Translated from Macedonian by Elizabeta Bakovska
Sisoye was finally made a member of the National’s Academy of Arts and Sciences.
He just needed to deliver his inaugural speech and he would at last be admitted to those hallowed halls.
But on the day this was supposed to take place, something entirely unpredictable happened, as we shall mention in the EPILOGUE
Yet when one knows the end, one should also know the beginning.
The sun had just risen above Mount Petelino and the air was already pulsating with excitement on the morning of the day Sisoye was to hold his speech. It was not yet officially summer and the nights were still brisk: dew gleamed like sugar crystals on the pine trees and on the lawn in front of his building. Satisfied with himself as never before, Sisoye opened his bedroom window wide, breathed deeply, and watched the atoms wandering along Einstein Boulevard and turning into little pine needles, the tiny flies that hovered around the garbage bins, and the droplets of dew that glinted on the grass. One of the main points of his speech was to be that when we die and no longer operate as mass in motion—and we are only in motion because we all have souls—our atoms dissociate, as when you scramble a Rubik’s Cube; they depart and reconfigure elsewhere, for example in the tip of a leaf, in the eye of a woman in love, or as part of a droplet of dew. Who knows what Savko Sirakof will turn into, after he and those other senile academicians from his macabre little clique prevented me from becoming an academician for ten whole years…” Sisoye thought and smiled, winking as if making jokes with an invisible companion, and he tossed his head to make a drooping strand of hair return to place. He patted down said hair in the same motion as if smacking a fly on his forehead, and once again his head resembled that of an intellectual.
Since it was still too early too leave for the Academy, he stayed at the window and calmly inspected his suburb, even looking over to the gardens of the illegal settlement that stretched most of the way up to the huge cross on top of the hill. He also studied the other part of the hill that was sliced like a watermelon by the cement works at its base. The morning was so completely still that he could hear the chatter from the settlement that had no water supply or sewage system, but also the hum of the dewdrops as they ran down pine needles or seeped into the grass.
Apart from atoms, which were his particular professional purview, Sisoye also loved to interpret sounds and signs in space, particularly birds in flight, the barking of dogs—the secret pathways of dreams… He believed that if the front door creaked, or a west-facing window, or if you accidentally broke some household object, someone in the family would die; if a hen crowed like a rooster and peeked in through your door, someone in the family would die; if a raven circled over your house, like that one wheeling over that house there, the one with the stone wall, someone there would soon die; while if a raven cawed in the morning, whoever heard it first would have bad luck, or else there would be some misfortune in his house; owls, ravens, and cuckoos were all birds of ill omen; cuckoos were especially dangerous, particularly their first call in the morning. Sisoye said to himself, looking through a cloud of his condensed breath at the illegal settlement opposite. When a dog howled like a wolf at sunset with its nose pointing toward the sun, this certainly portended evil―and then death, disaster, or other misfortunes were in store; Sisoye trembled at the thought. Just then, the pigeon that visited his windowsill every morning looking for crumbs flew up: “If you dream of a pigeon killed and trussed, someone close to you―or you yourself―will die a sudden death; on the other hand, if you dream of flying, someone close to you will die; while if you dream of someone else flying, diving down from up high and hitting something on the way, that person will certainly die,” Sisoye whispered, as if speaking to the pigeon; he gave a start then and looked around to make sure no one had heard him; he couldn’t have people saying that he, an academician, had started talking to himself. Down below on the sidewalk, in the precious shade of the Japanese cherry trees brought along with their soil from so far away, people were now walking around. They were going to work early, like in the old days, or perhaps they were sleepwalkers with open eyes, dreaming of rusty factory gates. But now Sisoye stepped back from his window and hid in the dark of the room; after a while he reached out to crumble some bread for the pigeon. As he watched the people rushing past his building, apparently knowing where they were going, he remembered that one should always have a bite to eat in the morning before leaving the house: “If someone hears a cuckoo―at almost any time―and if they’re hungry at that moment, someone in their family will die… or, if he lives alone, the person who heard it will die”. Sisoye yawned as he watched a roaming cuckoo trying to land on the top of the pine in front of the building; then he ate up the bread that remained in his hand, left the window, crossed himself ( although he didn’t believe in God, only in atoms), and got dressed. Despite being single now, his apartment was immaculate and orderly, and he always had a vase of flowers and a bowl of fruit on the table. Now there were there bananas and orange in the bowl. As a widower without any children ( although for years he tried unsuccessfully to adopt), he had got used to laying out his clothes for the next day. Right after sunset, as he read the stars and listened to the birds settling down in the trees for the night, he always went over his plans for the next day and what clothes he