Rišto Karadelev had been in his new position as Divisional Assistant to the Department of City Authorities for less than a week before he was summoned, in that soporific hour after lunch, to the Director’s office. A typist, severe and prim, delivered the news, and she avoided eye contact with Rišto. He was unsurprised. She was Muslim, he loosely Orthodox. Half the department avoided looking at the other half whenever possible. Such was life not only in his building but throughout much of burgeoning Skopje.

With a sigh, Rišto rose from his seat. The typist, her hair covered, had already left, and Rišto followed her swaying hips down the dim hall — she had good hips, he decided, for a Muslim girl — past a series of looming open doors, each feeding into cramped dirty-white offices identical to his. As he passed, he felt the eyes of the occupants settle on him, judging and superior, as if they already knew not only where he had been summoned but why. It was all he could do not to stop and demand both explanations and apologies. He was walking down a hallway, that was all. What gave them this license to accuse?

The typist turned left, back to her shared cubicle, and Rišto turned right. He ascended two flights of stairs. The elevators were working but unreliable, and he did not want to be caught between floors or delayed unnecessarily. Not with the Director waiting.

In the outer half of the Director’s large but plain office, Rišto nodded a greeting to Bojana, the Director’s leviathan of a secretary. “He’s expecting you,” she said, as if some great misfortune awaited. “Go ahead in.”

Neither more nor less shabby than the rest of the building, the Director’s office did at least have a computer, and a fairly new one, by Rišto’s estimation. The room also boasted a unifying theme: model ships. Several galleons were displayed on overfilled bookshelves and battleship-gray file cabinets; a small clipper ship perched serenely in a bottle on the weighty wood desk. Rišto felt certain that if he were in the Director’s shoes — as he hoped he might someday be — he would decorate the space in proper keeping with Macedonia’s particular history, and of course with the job itself.

The Director sat behind his desk, tipped slightly back in his too-small office chair, his hands on the armrests. He had the look of a man buckled into an ascending aircraft. Rišto had never been in an airplane, but he had seen movies, and had frequently tried to imagine the sensation of rocketing upward and simultaneously being thrown backward. It was a novelty he fully intended to experience, just as soon as he could garner a promotion, the requisite higher salary, and a travel visa.

“Skopje,” said the Director, without preamble, “is a modern city.”

Rišto waited, expecting the Director to continue. When he did not, he settled on vague agreement as the best course of action and said, “Modern, da. It is an exciting time.”

The Director’s gaze flicked from the window to Rišto and back again. It was a fact, quite disturbing to Rišto, that he and the Director looked strikingly similar, their differences due primarily to factors of age and accumulated weight. Both had dark, close-cropped hair, assertive chins, wide bullish noses, and an expression of cultivated concentration, as if great thoughts whirled with terrible constancy inside their heavy, handsome skulls. Only their hands were truly distinct, for Rišto had long, supple fingers, whereas the Director’s were short, stubby, as if certain truths would forever dance beyond his grasp.

“Visitors come to Skopje,” said the Director, still focused on the grimy window and the June sunshine beyond. “They arrive at the train station. They have expectations. They reach the street and what do they find?”

Again, the Director paused, and this time Rišto felt certain he had tumbled headlong into a trap, that whatever he said would be wrong. Traffic? Was that what the Director was hinting at? No, surely not. Litter?

“Have you been to the train station lately?” the Director asked, his voice becoming dangerously patient. “Or ever?”

“Of course,” said Rišto. “Many times.”

“And when you descend the stairs and reach the Boulevard Jane Sandanski, you turn left towards the city center, and you look across the street. What do you see?”

At once, Rišto knew. “A vacant lot. A horse.”

“A horse,” said the director, in funereal tones. “You arrive in the modern city of Skopje and you see … a horse.”

Rišto’s mind raced. What did this horse have to do with his entry-level post as a city planner?

“You would like a task to distinguish yourself, da?” The Director leaned forward, his black eyes screwing themselves to Rišto’s. “You are young. Ambitious. I give you the opportunity you’ve been waiting for. Get rid of that horse.”

On the long walk back to his office, doorway after doorway, a staccato bubble of veiled laughter dogged Rišto’s heels. There was not a living person in the entire City Authority who did not know of his assignment.

