Three days ago, I was driving back from the horses, through the lingering twilight of an August evening. On the small road of lower Dojan, Hussen Halucaj’s wife flags me down.
Other than waving cheerfully in passing – I which I have to do to everyone as everyone seems to know my name and calls out cheerfully, so that some days driving home is like participating in a jubilee parade – I’ve only really spoken to her once before, when I crashed into one of the cement posts of her neighbor’s fence at 10 am, going about 2 km per hour because I was texting Jordi. It made a god-awful crunching crash, and I was backing up guiltily (having just texted “Goodness! I hit a fence!”) with all of an American’s instinctive fear of police, insurance, litigation and ire, when she popped out of their gate, looking around wildly. The cement post was considerably the worse for wear – snapped in half actually – and the whole corner of my front bumper had crumpled.
“I am SO sorry about your fence!” I burst out.
“Never mind the fence – are you okay?”
Oh yes, I grin like an idiot. Tropojans have wonderful priorities.
“Oh but your car!” she says, and “Nevermind THAT” I say grandly, returning priority for priority. “But I am sorry for the fence.” Pooh, she says, or the equivalent thereof. Then eyes me “You weren’t driving fast were you?” Oh NO, I say (I wasn’t!). “Because people drive too fast here!” I KNOW, I say. “I never do . . . “ then in a spirit of strict honestly because she’s probably seen the car “Sometimes Jordi . . . “ but she doesn’t know who he is and loses interest. “Well I’m glad you’re okay – goodbye!” and back inside she goes. (I can’t help thinking that in America, by now the police would have been called, and papers would be being exchanged . . . )
When she flags me down, I am therefore worried.
“How are you? Are you tired? Have you had work? Have you seen Hussen’s horse?” she asks breathlessly. Her face is crumpled with worry, and she looks around rather wildly. “Because we thought you know maybe she would go down to yours?”
Speaking strictly logically, I have seen the horse – many times – a dainty 3 year old dun mare, and so actually know who she’s talking about. But not just now. So “No,” I say, and then “Is she lost?” Stupid question, but the sort of thing you say, inviting more. My face is crumpling a bit too.
Hussen loves horses. Last year he had a white mare who had a tiny black foal born in autumn. “That will be hard,” said Ashley. “It’s hard for small horses to pass the winter.” I was happy when I spotted them again in spring. Sometimes they were in a little meadow, sometimes they were grazing by the side of the road. The little foal had grown, and after I stopped to pet him once he used to try to follow me down the road, nipping and biting and generally being an adolescent horror. His mother would hop desperately after us, as she was hobbled, and the foal had all the arrogance of a baby and ignored her anxious cries.
Hussen always stops to talk to me, especially about horses, as he’s seen me walking my three (and then two) down to the summer meadow or back up when they run away. Earlier this summer, when I had to walk Johnnie and Griva back down to what I’d taken to calling the Mordor Meadow of Doom, after Duli was eaten by wolves there, I had to lead them down a narrow track between fences inclosing grass fields and lined with massive blackberry brambles on the righthand side. The horses and I were both jumpy. I don’t know whose nerves were feeding whose, but all three of us were depressed, nervous, scared. I saw a man on a tractor, cutting the grass, and thought OH HELL. Getting Johnnie past a tractor would be a nightmare. To my amazement the man turned the tractor away from the lane and cut the engine. Then I saw it was Hussen. Of course. He understands. He hopped down to talk to me while Griva stood with her head hung in submissive, hopeless depression, and Johnnie snorted and pawed, doing his best to dash about in what was only a meter wide path. I hung on to their ropes. We chatted, the horses did their individual things, and then Johnnie swerved around and bumped me head first into the blackberry hedge. “They’re very wild,” said Hussen. Yes, I said, having climbed out of the hedge, feeling blood dripping into my eye, “Well, goodbye!” and carried on.
A few months ago the white mare and black foal disappeared, to be replaced by a slender dun mare with a beautiful dun foal. “I traded them!” said Hussen happily. “Hey – you can’t believe how fast she is!” So I took to watching out for them instead.
