Some of the mortar comes loose when Gezim sits down on the ledge of a dried-up water well in the courtyard of the Patriarchal Monastery of Peć. He pushes his sunglasses over his head to keep his brown, curly locks out of his eyes. With the roar of the clear water of the Peć Bistrica River not far away, he looks up and sees that the overhanging tree branches have already begun their deciduous duties.
A gust of wind sweeps down from the mountains behind the monastery, rustling the leaves on the lawn. Gezim zips up his black skiing jacket and silently thanks god for the invention of fleece inner lining. He rubs his hands over his thighs, interlocks his fingers to save some of the heat. Eyes watering from the cold air, he puts on his sunglasses again. The ledge cracks further, splitting the stone wall underneath Gezim’s seventy-five kilograms, but all he feels is the cold wind on his face, and all he hears is the howling wind that picks up and carries his girlfriend’s voice as she exits the monastery.
Majlinda and Gezim have been in an on-off relationship for almost two years, but things have been steady for at least five months now. She is a professional photographer on assignment in Kosovo for the Albanian magazine, Soul Adventures. When she asked Gezim if he would like to join her, he didn’t hesitate to request four years’ accrued annual leave at the IT company he manages in Tirana. They have been on the road for more than a month.
Majlinda exchanges a few pleasantries with a heavy-set monk, who is sweeping up autumn leaves into a pile on the paving near the front entrance. She points to the camera around her neck and explains what she is doing here, asks for permission to take a few photos of him going about his chores. The monk doesn’t like this idea: he shakes his head, puts the broom against the wall, and walks towards one of the church’s side entrances. His shadow looks like an extension of his long, black robes over the uneven paving stones. With his back to her, Majlinda takes the snap as he enters. She checks the image on the digital screen, looks over to where Gezim sits, and gives him the thumbs up: ‘great shot’.
Gezim points at his watch. “You have to meet the guide in half-an-hour. What’s his name again?”
“Aleks. Just a few more pics.”
“All right. Just a reminder – as you requested.”
“Thanks.” Majlinda is already down on one knee, pointing the lens upwards. She gets in a few shots of the cross on the highest dome against the crisp blue sky. The trees in yellows and oranges on the mountains behind the dark red exterior of the monastery create the perfect background. “Two minutes, honey. The light is perfect this time of the morning.”
“Okay. It’s your assignment.” Gezim zooms in on the map on his smartphone:
City of Peć
Patriarchal Monastery of Peć (you are here)
Tourist Information Centre
“There you are, you beauty,” he says to himself and runs a finger over the yellow line that is the M9, which will take them into the heart of the canyon. He closes the map and opens the photos folder.
Might as well go through these and delete all the duds. Majlinda’s two minutes could easily turn into twenty.
He opens the folder named Mirusha Park. The couple spent a few days there last week. The first few pictures are of them in a cave called the Great Church. Gezim flinches at the photo. His acne has flared up again over the last six weeks, and his face looks like a red lollipop compared to his girlfriend’s, whose only blemish is a Cindy Crawford-like beauty spot. Her hair is slightly lighter than his, but straight. She looks tiny next to his lanky frame, but then again, he is slightly over two metres tall.
Gezim decides to keep only the photos of Majlinda in the cave and the ones where his face is hidden – a dive off the cliffs into one of the karst lakes, and a few of the couple swimming or splashing about in some of the park’s numerous waterfalls.
“Hey, Gezim, look at this!”
Her boyfriend looks up and sees that a fairly strong whirlwind has picked up the pile of leaves near the entrance. Majlinda stands in the middle of the twirling debris, recording it. She lets out a shriek of excitement as the leaves whack against her khaki camouflage trousers and ski jacket. The wind picks up great speed and moves towards the side entrance, slowly dragging her with it.
“You might want to step out of it now, Maj. It’s quite strong.”
“No way. This is magic,” she replies.
Gezim watches as the whirling leaves close in, almost covering her. Concerned, he gets up and takes a few steps forward. The sudden shift of weight causes the well wall to give a final crack. It crumbles and collapses in on itself. Gezim doesn’t hear or see this; he is sprinting towards Majlinda whose initial shouts of fascination with the whirlwind has transmuted into cries of horror.
The dry leaf stems slash at any part of exposed skin. She lets go of the camera and holds up her hands in front of her face for protection. Within a second they, too, are covered in hundreds of tiny cuts.
