At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.
nga Lulian KODRA
There is no way of telling this particular episode that our little secluded town went through other than to directly address the reader, with the hope that I will be forgiven for the lack of art that goes hand in hand with such a direct manner of address. I have my reasons for this approach, for pushing you to first enter this story as a participating character and leading you along a roundabout way rather then simply telling it, and these reasons will soon be made clear to you too, most important among which is the bizarre nature of this episode that revolved around the women of our town and their mysterious behavior for about a month. I do not promise that your curiosity shall be satisfied, since most of it is probably going to be as inexplicable to you as it is to me and to everyone in our town, but I believe your patience will be worth these few pages.
So bear with it for a while, and consider me as a cicerone guiding you around a town you have never heard anything about, but one in which I grew up and spent the beginning of my adult years. So that you better understand what kind of town ours is, let me inform you that you are no ordinary tourist; our town is in no tourist guide map or brochure, a blind spot to certain global developments, and you being here is not the result of anything you might have planned, but only the consequence of pure accident. What it means for you to have made it so far out of the way is that you are lost and have been lost for quite the best part of the day, invisible to all Satellites and your GPS silent, snaking your way through mountains and forests, on roads where the only cars passing in any direction belong to one or other of our townsfolk.
Our town is located in such difficult geographic surroundings that strangers or visitors that make it here are as rare as the mountainous air. So rare in fact, that you will find no hotels in our town, but we make up for it by being the most hospitable people you have ever met. And that is a promise. We will not disappoint you. There are no tricks or deceptions in this story. You will leave our town probably the next day of your arrival, bearing not only gifts, but also the fondest of memories for the family that so graciously hosted you during your stay.
And as it happens, it will be either the family of the town mayor, the town café owner, the town grocer, the doctor, or the parish priest: the most prominent people in our town. We will all gather at the town café – your visit so unusual that even the women will be there – we will put on a concerted effort led by our most prominent people, together with their wives, to let you know that it is the tradition that you spend the night in the humble home of one of us, and each of us will try to convince you to be their guest.
After you’ve chosen your host, in front of a refreshing drink and amidst friendly laughter at the losers, and if there’s still some daylight left, you’ll want to see a little of the town. We’ll show you around and tell you it is not really a town, but more like a village – more like a little parish, will interject the priest at that point, with a town hall, and only one church, one school building, one café, one big grocery store, one emergency room, and one cinema turned into a warehouse, all of which forms a little square in the middle of the town, and with no more than 100 families in a radius of less than three miles.
As dusk lowers its shadowy curtain down the slope of the mountain and you’re led towards your host’s house – the mountain chill entering your lungs together with the fresh air and the sad song of a creek not very far in the fast descending darkness – you’ll probably thank the gods for making you lose your way to end up in such a well hidden lovely place. And it won’t matter whom you have chosen as a host among those prominent candidates, because if you have the stamina, they will all turn up at the house of the family you’ll be staying the night with, where you will find that food and wine abound, and you will be shown a jolly good time until the wee hours of the morning.
With a feast in front of you, you will tell us a little about yourself, where you come from, where you were headed, and how you got lost. Inspired by it all you will then turn the tables, and speaking with appreciation about the remarkable style of the architecture and its interior decoration you will raise a toast and we will drink to your prosperity. Then speaking with awe and eloquence about this wonderful gift of nature we have been entrusted with you will raise another toast and we will drink to your happiness. And finally, speaking with merry praise about our kindness and hospitality, you will raise your last toast and we will drink to your health. At which point, as if acting on cue, your hosts will usher the other people out and set you up for the rest of the night.
Next day, as you are about to depart, refreshed and content, ready to get back at the schedule you’ve had to suspend, you will find us in the middle of the town square, all of us, from the eldest to the youngest, waiting to fare you well. And now pay close attention, because right there, just as you will be entering your car to leave the town never to see us again, almost ready to exit from this story and become a speck in the dust of our memory as we in turn become in yours, you will hesitate for a second or two, then address all of us, and pointing at a particular spot on the town square you will say:
“What a shame it is there is no monument, no statue to bring glory to your square.”
With that you’ll enter your car, turn it on, and drive away, your hand in the air outside the window in a farewell gesture. And perhaps, just perhaps, you’ll also be thinking, or even reproaching yourself: why in the name of God you had to go and say something so disrespectful about the town to this kind people? What in hell possessed you to trample on decorum like this?
