nga Lulian KODRA
It happened a long time ago and it all happened very fast.
A middle aged man wearing a black overcoat and akubra hat, who looked like our little town’s high school history teacher but somehow taller and somewhat more determined than that absent minded friendly man, entered the café where the brother of our town mayor had his midday coffee with friends, shot him dead, mumbled something to himself, and in the wake of confusion and the screams of the waitress walked out calmly through the front door and disappeared with no trace.
We all knew that in fact it was our history teacher, even before we learned within the hour he had also disappeared with no trace. We just never thought his absence at school earlier that day could be a sign of things to come. Neither did we ever imagine he had it in him. He seemed like such a quiet man, withdrawn, as invisible from the world as he was blind to it.
The only thing remarkable about him was his beautiful wife, but small-town people are small-minded people when it comes to beauty; rumor had it she was having an affair with the mayor’s brother, a relentless womanizer. Maybe it was loneliness; or maybe it was regret at having to follow her husband all the way to such a dreary town – far from the big city way of life; maybe it was they had no children; or that she was just young and adventurous; or maybe the rumor was not true at all like it was the case with most rumors in our town; but like all the other conquests of our mayor’s brother, our aunts and mothers called her “the whore.”
No one knew whether the history teacher had heard these rumors or not. But to us it didn’t matter. If he had and didn’t do anything about it, he was a coward, and if he hadn’t, he was a fool. Either way he was a non-factor. Whenever the town talked about his case someone or other would end the conversation with the expression “those who can’t do, teach.”
And every time I heard this expression I remembered something he once told us in class. He wanted us to learn that history was not only about what had happened in the past, but also about the way in which what had happened in the past was told. He showed us the picture of a painting where some of the people in it were in the light while others in the shade – a painting technique called chiaroscuro, he said, which is Italian for “dark clarity.” He asked us to find the person that was in the darkest shade in the picture, and told us, that was the painter himself. You see, he said, it’s the same with history. When speaking about something that has happened in the past you cannot put yourself out of the picture altogether – simply by speaking about it you switch the perspective and become a part of it – but you can always put yourself in as much shade as possible, so that what actually happened comes more in the clear.
He was like that in life, too, always in the shade; he just didn’t give anybody the impression of being a man who could make history.
And then, his wife turned up raped and murdered, literally in a ditch, by the side of the only road connecting the town with the rest of the world, and we all knew that it was the mayor’s brother who’d done it.
It’s funny how truth worked. First there was the horror that what was to be feared had already happened. Immediately after began a campaign against whoever tried to raise their doubts against the mayor’s brother. Some people were taken aside and if they didn’t want every secret they had made public, and their families suffering, they’d better shut up. Then the chemistry teacher turned up with a black eye in class and a brick was thrown at the grocery store’s windows.
And finally, a trial – or rather one of the usual ugly spectacles of justice our town knew so well about – was set up, during which the mayor’s brother, despite being the accused, had a big charming smile plastered all over his face. But at that point we had all turned into non-factors, too afraid to even voice our opinions. Afraid yes! We were afraid of accidents, beatings, or of turning up dead in a ditch ourselves – while only a handful, all of a sudden became very loud about it, saying she had it coming, that back in the big city, they heard, she used to take part in despicable orgies which lasted up to a week.
And through it all we forgot all about the history teacher. Not that anything had changed about him, no; we wouldn’t even know whether he grieved or not if it wasn’t for the fact that he had visibly thinned and turned into a half-man. Only a few decent human beings reminded themselves to make a gesture of compassion towards him when he walked from his home to his school – a gesture so subtle no one but him could have noticed – but nothing was ever met with anything other than his usual politeness.
The day the mayor’s brother was acquitted – the evidence against him turned down by the court on a technicality – the history teacher put his black overcoat and his akubra hat on and sat in his apartment thinking.
But more than thinking it was three things he did as he sat alone:
First, he entered into a daze, like a bubble or a heap of broken memories of her, where he tried to catch an image – the side of her face, a constellation of birthmarks on her shoulder – and from that image rebuild her, make her whole again;
Second, he punctuated this mental activity with something he mumbled to himself almost mechanically: “The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high,” something a philosopher had said on the concept of history;
And third, he debated with himself whether the said philosopher had got it right or not.
This is all he had been doing since his wife died, day in day out, forgetting to eat as much as hardly sleeping. Only after grey daylight entered through the window early in the mornings did he recollect himself and prepared to go to the school. On returning from school he sat on his couch again, and knowing what he had known, decided each day against the philosopher: the consciousness of exploding the continuum of history, of rupturing time, is peculiar not only to the revolutionary classes, but also to a man in love in the moment of his action.
He had known love. Being with her he had felt like he was able to bring time to a standstill in order to live each moment to the fullest details. And now he kept thinking that if justice was done and if he could find the right image from the sky-high rubble-heap of his memories, an image captured in one of those moments during which he stopped time, he would be able to make her whole again.
The only thing that never entered his confused mind and murky reasoning, is that he had lost that image of wholeness even before his wife died. It’s true that they had been happy and full of plans in the beginning; they even considered moving into our little town as a passing adventure to be told in the big city once this phase of their life was over and they moved back for good; but our town had a strange way of never failing to crush people’s illusions, of sipping into their home, their conversations, their very soul, and planting a void, a nothingness there, leaving no soul intact, and which no soul could yank out. But even more than the town, it was the history teacher, who – perhaps unwillingly – had destroyed that image of wholeness by his own doing: he was a man who liked to be in the shade after all, and that had done something to their marriage.
