Extract as it appears in Making the World Legible
Vilma was the apple of Xhoda’s eye. The lap dog was the apple of Vilma’s eye. I decided to poison Vilma’s dog.
I poisoned Vilma’s white lap dog to take revenge. There wasn’t any other reason for doing it. As a child, I considered myself equal to all the other kids in the sense of social equality, or rather, to the extent a twelveyear- old can understand the concept of social equality. I’m sure that I had no complexes and didn’t see myself as descending from a race of mongrels – as belonging to a species of wretches – and I didn’t see Vilma as stemming from a race of lap dogs – a species of the chosen few. It was only later that I’d learn that Vilma and I belonged to different species. This was to be my second trauma. But at the time, I was still under the influence of the first trauma when, after the beating, I lost all respect for my father. Vilma’s puppy would have to pay, even if it meant that Vilma would be in tears for days and nights on end and that Xhoda would rage and lose his mind.
It was a beautiful lap dog, and like all others of its kind it would rush out and bark wildly, sticking its nose through the pickets of the fence whenever anyone walked by. It barked at me that way, too. It was a warm
afternoon and Vilma was sitting in her little chair near the stairs, concentrating on her book. She didn’t look up when the barking started. But since I didn’t budge, it started lunging at me furiously, yelping loud enough to wake up the whole neighbourhood. I’d counted on this. Annoyed, Vilma finally raised her head. Her eyes caught mine… and mine caught hers. They were azure blue like the ocean. We recognised one another, but we’d never spoken because we’d always been in different classes at school. And, to tell the truth, I really had no desire to speak to Vilma right then.
First she frowned and then shouted something like ‘Max, be quiet, get back here!’ As Max had no intention of obeying, she got up, tossed her book on the chair, and ran towards us. I stood there bewildered. Max only calmed down when his mistress picked him up. I blushed and attempted a smile. I told her she had a beautiful dog. ‘Don’t say that,’ replied Vilma. ‘He’ll get all stuck-up if he hears you and he’ll start biting everyone who walks past the house.’
All of a sudden I turned and bolted. Vilma stood there at the fence with Max. Years later, she reminded me of the scene. ‘You were so strange, the way you stared at me, looking right into my eyes! I went back to the stairs with Max and pretended I was reading, but actually I was waiting for you to come back and stare into my eyes again. No boy had ever looked at me that way and I didn’t understand what it was that made me wait for you. I never stopped believing that you’d reappear at the fence one day, even later when you were going to university and rumours had spread in town that you were having an affair with a widow. But you never turned up. I waited for you, even though you poisoned my Max. I cried for him as I would have for a brother. And yet, I waited for you, though I was convinced you’d never come back.’
From the moment I started to run, I was convinced, too, that I wouldn’t go back. When Vilma picked Max up and started to talk to me, I knew that if I stayed any longer, I wouldn’t be able to take revenge at all. I don’t know how to explain it properly, but I felt that if I hung around near Vilma, listening to her voice, looking into her eyes and watching her pet the dog, I wouldn’t feel up to poisoning Max. And if I didn’t poison Max, Vilma wouldn’t cry. And if Vilma didn’t cry, Xhoda wouldn’t lose his mind.
Max had a painful but quick end. Before we committed the crime, Sherif asked me to find out what food the dog preferred. With some trouble, I found out from a boy who used to visit Vilma quite often – they were cousins – that Max loved fried liver, preferably lamb. I got some. Without his father noticing, Sherif mixed it with the poison used to exterminate wild dogs. We did away with Max one afternoon while Vilma was taking him out for a walk, as she often did, to the edge of town where the fields start. Sherif reported to me that it was no problem getting the dog to eat the bait while Vilma was busy talking to a girlfriend. Max gave up the ghost almost instantly. Right after, everything spun out of control.