Ah, but don’t worry! That is the very reason why we came down to the square to see you away; that is precisely what we were expecting – all visitors say that – like a clockwork: exactly at the moment of departure, pointing at exactly the same spot, uttering the exact same words. You think this sounds bizarre, right? Well it is, but we are used to it. For us it is normal that you said that, and it would only be strange if in fact you didn’t; it would be a sign we would not be able to process.
But let me explain. What is even more bizarre is that the statue of the Founder of our town used to be precisely at the place you and all other visitors pointed. It was a statue carved out of a piece of stone from our own mountains, by a famous baroque sculptor whose works you might find in big museums in big cities. This statue was a feature of our town square since the second generation our town was founded, all the way down to this generation. And what is the most bizarre thing of all is the story of why our generation – or to be more precise my parents’ generation – removed it.
So hear me out, for this is no ordinary story, and then maybe you will also understand the last words you spoke to us in the same way that we do.
It began one midnight among any ordinary midnights, with no cause whatsoever, and nothing to point out that they had come to any agreement about this, when all the women of our town got up from their beds, walked out of their houses, and as if something was calling them gathered around the foot of the statue, where in their nightgowns, showered by a full moon in the chilly air of an early March, who in a scrawny cry, who in a chanting prayer to the Lord, who wailing, who laughing maniacally, they kissed the Founder’s feet, washed them with their tears and with their hair, fell to the ground, rose again, all night long, until the rise of dawn, when they each got back to their own homes and resumed the daily routine as if nothing had happened, bearing no sign of tiredness from this nocturnal bacchanalia at all.
The men followed them perplexed into the night, and decided among them that this must be some ritual they could not comprehend, so they went back to their beds, secure at least in the knowledge that their marriage was not being put to shame. The next day their perplexity did not come fully in the open, although you could feel a strange tension around town, manifested in their silence and in their faces. The men would get up from their daily activity as if struck by a sudden thought, look sideways at a point outside focus with their eyes wide open and their lips curled down, shake their head, and get back to their activity again.
What I personally remember from that day is that after school my friends and I talked at great length about it and still came to no conclusion. Later, during dinner, my father kept eying my mother as if she was some strange object he was too afraid to approach. I guess he would have preferred it if my sister and I were not present, but he could no longer take this show of normalcy, so finally he asked my mother where had she been all night the previous night, scrutinizing her with his furrowed eyebrows. She sounded puzzled, said she had never left the bed, although strange to be asked, she said, because she had had a bad dream she could not remember. My father only shook his head and grunted.
Later that night it happened again. Their voices rising in unison from the square and echoing through the mountains in the middle of the night winds sounded like the haunting howls of a hungry pack of wolves at the close of winter. And again the next day the women felt normal and did not remember anything, while the men finally broke their own spell and gathered to discuss in the town café and the grocery store alike, where for the first time since it could be remembered, the traditional discrimination and opposition between these two spaces was inexplicably suspended.
Allow me to digress a little at this point, so I can tell you about this most pervasive dynamic in the life of our town – which you will have surely failed to notice since you only spent such a short amount of time with us – and how the women’s behavior effected this dynamic.
We wouldn’t be able to point out when exactly it was that the friction between the town café and the grocery store began, but it must have been around the same time when the town café started serving alcohol. We had never considered alcohol to be evil, and the townsfolk had always enjoyed a drink and more, but it was all kept private. If you wanted to cherish the company of your friends with a drink in front of you, you would invite them over to yours, or invite yourself over to theirs, and that’s where the good time happened. But with this change in alcohol consumption it seemed as if people felt free to discuss public issues – decide about concrete matters in the life of the town – in the café rather than the town hall. While at the grocery store these decisions were opposed, even though to no effect.
For example, the closing of the cinema was debated at the town café, and it was decided that there were simply no funds to keep it going, so it would be better if it turned into a warehouse for tools; while at the grocery store there was discontent over this, voices coming out and saying that the cinema should stay as it was because it provided much needed entertainment. Or it was decided that the jackpot draw for the town lottery, because of the enormous win that that gipsy family enjoyed the previous time around, should be held every month rather than every year; while at the grocery store it was said that if the draw was to be held every month, then the jackpot would not be as big. And other such things.
