Excerpts from Damages by Bazhe IBSN: 0595297145 Copyright ©2005 by Bazhe™ www.bazhe.com
I was calling the cat from the back porch when the telephone rang. It was 7:10 A.M. Another desperate salesman, I thought, as I caught the receiver at the front of the third ring.
“It’s Mother. Your father just died. Ten minutes ago. At one o’clock. He was lying on the couch, asking me if lunch was ready. Then he was gone. Just like that. An easy death.” She paused, then said in a sharp whisper, “Listen, the relatives and neighbors will insist that you fly here immediately. No need for it. Don’t listen to them. You can’t make it anyway. The funeral is tomorrow at two. If they suggest we put Father in the morgue, so you’ll be able to attend the funeral, say you have something very important to do at work and your boss won’t let you leave. Be persistent. Say you’ll come for the forty days of mourning. I can’t talk. They’re all around me. And remember. We are free now. He is gone.” Mother finished her statement emphatically, then fell silent.
Mother’s silence was not the kind that moves you when someone close perishes. It was an ordinary silence, not one filled with grief, but an empty one. And I struggled not to break it, compressing my cry deep into my stomach, feeling I would betray her by any display of emotion for Father.
“Won’t you need any help, Mamo?” I muttered softly, as if the relatives and neighbors might hear me. I still carried an intense phobia of them. They had never liked me, never tried to understand me.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be all right. You just stay where you are. Don’t dwell on this. Do what you have to do. No need to fret over unplanned trips to morgues and funerals. He’s dead. It’s over. I can’t talk. Here, they’re coming to talk to you. Bye-bye, my gold.”
Condolences offered in familiar tones of phoniness emitted from the other side of the wire. I said exactly what Mother told me to the relatives and the neighbors, ever sensing the protectiveness of the woman who didn’t bear me yet harbored a triumphal maternal instinct that put to shame that of most biological mothers I had known. And that definitely put to shame my father, who had never possessed such a force, never had the capability as a male, as a hunter.
That day, April 22, 1996, I felt like a bird without wings. My painting, my cat, my books, the TV, nothing was to my liking. We are free now. He is gone. The words stayed with me as I walked through the garden I was designing, a replica of the one I had known in Europe. The botanical product of my nostalgia took me back to my childhood and to Father, so I left and strolled towards the downtown area.
Morristown, New Jersey, is nothing like most bedroom communities, nests of alienated, busy people, and failures of human architecture and lifestyle. The fact that it had a center you could walk around appealed to me. More nostalgia. Morristown’s resemblance to my hometown hit me, and I began to cry. With sorrow over Father’s death? Or joy over my liberation? I’m the only master, I almost yelled. The conflict was so intense it was almost physical, as if the feelings could rake through my body like my cat’s claws would through a kill. Was it a sin to feel joy when His authority was gone forever? I began to realize that Father’s death was more important than anything that had happened to me—even my coming to America. On that day, everything began to change.
When your father is wasteful, drunk, stupid, poor, and ugly—simply a loser—it is easy to imagine that he might harm you one day. When your father is responsible, sober, smart, powerful, and handsome—simply a winner—it is harder to comprehend why he is hurting you. You realize that society’s idea of a successful person can, in reality, be a failure. Then you question society’s values, what really distinguishes a loser from a winner, and you realize that society can be wrong: that a father’s love has nothing to do with peoples’ perception of success or failure.
When Father died, I realized that my entire relationship with him was a revolving game of continuous attempts to win his heart, to love him in any way I could, to make him recognize my efforts, and to make him show his gratitude and love. But, like many fathers, he kept his love hidden in his heart. My father was a man who had a natural talent for ruling people. He was tall, dark, and classically handsome, like Tyrone Power, had the body of a football player, and his expression could freeze your blood. He was a militant and a Communist official who, like any official, loved the system that allowed him to wield his power, yet was manipulated by it and became its slave.
Father’s mother was married twice and had thirteen children: seven from the first marriage, six from the second, and several stillborn. Only Father and four of his sisters reached adulthood. His father was a farmer and a candle maker on the side. Grandmother was mean, a workaholic, and a perfectionist. She was an excellent cook, but remained extremely picky and demanding, especially later to her daughter-in-law, my mother. Father respected her fanatically. Not a word could be uttered against her. I knew her only from the family portrait. She was frighteningly ugly, and I tried to avoid being around the wall where the picture hung.
