet cookie in his little hand, or when he rushed to his first class in school with the smell of lye on his laundered clothes, or the festive parties at the end of the school year—all were burned up in the glitter of the lavish dinners before embarking on conquests and after triumphantly returning from them, or those for the birthdays of Alexander. V.M. stood in front of his yard, seeing himself as an unreal person, powerless to ascertain whether what he saw, thought, or felt was his or somebody else’s. And the darkness thickened quickly, but and he remained on the path, uninvited to his own house, unable to spend the night with his own spirit.
    He spent the night in the car, with feelings he deduced as sad, and with thoughts that ended in query and wonder. He woke up the moment the sun peeked over the edge of the mountain, and it looked like a sparkling star that approached and grew. He got out of his car and was immediately filled with a completely new, but not unknown feeling: that he had something in common with the sun, that he saw with it. He looked for water so he could wash. But the village well at the nearby crossroad had dried up. His eyes drifted to the fields and stopped at a low tree with a thick top, looking like the head of an emperor beyond time and world. Behind the tree, in the soft haze of many small reflections, he saw young alfalfa in the morning dew, washed in pearly droplets.
    From the deep dust on the road he concluded that it had not rained for a long time, that life itself suffered from the drought. And indeed, when he went to the alfalfa and plunged his hands into the dewy leaves and thick but soft stems, with the ashes of premature old age, it seemed that the dew was thick and sticky, that those were breaths of water that the roots inhaled at night, as if mourning their premature death. He rubbed his face with his wet palms, but he did not feel refreshed, he did not restore his healthy appearance and clarity of vision.
    The field spread in front of him, flat as a table covered with various foods and flowers, and the trees in the fields looked like pitchers, cups, and glasses.
    He had grown up in that field, within those mute plots, amid herbs that measured existence under the sun through their endless births and deaths, but he didn’t have those years in his consciousness. Beyond the dew were the roads of Alexander through endless terrain, places, and cities; over the rivers, mountains, dry river beds, deserts, and fields he knew, observed, and could describe; as if he had trod them and conquered them himself; as if they were his; but not this place, where his childhood years had disappeared like dead quails.
    At that moment a childhood restlessness seemed to run across that table, walk over the field, feeling the hard soil under his feet, reviving his memory, filling the dry emptiness above which, like beautiful backdrops and vivid visions of a rich dream, marvelous towers and miraculous faces appeared, as the only significant reality, a world that made sense and meaning only when it filled in time and justified his memory.
    And he indeed ran with childlike ease, hopping and cheering, through the alfalfa, wheat, blooming poppies, and wilted melon patches. Several times, turning around a mulberry tree, plum, or walnut tree, he stopped to listen to the beating of his heart, as if somebody else were running with him, but in the opposite direction. It confused him and his own heart seemed like a traveler who had arrived from far away, from a forgotten and remote place, from which mind and memory ran into a rich and important world, to a higher reality, with imperial luster and divine power.
    He sat on the rim of a ditch, on already yellowed weeds, looking toward the foot of the mountain, feeling joy in the wavy appearance of the foothills and mountains that merged with the fields. Behind the thick aspens as through a fence that divided the world into familiar and unfamiliar, one’s own and the foreign, and he could see a mass of light red roofs like burning furnaces. The sun had risen above the mountain the height of two men, and suddenly it released flames that quickly extinguished in his contracted pupils. But it was enough for V.M. to remember the name of the village: Baldovci.
    He had never stepped there, and six decades had passed, as he retraced the footsteps of Alexander of Macedon. He shivered as if splashed with cold water, deciding to go to Baldovci immediately, without delay, where people close to him lived, his tribesmen, and not termites, to bring an inexplicably important feeling into himself, let himself be conquered and fill with it. And he rose, even jumped, tensed himself to run, but not step aside; the mountain above the village was covered in a thick forest, in the morning shadows and haze, and as if one magic were withdrawing and another approaching, and it drank up the azure sky, covering the magnificent and fearful views of cities and horsemen, of endless crowds of armies and weapons like burnt herbs, deceits and threat, like both fulfillment and emptiness, like reality and unreality. For a moment he was lost beyong this merging of all views, all of a sudden bristling because he could be completely lost, vanished, gone.
    His eyes moved to the east of the aspens, and in the green foam of the forest he found new roofs, still in the morning shadows and haze, like Easter eggs under transparent silk. The secretive Kuklish, in green feathers and blue walls of maple, looked unapproachable, untouchable, unconquerable. One could not see, or even sense, a way to reach it, a gate through which he could enter, a transit to the green innocence for whose beauty he felt painful sorrow. He had not been in Kuklish, he did not manage to step a foot there for more than half of century of life and travel through the world and time, after the godlike victories of Alexander of Macedon. Now he looked at it with all the excitement of a traveler who had reached an unknown and beautiful place, and he felt the need to conquer it in his awareness, letting it enter his soul as a proof for itself, as a necessary confirmation of one’s own destiny.
