Edvin Subasic

 

DJELEM DJELEM MALEM

 

Malem carried his axe door to door, cutting firewood every fall. They say he never parted from it, not even in bed. They say and they know, they always know. Perhaps that was the reason nobody visited him at night, the only time of day that he was home. The crummy two-room house had withstood a century and two world wars. It had endured rain storms, floods, six feet of snow piled up on its steep hipped roof—its clay shingles crumbling under the weight. Its walls constructed of wood and mud, white and cracked into thousands of little pieces, it had stomached the dust storms when Malem was a baby, protected him from natural disasters.

The oldest residents of his town say that Malem’s parents went missing in The Grove, the nearby concentration camp run by the Ustaša, domestic fascists, and supported by German Nazis. He was just a boy back then. They also recall him being fairly ordinary, smart, and emerald-eyed. But one night, soldiers grabbed the parents and the child and loaded them into a truck. His father died the next morning of a mallet blow to the head. He and his wife were found guilty of working for the resistance. Their murderer boasted he’d slaughtered over sixteen-hundred prisoners and kept a record of his victims for poglavnik, the fascist leader. He was caught alive at the end of the war and sentenced to death by hanging. The victims’ names were engraved in a monument built of concrete and stone erected years later in the ruins of The Grove. It resembled a flower, rooted deep in the soil and pointing its petals towards the sky, into outer space.

Malem’s mother died in the gas chambers soon after she was shoved into the showers together with hundreds of other women. Legend has it they couldn’t kill the boy. He wouldn’t die. He was the only one who left the chambers alive after the gas annihilated the other children around him. They say the boy had been put in front of the firing squad with a group of Roma men. He dug himself out of the ditch several hours later. He squeezed out from beneath the two elders who’d held his hands tight and told him that they would rise together to the Roma heavens. They sang until their last breath: Djelem Djelem—

He was encrusted in clotted blood and pieces of ripped flesh. He stepped toward the fence, adrift and silent. The four soldiers who stood guard that night at the back gate opened it without a question. They’d never mentioned this to anyone until the war ended and they were interrogated. They swore, on that autumn night of 1944 the Earth had stood still as Malem strode home.

He walked all night, covered nearly ten miles, crossed the old bridge over the murky, muddy river stream that whirled furiously after weeks of relentless rain. The Ustaša soldiers saw him, of course, and let him through the checkpoints without producing as much as a sound. The next day, the solemn soldiers were whispering as if they had seen a ghost. They had witnessed a lot in the war and done unimaginable things, but they all were illuminated by the boy’s “apparition”—that’s how they described him. The boy who was six at the time wandered home steadily, in absolute and unearthly silence, his clothes drenched in other people’s bodily fluids and the stains of pieces of their innards and torn flesh. He reeked of urine and feces. When he arrived home the neighbors washed him outside first, in the ice-cold water from the well. Then they scrubbed him clean in a hot bath inside. He was covered in bruises and a slew of skin-deep cuts all over. They believed the boy had been repeatedly abused and beaten until he felt no more.

They dressed him in clean clothes and laid him in his parents’ bed where he stayed motionless in stubborn silence, unwilling to move an inch. The neighbors report that the boy didn’t leave the house until the end of the war. They fed and washed him. He would lay no matter what, always mute, always staring out the window above the bed. They describe his face as stoic and expressionless, his eyes moonlit.

He left the house for the first time when the war was over. People noted that he’d grown a foot by then. When he spoke up, his words were jumbled into rather incomprehensible expressions, and the lisp—the strident lisp hissed between his permanently constricted lips.

 
Comprised of a main strip and several roads running in each direction, the town lay in the valley along the ever-cold, roaring Western river. Behind the hills, the river joined a bigger one which snaked into another—wide and mighty, two hundred miles away—and dissolved into the great ocean. The bare brown hills, held intact by the sage brush and prairie grass, encompassed the valley. Trees perked along the stream, sheltered the town and its residents from hot and dry summers.

The residents loved Malem. They all knew his full name, Miralem, but everyone called him Malem. They meant no disrespect. He couldn’t pronounce his name. When he tried to, it sounded like Malem, or sometimes Malalem.

When Malem knocked on their doors like clockwork and announced his intention to chop their wood, people greeted him with a familiar smile. Before he started chopping he separated the wood pile into several smaller ones according to his break schedule. He would stop when it was time to take a cigarette or lunch break. The person of the house served a glass of water or lemonade and a pack of cigarettes. He drew one and tacked it behind his left ear, covering it with the curling waves of his silver gray hair. Then he took another one, held it between the fore and middle finger, and asked for a light. The host lit it up for him, and Malem smiled back. “Sanksss… sssigalette… sankssss, my fliend,” he’d hiss through his teeth. People say that his birth teeth were intact. He had worn them out and chipped every one of them, but they defiantly stood their ground in his jaws. His solid lips smiled wide. His eyes gave out nothing but a mystic bliss.