Drunk with confusion and dust clouding her vision, Majlinda reaches out with one hand in the direction she thinks Gezim’s voice is coming from.
“Maj, Maj, Maj.” Now the voice is behind her.
“Maj, Maj.” To her left.
“Maj.” From somewhere above.
She turns around, twists her ankle on a loose paving stone, and falls. She hits the ground face first at an awkward, sideways angle. Her vision doubles when Gezim picks her up holds and her in his arms. Over his shoulder, Majlinda sees the whirlwind moving across the lawn until it reaches the old well, its wall above the ground whole again. Here the leaves take on a female shape. Majlinda blinks. The wind dies down and scatters the leaves.
“Jesus. Are you all right?” Gezim asks. “You are hurt. Let’s get you to the car.”
Majlinda groans a response.
Gezim stands in front of Majlinda, who sits on the open tailgate of Soul Adventures’ SUV. She fidgets with the first-aid kit strap while he cleans up her face.
“There. Almost done.”
“Good. It should.” He takes a clean ball of cotton wool and soaks it in rubbing alcohol.
“Hold still. It’s the grazing where you hit the ground. That’s going to leave a mark.”
He applies some antiseptic cream and tapes a square piece of gauze over the wound. “Give me your hands.”
“I’ll do it on the way to the tourist centre. We’re late.”
Gezim takes a step back. “What was that back there?”
“That was me being a fool, Gezim. Don’t mess with nature. Lesson learned.” Her bottom lip trembles. Majlinda doesn’t want to mention the voices, and she certainly doesn’t want to talk about the leaf-shaped woman. Having been diagnosed as a schizophrenic shortly after her twenty-second birthday five years ago, treatment has been a long and painful road. “I need a moment. Turn the vehicle around. I’ll meet you at the gate.”
“What about your ankle? You’re limping.”
“I’m fine. Those anti-inflammatories are starting to kick in already.”
Gezim reaches into his pocket and takes out a granola bar. “Want some?”
She grabs a bottle of drinking water from the back of the truck and hobbles away, reaches inside her jacket and unzips one of the pockets. Double-checking that Gezim can’t see her, she takes out two red-and-black capsules and swallows them with a swig of water.
“Hi, Aleks. This Majlinda from Soul Adventures. I’m supposed to have met you twenty minutes ago … Yes, we’re fine. We had a minor incident. Yes, we’re on the way. Really? Oh. Seems to be one of those days, huh? Do you need a hand? Are you sure? Okay. Give me a call if something else comes up. Great. Thank you. See you at twelve.”
“What did he say?”
“He’ll be a couple of hours late – car trouble.”
“That works in our favour. Would you like a bite to eat?”
“Yes, I … erm—” Majlinda’s voice trails off. Her body grows cold with anxiety when she realises that she took her medication on an empty stomach. Not only that, she took it after taking the anti-inflammatories.
“Maj, Maj, Maj.”
She looks at Gezim who hasn’t spoken – he is still waiting for a response from her. It feels and sounds as if she is in the whirlwind again. The voices come from all directions.
“Maj, Maj, Maj.”
She snaps out of it. Gezim has one hand on her leg. “Maj, are you all right? Let’s get you to a doctor. You might be concussed.”
“No.” Too loud – a guilty ‘no’ because … They could take a blood sample or you’ll have to fill in some form and tell what medication you’re on and then Gezim will know that you’re a fucking schizo and leave you. Forever. “Sorry, I was just thinking about my mother.” A lie she’s told to so many different people since her diagnosis; a convenient lie – because nothing packs a punch like grief for a dead mother.
The look on Gezim’s face is one of sympathy. He nods slowly. “I understand. If you change your mind, there’s a clinic on the edge of town.”
“Maybe after we meet with the guide,” she replies. “I think I’m just exhausted.”
“There.” Gezim points to a sign over a small building next to a petrol station. “The Rugova Valley Steakhou—.”
Maj, Maj, Maj. Who is this fucking dickhead you’re going out with, heh? If he is so concerned about your health, then why the hell doesn’t he insist on taking you to the doctor.
“I’m starving,” Gezim says.
Starving? Starving! Are you fucking kidding me? Maj, this guy is a complete fuckup. And what was that shit at the monastery with the granola bar? Only a shrug of the shoulders and an ‘okay’ when you declined a piece. Really? It sounded to me like an ‘okay, more for me, motherfucker.’