Maybe 3 weeks ago, the foal disappeared. I asked after him, the next time I saw Hussen. “Eh. Wolves got him. Just down there, below the mosque.”
And now the mare was missing.
Back in March, after a particularly stormy night of crashing winds and no electricity, Jordi and I woke up to find the front gate open. The horses were nowhere to be seen. We dashed out and up the hill, following the road to Markaj, trailed by a sad scarf of dogs. I went grim and silent, as I tend to do in catastrophies of my own making (Why hadn’t I got up to check the gate? Why hadn’t I reinforced the fence? That gate shut with a proper sliding bolt – how could it have opened? Did someone steal them? Did someone malicious open the gate on purpose? What had I done that someone would hate me that much? WHERE WERE THEY?). Jordi held my hand. Don’t worry, we’ll find them. From the heights of Markaj I looked around at all Tropoja spread below us. Will we? HOW? We continued wandering the heights. We ran into the nice man with the deaf brother who runs the byrek shop and isn’t afraid of the dogs (he’s the only man who isn’t). He hasn’t seen any horses. Eventually we run into Zulfi, back from her morning run to bring coca cola bottles of fresh milk into Bajram Curri to sell. “Your horses? Listen – they won’t be up here. Horses only go where they know. They’ll have gone back down to Bujan (the summer meadows). Go look for them there! Really! Watch for poops, and hoof marks. Go!” So we do, and there they are. “Goodness! Catherine! Where have you been? We’ve been out here for hours!” they say. I walk them home. They get out a few more times over the summer, after this, and after this I always find them, no problem. Always they look relieved to see me, and always surprised I didn’t find them sooner. “What on earth have you been doing, to leave us out here like this?”
But now the dun mare is missing. And Hussen comes up, and he is worried. “She didn’t go to your horses?” he asks. No. And I didn’t pass her on the road. The engine is humming. Ana is on the backseat. “You want to go look for her?” I ask. It’s late, the day is ending. I am tired, and I want to go home. But I know the panic, the guilt, the worry, too well. “Well . . . “ He wants to say no. But. “Either she’s gone back towards Rosuja, Lekbibaj, Gheghysen . . . or the wolves got her too.” We could go look. Well . . . . okay, he says, just a little, and starts to open the door. Spots Ana on the back seat. “Will she bite me?” Not if you’re not afraid of her. No no he says, and opens the door, hops in. Ana sniffs hopefully, and then sighs, and flops down on the back seat.
And we take the road to Rosuja. After the asphalt ends, there’s a dirt track. This splits, and Hussen tells me to take the lower road. I have no idea why he knows where to go. Apparently she went this way once before. But he doesn’t know where she came from. I traded horses with the gypsies, he says, so she could have come from anywhere. We stop to ask the only people we see in the road. Have you seen a horse? “Maybe,” says one young man. Which is a funny sort of answer. “I think so maybe.” It is full dark by now. We turn a corner and there are some dogs in the road. Only they are not dogs, they are two enormous wild boar. WOW! We both shout. “If only I had a gun,” says Hussen. And then thinks about it “In America they would arrest me for shooting a boar, wouldn’t they?” We stop the car and get out to look at them. They crash away into the scrub. Oh well. It’s too dark now, says Hussen. And we turn around and go home.
When I drop him at the house, I make a point of writing down my phone number. If you want to go look, I tell him, call me. I’m not really doing anything, it’s fine. I am kicking myself as I say it. But I know the panic, the guilt, the worry. He can’t have a car of his own, or he never would have accepted my first offer. He looks at the scrap of paper skeptically. Maybe he doesn’t have glasses. Maybe he can’t read. Maybe he doubts why I would be willing to help. But he takes it. We say goodnight and I go home.
