Issue 9 / Spring 2017
It was love at first fight, or maybe at second. It’s the old story, I guess. The girl is touchy about failing fifth grade, and the boy, annoyed that she’s been assigned to share the double-desk with him, keeps teasing her about it. Next thing he knows he’s kissing dirt, on the road between school and home, her fingers clamping his hair, impossible to break free, try as he might to pinch her fingers with his fingernails. I didn’t really want to fight a girl, a year older though Zana was. So I let her win, twice I did, then I couldn’t shut up about how tough she was. “She’s as tough as an amazon,” I’d say, certain her name derived from it. One day by accident, or like a revelation, I said amazana, ama being Italian for “loves.” I tried David in front of it for size and that was that.
Our romance, whatever it was, played out mostly at school. It was never easy for Zana to leave her house after school, unless it was to help her mother with work quotas. I mean, why else have old widows in the village in those days if not to keep an eye on the comings and goings of girls and spreading gossip about them? Now that Zana and I were in eighth grade and practically adults, it was damn near impossible to have time alone together.
There weren’t many places to meet in secret either besides the cornfields. Not that I’m complaining. You don’t militarize the workforce, after all, if not to produce amazing cornfields. Worker brigades battered the soil with spades and hoes and garden rakes, planted the corn in straight lines seventy centimeters apart, transplanted the wayward shoots and replanted them back in line, irrigated and fumigated. Come harvest, the stalks grew as thick as trunks and the cobs looked like missiles you could shoot from an airplane. We hid in those fields like fairytale creatures in a dark dense wood.
Anyway, it was all cut down now. The harvest was about all finished, the stalks piled into conical stacks. Most of the corn was to be traded, with a small portion turned into the daily bread rations sold at the store. Our village workers weren’t so easily duped, though. Everyday they left cobs attached to the stalks, so as to pilfer them after work, which was why I had brought a small bag, and while waiting for Zana, I scavenged for cobs. I found eleven. Zana would need a pretext to leave her house and these would provide it. I also chose a big stack and made us ample room inside. “Indian homes,” we called the stalks, because they looked like tepees spread across the plain, just like you saw in movies with Indians and cowboys. I fixed mine up so well, it would be a shame if Zana didn’t make it.
Just on the point of giving up hope, I saw a figure faint against the jagged outlines of our village. I knew it was Zana from the flatted-footed tilt to her walk. She came from a long line of women accustomed to carrying kindling on their backs, giving her a slight stoop as well. She had on black rain boots and brown pants tucked into them. Her shirt was zipped to her neck, the hood on her, looking like a boxer entering the ring, like the boxer I fell in love with.
She stopped a few feet from me, quite a moment, a bag rolled up under one arm.
“Can’t stay long,” she said by way of greeting. “How many did you find?”
“Cobs? Oh, fifteen at least,” I said. “Will that be enough?”
Zana nodded, then turned to the Indian home I had fixed up, her eyes going from the broad round base to the apex of dry tassel looking like arthritic fingers no longer able to make a fist.
“It’s really nice inside,” I said, pointing to low triangular door.
She hesitated, rather predictably.
As a rule, Zana always hesitated at first, like she thought that I might think less of her if we didn’t follow procedure. I crawled in first, pushing aside any dangling stalk or leaf. She came in later and we sat cross-legged, facing each other. There wasn’t as much room as I thought, and our knees were touching. Perfect! She pushed back her hood, patted down her short black hair. I’d made it seem a matter of life and death (and it was) that she should meet me here, and she sat there now impatient for me to get on with what I had to say.
But where to start? Picture a small country, it matters not where. Some say, navel of Europe, others its fart-factory. To me, Fatherland. But not for long, though. Not for long. One takes for granted the right to complain these days, but the concept was invented in that country after 1990. Instead, you had to praise and praise and praise. Praise a regime drunk on alternative facts (i.e. while the economy was meeting the quotas of its five-year plan by 150-200%, people waited in longer lines for bread). Praise the regime for what awaited me: a six day work-week in an agrarian cooperative and a daily wage enough to buy the bread you, yourself, worked all day to produce. And praise some more. Little acts of resistance, like stealing from the cooperative, gave away to big acts of resistance, like fleeing the country. With a shoot-to-kill policy at the borders, fleeing was, well, ill-advised. But thanks to international pressure and that sort of thing, the policy was put on hold.
Or so we thought.
“I got to see David Copperfield again,” I said to Zana, seeing as she was shifting about, her impatience wearing thin while the night thickened around us.
