This is How Our World Works
I can hear my father and grandmother downstairs talking about Teodor. “Yes, dead, Teodor is dead,” Grandmother tells him. Then silence. I leave my bed and lie on the floor next to the warm radiator, but all I hear is the boiler moaning down in the basement. My grandmother keeps a locked armoire next to the boiler. It is full of textiles that she buys on her official trips abroad, piles of velvet, lace and silk, carefully separated by color. She’s promised she’ll have the seamstress make me a dress soon, before my thirteenth birthday. I’ve already picked out a style from the French Vogue that my mother gave me before she left. I want my dress to be black and I want to go to Paris just like her. But very few people are allowed to leave and she’s there only because she’s got an illness that the doctors here don’t know how to treat.
During the day, the basement is carpeted, insulated, and warm. But at night I refuse to go down there. My grandmother says I imagine things and the basement is perfectly fine. My father tells me not to believe in anyone. The piano is also down there, in the small room next to the wine cellar where black scorpions live. The piano room, with its tiny square windows that offer a perfect view of the main gate and the armed guard, is a better place for spying than practicing scales. My mother says I must play. My father says that people shouldn’t be forced to do what they don’t want to do.
I can hear them again. My grandmother tells my father that Max, Teodor’s son, will be sent to jail. “No,” my father shouts, “I’d rather die.” “You must calm down,” my grandmother says. Then I hear a woman singing on the television and a minute later I hear a door slam. Sometimes when the conversations get too heated they talk in my father’s study. I stand up and lean against the window. Teodor, Grandmother’s old friend from the war, visits us once a month. People think he’s stern but I think he’s funny. I try to imagine him dead and the thought terrifies me. I think of the shock in Max’s mind and tears roll down my face.
The lights in my room are off but the curtains are drawn and the moon is bright. I look down and notice a hole in the floor, right next to the radiator. It’s wide enough for a small rat to fit through, but there aren’t any rats in our house. I lie down on my belly and look inside. I close my eye and I open it, once, twice, until I start to see something. When I hear someone coming up the stairs I run back to bed. My grandmother walks in the room to say her good nights. I tell her that I have found a hole in the floor and that there might be something in it. She says that I have a wild imagination. “You live in fantasies.” She loves that word. I point to it. She smiles not bothering to look, then kisses me on the forehead. “What happened to Teodor?” I ask. “Go to sleep,” she replies placing a finger on my lips. “But he was just here,” I say. She kisses me on the forehead. “Are you going to talk to my father in the basement?” I ask. “Goodnight Ina,” she says and closes the door.
The television downstairs is still on, a newscaster talks about Teodor’s death. ‘Hung, shot, poisoned?’ No one really knows. One thing they are sure about is that he is a traitor, an enemy of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania. I’m back on the floor on all fours, hovering over the hole. I see it now, a faint green light traveling up toward me. I’m not imagining it. It’s like a band of glow-worms inching their way in my room. They’re coming from the basement. That’s where my father’s study is. It is the quietest room in the house. Not even a whisper escapes it. He spends the night there when he doesn’t want to be around people. I shut my eyes, imagining myself turning into a Lilliputian. That way I go through the hole. I want to hear all the secrets, the whispers, and learn the truth from the basement. The hole expands and I back away. Then it contracts. Courage, I tell myself. Back and forth the hole is opening and closing like the mouth of a fish. My heart beats three times quickly and one time slowly, enough to cause a slight dull pain in my chest. I run back to bed. I place my head on the cold pillow and try to sleep. “Fantasies,” my grandmother whispers in my ear. “No,” my father tells her, “she should know how our world works.” “People prefer lies, it’s easier that way,” she says. I open my eyes, but there’s no one there. I hide under the covers with my eyes closed.
When I open them again, dawn has arrived. Everyone’s asleep. I get out of bed and tiptoe downstairs. I go down in the basement. My father is in his study sleeping in his armchair. Next to him are two empty bottles of wine. I do not want to wake him. I know he’s sad. So I explore the bookshelves. My father collects things, driftwood, sea glass, pens, and crosses. Even though religion is banned, he keeps an old painting of Jesus Christ next to his desk. He isn’t religious but tells me he likes the way the man looks. He’s allowed to own such things because of Grandmother, very few people are. Just last week a kid in my class wrote the word God on the blackboard, to be mischievous, and received the beating of his life. His father came to explain, ‘My boy’s a clown,’ he begged, but the principal called the police just the same. Then the father’s pay was docked for a whole month and so he now beats his son. “This is the way our world works,” my father says. But he never explains exactly how.
My father stirs in his chair but doesn’t wake up. I continue my explorations until I find the edge of a photograph sticking out from a book. I recognize my father and Max both sitting on a bench, arms folded, young, mischievous smiles. My father opens his eyes, he sighs, but he’s happy to see me. He lights a cigarette and asks me to sit next to him. I sit down and hand him the photograph.
“Look at us,” he says. He frowns. “Back then people believed they could do what they wanted to do.”
“And now you’d rather be dead?”
“Sometimes,” he replies and lowers his gaze.
“What about me?”
“You’re full of life,” he says, “You’ve got time. But for now this is how our world works,” he replies.
“How?” I ask, “How does it work?”
He looks at me but doesn’t know what to say.
“Maybe our world should stop working,” I say.
“Everything does eventually,” my father says and attempts to smile.
About the Author: Bleriana Myftiu grew up in Tirana, Albania and immigrated to the United States after the communist regime was overthrown. She has worked as a translator for the United Nations and holds an MFA in fiction from San Francisco State University. Her writing has appeared in Atticus Review, The Molotov Cocktail, Red Light Lit and Abstract Magazine. She lives in Santa Cruz, California with her husband, daughter and dog. You can find her on twitter @BlerianaMyftiu