Alban Gurbardhi lay with his face pressed into the earth. He eased his breath out through pursed lips as he tried to stifle any sound he might make. It seemed his heartbeat would be heard across the valley as it pounded in his ears. An angry, black beetle marched across the thyme-grass centimetres from his nose. He glanced at Ervin, who lay in against the crumbling stone wall, and saw his eyes darting.
‘Sssst … They are near here. We’ll get them,’ Alban heard one of the men say in a low voice. ‘Keep looking. Óchi … over there.’ Ervin lifted a finger to his lips and gestured with his palm forwards to stay put. Alban blinked and thought. They should have waited at the last Albanian village for the full cover of darkness before entering Greece. He remembered Ervin saying he’d come this way many times before and not to worry. The Greek border guards were less active these days – they were lazy. As they’d taken the track up from the old Communist hut at dusk, they’d still been visible in the open from lookout points in the woods to the east. That’s why they’d been spotted. He glared at his friend: older, yes, but wiser? Stones ground underfoot as one of the policemen trod close to the other side of the wall. Alban waited for a hand or something worse to strike down on him. He flinched and screwed up his eyes, bracing himself, and a tear welled out of one corner. Oh, Lord … let us pass, he pleaded in his mind.
The sounds of shuffling over fallen branches and rocks moved away. Alban waited. He raised his body slowly with his hands and slid his feet under him. He glanced at Ervin, who nodded, and eased his head over the top of the wall. The two men were moving up into the pine trees around five metres away. Alban saw their dark blue T-shirts and black military boots. The taller of the two looked a strikingly muscular and athletic man. His hair was dark and razor-cut close in at the sides with a quiff on top. He held a fat, black pistol in his left hand and gestured into the woods with it as they separated.
Alban nodded and Ervin indicated with a flick of his head that they should move downwards and to the east. He took his old flour sack of possessions in his grip and sidled away with his remaining limbs keeping low. He scrambled under the canopy of pine branches with Ervin behind him, and out into a firebreak that ran down towards the lake in a wide avenue. Ahead of him the sun was like a blood orange, and the spurs of land that fell down to the shore of Little Prespa Lake were dark green or black in shadow. To his west were the ragged ridgelines of Albania and to the north the high peaks of Macedonia. Below him towards Agios Achillios island the waters glinted rose-coloured as a single motorboat left folds in the water’s surface and a cloud of swallows passed over it. A faint noise like a squawking hiccup rose up. He had heard pelicans were down there.
They came to an intersecting track and Alban followed Ervin as he took a right turn. He fell in behind him as he quickened his pace. It was an old pack-mule route cluttered with rocks and hard going underfoot, but he knew they must try to put some distance between them and the border guards. He watched his friend’s familiar lope of a stride, and noted that he always seemed to duck his head when he moved, as if he were dodging punches. Alban turned around to see if the track behind was clear. His foot scuffed a stone and he stumbled forwards onto his side.
‘Ssshhh … budalla,’ hissed Ervin as he stepped back and lifted him by the arm. When he was upright, Alban yanked it back and glared again at him. He walked briskly for the next hour close behind him, listening as the trees rose around them and the darkness between them deepened. At one point they came upon a wolf cub lying alone on its side at the track’s edge. Its breathing was shallow and rapid. Alban squatted down beside it and gently lifted its head.
‘Oh, how bad,’ he whispered to Ervin. A little blood from its mouth came off on his fingers. He remembered his uncle Skender and the argument they’d had: the shock and the hurt when Skender struck him across the mouth forwards and backwards. He loved Skender. It was the raki: he drank too much of it. Well, he was nineteen now, not fifteen, and old enough to make his own decisions. He wanted to take the cub and nurse it. He brushed a tear from his cheek, partly for Skender, and left it.
The track came to an arched, stone bridge just wide enough for a cart to cross, and Alban stopped to peer over the side. The sound of trickling water came up from the ravine where a cluster of fireflies were gyrating around each other.
‘Ervin, shall we stop a little? What time is it?’ he asked quietly.
‘Let’s get across that clearing … by the edge of those trees. It’s gone ten.’ They passed a circle of blackened stones that lay around the charred remains of branches, plastic bags and empty Tirana Beer cans. ‘Albanians … always leave the local picnic spots clean when they leave. Why don’t they mark the route with arrows so the Greeks know where to wait for us?’ said Ervin with disgust. Alban slumped down on the grass by him and lay on his back.
‘Hey! Ervin, that was close. I thought you’d done this before?’ said Alban. Ervin looked away, avoiding the embarrassment of an acknowledgement, thought Alban. ‘So, what are the Greeks like?’ he continued. ‘Do they cook their pilaf like us?’
‘You’ll see them soon enough,’ said Ervin. ‘There are good and bad ones … the army are the worst. They could shoot you in these parts in the early years. They caught a group of Albanians once and made them all climb up a tree. Then they cut it down – laughing – as they fell through the branches, like it was sport.’ He then smiled and wiggled his finger as if it was swimming through water. ‘They like their pilaf with seafood in it. Prawns.’
Alban felt a coldness entering him despite the warmth of the June night. He drew his sack closer and untied the string around its neck. He lifted out a jar of village cherries in syrup with a spoon, and some sardines fried in flour and wrapped in newspaper his mother had cooked yesterday. Then he pulled out a roll of plastic sheeting for sleeping under. Lastly, he took out his best training shoes. They were white with a black tick on the side. He buffed them with the edge of his T-shirt while he ate a little.
