Excerpt from Rene Karabash's She Who Remains
Winner of the 2023 Translation Prize

Transl. by Izidora Angel


“The Kanun[1] was mightier than it appeared. It reached everywhere, crawled on the ground, along the plotlines of the fields, it slithered along the roads, around the markets, made the rounds at the weddings, scaled the alpine pastures, then reached higher, reached the sky, from whence it returned as rain, to fill the watercourses of the fields, the reason for a good third of the bloodshed…”

                                                                                  Ismail Kadare, “Broken April”


          my brother sends his best
          says Nemanja’s brother and shoots his gun just once
          my father’s warm body tumbles into the dead leaves, his big eyes fixed on him, my father’s big eyes locked into Nemanja’s brother’s eyes, his strong hands grab my father and turn him to the setting sun, he’s exalted by the sight of his fingers in blood, wipes them on Murash’s shirt, the heralds of death spread the news, they shot Murash, Murash was killed, Murash was felled next to the wild pomegranate trees, next to the pomegranates, Murash, Murash, Murash, my mother wails and sinks into her skirt in the middle of the road, Murash, my life, the wind carries the howls of the heralds, the howls catch up to my mother on the dirt road leading up to our home and knock her down to the ground, she sinks into her skirt on the dirt road that leads to our house, four broad-shouldered men stride up the dirt road to our home carrying my father’s body on four beech-tree branches, the road uneven, the pallbearers’ bodies bent, tripping over their feet, my father’s body rises and falls like a cough, they set the body down at my feet, it no longer moves, now I'm bound to ask everything the Kanun decrees, I have to ask the pallbearers what I must ask them, I open my mouth, only hot air escapes, hot air into the cold stares of the bearers’ faces, the hot air that is no longer escaping my father’s face, come on, Matija, they mutter into their collars, avoiding my eyes, they don’t wish to see the death of the father reflected in the eyes of his daughter, they’d sooner see death in the man’s eyes but never in the eyes of his daughter, they want to lie in their beds tonight unperturbed, yet I have to stand, self-possessed, a cough, and I ask, what have you brought me

          a wound or death

  [1] Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini — a collection of archaic Albanian laws


          I swear to the ruler of the Albanian Alps, Lekë Dukagjinit,
that to my dying day, to my dying day I shall not touch a man, I shall not touch a man and I shall preserve my virginal innocence, renouncing for all times the woman in me

          renouncing forever the woman in me

          I will submit to this oath before God, I shall not succumb to the wicked desires of the flesh, and today, before the twelve-man council of elders, I shall take the masculine name Matija as my only given name and let the women cut my hair and let my dresses turn to ash and let men’s clothes become one with my back, my legs and my skin

          my back, my legs, my skin

          I swear that for as long as I am of sound body and mind, I shall keep my oath, fastened together with my hair and honor, as God, and these fathers, are my witnesses,

          I, Matija, the son, will look after my family, I will provide for them all that is needed, all that the Kanun decrees as necessary, for sloth is the enemy of the soul, and I will henceforth, at appointed hours, occupy myself with manual labor, for only when I live off what my hands have borne can I be a monk of principle, and if I shall blessedly keep this oath, and suppress indecent acts and not break my word, then may I enjoy a life that is long and may I be surrounded by universal reverence, and if I violate and desecrate this oath, may the opposite befall me  

         in the name of the sky and the earth, this stone, this weight and for this bread

I am sworn


          I exit the church and for the first time in my life I feel the cold Albanian air with my head, I must resemble a shorn donkey, my braids lie on the church floor, to part with something you’ve had forever turns out to be a breeze, now they’ll burn my dresses too, down to the last one, except for my future wedding dress, the one my grandmother gifted me before she died together with a pair of patent leather shoes, she’d laid out the dress next to the clothes she’d picked out for her funeral, come here child, she said, I want to give you something, but grandmother, which of these two dresses is for me, she and I were the same height, she died after she slaughtered a sick goatling and its blood poisoned hers, here, my child, she said, take this as dowry for the wedding, the two dresses were both beautiful, one was a red velvet, the other sky blue, I take the blue one, the shoes white and shiny, Bekija you took the wrong dress, put it back, this one I’ve picked out for when I depart this earth, no, grandmother, it’s the one I like, I hate red, you take it, here, take it, I never put that dress on, it’s still in the cupboard with the patent leather shoes, I hid them before my oath so they wouldn’t burn them, I almost wore them once, at my wedding, it was set to take place at the same church where me and my female self were separated 

          no turning back now

          I exit the church, feel the ice-cold Albanian air for the first time, I must resemble a shorn donkey, so what, I tell myself, the most precious metal in Albania is freedom, a woman in Albania costs a mere twenty oxen, don’t look men in the eye, don’t go to the pub, mind the children, wash the clothes, cook, the most women can hope for is to bring the milk to the dairy, Bekija’s murder is the smartest thing I ever did, they gave me a shotgun and a watch, now I could smoke and drink and move with the men, go to the pub and visit the men’s social clubs, they teach me to stand like them, legs apart, the kids in the neighborhood begin to call me bate Matija, I roam the narrow streets of the village every night practicing my new walk, getting used to it, getting used to no longer being worth a mere twenty oxen, getting used to wearing a watch, daddy’s boy

          your father wanted a son, but out came you
          shush, mother, Matija appeared on the same day, I just waited for him to undress me, to dress me in his clothes, to put his watch on my wrist, there’s no more Bekija, her hair floats in the river, do you know what, Mrs. Journalist, we, the people, need rules and boundaries, I think it’s precisely what we need, I don’t know what it’s like where you’re from, but here freedom is a dangerous thing

          the whole village knows

          Murash wanted a son, but it was a daughter he got

they all want sons in these lands, it’s the blood tax, it’s killing the men and there’s no one left to look after men’s things, I take the man’s name Matija as my one and only given name and let it