“This is just what the doctor ordered.” Gezim pulls into the parking lot.
Ha! See? ‘Just what the doctor ordered.’ My fucking god. All he thinks about is himself and his stomach. Poor, poor boy. Get out of this relationship, and fast, Maj.
“Shut up!” Majlinda shouts.
It is fortunate that the parking area is almost vacant because Gezim gets a fright and jerks the steering wheel. He brakes hard and almost drives into two touring motorcycles near the entrance.
“What did I say?” Gezim asks, lips pallid.
Majlinda grabs her camera and rushes inside because she is embarrassed. Also, she thinks that if she eats soon enough, it will lessen the effects of medication on her psyche. Physically, she knows this is out of the question because the stomach cramps start when she pulls open the restaurant door.
Gezim parks up next to the bikes. He sits for a moment and drums his fingers on the steering wheel. “Jesus. It always starts like this,” he whispers to himself. “First, she gets annoyed at me for no reason, and she refuses to give me one. She stops speaking to me for days, weeks – ignores my calls, forces me to break up with her. A few weeks down the track she calls ‘I’m sorry.’ This time I’m not going to rush back to her and ask what’s wrong. I will ignore the situation until she is ready to speak.”
He gets out and hangs around outside a few minutes longer, to give Majlinda some time to settle down. He can feel her eyes on his back, but he doesn’t turn around. Usually he loses his temper in these situations – rushes into it like an angry bull towards a matador. Not this time. Let her think about it. Gezim hunches and inspects the bikes’ engines, takes a few pictures.
The motorcycle riders walk out of the restaurant as Gezim gets up. They are two women dressed in matching, white riding outfits with neon green lettering over their chests: I Ride for Jesus. Each of them is carrying a helmet in one hand – one black and one orange; both helmets are decorated with crosses and the words ‘Team Jesus’.
“Hey, are you Gezim?” one of them asks. “I’m Amanda. This is Beth. Do you speak English?” They are American.
“Yes. Hi. I’m Gezim. How do you know?”
“Better get in there,” Beth says. “We were just leaving when the girl you’re with ran past, clutching her stomach. Amanda went into the bathroom to check up on her, but she’s asking for you.”
“She is vomiting,” Amanda says. “And she looks pretty beat up,” she adds.
“Are you guys okay? Can we help in any way?” Beth asks.
Gezim doesn’t fail to recognise the suspicion in her voice. “Thank you for your concern,” he says. “Ride safely.”
“Yeah. Hey, do you know of the famous monastery is near here.”
“Sure. It’s down the road on your left.”
The restaurant is empty, except for a waiter who’s polishing cutlery next to the serving bay. Gezim says hello and heads for the restroom. “I’ll be back.” The waiter nods and continues with his task.
Gezim knocks but doesn’t wait for a reply. Out of breath Majlinda is leaning on the counter. She has just rinsed her face. The yellow-stained gauze has come off and is on the side of the basin.
Gezim closes the tap and pulls out a handful of paper towels from the dispenser. “Here. Wipe your face.” His manner is brash. “You okay?”
Majlinda nods and looks at him. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s come over me,” she lies.
He doesn’t acknowledge her apology. “You are concussed. Cancel your meeting with Aleks. You can meet with him later. We’re heading back into town. You need to see a doctor.”
“Okay. But you should eat something first,” she replies. “Believe it or not, I’m hungry, too.”
Gezim orders a steak and fries, and Majlinda a sandwich. They don’t speak for several minutes before she raises her glass of water to break the ice. “To us.” Those two words disarm Gezim, who smiles and thinks, I think she’s really sorry. Perhaps this will work out in the end. He raises his can of Coke. “To love.”
Majlinda, who is still cramping up a little, is relieved that the voices are gone. But she knows that complacency is the enemy; she knows they will return. As long it’s not within the next couple of weeks. I love this man across from me.
She quickly texts Aleks and cancels their meeting. The reply is almost instant. “Aleks won’t be able to make it anyway, Gezim,” she says. “He will only get his car back tomorrow.”
“Everything works out in the end,” Gezim says. “We’ll go to the doctor and book into a nice hotel in town. I can do with a sauna. It’s on me.”
“Good idea. And no, it’s on Soul Adventures. Stuff these budget places we’ve been staying at. The magazine can afford to fork out a few extra bucks once in a while.” Majlinda exchanges her phone for her camera. “The article on Kosovo is going to be a cracker. Believe me.”