ought to prepare. Whatever he decided to wear he put out on the clothes hanger in the hall, so in the morning everything was ready―he just needed to get dressed, spruce himself up, put on his hat, take his briefcase (with his papers on the movement of atoms), and leave for the Institute of Strategic Studies… same as every morning for the last forty years. Although the two old barracks where the Institute was located―speckled with jackdaw droppings―were in the same suburb as his apartment, he always used to drive to work. There had been two cars in his life: first a Moskvich, then a Lada. But in the last few years, with gasoline becoming so expensive and Russian cars getting about the same mileage as tractors, he never bothered taking the Lada out of the garage. Now he only used its trunk to store preserves for the winter: he put jars of stewed peaches there so they wouldn’t freeze if the season was too severe and the cold came in through the cracks in the roof. Now he closed the heavy, wooden door of his apartment (his name plaque didn’t say “Academician” yet), checked three times that it was locked, and recorded this in the little notebook that he habitually carried in the left-hand pocket of his coat; he did this to avoid having to leave the bus at the third or fourth stop to go back and ensure that he had indeed locked the front door. Using the notebook for his brilliant ideas was already an everyday habit, but now it had replaced his memory entirely. When he wrote in the notebook that the door was locked he saw that he had noted the night before that his inaugural speech was already in his briefcase, and this nude him smile with satisfaction; he blinked and went down the stairs from the fourth to the first floor. As far as were concerned, at present, Sisoye left for the Academy in good time, ready to create a sensation with the speech he had been preparing for precisely six months.
The Great Hall of the Academy of Arts and Sciences was filling up: Academician Savko Sirakof was not in the audience, as far as Sisoye could tell in a cursory glance from the rostrum: several other elderly members of the Academy were also absent—probably because they wouldn’t be able to find their way home afterward without help. Sisoye consoled himself. The President, Secretary, and a dozen other prominent academicians sat in the front row. Among them, leaning forward with a pendulous belly that wobbled between his knees, was Sisoye’s chief mentor and friend, Ben Metuzalem, and next to him Trepetkof dozed with a plastic bag on his lap. It was getting noisy in the hall since many of the academicians had now seen one another and were exchanging anecdotes about their youth and snippets of biographical information; Sisoye cleared his throat loudly several times, the babble died down, and his speech could finally begin. Now, I happen to know—as I myself prepare this text about Sisoye—that his speech was meant to begin with the assertion that nothing in the universe is more enduring than its atoms. Atoms exist in abundance, of course, and in Sisoye’s view it is quite significant that they arc indestructible—an atom can never be destroyed. Since they are so long-lasting, atoms can move to other locations and traverse thousands of kilometers; they know all the languages in the world and all the secrets of nature. “Every single atom that each of you contains has passed through multiple stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to become part of you,” Sisoye said. “In other words, dear colleagues, all of you, all of us, are only reincarnations, and ephemeral ones at that. When we die, our atoms will dissociate as when you scramble a Rubik’s Cube; they will go off to seek new configurations in other places, becoming part of a leaf, or the eye of a woman, or a tiny droplet of dew. None of us know if we bear within us an atom of a fly that died a thousand years ago or an atom from the pumpkin that the wife of Kosan, the scribe of the Balkanian King Volkashin, baked between her torrid thighs in 1366. “Atoms do not die” , Sisoye stressed. “Half a million atoms placed in a row would only be as wide as a human hair,” he added, unconsciously patting down that disobedient strand on his head. “When we know all this it is easy to grasp that every living creature is the product of a single idea, and it is the fate of all living things to turn into nothing. Eixcept for bacteria…” he added, “…bacteria will still be here when the sun dies; this is their planet, and we are only here because they let us share it with them.” He stood on his ton so the audience could see the handkerchief perching jauntily in the breast pocket of his coat. “Bacteria existed for billions of years without us. but we can’t survive a single day without them,” he continued without looking at his notes under the green lamp on the rostrum. “Why not? Because microbes, for example, provide us with the very air we breathe. Who taught the lion, when it has fever, to treat itself by eating monkey? The atoms of a physician that have become part of the lion, of course! The key to life is to be found in the atoms that dissociate and go off to seek new uses after each of us expire,” Sisoye said, and took a quick gulp of mineral water; it sloshed in his glass and a little splashed out. Someone in the upper rows burst out laughing, but no one joined in, so he cleared his throat and fell silent again. The audience in the hall was largely still attentive; only a few of the older academicians in the center were dozing, shaking their heads as if in disagreement with everything Sisoye said. He went on undeterred: ‘Therefore, dear colleagues, if we are descended from monkeys, and monkeys in turn from bananas, which came first—the chicken or the egg?” Now there were guffaws, as if from