A World’s Worth of Snow
When there is absolutely nothing left to eat in the house, Hana decides to ask for work at the agricultural cooperative. They give her the job of cleaning the animal pens.
She sets off early in the morning and gets back home late in the evening every day for four weeks running, until one day she realizes the number of ashtrays and grappa glasses scattered around must mean there have been a lot of people around the house in her absence. She questions Gjergj but he denies having had visitors.
Their old neighbor, Mrs. Rrokaj, confirms that Gjergj is about to host an engagement party in her honor, and that her future husband is a man from a village on the border with Kosovo. He’s from a good family, and, rather than taking Hana to his village, he has promised to move into the Doda’s kulla after Gjergj dies. He’s an elementary school teacher in his village and is therefore educated like Hana.
“You’re a lucky girl,” the woman says. “Your uncle is such a good man that he won’t die before settling you down.”
For three days Hana stops eating and refuses to talk to Gjergj.
Down in Tirana, school has started a while back. Some of the girls in her dorm must have fallen in love, and her favorite place in the Introduction to Linguistics class has probably gained an extra doodle or food stain.
On the second day of November, the snow comes. This year it is later than usual. She has to go to Scutari to get more drugs.
“Make sure I don’t find anyone in the house when I get back,” she warns her uncle before setting off.
“You don’t give orders to me, young lady.”
“And if I do, what will you do?”
It’s one of those rare occasions when he has managed to stand up straight and tall, like a rock in the middle of the dark room.
“No betrothals or husbands while I’m away, Uncle Gjergj. That was the deal.”
“It was, but not anymore. The wedding will be at the end of the year.”
He is so thin that for the first time ever Hana finds him ugly. They stare at each other angrily, and then Gjergj softens a little, and tries to sit down. Hana doesn’t make a move to help him.
“Don’t make me hate you, I beg you,” she says.
“Just look at you! You’re so tiny,” he says, clearly in pain. “Give me a hand, I need to sit down.”
She turns around and leaves the house, slamming the door as she goes. She starts walking through the snow that has started to settle unexpectedly. She only stops to look back at the kulla when she is far away enough not to be seen by her uncle, who would surely be looking out of the window. She hasn’t even placed the soup she cooked the night before where he could reach it for his dinner.
She finds a lift down to the city in a truck driven by a redneck with a southern accent. Hana gives him the fare and climbs in without thinking twice. The driver stinks of alcohol and cigarettes, but in the mountains everyone stinks the same, so she relaxes.
The driver asks her a question every now and then, which she answers in monosyllables.
“This evening I have to go back up your way,” the truck driver says when they are just outside Scutari, at the Rosafa castle. “I’ll unload the wood here and then go back up to the mountains to sleep so tomorrow I can bring down a new load. If you want I’ll give you a lift back.”
They negotiate a time and a fare. The man seems as angry as she is and they say goodbye without looking each other in the face.
By the afternoon, Hana’s anger has dissipated. She’ll go home and be a good girl with the old man, she promises, not for the first time. For one more month everything will be alright. She’ll give him his drugs and he’ll say, “Good girl, you’re like a son to me.”
She eats two byrekë at a stand in the center, near the Rosafa Hotel. Then she drops in at the library and borrows three books to return next month. At the end of her day in town she’s even in a good mood.
During the trip back, the truck makes slower progress than it did on its way down because of the snow, even though it is empty.
Hana tries to be a little more friendly, and asks the driver if he has any children. He mumbles something. He must be seriously pissed with someone in the city, or maybe with himself, and is as hostile as he was this morning, so she stops trying to be nice.
At one point they see a group of people waving their arms to stop the truck, but there’s no way he’s going to pick them up. Hana tries to tell him the truck is empty and so he could give those people a lift, but he tells her to mind her own fucking business and leave him alone. For half an hour they don’t say a word. Then, when it is completely dark outside, the man stops the truck, leaving the engine running.
“I got to take a piss,” he slurs. “Back in a minute.”
When he climbs back into the truck, his pants are open. Hana doesn’t realize right away. The man’s words are disgusting enough. She listens because she has no choice. The man says she’d better let him have his way. Anyway it doesn’t make any difference. Women don’t go out on their own unless they’re up for it. Hana is shocked by his bad grammar. She slips her hand into the jute sack at her feet just in time. Don’t make a fuss, lady, I won’t hurt you, we’ll just have a little fun together. When he pushes himself onto her Hana is ready with her knife, and plunges it into his chest. Aunt Katrina always used this knife to take the heads off the chickens. The man groans. Hana always takes the knife with her when she goes down to the city. She sharpens it without letting Uncle Gjergj see.
“You fucking bitch!”
She jumps off the truck and runs into the trees on the side of the road.
“You fucking bitch! Peasant woman! Mountain bitch!”
She doesn’t get home until the next day, wet with snow and dead tired. Uncle Gjergj is as white as a shroud. He hasn’t slept a wink. He looks at her as if she were a ghost. He doesn’t ask any questions, but bangs his stick over and over on the stone wall, on the table. He’s no stronger than an ant. She can’t see his face. He’s curled up in the corner of the room, his head buried in his chest.
The following day Hana rummages through Gjergj’s clothes chest, wondering all the time what her uncle is doing. She finds his national costume and puts it on, and still wonders what he is doing. She rolls the pants up at the waist and tries to keep them up by tightening the red waistband. What are you doing? She stares at the wall in front of her. She smiles at the stone, and feels sorry for it. The stone has never been kissed. She leans her forehead on it, and rests there for a while.