The next night, I am coming back from the horses. My neighbor Gzim has come with me. He’s a strange young man. Gaunt. I’d think he was a pest, except . . . Ana used to terrorize him. She attacked him regularly and he threw stones at her. His family are one of my direct neighbors, and his mother is wont to make outrageous demands – of friendship, of kinship, of kindness. When I first moved in (before I had 10 dogs) she would just march into my house at 7 am and throw open my bedroom door. Sit on my bed. “Why are you still asleep? Get up! And what is that dog doing in bed with you? Throw him out!” Gyl – Get OUT of my bedroom, I’d say. “I thought maybe you’d like to give me 300 euro, so I can visit my daughter in France?” NO, I said, and didn’t talk to her for a year. “She’s hurt,” said a weird Albanian American girl, “She was only trying to help. She thought you were lonely.” I’m not, I said, and I don’t care.
One day I was coming back from the shops, and happened to have a bag of sausages. Ana leapt out of the car, and went straight for Gzim, who happened to be hanging around. Hanging around is what men mostly do here. I chased her, and frustrated by his reciprocal attack said “Why don’t you just make FRIENDS with her? Look, here are some sausages. Give her one!” To my surprise “Okay,” he said. And happily fed her half a bag of sausages. She’s going to get sick, stop it, I said. But thought about it.
The next day I went to town and bought a bag of sausages. I called Gzim, who said he was a bit busy, but “I’ve bought you a bag of sausages to give to Ana,” I said. I’ll hang them on your gate. And I did.
I know that they live mostly off public assistance, which means that the idea of spending MONEY on SAUSAGES to feed to a DOG is quite possibly offensive.
The next next day, I was sitting on the front porch. Gzim came up to the gate. Oh HELL, I thought, now he thinks we’re friends, and he’s going to ask me for something. But he just stood by the gate and called “Ana! Ana!” and then he threw her sausages. She gobbled them up happily. “Well goodnight,” he said, and left. Well, I thought.
A while later, I was driving up, Ana was in the backseat. Gzim was hanging around. Ana started whining when she saw him. I was astounded. I stopped the car. “Let her out,” called Gzim, who could hear her whining. “We’re friends now.” And Ana leapt out of the car and ran to him. Jumped up and put her paws on his shoulders. She slobbered all over him, and he patted her happily. “You are a remarkable man,” I told him. “Not many will bother to turn an enemy into a friend.” So I like him. Despite the fact that I’m still suspicious. He occasionally calls me when he’s having an emergency, usually to do with one of the series of disastrous cars he has the misfortune to occasionally own. If you could just lend me 1000 lek? I’ll give it back to you tonight! He’s done this twice. He’s never paid me back. But I don’t care. Just last week I came back from Kosova, having bought a refrigerator. I was highly skeptical about how to get it into the house, but there were some people staying, so I thought we could do it. When I pulled up, Gzim was hanging around. He put his arms through the narrow plastic cords of the refridgerator box, hauled it onto his skinny back and carried it into the house.
Yesterday he asked me to tow his car up the hill, so he could roll it down again and jump start it. No, I said. I did this for him once, years ago, when he owned an enormous industrial truck and destroyed my clutch which cost me 400 euro to replace. Although to be fair it was mostly because I didn’t know how to drive a 4×4 properly. Please? He says. Oh alright, I say. But you buy the next clutch. It’s only because you don’t know how to drive, he says. Which is fair enough. His brother is helping. She’s my friend, he tells the brother. I feel a bit guilty. But it all goes well.
I really want to see your horses he says. I’m bored in the house he says, which seems amazingly honest to me. You know how it is, he tells me. Alone in the house. The rest of his family has moved to the Bjeshk for summer, but “What would I do there?” he says. It’s lonely in the house, he says. And it is. I wouldn’t normally admit this to anyone else. But he knows. So you’ll take me to the horses? When? Tonight. Oh alright I say. I go in and fall asleep. Wake up at 6pm. There’s thunder, lightning. I am scared about crossing the meadow to go to the horses, and think I’d better just go. I’ll tell Gzim I forgot, I think to myself. But when I go out, there he is, playing with his car. It won’t start. Again. “Problem with a plug!” he shouts despairingly, happily. Well I’m going, I say. Are you coming or not? Okay he says, and climbs in. Ana wags her tail from the back seat. “You weren’t going to call me, were you?” he says. I saw you, I say. “You would have said you’d forgot,” he says, and I grin at him. And for the first time think – this might actually be a friend.
