Caesarean Cut: Macedonian Short Stories
Ermis Lafazanovski: Mace
In my previous life I was a puppeteer.
I learned the trade in Constantinople; and in Konje at Shakir Bey’s, Aga Sakaoglu’s, and Ibrahim Mensur’s; and in Epirus at the place of Barbajanis Barahalis from Calamante; and from Ilija Jorgos of the Peloponnesus. He acquired new knowledge from the great masters André de Sauvignon from France and Bartholomeus Cassa from Ragusa, who taught for a short time in the vicinity of the Aegean Sea.
I learned to master all the fundamental and more advanced characters: from those of Karagjos, Hazivat, and Nastradin Bey, to those of Molière.
Immediately after acquiring the title of master, satisfied with myself but with unrest in my heart after five years of studying, I returned home to Skopje, one evening at the end of May, 1855.
They awaited me with song and dance: my poor father Pavle, my mother Panda, my beautiful fiancée Angelina, and neighborhood friends. Nobody knew what kind of a trade I had learned, not even my father, who had cleaned up the old shed facing the main street, and he had opened up a door and a window, converting it into a shop for me.
Poor father! He thought I had become a saddler, a slipper-maker, a tailor, a boza vendor, a tinsmith, or maybe a stove-maker, comb-maker, furrier, or even a barrel maker. Why would he suspect that I had not obeyed him after he sold half of his property for my education?
Neither did my mother suspect: looking at the heavy new cases and boxes I took down from the carriage, she told me that everything was ready for the wedding, which would take place, of course, before I started earning money through my trade. And I didn’t say a word about my trade, so as not to disappoint them.
But not a day had passed before everybody found out about it – father was terribly disappointed – and it was, according to others, very indecent, a result of my propensity for pranks.
Everything happened on our wedding night, when the beautiful Angelina and I were to go to bed for the first time. After she lifted the covers to lie beside me, she screamed at the top of her lungs because, instead of me, she saw the Black Arab himself suddenly getting up on his behind, waving his arms feverishly, then reaching out to grab her.
Poor Angelina: the beauty of her face disappeared in a second, and she fainted. Shaking with laughter, I appeared from under the bed, holding in my hands the wires and sticks with which I manipulated the life of the Black Arab, and I saw it was not a laughing matter.
Because of Angelina’s screams before she fainted, our whole household gathered in the room: and so my wedding night was a failure! And I had just wanted to make her laugh a bit.
It didn’t take much for Dad to figure out what “trade” I was in, and when he did, he started plucking out his hair, calling me the son of Satan, someone who had spent the money of his ancestors on puppets instead of on acquiring a trade. After that he stopped talking to me. I tried in vain to convince him that what I did was also a trade, one even better than others.
Mom and Angelina cried for several days, and then they calmed down.
The rumors that I had become a puppeteer spread around Skopje much faster than the news that some Beline or Peline had come to Bitola from France in order teach people with an interest in all languages, including that of snakes.
Children from the surrounding neighborhoods came – first from those nearby and then from neighborhoods more remote – and they watched me through the small window as I painted my puppets, sewed their clothes, caps, and shoes, and fastened strings to them, lifting them to their feet and moving them left and right.
I started fashioning puppets after the characters of street beggars, local bakers, neighboring Jews, Skopje braggarts, well known misers…
In the meantime my father gradually but noticeably went gray and cursed me, and once he tried to burn down the shed, together with me and my puppets, though I still had not put on a single show.
My first show was called “Karagjozo Tricks the Peasants,” and it was accompanied by the music of the blind accordionist Nikephorus: a dozen people were present. Then there were “Money Can’t Buy Happiness,” “Cane’s Battle with the Dragon,” and “Done Pockov and Mara Kamara.”
The audiences kept growing in number and in the level of their satisfaction, and I was more and more popular, before I staged “Mace” – a comic allegory without an intermission. I had already sold some fifty tickets.
My father still could not give his assent to my profession, though I brought money home and gave it to him. However, my mother and Angelina not only went along, but they also started sewing clothes for my shows. They were obviously very pleased. While I was involved in my work, I tried to breathe some life into my puppets, trying to make them as real as possible, getting them to think and talk like people in the neighborhood.
Through them, I wanted to instruct everybody who watched, to get them to see something else in what they were looking at.
One day my proud father came to see me, in the already expanded shed. He stood among Angelina, my mother, and me, showing me the likeness of his enemy, Alija the janissary, made of wood and dressed in rags: he had a big nose and long ears. We all smiled, and that is how we reconciled.
It came about that an Austrian officer, perhaps even a general—an Eisenblatt—, because he could find no other entertainment, decided to attend the performance “Mace,” disguised as a poor peasant travelling to see his brother in Constantinople. He was not pleased; in fact, he protested personally.
I had heard that he was an officer holding secret meetings with east and west European diplomats over certain spheres of influence, but I found out the truth much later, after the damage had been done.
The show “Mace” was the most difficult act, because the puppets and props were all natural size.
The story itself is very simple and folksy: a poor young girl (this young girl was a puppet modeled after Angelina) is enclosed in a tower, imprisoned by a seven-headed dragon, each of whose heads speaks a different language. The brave hero (in my likeness) goes off to rescue her, whacks the dragonheads one after another with a great mace, while it screams for help in French, English, German, Italian, Greek, Bulgarian, and Turkish. The hero keeps calling out, “Die! Damn you!”
Throughout the show, Nikephorus played exciting, fast dances on his accordion, and at the end, when the last head falls, for some reason he played “Drumbeats in the Village Center,” probably because it is joyful.
Around a hundred people, from all of Skopje, were present at the show, and my father checked the tickets.
Everybody laughed hard because of the way the mace did slammed the dragonheads, but immediately after the show Eisenblatt came and said he wanted to talk to me personally.
My father and I, after everybody had left, took him to a room with windows opened wide, and in bad Turkish he told us that he understood very well what we intended to say with the show and that he would report us to the authorities unless we immediately stopped performing it, because it stirred up national hatred and xenophobia, which were very bad. He even said that the next morning he would come with his assistants, he would knock down the house and confiscate all of our puppets unless we did what he said.
My father and I looked at each other only once, but it was enough for us to understand each other.
The next morning Turkish soldiers came to our house – ten of them – and one of them pulled us aside and said that a very important person had been seen for the last time the previous night at our home. Since then there had been no trace of him. My dad and I defended ourselves by claiming that those who said they saw him must have seen a puppet that looked just like the person they were looking for, that they were mistaken.
They searched the whole house but didn’t find the person they were seeking.
The mace we used in the show looked somewhat suspicious to them, but they didn’t pick it up. If they had done so, they might have noticed blood on it.
They straightened their shoulders and left, cursing those who had given them bad information.
Thus, my father and I finally drew close to each other, thanks to my trade and our quiet happiness over our great success, and after the disappearance of Eisenblatt, the puppet show “Mace” could be performed many more times, even if secretly.