“David what?” she said.
“David Copperfield,” I said. “David and Dora. Wasn’t that once your favorite movie?”
It was, too. Zana didn’t have a TV (I didn’t either), and whenever we met like this in the stacks, I recapped for her the plots from various movies and Italian TV shows I’d caught on my cousin’s TV. Of the few movies Zana got to see herself, I remember David Copperfield was her all time favorite. How could I forget? I was falling for her and she for me — probably, I used to think, through name association. I spent so much energy imitating the mannerism of the actor and letting my hair longer than other boys’ (until the cops snatched me up and shaved me like a sheep, and I’d been lice-free ever since). Eventually, I accepted that I couldn’t look as fetching as the movie David. To make myself feel better, I wished everybody in the movie would perish in a great heartbreak endemic, with the exception of Agnes, as this particular David had liked her from the start far more than Dora. The movie David wasn’t too bright, long hair notwithstanding.
“David and Dora,” Zana said, no doubt recalling how we talked about poor Dora, and how we mourned her, thinking of her premature death.
“Wasn’t it so sad,” I said now, “when Dora died?”
“It’s always sad,” Zana said. “When someone dies.”
“I hope you never die,” I said honestly, and she had the nerve to snicker at me.
We were quiet again after that, our knees pressing harder against each other, and the night pressing harder on us. I busied myself for a while by transferring the cobs from my bag all into hers.
“David,” she said when I was done. “What did you want to talk to me about?”
“Oh, and C’era una volta il West,” I told her. “Now that’s a movie you have to see.”
I pulled from my pocket a worn-out harmonica that my mother had bought me from a Gypsy, as a reward for the daily stealing I did from the cooperative. I showed it to Zana and she sighed. Then I told her about the movie, about the poor man and the railroad tycoon who kills the poor man’s family, steals their land and builds a railroad upon it. I knew I had outgrown David Copperfield when I began to wish my parents had named me Charles, or maybe Bronson. There was a man to aspire to. No matter the pain of losing his family and land, Charles Bronson always wore a smile on his face, and he only killed for justice.
“Listen to this,” I said, putting the harmonica in my mouth and blowing, trying to play for Zana the plaintive long notes heard in the movie, the music of heat waves rising from the desert. I only managed to screech like some faulty old siren, setting my tongue, teeth, and ears abuzz.
“David,” Zana yelled, cringing and covering her ears. “You keep wasting my time.”
“Okay,” I said, staring at the harmonica like it were a mysterious object that appeared in my hand. I put it away and waited for Zana to uncover her ears. I took a deep breath, trying to be serious, to complement her frown.
“Let’s flee the country,” I said finally. “Just you and me.”
She just sat there, saying nothing.
“In America,” I said. “There are no villages, only cities and city-dwellers. We can have everything there at the press of a button. We’ll live in a house with twenty rooms, in a skyscraper high above the clouds.”
“Are you crazy?” she said.
“Maybe, but that’s what it takes. It takes a bit of crazy.”
“Does it take a bit of stupid, too?”
It was my turn to sit there, saying nothing.
She shifted about, the leaves rustling under her.
“Don’t go yet,” I said. “You just came.”
“I’m the stupid one,” she said, as if to herself. “My father would kill me if he knew where I was, and you too, and I wouldn’t blame him right now either. Please, don’t,” she said.
She was holding her bag and I was holding her wrists.
“I will flee,” I said. “I want you to come with me.”
“Let go,” she said.
“It will have to be soon,” I said. “I’ll let you know when.”
“Let go, damn it,” she said, in a tone of fighting-words.
“I’ll abduct you if I have to,” I said. “Like in Helen of Troy.”
“Now that you’ve conquered your fear of death.” She pulled her hands hard and I let go, and turned and crawled out, taking her bag of cobs with her.
“Zana,” I called to her boots and the boots did not answer.
I listened to her steps receding until I didn’t hear them anymore. It was dark and quiet in the stack and I stayed there for a long time, feeling the emptiness she’d left behind. Rain soon pattered overhead. It was like I’d awoken from a beautiful dream to find everything so dull and colorless.
Julian Darragjati was born in Albania and migrated to the US at age twelve. His fiction has appeared in The Barcelona Review, Harpur Palate, and Green Mountains Review, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He was awarded a Fulbright Grant to study in Italy, and recently got his Ph.D. in English and creative writing from SUNY Binghamton.