CHERRY WITH A GOLD PIT
(A chapter from the novel The Writing Box)
“Each thing, to be heard once, must be said twice.”
These, as far as we know, were the last words of Mr Timotej Medoš.
I, whose age is no longer his age of Pisces, can but guess under what circumstances this sentence was spoken in the past 20th century and in the past millennium. At that time confusing and contradictory news about the fate of Timotej Medoš came from unreliable sources and was less and less frequent. According to one source, Timotej did not drown, but the water brought him ashore. He was ambushed on the narrow strip of the border zone, taken captive, kidnapped, or forced in some other way to go to Bosnia again for some time. To this day I do not know if he was compelled to stay in the area then under Muslim, Croatian or Serbian control. It was easily found out who he was. And the rest of the story seems like a test Timotej was put to by some secret service. In any case, after so much time, all that can now be surmised of his subsequent fate is this.
They put him in a house where he could move around freely and fed him with cheese and nuts. He was taken care of by two lads with bells instead of earrings. They let him into the room in which he was to stay. It was a triangular room, with a balcony on the north wall.
Besides him and the guards there was someone else in the house as well. A tiny “pocket” dog. It was a puppy, but it was always in fear. Apart from the entrance and balcony door, the room also had a third small one. The puppy was especially afraid of that third door. As if that Greek “greatest degree of fear” were coming from it.
Timotej usually sat on the balcony, looking at the Bosnian mountains and warming his bare feet on the back of the small dog curled up under the bench. He gazed at the peaks in the distance and saw that at different altitudes of the mountains it was always a different time of day or year. One could clearly see where it had dawned earlier, where it was spring, where evenings fell late, and where it was snowing high up above. But all that was tinted with the fear spreading from the triangular room, or entering it from who knows where, the fear at which the puppy quietly growled.
The following day at dawn, with rain spitting into the eyes and the mouth and the wind fit to tear up a shirt, Timotej was visited by the lads with bells in their ears. Behind their back each was holding the elbow of his right arm with his left hand. They took him to the adjacent building, to a room that was so long that a word spoken at the one end would be forgotten by the time one reached the other end of the room. A table full of platters of fish and fruit extended the length of the room, and two men with worn-out faces were sitting at the table. Both of them stared at the young man brought there. On the table before them there was something wrapped in a white shirt.
“It is good to keep an imperial secret,” said one of the two men at the table as soon as the lads with the bells had left the room. And he told Timotej what was sought of him.
“We expect you to remember one name and to use the languages that you speak, namely French, Greek, English, Italian, Serbian…”
“I don’t speak Serbian,” interjected Timotej, at which the two men at the table laughed.
“Let’s get to the point,” said the other man, “there are certain names in the world that are forbidden. They are best mentioned as little as possible, and then only when you must. It is best to think that such a name is as heavy as the Drina River, that it turns the flame of a candle blue. Such a name can be a password to cross from one world to another, it can become a nickname for death. But who can know that? The name is not to be spoken, not to be written down, and especially not to be read. The one we are telling you about has never been written down or read aloud. But for certain reasons that forbidden name will now be revealed to you. No one actually knows that name; the two of us who are to convey it to you don’t know it either. It is a great secret and it will be confided to you to keep and revealed to you in a special way, but you, of course, must not mention that name to anyone, or, God forbid, write it down. Needless to say, you will vouch for that with your life.”
And then they told him the name.
First one of the men approached him and whispered in his ear his half of the name. For each of the two men in the hall knew only one half of the name in question.
“Have you understood and memorized it?” he asked him, but before Timotej confirmed, he put his right hand over Timotej’s mouth and raised his left forefinger.
After that the other one took a piece of a rope from his pocket and asked Timotej if he could read boatman’s knots. When Timotej confirmed (which was just for the sake of appearances, because the man already knew his answer), he revealed the other half of the name to Timotej by tying boatman’s knots.
“Have you understood and memorized it?”
“I have,” replied Timotej.
That was all.
In the triangular room changes awaited him. A computer was there at his disposal, supplied with computer dictionaries and encyclopedias on compact discs. That included the Spelling for English, the Hugo for French, the American encyclopedia Encarta and the Encyclopedia Britannica, and, as for dictionaries, the Bookshelf. He also had a library full of foreign and local books.
The matter did not end there. The lads with bells in their ears arrived again at dawn to take him to that long room from which it seemed that the two men had never left. On the table before them there was still something wrapped in a shirt. Then one of the two pointed with his chin to that package. He looked like he was disgusted with the thing he was pointing at.
“Now it’s time for this,” he said to Timotej.
