by Nikoletta Gjoni
Dritan wondered whether he made the right decision in telling them to go ahead, so sure that he would catch up. Had he been sure, though? He began to feel the numbness set in his hands, in his wrists, in his shoulders and back, though it wasn’t long before he felt his muscles begin to burn and cramp, giving him no choice but to stop kicking. His ears filled with the sounds of the others splashing onwards, though now the splashing came from all around him as the tides and waves pulled them apart.
They had begun the journey quietly, stealthily, and close together. But by the end of the first hour, their bodies felt ragged and heavy, and so they let their legs fall down where they may, just as long as they continued to propel them forward. Somewhere beyond the hidden horizon, beyond where their broken bodies existed, laid the invisible border between Albanian and Greek waters. All they had to do was keep pushing with the hope that kismet would string them along to safety. Don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop; the thought echoed in each head. Somewhere beyond the tide and choppy waves was water they could lie on their backs in and gently drift to safety. Somewhere off the coast of Corfu they would be reborn.
At first Dritan could see his friends’ heads bobbing up and down in the water, but he soon lost sight of them. He heard splashing though he wondered after some time if it was still them that he was hearing, or if it was the waves mimicking the sound of camaraderie, mocking him.
He blamed himself for letting them get so far ahead. That’s alright, he thought. I’ll catch up in no time. He looked around and suddenly realized how small he felt—how small he was—in the vast blackness between sea and night sky. No one knew he was there; no one but the three far ahead of him, spread to all sides of the compass. And they must think he was still close behind, not one having the energy to stop and look back to find him missing.
He closed his eyes. Only for a minute. He couldn’t feel his arms anymore. He licked his lips. Salt. So much salt. His tongue tingled and went numb, rejecting the tired taste of it. He thought about how much food his mother could make with all the salt the sea had to offer. He thought about how, in small doses, it turned dull food into something satiable, but in large doses—as large as the sea was wide—it dried your body from the inside-out and you would eventually begin to wither; to break apart and deconstruct in the water. He licked his lips again and realized for the first time how hungry he was.
The pain dulled and came back in waves, sharper than the previous jolts. In waves—ha! As if the Ionian itself was jabbing his sides to test his strength. He gave way to the pain, letting it move from his ribs, to his abdomen, to his chest. Maybe if he kept his eyes closed and stayed still a moment, it would pass. He just needed a quick rest.
As he often did at times that produced moments of either extreme pleasure or extreme pain, Dritan thought of his late brother Jusuf. As Dritan’s chin and nose dipped beneath the surface, he thought of their childhood games at the beach, of pretend drownings and rescues with Jusuf’s arms clamped around Dritan’s body flailing underwater. Their father had taught them early to love the water instead of fear it.
With his head sinking farther into the water and his mind lazily sliding backwards, Dritan remembered his favorite story, the one of his birth, a story his mother shared frequently when he was a child.
“You’re the best swimmer because you came from the water,” she’d say. Dritan had heard the story so many times he half-believed he remembered the experience itself, in utero. Of how his mother had chased after Jusuf and of how she’d danced her way across the hot beach pebbles to get to the shore, her feet bursting with the subtle lingering sizzles of the afternoon sun.
She was massively pregnant with Dritan and claimed he knew whenever they were in the water because he’d kick every time a wave wrapped itself longingly around her legs. Her contractions began while she was wading into the fizzing sea; she’d later tell him it was as if the sea sensed and longed for him as much as he himself sensed and longed for the sea.
So even at his most critical moment, when fear would perhaps have been the most appropriate and undeniable emotion, Dritan forced his legs to move beneath him until the tops of his nostrils stung with the urgent inhalation of bitingly cold air. His eyelashes dripped cold saltwater as if it was flowing from inside of him, as if he was born from it. Remembering that he indeed had been, he kicked harder with whatever energy he could drag out from deep inside, beneath the aching in his chest.
They undressed in the dark—quietly, shyly at first, and then methodically. The sea that beckoned them in the daylight sat wide before them now in the midnight light, as black as the universe. Each of the four friends avoided staring at it for too long, for fear of quickly throwing their clothes back on and making the long, lonely trip back home.
Dritan shivered as his sweater came off and then his undershirt.
“Goddamn, it’s cold,” muttered Erdi.
“Not if you think about how hot these rocks are in the summer,” said Luisa.
“Almost as hot as the iron when your finger is practically touching it,” added Dhurata. “I burned my finger that way once as a kid.”
“Or how hot your skin feels when you’re sunburned and you start to peel,” said Dritan with a smirk.
One by one, they threw in tokens of memories to build a small fire until Luisa finally pulled out the jar of grease she had been slowly collecting and saving from the mechanic’s shop where her uncle worked. Never done deliberately, her uncle would dole out random facts his niece would later apply to some relevant life event. It was from him that Luisa had learned how grease helped the skin maintain its elasticity, preventing it from shriveling after too much time in the saltwater.
