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BALKANIZED - Terence Young



Illustration by Martyna Gradziel // https://martynagradziel.com

“Tirana,” he repeats. His sister has been listing the names of cities they might visit. This one sounds so familiar, he’s asked her to spell it.

“Snakes in the lake,” Courtney says.

“Water snakes?”

“If it walks like a duck, Andrew,” she says.

“I like ducks,” he says.

The encyclopedia has pictures, some recipes. The local wine is called black blood. Andrew has to look up the word “Romanesque” in an art history text. Apparently, the Moors whitewashed all the religious frescoes. There is something called a minbar.


At a stopover in Ljubljana, the guards stand with their guns slung like guitars over their shoulders breathing boredom into the green air of the transit lounge. There is nothing to do. He and Courtney sit in chairs of a design Andrew has never seen before. They both agree it is a relief to be able to smoke on a plane again. No one meets them when they touch down in Struga, and the cab ride to town reminds Andrew of a spy movie: aging Mercedes, gravel roads, concrete housing units, bare bulbs visible from the road. The land is a war zone. He thinks they will never see morning.

A man called Sasha has been assigned to squire the delegates around, show them the sights. Andrew and Courtney meet him in the hotel courtyard on their first afternoon, when they are still recovering from their stupefied sleep.

“I am a journalist,” he declares. He wears white pants, a white short-sleeved cotton shirt, socks with sandals, sunglasses that cover half his face.

“Things look okay here,” Courtney tells Sasha.

“We are a civilized people,” Sasha says.

“I didn’t say you weren’t.”

“This is 1989. Nothing will happen. You’ll see.”

“I am an Andrew,” Andrew says.

Sasha walks them through the town along the River Drin that flows through a canal out of Lake Ohrid. A bridge arcs across its green waters, joining the two halves of Struga. On it, a half-dozen boys in their teens wait for a turn to jump from the highest point into the current below. The river carries them downstream where they propel themselves toward a ladder attached to the canal’s stone wall, one arm outstretched to catch a rung. Andrew watches the jumpers as he and Courtney walk with Sasha, holding his breath until each boy returns to the water’s surface. His arms ache to join them.

Sasha places himself between Andrew and Courtney on their tour, pointing out restaurants and art galleries. He talks more to Courtney than to Andrew, but Andrew hears everything he says. He hears enough to know he doesn’t need to listen. They come to a point where the road veers away from the river, and the neat masonry of the canal gives way to a garbage-strewn slope of dirt and grass. Women are gathered on either shore with carpets that they soak in the water and beat with sticks. They wear long dresses, and their heads are covered. Andrew starts to laugh aloud at the sight of them, but Courtney stamps her foot twice to let him know he has to ‘Stop Right Now.’

Other delegates arrive the next day. Courtney describes them to Andrew when she meets him in the afternoon. She tells him the Americans complain about their rooms and that the British don’t. The Norwegians sit and drink in the bar during the sessions they have come to attend. There is a man from Tangier who speaks only French. Tours have been arranged for Saturday and Sunday, and there are evening visits to churches. During the day, Andrew does as he is told and lies on the beach in front of the hotel while Courtney attends meetings and delivers her paper on public-private partnerships. He listens to the voices around him. Some are German. A woman with a child smiles at him.

“Mein Mann . . . arbeit . . . Berlin,” she says.

Andrew makes gestures of incomprehension with his hands.

“Mein Mann,” she repeats, flexing her muscles and grimacing. “Arbeit.” Here she pretends to dig with a shovel. “Berlin.”

Andrew feels the urgency in her motions, how badly she wants him to understand, but panic begins to rise in his throat. He looks at his hands, holds them against each other and thinks how good everything will be once this woman goes away. When he brings his eyes up again, she is nowhere to be seen.


Hours later, Andrew sits beside Sasha in the front passenger seat of a Yugo while Courtney spreads herself out in the back, falling asleep despite the noise of the tinny engine. They are on their way back from a monastery outside Ohrid, and Sasha is taking them to a riverside clearing where the organizers have prepared lunch. He is driving Andrew and Courtney separately because he knows some sights they might like to take in without the rest tagging along. Courtney falls asleep in the back seat, and Sasha uses the time to question Andrew about what he does, where he lives, why he doesn’t drive when Sasha offers to let him take the wheel. He wants to know why Andrew will let a woman work all day while he lies in the sun and stares at the sky. What kind of a man is he? Andrew can tell Sasha doesn’t expect answers to his questions, so he doesn’t offer any. Instead, he looks at the road that twists abruptly without warning as it follows the coast along the cliffs above the lake. Sometimes, at particularly bad curves, they pass wrecks, the crumpled frames of cars, and Andrew is eager for more to appear. He knows his silence only confirms whatever opinion Sasha holds of him, and he watches himself let that happen.