* * *

He left the office early and bicycled out along the wide, well-trafficked flatness of Jane Sandanski to the train station. At the railway overpass, he crossed to the north side of the street and wheeled his third-hand mountain bike to the vacant lot, a corral fenced with wire, wherein stood his adversary. No, he corrected himself, not his adversary. The owner was the issue, not the horse, which in any event merely continued cropping the moribund grass and straggly weeds. It was, Rišto decided, a beautiful specimen, a chocolate mare with white splashes on both front feet, hoof to ankle. But, beautiful or not, it clearly would never have the sense to move off the land of its own volition.

He examined the lot carefully. It was perhaps fifty meters on a side, and diagonal where it bordered the railway tracks and their steep embankment, a messy scree of rock and trash and shrubs. Near the back corner, away from the tracks, the horse had a stable of sorts, ramshackle and tilted, with not an angle in it square. It looked as if children had designed it, and then left it to the horse to erect the pieces. Still, it had a manger for hay and a trough for water. Several sheltering trees gave shade from the railway side, while an alley and a single-story house, painted pastel blue, flanked the enclosure from the north.

The horse abruptly let loose a sodden stream of urine, and the liquid slapped at the soil with a noise like wet fish cascading down a trawler’s hold. Rišto caught its sharp stink and wrinkled his nose and held his breath. He was a city child, born and bred, and he had never liked farms or anything to do with the manure and sweat of country life. Even now, at home, the least hint of rot or mold could send him into a frenzy of cleaning and disinfecting. Nikola would raise a skeptical eyebrow as he scoured the sinks or the algae-infested join between the ball-and-faucet taps. “There are better things,” she’d say. “Why not fix the transmission on the car?” But this he did not know how to do. Despite an engineer’s training, a four-year banishment to neighboring Serbia and the ancient smoke-stack city of Niš, he knew no more about the internal workings of an actual car than he did about the internal organs of an actual horse. The entire concept made him dizzy, weak not in the knees but deep in his gut, as if inadequacies and fears could lodge somehow in the cave of a man’s stomach. By necessity, he had gradually changed his university training from civil engineer to urban planner, evolving slowly into a man who knew not what made things go but understood instead how to pave the roads and route the sewers, tax the hotels and drive the flaccid engines of a formerly communist economy. It was, he told himself and others, engineering of a kind. Even to Nikola, he had always professed that his change in career vector had been entirely preferential, that ability had played no part, and this constant position of denial ate at him daily, a lamprey affixed to his soul. It was, of course, much too late now to admit the truth.

The owner, then. He resolved to begin with the little blue brick of a house. He walked toward it, guiding his bicycle by the seat, and tripping once on the broken, ragged sidewalk. At the door, he rang the bell and knocked, but no one came to answer, and he got the same result at the next door down. He had brought neither paper nor pencil, so he could not leave a note. Memorizing the street address was both easy and pointless, as neither building had a house number.

He rode home to Nikola undaunted. So he had achieved little to begin, no matter. He had taken stock, surveyed the lay of the land. It was a beginning, and he felt expansive and generous, secure in the knowledge that he had been handed an important task by an important man, and that he would, without question, succeed.

Inside their Tito-era apartment, Nikola was ladling up steaming brownish goop from the depths of her grandmother’s best hand-me-down cast iron pot, her expression vexed in the extreme. “The butcher,” she said, “gives us offal that is three days old at least. He should show more respect.”

Rišto kissed Nikola on the neck just below the ear, a gesture he knew would not be returned, and removed his shoes. He had grown up poor, and offal for supper was not in any way a disappointment. For Nikola, it represented a step backwards, and to serve it more than once a month, which she often had to do, and to value the leftovers besides, was a sign that her mother had been right, she’d married down. Still, even these bothersome associations did nothing to dampen Rišto’s ebullient mood. The future held more delectable ražnič than it did offal stew.

