The prisoner would remain nameless as far as Besim was concerned. He had first learned his name months ago when he had arrived at the prison. Besim prided himself on knowing the first and last names of each one of the prisoners. He’d try to be generous—to the best of his ability and to the best of their circumstances, but he learned quickly that most of the prisoners had no interest in exchanging niceties with him and that most spit at the officers as soon as their backs were turned. Still, despite subtle displays of protest, they obeyed the rules, too weak and too tired to try their hand at debauchery.
The prisoner coughed violently. Why, thought Besim to himself, why gamble with your life you simple-minded fool? His fist went numb and then stung as it made contact with the prisoner’s cheekbone. It was dim and cold in the room and the nameless one’s pain echoed off the walls as he grunted and moaned in response. He worked hard to breathe and Besim wondered if he had broken his nose.
“Get up,” he muttered, as he shook his fist to make the pain go away. The prisoner’s head hung limply to the left and he could’ve passed for dead had it not been for the labored breathing.
“Get up,” Besim repeated calmly.
“Do you know why you are here?” Besim asked between breaths as he tried to pull him up and straighten him against the wall. The prisoner didn’t flinch at the sound of his voice. “You were sent to the camp because you cannot be trusted. You were then brought here because you proved us right.”
Edi stopped running and bent over to catch his breath. His adrenaline was draining with the sunlight and in the silence of the forest; reality was beginning to envelop him. His mistakes rose to the surface of his consciousness and his body trembled in the cool evening air.
I should have waited until after roll call, he thought to himself. I should have waited for darkness to run. The forest was thicker than he had anticipated and he was, at first, grateful he had not taken off into the night. But now he realized his grave mistake in not waiting for the dark, after each person in the camp had been called out and accounted for. He hadn’t been on the run for more than twenty minutes before he heard shouting in the distance, knowing instantly that the woods had been infiltrated with soldiers looking for him.
Beyond escaping the confines of camp, Edi didn’t have much of a plan and found himself hopelessly lost with the onset of night. There was still a childlike and primitive fear of the dark that he secretly harbored; the old trees blocked out the late sun, and their tangled trunks and abandoned foliage below created a mausoleum-like effect and Edi only hoped he wouldn’t die in the vast wilderness, alone and remembered only as an afterthought, a cautionary tale. He tried to shake off thoughts of his mortality, certain he had left the worst behind him. But the evening’s cacophonous sounds echoed; the sound of snapping twigs and leaves scattering and a slight wind picking up. Edi looked around briefly before setting his aim on one direction and moving towards it.
He thought about his only companionship at the camp, a priest he had befriended upon his arrival, and found himself wishing more than ever that he wasn’t alone. The priest was different from all the others. Educated and socially aware, he nourished a part of Edi’s mind that Edi didn’t realize had been starving. Their discussions at first were the usual: “Where are you from? Who is your father? Where is he from?” Eventually they began to carry on deeper discussions in broken whispers late into the night. In this country’s new era, religion had become the forbidden fruit—one bite of it and you were destined to a life of destitution, of punishment and deprivation. And while their conversations in daylight veered back and forth between family history and stories of their lives before the camp, after hours there were questions about the afterlife and salvation. Eventually, even those discussions would shift to ghost stories and old family folklore.
At night when the last family name had been called and accounted for and everyone retired to their homes, Edi would make his way back to the priest and knock twice lightly on the door; twice—never three times. Three knocks foreshadowed an impending death. Quietly the door would open, the priest would smile and stand to the side for Edi to walk in.
“Did I ever tell you about…” were the priest’s first words and suddenly the night would begin. Edi wasn’t the most enlightened man but he believed his presence had become just as integral to the priest’s life as the priest had become to his.
Edi held his side as he walked in the darkness, the cramp deepening with every breath he took. The forest seemed to grow louder the later it got and Edi wondered how many different animals thrived as nocturnal beings. He tried to recall what made him decide to leave the semblance of security he had accidentally stumbled upon, but nothing seemed to justify his current state of hopelessness. The last discussion he and the priest shared was the first time Edi dominated the conversation, talking about his fears and his insecurities and what he worried would happen to them both if they stayed at the camp. Somehow, through his incessant ramblings, Edi decided he would escape to run through the woods and over the mountains to Serbia and seek asylum. He urged the priest to join him, referring to the trip as an adventure.
“Have you read anything by Jack London?” He asked the priest. “Have you ever wished you lived in the pages of a story that was so powerful, so exciting, that your life feels like nothing in comparison? As if you’re just waiting for the real part of this existence to begin?”
The priest studied Edi’s face in the dim light. Edi was a good but simple man. He listened to the priest’s stories like a child weighing every one of his mother’s words. He knew Edi respected him as an older man and as a religious man; this was the first time the priest found Edi sounding provocative. He worried for where Edi’s mind was going, and yet he couldn’t smother the small flame of admiration that he felt deep in his chest.