Sherif came over the next evening. He’d never been to my house and when I saw him leaning against the banister in the stairwell, I suspected something had happened. Another thing worried me, too. Sherif hadn’t
turned up for school that day. He looked scared and asked me to come out so that we could talk somewhere in private where we wouldn’t be seen or heard. It was dark, so we managed to get through the centre of town
without being seen and reached the neighbourhood near the riverbank. We crouched there in the bushes. Sherif was shaking and started to cry. Then I understood what had happened. A state of emergency had been
declared in town the moment word of Max’s demise spread. ‘After lunch,’ Sherif explained, ‘the headmaster came over with two policemen. I don’t know what they talked about outside, but my dad came back into the house furious and clenched his fist at me. He made a threat: ‘I’ll kill you with my own bare hands if I ever find out that you were involved in this business.’ Poor Sherif was frightened to death. He was sure that his father was going to kill him. But this was nothing compared to another even more terrifying aspect. Even though Sherif hadn’t gone to school that day, Fagu and his gang were able to find him down by the river. Everyone suspected Sherif. They beat him up and said they’d murder him if he didn’t tell them the truth. Sherif denied everything. It was the fact that he’d denied the whole affair that made his position so precarious. No one believed him, including his father and Fagu. Now, with tears in his eyes, he kissed my hand (I’ll never forget how he bent over to kiss it) and begged me to save him. Otherwise he’d have no choice but to throw himself into the river and drown.
I didn’t need time to think about it. Sherif was petrified. I’d got him involved in the affair, so I was obligated to do something. I had to assume responsibility, and that’s what I did. Not because I was afraid that he would
actually kill himself, although, given the circumstances, I believed he could have. I decided to admit to being the perpetrator of the crime because I felt that I could stand the torments of hell better than his slobbery kisses on my hand. If I didn’t own up, Sherif would come around every day and lick my hand like a beaten dog.
I confessed to Fagu. This way, I was sure the news would be spread instantly in the right direction and yet I’d have enough time to prepare myself for the inevitable. Fagu glared at me. It was the most incredible thing he’d ever heard. He only believed me when I explained to him that I’d committed the murder to take revenge on Xhoda. Everyone knew that Xhoda had beaten me up recently. So vengeance would be seen as justified, even in this form. Fagu couldn’t touch me personally. If he did, he’d be in trouble himself. None of the tough guys in his gang would have forgiven him for beating me up just for Vilma’s sake.
Events took their course. Fagu, at that time, was bigger than I was, and, most definitely stronger, too. He foamed at the mouth, but just sneered at me and left. From that day on, my life became unbearable. Everyone stared at me as if I were a criminal. At school, when we were lined up in the courtyard, what I’d done was denounced as the most dastardly event ever to have taken place in that town. My grade for behaviour was reduced by two marks and I was suspended from school for three days. My first caning didn’t come from Xhoda, who didn’t even deign to call me into his office, but from my father. I wasn’t expecting it because he’d never beaten me before. The beating happened when he got back from the police station where he’d been summoned to account for my behaviour. I also discovered that he’d paid compensation to Xhoda, an amount of around three or four thousand leks. To this very day, I don’t know if my father beat me because of the crime itself, because of the money he was forced to pay or because of the dread he felt all through his body when he was called to the police station. Whatever the reason, from that time on, my father acquired a taste for caning me. He learned how to beat me, but I also learned how to take a beating. Once you get used to it, nothing else makes much of an impression.
That pine tree had been thirty years younger and I was so thin that I could hide behind it. Vilma was sitting in her chair reading a book. I’d been watching her for over an hour and she hadn’t raised her head even once. There was no Max to rush out and bark by the fence. He was dead. I stood there cringing behind the trunk of the pine tree. I was sure that Vilma knew I was there. I was lost in thought when suddenly I felt something at my feet. I picked it up. It was a stone wrapped in paper. ‘Are you sorry for what you did? Is that what you’ve come to tell me? Don’t even bother. You’ve been hiding behind that tree for five days now, like a robber. Even if you say you’re sorry, I won’t forgive you. Why Max? What did Max ever do to you? Even if you have an answer, I know that I’ll always hate you.’
When I looked up, the chair where Vilma had been sitting was empty. This is the last vision of my childhood that I can recall. Everything else is gone. All that’s left is the empty chair, as if to remind me of the emptiness of my existence.
The Loser by Fatos Kongoli
Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck (Seren 2007)
Robert Elsie is a Canadian with a longstanding specialism in Albanian and Balkan history and literature. He has translated dozens of novels and stories and runs the website ‘Albanian Authors in Translation’, which includes the largest selection of Albanian and Kosovan literature in English. He is currently employed as an interpreter by The Hague International Courts, where he translated at the trial of Slobodan Milosevic.
Janice Mathie-Heck is a Canadian teacher, poet, translator, editor and literary critic. She has collaborated with Robert Elsie in translating and editing Albanian literature.