    As if floating and looking for a place to land, stop, and feel firmness and security, he continued to look eastward. He passed along curly foliage with gray bald spots, low and covered with great scabs, as if aware that if he let go and became unglued, he would disappear. Then, across a gentle valley like a large smooth palm, in the shadow of the mountain, he reached small scattered houses which looked like pieces of wafer with rosy crusts. He squinted his eyes, he opened his mouth as if taking a saving breath, he strained his consciousness to remember what village he was looking at. With great speed, bitterness started melting and spilling over, at the same time turning into a greasy shame that left only dark spots in his vision. He had seen that village many times, because his whole childhood, every morning it was in front of his eyes, when he left his house. But he did not know whether the houses were beautiful, the yards clean and settled, whether there were lilacs and rich cherries, whether the clear water was gurgling, or whether the fragrance of the linden still rose to the sky. It was gone in his consciousness, in his memory, a foggy hole in his reality, a blind time in his life. The sun heated his brow, sliced the shadows above the village, and that change seemed to write down the name: Svidovica!
    He lifted his arms like a victor who had managed to conquer the most meaningful place in his campaign toward self-discovery. He yelled with joy and noticed that the soft morning breeze lifted his voice above the fields toward the east, wafting it above the dew and turning it into an indescribable glow of life. Behind its strong hip, on which the mountain firmly leaned on the field, lay the green-lit terrace Bansko. V.M. could not avoid comparing it to the divine city of Jerusalem, looking upon the lively reflections of the sun as a large star. He had been in Bansko several times, but it was only now that he saw it in its divine luster and grandeur, a place that connected the sky and the earth in a light translucence. With the hot breath from healing springs, the whiteness of the hotels and the reflection of the glass gardens that made his skin twitch, he continued eastward.
    Although it was invisible in the green river of maple trees and beeches flowing toward the fields, he discovered Gabrovo. His foot had not stepped there either; he had never seen the wonderful small waterfall where fairies washed, nor did he gathered large blackberries around the coldest and clearest spring in the world: ‘Rzhavek. He had not seen Koleshino either, a bit further from Gabrovo, on a hillside as beautiful as the one at Bansko. He had heard that there were many churches, but he had never gone there to see them. He could barely see the roofs of several houses, which trembled in the morning sun like a mirage, but he felt as if in the middle of a village, like a conqueror who has stamped a victorious seal for all eternity.
    With such emotions he continued looking at the now sparse foliage under foot, mouthing the names of other villages he had never been to: Mokrievo, Mokrino, Smolari… And he conquered them in their tame innocence, at the same time unaware that his true campaign of conquest in his native region had barely reached Sachevo, which was so close that he could hear even the morning crowing of the roosters.
    From Shtuka, which he had not even known existed, though the sun was born above it on summer mornings, he started returning toward the conquered empire, from where he governed the whole world. He looked at the dewy fields, the dense trees, and the pervasive grass, which did not wither before scythe or nd drought, and he felt that he was acquiring something real that he had essentially missed, without which his life would hang in the air like a multicolored scarf that any strong wind could blow anywhere. “Like Alexander of Macedon after his eastern campaign,” He thought ironically. “Just thank God, I’m alive.”
    Filled with childish restlessness, he ran through the fields, moving like a silver butterfly flutters, alone in his fever of conquest and victory, where he renewed reality and life, filling in and rounding out his destiny. Alone with his feelings and thoughts, without the voice of a woman or child, he admitted into himself the glittering vision of Alexander, to turn it into a great crystal sign and place it in the middle of the rich dinner decorated with dewy pearls, which is how the field looked.
    He got up and he truly ran along the edge, his arms spread as if flying. The sun had risen for another mountain, above the mountain, and the whole field was in a soft, miraculously mild glow of celebration, where the divine and the real were one. Running with increasing ease, in a more joyful trance, V.M. suddenly noticed that his shadow became shorter and shorter, and it looked like a child in a playful game of skipping. There was still a lot of dew on the leaves of the grasses, and the sun scattered in hundreds of small rays, creating a bright and quivering aura around his childlike shadow. When he reached the young and thick alfalfa, his aura became very bright, like the living glow of eternal existence. He stopped and looked into the magical glow around his marvelous shadow, as if bewitched. The luster grew, rose towards him, thickening around his head, creating a feeling that he was slowly sinking into gentle light. This magic was irresistible, it was supreme, alluring, and his child’s soul screamed joyfully. At one with his yelps, like a rule that applies to moments like this in man’s destiny, he leapt up and dived into his own silver aura.
    From that moment V.M. was gone. Only his novel about Alexander’s death remained, without irony or bitterness, to testify to the sad truth and the incorruptible law according to which, after reaching the end of his journey, regardless of whether he has achieved his most important life’s goal or not, man has nothing but to return, back from where he has come. Of course, the rare exceptions, like Alexander of Macedon, only confirm this heartless rule. Glory to them!




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