Father and his siblings, some as young as five years old, were rousted out of bed every dawn to work in the fields. Often, he had to do hard labor on an empty stomach. As a small child, he would go to church and cry and pray to Jesus and the rest of the Holy Family for a piece of bread. When nothing changed for the better, he gave up on God and religion. It was long before he became a Communist when he realized that there were two major types of people: the exploiters and the exploited. He swore to himself that one day he’d fight against the privileged and build a new, more just system. His harsh upbringing and my grandfather’s abuse, however, damaged his soul greatly and made him recalcitrant, someone who was hard to deal with.
When he was in his twenties, as a member of the proletariat, my Father got involved in illegal activities directed against the king of Yugoslavia. When World War II began, he joined the partisans’ resistance against the Germans and their allies: the Bulgarians and the Italians, who shared Macedonia, helped by the Albanians and Greek fascists. He fought them fearlessly, and soon he was promoted to captain. After the war, he was elected president of our county and later nominated to be a minister in the state government. His mother did not want to move to the capital, Skopje, and therefore he turned down an opportunity to have lots of money, power, and a residence in an elite neighborhood. Several months later, grandmother died at the age of 94, and Mother was stuck in the province. She never forgave Father for that.
As the President of Prespa County, Father was the law. He ruled with an iron hand, demanding absolute submission from his subordinates. They despised him. Nonetheless, he was respected. He always helped the poor and the blue-collar workers, not forgetting his own roots. Father was the most honest man I ever knew. Like many others, I admired his modesty and dignity. He never took advantage of that power, turning himself into a greedy bureaucrat, like most of his fellow officials and politicians, who sank into the pervasive corruption that ended up destroying the concept of socialism in Yugoslavia. He never took a thing that wasn’t his, which he hadn’t earned. He strictly obeyed Marshal Tito’s slogan: “What’s alien, don’t touch; what’s yours, never give up.” We could’ve had a private tutor, a mansion, a chauffeur, and many other privileges, but he refused them, he didn’t even own a car. Mother constantly complained about his humble way of living and thinking. She fought hard with him whenever she purchased new things for the house but always managed to keep them, so she could show off and make our home more glamorous. Our manicured garden was the most beautiful in the county, signifying that we lived in the chief official’s residence.
Father was handsome and powerful, yet he could not control his anger and his embarrassing, dominating temper. Mother was young and beautiful, yet she traded her happiness for status. And they had me: an adorable child, who possessed not even the slightest resemblance to them, yet always tried to be a part of their tense marriage. People were jealous of our “perfect” family, yet they had no idea what was going on inside that most splendid union.
As I rolled down the car window, I inhaled the aroma of the Balkans, my former homeland, its soil burned from wars and soaked in blood. I passed ancient ruins, where our Macedonian king, Alexander the Great, stood godlike on top of a tower. He was waving his truncheon ready for his epical conquest of Greece, Persia, and India.
The forts were nothing like the golden palaces of Versailles, or the Viennese marble castles, or the topiary gardens of Wales. I saw only rugged stone walls that seemed to have sprouted from the rocky landscape, forts that had been lashed by invaders for centuries. Then villages appeared, tucked among the hills. Peasants gathered in front of their red-tiled cozy houses. Among them, I could see a child clinging to his mother’s dress, sobbing. In nearby meadows, cows grazed and playful sheep locked horns with each other. Goats dotted the hillsides, some of them chewing bark off the woody stems of plants. The breeze, perfumed with the rustic scent of scythed hay and compost, blew through my hair, and birds twittered in the trees. A tractor driver beeped his horn and waved to us.
The noises of the country were so soothing, so different from those of New Jersey. But the Western influence was all around me: Coca-Cola and McDonald’s billboards, graffiti scrawled on some of the advertising for political parties and presidential candidates posted on the walls of the village buildings, many of which were built right at the side of the road. Some of the flashy advertising overshadowed the direction signs to our ancient cities and historic sites.
“Cultural disaster is coming,” I mumbled. I couldn’t swallow, so I cleared my throat, and spat the mucous through the open window onto one of the ads.
When the taxi reached the top of the mountain, I could see my county, Prespa—the southernmost county in Macedonia—in a basin girdled with bluish mountains. Its lake reflected the sun, and my county resembled a child’s hand, cupping a mirror and catching the sun’s rays from different angles.
