Life with Shepherds

Life with Shepherds

It’s a beautiful morning.  I have woken, as I usually do when alone, sometime before the sun rises. 

People talk about the pleasures of a good night’s sleep, but given me a broken night, any time.  The sheer glee of waking – it’s dark – and fumbling for a phone (to check the time), half dreading what it will say.  It’s only 1 am!  Burrow back down, pull the covers up, be selfish enough to knee a puppy or two out of the way (there are ALWAYS puppies in my bed – aren’t there in yours?), switch off the light if, as usual, you’ve fallen asleep reading, and sink back down into what might as well be Elysian fields.  Slumberland.  Have you also read the articles where people point out that considering how much of our lives we spend asleep, it’s strange that we don’t think of sleep as another land we inhabit.  Maybe being awake is the dream?

No matter how many times I wake, surface, and dive again, left to myself I WILL wake just before the sun rises.  The adhan will roll out at some point.  I can never figure out whether it’s recorded or not.  Or how it crept into my life.  Most people here are annoyed by it.  But it was a gift, so leave it.  I actually like being called to remember to be grateful.  You only ever really hear it at these early hours, or as the day is sinking.  Still.  Lying in bed, perhaps with a foot in my face – there was one this morning.  I reached out blindly to embrace what I thought was Ana and found I’d hugged a tail instead.  The foot waived happily in my face, I shoved it away.  We dozed.  But not for long.

Light stains the mountains orange sherbert outside my window.  The kind that used to cover popsicles filled with rich vanilla ice cream.  I am awake.  I untangle the summer blanket, dislodge a purring kitten, which rolls onto a puppy, who wuffles and sighs, and I get up. 

Mornings are magical.

Life is magical.

I start every day wondering, like a child on summer holiday, what I should do today.  Somehow I have slipped out of the land of imperatives, and musts, and only just encounter the ought-tos.  Just lately, since the water came back, I’ve been taking baths.  I light a candle or two, listen to the water pour out of the tap (oh luxury) and read.  Well, that’s after rushing downstairs and into the only-just-still-dark morning, rattling an empty ice cream tub of dog food.  This, you understand, is to lure the dogs (there are 10 at the moment, 7 of whom are puppies) out of the house and into the morning, into which – once they’re there – I firmly shut them.  They will pee on the floor.  And worse.  THEN the bath.  Today I was reading Jane Eyre.  I didn’t like this when I was a teenager.  Now I think it’s wonderful.  I splash around in the bath, prop my legs on the wall, and want to punch Jack in the eye myself.  Yay Jane.

Now I have to go to the horses.  Alright, there are a few imperatives, but as I chose them, they seem less oppressive.  Today will be a simple day.  I borrowed the rake from their stall yesterday, so I have to bring it back today.  I set off with Ana-on-a-chain, in the 4×4 (“Harusha” – ‘bear’ she’s called), with the rake in the back.  I could drive all the way to the horse meadow, but I’d have to pass Sadik’s house, and the chances are good that he’s lying in wait for me – he called me twice yesterday about an old woman who wants to sell handicrafts and despite the fact that I told him I never buy anything myself – I am too stupid to know the value of things, or the price (Oscar Wilde) – Aferdita does the buying – “No no, she wants to speak only with you!” so I stopped answering the phone.  Therefore, and because I like it, I park Harusha near Papi’s, lock the doors (the windows are open), hold on to Ana’s chain and put the rake over my shoulder.  I am thinking about equilibrium, and the pleasure of balancing your arm on the handle of a rake, as it dangles back over your shoulder.  Gravity is a beautiful thing.  I cross the road and set off across the meadows towards the horses.  There is a sort of wide gully, or dell, which leads you into a small patch of forest between two ridges, and onto a pretty forest trail straight down to where the horses are.  The light is lovely.  Crisp and golden.  Horizontal.  Picking out each blackberry bush, every stone, the small and crunchy grass and thyme that are all that’s covering the red earth at the moment.  On the ridge to my left, I can hear Mujo – as usual singing and whistling to himself, shouting the odd bits of a lifetime of propaganda – sometimes fascist slogans, sometimes communist.  Often in Italian.  Once, I gave him some cookies I’d made, and told him they were from “an American recipe.”  “AH!  Imperialist biscuits!” he said happily.  Normally, when he sees me, he shouts out things like “O Ylli i maleve” (oh star of the mountains).  Today he doesn’t see me, and I look up to watch him picking blackberries and eating his way from bush to bush.  I can hear the bells of his cows on the path in front of me.  Then, from the ridge on my right, I hear another shepherd call him “What are you doing Mujo?  Collecting small kakadhia? (goat shit).”  Mujo laughs and shouts back.  Neither has seen me.

