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Issue number one




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Shrinking by Aleksander Dardeli

There is a country. The country is so small you need your grandfather's magnifying glass to find it on the map. Soon the scratched magnifying glass won't help you much. The country gets smaller and smaller with each passing day as its people flee to other countries. Scholars argue whether the shrinking country resembles a crusted wound leaking pus or a torn artery gushing blood.. The outer borders close in on the center like walls crumbling in slow motion. The residents of the periphery swear vicious neighbors push the borders when the moon hides behind the clouds. The residents of the center twist their lips in disbelief and think the periphery people exaggerate. People from both the periphery and the center flee during nights so dark they think they are groveling in tunnels. They reach the snowy mountains of the East and jump over to the other side of the border with a few shirts and a spare pair of woollen underwear. They cut down five-hundred-year-old olive trees to build boats to cross the sea to the West. Their boats smell of olive oil.

There is a man from the ever-decreasing country. This man is so big he cannot breathe in a confined area and had to leave his small country in the very beginning. He has grown even bigger and gets long-lasting goose bumps when he imagines himself waiting in the center of his home country for the outer borders to draw near and suffocate him. He lives in an empty house with maps of his country on the walls. He charges people a small fee to let them look at the large-scale maps of his country. He uses the fee to build an archive of all his compatriots who have settled abroad. The archive is small. He has bought filing cabinets, empty albums (numbered in accordance with an elaborate system he has designed himself), and a few register books. He begins with the students. Recording the scholarships they win with made up stories and doctored grades, the tips they make in dimly lit restaurants, the names of the girlfriends they do after sangria parties, the classes they fail trying to save their belongings from unforgiving landlords, the visas they overstay, the drugs they sniff in downtown bars, the variations of depression they fight with booze, and the phony letters they write back home is time-consuming. He spots them easily from their aquiline noses, the way they hang onto the consonants in their speech, and the way they walk. They always lift their right legs higher then their left as if climbing a hill path.

Next come the professionals: doctors who assemble toy parts they receive from addresses they cannot confirm while living in apartments with squeaking floors; engineers who resort to calligraphy to write resumes, eyeing longingly the computers displayed in lay-away stores; teachers who run to catch buses from one place they babysit to the second; dentists who haggle over the cash they have to pay to locally licensed dentists for using their equipment to fill the teeth of their family members; architects who plant gardenias and trim hedges; a few software writers who make money; journalists who write poetry when they finish delivering the morning papers. It's more difficult to spot the professionals. They have spread out into more countries than the students. The first sign which gives them away is a magnetic stare that timidly shadows the big man as he passes by. The big man counts to ten and then looks back. If he catches the others staring at him he knows they are from the shrinking country.

At first, he excludes the prostitutes from the archives. But they are so numerous he has to make room for them. He drags home some extra filing cabinets from the demolished asbestos buildings nearby. He goes out at night with an old spiral-bound notebook and jots down the prices the prostitutes ask for. Then he circles with a red pen the ten lowest quotes. He knows these prostitutes are from his country. He records their names, the mascara they cover their dense eyelashes with, their pink shoes, the scratches they have on their necks and the bruises on their calves. He has a folder for those prostitutes who make their customers take them out to dinner first. There is also a separate folder for those prostitutes who, drunk on malt liquor, let their clients screw them for free when the clients sob over the rent they cannot pay and the wives who turn their backs to them when they go to bed. He writes down the pills of the grandmothers, the pipe tobacco of the grandfathers, the shoe sizes of the mothers, the eyeglasses of the fathers, the sneakers of the little brothers and the dowries of the younger sisters, all of which they have to send money home for. He records the names of the schools they have not finished, the names of the massage parlors they sweep clean during the day, the numbers on the license plates of the sports cars their pimps intentionally spray with sticky mud.

Some of the people who have fled are homeless. He descends under bridges to find them, holding onto the bushes local teenagers pee on, then drinks the coffee they make outside the cardboard boxes they sleep in and counts the blankets they have. He arranges the addresses of the houses and the apartments they have left behind in alphabetical order indicating which ones now fall outside the new borders. Sometimes he buys cookies for the kids they keep warm by taking used clothes they find in garbage cans. He draws up a list of the corners where they are most likely to find used clothes. Then he classifies the smells their cardboard boxes give off, the degree to which their speech has disintegrated, the gruff speech they use to speak to one another, the parasites they carry, and the architecture of the churches they go to for food.

