(Page 5 of 7)
At the far end of the Old Town’s warren of stone-walled alleys lay the bazaar, a sort of permanent tent city where vendors of all kinds hawked their wares. There was no rhyme or reason to it, so that a man selling rabbit skin vests adjoined a fishmonger and he a bootlace vendor. Lacquered wooden toys waited alongside hanging tongs and long metal ladles; large fresh pheasants dangled in pairs by their trussed-up feet. Shrink-wrap was not in evidence. Rišto had not ventured into the bazaar since his university days; he’d wandered there when home, searching for bargains, and been pick-pocketed not once but twice. Today, he had his wallet in a money belt inside his trousers, and felt ridiculous for taking such precautions — felt, in fact, like a tourist. Macedonia’s skittish tourists were infamous for using belts, and for the awkward moments when it came time to rummage for their bills, their hands pawing indecently down their pants.
“This way,” said Sašo, and he guided Rišto under the green canvas eaves of a booth devoted to avjar, bottle after jar after bottle winking in stray beams of early sunlight, the red peppers inside looking bright as American candy. A girl with midnight eyes passed, leading a tottering nanny goat; the animal’s teats were so engorged, they dragged across the ground. The delightful aroma of fresh wheat bread suffused the air, but it arrived mixed with the pungent taint of unwashed bodies, and hinted of decay and hard times.
At last, Sašo ducked under a woven red carpet hung up as a baffle and gestured for Rišto to follow. Rišto did, and he found himself in a nearly empty booth space. The floor had been covered with sawdust, no longer fresh. The only furniture was a creaky rocking chair in which sat a toothless Roma whose wrinkled face sagged as if at any moment it might liquefy and simply flow away. His eyes were dull, expressionless, and did not track his visitors’ movements. On his lap lay a foil-wrapped object, round and tied with a scarlet bow. Two pictures hung from the metal scaffolds that supported the canvas walls, one of a cockfight, the other of a smiling Barack Obama.
Sašo nodded deferentially, then let fly a hail of Roma dialect that Rišto could not follow. Like a gate swinging slowly wide, the stranger turned to face Sašo. When he finally replied, he rasped and wheezed like a rusted winch, and he spoke for nearly a minute before Sašo nodded and, turning to Rišto, said, “Punka says to tell you welcome, and that he wishes you a good morning.”
Punka immediately launched into another glacial speech, both longer and more halting than the last. When he had finished, Sašo said simply, “Punka likes your suit.”
Incredulous, Rišto burst out, “That’s all? Adje, he was talking for five minutes!”
Sašo shrugged. “You want me to ask about the horse?”
“I thought you already had.”
With a look that could have frozen an icehouse, Sašo turned back to Punka, recovered himself, and again launched into rapid-fire Roma. This time, when Punka replied, Rišto thought he detected a trace of a smile, a glint of light in those rheumy, exhausted eyes. “Well?” Rišto demanded, when Punka eventually fell silent. “What does he say?”
Sašo sighed. “You won’t like it.”
“He says there have been people in Macedonia for seven thousand years, and his people have been here for the last thousand. He says his people are horse people. He says horses are very special. He says there is an ancient curse, and that if ever there comes a day when the last horse in Skopje is removed, ruin will fall on the city and the nation forever.”
Rišto could feel Punka’s eyes resting on him, but then the eyes fell away, lapsing again into sightlessness, and Rišto stood straighter in his tight but gorgeous shoes and said, directly to Punka, “Would you tell me, te molam, who owns the horse?”
With the deliberation of Solomon weighing a mighty decision, Punka drew in a long breath and rocked back in his chair. When he expelled the breath, he held up the foil package and offered it to Rišto, speaking as he did so. In the background, Sašo translated, saying, “The horse belongs to all the people of Skopje. It is everyone’s horse, public. Oh, and this is a fruit bread, specially made by Punka’s wife. Would you please make sure this gets to your Director. Punka says there is a debt, and this will settle it.”
Hardly knowing what he was doing, Rišto took the offered gift. Behind him, Sašo said, with chummy gusto, “And now, we should go! Punka has said good-bye. Thank you and good-bye. You do not need to bow or shake his hand, but you may incline your head.”
Rišto’s eye fell, against his will, on the photograph of the two attacking bantams. He realized the photo had been taken here, with the same red wall-hanging as a backdrop. To Sašo he said, “Someone owns that horse. Who?”
Sašo shook his head, looking suddenly alarmed. “We are not alone here,” he said, and he flicked his eyes at the booth’s canvas walls with urgent significance. “Punka has said good-bye, so we are going.”
“Bon soir,” said Punka suddenly, from his chair, and then he grinned and switched to thick-tongued English. “May the force be with you.”
The walk back was grim and fast, with Sašo, a cascade of apologies, struggling to keep up. Sašo was still in mid-explanation when Rišto disappeared over the Stone Bridge and returned once more to the comforting regularity — even sidewalks, dependable street lights, crosswalks at all the correct locations — of downtown Skopje. He would have holed up in his office had it not been a Saturday, but he knew the building would be locked. He thought of going to a bar and getting stone-drunk, but he could not think of one that would be open, so in the end, as if he were a fish being reeled in against his will, he walked home, entered his apartment, and presented his foil-wrapped prize to Nikola. Still in her nightgown, she rose and led him to the sofa, saying, “Tell me everything.”
As he spoke, she picked at the fruit bread’s scarlet ribbon with her nails, and when he was finished, she let out a small, sad laugh and said, “Well. Shall we eat it?”
In the end, they decided two things. First, they would not eat the fruit bread; Rišto would deliver it, with Punka’s compliments, on Monday. Second, they would damn the expense of filling the gas tank and they would point their little Zaštava sedan in some random direction and go, just like newlyweds, young people still one step ahead of responsibility. For this one weekend, they would escape Skopje.
In the end, the car, with Nikola driving, led them up the Vardar valley, with the mountains closing in around them and Albania lurking behind the eastern peaks. They took a room in Mavrovo, ate a light meal at a sidewalk café, and, after gently making fun, between themselves, of the Turkish menfolk in their stiff white hats, they slid into the sort of lively, aimless conversation that both had forgotten they knew how to have. When at last they retreated to their sagging bed, all coils and lumps, Rišto exacted from his wife not one but three whispered cries of “Oh, Rišto … ” before both drifted off, entangled, to a long and late-waking sleep. In the morning, they drove into the national park and wandered the Duf ravine, pausing to admire the spray of the Roštusa waterfall and even, on occasion, holding hands.