He was a real man, make no mistake about it! A bandit he may have been, but a fine fellow all the same! We met a good few times, me and Ali. He used to call on me at the sheepfolds, looking for bread, and the more I saw of him the more I admired him. A game cock if I ever saw one! He'd come creeping up, and you'd be tripping over him before you knew he was there. And even the dogs never caught his scent. Delissivko had four guarding his place, but Ali got into the yard, climbed into Delissivko's bedroom, stuck a red-hot trivet over his head and made off without a woof or a whine from a single one of them. After that Delissivko chained them up, took his double-barrelled gun and shot them dead, for not raising the alarm.
Once I asked Ali how he did it:
'How is it the dogs never notice you?' I said.
'I rub myself down with a paste made from billy-goat's balls,' he told me. 'That kills any smell I may have!'
Whether he was telling the truth or only joking, I couldn't say, because he never laughed. In fact you never knew when he was joking and when he wasn't, for his face always stayed the same. Only once did I see him show any feeling : when he was caught the first time. They confronted him with his mother and tried to make her say he'd brought Delissivko's money home with him. She denied it, and Fandukli the field-keeper grabbed her by the plaits and hit her. Ali may have been bound hand and foot, but a twist of his body sent three policemen tumbling to the ground and a crack from his knee up-ended the field-keeper over t'other side of the room.
People said that later, up at the police station, the field-keeper burned Ali's neck with blazing straw and tried to break his leg with a lump of wood.
And what was all the fuss about?
Ten Turkish liras!
Ali worked as a farmhand for Delissivko, and one day Delissivko announced that Ali had robbed him of ten liras. Ali got locked up in the police station and was given such a thrashing the skin hung in strips off his backside - if you'll pardon the expression. The thrashing wasn't all though - for nearly three whole weeks they dragged him from one police station to the next, till he got the chance to give them the slip. Just taking him across a river, they was, when he shoved his escort into the water and made off into the mountains.
After Ali got away it came out that Delissivko's eldest son Marin had pinched the ten liras and had run off with the songstress from up at the pub. When Marin got back and found out what had happened he went like a man to his father and confessed it was him took the money. Ali was still at the police station then, and that's where Delissivko made his big mistake. Instead of letting Ali go and saying he was sorry, he ordered Marin to shut up and keep quiet.
Ali's first victim was the field-keeper who'd tried to break his leg. He caught him out in the meadows by Azmak and killed him. Then he sent Delissivko a note. He couldn't write himself, so he got a wood-cutter to do it for him:
‘Just you wait!' Then he cut his finger and instead of writing his name, he signed with a cross of blood at the bottom.
Delissivko got the wind up good and proper but seeing as he was rich he had plenty of friends in high places, and got the whole police force out looking for old Ali. When they couldn't find him they got hold of his mother. They tortured her and tormented her, but she wouldn't give her son away and in the end the old woman died. If they hadn't done this, most likely Ali would have made his peace with Delissivko and called it a day, but when his old mother was killed the final link between him and the world snapped. He turned wild, like a wolf, and became, as they say, a real desperado. He set fire to Delissivko's sheaves, burned down his sheepfolds, attacked his shepherds and destroyed the creamery where the cheese was made. Two hundred head of sheep he stole from Delissivko and drove them over the border. Later he began stealing from others as well, but never from the poor. The roads weren't safe. The authorities were at a loss what to do and in the end a five thousand lev reward was placed on his head. And money was worth something in those days!
Delissivko added another thousand, but still no one wanted to go after Ali and try and bump him off. Except for one Karakachani, who got hooked on the money. He tried to do the dirty on Ali, but Ali got wind of it, caught him and spiked him with his dagger. Then he chucked him on an ant-hill and let the ants gobble him up alive.