When she goes downstairs and presents herself to Gjergj dressed as a man, her uncle is struck dumb. But all of a sudden his chin starts to twitch, and however tightly he locks his jaw it is not enough to hold back his emotion.
It’s November 6, 1986.
Hana scratches the date on the wall of the guest room. It takes her a good hour to graffiti the date properly.
When she has finished, she goes back to Gjergj. He passes her his rifle. She takes it, and examines it closely. It has belonged to six generations of Doda clansmen. Gjergj has oiled it for 36 years. Hana is still standing awkwardly. Now what? she asks herself. Now what? Now nothing. Now there is nothing. What time is it now in Paris? She’s supposed to sit like a man, with her legs crossed. She’s supposed to smoke a pipe like Uncle Gjergj. She looks at the leg sticking out of the pants, like a ladybird’s, she thinks. To postpone the moment when she has to sit like a man, she stays standing.
“Are you sure you want to take this step, dear daughter?”
“My name will be Mark. Mark Doda.”
The next day the news spreads around Rrnajë and the village is alive with gossip. The men will greet her as a man, and the women will avoid her eye.
She starts keeping a diary.
In the five months that follow, Hana takes care of Gjergj: the house, the animals, the memory of Katrina. She tries to make her gait heavier, more masculine. It’ll take time; every now and then she gives herself a break. “There is no hurry,” she tells herself.
Don’t run, don’t make a noise, don’t think. There’s no hurry. Not anymore. There’s all the time in the world, nobody is waiting for you, you don’t have to worry anymore about how soft your hair is, you don’t have to worry about finding nice clothes. A world’s worth of snow separates Paris from Rrnajë.
Now you’re a man. You’re a man. A man! You’re not allowed to look at other men anymore.
Everything is just fine, she makes herself believe. The snow, the dark nights, the dogs chasing each other, the shadows of the wolves across the snowy landscape, hurrying like busy travelers. The mountains protect you and overwhelm you. The echo of centuries rings in your heart. They save you from the greasy panting of redneck truck drivers.
The memory is still alive. The terror she had felt. The night she had spent in the woods, her teeth chattering with the fear that, having escaped from one man with his pants open, another would suddenly appear from behind one of those trees.
She hadn’t slept a wink. She had sharpened the darkness with her night eyes. If anybody had approached her she would have killed him. She had kept her knife close to her chest and her heart had never stopped beating hard. She had been hungry, she had been angry, she had called out to her mother with that funny name, Felicità. She had even invoked her father, whose face she couldn’t even remember.
She had prayed to God, and she had done so in mute tears, the same God that had been banned a year before Hana was born and that Felicità had always secretly talked about.
She had managed not to freeze to death. At dawn she had crept through the alleys of Rrnajë without being seen, protected by the snow. When she got home, the kulla had become hard as a rock. A grave for her old self. She had become a man.
“Honor to you for what you have done,” Gjergj’s guests repeat in the months that follow. He is proud of her. You can see it in his eyes, which refuse to surrender to death, and in the way he passes Hana the bottle of grappa.
“Gjergj, bre burrë now you have a son and the honor of the kulla will not die.”
Hana learns to smoke with them. She stinks like them. She copies their laugh and makes her voice more gravelly. Her throat and ribs hurt.
The whole of the Cursed Mountains know by now that the Doda’s daughter has become a man.
Some men in the village let off rifle shots to celebrate the event, and the man from the Party does not say a thing. Nor do the policemen. If things stay within limits, the party is magnanimous. If a young girl decides to become the man of the house, well, traditions are to be respected. Within limits. Within certain limits.
Lila, her only cousin, comes to Rrnajë one day to visit her parents with Shtjefën, her young husband. She looks at her as if she had come from Mars.
“Hana, sweetie, what have you done? You of all people?”
Lila looks like a sheep. Her terrible perm makes her hair as curly as an old woman’s. It’s tradition: young wives curl their hair using an iron heated on the fire.
“Look at yourself; you look like Grandma!”
“Why did you do it, Hana?”
“Your hair makes you look like an old lady, your headscarf makes you look like an old lady.”
“I’m married now.”
“That’s pretty obvious.”
“Look, I love Shtjefën and I didn’t walk down the alter like a lamb to the slaughter. He’s a good man, he’s not like the others.”
“But you wait on him without saying a word, and you let your in-laws tell you what to do, don’t you?”
“What do you mean? It’s tradition. There are such things as rules. Why did you do it, Hana?”
They observe each other. Lila waits for an answer, which Hana doesn’t provide.
“You were on your way to being a woman about town. You could have been a schoolteacher, and now …
“Call me Mark,” she says to her cousin, hugging her so as not to be overwhelmed by tears.
“You’re crazy,” Lila says, disorientated. “You’re totally crazy, Hana.”
Gjergj dies on a beautiful May day in ’87. Everything is ready. The house is full of food, considering what little you can find up in the mountains. The honor of the Doda family is more solid than ever. Mark receives condolences. Men and women show him equal respect. Nobody calls her Hana any longer.
The kulla is squeaky clean. Habits die hard, and she finds it hard to neglect the housework. But she is trying. Men don’t do women’s work; that’s the rule of the Kanun.