“I believe you.”
Majlinda is about to go through the photos of the monastery when the food arrives. The waiter trips over something and almost drops the plates. “Shit!” Then: “Apologies.”
“It’s okay.” Gezim leans across. “What’s that?”
The waiter picks up a black book. “Here.” He doesn’t hide his annoyance when he puts it on the table.
“That’s not ours,” Majlinda says.
“Then whose is it?”
“Hey, watch your tone,” Gezim says.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
Gezim doesn’t want to hear it: “It must belong to the bikers who just left.”
“Bikers?” the waiter asks.
“Yes, The bikers. Two women.”
“I didn’t see any bikers, Gezim,” Majlinda says.
“Amanda and Beth. The Americans. Amanda went to check up on you when you were sick in the bathroom.”
“No one checked up on me. I was alone until you came in.”
“Sir, you are our first customers today.” He decides not to pursue the matter. “Enjoy your meal.”
“What the fuck?”
“No, really, Majlinda. What the actual fuck? Are you in on the joke?”
“Joke? Who are these American bikers?”
“We’re leaving,” Gezim announces. He takes out his wallet and throws some cash on the table. “Take your sandwich. I know where they are.”
“The bikers. They’re at the monastery.”
“You’re fucking with me.” Gezim grabs both Majlinda’s wrists. The menace in his eyes scares her.
“You’re hurting me.”
“You hurt me all the time, Majlinda. Let’s call this payback.”
He pulls her closer and takes her sandwich with his free hand, shoves it into her mouth. “Shut the fuck up and get into the truck, Majlinda, before I lose my temper.”
“There. See?” Gezim points out the motorcycles parked on the lawn in front of the monastery. “Who’s crazy now?”
Majlinda doesn’t answer. She’s just read the inscription on the title page of the bible: To Maj. Always carry Him in your heart. Love, Amanda and Beth. She closes the book.
“Maj, Maj, Maj.”
“Gezim, turn around. I have a bad feeling about this.”
“Something terrible is going to happen, Gezim.” She opens the bible and holds it up for him to read the inscription. “Read it!”
“Okay. The Holy Bible. New International Version. Contains the Old Test—”
“Impossible.” Majlinda runs her fingers over the thin paper. “It was right there.”
“Ha! So, now you’re seeing things. I’m not falling for that one, Majlinda. You’re just afraid I’ll prove you wrong.” He pulls up the handbrake and gets out. “Come now, Maj. Don’t be shy.” He slams the door and walks around the front of the vehicle, opens the door and gestures for her to get out. “After you, Madam.”
“Your behaviour is nothing short of juvenile, Gezim.”
“You don’t have to worry about that for much longer, Majlinda. When we’re done here, we’re done. I’ve had it with your bullshit.”
“It was over when you grabbed me at the restaurant, Gezim.”
“Whatever. Come. Please.”
Majlinda hangs her camera around her neck and gets out. She limps behind Gezim, who picks up the pace when he spots the bikers near the well. They’re sitting on the ledge, Amanda sketching the monastery, and Beth having a cigarette.
“Hey, guys,” Beth says when she sees them. “How are you feeling, Maj. Maj? Maj?”
Majlinda freezes. “Impossible. You?”
“You know these people?” Gezim wants to know. He looks down at the bible in his hands and shakes his head. “Wow. The lengths you’ll go through to embarrass me.”
Amanda: Maj, Maj. Welcome. Finally we meet in the flesh.
Beth: Maj, Maj, Maj. We are here to help you.
Majlinda moves a couple of paces away from Gezim. To do what?
Amanda: To get rid of this dickhead. We’ve always helped you.
Beth: You’ve never done this on your own.
“You’re not real,” Majlinda says.
“Listen to yourself, Majlinda. You’re mental. They’re real, all right. Check this out.” Gezim throws the bible underarm to Beth, who catches it.
“See. There. Mystery solved.”
“Gezim, can I talk to you for a second?” Beth asks. She flicks the cigarette into the well. “You’re getting worked up.”
“Do you blame me?”
“Please give me a chance to at least explain what’s going on. You’ve got nothing to lose.”
“You’re right.” He gives Majlinda a scolding look, “I’ve lost the last two years of my life.” He follows Beth to the mulberry tree trunk a few metres away.
Ah, Majlinda thinks, Beth has always been the voice of reason.