At one point I was accused of giving him bread. But what would you have done in my place, up there in the mountains with his knife at your throat ? You'd have done what he told you or you'd have danced the horo. And besides, we knew he hadn't always been a bandit. Delissivko made him into one. And he had such a beautiful voice too ! Nobody could match the songs Ali sang. There was one in particular: 'Roufinka lying sick and fading'. When he sang that song and his voice spread over the fields and meadows, the mowers laid down their scythes and the reapers their sickles - just so they could listen to his singing. Many a heart had beaten faster at that song of his, and the heart of Djinko's daughter Fatma from Kozlouk was one of them. She had been ready to become his bride, but her father wouldn't let her marry a farmhand. She had even been ready to defy her father and run away with Ali, and they had already agreed on the time and place, but Ali was not to know then that fate had other things in store for him: instead of 'snow-white Fatma with eyes so black', clubbings and whippings were to be his lot!
So Ali became a bandit. He was hunted beneath every blade of grass and wisp of straw, but he never forgot that song. Folk told how they'd heard him sing it on the barren hillsides and how the head forester from Belitsa had once followed Ali's singing and had wounded him, even killed him perhaps. To prove it the forester had brought back a blood-stained leather bag, embroidered with little blue beads, and with thirty gold napoleons inside. Ali would never have parted with a bag like that! Not unless he'd been in danger of his life.
That's what the fellow from Belitsa said, anyway, and everyone agreed with him. Delissivko, the old fox, believed the story too. He breathed freely once more, paid his thousand levs to the head forester and settled down to a life of peace and quiet. He started going out again, went to church, turned up at the village hall in a big fur coat and cursed and swore at the farmhands just as if nothing had ever happened. . . . Little by little us shepherds also began to think Ali must have died from his wounds, 'specially as not a single wood-cutter or shepherd had seen him around.
Things went on like this till one morning we heard that Ali had got into Delissivko's place during the night. And the best of it was, no one knew quite what he'd done. Delissivko hadn't been hurt - I saw him myself a couple of weeks after, walking round his yard : straight back, no limp, and no groaning and moaning neither. But his eyes never left the ground, and he no longer shouted and cursed.
Delissivko spent close on a month shut up in a room with three others - two keeping watch while the third slept - but he himself, or so the story went, never slept a wink the whole time. If he started to doze off, something would jerk him awake. He'd leap from the bed and start crawling round the floor, crying out: 'He's here! He's come !'
'There's no one, Master, no one's come,' the servants told him. But he kept on: 'He's here! He's here!'
One evening he told the servants to leave the room for a moment so he could put on a clean shirt. When they went back they found he'd hung himself.
It was about a week after Delissivko's funeral when the big hold-up took place and Ibryam-Ali was wounded a second time. Father Basil's son Kecho was there and he told me what had happened. He and about ten others, cattle-dealers mostly, were on their way to Karamoushitsa to do some buying. Up by Karakoulas they stopped for a drink of water and two characters with red scarves over their faces came leaping out.
'Hands up! One move and you're dead! ‘
One was holding a pistol and the other a grenade. The one with the pistol was Ali and he was giving the orders. He told the cattle-dealers to file past and throw their money at his feet.
'That money belongs to the poor!' he shouted. 'The miserable price you pay for their cattle, it's downright robbery !'
Two filed past, then three more, but when it came to the sixth, instead of taking out his purse, he took out a dagger, hurled himself at Ali and tried to kill him. There was one hell of a fight, but no one felt like getting involved. The cattle-dealers were afraid of the grenade, and the fellow with the grenade was afraid of the cattle-dealers, so they let the two men get on with it and waited to see who was killed first. The cattle-dealer cut the belt holding Ali's trousers and, if you'll pardon the expression, got a fistful of bollocks and started twisting and squeezing. Well, even Ali could see he was in a bit of a fix and he shouted to his mate to let fly with the grenade.
'Throw it!' he yelled. 'Even if it kills us both!'
