The young man walked with his usual calm over the cobblestones of the Shirok Sokak promenade in Bitola, the city famous throughout the Ottoman Empire. He came from Salonika and felt he was ever closer to his goal of obtaining an education, now that he had been accepted as a cadet at the Military Academy here. At the same moment, the beautiful Bitola girl Eleni Karinte came out onto the balcony, aflutter and in the flower of her youth, with a gentle restlessness in her soul, which created the sense of being high in the air and having a view distinctive of a bird, not of an earth-bound human. But the young man who walked over the cobbles had the sky in his eye. He sought there for the star that would guide his way into the future.
The beautiful bird looked down. Its destiny is to forever conceal the sky in the span of its wings, and yet to have its eye on life on earth.
There was absolutely no telling what would happen next, although the moment that had just entered the present was so close.
Nothing would have happened if the young woman had let herself be carried away on the little white clouds, which she now banished to the corner of her eye and let their shadows fly on. Or if the man who paced the cobbles had walked with his gaze on the ground to maintain a steady step. But just now the young man raised his head. He lifted his gaze in search of the star that was already wandering through his mind. The young woman felt a breath of air, which created the illusion that she really was a bird flying in the sky, and she lowered her eyes to the ground.
Destiny took its course when their gazes met. Heaven and earth lost their connecting border. Their thoughts then also conjoined, a quality of those who attempt to tame their restiveness and—as a result—electrify the surroundings with their elemental drive.
The young man was completely captivated by the beauty of the young woman. She left the sky and gently descended to earth.
“I feel my life is changing,” Kemal admitted sincerely to the beautiful Eleni, inebriated by the first drop of amorous wine. She only gave a heart-warming smile. But the shine in her eyes rounded out that dialogue of love. They were gazing at each other, that was plain, and they realized they could not stop. They already knew each other well enough to be the most intimate beings on earth. Elegant and well-mannered, the young woman received him at the piano in her drawing room and played him one of the pieces that the French governesses in Bitola had taught her. She chose the song “Frère Jacques,” the first for which her teachers had praised her. The strains of the piano followed the words with infatuation:
Frère Jacques, frère Jacques,
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.
And Kemal applauded long and loud. Eleni had noticed that he simply melted to the sounds of the piano. The young cadet bore his musicality in his ear but had no skill with his fingers, so he said he could only offer his love. Eleni’s enchanting laughter resounded and was conveyed by the ebony and ivory with a melodic richness. The keys struck straight at their hearts; the melody rang through their veins and made its way out into the world around.
It seems the keys recognized their two hearts as being of the same note, and in that instant their union occurred, their fusion into one whole, with the same sound and the same melody that could no longer be separated.
After that encounter, the happy young couple realized that the love flaring up in their hearts could conquer the world in a single day. And they immediately set out on their campaign.
Eleni knew the hard stance of the successful Bitola merchant Eftim Karinte, her father. She knew how he would react when he heard of their love: a young woman from a respectable Christian home and a cadet from a poor Mohammedan family . . . Their love therefore inspired them to flee.
“I will take you to meet my mother in Salonika,” the young cadet declared. “It is not hard to choose between the Academy and this beautiful young woman.”
“I will go with you wherever you take me, even to the ends of the earth,” the beautiful Eleni averred.
Soon afterward the long train roared and whistled as it raced across the land toward Salonika, bearing their great love. Kemal and Eleni spent the whole of the journey in each other’s arms. Naturally they were afraid to let go of their love, which could be seized and shut away in a prison with high stone walls.
The young man took his joy to meet his mother. But she sent the young couple straight back to Bitola so that her son would continue the chosen schooling, and so he could ask the young woman’s parents for her hand in marriage. Eftim Karinte was very strict on matters of class and religion. The young couple had no choice other than to go into hiding in Bitola in order to save their great love. But the forces of separation were more powerful than their bond, and that great love was thrown into the dungeon of a stone fortress. Then they were forcibly separated: the boy was sent away to Istanbul and the beautiful girl to Florina so that they would never see each other again. Eleni withdrew into the prison of her soul.
But such a love could not be wrenched from their hearts. Nothing could remove it from there. It filled them completely, leaving no room for any other. So it was that their great love prompted Kemal to perform great deeds. Beautiful Eleni, in turn, waited for an opening in time, when their captive love would be set free and the two separated hearts could beat together once more. She waited like this until her eightieth year, when all the times had changed and life and death had merged fully into one. And on her last journey she took with her one single token.
“Ptica na balkonot,” from Zora vo slikata. © Petre Dimovski. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Will Firth. All rights reserved.