Nikola worked mornings at a jewelry shop just across the Stone Bridge, but not so far into the maze of the Old Town that he worried for her safety. She did repair work, mostly, and her nimble fingers and quick turnarounds had gained her a certain renown. The shop, despite innumerable competitors in every direction, had grown ever more prosperous, although the owner, a swarthy and self-obsessed Vlach named Sašo, had not as yet passed any of the rewards on to Nikola. “Your skills will make us all rich,” he’d say, bending down to watch her work. “In time.” He liked, said Nikola, to touch her as she worked, to trail a finger through her shoulder-length hair, and Rišto had demanded more than once that she quit, find other work, but Nikola only told him this was her business, that nothing more would ever happen. “You are my husband, not him,” she’d say, sounding annoyed with that fact, “and you know we need the money.” If he pressed her, she’d say, “What do you want me to do, attack him?” Rišto hoped she might. A feisty one, his wife, pretty and intent but ever more distant, with a face like a lonely hovering hawk.

That night, after dinner, they watched a tepid soccer match on their aging television and shared, in near silence, a Turkish beer. Afterward, they undressed on opposite sides of the bed — when had it become such a barricade? — and slid beneath the maroon covers without once touching. Rišto drifted off to sleep as if born to it, and he dreamed precisely nothing, while beside him his wife read a trio of books, sweeping sagas and vast, gory histories, pausing on occasion to shove her comatose husband away.

First thing at the office, Rišto called the Housing Authority and asked them to research the owner of the little blue home adjacent to the horse’s paddock. He made sure to be especially cheery on the phone, and to drop the Director’s name more than once in order to properly impress upon the poor functionary who’d answered that here stood matters too pressing for the standard feint-and-delay. Next, he went downstairs to research the regulations pertaining to livestock and their permissibility within the city limits. Several ordinances presented themselves, most overlapping in their scope, some with specific penalties for violation, some not. Horses were mentioned by name only once, in a document dated 1963. Still, it was better than nothing. For removing the horse, there was clear and established precedent. If it came to the courts, the magistrates, with the Director’s blessing, would back him.

To his surprise, he received a call back from Housing within the hour; he had expected a delay of several days, a full twenty-four hours at best. The caller was a woman, and not the person he’d spoken with first. She informed him that the house belonged to Božidar Sokalski, but that Sokalski did not own the lot on which stood the horse, and he did not wish to be disturbed regarding this matter. Warning bells sounded in Rišto’s head. He had not mentioned either horse or lot, yet this stranger already knew his mission and was calmly turning him aside. “Wait,” he said, “how did you know it was the adjacent lot I wished to know about?”

The woman laughed, and the cold wire depths of the telephone stripped the sound of any possible warmth. “You’re not the first to call from the City Authority. What you want to know really is who owns the vacant lot. Officially, the name you want is Ivo Redžepova. Reaching him, that will be harder.”

“Why?”

“He’s been dead for, let’s see. Thirty-two years.”

With the call concluded, Rišto rose and paced his cramped office, working out a rough U from desk to door and back again, over and over. They knew, all of them! He had not imagined his co-worker’s laughter from the day before. What was this, then, a hazing ritual? Did the Director give this assignment to all new hires within the Urban Planning Division? And all before him had failed? No matter. Their laughter meant nothing. He would not ask what they knew; he would investigate only the matter at hand. He would simply continue as if he were not in the least aware of his shameful position. He would press forward with all his energies focused to a laser’s brightness on the problem. And how big a problem could it possibly be, the removal of a single horse?

Acting on an impulse that he knew to be rash, he called his wife’s uncle, Milco Šelderov. “Would you be so kind,” he said, when he had Milco on the line at last, “as to meet me for lunch?”

He would have to pay, of course, and footing his uncle’s bill would not be cheap. The man had a voracious appetite and suspect table manners, but he was also exceptionally well connected, and Rišto felt he must grip the bull with both hands, no matter the cost. They agreed to lunch at Dab Pivnica, where he knew his uncle’s presence would be noticed and remarked on, a patina he certainly hoped would rub off on himself. As for the bill, he would explain that to Nikola later. This was, after all, a very serious business — which was distressing, of course, for here he was at the very beginning of his career, and already his future was in jeopardy. He shoved the thought away and concentrated instead on Milco, on some prized yet inexpensive gift he might bring. Sweet meats, perhaps, or rakija, blueberry-infused? Perhaps that, yes; Milco liked his liker. Rišto sighed, thinking it all out, planning his route to the restaurant so that he would still have time to purchase the rakija, and not from one of the tourist shops, either, where the price would be high. The whole scenario gave him a headache. Milco was an ace he had not expected to play for years to come.

