I lifted my head to see where I was. I didn’t expect to see a window, yet there was a small one, high, close to the edge of the ceiling. I put my hands on the dirt floor to push myself up and felt the grains of dust stick on my palms. My knees hurt as blood stains decorated my torn pants. I remembered being dragged in and dropped to the ground and felt dizzy, while keeping my head down trying to remain calm. I was in a cell, dark and brownish, like a bad version of death. I don’t know what made me think that death had versions, but it surely felt that way.
I was finally up and went close to the window wall which was full of scratches, numbers, letters, little squares, and circles that made it look like a surface one finds inside a cave. I stretched my hands to reach the window pane and touched the light. My fingers felt alive, while my entire body was about to collapse again. I let go of light and sat down almost slamming on the dirt floor. Dust rose from the ground filling my nostrils with the smell of all the souls that had been in this cell. For a moment I shivered and closed my eyes thinking about autumn, which had started to linger in city streets and in my lungs.
War ended in 1944, and for the past five years communism had spread like a weed in every corner of the country. The Party targeted every person that had studied abroad, an act that had made me consider the idea that I’d end up in a place like this; but it had been an abstract idea, or perhaps a prophecy which I had tried to suppress and hoped would never come true. I had ignored the gut feeling and tried to live the now that I was given. Instead of worrying, I felt as if possessed by a divine power and had consumed myself to painting more than ever. Patrons from museums in France, Italy, Germany and elsewhere had written multiple letters asking for my art; but my father had burnt them all, and informed me that their existence endangered mine and the family’s life.
I understood his fear because I had tried to ignore mine for so long, and even though I realized that so much of my unborn work would be just that, unborn, I comforted myself with the little joy that the requests themselves showed appreciation for what could be. But as I was thinking, I heard steps echoing from behind the door which creaked opened and a short man entered. I remembered I had seen him with the leader. He looked as if he was made of play dough. His eyes looked as if they were there just because if they weren’t, then there’d be empty holes on his forehead, and perhaps that’d be horrifying. He had flat cheeks, without any structure and for a moment I thought he was a different kind of human species. His lips were thin, as if he didn’t even need them; but as soon as he spoke I realized that he had a big tongue which made his talking sound like he was choking on his own flesh.
“We found your paintings, Vangjush.”
I stood up and straightened myself and without looking him in the eye, but straight into the emptiness of the door behind him responded, “Why should that surprise me, comrade?”
He stood in front of me with his hands crossed behind his back, “What we didn’t find are the letters. Where are they?” He then folded his hands to his chest. He was slightly shorter than me, and his breath of onion and cigar rose from below his chin straight to my nostrils.
“There have been no letters, comrade.” I said trying not to breathe. But he got closer to me and I thought he would explode for he had gotten so red in the face. He slapped me and I felt the cell spin. “There have been no letters.” I insisted while trying to keep my balance and understand the sound of my voice, which at that moment was being associated by a high pitch bzz that pierced my ears, “You must be mistaken, comrade.”
“Let me make it clear to you, capitalist bastard.” He said this with conviction and what I perceived to be hatred; “Our source told us that at least six letters have been delivered to you in the past two weeks.”
“Comrade, I’m working for the party, for none else.” I reaffirmed, knowing that he wasn’t listening to me.
“Where are the letters? What kind of correspondence was there? Who are your contacts? They hide behind the names of the museum patrons; but we know you’re working against the country. You will be held accountable for spying.”
“Spying?!” I thought I shouted in shock, but it must have been a whisper, because he slapped me again and this time, I fell on the floor. I felt blood drip from my nose. It’s strange, how one can’t sense the aroma of blood until it’s disconnected from the body; yet, when it gently flows from one’s nostrils it feels like water, like powerless liquid that’s escaping pain. He kicked me in the stomach and yelled that I get up. I couldn’t breathe. Even the dust seem to stick to the ground as if it were afraid of adding to my struggle to find air.
“Your father is a smart man.” He said with a calmer voice, yet not sparing another kick to my chest; “He showed us all the paintings and recognized your mistake. He showed me the letter he had written to the University of Paris, where you were supposed to return, telling them that you’ve resigned from your studies. You will not be missed in that bourgeois shithole.”
