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.