“Someone help me with my shoulders,” she whispered. They lathered their bodies until they glistened. In the distance, they looked like a delicate dance of ghosts—arms reaching high, hands gliding over each other until four shadows came together to make one indistinguishable shape against the clear autumn night, and then broke apart again.
“Your turn, Dritan.” Luisa handed him the jar. “We saved the most for you since you don’t have an inner tube.” They had each taken apart their bikes and sliced open the tires to pull out the inner tubes to use as flotation devices. Dritan was the only one who’d decided at the last minute not to break the bike apart so that his mother could instead use it for errands and chores. At his core, though, he knew it’d had nothing to do with his mother. He couldn’t pull apart the bike that had belonged to his father. He grabbed the jar from Luisa and started blackening his arms and shoulders with grease.
“That’s okay. This will do just fine.” He flashed his teeth, which were barely noticeable in the dead of night. “I’m a faster swimmer than all of you anyway. All I have to do is keep moving.”
After each body had been greased, three of the four friends pulled out their inner tubes and pulled them over their heads. Luisa took out a ball of yarn from her bag and started weaving it around her shoulders, looping it over and around the inner tube until she had created a tight web of knots to keep the tube in place around her body. She chewed at the yarn until she felt a tear, yanked it loose, and threw the ball over to Erdi.
They each took their turn with the yarn, circling it around their bodies like an orbiting planet losing its course and spinning into oblivion, until suddenly, as fast as it had appeared from Luisa’s bag, it vanished. After much silent, synchronized movement, they stilled. Their eyes moved away from each other towards the gaping uncertainty that stretched before them.
As if on cue, their hands searched each other’s out and, once found, clasped them tightly. Wading into the water, their breath moved up from their bellies to their chests, lodging in their throats. The only sound they could make were hisses as they slowly exhaled and let the cold water swallow their youthful, unscarred bodies. And out into the Ionian they went, fading like flickering candle flames.
When Dritan showed up, they were still waiting for Agim. Agim was the last member of the group they waited on, but since they had all arrived early, they waited. In the distance a dog howled and howled until it finally forfeited to hunger and collapsed—a pile of tired old bones. They stood around quietly in the building’s shadow. The only sounds to echo were a throat being cleared or a quick kick of a stone pat pat patting down the road. If they caught each other’s eyes, they flashed a quick smile, and although each pair glowed mischievously in the darkness, anticipating the greatest adventure any of them would be sure to go on, the smiles would stop short just before reaching their eyes. Dritan grew uneasy after thirty minutes had passed and Agim had still not shown up. The sun would be rising before long and the first bus heading south would soon arrive.
“Where is that bastard? We can’t wait around forever,” said Luisa.
“What do we do?” Dhurata asked with an exasperated sigh.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” said Erdi. He was a brusque man who tried to control his language and mannerisms in front of the women in his life. This moment, however, slipped by without acknowledgment from his friends.
“No, wait.” Dritan felt on edge and was ready to move, but he couldn’t imagine leaving a member of their group behind. “Just ten more minutes. Something could be holding him up.”
“Do you know what would happen if the wrong person caught us just standing here right now?” Dhurata hissed.
“Just ten more minutes. If he’s not here by then, we can leave.”
“We’ve planned this for too long to have him ruin everything and land our heads on Enver’s dinner plate,” Erdi said through gritted teeth. Each enunciated syllable felt like a precise measurement. In the quiet of private homes, behind drawn curtains, vulgar jokes were often whispered by adults about how the great dictator, Enver Hoxha, fed off his citizens’ flesh, blood, and spirits.
It wasn’t the image Dritan would see of Enver in newspapers or on posters. Xhaxhi Enver, or Uncle Enver, as the propagandists often referred to him, was illustrated as a serene and happy family man, always eager to be around his people—his subjects. As Dritan grew older, he learned, as many others did while at home and after dark, that Enver Hoxha was a wolf in sheep’s clothes and the entirety of Albania was a flock of sheep that had gone astray.
Dritan thought of his mother’s muted anger at the loss of her husband all those years ago. She was the first person he’d heard utter those words, Enver eats the flesh of his people, and it was the first time everything outside his home suddenly felt like a lie.
“We’ll be fine,” Dritan managed to say. The brisk winds picked up and made the group huddle closer together. Deep inside the circle, they unburdened their minds and relieved themselves of any thoughts that might anchor them down once out in the water. The fear of being stopped; the fear of freezing; the fear of drowning; the fear of being intercepted and returned. They all agreed that death by sea would be a far more desirable way to go. Dritan noticed that the one fear no one had the strength to vocalize was the fear that Agim had betrayed them.