The other one unwrapped the shirt and a notebook appeared bound in Morocco leather. Then he added:
“Something is written in the notebook, perhaps a message, coming from the person whose name you heard yesterday. No one knows in what language it is written. And no one knows what… For no one has opened the notebook so far. You will be the first. And you will deliver the message from the notebook to us, you will translate what’s written in it into all the languages you speak, which we have listed. So that nothing of its meaning should be lost…”
The two men stood up, tied the morocco-bound notebook with the sleeves of the shirt and handed it to Timotej. They seemed to be afraid of the notebook. As if the thing wrapped in the shirt were infectious.
“Take the notebook. It is your only chance to save yourself. It goes without saying that our eyes will be open even when you sleep. We know that, thinking of the future, you are still afraid of previous misfortunes and past enemies. Be certain that from now on you will have new and even more dreadful foes that your old ones, and you cannot even dream of what disasters lie in wait for you. So be smart when you translate what is written in the notebook. Safeguard everything you write, each letter, each word, each line, especially each name, everything. As if protecting your teeth or the nails on your hand. Everything – both the good and the bad in your texts – you shall deliver everything to us at the end of your work. Not a single word may be lost. Special care must be taken that nothing falls into the hands of descendants. For, as far as descendants, they cannot be counted on. No faith should be had in them at all. They are mostly prowlers and murderers. And no support will come from them. They are to be avoided like burning fire. You’ll see for yourself…”
With those words they let him go. Timotej took the notebook and heard them say that they would inquire every three days as to how the work was going.
“He who reads it shall regret it; he who reads it not, shall regret it,” said Timotej and, instead of turning on the electric lamp, lit a candle from the shelf, put the shirt with the morocco-bound book on the table and opened another book to read. He was reading and preparing to leap. He knew that his life would depend upon that start. The flame of his candle tied itself in a knot, it was very late at night, and somewhere water could be hear, lapping. When he got the impression that he could feel the weight of the fire on the candle wick, when his inner senses, as the shadows of the ordinary senses, were released, he took the morocco-bound notebook, ready to begin with the work. He opened the notebook and paused for a moment. The notebook was completely empty. Tabula rasa. Not a line was written in it… He examined each page separately, each one between his index finger and his thumb, and then, not believing his own eyes, each one between his thumb and his middle finger. He discovered nothing. The notebook was as white as the blank pages of someone’s life. Then he thought:
“The name is the only text that I have.”
Then he sat down and started to write something on a piece of paper. The bells were constantly ringing in his ears.
He was writing down in Greek the text written on his mother’s fan, which he knew by heart:
“Just as the body has limbs, so, too, does the soul…” wrote Timotej. He decided to translate the text from the fan into French and other languages for those two at the table.
“I don’t think they’ll dare to look in the notebook,” he thought. Just as they haven’t dared to learn the name whose halves they’ve held on their tongues… They most probably aren’t even interested in it. They obviously avoid it as much as they can. The only thing important to them is that the name not be disclosed to the public. That it remain unknown… And that they pass their troubles off onto somebody else. Onto me, in this case.
In short, Timotej was grasping at straws.
Time went by, the specified day was approaching, but the captive had got nothing done. He hadn’t completed anything, and that which he had started was started thanks to his imagination; it was enough to open the morocco-bound notebook to see that his work didn’t match the work from the notebook, since there was not a single word on paper there, and yet he was dealing with words. And that was quite evident. The text of the unknown author, if it could be called a text at all, was inaccessible and unsurpassable.
Timotej was going insane and spent that night on the balcony. It seemed to him that each part of his clothes represented a part of the area around the house: his belt was the river, his buttonholes the springs in the forest, and his shirt itself the mountain in Bosnia, under which, he felt, was heavy earth with fire and seed in it…
At their usual hour, the hour when roosters that crow prematurely are slaughtered, the lads with bells in their ears didn’t come for Timotej. They had come earlier. They ordered him to bring the morocco-bound notebook with all his papers and notes and took him into the hall with the long table. Two men were sitting at the table as before and asked him how the job was going. Timotej said it was going well, looked at his nails, which he would rub against the wall by his bed in sleepless nights, and saw his face ten times in his nails. It was pale and distraught. The captive couldn’t discern if the two men at the table knew the secret of the morocco-bound notebook or not…
Then one of the two men took the notebook from him and wrapped it in a new shirt. The other one took the papers, rolled them up and sealed them, not looking into them.
“There will be no translation of the morocco-bound notebook,” they said briefly to Timotej and signalled the men with bells in their ears, who then took Timotej out and escorted him to the courtroom. Day was dawning. Three men were sitting there and they said to him:
“We pronounce you a hostage. People are inclined to spread an imperial secret. And you now know that secret. Sometime, sooner or later, after a hundred years perhaps, or now, someone will appear who will write down the name confided to you only and thus reveal the secret. And there will certainly be those wanting to read the written name and thus disclose the secret. For protection from both, we proclaim you, Timotej Medoš, hostage in case of both events…”
“How can I guarantee that someone who, as you’ve said yourselves, has not even been born yet, will keep the secret?” remarked Timotej.