With my binoculars, I scanned the lake where the frontiers of Macedonia, Greece and Albania meet. The churches and the mosques rose above the villages. My town was encircled by apple orchards that made a pattern on the Prespa Valley like a blue-green kilim, an exotic Turkish carpet. A prehistoric cemetery was on the west side of the lake. The village of Kurbinovo and its medieval church of Saint Gorge, adorned with the finest examples of Byzantine frescos, stood on a hillside above the lake on its east side.
I could clearly see the little island on the south side of the lake near Greece, called Big Town or Snake Island by the locals. I recalled seeing hundreds of water snakes around its stony coastline. The island was the residence of the first Macedonian-Slav Tsar, Samuel, who established a powerful kingdom in the 10th century. The Byzantine Emperor Basil II destroyed Samuel’s kingdom after the battle of Mount Belasica, which took place in the year 1014 in southeast Macedonia. The cruel emperor, who captured most of Samuel’s army, plucked out the eyes of the soldiers, leaving one eye in every hundred so they could guide the rest back to the Tsar’s court. Samuel later died from sorrow and the Byzantine Empire annexed his kingdom shortly thereafter.
Legend says our lake was named Prespa, after Samuel’s daughter, a great beauty, who drowned herself after being stuck in an unhappy relationship. There are rumors that Samuel’s treasure is still buried on the island under the age-melted ruins and the crumbling church. In the spring, the island is adorned with old flowers that people say descend from Tsar Samuel’s court. As a child I was frightened by the stories of Prespa Lake’s mysterious whirlpools, which were said to catch unwary swimmers and small boats, sucking them into a watery grave. The lake would claim at least one victim per year. Each time it happened, my old aunt would say the lake was hungry again. My father would yell at her to stop her nonsense, explaining to me that Prespa Lake’s water seeped through its limestone bottom into neighboring Ohrid Lake, which lies below, then drained into the Black Drim River, continuing through Albania and emptying into the Adriatic Sea.
The driver probably thought I was nuts, since I kept moving from one side of the car to the other, my eyes fervently trying to catch as much of the fascinating flora and fauna as possible. Pelicans flew above the lake, some diving for fish. For thousands of years, they had returned each summer to escape the cold Russian winters. Those white-winged gliders were subjects of an obsession as a child. I wished to be one of them and fly above the world. They were the ultimate metaphor for freedom.
My town had changed dramatically in the six years I had been in America. The quaint park at its center with the statue of the local World War II hero had been replaced with gray, tasteless concrete, and all that remained of the past were the children’s whistles and laughter. I barely recognized my own street. It had become constricted and commercialized. There were more cars, bikes, trucks, even donkey carriages, and the houses were bigger. After the former Yugoslavia and its socialism collapsed, most of the locals immediately built stores in front of their houses. But they were not aware of one major law of capitalism: the big fish eat the small ones. Many businesses failed and, as a result, most of the stores ended up as empty brick buildings. The images of the “new Macedonia” and its chaotic form of capitalism were killing the old, nearly celluloid memories of my town and country. I tried to shut them out. I tried to come to grips with the fact that this place had nothing to do with the Yugoslavia I left in 1990. But the new images kept splashing my scared mind until I saw the dizzying garden in the front of my childhood home and Mother waiting for me.
She was dressed elegantly, as always, with one of her silky evening shawls wrapped quite loosely around her shoulders. But she had changed. Her medium-height body was stoop shouldered. Her soft face looked distressed. The yellowish tone of her skin and the light blue lines under her eyes shocked me. The driver was bemused when I hesitated, numbed by the sight, before hugging her. She had lost weight and it was easier than ever to wrap my arms around her. I noticed her limp had gotten worse since I left, but I veiled my worried expression with a smile, so my teary eyes would seem to shine with happiness.
She began kissing me crying: “Oh, my gold, if it was up to me, I would have never made you come here. He’s gone. It’s over. But it’s our damned custom, you know. People would say that we raised you well, but that you don’t care about us. ‘Bazhe should have been here for the funeral, but now he doesn’t even want to come for his father’s mourning? Shame on him!’ You know all the people do in this town is gossip.”
