Saint George's Eve in Albania

IT was night — night on the mountain, and night in the house of Imer. The cattle were shut into their wicker pens on the ground floor of the solid stone building. The fierce wolf-dog was tied outside his kennel in the yard. The women, in their heavy mountain-clothes, their heads swathed in dark cloths, bent over the fireplace in the lower room, busy with the cooking of the evening meal — bread in the ashes, and a black, bubbling pot of corn-meal hung on the iron chain over the fire.

Upstairs, Imer and Imer’s three tall sons sat cross-legged smoking by the ashes of another fireplace, for this was a rich house with two fires, and three rooms above the lower floor, one for the men and one for the chickens, and one for the women and children.

The four men were all giants; even the youngest, a slim boy, had already passed six feet. Imer was blue-eyed with sandy hair and clear-cut strong features. The others, with some darkening of hair and eyes from the mother, had thinner faces, through which ran a trace of the father’s strength. All four were clad in the picturesque costume of the mountains: long white-felt trousers, skin-tight, braided with black on the seams, and strapped low over the slim hips; waists wound with yards of colored cloth, red, green, and yellow; then, above, the snug short jackets that made no pretense of meeting over the sturdy chests.

The faint flicker of the dying fire glinted on the silver chains hanging from neck and shoulder and on Imer’s long silver cigarette-holder, with the huge amber ball at the end to which every now and then he pressed his lips.

The men were not talking, for no one chatters in these high places. Men live too near reality to waste themselves in words. They speak only when they have something to say, so that here all words have meaning.

Suddenly a savage bark tore the silence. Imer lifted his head. He was the chief one of this household and as such must answer for all, good or ill, that might befall it. Perhaps someone passed to a house farther up the mountain. Perhaps strangers would knock for hospitality, or friends come late with news. The wolf-dog growled in frantic rage. Imer descended the steep wooden stairs. The goats bleated in foolish fear in the pen beneath.

The women had ceased their work and were waiting for Imer to open the door. Voices outside and the mad barking of the dog, stilled at last through the opened door by Imer’s peremptory, ‘Be still.'

And then, welcome in his voice, ‘Qerim, my brother, God be praised that you have come! Enter, enter.'

Qerim, a tall lean cousin from a far tribe, came into the firelight, followed by two men, his traveling companions, for it is not wise to take the trail alone in these hills. One of these men was a gentle-faced creature with a graceful and unassuming bearing, known to Imer as a man of high standing in a near village, trusted, and enjoying always the prestige and privilege of that trust. He was safe anywhere among these people; his very escort meant protection. The other was a dark, sharp-eyed fellow, with a sort of quick liveliness that could make friends or enemies as occasion warranted.

Imer greeted them; Qerim with the cheek salute of intimacy and affection, for blood counts here; the second, Gjelosh, with a more formal greeting, yet warm; and the last, the stranger, he clasped by the hand and they exchanged the courteous phrases of an ancient and ceremonious hospitality.

The men went up the dark stairs. The eldest son stood at the top, holding a piece of lighted pitch-pine to show the way. Greetings were exchanged and all went into the men’s room. Three little girls came shyly in and stood whispering in the corner. Imer piled the fire with fagots and set the tiny coffee-saucepan against the embers. The newcomers hung their guns on the wall, then squatted about the fire with the others.

The familiar queries as to the road and ‘Have you been able to do it?’ and ‘Are you tired?’ opened the conversation. The fire blazed up and blankets were spread for greater comfort, t hough Qerim had been given a sort of glorified three-legged stool with back and arm rests.

One of the younger children, a pale boy of perhaps eleven, quietly started cutting tobacco. He crouched over the rude cutt ing machine that he had carried into the centre of the room and the knife went chop-chop on the down stroke, shaving off the stacked leaves into fine shreds like soft hair. Gjelosh assisted with the coffee-grinding, the slim brass cylinder clutched in one muscular hand. He gently rotated it like a swaying top against the steady circular movement of his other hand, which turned the short iron handle, grinding.

One tall son stood gracefully at ease, his head reaching nearly to the low brushwood ceiling. In one hand he held the bit of burning pine, hardly more than a splinter, which with its murky light made fitful glimmerings over the shadowy room. The fire flared up and sank. Imer’s wife came in bearing a fagot bundle and one or two heavier sticks. The fire revived. The coffee bubbled. Imer passed the hot little cups. The guests sipped. Cigarettes went round.

