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from the January 2017 issue

Fog and Fire

Nenad Joldeski offers two atmospheric tales

 

Fog

Skopje. Corrected discourse.

Fine rain is falling outside. One half of the city is under water, the other floats wounded on the city lake. A bird flies into the half-open roller blind. The third today. Beside me lies the borrowed book on Brueghel. I remember Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. It’s strange that I can’t think of Brueghel without his name triggering an association with Williams.

“According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring.”

I look for the painting inside. It’s not there. Instead, I gaze at The Hunters in the Snow. This must be the tenth time I’ve seen it as if by chance. Several times with Olivia, and several by myself. I’m starting to believe it portends something apocalyptic. The winter, perhaps. Whatever . . .

The drizzle stops. I go outside. The city, dark clouds and fog hanging over it, walks its phantasms along the mute, foggy avenues. It smells of winter. An icy north wind deflects off the buildings. Ice quickly forms at the edges of the sidewalks.

I take the street that leads steeply down into the heart of the city. I’m not really sure where this route will take me. Through the heavy drapes оf smog and fog I sense a pack of tired and ravenous dogs following me. I tremble with fear and stop short. The dogs don’t notice me in the mist and pass by. I notice three hunters following them, with rifles. Ravens fly past overhead. The men take aim and fire several shots. One of the bullets pierces glass. Nothing falls to the ground. Fortunately they don’t notice me. I decide to continue on through the thick fog in search of somewhere to hide. I find the nearest store and slip inside. Through the shopwindow I watch the hunters and the ravenous hounds melt into the mist. The storekeeper lies dead. I hurry home as fast as I can.

A raven, certainly lost in the thick fog, crashes into the window and breaks the glass, and then flies half dead into the room. A whiteness starts to fill the interior. I notice a message on the raven’s leg.

Don’t go outside, I’m dreaming of the hunters, they’re relieving their hunger, venting their defeat.—Olivia

I lock the door. The Brueghel book still lies on the table. Ravens are colonizing the room. I make tea and settle comfortably in the armchair. Glad to be alive. I wait for her to wake up.

 

Fire

To my father
and all who will believe

 

The summer that came after the death of my grandfather gave birth to a fiery well inside my father. The red chasm that he claimed was melting his soul and heating it to incandescence came out through his eyes and spewed flames at anyone who looked at him. He found no way to quench that fire. Something was happening inside my father—one sun was going down and another, even hotter and more dangerous, was rising—and although medicine claimed the opposite and skeptically poured water and ash onto the embers of his soul, the fire continued to smolder inside. He thought back to his youth, he dressed up my mother in clothes that had long ceased to fit her, and she, not wanting to contradict his mania, obeyed like a small child. We all knew that the torrid abyss forming within him, powerful and apocalyptic, would not last long, but none of us were bold enough to anticipate the scars it would leave.

My father started going out less and less, and when he did, he hid in the shadows of the houses and passed like a ghost along the margins without being seen. I watched him flit beneath the eaves and levitate about the roofs with my grandfather’s old parasol trailing behind. Sometimes he would dive into the black river and was gone for hours, only to emerge from it in the end dry and dejected. In the nights he looked at the moon and confused it with his enemy, the eye of the universe, which slowly and furtively crept up through his conversations, leaving ash on the floor—traces he returned to at dawn. In his mornings awash with sweat we coldly watched his anxiety; we all hoped the summer would soon end and the elemental forces of fall would bring him back to the circle of existence.

But when fall came, my father continued to loiter around the house and only occasionally stopped down in the stone basements until, cold and somber, they reminded him of my grandfather. Then he also started to complain about his heels. When he trod, he left traces of black on the floor and claimed that everything in him was turning to coals and ash. My mother measured his steps, fanned his neck, and served him cold beer, but nothing helped. One day, probably considering us and his hopeless situation, he disappeared.

The days that followed, chill and gray, cast his remains into our house, leaving us less and less space for living. The foundations started to give way, the walls lost their colors, the warmth vanished, and only past memories, smells, and smiles of that great miracle worker collected in the corners. My brother and I searched for him everywhere and paced wild-eyed through the pale light of the waning days, hoping to find a trace of him sometime. And just when it seemed everything would fall apart and our paltry lives would topple into the void of his absence and vanish forever in the ruins, warmth miraculously returned to our home. For days we sat despondently at the windows and watched ice take hold of the streets, filling the asphalt chasms of the city, and we hoped it was a herald of his coming.

My father returned together with the first snow in late January, on the day of his fifty-eighth birthday: smaller, tiny, and chilled to the bone. The fiery well had been covered with snow, he claimed, and that layer of white now concealed everything that could make a semblance of his previous life. He tried to create a reminiscence of the past months, to melt the snow by throwing salt on it, but all his efforts collapsed into the pit of oblivion, lost their ground, and slid away. And he simply could not recall what had happened to him all the time he was gone.

For days, my father dug through the labyrinths of his memories, cleared away the snow and broke the ice on the frozen flagstones, beneath which all the warmth and the smells of his onetime memories now faintly shimmered. He found the cat and stole its spot, woke it from its slumber and conquered its territory, laying down his own laws and jurisdiction, only to ultimately meditate on warmth, in the belief that cats always choose the warmest place in a house. He would say with soft elation that he was going out for a walk, but instead, when he thought no one was watching, he shrank and broke into the family albums. And only then, wallowing about in the photos, could he daydream of my grandfather’s garden, the old trees that once flowed with honey, my mother in youthful rapture hiding her face with a pillow in the small student room in Skopje . . . Hundreds of split-seconds broken down into tiny decimals, the right to one more day, the balance of his life set against other laws. Only during those brief visits did his rickety worlds gain stability, take on color, levitate weightlessly, and lift him into the air like a soap bubble in an innocent childhood fantasy. But the balloons soon sagged from the weight of the memories, the photographs faded, and everything fell apart into a million trivial details, which returned my father to the living room, back to his cold labyrinths. Covered all over with cobwebs of the past and the sticky illusions of reminiscences, he pottered sadly about the room. He nervously wiped those sticky threads of yore from his face and passed us by as if we didn’t exist, taking us for apparitions—value-added tax on the price of his life.

One day he decided to stop mortifying himself with those painful wanderings through the albums. He shut himself away in his old office and finally found peace among the files and folders. In that little room he made cults of the inventory and saw the statements of condition and success as a parity between number and letter, sign and new designation. He looked through the old bookkeeping accounts and claimed that the figures reflected opportune expenditure on the story, secret codes that could be deciphered into sentences. He composed new statements and new narrative reports—these were the straw he clutched at, his last link with the past. It was a sham: he multiplied pale memories by the free associations of the reports, and then secretly injected that concoction of fiction and rickety memories, that new lie of his life, into his hearth, which lay extinguished and blanketed in white in the cellar of his soul. He wrote, and as the stories about him grew, he diminished, withered, and melted into the notes.

My mother, brother, and I observed the office for days and definitely saw his shadow through the window. We watched it go down at dawn and rise again at night, and we saw it shrink more and more every day until all that remained of him was a faint spot on the window—the last sign of my father’s existence, his signature, a trace of the quenched embers of his last hot summer.

 

"Magla" and "Ogan," from Sekoj so svoeto ezero. © Nenad Joldeski. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Will Firth. All rights reserved.

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