Was Father ever born, ever existed for Mother? I questioned while nodding. I felt so safe in her embrace, as if I was half child, half adult. Mother whispered into my ear: “We’ll never be ordered around again. Never carry out duties for him any longer. You can rule freely with me at your side, as always, without his opposition now. What he was, and what was his, is yours now. Forever.”
Thankfully, Mother didn’t announce my arrival to relatives and neighbors. Bisera, who I also called “Auntie,” Mother’s best friend and contemporary, was the only one there to welcome me. Mother, known for her hospitality, served the taxi driver a meal and, in exchange, he carried my luggage to the second floor, a significant break for me. I passed through the house before I unpacked. The house was overcrowded with furniture because of Mother’s tendency to squeeze old stuff in among the new. I’ve never quite understood why she did that. Out of depression perhaps. I couldn’t imagine how she had managed to hold Father’s wake and funeral amid all that furniture. Now and then, my knees or elbows would hit the edges of chairs or sofas, and cold electricity would shoot through my body along with pain. I felt like throwing everything out the windows.
Instead, I pulled two boxes neatly wrapped with pink shiny paper and topped with red bows from my suitcase. As I walked downstairs, I could see Mother’s soul in the flowers and plants displayed in every window—her small escapes from herself.
“I’ve got something for you,” I announced, from the living room doorway. I kissed Mother, then Bisera, handing them the boxes. They weren’t surprised. Every Friday for the last six years, I had called home and each month sent packages to my parents, and gifts for Bisera. The town people spoke of it with respect, and I wished AT&T or the US postal service would have given me free calls or stamps in appreciation for being such a good customer.
Mother opened The Lord &Taylor’s box. She held the beige and bay dress up to herself, pressing it against her shoulders, right below her neck, “Thank you, my gold. It’s beautiful. You have good taste.” She kissed my cheek.
“Yes, he always had,” Bisera said, admiring Mother’s dress. She showed Mother her present, a dress similar in style and color, then thanked and kissed me. Bisera was like my mother’s sister, like a part of the family. She and Mother enjoyed wearing clothes that looked alike, and I would always buy their gifts with that in mind.
I took pleasure, as always, in Mother’s continuous joyful laughter, which drifted in from the other room as they tried on their dresses. Afterward, we had Turkish coffee with lemon, which, according to Mother, was supposed to prevent headaches. Bisera then excused herself, even though Mother insisted that she stay longer. She always did that with guests, and it was funny to listen to her then.
After Bisera left, Mother sat next to me at the table and began asking the usual questions every foreigner has about the endless opportunities in America, the Hollywood movies, and the big American cities—about the American dream. For my arrival, Mother served my favorite cake, which she had made with Le Petit Beurre cookies. Then she began to describe my father’s funeral.
“When the captain asked me about displaying Father’s medallions in the procession, I told him that you took them as a present from Father. He asked me for your phone number. I gave him the wrong number, and it was funny to see him dialing it and shaking in anger when he couldn’t get through. It was a big funeral. After the Army guard salvo was fired in tribute, one of your father’s fellow veterans read the speech. It was filled with nice things about the deceased, as usual. It was such an ideal portrait of your father, I thought I was burying a different man. Ha...” Suddenly, her laughter stopped and she moaned. She shifted her weight on to her right thigh.
“What’s wrong?” I asked noticing the peculiar squinting movement of her eyes indicating discomfort.
“I’ve had this pain for a couple of months. The doctor says it’s hemorrhoids. Nothing serious.”
“Did he give you any medicine?”
“Yes, a cream.”
“Did it help?”
“No. I stopped using it. The pain is greater when I apply it.”
“So what do you do then?”
“I use regular, over the counter, pain killers and the pain goes away.”
“Then it comes back, doesn’t it?”
“Yes. Then I take more aspirin.”
“Show me the medication,” I said. We got up and I followed her to the bathroom. After briefly reading the instructions, I said, “This cream is supposed to soothe your pain. At least temporarily. You should see the doctor again.”
“Don’t worry, it’s nothing serious.”
“No, we will go tomorrow,” I insisted.
“You haven’t been here a day yet. Tomorrow you have to visit Father’s grave with flowers. People would ridicule if you don’t.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Father loved you more than anyone. More than me,” she stated, firmly. She pulled a blue envelope from her pocket and handed it to me. “This is the testament he left for you. Ten years ago, we went to court and he appointed you as executor, even before my death.”