nowhere; the upholstered chairs in the hall creaked and alt the birds that had been sitting on the frosted-glass dome above them suddenly took flight. Since Sisoye had been studying the theses of his inaugural speech for years, he knew with certainty that something like this would happen when he reached that sentence, so he made a calculated pause; taking another sip of the mineral water that by now had gone flat, and, although the hubbub had not quite subsided, he added calmly: “If monkeys are descended from bananas, then we ourselves are very closely related lo fruit, and, therefore to vegetables as well. It is important to note that half of the chemical functions that take place in a banana are identical to those in a human being. This can be readily verified by simple laboratory analysis, and proves that all life is one or rather that all the life in the universe is based on a single idea, whoever might haw originated it, ” he concluded and coughed into the white handkerchief from his breast pocket. Many people in the audience thought he had finished, and there was some muffled applause, but Sisoye picked up his folder, took two steps to the left of the rostrum, and surveyed the hall with a quick, cynical glance: “All of you sitting on chairs are actually not sitting on them but floating about one hundred millionth of a centimeter above them—your electrons and those of the chair fiercely resist any greater intimacy!” he announced. And just at that moment it seemed that the gap between the chairs and the academicians’ bottoms began to grow and the academicians started to float first above their seats, then over the rows where they had been sitting, ascending higher and higher; they passed through the square concrete frame of the ceiling, which the frosted-glass dome rested on, rose even higher, penetrated the glass, and disappeared like shadows into the cloudy sky above the Academy.
Academician Sisoye opened his eyes and was about to thank his audience, but there was no one in the Hall. He could hear only a strange chuckling in the second row, somewhere on the right, behind the ornately carved column. Perplexed by the emptiness of the hall, Sisoye headed toward the door on the left, turned around…and then saw him, leaning back in the upholstered chair behind the column, wiping his thick glasses with his necktie, and laughing sweetly—his greatest antagonist, Academician Savko Sirakof. He is as indestructible as atoms, Sisoye thought.
After Sisoye’s death, the Institute of Strategic Studies at the Academy entrusted me to look after the estate of our colleague, who, unfortunately, as you know, never managed to give his inaugural speech. Among the notes that I found in the sandal box under his dining-room table I discovered a short letter that amounted to his will: it stipulated that his mortal remains be buried in his native region, in the Sveta Petka Monastery, and that “my coffin as well as the cushion holding my medals and decorations be taken to the specified eternal resting place on Uncle Erdo’s handcart.” The investigating magistrate’s report states that Sisoye died while eating a banana, but the autopsy confirmed that cause of death was acute myocardial infarction—in other words, a heart attack. The records confirm that his inaugural speech lay on the table in front of him, as well as a vase, a bowl containing two bananas and one orange, and a brief story he had written about his oration, which shows that he had been going over the event in his mind up until his final moments. His only error was that be wrote that I would be sitting in the second row behind the ornately carved column on stage right. I was actually sitting in the front row between Academicians Ben Metuzalem and Trepetkof; the latter asked jokingly several times if making people wail was inherent to the human condition or was simply part of our national will toward self-destruction. By then the hall was full and the audience was waiting patiently for Sisoye’s inauguration to begin—but our fellow academician was already dead.
In compiling this text I used Sisoye’s speech and the notes found in his apartment; I often referred to Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, underlined here and there with a yellow pencil, as well as the books that stood neatly arranged in two columns of ten each on Sisoye’s desk in his kitchen. I noted that he had been an avid reader of Harry James Cargas, Dion Scott-Kakures, Frederick Feiré, Ronald Miller, and Richard Popkin; my own book on the ethical aspects of aesthetics was also there, among many others.
Now at the end—or is it perhaps the beginning?—I would like to thank my colleagues at the Institute of Strategic Studies, who read my work even at the manuscript stage and made useful suggestions. Without them, this tort would not be what it is. I would also like to thank my loving, patient, and incomparable wife Savka Sirakof, who encouraged me to persevere and complete this project. Sincere gratitude to Klement in Ohrid, the monks from the Sveta Petka Monastery, and to Uncle Erdo for lending me his handcart, in which I took our deceased colleague to his grave at such an ungodly hour. And of course many thanks to you as well, because you are paying attention to me as though I exist, though I know I don’t.
About the author:
Blaze Minevski (1961, Macedonia) is the author of the novels “Me, Lenin and Mickey Mouse”, “We Should Have Taken a Photo before We Started Hating Each Other”, ”A Story about a Third Party, “The Mark” and ”The Performers”. The novel ” The Mark” in 2007 won the award “Stale Popov” for the best book of prose, given by the Macedonian Writers’ Society, the award “Novel of the year” given by the newspaper ‟Utrinski Vesnik” and the award ”13th of November” given by the City of Skopje.