This opposition became something of a regular feature of the town life, a tradition. There was nothing decided at the town café that was not criticized, contended, and opposed in turn at the grocery store. And the strange part is that the town café and the grocery store were not frequented by two sets of different people; the same people who took the decisions at the town café, opposed these very same decisions at the grocery store. Yet nobody seemed to find anything out of the normal with this, and to this day the same dynamics are in place.
But, whether because of the impact of the women’s strange behavior during the night and their complete denial of it during the day, or whether because what had inflicted the women had also inflicted the whole town, even this elementary order of things between the town café and the grocery store ceased to function. For as long as this episode lasted, the town would make decisions at the café and reverse them yet again at the café rather than at the grocery store where they would be in turn accepted; or we would make decisions at the grocery store, which was unheard of, and didn’t know whether to oppose these decisions or not at the town café. The result was that townsfolk could not come to any decision at all. And if nothing could be decided, then nothing could be contradicted.
Now imagine you were here when we gathered for the first time to discuss what was happening with the women, and listen to our frustration over it. You are already somewhat familiar with our townsfolk, and you have been in our town café before, so you must recall its layout. At a central table near the bar sat the mayor and the café owner; spreading outwards at the other tables sat the most prominent people; while cramming at the door, just like that afternoon that you came to our town, stood the rest of the townsfolk, trying to peek and listen.
“What is this?” the men asked each other.
“It’s that time of the month,” said with a tone of finality the mayor’s brother, one of the few bachelors to be at this meeting.
“Seriously?” said the mayor. “They fixed it so that ‘that time of the month’ comes at the same time for all of them? Don’t be a child.”
“Women,” said the mayor’s brother again, shrugging and showing his palms. “Who the devil knows them?”
“That still doesn’t explain this thing,” said the doctor.
“The Devil, you say,” said the parish priest while squeezing with both hands the wooden cross hanging by his neck. “I thought about that, but I don’t know, I don’t know. I’ll have to look some more into the books, but these are our women, our wives, sisters and daughters to some of you, not witches.”
“That’s a relief,” said the mayor.
“What if they go at it again?” said the café owner. “It’s two nights in a row now.”
“We’ll just have to stop them,” said the grocer.
“Yea, but how?” said the mayor’s brother.
“I don’t know,” said the grocer throwing his hands at the heaven. “But we have to stop them.”
“We can try to lock them in,” said the mayor.
“Do you realize,” said the parish priest, who kept a record of the history of our town, “that this would be the first time since the founding of this town that its people would lock the doors to their home.”
“What do you want me to tell you,” said the mayor. “I’m at a loss here.”
“Isn’t that inhuman?” chimed in the math teacher from near the door. The mayor threw his head and hands up as if to say, “I’ve already said that I’m at a loss here, haven’t I?”
“I’ll lock her in,” said my father. “The rest of you can do as you please.”
No one knew whether to agree or disagree with my father, including my father who agreed and disagreed with himself many times over during the gathering, and finally no decision to lock the women in was made. But in the end they all did, even the math teacher – well, they tried to, anyway, but it was all in vain.
You’ve seen how heavy our locks are, and yet the women were all possessed with such an extraordinary and blind force that the locks gave in and snapped as if they were toothpicks. There was nothing stopping them. Some of the men, losing their patience in the middle of the night, tried to drag their wives or daughters away, threw blows and even punches at them, but it was as if the women were insensitive to any act of force or violence, an incarnation of pure determination, driven by nothing else but by whatever it was that called them to the feet of the Founder, where they performed over and over the same disturbing rites.
“You still say it’s not the devil?” said the mayor’s brother to the priest the next day at the grocery store where they had gathered again.
“The Devil is only the last explanation,” said the priest. “But even if it is the Devil, I don’t think it is in them, but outside.”
“You only say that because it’s your own wife, too,” said the mayor’s brother. “If you were a catholic priest, or whatever those priests that don’t get married are, you’d probably sing a different tune.”
“Don’t be a child,” said the mayor to his brother.
“You know I’m right,” said the mayor’s brother again. But the priest didn’t look like he was about to lose his calm.
“Tomorrow is Sunday,” he said. “Let’s see what happens tonight, and tomorrow at mass I will address them one by one, call them by their name, confront them all together. Let’s see how they react.”
