Register Sunday | March 18 | 2018

The Forested Knolls of Elbasan

Winner of the Quebec Writing Competition, 2007: The Forested Knolls of Elbasan

Costas Ammon, a fifty-six-year-old telephone salesperson and lifelong  bachelor, was delivering a telephone survey one afternoon when he found himself interrupted by a knock at the door. Hastily, he signed for and received a brown parcel. Inside he discovered a form letter and a worn scrapbook wrapped in Cellophane. The letter was from an estate lawyer; his mother, whom he hadn’t spoken to in decades, had died. He shrugged: good riddance.

The scrapbook was an altogether different matter. As he perused the musty pages of old newspaper clippings, photographs, police reports and what appeared to be journal entries, he was surprised to learn that he himself was the subject of this fraying assemblage. All in all, the scrapbook ran from June 12, 1952, to January 28, 1955. That episode of my life is a void, he thought. He was too young to remember. And so he knew none of this.

According to the papers before him, when he was twenty-one months old, his parents took him along on an expedition to the forested knolls of Elbasan, in central Albania. His father, a political activist travelling under the guise of professional photographer, was involved in numerous acts of secrecy at the time, not the least of which was infidelity. One evening, in the dining room of their hotel, his parents delved into a violent argument; his father hadn’t returned to the family’s room the previous evening. During the miasma of affronts and accusations, Costas stumbled out the door and down the steps of the hotel. He was not seen again for over a week.

A taxi driver witnessed part of the disappearing act. He testified that Costas Ammon was drawn down the steps toward a harem of seven dogs: a haggard bitch and her six pups. In an act of generous imitation, the boy joined them in lapping up gutter water. The taxi driver, who was benevolent toward the bond between children and dogs, thought little of the communion. And so he left the boy. By the time he returned, both the boy and the dogs were gone. It wasn’t until a woman burst from the hotel, frantic, that the driver realized the boy might have ventured off with the dogs.             

Nine days later, the police found Costas Ammon in a burrow, deep in the dark forests surrounding Elbasan. Flanked by four beleaguered sucklings, he was scuffling blindly for one of his dogmother’s nipples. By then, his human family had dissolved. His father had left and his mother was broken-hearted.

No one knows precisely what happened to Costas Ammon during those nine days. Police and journalists, intrigued by the story, had their speculations. According to the scrapbook, several reporters believed the young boy developed an instantaneous bond with the dog, whose intuitive care of her new pups must have extended to the wandering child. Some noted that in the burrow he appeared alert and carefree, despite the soil, leaves and scraps of feces clotted to his tattered clothes. A handful of photographs from the scene showed him jostling playfully with his new-found brothers and sisters.

As he examined the pages of this hidden portion of his life once again, Costas Ammon sighed grimly. It seemed to him that in the three years following this brief disappearance, his mother made a small name for herself by telling the story of her wayward son to anyone who’d pay attention. She confessed to a Greek magazine reporter that her son wouldn’t drink her breast milk, and that he’d had trouble learning to sleep alone. An Italian magazine reported that this “curious dogchild” didn’t speak a word until the age of four. According to a nursery caretaker, he showed little interest in other children. Speaking to the second largest daily in Athens, a neighbour observed that the boy talked to his hand.

Now, these many years later, Costas Ammon was confronted with this quandary of new evidence. Why had his mother ascribed to him, in her will, a scrapbook document of enfeebled regression? How was he expected to react? Bemused?  Horrified? He couldn’t decide if this story had any merit. Nevertheless he felt compelled to believe it; the draft it ushered into his lonesome life felt cold but authentic.

Still he kept sliding backwards into doubt. As he delivered yet another telephone questionnaire, he drifted far from his work and pondered whether he was giving his mother too much credit for what could have been little more than an elaborate hoax. But Costas Ammon only thought this way whenever he was deluged by confidence. Otherwise, he wasn’t so certain of anything at all. Most often he deliberated if his mother, in sending this parcel, was acting out of guilt or vengeance.

Again he looked at his hand—apparently his oldest friend—divided by crevices and cracks. How the skin folded around his thin bones, how his nails pierced through in half moons. He often wondered how some people said they could read the lines in palms, how palms spoke. He hoped his would open up and say something, lend some much-needed perspective to this new dilemma.

Such resilient doubt! Had he continued his life among the dogs, would he have climbed up from that burrow and into civil society on his own? Could he have found his way back? Would he have even wanted to? The very thought of failure made him shudder.

By God, he growled, what are the chances I would have made it to this apartment. Back and forth he contemplated a life that now struck him as arbitrary fortune. Suppose that on any given day there exist at least fifteen possibilities out of any given situation, he considered, gnashing his teeth as he returned to his probabilities. Suppose that each of these possibilities can be reached only by attaining a requisite degree of desperation. Now suppose that, in the burrow, you can become very desperate, that you can see clearly before you, on any given day, at least eight of these possibilities. Make the allowance that life in the forest is precarious and volatile. Imagine that you feel safer in the ground Allow that you are naturally afraid of people. To this day, Costas realized, he still avoided large congregations. Consider that you do not know of any world beyond the black trees of Elbasan, that stumbling upon civility could only happen in error. Establish that nobility and self-image are foreign concepts; imagine that you are an atheist. He decided that his suspicion of abstract gestures would feel even stronger had dogs raised him.

Back he delved into the life he’d never led. Imagine that you believe only in the density of holes and branches: the camouflage of feral life. Imagine that you are methodical. I am methodical, he howled, tearing apart the scrapbook for more clues. Imagine that you concede, in formula, that your situation makes you sad. He was terribly sad. That as you lie awake in bed at night, your lower lip swells and quivers. Imagine that, as you lie awake in bed at night, you can imagine more branches breaking through. Twenty-seven. Twenty-nine. Thirty. Imagine that most nights you fall asleep this way, counting branches break through.