The Tortoise

“Damnation!I knew it!” cried the young Bey as he leant back in his chair letting his arms hang behind him.Before him on the table lay the cards he’d played and the francs he’d lost.”I imagined it, because on my way here I saw the Tortoise!”

“What tortoise?” asked the newcomer, a young man from one of the far-off southern cities.
The others were laughing aloud, till one of them explained that the Tortoise was a hunchback who begged in one of the streets in the centre of the city.”Oh, Riza Bey, you missed an opportunity there!” laughed another of them.”You could have touched his hump – they say it brings good luck.”

“But I know another story,” pronounced the Bey, and when he had their attention he continued: “When God created men, he gathered them together and made this speech to them: Know that I have created you and know that not all of you are good.Amongst you, here and there, I have also created some that are bad.But Lord, some of them asked, how shall we know which are bad?It is easy, said the Lord, because each of them I have marked: some are cripples, some are hunchbacks, some are cross-eyed or completely blind, and so forth.Others will simply be ugly,” Riza concluded in a loud voice, looking his companions in the face, one by one.

“Ha ha ha…You’ve made that one up!” they said, more or less all of them, as they pointed their fingers at him.Riza bent his head a little to the right; he turned his hands and opened his fingers to show his white palms.He smiled a little, but he did not reply.

The newcomer was the only one who hadn’t moved, red in the face and perhaps somewhat out of place.But Riza paid him little attention; he might have been thinking of his new post in the Prefecture, or deciding how to furnish his new house.”He’s hardly set foot in town,” Riza thought, “and these cunning companions of mine have already got him as one of their friends in high places.”

* * *
Xhemalapproached the window and slowly lifted the curtain to see that corner of the pavement which was the fixed position of the Tortoise.

The children who surrounded him were clapping their hands as they sang the verses the hunchback himself had composed:
“We’ve a hunchback in our town,
Slowly he goes up and down.
Hunchbacks you’ll find everywhere,
But none as ugly as that one there.”
The hunchback too clapped his hands and turned in a circle despite the weight he bore on his shoulders.They called him the Tortoise because he had the ability to hide his whole neck under his hump.But sometimes, when he was with the children, when no adults were around, he would draw the whole neck out and you could see the stripe of white skin at the base of it, where the sun had rarely shone.Then, when he saw someone coming, he’d pull his neck in completely and stoop even lower, so the passer-by could comfortably touch the hump, if he so wished.

The hunchback also pulled his neck out a little whenever he was approached by Sergeant Qamil, the gendarme of the neighbourhood, who at the beginning had done all he could to drive the hunchback from that particular corner of the pavement.But then he’d given up, having found over the hunchback a certain power he couldn’t find elsewhere.He’d come round every morning and from a distance of some ten metres shout: “Tortoise!”
“Yes, sir!” the hunchback would reply, trying to straighten himself and pulling his neck halfway out.
“At ease!” the sergeant would shout back, as satisfied he walked away.
There were rumours the hunchback had been born to a well-known family in Shkodër, who had abandoned him just outside a monastery.But nothing was known of the life he’d led before appearing here, in this great city of the midlands.He didn’t speak with the accent of Shkodër and his habits had confused people’s memories, making them think he’d always been there on that pavement.

Suddenly the children were leaning against the wall, but he remained where he was and became even more bent.The Master Sefer was passing by – a peasant who’d made his fortune in Italy, not so much by earning money there as by learning the trade of a builder.Now his services were sought after by rich people who wanted houses “in the Italian style”.He’d also set up a shop of building tools and materials and he often came to Xhemal’s to buy his clothes.

He’d usually stop by the hunchback and give him a few coins after touching the hump.But that day perhaps he was in a hurry; he dropped the coins in the cup but he didn’t touch the hump.
The hunchback ran after him shouting, “I don’t want them.”
“Why?What have I done to you?” the Master asked.
“You should know,” the hunchback replied, pointing to the parchment that every day he would hang on the wall and late in the evening would roll up and take away with him.The Master turned back and blushed.Xhemal smiled; the same thing had happened to him and well he knew what was written there.

There were: The Rules of the Hump.
-The Hump lives even amidst indifference, and therefore you may pretend not to have seen it.
– You may touch the Hump and not offer anything, thereby admitting you’re as wretched as I am.
– The Hump is a misfortune.But if you offer me something you are obliged to touch it with your hand.Otherwise I shall return your offering to you.
Signed: THE TORTOISE.
The Master touched the hump and dropped the coins back into the cup.He took a few steps away, but then came back again.”Tortoise,” he said, “why don’t you come and stand in front of my shop?There’s more space there and it’s cleaner.”
“But I’m fine here,” said the hunchback.
“Do it for me,” said the Master, “after everything I’ve given you.”
The Tortoise pulled all his neck under the hump, right down to his ears, as if he felt in danger.He replied: “The hunch is like love.If you are not happy with what you have given, you will not be so even if you get back twice as much.”
This made the Master even redder than before.Then he remembered what purchases he had to make and marched away.

