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He rode around to the north side of the lot and down the alley that ran between the horse’s fence and the blue house of Božidar Sokalski, going somewhat too quickly for decorum and wishing he were not so painfully aware of such minor and essentially unimportant transgressions. After swerving around a final mud puddle, he pulled up at the gate and hopped down so quickly that the bicycle collapsed awkwardly against the fence. Ignoring it, Rišto advanced on the teen who was, as he had expected, clearly Roma. His face was brown like a leather belt, his hair was short and deeply black, and he stood watching Rišto with the air of a person studying a distant highway accident.
“Zdravo,” said Rišto, not sure how else to begin. It had been years since he’d addressed a Roma, any Roma, of any age. “My name is Rišto Karadelev. I work for the city. Could you tell me who owns this land?”
The boy regarded Rišto for a long moment, his hands slowly shedding yellow hay. Finally, he said, “I have to feed the horse.”
Rišto explained that he was on important city business. The boy simply backed away and said, “The horse needs to be fed.”
“Zošto?” demanded Rišto, suddenly and irrationally piqued. “Why must it be fed? What if it weren’t?”
“It’s an animal,” the boy said, as matter-of-factly as if he’d just announced that the Vardar would surely flood in spring. “We have to take care of our animals.”
No amount of prodding or logic would move the boy, though Rišto spent the next five minutes giving it his best effort, and when he resorted to bribery, which everyone said always worked on the Roma — they trained their children to beg, for God’s sake — Rišto met with a head shake and hands shoved deep into threadbare, second-hand pockets. “Please don’t come back,” said the boy as he left, latching but not locking the gate behind him, and Rišto was left alone, alone in the gold-spangled sunshine of a late summer’s evening, with a single chewing mare for company.
He did not follow the boy, although he was sorely tempted. Instead, he bicycled home, preparing himself for yet another silent, accusatory dinner, the kind that he knew Nikola, and himself, to be entirely capable of allowing. Nikola, however, had been buoyed by news from Sašo, and from the moment Rišto entered, she not only paused in her mealtime flurry, she embraced him, pecked him on the cheek, and peppered him with questions. He bristled only for a moment. Why shouldn’t she be nosy? This was her future, too. Shouldn’t he be proud to have a wife who saw the critical junctures in life with such clarity, and took a proper, healthy interest?
“Sašo,” explained Nikola, “has been asking around, and there is someone you must speak to. Sašo will introduce you. Tomorrow morning, at the bazaar.”
“And this person is … ?”
“Punka. I don’t know if that’s his first name or his last name.” Her eyes turned merry as she took in his growing dismay. “Da,” she said, “he is Roma. But maybe this is fate, Rišto. For you, of all people, to go hat in hand to the Roma.”
“You don’t like the Roma, either.”
“No, but I don’t go out of my way to avoid them.”
“So this is fate?”
“You don’t think so?”
“Skopje,” said Rišto, his chest puffed out like a solemn, portly bear, “is a modern city. There is no room in modern Skopje for fate.”
And they both burst out laughing.
The next morning, Rišto woke early, then dressed and undressed three times, his indecision littering the bedroom with rejected outfits. What did a man of authority wear to an important meeting with a highly placed Roma? Nikola, draped in sheets, sleepily ordered him to simply wear his suit. “It will show respect,” she said. “Don’t be late.”
Rišto set off for his rendezvous with a light heart. His black dress shoes snapped on the pavement stones as he headed up and over the ancient tawny arc of the Stone Bridge, and the River Vardar slipping away below him, its only thought the sea and release. Rišto imagined for a moment that he was a fish, first resisting the current, intent on holding his position, then gradually giving in, allowing the inexorable downhill to slip him south to Thessaloniki and the certain death of Grecian salt water. No, he thought; no negativity. He had a job, and errant fantasies would be no help.
The orderly streets and well-maintained plaza of the Makedonija Ploštad gave way completely once across the Vardar. Here lay Skopje’s Old Town, a maze of broken bricks and closet-sized storefronts, mostly whitewashed and single-storied, all perched on the sloping hills with no more forethought than a tangled forest. The minarets of a mosque showed now and then over the tiled rooftops, and from an alley, Rišto caught the sound of a mutt whining, then of chickens scampering for a handful of newly flung corn. It was early, the narrow streets nearly devoid even of foot traffic, but Sašo’s little shop, The Sultan’s Jewel, stood open, and Sašo himself sat on the stoop, greedily slurping up burek with a spoon, his chin stained white from the yogurt in which he’d drowned his pastry-dough breakfast.
Rišto stopped some ten yards away, eyeing Sašo with what he hoped was not obvious distaste. Sašo smirked at him, wiped away the yogurt with one meaty thumb, then stuck it in his mouth to lick it clean. His leering face reminded Rišto forcibly of Milco’s; it was predatory, amused and even amusing, but at its core, smug.
“Dobro utro,” said Rišto. “Are we ready?”
By way of answer, Sašo shoved his bowl along the floorboards and closed the door behind him. After carefully locking it, he turned, jammed his broad hands on his hips and looked Rišto up and down as if he were surveying a new window display. “Da,” he said, “I think you’ll do.”
They walked up the hill, the street entirely enclosed by the rows of serpentine, shoulder-to-shoulder shops. At one point, a Roma man rode towards them on a bicycle contraption, its front forks elongated and supporting a wooden crate nearly two meters long. The crate was full to bursting with cabbages. Rišto watched with a mix of awe and disgust as the man, a jaunty pork-pie hat set atop his handsome head, slowly rode by. He heard the Director’s voice echo deep within him, like the refrain to an invasive, unwanted song: “Skopje is a modern city … ”