It had finally happened. The prophecy the legend foretold by those mythical beings in my gut had been fulfilled.
He stood above me pacing as if deciding to kick me again or not. Then he stopped by my head, squatted to get closer to my face, pulled my hair and then sneered, “For the last time, tell me where are the letters?”
“There are no letters, comrade.” I said trying to keep my head as close to his hand as possible and pushing myself up with one hand against the floor.
“Very well.” He muttered and got up moving closer to the door. “I must tell you that we’ve confiscated your art. You will not be able to use it for your propaganda. It is being shipped off to the capital where it will be burned along with the art of other degenerated artists.”
“Comrade…” I stammered at the fear that was deeper than anything else for me – the fear of losing the very work I had committed my heart and soul to, “You know I am a talented painter.” I said this regretting the words as they spilled out of my mouth, but I couldn’t control the idealism and dedication that had made me who I was till that moment. “I wouldn’t have been admitted to the university if it were otherwise.” I got up and with my hands hanging by my sides I begged to him, “Please, don’t burn them. There’s cutting edge technique depicting modern imagery, and they will be national treasures, not just my paintings.”
“Shut up!” He shouted with a face redder than before. “You dare to talk to me about national treasures and modern art! I know how you were admitted in school. Your rich father paid for your tuition and you created relations with the capitalists in the past two years. You will not be permitted to go back and your art will get what it deserves!”
I was breathless, not because he kicked me as he talked, but because the very essence of what I was, was being taken away from me and I couldn’t do anything about it. My father had failed me, and I had failed the family.
“I will be back, and I better have a response about the letters.” He said these words calmly but with the threat and confidence that he wouldn’t be without a resolution. As the cell door closed behind him, I sat and remained on the floor for a long time, or it felt that way, until the door rattled again. I didn’t move, but waited for the door to fully open. I looked up and saw a woman’s legs. Her light brown coat was just below her knees and covered her thin body tightly, showing her curves. She had failed to button it, and I could see her red blouse and black skirt, which she had designed and sewed herself. My Linda! Her pale face refreshed my strength and her dark brown eyes gave the cell more light. I felt like I could stand up, but she gave me a sad and compassionate smile, and sat down next to me. She put her arm around my back and pulled me closer to herself, enveloping me in her chest.
“What time is it? I think I’ve lost my watch when they dragged me here.” I said while breathing with the waves of her bosom.
“They took all your paintings.” She said without answering. “They said they’ll burn them, but I know better.” She then turned my face toward her face and I could see her eyes, sorrowful, yet hopeful. “You know, Dona, the first secretary’s daughter, she told me that they’re confiscating all art, valuable items, and whatever they deem worthy of taking, and once they evaluate everything, they will distribute it to the leaders of the Party in the capitol.”
“Well, as long as they don’t burn them, I’ll feel better.” I said feeling relief as she spoke and caressed my hair.
“I have to tell you something else, Vangjush.” She said taking her eyes off of me, and looked at the ceiling. “I’m … why do I have to say this here?” She started crying.
I got myself out of her embrace, put my arm around her back and held her delicate shoulders, almost afraid she’d break. “You’re shivering,” I said.
“We’re going to have a child, Vangjush!”
I lifted my head up and looked at the ceiling, where Linda’s eyes were fixed. I felt as if the entire world became this little cell and nothing existed before, and nothing would exist thereafter. “Vangjush!” She whispered my name and I put my hand around her head and kissed her softly on her teary eyes.
“Do you have a piece of paper and a pencil?” I said as if remembering something.
“Why? Yes…, yes, I do.” She answered and opened her purse looking for the items. She looked so lost and so happy at the same time, while I felt sad and complete. She handed me the paper and the pencil and looked at me as if she knew what was in my head, before I did. I struggled to get up, yet I managed; put the paper against the wall and started to color with the pencil, tracing lightly all the shapes of the wall. “What are you doing?” She got up and asked as if she wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing.
“I’m painting a piece of this wall for you. If I come alive or not…”
“Don’t talk nonsense!” She interrupted; yet, her voice carried a tone of guilt, which I thought meant that she knew my future, too.