That night the women went at it again and next day in church our parish priest delivered the longest sermon of his life. I will not transcribe the whole thing here, how he drove on the point that faith in God and prayer to the Saints would deliver them from the Devil, but let me paraphrase Ephesians 6:10-18, a passage around which he built his sermon. He told them they needed to stand firm, to wear the whole Armor of God around their souls, the Belt of Truth fastened on their hearts, the Breastplate of Righteousness on, and the Gospel of Peace on their feet. Because, he said, this was their struggle, the women’s struggle, not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and authorities, against powers outside of them, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Stand, he commanded them one by one.
And one by one the women stood: their head bowed and their shoulders tight, struggling against the devil, neither knowing who or what the devil was, nor what they were being asked. And we thought that maybe this did the trick, but when midnight struck they left their homes again. Zombie like, with belt, breastplate and armor torn to pieces underneath their strength they gathered at the feet of the Founder’s statue – of which you could not have possibly known that it stood erect at that exact same spot you pointed at – and began their rapturous mystical performance once again.
That was also the night my sister joined them, the night her own flesh and blood told her she was no longer a girl, but a woman. Much later, when I asked her what she remembered about it, she said something similar to what my mother said, that every night during that time she had had very bad dreams she could not recall, while every day it was as if spring had entered into her blood and all she wanted to do was sing. And so, for a whole month they went hysterical at night and acted normal during the day, going about their daily chores with their usual energy. While the men, impotent on the face of it all, gathered to talk at the café or at the grocery store, where they shook their heads and grunted the whole time, their thoughts running around in circles in vain.
Now look, this story is nearing its end, so the reason for my direct address to you must become clear. If I know anything about stories at all is that this particular one, because of the inexplicable nature of these occurrences, might read like an allegory or like a somewhat long parable for gender oppression and inequality. Things which exist not only in little conservative towns as out of the way as ours is, but even in big cities in the center of the world where people live by higher standards of emancipation. And if that’s the way you want to read it, go ahead, since the only thing I would never do is impose myself on the way something is read.
But I also want you to know that even though there might be references in literature to similar episodes of dark and uncontrollable frenzy by an oppressed group, this is not that kind of story, but a chronicle that roughly sketches an event that actually took place. So I mean it neither as a parable, nor as an allegory. After all, though lost in space and lost in time, our town is not allegorical, but real; you have seen it with your own eyes, and if you haven’t, ask me and I will give you directions.
Could I have told this differently? Other than I still would not have been able to tell you why the women were behaving this way, absolutely yes! I could have referred to the mayor and his brother and the priest and everybody else by their names rather than by their profession or title, told you the real name of the town, too, and maybe even described the interior of the grocery store in vivid detail as the townsfolk argued with no final resolutions.
Melting snow and heavy rains for a whole week during this episode caused a massive mudslide that blocked the road at a point about ten miles out of town. So I could have told you that even though the women helped clean up the road just as much as the men, everyone’s energy completely drained from all of this extra physical labor, they still didn’t stop going out in the cold and rain every night to participate in “an activity dangerously bordering political subversion,” as the grocer – sour as always from never winning the mayoral race – put it. While my mother and my sister also tended to my father who fell ill with fever for three days during the time the road was being fixed.
Or I could have also told you that the night I asked my sister about what she remembered was the last night I spent in town before departing to make a living in the big city. We were in my room and she was helping me pack. I gave her instructions about what to feed the dog and she warned me to be careful out there in the big city. Her voice tender like a lullaby and her eyes moist. Glimpses of the nostalgia the future would bring and of the strength needed towards that future on her face. Her hugs the last refuge to a time I didn’t want to depart from, and I don’t know what prompted me to ask. “Oh, how I wanted to sing,” she said looking outside the window at a wisp of a moon. “But it was as if I couldn’t, as if something was holding in it my throat.”
In short, I could have used all the tropes and techniques that make fiction feel as real as life can be, but none of that would have conveyed the urgency of the fact that this story is not an allegory. One way I seriously thought would be effective was if I chose one of the characters, and try to convey through them, though perhaps less adequately, not the ideas about the thing – as a poet once put it – but the thing itself. I believe you’ll agree with me if I say that our parish priest is the most suitable candidate for this. His choice from The Book of Ephesians and the context in reaction to which The Word was preached may lead anyone to believe that his investment lied in some form of liberation theology by lending a voice to the voiceless and strength to a scrawny cry, giving hope to a just struggle and aligning with the weak.