We go to the horses. He’s appalled that I park the car and cross the meadows on foot. “But you could drive there!” Yes, but then I’d have to pass Sadik’s house, and he’ll come out and yell at me. So I’d rather walk. You didn’t HAVE to come, I think to myself, I don’t care if you don’t like it. But he takes Ana’s leash (a heavy chain), and walks with me happily. We head down the dell. “I didn’t even know this path was here,” he says. I am smug. I think I probably know more paths, in more places, than any other Tropojan. This is not to say I know any ONE place better, but Tropojans stick to their own patches, and I go everywhere. So I know a little bit, about a lot more. At the horse meadow, he is amazed to find the river beach. But I used to swim here as a child. I come here twice a day, I say, come whenever you want.
We put the horses away (which is to say, I do, and he smokes, holds Ana’s chain and plays with his phone). He does insist on carrying the water bucket up from the river. Tropojan men, no matter how sketch, do know that they’re supposed to be what my grandmother would have called gentlemen.
We cross the meadows on foot and get back in the car. Start driving home. Ana is panting happily. On the road through lower Dojan, Hussen leaps out of his house. His shirt isn’t buttoned. I stop. “Do you have time to go look for the mare?” he asks. Gzim sighs. I sigh. Of course, I say – you still haven’t found her? This is the sort of idiotic thing people say, inviting more. No, says Hussen. I went on foot today all the way up there – gesturing vaguely at the surrounding mountains – but she was nowhere. Why didn’t you call me? I ask, being glad he didn’t. Oh well, he says. But now? Of course I say – what else could I say, and we set off. I miss a turn, so “no problem” says Hussen, and we drive across the meadows instead. Bumping through Vjollca’s flock of sheep “Where are you going?” she shouts, surprised to meet me in my car in the middle of her field. “To look for his horse. Have you seen it?” No.
Gzim is on the backseat with Ana. Hussen next to me. They are chatting wildly, doing the Albanian thing of establishing who and what they know in common. Places. Family. People known. Where horses go. I am relegated to being the weird a) foreign b) female. “Does she know what she’s doing?” says Hussen to Gzim, as – back on the asphalt – I speed past a tractor. “Oh yes,” says Gzim. She might be in Gheghysen, says Hussen, but I don’t have the number of anyone there. “I do,” I say “I know people in Gheghysen.” But they ignore me. “What is she saying?” asks Hussen. “I don’t know” says Gzim. I call Alfred, and get Shpejtim’s number. His mother is Sose’s sister. They are family. I dial, but no one answers. We drive as far as Gri, and there’s no sign of the dun mare. It’s dark now, so we turn around and go back. “Hej, you wouldn’t believe the boar we saw last night,” Hussen tells Gzim. Why didn’t you kill one? Asks Gzim. Didn’t have a gun, says Hussen. I could have hit them with the car, I say helpfully, and they ignore me.
In Dubrov, Hussen says – stop the car! I will give you some pears. His orchards are below the road. No no, says Gzim, and me. Get out and help me pick some, says Hussen to Gzim. I have a headache says Gzim. No one expects me to do anything, so I happily don’t. While Hussen is gone to the pear trees, Shpejtim calls me back. Oh Catherine! He says. How is your mother? I ask. Good, good he says. We’re looking for a horse, I tell him, and hand the phone to Gzim, who gives the details. Hussen comes back. His shirt is off again, and FULL of pears. He transfers the pears to my bag, filling it, and climbs back in. It’s dark. We drive back, eating pears, throwing the cores out the windows, and they are talking happily. Gzim is convinced he knows where horses go. I suspect it’s like his knowledge of car mechanics. Possible, but doubtful, but I don’t say anything. By the time we get to Hussen’s house – Hey, let’s go tomorrow, tomorrow morning? We can drink a coffee and raki at Bylbyl’s (this is a funny name – it means I think “Nightingale”). Okay sure, says Gzim. We’ll find your mare. Of course, I say. No one really listens to me. In the past I would be kicking myself. But . . . it is lonely in the house, as Gzim says. And why? What am I doing that is so important? Nothing. I have reached a crossroads in my life, where I don’t want to “work” anymore. I don’t care about work. I hate it. I hate money, and work, and “investment.” I want to LIVE. I want to wake up every morning like a child on summer vacation, doing things only because they’re there to be done. So. “I’ll wait by the road at 9 am?” says Hussen. Yes, I say, doing mental calculations. If I just let my horses OUT, and don’t try to work with them, I can probably be to Hussen by 9. We leave him and drive on. I pull up to our houses, and park. Don’t go without me, says Gzim. No no, I say. And we all go home and to sleep.