“You got it, Maj,” Amanda says. “And I have always been the more emotional one. We can talk now. Gezim won’t be able to hear us.”
“What about me, then? Who am I?”
“You are a very complex and beautiful soul, Maj. But neither Beth nor I can even begin to unravel who you are. That is for you to discover.”
“Why are you and Beth a part of me?”
“As you know, your psychiatrist calls us auditory hallucinations, but that is not what we are anymore. The drugs you take are supposed to keep us away. It has had the opposite effect. All those times we didn’t disturb you? We were getting stronger.”
“This doesn’t make any sense.”
“Why not? People who are mentally healthy can also have auditory hallucinations. How often do you see people talking to themselves?”
“Quite often, but that doesn’t mean they’re hearing voices.”
“And you know this for a fact?”
Majlinda takes a breath and lets that thought sink in. She watches where Gezim leans against the mulberry tree trunk, hypnotised by Beth’s deep and mournful voice. She talks to him in an invented language he cannot understand, yet he sometimes nods when Beth’s vocal tone rises, and when it sounds like she is angry and accusing him of something, he shakes his head.
Amanda continues: “We are a part of you just like Gezim over there has multiple parts. You are whole, and he is whole, but you still have to be made up from different parts. Take your camera, for example. Break the lens, and then what have you got? Throw away the memory card, and then what? Beth and I are only two tiny parts of you.”
“How did you come to … be?”
“See this old water well? The remains of a dead woman are at the bottom. She was murdered here.”
“The leaf woman?”
“Yes. Her real name is Aleks.”
Majlinda feels faint. Amanda takes the sketchbook off her lap and puts it on the ground. She holds out a hand for Majlinda to hold onto.
“Sit down, honey.”
Majlinda takes her hand, which is as cold as steel. She sits down. “Aleks? The guide? I’ve been conversing with a … with a spirit all this time?”
“Yes. From Day One when you were making arrangements from your office in Albania. It was Aleks who told you to visit the monastery in the first place.”
“What does she want?”
“She wants to leave this place. She’s been trapped in there for a few hundred years, and the only way is for her soul to leave the well is to trade places with someone. This morning she almost took Gezim, but he got up just in time to rush to your aid.”
“But I saw her shape outside the well.”
“She is everywhere at the monastery, but she cannot leave until someone else dies in the well. But to get back to your question regarding our existence, something powerful happened here this morning. Turn on your camera and watch the recording of the whirlwind.”
Majlinda finds the recording and presses PLAY. She flinches at the sound of her own voice: “Hey, Gezim, look at this!” The leaves twirl around her and she lets out a scream of enthusiasm. When the wind picks up, Gezim tells her to step out, but she refuses.
“Pause it,” Amanda instructs. “Okay. You can’t see it from this angle, but Gezim has gotten up. The water well wall he was sitting on just collapsed – Aleks almost had him. But now she’s pissed because you distracted Gezim. See what happens next. Play it.”
“But we’re sitting on the wall now.” There is concern in Majlinda’s voice. She looks over her shoulder into the darkness and shivers. She wants to get up, but Amanda puts a hand on hers.
“Just play it, hon. Aleks isn’t after you.”
On the recording the leaves that hit Majlinda across the face have merged into a dark shape, like thick, matted hair dripping with slime, its long and filthy fingernails clawing at Majlinda’s exposed skin.
“You can say that again. Aleks was one pissed off ghost.”
The video stops when Majlinda falls, the lens pointing in the direction of the well where ‘leaf woman’ took shape and the rubble started building itself up again.
“And that’s how we came to be,” Amanda says with a shrug. “I don’t know how. It was like a dream – suddenly Beth and I are having steaks and a Greek salad dressed in these ridiculous Jesus suits.”
“And Aleks communicated with you?”
“Now what?” Majlinda asks.
“That is up to you, Majlinda. You can carry on the way you carry on, or you can push Gezim into the well.”
Majlinda’s phone vibrates in her pocket. She takes it out and reads the message from Aleks: “What happens at the monastery stays at the monastery.”
Two couples are exploring a cave on the edge of the Rugova Canyon. They have just had a swim in a natural pool formed by the Lumbardhi River a few kilometres into the valley. One of them, a young woman in her early twenties, is taking pictures with her phone when it vibrates.
“Shit,” she says.
“What is it?”
“It’s the guide from Gezim Adventures. He just messaged to say his car broke down. We have to meet him at the Patriarchal Monastery of Peć.”