Malem wouldn’t eat anything until five when he’d usually finish for the day. The host would serve supper, give him money and another pack of cigarettes to go. As was the custom, the host would ask him if he’d like a shot of rakija, the clear plum brandy, with the food. He persistently declined. His daily dose of rakija was waiting at Danica’s. As soon as he finished he’d get up, lift his axe and hold it under his arms as if carrying a baby. “Good night good people,” he’d say, barley able to pronounce “people” which sounded more like “pupil,” and he’d set out on the sidewalk. Driving by him, people would honk and wave at Malem. He wouldn’t wave back. He was on a mission. Gazing straight ahead, always wide-eyed, always silent and smiling, he marched towards Danica’s.

Danica was the owner and the only barkeeper at her pub on the intersection of Main and Shoshone. The place was like any other old-fashioned western pub. Its patrons drank rakija and beer mostly, some wine, some cognac or a travarica, the herb-infused rakija, in between. She served a homemade meal every night—the meal of the day—usually bean and sausage soup, sauerkraut and pickles. She knew how to sober up her drunks.

All of her patrons would get drunk except Malem, who always ordered one čokanj of rakija, sipped on the aromatic brandy from the small long-necked bottle with gusto, sitting alone in the corner next to the entrance as if he’d leave at any moment. But they say he never left without finishing his drink and he had never asked for another one or accepted anyone’s offer to buy him more. And there were many. Danica always took the exact sum from him. She hadn’t told him that the prices had doubled since he had started visiting decades before. Instead, she gave him his drink and a passionate hug, her embrace lingering.

Danica’s offered live music every night—a virtuoso band of Roma, sometimes a solo accordionist, playing gypsy blues. The accordionist’s fingers barely touched the keys as he stroked them ecstatically. The music started unusually slowly, hitting the low notes before rapidly picking up, slicing the melody mockingly, drawing it out into passionate moans only to succumb to its weariness and resurface again from the deep death among the tombs of humanity. Then the beat slowed down again and steadied up the universe until the next explosion. No one could be saved from the Roma blues. The men sitting around the tables and guzzling their rakija or pivo, or rakija and pivo, would pick up their cowboy hats and hold them high above their heads like flags, frozen in the instant of the music beat. No one could resist the moment when the past, the present, and the future intersected at the exact same point of time and dissipated, leaving a vacuum behind where only the force of Roma music held their moment together and gave them a reason to exist.

Nobody could escape it, except Malem. He sat in the corner, gazed out the window and smiled, a blissful and luminous smile, a smile that had already filled the vacuum he’d carried ever since he was six. The music had no effect on him. He watched the Roma magic permeate the window glass and progress towards the street, bouncing off the concrete and swallowing everything in its way. When a song was over, it spilled into another one and another. The musicians were decorated with dollar bills and the floor around them was covered in money. Their gypsy music had no effect on him, except for one song: Djelem Djelem.

Before Malem finished his drink, picked up his axe, and set out on the street again the musicians paid him respect—always that one song with the wistful howling of a clarinet in the background and the singer’s raspy voice carving a deep chasm in Malem where two worlds converged into one. The witnesses, although drunk and therefore unreliable, had seen his eyes changing their color, their cornea losing transparency and turning deep red. Danica never confirmed this, although she had seen it with her own eyes. She was afraid that if she talked about it she’d summon the devil, in which case it would be bad for the business. Besides, she knew that Malem was incapable of evil doing, even if he were Satan himself. When the music changed, he’d get up and walk outside, his axe still under his arm, smiling and waving good bye. His lips would move for a moment without a sound.

Next it would be time for the movie. The only movie theater in the town of twenty-four thousand people sat at the end of Main Street, where Nez Perce Ave intersected the railroad track. The rail was used only for industrial payloads. It hauled potatoes, wheat, corn, coal, and fuel. Malem always arrived on time to see the seven-o’clock train pass through, its diesel engine chugging and hooting. He stood on the sidewalk and watched until the last wagon disappeared in the distance. Then he trudged across the road, heading for the movie theater.

Kids would wait for him on the front steps. Adolescent boys stormed him inquiring about the photos. He’d ask for a cigarette. They never failed to produce one and light it up for him. Next he would gently pull out magazine clippings from the inner pocket of his wrinkled, worn-out gray coat. The kids say that Malem had never showed them the same picture twice, and never a completely naked woman. They were also not once disappointed by Malem’s taste in women. The pictures had been carefully scrutinized and selected before being displayed.

The theater attendant never checked Malem’s ticket. The bald, bony man waved at Malem and signaled him to continue. Malem always held the money out, but his neighbor and a childhood friend would just shake his hand and ask him to take his usual seat in the front row. The axe was also always welcome with Malem. The axe would never leave its owner, not even in the theater. He’d carefully place it next to his seat, sit down, pick it up again, and lay it in his lap.

Rumor has it that he’d been attacked once and that he fended off some drunks on his way home from the movies. Some foolish young men thought of an ingenuous idea to snatch Malem’s photos of the half-naked women along with his cigarettes and cash just to pull a prank on him. Malem’s reaction was furious and included the axe. The young men saw the devil awaken that evening and ran off into the night, screaming in horror.