Only a dog barks all night. So I although I fall asleep, that wonderful sinking, maybe three times, I’m yanked out again. Around midnight I have had enough. I get up, wearing only underpants and a t-shirt of Jordi’s which is wide, but short now, as I’ve cut several inches off the bottom to tie up the tomato plants, and grab Jordi’s walking stick. Using the phone’s flashlight I stalk across my small land to chase the DAMN barking dog. It runs away. I go back in, and get back into bed, and pull Jane Eyre to me. The dogs shift and mutter. The kittens purr. Eventually I sleep.
I wake a bit later than usual, maybe 5:30. The sun is already up, but I feel not horribly unrested. I take a bath. I get dressed, and go to my horses. I muck out their stan, and go down to the river. Carry buckets and buckets of water to fill their tubs. Ana tracks me. I sit by the river and read Jane Eyre. Rochester was about to explain where Adele came from. Jane is in love by now, but chastising herself. How stupid can you be, to think someone would love you. You are plain and inconvenient. I suppose it makes sense that I hated it as a beautiful young girl. But now I love it. I AM Jane Eyre. I look at the phone. Oh shit. It’s 9 am. I start walking back up, and my phone rings. “Hello?”
“I am the wife of Hussen. Are you really going to go look for the horse today?”
Yes, I say, I am very sorry, I lost the time. But I’m coming. 15 minutes and I’ll be there. Okay. He will be at the door of the house.
I know. I know that despair I had, when I couldn’t find my horses for a few hours. It’s been 3 days now. And she was a delicate, small mare. Her shoulder came only to just below Hussen’s shoulder. Just the sort of thing wolves like to eat. And Tropoja is big. Even if she’s alive, who would know that she is his? He took her from the gypsies. And no one knows them. It’s probably hopeless by now. Even Hussen was saying that last night. “Perhaps she’s gone to Lekbibaj, but if she’s that far, she’s lost . . . “
Still. You have to try. I’m not sure why, but you do. Maybe only because doing nothing is worse.
I get back to the car. I call Gzim. I don’t forget him saying last night “You would have pretended you’d forgotten me.” Heh Ketrin, he answers. What are you doing? I’ve been preparing myself to argue with him, because last night he’d said he would only come if he could drive my car. He doesn’t like it in the back seat. But neither do I, and I want to argue about it. But: I’m just meeting someone now, he says, maybe we can go later? “But we left it for 9 am,” I say. “ooh – you’re very good, he says, very precise.” I’m not, I say, I’m already 20 minutes late. But I’ve become Albanian I say. And he laughs. So we’ll go, I say, and talk to you later. Good. No fight about who drives.
I get to the house, Hussen is waiting. Where’s that boy? He asks. He had to meet someone I say. Hah. Says Hussen. And we set off on this impossible mission, to find a lost horse somewhere in the vast deeps of Tropoja. He tells me to drive the way we did, the first night, where we saw the boar. He has a bag. Do you mind if I smoke? No not at all. Do you want some raki? No, I say. Not because I don’t like it, but because if I start, I won’t stop. He asks me if I’m a drunk. I don’t think so, I say. He has a small plastic salt bag with him, and rolls out an egg yolk. It is the most brilliant yellow I’ve ever seen. He hands it to me. And then rolls out a bigger egg. Gives me that as well. I hold them in my hand, driving, shifting gears, and eat them. They are delicious. He tells me where to go, and we drive. He starts talking about politics. He was “interned” during communism. Five years he was exiled to Vlora because his brother opposed the communist state. This is like death for Albanians. To be separated from family, from land. From belonging. He offers to shoe my horses. Yes, please, I say, but not now. In a month. No today, he says. No, I say. And I show him my elbow. The scar. I fell off the horse, I say, because I didn’t understand them. They put iron in my elbow. Sadik is mad at me. I have to find a place to put them in winter. And pacify Sadik, to return next summer. “But who was with you, when you were injured?” he says. No one, I say. He can believe it, but only just. You were ALONE? And now? Who is with you now?