Lunch was a disaster. Milco ate and ate and ate, and whenever Rišto began to bring up his reasons for meeting, and on such short notice, Milco gulped beer and turned the conversation to banalities like the price of Prilep tobacco and whether sport fishing in Lake Ohrid would ever again be permitted. Rišto humored the barbarian across the table for as long as he could, but in the end, over lingering kafe, cigarettes and baklava, Rišto finally succeeded in driving home his need. “This lot, this horse,” he said. “Who do I talk to?”

Milco’s jowled face broke into a festive smile. “That horse, Rišto, it cannot be moved.”

“Why?”

“It has been tried, of course.”

“Uncle, adje. Why can’t it be moved?”

“That plot of land belongs to the Kuševkas. I know — and I don’t care what those idiots at Housing told you, it’s not the Redžepovas.” He chewed and spit as he spoke, his mouth full to bursting and his free hand waving for emphasis. “Now, the Kuševkas are impossible to trace. The entire line is wiped out. But their wills, their estates, it’s all with the Roma. There was a debt, I’m not sure what kind, I don’t think anyone knows, but they agreed, the Kuševskas, to pass everything on to the Roma, bit by bit, plot by plot. And trust me, you will never get a gypsy to part with land.”

Rišto fought down his rising panic, the ghost-child of that same sensation he’d felt in university days when confronted with chemical models and disassembled motors. What sort of labyrinth had he stumbled into?

“You know how the Roma are with paperwork,” Milco went on, reaching for yet another sticky lump of baklava. “That horse might as well belong to their whole damn tribe. Communism is dead, yes, but we still have the Roma, and Rišto, it’s a sad fact, but it remains illegal to shoot them, even the men. So.”

With lunch complete at last and the memory of the check stuck fast in his craw, Rišto retreated to his office, slammed the door, and sat, fuming and accomplishing nothing for the remainder of the afternoon. At home, he said nothing to Nikola about what had happened, and having avoided the topic once, it could not be broached the next day, either. Friday, however, found him so surly and sour that he could bear it no longer, and he stormed home a half hour early, barging in and pulling Nikola from the stove — “Rišto, I have to cook!” — and dragging her to the couch, where he sat her down and told her everything. He expected her to cut him off at any moment, but she did not. He expected her to grow angry, to shriek at him, throw things. She did not. When at last he finished he sat quietly, his hands limp in his lap, and only then did Nikola speak, her voice calm and precise.

“Milco,” she said, “is a gangster. I don’t want you to see him again.”

“Može.”

“At least not without me there, too.” Then, after a moment’s pause, one in which he watched her pulse thrumming against her neck, she said, “I think Sašo. Sašo knows everyone. I know, he’s a Vlach, but he knows the Roma, too. I will ask him for help.”

“Nikola … ”

She held up a slim hand, obdurate. “You will let me do this. It is what I can offer.”

A week passed without any response from Sašo beyond coy assurances, and the time, for Rišto, was interminable. As if to rub salt in his wounds, the city enjoyed an outbreak of truly fine weather — dazzling sunlight, cool evenings, low humidity — in which both tourists and locals frolicked in the parks and on Makedonija Ploštad, the city’s finest public square. Trapped in his office, Rišto made phone call after phone call to track the owner of the horse and the land it stood on, and in between these futile bouts he bore down on his work, on the re-drafting of a set of documents pertaining to bus ridership and how to increase it lest poor Skopje fall prey to the traffic jams of Athens and other EU cities. But, bearing down did not produce effectual results. Each sentence, even revised and re-crafted, came out stilted, clunky. He could not fasten his mind to his work, and on Friday, he again gave up and left early, not caring who saw, and rode again to inspect the vacant lot and its single equine occupant.