“That is your problem,” said the judges.
Timotej spent his last evening in the triangular room. But he didn’t sleep. Behind the third door that night he heard someone dragging huge tables, moving and arranging wooden benches, scraping the walls and the floor. When the noise became unbearable, Timotej got up and opened the door to the room. Before him appeared a small pantry three ells in width, and not even that in length. Its own door wouldn’t fit in it. There was a chair in the middle. Empty and covered with cobwebs. And on the cobwebs sat a huge devil, rocking. As soon as it laid eyes on him, the small dog started to growl, at which the devil unbuttoned his pants. From the front of his pants he drew his large hairy tail and pissed on the dog, who ran away yelping. Then the devil suddenly retrieved from somewhere something akin to an “icon”, something like a painting on wood, and presented it to Timotej. The “icon” showed a man of medium height, around seventy, his blue eyes cold with fear, with malnourished nostrils and a small chin. One of those with two kinds of hair: dark-haired in the morning, like their mother, and light-haired in the evening, like their father. He looked as if he had eaten unhealthy bread.
“Do you know who that is?” the devil asked. And answered the question right away:
“That is the man who will one day write down the forbidden name confided to you, the man who will become responsible for your death.”
“I have never seen that man,” Timotej said.
“And you won’t,” said the devil.
“How can the cause of the punishment appear after the execution of the sentence? There is certainly no way of taking us backwards against the flow of time from the effect back towards the cause. For more perfected things cannot be reduced to less perfected ones. And since all evidence lies on that road from the effect towards the cause – nothing in the world can be proved. Including my guilt.”
The devil laughed at that and red light appeared in his mouth. Then he turned the wooden painting around without saying a word and showed the other side. There were countless tiny male and female persons painted on that other side of the “icon”. Dressed in the most diverse styles, they were all in motion. Timotej couldn’t discern their faces.
“Those are the future culprits for your death,” said the devil. “But they’re not all here. There are many of them, and some haven’t even been born yet… They are the ones who will one day read the forbidden name confided to you for safekeeping.”
After that the devil called the dog, who whined and obediently went into the small pantry whose door then closed.
The next day Timotej was put to death. After the sentence had been executed, the reason was read as a warning. It said:
“It is clear that in the future someone will appear who, despite the ban, will write down the name that must not be put on paper, just as it is certain that there will be those others, who will read that name, even though it must not be read. Therefore, the death of Timotej Medoš is based on the law, because he is the hostage who must guarantee that the described deeds will not take place. And all responsibility for his death shall fall on those who in the future violate the bans hereby pronounced.”
Many years after the war in Bosnia, I, the writer of these lines, became interested in the case and in the fate of the lovers from Kotor, Mrs Lilly Dufy and Timotej Medoš. From the daughter of the late Mrs Eva I received old papers and letters, worn telephone tapes, one video tape and a strange, not quite complete story of a triangular room in Bosnia and Timotej’s last days in it. From Miss Yvette I received a mirror that had once stood in Filles du Calvaire street. I examined it photokinetically and, as if through a palimpsest, leafed through all the images that had been deposited in it over the years. Somewhere in the middle I found at first separate and then joint reflections of Mrs Lilly Dify and Timotej Medoš. They looked the same as when they had sunk into the mirror in their day, when the two of them were studying mathematics, just a little paler. Images from the past millennium…
At last, from Miss Yvette I heard the forbidden name. It seems that it was intentionally disclosed to her mother, Mrs Eva, by some unknown person over the telephone. I became interested in it and started looking for that name in literature. I went through every reference book, searched in big libraries, archives and on the internet, but in vain. The forbidden name couldn’t be found in any dictionary, any encyclopaedia; it wasn’t recorded in any genealogy, any history. The name had really not been recorded anywhere. After all, it didn’t even seem like a name. I thought: why shouldn’t I do that which Timotej’s executioners had been so anxious to prevent? Why shouldn’t I reveal the name that the killers wanted to conceal at all costs?
So I wrote and printed a book under the title The Writing Box. In one of the drawers of that box I put the note with the secret name recorded for the first time. After that two birds flew through my dream and only then did I realize what I had done by revealing that password-name for the first time. And why Mrs Eva, who was more cautious than I, had never wanted to do that. By writing down that name I actually became the murderer of Timotej Medoš. A crime is the only thing that can be moved against the stream of time towards our ancestors, for in that stream of time the cause can come after the effect. My offence goes back to the past century to fetch its culprit. I am that long-ago predicted cause of Timotej’s death.
I have an accomplice in that crime. It is you, painted on the other side of the devil’s “icon”. You, who in the book The Writing Box or in the title of this text on the internet have already read the forbidden name: “Cherry with a Gold Pit”.
Translated from the Serbian by Dragan Purešić