His mate threw the grenade at the struggling pair. The grenade went off, and when the smoke cleared the merchant lay dead on the ground and Ali was sitting up right as rain. Just a splinter in his thigh, that's all. But it still gave me a fright when I saw the wound. About ten days later, it was. I'd just got back to the sheepfold, done the milking and shut the sheep up for the night. I sat meself down outside the hut and was about to boil up some milk for supper when I heard someone call my name:
I got up, looked round - not a soul! 'Must have imagined it,' I thought and went back to the fire. I'd hardly sat down when I heard it again:
I went into the hut, just in case someone was hiding there. No, no one. I looked round outside - it wasn't quite dark yet - no one there neither. Just the sheep standing as quiet as could be, and the dogs lapping up their bran swill from the trough without a care in the world. I was right scared, I don't mind telling you. Then there was a rustling above my head, and a thud, and out of nowhere Ibryam-Ali appeared in front of me! He had a wide leather belt with brass buckles round his waist with two or three daggers sticking out the top, a knitted cap on his head and a pair of sandy moustaches twirled down and almost meeting under his chin. He'd got a pistol on a small chain slung over his shoulder and proper revolver stuck in his belt. His face was brown, and a bit thinner than before, I'd say. Anyhow, he made me jump that much I clean forgot to wish him 'good evening' or ask him in.
'Seems I gave you a bit of a fright,' said Ali.
'What d'you expect, flying down out of the sky like that?’
'Call a pine tree the sky! When you sit down and make a fire and boil up some milk, don't you first look and see if it's all clear up the pine tree?'
It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him I was a shepherd and not a bandit like him, and the trees were no concern of mine, but I thought better of teasing him Just then.
'Can you spare me some milk?' he said.
I put the whole pail in front of him. Then he took the pistol from his belt and pointed it straight at me.
'Catch me a ram!' he said.
'All right, I'll get you one,' I said. 'You don't have to point that thing at me!'
'It'll be better for you if I do,' he answered. 'Because when you go down to the village hall tomorrow evening you'll be able to say I was here and forced you to give me the ram. Otherwise they'll accuse you of trying to help me. No point you getting into trouble on my account.'
We spent the whole night roasting the animal, and while we sat there we talked about sheep and rams. He wanted to know about the bells, what kind I'd got, where I'd got them from and whether they had a good ring. He even started giving me advice:
'This one, and that one there need changing. They don't go with the others. And that one needs beating out a bit to "freshen it up".’
While he'd been hiding in the pine tree he'd heard all my bells, sized them up, so to speak, and had worked out what to do to get a perfect peal.
'You need two new bells,' he said, 'one for a deep bass "dong", and the other, with a drop of silver in it, for a gay light tinkle. They'll spur each other on,' he said, 'and do a useful job of work at the same time. If I'm in danger, tie the large bell on the big ram. And rub his belly with stinging nettles so he starts scratching and rings the bell, and then I'll know to keep out of the way. If I hear them both ringing, I'll know it's all clear. And if you should need me for anything, tie the small bell to a mule, jump on and ride from here to Chamjas. And if I'm alive and well I'll answer your call.'
‘Do you find it difficult,' I asked, 'being a bandit?'
'It wouldn't be so bad,' he said, 'if I could only sing where and when I liked. Come on, let's sing something now - very quietly !'
And he began to sing. He'd got these hard, very stern, gravelly eyes, and when he looked at you it was like having your belly-button shaved with a pair of scissors, but when he started to sing they went all kind and tender - soft and smooth like olive oil.
'Singing quietly like this,' he said, 'is like lying with a beautiful woman with your hands tied together.'
These were his last words. The forest rustled and he was gone. I didn't say a thing to anyone in the village, but I did what he said about the two bells. They both rang out just like we'd agreed, signalling that all was well and the coast was clear, but Ali never came back. People said he'd gone over the border and been killed somewhere in Greece.
He'd been a bandit, I know, but I don't mind telling you I felt right sore about it. So I went and tied the bell with the silver in it to my biggest ram. I rubbed his belly with stinging nettles and turned him loose. Off he went and the bell rang out: 'ding-ding-ding! ding-ding!' from one peak, then 'ding-ding!' from another opposite, over meadows and mountain pastures, through forests, up steep ravines, now higher now lower, all day long ringing like a church bell, till the whole mountain and the whole forest knew that Ibryam-Ali was lost and gone for ever. (Ibryam was his bandit name, but sometimes he was called by both.)