He had half-expected to find the horse gone, a miracle of timing that he could claim as his own doing. But of course the horse was there, four feet planted solidly in clods of muddy earth, its tail batting the flies and its nose buried in yet another tuft of grass. Overhead, the sun emblazoned the sky, and on the bridge to Rišto’s right, the Balkan Express clanked northward, departing, as usual, twenty minutes late. He had taken that train many a time, back and forth from Niš, and he had little good to say about it except that it did, invariably, arrive. That, too, had been a blessing of debatable merit. A Macedonian in Serbia, once discovered, could never be sure of his reception. He had been routinely overcharged and underserved; several restaurants had ignored him so pointedly he had been forced to leave. Even the faculty at the university had treated him as little more than a token annoyance, something to fill out their enrollment. “Why don’t you go to some Western university?” asked one hoary old specimen, who’d borne an uncanny resemblance to Leonid Brezhnev. “Why are you slumming with us?”

Money, of course. Always money. Not that he had ever dared to say so. To be not only Macedonian but poor — poor as any Serb — would have been more shameful still.

The horse continued its determined grazing, oblivious to the now receding shriek of the train’s metal wheels grinding their way onto the main line with earsplitting complaints, and then it lifted its head, flicked its ears, and snorted. Rišto, who had begun to wonder how there could possibly be any grass left in the plot at all, frowned, uncertain as to what had disturbed the horse. Then his eye caught a whisper of movement at the back of the paddock, by the stable. Through the gate came a boy, a teenager, walking backwards and dragging behind him a hay bale, or what was left of it.

“Hey!” Rišto called, and he hurriedly leaped back onto his bicycle. “Zdravo! Hey!”

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 … ”

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.”

“Sašo.”

“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.

Monday morning found them still in Mavrovo, too languid to move. Rišto finally rose and, for ten denars, borrowed the innkeeper’s cell phone. He called in to work, and when the woman who answered asked if he was sick, Rišto said, “No, I am busy disposing of a horse.”

“My brave husband,” murmured Nikola, when he told her, and she waved him back to the bed. “Brave and naughty. I am sending you to bed without any supper.” She would have gone on, but Rišto silenced her by placing his mouth over hers.

They packed before noon and had a final café lunch, their eyes traveling over the distant snow-tipped peaks. At a nearby table, a waiter spilled a bottle of Perrier, and Nikola looked over, curious. “An accident,” she mused. “Accidents happen.”

Rišto, guessing her train of thought, shook his head. “I’ve only been trying for two weeks. Not even that long.”

“All right. How many more do we give it?”

“Six, maybe. Six total. If the horse is still there after that … ”

“An accident?”

“Milco could get us a gun.”

She did not say no.

Those weeks passed quickly. Nikola went to work as before at The Sultan’s Jewel, but when Sašo reached out to touch her shoulder or brush her hair, she swatted him away. Rišto appeared each morning in the office, but spent half his time out and about in the city, chasing down leads, rumors, and tips. The horse, when he tallied up the various reports, had some thirty different supposed owners, mostly deceased. Certain names did crop up with convincing regularity, including Ivo Redžepova and the Kuševkas, but he could find nothing concrete. Nikola, who had begun enquiries of her own, ran down the same blind alleys, the same looping trails. It was she who finally followed the boy who fed the horse, tracked him to his home, and asked, with great politeness and ten thousand denars in her palm, who paid him for his efforts. The boy, far more impressed with Nikola’s bills than by the coins Rišto had offered, explained that he did not know. Money was delivered each month, without fail, in an unmarked envelope. The envelope arrived in the post, and he had no idea who sent it. Rišto met with much the same story when he inquired about the land itself. The taxation authorities shrugged off his queries, telling him that since September of 1991, the very day of Macedonian independence, anonymous payments had arrived like clockwork. They had neither the time nor the personnel to investigate further. As for the courts, a friend of Milco’s who sat on the State Judicial Council wagged his head at Rišto and told him to forget it. “That horse,” he said, “is the only glacier still immune to melting.”

Each evening, except when it rained, Rišto and Nikola walked the one and a half kilometers to visit the horse, to stroke its nose and feed it carrots, turnips, or whatever vegetables they had left over from their meals. Then, as the sun dipped behind the ridge to the west and the huge cross implanted there shone as if gifted with a ghostly backlit halo, they’d stroll home, eat a late supper, and tumble, together, into bed.