* * *

Xhemal was doing his books yet another time.But again there were five francs missing.He tried to think where he might have made a mistake and it didn’t take long before it came to him.

All day he’d been dull-witted and because he was slow his customers had been able to mark his movements, and so – just to be on the safe side – he’d added a little bit more sugar, flour, salt…

His unease had begun early that morning because as he’d come round the usual corner he hadn’t seen the hunchback on the pavement.Perhaps he’d changed his mind and gone to beg in front of the Master’s shop.It was then Xhemal realised how important the hunchback had been for him – or perhaps it was something he had forgotten.

When he’d set up the shop, using the money sent to him by his father, who had emigrated to America, his grandfather had preached him this sermon: “Beware that if you cheat on the scales, you will go to hell.”

“I might do it by mistake,” Xhemal had replied.”Our eyes are what they are.”
“You’ll see it at the end of the day, when you do the books.There are many needy people in this city, and you can give them whatever you’ve earned more than you should have done.”

Though Xhemal hadn’t answered, he’d been worried.He hadn’t the time to find out who were the neediest people in the city.And in any case, he had relatives that were poor.But then the little jealousies would spring up.He’d imagined the women moaning over their sewing, “Oh, he never gives to us, only to them he gives.”And he certainly wasn’t going to entrust any money to that “Fatso” of an Imam, who kept for himself anything offered in the mosque.

A few days afterwards the hunchback had arrived. Xhemal was convinced he’d been sent to him by God.From then on he’d prospered, no longer worrying about the “little mistakes” that turned up in the books.Till that day – when the hunchback wasn’t there, and the fear of hell made Xhemal lose five francs.

He sighed deeply, as he prepared to shut the shop.
But from the doorway, he saw Riza Bey, both limping and trying to run towards him; he must have seen the shop was about to close.”He’s come for some bottles of brandy,” thought Xhemal, as he opened the door for the Bey.And he was not wrong.
Relighting the candles, he asked, “What has happened, Effendi?”

“That damned Tortoise!” replied the Bey.”Last night, as I was leaving the tavern, I saw him sitting on the pavement, something he never does.But perhaps he was there on purpose, to bring me bad luck.For just the other day, I lost twenty francs at the tables because of him.Anyway, I got curious and I decided to give him a good kick on the hump to see whether it was made of flesh or bone.I don’t know how he was able to shift himself so fast, but he made me strike my foot against the wall!Well, enough is enough, I said.I happened to have with me my granddad’s stick, which I’d brought along to play a joke on my friends.It’s made of cornelian cherry wood, you know, that never breaks.So I gave him a damn good thrashing on the head, and I left him to roll in his own blood.Strange, though, that he didn’t even groan.”

Xhemal felt his own head filling with blood.”So that’s why he wasn’t there,” he said to himself as he wrapped the bottle, which he felt sorely tempted to break over the head of the Bey.He resisted, however, and then a kind of illumination came to him.

“You know, Effendi,” he mentioned, “I’ve been able to get hold of that Italian cloth again, the one everyone wanted when I had it delivered for the King’s wedding.It cost me a good deal, I can tell you, because it’s beginning to grow scarce even over there, and I was anxious to sell it.But don’t worry: a couple of days ago Hasan Aga asked me about it.”Thus did he arouse the Bey’s jealousy.

“What?Don’t even think about it!” cried the Bey.”I don’t have the money with me, but I’ll go and come back and you have to wait for me.”His words sounded like a joke, but also had the hint of a threat about them.Closing the door, he added, “I’m not so badly off as to miss a bargain like this one for sixty francs.That scoundrel there’s already swiped a business deal with the Italians right out of my hands.”

Xhemal waited a long time.”Perhaps he’s changed his mind,” he thought.It wasn’t so much the wait that tired him as the uncertainty.He didn’t know whether to go or stay.
So at first he was relieved to see the Rey pop out of the alleyway.
“That one won’t give me peace even when dead!” said the Rey.”I’ve just learnt from the gendarmes the Tortoise is dead.”

Xhemal felt his legs tremble beneath him, but the Bey went on without caring.”They came to arrest me!But luckily the Lieutenant Sali is a friend of my father’s.Now had it been for that Sergeant Qamil, they’d have me killed there and then.I could see it in the man’s eyes.You realise I had to cough up two hundred francs!It’s a good job the sergeant didn’t want his fifty!”