The dark stranger had an easy and intimate way with him. He slipped off his heavy jacket. He was wearing more clothes than the average mountainman. He was extremely good-humored and extremely comfortable. He left the fire for a moment to return in the white trousers and shirt he was wearing under his heavy garments. He settled luxuriously before the flames, stretching — the clothes were tight — and scratching himself in a very abandon of comfort. He rewound his colored girdle — yards and yards of it — around his slim waist and hips. He was a good-looking rascal. He talked. He had a volubility unusual among these silent dignified men. He had much to say, story, anecdote, and opinions, and through all a sort of humorous twist and turn and the flash of his black eyes. He laughed at himself occasionally. He rolled a cigarette for his monstrous silver holder with its gigantic amber bead at the end. With compliments he took one puff and passed it to his host, his hand on his heart. Imer accepted it, responding with the conventional phrases of blessing and good-will. Imer asked his name. ‘Ndue.’ He had been named for Saint Anthony.

Ndue felt he was among friends and he related something of his past. He liked these men; two of them had befriended him on the road and had given him the protection of their company. He wanted to stand square with them. So he told a rather long story.

He was in trouble, very deep trouble. His family was ‘in blood’—some regrettable incident of his father’s life. The feud was the only mountain law. His brother had paid the penalty and the killing of his brother had angered Ndue. He had been very fond of his brother. He had decided to pay this debt to the full. He had descended one night on the village of his enemy, accompanied by two or three of his friends, and had systematically burned six houses. One sees burned houses now and then in the mountains. The thatched roof goes, and the store of corn, and all the laboriously made shelves and fixings of the simple interior; only a stone shell is left, blackened and forlorn and open to the weather. The friends had some grudges to square. The burning had been enthusiastically done.

The tribal council had met to settle what should be the penalty for Ndue. He had been conspicuously absent from home and from his accustomed haunts since the burning. The council had decided on the payment of a huge sum of money in an effort to terminate the feud and square all scores. Ndue had been notified that this money must be paid. He intimated he would pay it — it was law. But so far as he was concerned honor would inevitably drive him to avenge himself on the man he paid. So that was that.

The slayer of his brother, though houseless, was still at large, and here was a debt no money could settle. His brother’s blood — and he had loved his brother— cried to him day and night. The black eyes grew serious. He sighed; he spat eloquently into the fire. He confessed there was a stupid prohibition that kept him from going to Scutari, the nearest city. Now where was one to buy cartridges except in the city, and without cartridges — Well, a man must have respect. After all a man was a man, and how prove it with an empty rifle?

He looked quickly, frankly, about t he little circle of men, who were silent, reflecting. These things to them were commonplaces — mere usual things, inherent in mountain life.

Ndue thoughtfully rolled another cigarette. He liked this house. These people trusted you. He helped with the coffee, rinsing the little cups and pouring out the water on the hearth.

Suddenly the fierce half-growl, halfbark of the chained dog outside cut jaggedly the quiet of the room. No one started, but all looked up. The lateness of the hour brought question. Imer went to the door as before. In mountain tradition guests were sacred — an obligation never refused, a responsibility never shirked, more often eagerly sought. And the responsibility was real enough in a land where tribal law and a man’s gun were the only forces respected and a guest came under the protection of the host exactly as if he were one of the family — as, for the time being, he was. All hurt or insult to a guest became hurt and insult to the host himself, and feudal practice demanded blood payment to keep clean the honor of the family.

But as Imer greeted the man at the door none of these thoughts crossed his mind, for this code was part of his very life, accepted and lived by unconscious. And the man entered, sure of welcome and safety.

A stranger he was to Imer, and by his costume, the pattern of black braiding on his trousers, a member of Ndue’s tribe. But, when with Imer he entered the upstairs room, Ndue showed no sign of intimate recognition, merely rising for the formal greetings with the rest and returning to the coffee, which he now got ready for the stranger

The evening meal was imminent. The women had brought in the low circular table. The guests gathered — squatted — around it.