Then my troubles really began. First came the coup in '23, when they came after us with bared sabres and I was thrashed good and proper. After that the slump, when a lambskin cost more than a lamb. I got rid of my sheep, bought a couple of mules and set up as a carrier. A load of planks for the trip down and back up with salt and paraffin. One Saturday I had to go down to the station at Stanimaki to fetch a load of Sunlight soap. 'Just right,' I says to myself, 'I'll wait for the train so I can tell the kids what a train looks like.' The train came in, and a whole crowd of fine ladies in fancy hats got off. All kinds, there were, and I got quite carried away looking at them. Just then I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned round and saw a character with moustaches, gravelly eyes, and an astrakhan hood with a red lining.
'Not a word!' he said. 'What are you doing down here at the station?' 'Fetching Sunlight.' 'Good! Get your mules and we'll be off!'
I touched his breeches: no getting away from it, they was real all right! I looked into his face. It was him: Ibryam-Ali!
When we got to the edge of the town I asked him:
'How did you do it?' I says. 'Coming back from the dead like that?'
'Shut up and keep going!' he says. 'I'll tell you further up.'
'Where are we going?'
So that was it, back to our village ... I felt a stab in my heart.
'Won't you be recognized?'
'Just a moment,' he says, 'wait here and don't look.'
He got off the mule. After a while I turned round to find out what had been happening, and d'you know what I saw? A big sturdy fellow with a black beard and a knitted cap. Sitting just a couple of paces away. 'Well, I'll be jiggered!' I says to myself. 'Wonders never cease! Where did he spring from?'
‘And who might you be?' I asks.
When he said 'Ibryam' he laughed, and I could see it really was Ali. And when he took off the beard I was quite certain of it. How was I to know they'd started selling false beards in the shops!
'In that outfit,' I says, 'you'd get by in Chepelli all right. And in Pashmakli too! You could call at the police station and take coffee with the commandant, and there's not a soul as would know it's you!'
He stuffed the beard into one of the saddle bags and only put it on again when we were getting near Chepelli. In the meantime he told me that he'd come up from Odrin on the train. He'd been in Greece before that and then in Turkey. All the way he kept saying what a stroke of luck it was, meeting me at the station. Going by what he said, what he'd needed most just then was someone he could trust.
'Hold on,' I says to him, 'no blood now, mind !'
'There's only the one thing I want doing,' he says. 'Give me a lift into the village, and if anyone asks who I am, say I'm the head shepherd at Stoichoolou's farm in Shoumnatitsa. I've got a bad leg and that's why I've hired your mule. It shouldn't take long, and there won't be no blood.'
'Will you come back to my place?'
'No! That's only for friends and relatives. Drop me off at the inn.'
When we passed some trees he pulled off a few beech leaves and started chewing them.
'Around here,' he said, 'leaves taste better than a roast sucking lamb! In Anatolia there isn't a leaf to be seen, and the water, it's worse than pig-swill!'
Whenever he saw a drinking fountain he stopped.
'Let's have a drink,' he'd say.
He'd get off the mule, have a drink, put his head under the spout, cup both hands in the trough and splash away at his face with the water. . . .
When we rode into a pine wood he stopped by one of the trees, touched it with his hand like he was stroking it, and hugged it tight.
'My pine, my tree! You on the mountain-top, And me by the sea!'
We reached the village and made for the inn. He with his beard and knitted cap walking down the street as cool as a cucumber, and not a soul as stopped to take a second look at him. There was any amount of beards in those days and half the village was wearing knitted caps, so we arrived at Gugritsa's inn without any trouble, just like we'd planned.
'You go off home and settle your mules,' All said. 'Come back this evening for a meal at the inn and keep me company for supper.'
So I went home, settled the animals, told my wife to have supper and go to bed without me, and went back to the inn. The windows were lit, plenty of noise, shouting, and lots of people. . . .
