canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


The Last Window 

by Faruk Myrtaj (Translated by Arben Kallamata)

A couple of years ago we were donated a house.

Before that, my parents had always been on the move, looking for a shelter. We lived for about six months in the secluded corner of a warehouse, and then moved to an apartment building used by miners, and then in the basement of a ruined house, and thenÖWe, the kids, were almost used to this kind of nomadic life, and we came to accept the fact that we were never able to have close friends. The short time we spend on each of our temporary residences was always cut short, as we had to cut short our new relations that never managed to become old. Finally, as it was summer, we had managed to settle in one of those giant artillery bunkers, one of those dome shaped concrete constructions build by the old regime with the intention of defending the country from a simultaneous attack from both superpowers.

I remember the day when we left the bunker. We left it like one would leave a war zone, so that we could return there Ė at least never if you donít count your memories as "returns". My mother came to take us from school, my brother, our elder sister and me. There, in the street was our father waiting. He hugged us and then he hugged mom. And then he hugged us again. My sister kept staring at him. Was he drunk? I saw tears coming out of my fatherís eyes. I looked at mom. I realized something good was happening. She wasnít trying to hide her tears.

"They have donated him a houseÖ" mom told us in a whisper. We didnít know why she was whispering. Was it because she found the news so incredible or because she was afraid someone else might hear us and steal away the new shelter before we were able to get there?

"It is not an ordinary house." Dadís attempt to explain made the gift even harder to believe. "It is a villa, a real villa."

We set walking to the villa house. Dad told us that the benefactor was waiting for us there. Noticing our parentís uneasiness we, the kids, wouldnít dare to ask who was the donor. As a matter of fact, we were not used to enjoying gifts. Unlike all the other children, we had never received toys, dolls, cars, guns, or tanks before. Dad had always tried to convince us that we had to save money, save as much as we could, save day after day, so that one finally we would have enough money to pay one third of the price for one of the new apartments that were being build around. We had to buy a house, and that was the most important thing. Children like us, without a home didnít find it difficult to get used to the lack of toys and gifts.

We walked to the periphery of the town, at the foot of a green hill covered by high trees. We knew the area. We had been there a few times for picnics on Sunday mornings.

"There it is," said Dad, pointing to a large villa.

"Are you sure you understood him well?" my mother was whispering so that us, kids, wouldnít get worried.

We kept on getting closer until we reached the front gate of the villa. We had completely forgotten the concrete artillery bunker built to fight against both superpowers and this dream seemed to be endless.

"And who is this man Ö who has been so kind to us?" Mom asked.

"I wanted to give him everything we have saved so far, but he didnít want itÖ What else could I say?"

The front yard was wide, green and covered by more trees than the wood in the hill. From there you could have a full view of the city. We were wondering how nice it would look in the evening. However, we were mostly impressed by the building itself, which was entirely made of glass. You could only be able to distinguish the metallic framework that sustained the entire building, although that too, was painted the same colour as the glass.

The man responsible for changing our lives was there. We found it strange that, despite the fact that he was offering us such a great gift he was not acting bossy at all in front of us, people who didnít know even how to accept this gift and how to express our gratitude.

"So, enjoy living in it," he said when we stopped in front of the villaís entrance.

"Thank you," said Dad.

"Thank you. Although Ö we donít know howÖ" Mom made a lame attempt to finish Dadís sentence.

"Well, we have already talked things over," said the benefactor, looking at Dad for approval. "Itís your house and thatís it."

"And our obligations are?" my Mom couldnít refrain herself from asking, although her eyes were begging Dad and the other man not to take this possibly rude question as an insult.

"You have no obligation. Oh, yes, there are two conditions we have agreed upon, arenít there?" He gave a short look to Dad.

We all turned and looked intently at Dad. He was completely taken aback, as if caught doing something wrong.

"Yes, yes, you told me about the conditions: We are not allowed to leave the house. Never. Under any circumstances. And, second, all the exterior repair work will have to be done by You, the donor."

We wondered why, what kind of reason would ever make us think of leaving this dreamy villa? Were we going to miss the rat holes we had been living in until then? And then, if the villa was ever going to need exterior repair, what was wrong with someone else paying for it, especially if it was the same person who made us the owners of the villa?