I shrug and look at Ana.
And we go back to talking about corruption. Mostly Hussen just wants to talk. I have to shout, to interrupt him to say anything. The state is corrupt! He says. Yes I know, I try to say, but this is the problem: people LET it be corrupt. He isn’t listening. We get nothing! They don’t care about us. It’s neoliberalism, I say, they don’t care about anyone. He carries on shouting, as our eyes scan the fields. We turn onto the forest track of the boar. America isn’t like here! Here it is utterly utterly corrupt. Finally I get his attention. You know how much it costs in America, to get a tooth fixed? How much? 500 dollars. Maybe. That was ten years ago. Five hundred dollars? He says. Yes, I say, maybe more. And from the state? he asks me. The state won’t fix your teeth, I say. You have to pay the 500 euros.
Uah. In fact, I heard this from my sister, he says.
Now is that corruption? In America, we say that is the cost, and the state backs it up. “But here they will pull your tooth for 20 euros,” he says.
Exactly I say.
And then we turn a corner, and on a small dirt road, in the middle of the forest, is the dun mare. I screech the car to a stop. Hussen jumps out. The mare runs away. “Hajde hajde,” he calls her. And I realize. We have brought no corn. He doesn’t even have a rope. Happily there are 20 meters of rope in the back of the car. We didn’t really think we’d find her. But there she is. She runs away. Up the road. We stop to tie Ana to the back of the car, and follow up the road on foot. We have SEEN her. She is alive. We know where she is. Now it’s just a chase. “Eh,” says Hussen, “she’s not so easy to catch.”
There’s no sign of her. Hussen looks in the dust of the road, for hoof prints. We go back, put Ana, who is already desperate at being left, back in, and get back in the car. We drive up the narrow road. Quite soon, it splits. The dirt road continues, but there’s a turn for a house. I pull the car over. Let’s look for tracks? Hussen ignores me. I am only foreign and a woman. He heads off down the road. I run up the steep path to the house. I am bent double, arms crossed behind my back, staring at the dust. I do not feel like Natty Bumpo, but more like Sherlock Holmes. Here are some tracks. Split hooves. A cow then. But here is a round print. The dun mare isn’t shod, so there should be a trace of her frog. I think I see it. Off center, but it looks familiar, from the time I’ve spent recently cleaning and studying the feet of my own horses. Maybe? I run up the road. Hussen has carried on up the main road. I think he thinks I’m stupid, staring at the dirt, knowing nothing, despite the fact that he did it, earlier. I have no idea how far this road goes. So I run on – and how amazing to be able to RUN uphill, happily. And there is a gate, and in front of the gate, is the dun mare.
E GJETA! I call back, with all the strength of lungs I have. Ana has leapt out of the open car window and is coming to me. The mare is grazing by the gate. I speak. I catch Ana and tie her. I go up to the mare and say “You don’t know me, but I’m so sorry for your loss.” I reach out and touch her. Stroke. She lets me. I get to her head, and I tickle her. She has a rope around her neck. I take it gently. Hussen is shouting below. “She must have gone up the road!” I stroke her. She nuzzles my stomach. NO. SHE’S HERE. I wonder if I can lead her down, how triumphant that would be. But she doesn’t know me. I stand by her head, and whisper in her ear.
And eventually Hussen comes.
And we are happy. Even the mare I think is happy. “He’s been so worried,” I tell her.