'Ibryam!' I says to Ali. 'Best not go in! I'll bring you some bread and cheese from home. It'll be a good sight more tasty than in there.'
I might as well have been talking to the wall. In he went and I followed after. It was hot inside. Full of smoke too. Meat was being roasted, bagpipes were playing and people were singing. You'd never have thought that at such a busy time - threshing time, it was " so many people could get together to enjoy themselves. . . . What was all the excitement about? Well, the men had shot a wild boar and were grilling great hunks of meat over the fire. They were eating and singing, Droulyu from Levochevo was playing the bagpipes for them, and a whole crowd of people were standing round looking on.
We sat down at a table in a corner. Ali ordered beans and salted meat and started his supper. And all the while the songs rolled on. . . . Every possible song you could imagine. Meanwhile Ali went on with his supper and every now and then looked over towards the men. They sang and they sang until someone - I can't rightly remember who - called out to Droulyu :
'Hey! Droulyu!' he shouted. 'Let's have "Roufinka"!'
Droulyu started playing 'Roufinka', and as he played he sang. Bouroushtila took up the melody, and then three or four others joined in as well. The ceiling shook. The window panes crashed and rang like cymbals. Gugritsa was filling a bottle with wine and the bottle ran over, but he didn't notice and went on pouring. The meat in the fire got burnt to nothing, and the wood-cutters stood rooted to the spot, not daring to move for fear of spoiling the song.
Ali pushed away his plate. He took up his glass to drink, but neither drank nor put it down. His fingers squeezed tighter and tighter and turned blue. His face was like stone. Just one blue vein beating behind his ear. The longer they sang, the faster it beat, and his eyes, his far-strewn eyes, looked at everything, but saw nobody.
I sensed that something was about to happen, but before I could discover what it was Ali suddenly stood up. He stood up like a man lifted by a whirlwind, went over to the singers, and before anyone knew what was happening he shouted out and began singing at the top of his voice :
'Roufinka lying sick and fadingEveryone froze and fell silent. Only Droulyu went on playing.
On the peak, on the high mountain . . .
'Wine!' Ali roared. 'A bottle for everyone!'
The inn-keeper rushed off, bottles clinked and rang, corks popped and Ali sang. He sang and Droulyu played, and everyone listened, staring at Ali, exchanging glances among themselves from time to time.
I could see that things were getting out of hand, so I stood up and went off home. When I got in my wife already knew Ibryam-Ali was in the village. I went to bed, but something inside me kept scratching away: 'Go and tell him he's been recognized!' it said. 'Go and save him!'
I got up and went back to the inn. My wife didn't want me to go so I had to stuff her mouth and stop her screaming. I pushed my way through to Ali and whispered in his ear:
'You've been recognized!'
'I feel like singing and no one's going to stop me!' he said. 'If they want to arrest me, here I am!' And he shoved a bottle into my mouth. 'Drink!' he said, and he shouted to the inn-keeper:
'Bring us a barrel of wine! It's on me. And lock the door!'
What happened after is kind of hazy. There was a great deal of drinking and singing and we all ended up flat on our backs, completely sozzled. It was already getting light when Ali stood up and paid the bill.
'Bring the mules! It's time we were off!' he said.
I was still pretty pickled, but the way Gugritsa looked at me I knew what he meant. If I went with Ali, he'd report me to the police and I'd never dare show my face in any village again. It was then I blackened my soul and said to Ali:
'I don't know who you are. I refuse to take you!'
Ali looked me straight in the eye and drew his pistol.
'Move!' he said. 'Or I'll blow your brains out''
'All right,' I said. 'I'm not arguing!'
We mounted the mules and rode off. Me in front and him behind. Going through the village neither of us said a word. When we were clear of the houses Ali whipped his mule on, drew level and said :
'Did you mean what you said back there about not wanting to take me, or was it just an excuse?'
I was ashamed to tell him the truth and I lied.
'It wasn't an excuse. I meant it!'