“Christ! No! Is that what you think?”

Andrew stands amid a circle of ethnic dancers, their arms joined at the shoulder as they move in a slow line around him. Some of the delegates have given in to the urging of their hosts and are dancing, too, kicking up their legs in unison, swaying right, then left. Courtney and Sasha sit at one of the tables set up for what the conference itinerary calls a “picnic.” Andrew turns in a circle as the dancers move around him, and Courtney’s words come to him in waves.

“He’s my brother. We live together because he wouldn’t last a day without me.”

“He is sick?”

“You might say that. A pickup ran a light when he was ten and threw him headfirst against a power pole. Not a single broken bone. None of my friends will house sit for me anymore. They think he’s weird.”

“He should work with his hands.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“It’s not a life.”

“You’re in the middle of a war, so don’t talk to me about life, okay?”

“We are not at war. Kosovo is hundreds of miles north of here.”

“I just get tired of it. He’s worse than a kid.”

“How is he worse?”

“He’ll never grow up.”

Andrew slips through the arms of one of the dancers and walks over to Sasha and Courtney. They look like children, drinking beer from coloured glasses, Courtney’s legs pale below her shorts, Sasha the picture of a private school student in crisp whites. He feels happy for them. They make him want to cry.

“Are you going to fuck my sister?” he asks Sasha.

“Jesus,” Courtney says. “Andrew, please go away. We’re trying to have a nice time here.”

Sasha stands up, but even at full height he comes only to Andrew’s shoulders.

“Are you?” Andrew asks again.

“I think you should be quiet now,” Sasha says.

Andrew pats Sasha on his head and walks away.

Courtney chooses to return to the hotel in Sasha’s car, asks Andrew if he would like to take a seat on the bus with the others. Andrew can tell by the way she asks that she doesn’t want him to say no. She will meet him there, she promises, and she does.


The hotel coffee is bad, a chicory substitute. It steams on a hot plate next to a bowl of stewed plums, bloated and rude, bobbing in thick syrup. Andrew pours himself a mug, walks out into the night toward the beachfront and takes in the starless view across the water. Albania is a little too obvious, as it has been every evening, the way a missing limb is. Lights of any kind disappear at the Macedonian border, nothing but darkness on the other side.

The beach at night is like any other beach. For a moment he wonders about the sand. Do lakes usually have beaches of sand? It troubles him to think he doesn’t know this. The night clerk has told him the water is the clearest in Europe.

“Forty feet down you can still pick out single bottles of beer,” he says, “read their labels, too.”

The clerk is right about the bottles. Dozens litter the lakebed. Earlier in the afternoon after the picnic, Andrew hung above them, suspended, bisected through the chest by the surface plane of Lake Ohrid, as though he was caught with his head in one world and his lower body in another. It made him dizzier than the vertigo that sometimes plagues him, though not a day goes by when he doesn’t fear falling again. Now, at night, the water is blessedly opaque, a silent solid, something a person could walk on if he had a mind to. Along the causeway above the shore, women pass hand in hand. There is no temptation to listen to people talking when he doesn’t know the language, and he is happy to give his ears a rest. So much to be thankful for.

Andrew turns back to look at the hotel. He picks out his balcony and then Courtney’s from the other balconies, all of them so different with their railings brightly festooned in underwear and socks and towels. A naked man lounges in his canvas sling under a bug light, two fingers dangling a green bottle by its neck. The air is thick with smells of sausage and charcoal. It baffles Andrew that anyone might think of this place as home, at least in anything other than a literal sense, the word one uses not because one wants to, but because it is true. He thinks the same thing of certain parts of Toronto, of any town, any street other than their street, Brunswick Avenue, where he has lived with Courtney in their parents’ house forever. He knows he can’t say such things to Courtney anymore. Long ago, she might have told him this sort of observation struck her as sweet, a kind of endearing tick, like a preference for vinegar instead of ketchup. Now, all she talks about is her worries for him, her fears that he will never blend in with the world, the way he has failed to blend in anywhere. He possesses no natural camouflage, she says. She blames their parents for indulging him.

