Rudi Erebara is a poet, novelist and translator. His first published work, the poetry collection Fillon Pamja (There Begins the Sight), is part of several poetic anthologies. Erebara has translated Robert Hass’ poetry, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as well as works by A. R. Ammons and Aldous Huxley. He won the prize as best translator of the year with Ammon’s book.
Title: Vezët e Thëllëzave (The Partridge’s Eggs)
Place of Publication: Tirana
Year of publication: 2010
Publisher: Pika pa sipërfaqe
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The plot: The novel is about the deportation of a family during the communist dictatorship. Linda’s husband and Afërdita’s father tries to go over the border and is sentenced to death. As a result to that, his family is deported to a northern village. Mother and daughter, Linda and Afërdita, who are the main characters of the book, live their life in deportation, in loneliness and poverty. They live in an almost ruined shack and have to fight against cruelty, day by day, for seven years. Mother and daughter are shown in the borderline between life and death. Will they live or will they die? The characters are able to survive praying to God and finding out that even animals were more human than the ideology-brainwashed beings around them. The author recounts the dictatorship’s absurdity through the eyes of a child. 13-year-old Afërdita narrates the story with calmness and naivety. It is the diary of a child in a very high artistic level.
The Partridge’s Eggs
The more time passed, the more I thought about Father New Year. I don’t know when he passed here in the snowy night. I know he doesn’t travel in his chariot pulled by reindeer to bring us gifts, but I wanted a gift with all my heart. He had maybe passed this way in one of the days when the big wolf of the pack would pee on the doorstep of our broken gate, to show all animals and people that we were his friends.
As a matter of fact, one day Mom cooked a nice meal with mushrooms and very little oil and very, very little applesauce dissolved in boiling water. For the New Year, may it be a good year, – she said, although I thought it was early March. She was unwell, and when she slept, she would call out dad’s name and get up like a moonstruck woman. I thought she was cr…, but I never mentioned that word to myself; I now feared that word even more than my father’s death.
We mostly cooked wild potherbs and corn flour, with no oil, in a baking pan. Mom bought salt when she went to the village herself to get some corn flour. She did not take me with her. She came back and took the sack off her back and on the floor, took off her boots and went close to the fire. She smoked rolled tobacco; I didn’t know where she had got it from. She placed the sack of corn flour – the monthly ration of the man with a moustache riding a mule – as a pillow under her head, and fell asleep. Or she pretended to fall asleep. She often placed her hand between her legs, as if she was hiding something; maybe the money, maybe some very mysterious secret that I wasn’t supposed to uncover.
One day, Mom did not get up with me in the morning, and I let her sleep. I got out and closed the gate with the suitcase and I watched the birds. I collected potherbs like I had seen mom do, except for charlock, whose bitterness could not be disguised by the corn flour – not even with unused peanut oil. Mom did not move at all for two full days, and I collected food. Whenever I happened to find mushrooms, I would collect them like dad had taught me to:
Mushrooms are like women. The good ones are either white, or ugly. Those with bright colours are like women why try to look pretty in order to be noticed. So, those with bright colours are poisonous; do not touch them: they are like wicked, promiscuous women who love nobody but themselves.
I cooked the mushrooms as well as I could. Mom ate them and fell asleep. I didn’t know where to go, for I had no money to buy anything. Mom kept the money in her clothes. Probably in her underwear. And even if I tried, I wouldn’t be able to buy anything. Who would sell anything to me, if they hadn’t sold to mom? So I kept repeating the same thing. I collected wild potherbs every day. The warmer the weather turned, the larger the leaves became and the easier it was to collect them. I didn’t even need to go deep into the bushes now. I could find all I needed in front of the house. I learned how to use the axe, and when I went to cut firewood, I would sometimes glance over the road. The big vehicles passed rather seldom. I didn’t know what to do. I never saw any of the agricultural cooperative people. Mom slept. She slept like a log. She would get up and do her business at the gate or on the grass in front of the house and she would go back to sleep. She didn’t even clean herself anymore. I would leave the potherbs with a little salt and flour for her breakfast, she would eat and she wouldn’t awake again before lunchtime. At lunch, she ate if I had cooked something, otherwise she would sleep hungry. She didn’t add wood to the fire, even if it was cold.