To say that their marriage had been broken, or that it had been in need of fixing – like his wife put it – sounded harsh to him, but he didn’t know how to come out of the shade, so he felt like he didn’t know how to fix it, and so, his wife thought, maybe he didn’t care to fix it. It’s not that she didn’t love him – she did, and it was his sense of fairness that had made her fall in love with him in the beginning – but after having been married for a few years she did not respect him anymore: she just could not bring herself to respect his modest ambitions.
As much as she was charming and warm towards others in her daily routine around town at that point, she turned cold towards him; he felt their marriage had turned lukewarm and flat like a beer that loses its taste with time, which was around the same time when he used to sit alone at a table on the corner at the café and maybe had a drink too many – enough to make his stay at home bearable.
None of which is to say that the rumors about her affair with the mayor’s brother had been true. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t; we will never know, and frankly, it is not important. It’s just that love like that is not love but pity, and only after one of the persons who embodies this feeling no longer exists, it may be said that pity is able to contain an image of wholeness.
Grey daylight entered through the window and found him sitting on his couch the next day of the acquittal too; only this time he had jammed a gun in his pocket and he didn’t go out in the street to go to the town café until midday; and when he did go out in the street – the front dip of the hat covering his face and his hand in the pocket where the gun was heavy – he didn’t raise his eyes from the ground as he walked, but listened to a dog that seemed to be barking in his direction the whole way, and to his wedding ring as it clinked against the gun; and when he entered the café – getting a hold of the gun in his pocket and slipping his finger through the trigger hole – he raised his head and began to see everything as if he had left his body, or as if he and his body were not the same thing, but as if it was an extension of him, obeying each of his commands with perfect efficiency.
And he saw; how half the tables were empty and the other half were people he all knew and knew him, and how one of them, a colleague, the math teacher, gave a soft nod upon seeing him at the doorway, and how the same man looked down at his cup of coffee and didn’t look up again as he realized the café was too small to hold at the same time both the mayor’s brother and this half-man, who also saw; how he had to get closer before other people came to the same realization, closer to his wife’s murderer, who sat at a table near the bar, laughing and flirting with the waitress and pinching her ass as she walked away, not noticing yet – neither him nor his company – the history teacher, who also saw; how he took the gun out of his own pocket and began to raise it, and how at the same time a man at a table near the door, and a man at a table to his left, jumped up within half a second from each other upon seeing a man pointing a gun at the mayor’s brother – the content of their tables breaking on the floor with a big clank.
All eyes turned to that point in space where he and his gun had now become one – the waitress shooting out a series of piercing screams with fast gaps in between to catch her breath; the rest of the clients ducking under their tables or jumping up to become one with the wall; the face of his wife’s murderer, contorted with laughter, freezing as it began to contort with panic; and his company also ducking, even though they were not in the line of fire – while his wife’s murderer, fully facing the gun now, only raised his hands to cover his head in vain.
The waitress’s screams beginning to sound like a siren; thinking he’s hearing that dog again blended with her screams; and thinking he will lose his moment before losing his mind, the history teacher took another step forward, planted his feet firmly on the ground, and during one of the wheezes in between her screaming, pulled the trigger.
From the moment the bullet left the gun to the moment it killed almost instantly the mayor’s brother, what the history teacher saw in front of him was not a man but a clock whose dial he was shooting at. He was not at the café anymore but far away – even from his own body – only the screams were much louder and much more piercing. He had ruptured the continuum of history, stopped time once again, and entered in its intricate and terrifying machinery, where shaking anxiously he searched for an image of wholeness.
It took a long time – if the concept of a long time even makes sense considering the place he found himself in – before he understood he was adding even more rubble to the rubble-heap. The clock he was shooting at returned into the shape of a man whose life was leaving him fast and the awareness of what he had just done surrounded him like a flood. He mumbled to himself something the meaning of which he no longer understood, walked out of the café, and kept on walking and walking, towards a past that grew farther and farther away.
The mayor’s anger seemed to be resigned, even though he sent out four parties to comb all over the town and all over the forest surrounding it in search for the history teacher. When they all returned empty handed the mayor supposedly had said that he considered the matter closed. We heard later that one of the search parties had fallen in his tracks and had caught up to him, but just as they were about to seize him, he had vanished in thin air right in front of their eyes – as if time itself had ripped opened a hole in its own fabric and swallowed him up, they said. It sounded unbelievable – a made up justification – but his stature had grown so much in our eyes that we were prepared to believe anything.
From time to time there would be rumors about his whereabouts, or legends, is more like it. Some said he had flown the country and ended up in a big city, where like all other exiles, he had blended back in with the shades of life’s chiaroscuros. Others said they had seen him in the woods surrounding the town, where he had fallen off the pale of human sanity – a beast among beasts in the open, in the mercy of the elements, foraging and scavenging for food and survival. Yet others said he was coming back to rid the town of its corruption and decay.
But whatever the legends, I don’t believe any of them – they’re just that: fantasies fueled by a deliberately impossible hope, painting an overly glorified picture of him. What I think really happened is that the search party which fell in his tracks, actually caught up to him, and either killed him right there and then, or he was killed after he was delivered to the mayor. You see, the mayor didn’t want the history teacher to become a precedent for anything, but at the same time he was afraid of giving the impression of being too much of a ruthless man, so he started the rumor himself – that time had swallowed the history teacher up. And that gave us exactly what he needed, a merciful exception in the guise of an impossible hero – the man who shot at time.