He needs to record the long-settled refugees, the ones who lock up the travel papers that show they have changed their old names, the ones who stutter in inferiority when they meet natives and inflate with acid hostility when they run into new arrivals from their old homeland. He discerns a pattern in the name changes. The smaller the city they have settled in, the bigger the change. Some individuals who have opened up sandwich shops in small, quaint joints along the highways have names indistinguishable from the locals. He visits the annual conventions where they scramble to give speeches in front of a drunk audience. Invariably, they end up hitting one another with serving spoons, yanking one another's ties and spitting ecstatically on people from the regions of their native country that they have no connections to. He records the seating charts, for every year they redraw them to reflect the net worth of the participants. The participants do shake hands in the beginning of the conventions but instead of introducing themselves by name they give the figure their property is worth rounded up in thousands. Participants with a difference of more than fifty do not talk to one another for more than ten seconds. Period.

The big man collects everything about his country he can lay his hands on. He files photos of the riots. Photos of kids covered with dust on the roadside. Photos of bodies burned into black masses with white shinbones sticking out like small tusks. Photos of youngsters who sport stubble and AK-47's. He blackens his fingers with the ink of the editorials he clips out, but has no time to wash his hands. In a week, his fingers grow a thin black layer which turns into shoe polish when water leaks in from the missing roof tiles. He enters into a database the names of the diplomats who experiment with different possible states of human existence in the shrinking country. He keeps track of the money the more settled refugees donate to get rid of old enemies back home. He records the shows that the rich immigrants fund to influence the speed with which the borders travel toward the center. He stumbles into a software program which translates the numbers of those who flee into numbers of acres that their country loses. But he is a one-man enterprise and finds it hard to rewrite the maps on the wall. He cuts down his sleep hours to reconfigure the maps every day.

When the diplomats who experiment with his home country find out about the database, they invite him over for dinner, recount the nights they spent with local women and men, sneak out tidbits from the foreign services they work for, allow their wives to flirt with him, serve him mediocre wines they buy abroad in large quantities, and on the way out stop him briefly for fingerprinting. Then he drops by the free luncheons with independent human rights and other groups. They dilute the coffee they serve to cut costs and bring out used paper plates to serve sandwiches garnished with stale lettuce.

He develops chronic fatigue, or that's what the doctors tell him. He dreams of sleeping as he clips out territories which no longer belong to his home country. He wants to drop down on the rocking chair he has bought in a consignment shop when he files the photos but he can't. The archive cannot cease functioning. He wants to hang a hammock in the yard but he cannot stop entering data in the computer. The black coffee the widow next door has given him no longer energizes him. He feels a strange net cast over his body. He senses fluid moving wildly under the nape of his neck. His lower abdomen itches with sudden, small explosions. His shanks grow more elastic than when, as a toddler, he played with rags his mother brought from the garment factory she worked in. His cranium echoes with clinking thoughts. The doctors refuse to take his symptoms seriously. But he knows it's only the beginning of something graver. His deltoids wither with a simmering noise. The pectorals cannot lift the iron filing cabinets. The spinal cord loosens while he writes. The aorta cannot carry the blood he needs to make love. The lungs do not fan his daydreams. The kidneys generate inexplicable amounts of acidic urine. Then he notices a pattern. He weakens every time one of his countrymen flees the ever shrinking country. He seeks further proof and, sure enough, the correlation is real. But I am not that patriotic, he screams. In fact, I do not know whether I love my country enough to suffer headaches. Tired of sensing individual cells explode with an imperceptible sound, he falls asleep. His grandmother comes to him. But her lower body looks like the burned people in the photos he collects. She walks on her shinbones. His first girlfriend knocks on his door. She smells like the homeless people he visited under the bridges. She says her pimples ooze pus; she feeds the river rats with it. She smiles, churning some pus. One of the diplomats, the one most tolerant of his wife's flirtation, unfolds a chart: one of your women gets screwed by foreigners each time you screw one of our women, he says. A prostitute dressed in red leather gets out of a vintage car, drops a note in his hand, blows him a kiss with lips painted black. The note reads: I have the highest prices in town. He flies back to the ever-shrinking country. Upon his arrival, a policeman with oily hair tells him that each inhabitant has to cut off a piece of flesh as the country grows smaller. The size of the piece must be proportional to the amount of shrinking. He sits in one of the old town cafes. Limping waiters fill the glasses with water. One-handed waitresses bring the menus. He sips Turkish coffee, waiting for the borders to meet the center.

Aleksander Dardeli was born in 1969 in Tirana, Albania, and was active in the student movement of 1991 which led to the overthrow of the communist government. He came to the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship in 1992. He is now living in Washington, D.C., where he is attending his last year of law school, writing for the Albanian weekly Koha, working on a short story collection in English and trying to publish a book-length poem, "Windows," in Albania.

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