Father’s old, unexpressed love for me was now a surprise in the form of paper in my hand. I took the envelope and stuffed it in my pocket. “Your check up must be done soon. Don’t play with your health,” I said, nudging Mother’s shoulder.
She nodded. “Fine. After the mourning.”
“Okay. After the mourning,” I said cheerfully, content for the moment that she at least sounded sincere.
“Oh, God, we have to prepare so many things. The mourning has to be as grandiose as possible. Presents are ready to be given to all relatives and friends for the esteem of his soul. The restaurant will be great. The lunch will be rich. The tomb we’re building will be in black and gray marble. The most expensive one. He was a big shot. We can’t look humble or embarrassed. People would mock us if we didn’t do it properly. Everything must be as extraordinarily as he was to people. He was, after all, an extraordinary man.”
She spoke with passion. Public opinion mattered greatly to her. She was sinking into the provincial milieu, with its rules, customs, and plastic pompous emphasis on materialism and status.
“Yes, Mother. I’ve no doubts that you know what you’re doing.”
I shook my head and looked at Father’s empty couch, still not discarded due to my mother’s collecting mania. She had replaced the fabric, but I could still see the pit Father’s body had made in it. It seemed as if he had only gone to the barber and would come back soon. It was hard to believe he was gone forever. I’d seen him laying on it almost all my life, watching TV, eating walnuts, cursing my mother if the food wasn’t ready, sleeping on it: tied to it as if it was the only dugout left in the ocean. He loved that couch, probably more than the one in his bedroom. My gaze shifted to Father’s picture above the couch. The medallions on his uniform reflected the camera flash, making them resemble remote stars. They were out of focus compared with the rest of the picture. As if it happened yesterday, I could see myself as a child, marching arrogantly in front of the mirror, pretending I was a general, saluting, and commanding to Mother, “Atten-Shun! Atten-Shun!”
“Oh, please put them back! Before he comes!” she would beg me.
“Mamo, please explain to me again their meaning?”
“Okay, but hurry up. This is the Medal of Freedom. This one, with the little man holding the big golden sword, is the Medal of The First World War II Combatant. It was given to your father for fighting on the front lines against the fascists. And this is the Medal for National Merit from Marshal Tito.”
She would read the descriptions from little booklets in the fancy velvety boxes that held each medal. She spoke hurriedly and fearfully, aware that Father was so against me playing with them. He cherished them as if they were his eyes, his very pupils.
“Go to sleep, it’s getting late.” Mother’s voice rang out, pulling me back from the past.
“Good night, Mamo.” I kissed her cheek. Her eyes, which once shone like diamonds, were now unfocused, like my father’s medals in the picture. She is happy to be free from him finally, I thought as I went upstairs, but something is wrong.
My bedroom smelled the same. Mother was still using lavender for the moths. Suspicious and a little scared, I opened the blue envelope, and began to read the testament. He cared for me. He loved me, yet in a strange suppressive way. I set it aside and curled up in my bed.
My mother was fourteen years younger than Father. Her mother was Greek and her father Macedonian. She had one sister and two brothers. She was the youngest, and the spoiled one. She was a pretty brunet, like Rita Hayworth early in her career, with kind chestnut eyes, a sculpted mouth, and a captivating smile that gradually dimmed after she married Father. Her family had been against their relationship because of my father’s previous marriage to a blond “bombshell,” a well-known beauty, with whom he was very much in love. But the marriage failed, as the government forbade it. They denounced her as persona non grata for being a Nazi collaborator during the war. Father believed the scandal was fabricated out of revenge from his enemies. But the government was his God and was always right, so he abandoned her. They had no children.
In the Balkans, a girl younger than legal age, who ran away from home to get married without her parent’s permission, was known as an escapee. Mother was one. Getting a powerful man was, for her, the ultimate dream, and a chance to have status. But she was too young, too naive, and absolutely not ready to handle Father’s complex personality. So she ended up being like a slave to him. I never heard them having sex. Big holidays were the only times I would see Father being affectionate to her. Even then, he would only give her a peck and a brief hug. I wished then I was a magician and could turn them to stone, so I could always see Mother’s happy face and both of them in love. But when I looked into Father’s eyes, his eyebrows furrowed and solemn, my happiness turned to fear of his reaction. He was very cold man. It was sickening to freeze next to him every single day. It really was.
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