"Enjoy it, then. Time for me to leave," he said and I was reminded that he didnít look anywhere like Santa Claus bringing gifts to children.

We entered the villa slowly, as if we were afraid that our heavy steps might break our dream just at the moment when we were really enjoying it for the first time, when we were really touching it. It had started to show its real dimensions of greatness. We, the kids, hurried to see everything that was inside the gift package. It was impossible to count the floors, the endless number of rooms, the doors that opened automatically wide as soon as we got near them and closed when we curiously walked away towards other doors. The light was even more magic than the lights of the fairy tales that our grandmother used to tell us and, when we were pretty sure that even Aladdin wouldnít have been as staggered as we were, we tried to return back.

For a moment we thought we got lost. We hadnít noticed how several hours had passed before we found ourselves in front of our parent who was scared to death from our delayed absence and their inability to cope with the silence of this new life in a space that was simply immeasurable by the standards of our previous shelters.

Dad thought that it would be quite reasonable to reach a family agreement and we saw no reason to contradict it. We assigned a certain number of rooms for daily use as bedrooms, playgrounds, and studies. We did this so that we wouldnít get confused and lost inside the house, but also to give our mother a break in cleaning and housekeeping.

All the rooms were huge. Because of a special system, the sunlight from outside was able to penetrate to the remotest corners of the villa. The ventilation and heat were guaranteed all year round, and we laughed our hearts out when we tried to compare all this to the rat holes we had been using as homes before. We no longer had to get back to the artillery bunker, not even to get the things we had left behind there. We had everything and for free in this place where some supernatural power had brought us. A power we knew nothing about.

What had been the motive behind this manís generosity to us?

Dad couldnít answer this question. He would murmur some words, something to the effect that the one who was chosen to change the wheel of our fortune had mentioned certain obligations of the past, but nothing could be counted as a strong enough reason to put this dream in terrestrial grounds. The fridges and the TV sets on every room, including corridors and resting places, the air conditioners that brought into the house the fresh breeze of a lush forest, the swimming pools on each floor added to the one outside, in the backyard, the breathtaking sight of the city lights in the evening, the amazing play of the sun and the moon, and even of the stars, whose light broke through the glass walls, transforming itself into flickering rainbows all over the floor; all these had already stolen our sleep and we didnít notice how we missed school for two days.

We invited guests to confirm our dream. We had our cousins from the countryside come and visit us. Their naive shock made the dream even more surreal. Dad was at a loss for words. Instead of doing the host, he acted like a visitor himself and followed them, somehow feeling guilty in front of Mom and us for not having been able to find this present before. Mom was lost too, as if stepping onto some unraveled places. She was constantly cuddling and kissing us, as if to apologize for any harsh word, a scold or a failure to understand Dad while we were moving from one place to another in search of a permanent refuge.

We came to enjoy the yard more often. From the yard, the villa looked like a glass shell, like one those rare sea creatures that you could find only in the depths of the ocean. Its frame shined brightly, even if you were not comparing it to the darkness of the basements where we could hardly move our bones out of the bed because of the dampness and the stench surrounding us. It was nothing short of a miracle. Thatís how it happens, one of our guests told us: miracles are simply donated, just given to you. No one can buy a miracle.

We developed the habit of talking in a soft, low voice. Why would we ever have to be loud? Dad started to give less and less advice and almost never ordered us Ė why would he order us when everything around was in its place? Everything was free. We only had to enjoy them; this was all we were supposed to do. Mom was no longer tired; she ceased complaining about the pain in her back. Now everything was done with the push of a button. She no longer argued with Dad. Why would she argue and quarrel any more? People yell and complain when they feel that things are not going as they wish. We had all we needed; everything was in abundance. Dad was seen hugging Mom more often now. We had almost forgotten that scene while crawling from one damp basement to another. No one would ever come and visit us there. Guests will come and visit you only if you can afford to offer them a welcoming, quiet and happy space. Now, the old women from the village who came to visit us raised their eyes towards the sky and said: Of course there is a God up there. Look at His deeds...We turned on the lights, and then turned them off and on again. It was like in those ancient books: "Let there be light," and the villa was almost burning with light.