 
The children were the last living souls to have seen him. They were in front of the movie theater. On his way back from his daily train spotting he had already started crying, the tears rolling down his cheeks one after another. When the alarmed children stormed him and asked what bothered him, here is what he said:

“Such pain my… my beautiful kids. I feel so bad, so hurt… I feel so bad that… so hurt… I have to go. Tonight, I am going on a journey. Tonight, I will show you the last photo and smoke the last cigarette with you.”

“Why, what Malem? What’re you talking about?” A tall, heavily built boy bellowed, his greasy hair tucked behind his ears. He held two cigarettes in one hand and a lighter in another.

“You’ll see, my beautiful… we all will see… we are on the way again.”

“You can’t go, Malem. Why would you do that?” cried another boy, skinny and dark-haired, with a perky nose and big brown eyes. He was the smallest among the children.

“My kids, my friends. See… everything will burn, everything will go away, people will be gone… and you—”

“No way, Malem. Look, we’re here,” said another boy with thick glasses, his voice steady, his smile genuine. “We’re always here. We’re waiting for you here every day.”

“No, my dear… it’s coming again… the song, I heard it… it came to me, carried by the wind…by ghosts… I hear their voices… they are singing again… since last week, every day… the voices are stronger and stronger… never stop. Bad… bad times are coming.”

The kids stood still around him, not sure what to say or what to do. They had never seen him this distraught before. As a matter of fact, they’d never seen him in distress at all. Malem had always been the pillar of their existence, the town’s monument—a constant that never broke apart, never moved, was always there for them, by them.

Oh, my beautiful… and your parents… forever gone… and your friends… and you, my dear children. I’m better off leaving tonight.”

He sobbed, drawing in tears that were as red and as thick as blood, the same color as his eyes were that night. Frightened and bewildered, the kids kept shoving cigarettes in his hand. The little boy tugged on his arm and pressed against him the rest of the evening. They watched no movie that night. They just sat in front of the theater, on its steps and smoked in silence. The boys kept browsing the pictures, teasing each other, laughing, and wrestling for a glance at the women in lacy underwear. Their laughter, however, lost its luster; its heat waned as the sunshine faded behind the tree canopy.

The next morning, they found him gazing out of the window, lying stiff in his parents’ bed, his eyes wide open, for the first time deep green as they had been the night they took him and his parents. Some people report that he was holding his axe while some insist the axe was nowhere to be found. But they’d noticed something under his left arm, something invisible and unattainable as if the air had materialized and death took on the form of life. No one spoke of this. They were afraid if they investigated it or even mentioned it the gaping hole from another world would open up under Malem’s arm and all the spirits he’d carried would be released into the cool sunshine.

That afternoon they carried him out on a tabut, wrapped in white linen. The whole town streamed towards his house and ferried him like a mighty river to the cemetery where the imam was awaiting. People stood in utter silence next to each other. Birds were nowhere to be seen. Even flies wouldn’t dare to buzz. No one would move until the last specks of soil were thrown over him, as if they wanted to attest to his death or witness his return. That was the last time they’d ever come together and share a true feeling of loss and compassion. For all they knew, something had changed that day, as if the peace of their souls had permanently departed.

The Roma community gathered at Danica’s. They played music and danced all night long as if possessed. At the crack of dawn they packed up and left town, silent, holding hands tightly, as if afraid that someone would slip out and stay behind. They knew, they had always known. A heavy cloud mass moved in and the rain poured down as if God was emptying buckets of water one after the other.

 
Five months later, the town burned, its buildings toppling under a barrage of uncontrolled fire. Airplanes and helicopters hummed in the distance. The unstoppable joint forces of wind and fire swallowed the arid landscape. Tanks rumbled, burrowing through the streets. At night projectiles lit up the skies like beautifully arranged flights of light bugs. The constant and aimless shelling of residential dwellings including Malem’s home destroyed every hope. The Roma neighborhood was obliterated once again. The dead were hastily buried in their yards and neighborhood parks. The refugee caravans traversed the hills on foot, ascending the slopes with children and babies in their arms, on their way west, heading for the sea where it rained and where fires burned only in fireplaces.

There wasn’t a soul who didn’t recall Malem’s words the day before he died. They recount that he spoke without a lisp, without a trace of any speech impediment. He articulated flawlessly and was immensely sad, as if the whole universe had collapsed in a single moment, inside him. Some of them wondered if he had been cursed the whole time since his return. Some tried to dismiss everything, the whole story of Malem—folklore, tall tales, a mere coincidence. But everybody heard the insidious melody descending from the clear morning sky and picked it up with each step as they marched forward: Djelem Djelem lungone dromesa—

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EDVIN SUBAŠIĆ was born and raised in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the former Yugoslavia. He left Bosnia in 1993 and spent three years in Germany. He immigrated to the US in 1997 at the age of 21 and learned English. Edvin now lives with his wife Elizabeth and daughter Una in Idaho where he teaches English as a Second Language at Boise State. His work has appeared in Out of Stock and The Cabin’s “Writers in the Attic” anthology twice. One of his stories earned an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train. He was also shortlisted for the 2017 Disquiet Literature Prize for Fiction. More fiction is forthcoming in McSweeny’s. He is working on completing a short story collection that includes “Djelem Djelem Malem.”

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