It was Saint George’s Eve and a candle must be made in the Saint’s honor. Ndue wished to help and offered his services. One of the sons handed him a cake of beeswax, greenish wax and very holy, blessed by the priest across the river. The village had no church of its own. Ndue had proper respect for holiness. He crossed himself before taking the wax in his hands, then kissed it, pressed it to his forehead, and crossed himself again, three times rapidly.

He began to roll, reverently, but swiftly, efficiently. The candle took shape. He modeled it around a strip of woolen cloth. Crossings and mumbled prayers continued until at length the wax assumed the veritable shape and being of a candle. Ndue gave a quick glance around as if for approval.

All at once, and quite quietly, as if someone had given the signal, everyone in the room stood up. The three little girls stood quietly in the corner; the little boy had stopped cutting tobacco and stood also; two sons of Imer towered in the shadows near the door. The eldest still stood gracefully like a sculptured torchbearer, motionless, holding the flickering pitch-pine. Qerim and Gjelosh were standing near the low table, the stranger beside them. Imer took the candle from Ndue’s reverential hands. Everyone bowed his head.

Imer lighted the candle. The murmur of prayer filled the room, quick crossings and moving lips. Saint George was being invoked. For several minutes men prayed and the Saint listened. Then, the ceremony ended, Imer fastened the candle in a niche in the stone wall. The men seated themselves again on the floor, the guests about the low table. Cheese and raki, the native brandy, were passed about.

Downstairs the women poured melted butter on the hot white corn-meal and counted out the wooden spoons, one for each man. They had heard the murmur of prayer above. The sacrificial candle was burning. Their men had propitiated their gods. Surely their house would prosper, no evil should befall them or theirs.

They silently carried up the food and set it before the men, the wooden bowl in the centre of the low table. With deliberation, spoonful after spoonful, the corn-meal was eaten. There was conversation, ceremony. This was not mere feeding of hungry stomachs.

Ndue was more silent than before. The stranger spoke easily but seldom. After the last courteous phrase of praise for the meal and gratitude to the host had been spoken, and the crumbs of the coarse corn-bread had been swept with the brush-broom into the fire, the men, guests and family, settled themselves to their cigarettes. The women and children withdrew to their sleeping-quarters.

Songs were in order, the shrieking falsetto chantings of the mountains. Was no singer among them? The stranger bowed and began. Through three long sagas he carried them, old histories of fights and feuds, persons and politics, the working-out of tribal law and vengeance, called always justice and honor. All things were celebrated, traditional sanctities, the sacredness of hospitality, or this sanctuary broken to make the theme for death and tragedy.

The third shower of thanks and compliment had barely died when the singer rose and, tightening his girdle, made known his intention of leaving. Imer, amazed, for the trails were seldom used at night, pressed him to stay.

‘Whoever heard of leaving shelter late like this,’ he chided, ‘and only half my hospitality partaken of.’

But the man was obdurate, though courteous always. One gathered an unwonted necessity was upon him. He made apologies for this unusual faringforth as best he could, knowing the slight it was upon his host’s generosity. Then he bade prolonged and ceremonious adieu to Imer and his sons, Gjelosh and Qerim, and to Ndue.

Imer went with him to the lower door. Ndue heard the heavy bolt sliding into place again, and back came Imer to the upper room.

The candle of Saint George was burning low to its finish.

Outside the stranger shifted his rifle to his other shoulder and set his feet to the trail that led down the hillside.

Upstairs the men smoked the last cigarette together — that good-night ceremony between host and guests — quietly, ruminatively.

Then, as by mutual consent, off came the colored girdles, socks, and sandals. It was time for sleep.

Ndue stretched himself, feet to the fire, with the rest, and Qerim spoke as if in slow reflection: ‘Odd the man left so late. These are hard trails at night.’

Ndue raised himself on an elbow. The half-light of the dying fire lit his face. The black eyes sparkled. Across his features flashed and died excitement, pain. And then his finely formed chin took on new lines; determination shone from his face like a still light — resolve it was, grim and unshakable, yet impersonal as justice is impersonal.

His eyes sought Qerim’s calmly.

‘He will go far to-night,’ he said. ‘And to-morrow my brother’s blood will set my feet on the trail he takes.’