Xhemal rolled up the cloth and put it in a bag.”It’s late, Effendi, and I must close,” he whispered.He watched the Bey as he went down the steps, and even though it was a sin he hoped the Bey would fall and break his neck.But it didn’t happen.

He quickly shut up shop and set off in the direction of the shack which – rumour had it – was the hunchback’s dwelling; it was on the other side of the city.In his pocket he clutched the francs he’d just earned.He was thinking of the funeral.When he thought he was near enough, he stopped the only person he could see.”Excuse me, sir, but can you tell me where the Tortoise lives?”Only then did he realise he’d never asked the Tortoise his name.

“As far as I know, it lives in the bushes,” said the man, not liking to be mocked.
“No, no, I’m not joking,” Xhemal apologised.”But I know that somewhere round here there lived a man who was a hunchback.”
“Oh, Ëngjëll!Yes, he lived down there, in what we call ‘the fine shack’.But there’s nobody there now.”

The man came closer and lowered his voice to explain.”They came for him last night.It all took place in silence.If it hadn’t been for the noise of the automobiles, we wouldn’t have noticed anything.And what automobiles for the hunchback!”
Xhemal couldn’t find the courage to approach the shack.He said goodbye to the man and made his way back home.

***

“Good morning, Xhemal.Have you seen what a lovely day it’s turned out to be!” said the shoemaker from the corner.

“Lovely,” said Xhemal, “Last night it seemed the heavens were coming down with all that thunder and rain.”He regarded the reflections from the rainwater that still encircled the cobbles.

That morning he’d awoken calmly enough.There’d been moments when he hadn’t recalled the tragedy of the hunchback.”It’s strange,” he said, when he noticed his forgetfulness.”It used to seem like he’d always been there, and now it seems like he’s never been there.”He shook his head.

He stopped thinking these things when into his shop there came an elegantly dressed gentleman who was holding the hand of an old man with a walking stick.He said good morning to Xhemal, and went to browse where the jackets were hanging.”If sir would wish,” Xhemal said cautiously, “we can tailor one for you.”The gentleman had been to the shop a couple of times before, but hadn’t bought anything.People said he hadn’t been long in the city and that he worked for the government.

“Let’s see this one first,” said the gentleman.”Come, daddy – this way,” he said, moving back towards the old man, who was approaching, swinging his stick against any obstacles.It was in that moment Xhemal realised the old man was blind.Without wanting to, he looked into the old man’s face and saw the eyelids were fluttering, as if he were trying to close them.But he didn’t manage it completely, and Xhemal saw the pupils were white.He looked away and stood by the window while the gentleman tried on the jacket.

Then once more he saw Riza Bey come out of the alleyway. This made Xhemal tremble so much he was afraid the gentleman, now holding out the jacket towards his father, might have seen him.For Riza looked furious.”Perhaps he’s realised I tricked him,” Xhemal thought, “and now he’s come to make me pay for it.”His fears grew as he saw the way Riza limped and ran.”I know there’s no love lost between them, but perhaps he and Hasan met over some gambling table and the trick was revealed.”Xhemal’s clutched the francs in his pocket.

But as Riza reached the front of the shop, two elegantly dressed men came out of nowhere.Their brilliantined hair shone in the sunlight.They whipped out their pistols and one shot Riza in the heart, shouting, “Give our regards to the Tortoise!”

The Bey fell to his knees, casting back his head, perhaps from the pain, which made it easier for the second man to shoot him in the forehead.As they both vanished, Xhemal saw the body drop backwards; he caught sight of the bullet-hole in the forehead and was surprised that no blood was coming out.Even more when he saw that Riza’s cheeks were red, that the whole head seemed to be covered with blood.Then the blood flowed out from beneath the head, filling the cracks round the cobbles.

“What happened?” shouted the man in the shop.
“They’ve killed a man,” said Xhemal.
“Who is it?Do you know him?”
“I knew him,” said Xhemal.”His name was Riza Bey.”
“Ah!” said the man simply.Then he said something Xhemal couldn’t make head or tail of.”So perhaps God never made that speech.”Xhemal almost thought he was smiling.

The jacket fitted.The gentleman paid for it and left the shop, holding his father’s hand.Xhemal’s eyes followed them along the street till they came to the hunchback’s place.There the old man withdrew his hand from his son’s and stood still, turning round as iflooking at something.Then he held his son’s hand once more and they walked on.

Xhemal closed the door and left the shop from the back.He had no wish to waste his time bearing witness in front of “those good-for-nothings.”

Translated by P.

F. Marshall