But then I would have to tell you that that is out of his character and it has always been; he never preached the gospel of the sword, but only the gospel of peace. Reading from the Ephesians was not a deliberate choice, taking on a feminist tone in order to arrive at what might have been the real root of the problem, but only a lucky strike among a series of sermons that went on for more than a month. Until he finally hit on the note of idolatry during one of his Sunday sermons, and proposed later that day at the town café that we remove the statue of the Founder and throw it off a cliff. “You want the Devil,” he said. “That’s the Devil.”
The parish priest knew that removing the statue of the Founder was not an easy task. It could be perceived as an iconoclastic gesture, as an open war between the church and the other authorities, which usually went hand in hand with unpredictable consequences in the order of things. And neither he, nor anyone else wanted a change. So the fact that the Founder had not been a Christian at all, and that he had had a multiple number of wives at the same time, could not be used for the very same reason that it was kept hush-hush until then. On the other hand, it was well known that the Founder had escaped a big city before settling in the area and founding the town, even though the reason as to why he had escaped had always been obscure.
The parish priest remembered having read in The Lives of The Saints by an Irish monk of the 18th century, about the case of a woman saint who had devoted her whole life to iconoclasm – tearing down man made images of saints, fighting against idolatry, and so on – with the ironic twist that after her death, her life’s work was commemorated with a statue in her image. If that story could be attributed to the Founder, thought the priest, if the reason for the Founder escaping the big city were that he belonged to a persecuted iconoclastic party, then the task would be much easier. It also helped that the artist who had sculpted the statue of the Founder had a reputation for mocking the authorities through his art. In fact, the nose of the Founder was indecently huge.
The priest went to the town hall and told the mayor what was in his mind, and before he even made it back to the church, the story of why the Founder had escaped the big city spread like wild fire, his iconoclastic works and subsequent persecution embellished with greater and greater detail as it was passed from one ear to the next. And everyone passing in front of the statue that whole week would look at the Founder’s nose and spit sideways in disgust or suck their teeth in disapproval.
We made the decision to tear it down that Saturday at the town café. Next day we threw a rope around its chest and another around its neck; and when we pulled with all of the might of the town, the statue broke just above the ankles; and when it hit the ground, the neck also broke from the shock and the head rolled away; and when we thought that the rolling head would smash the grocery store stands, it hit the pavement, jumped from the impact, span once, wobbled for balance and came to a rest on the curb, where the mayor’s brother bent over it and hammered away at the nose with a rock.
Then jumping up with joy and cheering like little children; leaving scratch marks on the road and the still frozen ground; trailing a blaze of broken branches and crushed shrubs in the forest; scaring away flocks of birds and surprising beasts dead on their tracks, we dragged away the statue with the monster truck of the mayor’s brother and threw it off the cliff, where we watched as it fell silently into the void before it smashed to unrecognizable pieces.
As soon as we got back to town we knew that things had turned back to normal. People hanging out at the grocery store were questioning the wisdom in our decision: what if the women were to follow the statue off the cliff that night? But they didn’t. They did go out of their homes at midnight, but no sooner did they make ten steps from the door when, as if reminded about something, they turned around and went back to bed – and if you discard the fact that all visitors point to where the statue once stood and utter the same words that you’ve once uttered, nothing as inexplicable as this has ever happened again.
In fact, I’m happy to inform you that even that does not happen anymore: since the last time you were here – our whole effort put to the following use – we’ve built a drinking fountain on the spot where the statue once stood, out of the same stone our houses are built and in the same decorative style, a wall with Bacchus’s face surrounded by carved grape leaves, out of two of which on either side of the face comes out the water, the whole thing glistening in the sunset, the veins of the stone going through the decoration as if it was alive; so if you come back, everything will be exactly the same, only that just before leaving us, you will go to the fountain, you will lower your head to drink the razor sharp icy water coming gently out a leaf, the low sun dreamily entering through your closed eyelids, a soft breeze on your skin, and for a moment which you will try to extend to eternity, nothing will matter, and everything will make perfect sense.