‘They are originals, not Turkish,’ he snapped as he noticed Ervin’s sceptical look. They were like his cousin Shpetim used to wear. They would help him make a good impression on Greek employers, he thought. He’d find work, despite the crisis. He would show them that he was a good worker too. He could put his hand to many things: plastering, picking peaches – he even knew a little about plumbing. He picked up a tiny, tin compass that had rolled out onto the ground. It had the flag of Great Britain on the back and the white wheel of the London Eye on its face. He tapped it and noted where the needle pointed and then where south-east was, deeper into Greece, where the distant silhouette of a watchtower could be seen just above the treeline. ‘Want some fish?’ he said and passed the sardines over to Ervin as he stuffed the other items back inside.
It was then that Alban heard two different sounds almost at the same time. In the corner of the clearing a branch snapped. Two round eyes, low to the ground, bounded towards the plastic bags and beer cans, and the form of a large brown bear took shape in the darkness. The bear stopped when it saw them and gave a long, whining growl. Heavy running footsteps and the electronic hiss of a two-way radio came from the stone bridge. Ervin was staring wide-eyed back at Alban. Seconds later, the muscular policeman climbed up on the far edge of the clearing. The bear growled at him and rose up on its hind legs before turning and bolting back into the undergrowth. The policeman fell back out of sight.
Alban grasped his sack and plunged into the pine trees until the branches struck his face and knocked him onto his back. Ervin suddenly stood over him looking down.
‘Come on!’ he shouted. ‘Quickly, get going.’ Ervin lifted him by the shoulders. Alban turned and began scrambling forwards on all fours dragging his sack along with him. He could feel Ervin at his heels bumping into him. The stones, twigs and pine cones scratched his forearms and knees as he charged under the tightly interwoven lower branches. He coughed and gasped for breath as the dust came up into his face. He felt two hands grasp his ankles and he spun over to see Ervin being dragged backwards, his hold now released on him.
‘Go – just go. Keep going,’ shouted Ervin. He saw his friend’s eyes widen as his arms flailed and grasped at the rows of trunks. He heard him cry out in pain. Alban turned to look ahead of him, and set off like some spooked forest creature, on and on until he tumbled out of the far edge and down a bank. He got to his feet and sprinted along a narrow track, up onto a rocky knoll, and jumped down into a cleft between two boulders to hide. As his panting for breath began to ease, he wiped the tears and dirt from his cheek. He listened. It was quiet. He waited and could hear no one in pursuit. He lowered his head into his hands and heaved out two sobs. Oh, Uncle Skender, he thought to himself, what have I done?
There was little noise around him except the hum of cicadas and the far-away trickle of water. Then carrying across the still night he heard a voice shout something in Greek and a terrible shriek of pain, and fragments of phrases: ‘No, no … please … stop … don’t … dog … you dog.’ He listened again. Ervin cried out. Alban bit his hand as he heard it and closed his eyes. He let his head hang and then he drew his hand under his nose to clean it. He lifted his face slowly, rose out of the rocky cleft and peered around. There was no one. He threw his sack over his shoulder and trod down the knoll. He walked cautiously back in the direction he had come until he found the place where he had tumbled out of the pine trees. He moved past it looking to see where the treeline went, and kept to it hoping he might circle back close to the clearing where they had been. Ten minutes later, he was following the ravine back upstream until he could make out the arch of the stone bridge ahead of him. The sound of Ervin screaming and pleading had grown louder. He winced. He crawled closer on his front up a bank and set aside his sack. He peered over the edge of the clearing and he saw his friend being held by his shirt at the neck. The policeman flung him down and kicked him. Ervin moaned and rolled over.
Sliding back down lower, Alban closed his eyes. He thought about what he could do. He opened them and looked at his hands. They were trembling. He saw a broken branch by his side. It looked thick but dry and rotten. He stretched his hand towards it, and with the tips of his fingers pulled it closer and into his palm. He eased himself onto his back and began to breathe deeply. He saw his breath steam rise high in gusts. He looked up at the millions of stars in the clear Balkan night above him. In his field of vision the policeman suddenly entered and stood looking down on him. For a split second he saw his broad, muscular shoulders, his hair sheared close across his temples, and his eyes – yet one was odd. In fear and panic he brought the branch up into the man’s face and it smashed there into pieces. The man groped at his eyes and tumbled down the bank.
Alban got to his feet, grabbed his sack and ran towards Ervin. He pulled him up off the ground and looked at his face. It was dark and blood-sticky.
‘Hey, friend. Are you coming with me to Greece?’ he shouted. A grin broke across Ervin’s dazed face. Alban clutched his shirt and dragged him forwards, stumbling over the clearing. They tore down the edge of the treeline together. Soon they were running parallel to the ravine. Alban’s sack caught a branch and was snagged from his hand. He stopped to retrieve it. He looked back. The policeman was up now and coming.
They came to a rocky hillock and bounded up it like young goats and then down the other side into a hedge of rosehip bushes. Ervin waded through them ahead lifting the long fronds aside so that they would not snap back on him. Alban, though, felt the thorns of one cut into the flesh of his shoulder and he cried out. They tumbled out of the other side onto the grass and crawled forward until they came to the edge of the land. Alban looked down. Below them was an almost sheer bank of earth falling to the rocky bed of the stream perhaps fifty metres down. He looked out over the mountains before them. The moonlight caught a row of wind turbines on a distant ridgeline. He could smell Ervin’s sweat and blood. He thought he heard the bear growl far away, but he was sure he heard a man grunt and spit. He turned to look behind them. On the top of the hillock the policeman stood against the stars. He reached his hand down to the holster on his thigh and drew out the fat, black pistol.
‘You little dogs!’ he shouted. He mounted it across his right forearm with his left hand. Alban grabbed his friend’s arm and dragged him over the edge as two shots cracked out and echoed along the ravine.