"So all these merchandise, all this edifice, everything here is for free?" our uncle from the countryside kept asking.

"Free, my brother, free...More than free!" replied Dad.

"What is this more than free you are telling me, brother?"

"Well, there is a condition that we never leave the house and that all the external repairs are to be covered by him."

"What kind of man is this? Are you sure he is human and not a ghost?" our uncle shrugged his shoulders. "Only a mad man can ever think of leaving such a house. And all the mending from outside, you said, yes? Thatís what he told you? Brother, you must have been born with a lucky star, and we didnít know anything about it." Our uncle kept crossing himself although he was a Muslim.

His wife couldnít help taking Mom to a corner and asking her if...in case one of her sons was doing well in school, would it be possible for him to stay here while he studied at the university?

&

It was much later that we tried to recall what happened to the first window. A glass had been broken - a glass from one of the windows facing the forest, not the city. No one wanted to know how and who broke the glass. Finding the culprit was not going to change anything: perhaps someone who was passing nearby, quite by accident; or one of those naughty boys with slings, who used to hunt for birds; or maybe it was just a bird that had smashed against the window and broken it. The window was still a window and, of course, the glass was going to be replaced. Dad was reminded: "All the external repairs were to be done by the donor." All he had to do was to let him know about the problem.

The next morning, a small pickup truck that looked more like a cart wearing a shabby green paint entered the yard. Two men jumped out of its back, while one of the front doors produced another one who looked like their boss and who started to inspect the broken window. The boss-like man drew a sketch of the blind window, casting it a fervent look; one of those melancholy looks that only the dead people, those that leave never to return back are privileged enough to get from us. Meanwhile, the workers unloaded a pile of bricks, sand, gravel, two sacks of cement and two huge jags of water. They started to prepare the concrete and before long were filling an improvised cast around the broken windowpane. Our donorís representative carefully collected all the pieces of the glass, not ignoring the tiniest scraps that had fallen at the base of the villa. He put them carefully in a plastic bag, while we were quite unable to understand what would he need the broken glass for.

They waited a while until the concrete was somewhat dry and then they took their shabby green pickup truck and left. At that time we couldnít find a chance to ask why wasn't glass being replaced by glass. We didnít even bother to think about it. Maybe it was because a piece of glass more or a piece of glass less in all that huge glass building was not going to make any difference to us. The space remained the same and the light was as abundant as ever before. The only difference was that the glass wall where the window that was no longer a window used to be, one could see a dark rectangle, like one of those rectangles that are left after you remove a picture frame after it had been hanging for a long time on your wall.

Later, when the small pickup truck had visited us several times and after each visit had left behind a blind rectangle of brick wall instead of a glass window, we started to notice that the glass area had started to shrink. Dad had initially believed that what was going on, that is the replacement of the glass windows with something that wasnít glass was done simply because the dimensions of the glass panes were not standard. But when the number of broken windows started to rapidly decrease the light inside the building, he got worried. Who ordered these changes? Why werenít we, the people who lived there, being asked?

"That was the agreement, sir," answered the representative of the donor.

"He is right, that was the agreement." Dad said returning to us.

Mom looked at us and we looked at each other. We were all innocent. Our parents were as innocent as we, the children.

"Perhaps we were better when we didnít have gifts, when we didnít have a house..." said my little brother.

"Donít be an idiot," said Mom.

"There are still many windows left in this house," added Dad.

Window glasses kept breaking. Now even more often. As if our worries and our concern for the rhythm of breaks were not enough, it seemed like birds from the neighboring forest were going berserk. They got together in flocks, flied high up above the villa and then, after circling the house for several minutes, dived straight to the windows.

"Please, be careful. Do anything but donít break any glasses!" Mom was begging us. When two plates accidentally fell off the hands of my sister while she was doing the dishes in the sink of the room that we had agreed to use as kitchen, they broke to pieces.

"No breaking, please...no glass breaking..." Mom couldnít control herself. "I canít stand any more glasses breaking."