I shift my rake on my shoulder, and call out from the depths of the dell – where perhaps Zana linger – “Mos u hani kakadhia! Rruani shnet!”  (Don’t eat goat shit – protect your health!) and “Oooh!” comes the call from the invisible man on my right, who dissolves in laughter.  Shit jokes are not strictly polite, but if I’m teasing him, we are friends.  Mujo spots me and “O Lule e Botes (oh flower of the world) he calls out.  You’re going to the horses?  “Yes,” I call back “You want me to take your cows?”  No, no —he says – I’ll be there soon, they know the way.

Two or three hours later, on the way back, Ana and I emerge from the forest.  Vjollca, the queen of the shepherds, spots me.  HAJDE! (Welcome – Come here!) she calls.  She’s standing with another woman in the middle of the blackberry meadows.  Normally I excuse myself.  The shepherds often have ‘nothing else’ to do all day, besides taking the sheep in and out, and so are always up for a visit – why not?  But I of course have ‘things to do.’ Or do I?  Anyhow Vjollca is shouting something I can’t hear so, making a point of sticking my fingers in my ears (to clean them), I take a better grip on Ana (also known as “The Terror of Tropoja”) and go to see her.

Haaa! She says (the traditional Tropojan greeting, which sounds mostly like someone is surprised to see you and is also about to thump you one).  “We’ve been out here since 5 am and are tired.  Drive us home?”  “But Ana?” I say weakly.  “Will she bite us?”  “I don’t think so – not if you’re not scared,” I say.  “Well then!” bellows Vjollca, waving her parasol (an old stained white promotional umbrella) around.  “Sure” I say, ”But you know how she is about sticks” (eyeing the umbrella). “Ooops!” says Vjollca, and turns to lecture her friend on not waving things at Ana.  We join up, cross the road, and climb into the car.

After about age 40, there are two kinds of Tropojan women:  The skinny twigs (not generally admired) and the hefty Walrus women.  Vjollca is like a full rigged galleon under sail.  She is wearing a synthetic dress printed all over with lilac, pink and other-colored flowers.  Her trunk-like legs stick out the bottom of this, covered in some mad kind of gypsy pantaloons printed with what appear to be African designs (both legs different) and she has on black football socks with white stripes.  Add her Shamia, and the dirty white parasol and she is fabulous.  The other day she looked at me and said “Fifty-two?”  Yes, I nodded happily.  “Then we are sisters, because I am also 52.”  Today she says to me “So you’re alone in that house now?”  Yes, I say, shrugging at Ana.  “Are you frightened?” she asks.  No, I say, smiling happily again.  Her eyes narrow.  “You’re not afraid of much, are you?”  No, I say, still smiling.  This is what passes for small talk in Tropoja.  We climb into the car.

I take the turn for Dojan, and as we pass a little dirt lane “TURN TURN!” shout Vjollca and her friend (waving the ill-advised parasols).  What?  I ask.  “You don’t know this, do you?” grins Vjollca “We’ll show you!” and they lead me onto a wonderful dirt track, half running stream, that cuts directly through the farmhouses of lower Dojan.  “Well, now you know something!”  They tell me where to pull over “THIS is my house,” says Vjollca, “and you are very welcome, any time.”  “Do you drive this way every morning, at this time?” asks the friend hopefully.  “More or less,” I say. 

“Now why were all your lights on last night?” asks Vjollca.  Were they?  I say.  From lower Dojan, my house looks like a pinprick on the side of the mountain.  “Yes, on the top floor, until late,” she says.  Oh well.  I was writing a bit, I say.