I spied on her several times. At lunchtime she didn’t close her eyes, or she probably slept with her eyes open, as she never replied to me, even when I grabbed her shoulders and shook her and talked to her relentlessly. At night, we slept close to each other. We would keep each other warm and she would caress my hair. My hair would get tangled in her hands, which were cracked like the axe’s handle and it hurt, but I never said ouch, for the minute she started caressing me, I fell asleep. I dreamed of dad more and more frequently. He gave me things, usually things we missed. I told mom about it at breakfast; she said neither yes, nor no and she stared me in the eye as she ate. Even when she got outside and pretended to warm herself in the sunlight, she ignored me completely. I got used to it and did not hold it against her. She will wake up one day, I thought, like dad used to say that this people will wake up one day and it will understand that they have left it naked and in disgraceful conditions, but it will probably be too late.
* * *
I took care of her like one takes care of a baby. Some days she would pee on herself because she felt too lazy to get out; I would add wood to the fire so that her clothes would dry without her taking them off. I never let her without firewood or potherbs with corn flour. When she was pooping one day, I passed through the tins and took the sack of corn flour that she kept under her head as a pillow. She didn’t notice at all, she fell asleep with a stone instead. The hope warmed my soul, for I could see that the birds were returning. I couldn’t tell what colours they had. It was more and more of them every day, smaller and smaller every day, as if they were sprouting from the soil with the meadow flowers. We ran out of flour and I cooked with corn and mushrooms, when I could find some in the roots of some shrub. I boiled the corn, and baked the mushrooms. I got used to eating them raw. I liked some of them and didn’t like some others, as I had felt about sweets in the town. When I was very hungry, I ate many of the ones I liked. When I wasn’t so much, I ate some of those that I didn’t like, just to kill time. Mom did not manage to leave her bed. She reeked of urine. Once, when I removed her boots to wash her feet, I saw that not a single nail was left in her toes. All of them were like soft blobs of dark flesh filled with blood veins. Winter had taken her toenails; don’t know how or when. I hadn’t managed to notice as I collected firewood and fought with the snow. I washed her feet with warm water and I cried, but she paid no attention to me. The warmer the weather, the less fire I needed to make and the easier my life became, except for the food.
Both our stomachs had shrunk and we didn’t suffer from diarrhea as often, until we ran out of corn flour. I shook and urged mom more and more each day to go and find corn flour for us, but nothing changed. She wasn’t even eating anymore. I searched all over the place and through the shrubs to see if I could find any sack from those of the army. I did find some, but the food had either gone bad or had been eaten by animals. Only once did I find some of those tins of sardines, but they quickly ran out. One afternoon I suffered such a terrible stomach-ache from the mushrooms I ate, that I thought I would die. Mom was not moving at all. At all. I went to take her out to see the sunset, hoping that that would be good for her. I was writhing in pain. She went pale and fell asleep in the middle of the field, right where she had pooped a minute earlier. I threw some water over her face and cried. She came to and went back to the fire. I warmed her carefully and she seemed to get better. I had a hard time washing her face, which was soiled with her own poop. She smelled awful. More awful than a rotten fox fur.
One day, after I finished cleaning the roof tiles and I was exhausted, as I was going out to cry, my foot got tangled in a dirty sack soiled with excrement. I opened and it had a bag of rice and some tins of sardines. I don’t know how I had failed to see it in the darkness of the soot of our tin home. But, as mom used to say, there is a God, and he works in mysterious ways.
The extract is translated from the Albanian by Manjola Nasi