“It wasn’t good for your condition,” she tells him.

Now they are dead. Andrew is thirty, and Courtney two years older. High functioning though he is, the world would eat him alive without his sister’s mediation.


Their hotel looks foolish from all angles, but it looks especially foolish from where Andrew is standing, the water at his back, taking in layer upon layer of cement and glass, curved to match the shoreline. Clusters of rooms are alight, but entire floors remain dark, and because of some trick with the landscape, the building appears to be listing, like an ocean liner going down. Courtney has gone out somewhere. She is angry with him. She would never accuse him of spoiling her time here, but Andrew knows she is unhappy, that she blames him for ruining her life.

He walks through the hotel grounds toward the town, even though Courtney has ordered him to stay put. She will be upset, but she’s already upset, isn’t she? He leaves his mug on one of the garden walls. Groups of people stroll the streets and the lakefront, even this late at night. Children, grandmothers, husbands and wives. They stop to buy soft drinks from kiosks shaped liked oranges. Words Andrew doesn’t recognize drift by. Snatches of songs from cafés below street level mingle with the night noises of the Macedonian summer. He pulls one of his last cigarettes from the package he keeps in his shirt pocket and lights it. The carton of Players he bought before they left Canada has evaporated in half the normal time, and he knows he is going to run out before the day of their return a week from now. Still, he can’t ask Courtney for some of hers. There are some sins she refuses to forgive, and smoking her cigarettes is one of them.


Soldiers are everywhere in the town, standing outside restaurants, walking down the middle of streets in groups of four and five. They are looking for members of the KLA who like to slip across the border for some R&R. In the town centre, a crowd has gathered in front of a structure that looks like a boat. Flowers hang from its mast, and torches burn at both ends. On a dais facing the crowd, a poet is reading his poems into a microphone, and his words echo against the buildings across the river. Courtney stands off to one side, Sasha next to her, his hands a flutter of thrusts and circles, as though he is punctuating a letter that hangs in the air in front of him. Andrew slips into shadow and passes a large van, inside of which are several men who, like the poet, are speaking into microphones. They speak in pauses, again like the poet, stopping when he stops and starting up again when he resumes reading. Wires carrying power and video and audio snake in and out of the van, and the men have closed their eyes, so intent are they on mirroring each inflection and nuance in the poet’s voice. To Andrew, it seems these men are praying, and he instantly lightens his steps as he walks by, so as not to disturb them in their prayers.

He walks through the crowd and out onto the bridge closest to the lake. The water tugs at the walls of the canal with a sound like leaves in a breeze. Boys in swimsuits begin to appear in the light cast by the torches, their skin golden against the dark. The evening is warm. People nearby are nursing beers and balancing plates of roasted meat. The boys cannot get enough of the game that has become even more addictive at night. Andrew is overjoyed to have found them again. They are too occupied to notice him as he moves into their midst, shedding his shirt, stepping out of his shoes to join them, a man among boys who are all bone and muscle, climbing with them up onto the bridge superstructure, yelling when they do.

“Tirana!” he bellows, a happy growl loud enough to turn the heads of the poetry crowd, Courtney among them, everyone straining to make out the large boy who follows the others as they disappear, one by one, below the rim of the bridge railings, his voice snuffed out when he hits the black water.


 

Terence Young lives in Victoria, British Columbia. He is a cofounder and former editor of The Claremont Review, a literary magazine for young writers. His most recent book is a collection of poetry, Smithereens (Harbour Publishing, 2021). For a more comprehensive bio, go to www.terenceyoung.ca.

3 Comments


hensleywebermarilynbettie
Jun 14

Art is a difficult category to understand it completely. Enjoy having different experiences. On the other hand, effective approach to learn more multi-dimensional perspectives.

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Waters Charlie
Waters Charlie
Jun 10

Thanks

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Fauly Matrix
Fauly Matrix
May 28

People nearby are nursing beers and balancing plates of roasted meat. The boys cannot get enough of the game that has become even more addictive at night. geometry dash lite

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