21 October 2012

The Three-Arched Bridge

by Ismail Kadare

Chapter 31

Throughout the following days he was always seeking me out, and as soon as he found me he would do what he could to bring the conversation around to the immurement of the bride. He spoke of it as if it were an event that had happened two weeks before, and as if he was charged with its investigation. Gradually he involved me too. For hours on end I could think of nothing but a semidesert place under a scorching sun, where three workmen kept building walls that could never be finished. As we talked about the legend, we carefully analyzed it strand by strand, trying to account for its darker sides and to establish a logical link between its contradictory parts.

He asked me which of the three brides had children, and whether perhaps the youngest had none, as was easy to believe, and whether this was the reason why she was the one who was sacrificed.  But I explained to him that all three had children, and I even apologized for not telling him the end of the story, in which the young wife who was immured begged her murderers (I used the actual word) to leave one breast outside the wall, so that even after her death she could suckle her child.  He nearly lost his temper at my omission, shaking his finger almost threateningly at me, and told me not to do such a thing ever again.  Because we were both of us at the time steeped in a strange world, his threat made no impression on me, although this is not something that I could normally forgive anyone.  At this point I also told him about the curse that the sacrificed wife lays on the stonework in the two famous lines:
                                                   O tremble, wall of stone,
                                                   As I tremble in this tomb!
"This can be taken in a technical way," he butted in.  "Because . . . at least bridges . . . every bridge in a way sways all the time."

This interjection on his part made no particular impression on me, but when a little later he said that immuring a person in fact weakens a structure, I interrupted:

"Tell me, please, whether you are a collector of tales or a builder."

"Oh," he said.  "I'm in no way a builder, but I've learned something about the subject from working alongside builders.  In fact, all great building works resemble crimes, and vice versa, crimes resemble . . ."  He laughed.  "For me, there is no difference between them.  Whenever I find myself in front of columns I can clearly see blood spattering the marble, and the  victim might replace a cathedral."

Whenever he left I felt dumbfounded.

One day he knocked before dawn to tell me something new that he had thought of during the night.  I was still sleepy and could barely take in what he said.  Finally I understood.  He was saying that in his opinion the youngest brother too must have told his wife everything on that unforgettable night before the sacrifice.

"How is that possible?" I said. "How could a young woman then go to the masons knowing the fate that awaited her?"

"I knew you would say that," he said.  "But I have thought of everything."  He moved closer to me.  "Listen to this.  The youngest wife agreed to be sacrificed voluntarily, because her sisters-in-law and mother-in-law had made life hell for her."

"Hmm," I said.  "Rather strange."

"There is nothing strange about it," he went on.  "Between a daily hell and immurement, she chose the latter.  Do you know what a quarrel among sisters-in-law means?  Ah, I'm sorry, you're a monk."

"But what about him?" I asked.  "What do you think about his attitude?"


"Her husband's."

"I have thought long and hard about that too.  No doubt he knew that she suffered but never imagined that matters could be so bad as to drive her to self-destruction.  So the next day, when he saw hes own wife arrive carrying the basket of food, his blood must have frozen.  What do you think?"

"I don't know what to say," I replied.  "Perhaps you are right, but perhaps it wasn't like that at all."

I was in fact certain that it had not been like that.

Whenever he came to see me, he had some new explanation.  Once he told me that the youngest brother had perhaps not told his wife the secret, not out of a desire to keep the besa with his brothers, but because he did not love his wife and had found a way to get rid of her.   Another time he suggested that perhaps the three brothers had colluded among themselves to kill the youngest wife and the whole fiction that the walls demanded a sacrifice was just a way of justifying the murder.  All his interpretations of the legend were founded on baseness, betrayal, and disloyalty, and whenever he left I would be annoyed with myself for having listened ot him.  When he departed for the last time, he had sown the seed of doubt over not only the behavior of the three mason brothers and the two sisters-in-law but also that of the mother-in-law, who in his view certainly took part in the oath, and even that of the sacrificed bride herself.  After he had left, after slinging mud at everything, not sparing even the dead, I decided I would tell him that he was free to think what he liked, but I had no desire to hear any more of his perverted speculations.  

I waited for him the next day, to tell him that his efforts to throw mud at this old tragedy were useless, because the true kernel of the legend was the idea that all labor, and every major task, requires some kind of sacrifice, and that this magnificent idea is embodied in the mythologies of many people. What was new, and peculiar to the ballad of the Balkan peoples, was that the sacrifice was not connected with the outbreak of war or some march, nor even a religious rite, but concerned a wall, a work of construction.  And this can perhaps be explained by the fact that the first inhabitants of these territories, the Pelasgians, were the first masons in the world as the ancient Greek chronicles themselves admit.

I wanted to say that in truth the drops of blood in the legend were nothing but streams of sweat, but we know that sweat is a kind of humble nameless servant in comparison with blood, and therefore nobody has devoted songs and ballads to it.  So it can be considered normal in a song to represent a river of sweat with a few drops of blood.  It is of course obvious that alongside his sweat every man sacrifices something of himself, like th youngest brother, who sacrificed his own happiness.

I could hardly wait to tell him these and other ideas, but just when I had made up my mind to speak out, he disappeared.  From that time on, I never saw him again.  

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