“You have a surefire chance of being killed on this run,” he responded. “Stay here and remain with the rest of us. We don’t have it as bad as the others, you know this well. It could be alright.” The priest vowed he’d never forget the look of disappointment on Edi’s face, replaced just as quickly with a look of utter determination.
“I wasn’t born to be treated like cattle. Neither were you. Neither is anyone else here. I’m leaving whether or not you come with me, but a man can always use a friend on the road.”
The discussion died down soon after and the priest regaled him once again with stories of the times before the quick rise of communism. He talked and talked until Edi was no longer laughing or responding in return and he realized Edi had fallen asleep, and the priest hoped by morning Edi would wake with a clear mind and a laugh, telling him how he was just overly excited the night before and was kidding around with his talk of running.
“Tell me one thing,” Besim said after taking a long drag on his cigarette. He sat in a chair across the room from the prisoner, who was still slouched on the floor. He was conscious now, however, and he stared back at Besim from where he sat.
“Tell me one thing,” Besim repeated. “Where did you think you’d end up? What did you think would happen?”
The prisoner coughed once in response. One, two, three knocks against the concrete wall; he scraped his knuckles on the rough surface before smirking at the officer and found Besim smirking back.
“You smug son-of-a-bitch. Did you think you’d make it out of the woods alive? And if you did, did you think the Serbs would welcome you with open arms?”
“Leaving the lion’s den to walk into the wolves’ den,” responded Edi. “Wolves can at least be tamed.” Besim only stared at him.
They sat on opposite sides of the room studying each other as if they were underwater and the sounds of the outside world were everything on the surface. There was a kind of freedom in Edi’s situation and he realized he was untouchable. He knew they were both killing time until he would be led outside to be lined up against the wall. Perhaps this was the ultimate freedom a person could obtain. The adventure he had so passionately talked to the priest about could be this, and this life was merely a preparation for what lay beyond.
When he was being carried across the camp after being caught, Edi refused to make eye contact with the priest. He saw him in the distance, amongst the small crowd that had gathered quietly but turned his head and looked straight in front of him as they passed through the crowd. He didn’t want to the priest to see defeat on his face or the sense of regret he harbored. Edi’s final thought before they carried him indoors and shut the door behind him was: well, isn’t this a bitch? And he spit blood on the ground.
Luckily the night sky was clear enough for the moon to shed some light for guidance. Edi felt like an intruder in the wilderness each time his feet disrupted the quiet. He was too large, too loud, and too clumsy to permanently exist there. The deeper into the forest he thought he was going, the deeper he dug into his mind to dust off conversations he’d had with the priest. If he focused enough of his energy on those inner dialogues, he could almost pretend the priest was with him.
Somewhere in the distance he heard a twig snap. And then another twig. And then another. He stopped and caught his breath, waiting to hear more. In the few moments of silence that followed, Edi quickly tiptoed behind a tree and crouched slowly until he squatted with his head resting on his knees.
Fuck, they found me, he thought to himself. Fuck. Fuck. They can’t take me. And he began to think about God. He wanted to believe that his close relationship with the priest would grant him protection. He kept his head on his knees and closed his eyes, praying for invisibility.
Suddenly Edi sat up straight and listened closely. It wasn’t a twig snapping or the sound of footsteps. He listened closely and wondered exactly how dehydrated he had become in the last several hours. Just before he resigned himself to absolute madness and sleep deprivation, he heard it again, clearer and closer. It was his name. Someone said his name. From somewhere in the distance, a voice was calling out to him. Not the priest. Not the officers. It was a voice he knew; the soft, crackly voice—like glass cracking under pressure—of his grandmother who had long since passed. He felt a lump in his throat as he battled with himself; the desire to reach out to her and respond—fighting with the knowledge that he must keep quiet, followed by the realization that he was, in fact, facing his own mortality.
The corners of his eyes filled with tears as he remembered the endless talk of ghosts and folklore with the priest.
“Have I ever told you about a neighbor of my mother’s,” began the priest, “who swore she had heard names being shouted one night as she walked home from visiting her sister? She didn’t think anything of it until she realized the names being called were those of the dead.”
Edi felt his body break out in goosebumps the first time he heard it and again now as he sat bewildered behind the tree. He knew enough not to respond; his grandmother had told him the same lore as a child. A superstitious warning meant to scare children into silence before bedtime, you never respond to your name being called by someone who was deceased.
The third and final time he heard his name, it caught in the wind and disappeared around him. He didn’t know how long he remained behind that tree, frozen in terror, but when he finally moved, he ran. He hardly noticed the sky beginning to lighten or the tremendous noise he made running through the brush and tripping over roots. Nothing seemed like fantasy anymore, like the folktales he and the priest relished sharing with each other.