He walked through the front door to the smell of fasule cooking, a rich cannellini bean soup topped with a drizzle of olive oil. It was a favorite dish of Dritan’s. He instinctively made his way towards the kitchen at the first smell of the soup, but his mind suddenly went on high alert: did his mother suspect his plans? Did she have any idea that he would be leaving?
“Bir i mamit, is that you?”
“I’m home,” Dritan responded.
“Are you ready to eat? Or we can wait.”
“No, I’m hungry. Let’s eat now.”
The everyday normalcy in her tone set his mind at ease, though his heart thumped against his chest when he sat down at the table and found it set for a feast. Two bowls filled to the brim with fasule, two small porcelain bowls with olives, an onion sliced in half, and thick slices of his mother’s bread sat in the middle of the table. Outside, the clouds rolled in from the mountains, threatening rain. This was, in Dritan’s opinion, the perfect autumn meal.
He chewed slowly while his mind reeled with the realization that this would be the last meal he would share with his mother at this table. He watched her—studied her mannerisms and the way she hummed under her breath between bites. She seemed happy. Or at the very least, content. Dritan’s chest tightened at the thought of her sadness expanding outwards from her insides until it filled every room in the house.
“You’re quiet today,” she said, blowing on her spoon to cool off the steaming broth. “What are you thinking about?”
“Oh, nothing.” He took bites of his mother’s bread and filled his mouth with a memory already caught in the past. “Nothing worth worrying about.”
Dritan heard her bedroom door close not long after he had already gone to bed and heard her open and close drawers, followed by the door to her heavy wooden armoire squeaking open and then closed—with a dull thud, as it did every night. The armoire had been a wedding gift to his parents, handed down from his father’s grandparents. He knew it was meant for Jusuf when he married, but now it would be his. If only he’d stay.
If only he’d survive.
Soon there was silence on both sides of the wall. He felt a different kind of uncertainty than the night he’d doused his spirit in blood and avenged Jusuf’s death. It was the night that slipped into his consciousness each day; the night that paved the road to his self-exile. That night he’d been drunk with fear and doubt; tonight he was high on excitement and anticipation. The damning naiveté of youth was never before so present, nor so disregarded.
He debated leaving a note for his mother, but quickly decided against it. She had asked him earlier that evening if he was going out that night to meet friends and he had said no, offering instead, to stay in with her. She had seemed pleased, if not a little confused as to his sudden desire to spend an uneventful evening at home with her.
The night felt long and Dritan managed to find sleep before waking up for the last time in his bed. The house was shrouded in silence and the creaking of the mattress felt amplified to his ears as he shifted and got up to get dressed. He rubbed his eyes and ran his hands over his head, hard, to shake out the last bit of sleep from his mind and each individual strand of hair.
He looked at his bed before walking out—he had always been a messy sleeper, tossing and turning until his sheets and blankets had knotted up and were hanging over the sides, like tendrils escaped from a dream world. He walked over to his bed and pulled the sheets back; he shook them out and threw them over his bed, tucking the corners in tightly, followed by the blanket. He smoothed out any remaining lumps and wrinkles and finally made his way to the door. Taking a quick look back, Dritan thought how it looked like he had never slept there that night. And then he walked out.
The house felt larger at night when the darkness made the hallway seem endless and doorways disappeared into blind mystery. He stopped at his mother’s door for a brief moment and pressed his ear against it. There was, of course, nothing. She was fast asleep on the other side and, though his body felt ablaze from his toes to the crown of his head, he slowly turned the knob and pushed the door open a sliver. She had left the curtains open, which he thought unusual, and some moonlight managed to stream in crookedly.
Dritan saw her dark shape in bed, peacefully unaware, and suddenly he felt glad. His lips curved up into a quick smile before pulling the door back gently into place. He shuffled his feet, feeling his way down the hall and through the living room. The eyes of his relatives in the photographs hanging on the walls followed him until he reached the front door and walked out, closing the door behind him without so much as turning his head. Had he done so, he would’ve seen the note his mother had written and stuck on the door.
Bir i mamit—my dear son—be careful.
Nikoletta Gjoni emigrated from Albania in 1990 at the age of three and was raised in the suburbs of Washington D.C. She studied English Literature at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). As an undergraduate, she was one of 33 students selected to undertake university-funded research in Albania, where she focused on the censorship of news and literature under the Communist regime of the 1950s-1980s. After graduating, Gjoni worked in broadcast news for several years before leaving to focus on her writing and to pursue work in the nonprofit sector. She has recently completed a debut collection of linked short stories about people living in Communist Albania, spanning the 1970s through to the present day. Towards Avalon is her first published story and has been nominated for a PEN/Robert J. Dau prize.