The Director called for Rišto on the Monday of the fourth week. “The fruit bread,” he said, “was delicious. I didn’t realize you knew Punka. Next time you see him, tell him thank you, from me.”

Rišto nodded to show that he understood, but said nothing. The Director folded his hands over his considerable stomach, and his gaze drifted out the window, east-facing. In the distance, Rišto knew the Director could see the long greenish roof of the railway station, where a train of newcomers might at any moment arrive.

“How is our horse?” the Director asked, and Rišto responded that it was still there, healthy as ever.

“You realize you are not required to succeed in this. I’m told your other work here is exemplary.”

Blagodaram. But I trust you are not asking me to give up.”

The Director spread his hands, as if to say, “What could I possibly do to stop you?” and Rišto returned to his office, noting along the way that his co-worker’s skulking laughter had long since died away and been replaced with stares, quizzical and furtive. He walked taller in the hallways now, basking in their gaze; it was no great trick to sense the respect that fueled their curiosity.

Once in his office, he picked up the telephone and called Nikola. “Talk to Milco,” he said. “It’s time.”

They went by night, by car, on a Sunday. They left the car running in the alley just by the gate, and they entered the darkened paddock as quietly as the old hinges would allow. As a disguise, both wore bulky winter clothes and hats, but neither had bothered with a full mask; the whole idea, preposterously American, had sent them into paroxysms of nervous giggles. Nikola carried the gun, but she handed it, as agreed, to Rišto once they’d entered the corral. The gun was old and heavy, a service revolver from World War II and taken by force, said Milco, from a retreating German captain.

The horse was a dark shadow lying atop the darker spread of shadow that was the ground. It whickered softly at their approach and tossed its head. For a moment, it made as if to rise, but then it settled again, too muzzy to bother. Rišto and Nikola stood five yards away, close together, their noses full of the smell of horse, their pulses thunking away like angry little motors. Rišto raised the revolver. His finger briefly caressed the trigger, then lifted away.

“I don’t know,” he said.

Nikola looked around, ostensibly for police — for anyone paying the least attention to their waiting vehicle — but there was no one in sight. The rail station had fallen silent, and even on the Boulevard Jane Sandanski, so busy by day, traffic had vanished. The hum of distant cars was hardly louder than the chirrup of a lone cricket singing someplace under the matted hay.

Rišto drew a constitutional breath and took careful aim, staring down the revolver’s cylindrical barrel at a point directly between the horse’s enormous blinking eyes. Or were they blinking? No. The horse, entirely trusting, had gone back to sleep.

“It’s asleep,” he whispered. “I can’t shoot it if it’s asleep.”

Adje! What do you want me to do? Should I wake it up?”

Rišto held out the gun. “You shoot it.”

Nikola emphatically shook her head.

The cricket quieted and in the great distance, a diesel engine’s horn sounded as some oncoming train approached a level crossing. The Zaštava, never reliable when left in park for long, sputtered and stalled. A last low rumble of traffic died away, and for an instant, there was absolute and utter silence. Rišto fancied that he could actually hear the stars, their light transmuted into song, foreign and fading, a hint of a glimpse of an impression, a sweet bright alien music apprehended at the very limits of perception.

He lowered the revolver. “I think we should go.”

Nikola hesitated. “If you’re sure.”

He shrugged, smiled into the darkness. “Do you want to be the one who brings a curse on all Macedonia? For killing the last horse in Skopje?”

They drove home in contemplative silence, and once at their building, they took the steps slowly, side by side and hand in hand, with seven millennia of history trailing like phantoms behind. Before bed, Rišto composed a letter and typed it up on Nikola’s old Rheinmetall Portable. When it was done, he pulled the sheet free of the roller and handed it to Nikola.

“For the Director,” he said.

Nikola, her orange toothbrush tucked in her cheek, nodded and read.

Paris has its Eiffel Tower, and Niš the Čela Kula. In Moscow, they have Red Square and the Kremlin. Here in Skopje, a modern city, we have a horse. May we always be blessed with such wealth.

Nikola handed the sheet back. A dribble of foamy white toothpaste had escaped the corner of her mouth, but her eyes were shining. “Good,” she said. “Now we get on with our lives.”

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