Sometimes we thought glass was breaking because of the heat inside the villa. Then we believed it was the air ventilators, and later we went so far as to blame the moon light that was still able to penetrate with its gloomy paleness. Our cousin, my uncleís son from the countryside who had been living with us for a while because he attended the University, informed us one day that it was much more convenient for his studying schedule to use the dormitories, like all the other students.

"I wish we hadnít had that many windows in the first place. I wish this would have been a house like all the other houses," my younger brother said.

One day his eyeglasses fell down while he was alone reading in his room. Mom, who heard the echo of the glass breaking was only four rooms further.

We heard her shriek. "Please, for Godís sake, donít break glasses!"

My younger brother hurried to pick up the empty frame of his glasses and run fast to show it to Mom. Itís only this, Mom, nothing else. He had to wait a few days until he received another pair, unable to read anything, but that was fine. Eyeglasses could be replaced.

We didnít care if anything else was broken Ė ashtrays, coffee cups, dishes and vases, cabinet glasses or TV screens. Let them all break at once. No one worried about them, not even Mom. But how could you tell, how could you guess that it was them breaking and not one of the remaining window glasses? Anytime we heard something breaking, our minds jumped over there: here it is, another glass from the remaining windows is broken. "Oh, curse on me!" were the words we would expect from Mom.

"We can live without them, we can. We managed to live in a basement. We even managed to live in an artillery bunker, didnít we?" Dad tried to calm her down. And then he would turn to us: "Donít go to the third floor, do you hear me?"

This meant that there were no more windows left on that floor. We waited the arrival of the pickup truck every other day in miserable silence, as if we were waiting for one of those ominous black cars from the Funeral Home. Mom would lock herself in one of the rooms and we knew very well that she was taking pills to relieve her headache. Our sister told us that always, when the representative of the benefactor was collecting the tiny pieces of the broken glass and the other workers were preparing the concrete for the wall they were going to build where a window used to be, Mom used to block her ears with cotton swabs.

The fewer windows we had on the main floors where we lived, the less visitors and guests started to honor us with their presence. Perhaps this was because neither Mom, nor us, the others, were able to hide the tension. Even our uncle and his wife from the countryside ceased coming. Especially mother, but also everyone else started to feel the familiar signs of rheumatism with which we were so much used to in our life before the villa and which now, when the number of windows was dropping, were appearing again. And, as if the cracking of the window glasses was not enough, we were returning back to our old fights. We discovered that it was so easy to find faults and blame others around you.

"Please, donít fight, for Godís sake!" my mother yelled. "The important thing is that we are all healthy and we have everything we need."

We werenít quite sure what she meant by "everything", but obviously it was better to keep your mouth shout. All of us, including my younger brother, started walking up and down the corridors, something that Dad had been doing for a while now. We had read somewhere that this what the prisoners did but, of course, we were not in a prison.

"They are coming tomorrow," Dad said that day. "And after that, there would be no window left."

"We better leave. Letís leave tonight," pleaded my sister.

"No one is leaving. We have agreed on this," Dad sounded very firm.

"Oh, God, why donít you make me leave this world first?" asked Mom.

"I would like to go, too," said my little brother.

"Well, I signed the agreement," Dad raised his voice. Authority is needed where there are differences of opinion, where there is disobedience. We had already forgotten Dad in that role.

"You didnít sign an agreement to live in a prison, did you?" my little brother insisted.

"If only they could let us keep the last window. If they could replace it with glass, or let us replace it ... or even leave it empty. Anything but a brick wall!"

Mom went in again and locked herself in her room. It had been a while since she had been feeling better when left alone. She locked the door from inside, turned off the lights and we all knew that Dad was going to listen from the other side of the door. He was worried. We know his soul. But all the same we couldnít help remembering that it was him who brought us in this villa. In this prisonÖ

"Iím going to get out of this house first thing in the morning," says Mom when she came back. "I canít stand waiting here when they come. I canít stand them."

"Iíll come with you, Mom," says my little brother. He was determined to get out of the house. We still donít know if they are thinking of leaving the place forever.

Both of them were out of the house very early in the morning. They didnít want to see the pickup truck, which now always reminded us of the Funeral Home car.