He stopped to briefly catch his breath and squeezed his eyes shut to keep out the possible sight of anything he shouldn’t be seeing. The memory of all those stories and superstitions crept into his mind and when he opened his eyes, Edi thought he saw a movement off to one side of him. He wanted to yell out his grandmother’s name but was scared he might actually be experiencing the impossible. He had always believed in listening to your body and his heart was now fluttering in his chest.
Why is she doing this to me, he thought as he stood in the middle of a clearing. He heard another twig snap somewhere behind him before closing his eyes and putting his hands up to his ears. In his mind, Edi saw his grandmother as she used to be, long gray hair pinned up into a tight bun. He had always been close to her and wondered if coming face-to-face with his grandmother would be the worst fate to encounter. He opened his eyes and blinked a few times to get rid of the floating dots hovering there. In the distance, in the forest’s darkness he saw a figure moving slowly towards him. Edi choked back tears as he walked towards it, arms back down at his sides.
“Grandmother…” his voice shook.
“Over here! I got him! I got him!” Edi recognized the man’s voice from the camp.
“Please. No,” was all he could mutter while taking a few steps back before he was grabbed and pushed from the side, and he went flying.
He could feel the sunlight even though he saw only darkness. Prior to the walk to the wall, he was blindfolded and led outside. His shoes, worn and thin, created a poor barrier between his feet and the ground. He pressed his toes into the pebbles and ground them around until he created a little crater. He found a strange sense of comfort in the gravelly texture and in the sound the dirt and stones made rubbing against each other. The sound of pebbles skipping and feet being quickly shuffled let him know he was not alone.
Edi felt a hand press his shoulder roughly, until his tied hands scraped against the wall behind him. He brushed his fingertips lightly against the rough surface and felt the warmth of the sunlight soaked up by the concrete. He pressed his palms against the wall as if gaining energy from the heat, as if he could melt into the structure and hide away there forever. Edi heard words but didn’t process them, didn’t want to give them any weight. Instead, he rubbed his hands against the wall and ground his toe into the ground and used up his last thought on how inanimate objects don’t feel or do, they just are. He felt, for the first time in his life, jealous of something that wasn’t alive.
The priest, though at first considered a prime candidate for relentless harassment and random searches of his home, was diligent about keeping to himself and completing his work to the best of his ability. And because of this—over time—he was eventually left alone and considered one of the more decent prisoners the officers dealt with. His reputation was his ticket into Edi’s home where he was being kept, just before being taken away to the prison.
He knew he shouldn’t have been shocked by Edi’s condition: swollen eye, blood crusted over his nostrils and upper lip, but he just stared. He let the heat of anger and hopelessness wash over him without flinching and without giving away his sadness to Edi.
“Well,” whispered Edi, his voice hoarse. “Aren’t you glad you didn’t come?” And he smiled. The priest walked over to him and sat down on the floor.
The priest did something he wouldn’t have risked otherwise, if it hadn’t been for Edi. Leaning forward, he held up his hand and made a small, swift cross in the air and began to murmur a prayer.
“Tell me something, Father,” Edi interrupted. “Is there really such a thing as Heaven? As Hell?”
“Whatever you believe there is, there is,” whispered back the priest. “I can’t tell you how exactly those two worlds exist, I’m only certain of the fact that they do. I believe they do.” Edi simply nodded.
“I heard my grandmother,” said Edi. “Out there. In the woods. She said my name. Just like your stories, I heard my name from someone who was dead. I’m meant to die here,” and his voice caught on the last word and Edi broke down. The priest could do nothing, only blink quickly to keep his tears from falling and put his hand on Edi’s shoulder.
“You will be alright, Edi. Trust me.” And he squeezed his shoulder.
As he had promised himself he would do, the priest took out a small piece of paper from his pocket and a pen.
“Do you want me to write or do you want to do it yourself?”
“You write, I’ll tell you what to put in there,” responded Edi.
He began to quickly write down Edi’s words as he spoke them. In this task, he found a purpose he thought he had lost when he first arrived at the camp. It was minor and yet it was what he’d expect of a priest; a final sense of comfort to a man in his final moments. He was going to miss Edi and their nightly talks. Sometimes the priest couldn’t help but wonder if he could’ve prevented him from this fate, but he knew well the stubbornness of man, of that inescapable sin—pride.
Dear mama, baba…the letter started and continued on to the backside of the page. When they had finished, Edi took a breath and put his head back against the wall. The priest folded the paper and placed it carefully in his pocket. He knew he only had a few more minutes before someone was going to get him.
“So,” said the priest. “Tell me about your favorite Jack London story.”
Nikoletta Gjoni is a fiction and creative nonfiction writer living outside of Washington, DC. She currently has a collection of linked short stories out on submission about people living in Communist Albania, spanning the 1970s through to the present day. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Kindling Volume III, Cleaver Magazine, Riggwelter Press, FIVE:2:ONE, and elsewhere. Her first published story was nominated for the 2018 PEN/Robert J. Dau prize. You can follow her on Twitter @NikiGjoni and read more of her work at www.ngjoni.com.