“Look at these, Linda! These images are the first things I saw in this cell. They have no light, no shadow. They’re engraved here, making a mockery of what makes a painting, yet now that I’m putting them on this paper, they are my best work ever. Please safeguard it.”
She put it in her bag with the pencil, and then put her head on my shoulder as I stood silent in front of the wall. The door rattled and opened again. She turned, toward it while holding my hand, “Good bye, Vangjush.” Our hands dropped down in empty space as if we couldn’t hold each other anymore.
“Good bye,” said I and stretched my other hand touching her tummy, just slightly. I fixed my eyes on her face and felt hopeless; alone, but at the same time relieved for her. Somehow, I thought she’d be OK. The door shut and it felt as if the cell shook. I knew I would be here for a long time, or even worse. If they got me out early, then they’d execute me. But none of it mattered as I thought of Linda and the baby. But as I thought that, I trembled at the thought of Linda’s pregnancy being used against me. I felt nauseous, but soon remembered her full grasp of this horrible reality and tried to find peace in the hope that she knew better than I did, and she’d keep the news secret, even if it meant sacrificing us. She knew she’d have my blessing, no matter what.
The cell was getting darker and my strength was fading again. The light that was coming from outside now had turned to silver. I put my head against the wall and closed my eyes. That’s how I spent that night. I thought of the position of the stars, the way that the wind makes the smallest leaf seem like a ghost, the way the moon reveals itself, and all of the night’s creatures, misunderstood, and alone. But that cursed door shook again and I opened my eyes. The cell had a different light.
“How do you like 3AM, Vangjush?” the sinister voice spoke through the yellow and dim lighting that annoyed all the brown colors of the cell.
I rubbed my eyes and noticed that there was a light bulb hanging from the ceiling. “Comrade, There are no letters,” I said as I tried to give some strength to my words.
“Yes, Vangjush, yes. I’ve decided to believe you. No, worries.” The comrade said as he rubbed his neck. “The leader called me last night and we’ve spoken about your – “art”.” He said the last word with a smile. I was uncertain at his tone.
“Show me your hands.” He demanded.
“My hands?” In confusion and doubt I showed him my hands and looked at them as if trying to find in them something that I hadn’t seen before. But while wrapped in my bewilderment, he grabbed both my hands, squeezed them tight by my fingers and bent them so hard that I heard cracks inside my head. I screamed, but as I screamed he bent my hands again in the opposite direction. There was not a single bone in my body that didn’t hurt. My eyes burnt and my mouth was dry with agony. I had been castrated off of my identity for my fingers, my hands were my mouth, my tongue, my voice. I could not distinguish between the physical and spiritual pain, for they both fed each other with such intensity that they become one vast, deep, unending anguish from which I knew I would never be saved.
As I was stood numb with pain, a guard walked in the cell holding something in his hands. My vision was blurred and I couldn’t see, but I felt him push me to the wall with one hand, and with the other hit me between my shoulder blades. I felt a metallic pain and lay my arms on the wall. My first reaction was to keep my fingers together, but they were shuttered as the guard hit them with a hammer.
“You will never paint again, Vangjush.” He said these words as if announcing a victory; “As of now, you are being sent in a remote village, where you will work in the mine as soon as your hands are healed. Your family and your wife will never see you again. I hope this is clear.” He signed the guard to leave and walked out after him. I was lifeless and yet my body throbbed of the emptiness one feels when being robbed of life. I remembered my grandmother had once said “I hurt because I am alive”, but that was such a paradox. I was dead because I hurt.
I remained in the dark. I had known that darkness was weak, but now I had proof of this truth. Darkness was always silent and couldn’t talk. It was without limbs and forsaken. It wasn’t this place where evil reigns. No, it was the place where all the innocent were thrown into and made peace with the wrong future.
Aida Bode is a poet and writer from former communist Albania. She is published in Prelude, 34th Parallel, Allegro, West Texas Literary Review, Transcendent Zero Press, Three Line Poetry, Raven’s Perch, Vayavya, and more. She’s the author of the well-received novel David and Bathsheba. Aida holds a MA in English and Creative writing from Southern New Hampshire University. www.aidabode.com.