My brother stops at the main gate and casts another glance at the villa. Perhaps he has made up his mind never to return there.

"Wait for me. It wonít take me long," he asks Mom.

He goes inside and grabs Dad by his arm. He is not pulling him. Itís just an invitation to hurry. There is nothing violent or even impolite in what he does, although itís impossible not to notice his determination.

Ah, they are here already. The pickup truck, the two workers, their boss and even the benefactor. The donor is here! Perhaps he has come because it is the last window. Of course, how would he miss this event?

"The window is fine, look!" my brother says. "Its glass isnít broken. Why would you replace it? Why do you want to wall it?"

His pointing finger is stretched ahead and it remains in the air for a while. The glass on the last window is intact. Itís on its place, shining, as it should. It is the only glass that has been able to resist for so long.

"Oh, you think itís fine? Thatís what you think?"

It was Dad talking. The other man, the great donor is silent.

"So it hasnít been broken yet, thatís what you say, son? But it will be broken one day, wonít it? Like the others did!"

There is a strange, awkward expression in Dadís face. He is not nervous, although he is tired and depressed. He is not angry with anyone. He is soaked in sorrow. He doesnít even think of expressing any sign of disappointment to the man who donated us something we had never dreamed of.

He bends as if to sit, like a man that canít stand any longer. My brother quickly gets near him, ready to help in case he is going to fall down. But itís not that. Dad grabs a stone from the ground, turns it around his fingers for a while and then throws it towards the window. The last glass breaks into small pieces immediately, as if it had been waiting for this moment. We hear a painful wailing from Mom, accompanied by the pieces of glass that fall on the ground.

"Here it is - broken. The last glass!" said Dad.

"You go on with what you have to do," we heard the voice of the man who had donated us the villa.

The other man started to collect the pieces of glass, while the workers were preparing the concrete.

 

Faruk Myrtaj writes:

I was born in Albania.

In my hometown I completed elementary and high school. Because of the absurdity of the then-in-power communist regime, only after nine years I manage to win the right to study in University. Meanwhile, I worked as an arm-worker in the coal miner of my town.

I was graduated as Bachelor of Survey Mining Engineer, but I worked only a year in my profession as a mining engineer. Since of 1989, I began working as a journalist in Tirana.

During the years that followed, I worked as journalist in different newspapers, in Albanian News Agency and in the Ministry of Culture, but the first passion of mine was books.

Even though since the fall of the communism, many things have changed for the better in Albania, still, a large part of the people holding the reins of control and power of politics and economy, are former communists. Freedom is often nothing more than a farce.

In November 2003 I immigrated to Canada with my family. Since 2004 I have been a member of The Writers Union of Canada.

I have published these books:

Poetry:

  1. "The sun of the underground", 1985, Tirana, Albania.

  2. "The cloth of words always is tight on me", 1991, Tirana, Albania.

Short-stories:

  1. People I have known, 1987, Tirana, Albania;

  2. Deal for life, 1989, Tirana, Albania.

  3. Nudo Zyrtare (Official Nude) 1996, Tirana, Albania.

  4. The People are unnecessary, 2000, Shkup, Macedonia.

  5. Warriors get killed in peace, 2003, Pristina, Kosovo.

Novels:

The City of Ministers, 1998, Tirana, Albania.

Essay:

  1. "Why we fear nationalism", 1995, Tirana, Albania.

  2. "Albanian Marquesses", 2002, Tirana, Albania.

  3. "How I discovered Canada through its Literature", included in the book "Speaking in Tongues:PEN Canada Writers in Exile", 2005, Toronto, Canada.

Awards:

"Official Nudo" has won the Prize "The Best Short-Stories Book of the Year" for the year 1996, given by the Albanian Culture and Sports Ministry.

I have translated from English into Albanian:

  1. Tolerance the threshold of peace, Betty Reardon, UNESCO.

  2. "The power of Gabriel Garcia Marquez", essay of Jon Lee Anderson

  3. "The best stories" selection short stories of William Saroyan

  4. No great mischief, novel of Alistair MacLeod

  5. The grass harp, novel of Truman Capote

 

 

 

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