'Come on now, look me in the eye!'
It was light already and you could see everything, so how could I look him in the eye?
'So-o-o-o!' he said. 'You'd lie to me, would you? !'
Then I told him the truth:
'Yes, I was lying,' I said. 'Because I told myself you'd vanish again and I'd be left in a bloody awful mess. That's the truth, I swear! Anyhow, whose fault was it you started singing?'
'I see,' he said. 'But why not say that in the first place? A fat lot of good you are as a carrier ! And I was thinking,' he says, 'of us sharing the gold liras I've got hidden away. Still, if you've got cold feet, you'd better leave while there's still time. I don't need you to show me the way to the border. So, about turn and off with you! Don't worry, I never shoot people in the back!'
I cursed myself for what I'd done, but too late! Not because of the gold, mind. Not because of his rotten liras. But because I'd blackened my soul and lied.
'Ali,' I said, 'I will come with you if you need me. Honest, I mean it.'
'The liras, eh?'
That shut me up. Nearly choked me. I grabbed one of the mules by the halter and turned to go. I left the other mule with Ali. Before we parted I said to him:
'Just a couple of things before I go,' I says. 'Hear me out and believe me when I say it comes from the heart. The whole village knows you're here, and death by hanging was your sentence. Gugritsa is a police informer, and at the inn I saw Fevzi, the eldest son of Fandukli, that field-keeper who tried to break your leg. Ride through the forest, Ali, keep away from the road!'
'Scram!' was all he said.
I rode off and didn't turn round again. When I got to the meadows at the edge of the village I heard gunfire from somewhere. 'Well,' I says to myself, 'that's that, then.'
I was right scared and didn't go home, but went along to the inn.
'Where's the bandit?' Gugritsa asked.
'I got the push!'
'So you wanted to go with him, did you?'
'Yes, I did, damn you!' I said. 'I did want to, you little bastard, but he wouldn't take me! Bandits have to be full of spunk, not miserable bed-wetters like you and me, you wretch! Do you understand?' And seeing as I was still holding the halter I lashed him across the face with it, so hard it wound itself five or six times round his neck.
We grabbed each other by the throat and they had to use force to get us apart. Just then a filthy row started up outside. Before I realized what it was I caught sight of my other mule. It was pulling a wooden drag, and tied to the drag was Ibryam-Ali in a white shirt stained with bloody blotches. (After his death that was what got him his third name: 'Blotchy Ali'.) Behind the drag, guns at the ready, came a policeman and Fandukli's offspring, Fevzi. They stopped in the yard and I rushed over to Ali.
'Are you hurt?' I asked. 'Is it bad?'
All's eyes were already misting over. ‘Bad or not, it's all finished! But it's good to know I'll be buried in our native soil. . . .'
Bloody foam bubbled from his mouth and he was cut short with this word on his lips.
'Ali, Ali! Come back!' But he slumped into my arms, his head fell forward and he was gone.
'I suppose you couldn't bandage him up!' I yelled at Fevzi.
'Makes no difference to the price on his head. Dead or alive, it's all the same,' he answered.
Then came militia-men, the police, doctors. . . . Questionings, interrogations. . . . They even had him opened up to see whether he'd got two hearts. No one could understand how two bullets could go clean through his shoulder-blade and he could still be alive one and a half hours after, when he'd been dragged all the way back to the inn.
Afterwards they gave him to me and I buried him in our native soil. And I put a stone on his grave, and flowers. . . , All these years and I've still the same pain aching away inside : if I'd gone with him in the first place, would the same fate have overtaken him? Would it? And when the pain gets really bad I go along to the school-teacher.
'Teacher,' I says to him, 'is there such a thing as fate in a man's life?'
'How many times must I tell you ? Of course there is!' he says. 'Only,
fate isn't something outside a man, it's inside him. Take your Ali. If
he hadn't started fooling around with his song no one would have recognized
him or laid a finger on him. . . . He was tough and he was terrible, but
that song was stronger still. . . .'