          I exit the church for the first time I feel

          I walk home, I must see whether the dress and the shoes are still there in the cupboard, the Cursed Mountains stand on all sides of me, the Albanian Alps, the Damned, spread out across thousands of kilometers, it doesn’t matter which direction I head, there’s the rooted army of rock formations, mobilized by the hands of the devil, the sky leans on the soldiers’ shoulders, do you hear the cowbells — the evening church bells of the village, and then rain, not falling but misting, it rains incessantly and it won’t let up, it’s raining now, and fog, always fog, densest here in the valley, it’s all a gray painting, neither sad nor happy, how should I put it, like a face with no expression, you know what I mean, right, if only the rain were to stop, have you been walking a long while, it’s like this here, you walk a lot, the roads are endless and tangled, only the locals know the way, like the blind, they never get lost in the dark

          from the church I take the wolf trails, on my left the river follows me the whole way home like a strange silent satellite, it suddenly dawns on me what I’ve done when my strides become longer, bigger than my own, and I trip over the rocks, the ubiquitous rocks, there’s no turning back, I can’t reattach my hair or swallow my words or blow up like a bullfrog and tell the truth, once and for all, out of nowhere, beyond the fog I see the foundations of a house, I’ve seen it before, my father and I have walked by it, but for the first time I can’t tell

          is this house being built or demolished


          after I was born it came to me that 
          blue means good, blue means boy
          my mother once told me, my sweet
          your eyes are blue like the sky 
          and the sky was blue so blue must mean the color boy 

          Bekija, go fetch the sandpaper, it’s in the trunk above the washbasin, next to the razor, this dovecote won’t build itself, every day he shaved over this wash basin, patted his face dry with the towel, then slowly, carefully wiped the razor on both sides as if he were sharpening it, then pushed it into a crack in the wooden frame of the window, there’s not much sun in Albania, there’s more fog than sun, you see for yourself, Mrs. Journalist, but on that day, unlike most days, the sun was out, I went into my father’s room, the sandpaper was exactly where he said it would be, I took it and looked into the small round mirror over the wash basin, the sun shone for the first time that year, I saw my father’s razor stabbed into the window frame, a slim shadow rose from it and fell on my face like a mustache, dark and gluey, curving downwards, I glimpsed myself in the mirror, felt the coolness of the razor on my upper lip, my hand rose up of its own accord and my pink little fingers touched it, it’s hard to describe what I felt in that moment, some kind of force, happiness maybe, I wanted my daddy to see me 

          it was like trying on new clothes for the first time, clothes that simply fit, that weren’t too big or too small, they just fit, I froze, the blue curtains billowed behind me, the pale mustached boy in the mirror stared back at me, he resembled Skanderbeg, the hero, my mother once showed me a picture from before I was born, of her and my father in front of the monument of the great Albanian hero Skanderbeg in Tirana 

          somebody knocked on the window and I jumped, certain it would be my father, instead it was the great-granddaughter of baba Tsane from one street over, the girl lived in Bulgaria and came to the village for the summers, same age as me but much taller and more beautiful, shy and quiet, which is why no one ever played with her, Dhana with the translucent skin stood at the window, smiling at me, her teeth white, I still see them, fresh milk and shame, broad as shoulders, shame engulfed me and moved me one step to the right of the wash basin, the mustache stuck to the blue curtain behind me, I could still feel the shame, behind my back now, like some sort of presence, like some relative I was embarrassed by and wanted to keep secret, she stared at me with her white teeth, I had no idea what to do, ask her what the hell are you staring at bitch or smile back, I swallowed dryness, Dhana, quick, get out of here and go home, Bekija, where are you, get over here, the sun will be down soon, I looked to the door, then returned my gaze to the window but Dhana was already gone, only her silhouette still lingered in the retina of my eyes, like an icon in the frame of the window, I squeezed the sandpaper in my hand and left the room, still seeing her silhouette wherever I looked, I shut my eyes, then opened them wide so I could see her again, but there was less of Dhana on each successive try until she became a tiny dot which I last saw imprinted in my father’s forehead 


          there are things you can’t foresee, 
like the fog
          a familiar song slips its tongue under the 
door of the dairy farm
          it’s him, Kuka the Hook, the village idiot

          dogs and carrion in ripe blackberries
          heat in the calf’s gut
          a bronze horse chews olives 
          a hook and a cross in the cut

          is that you, Kuka, I thought it was Hasim, only he comes to the dairy this late, is that you, it’s him, my heels go numb, the dusk swells in my throat, the shadow in the doorway keeps singing its song, Kuka slowly closes the door, the dusk is now inside, fully inside me, my body its last resting place, it has gripped my throat, a silver glow enters through the dairy’s tiny window but it’s blocked by the man coming in, by his song 

          the eye of the water snake is a hook, my love
          the eye of the water snake is an ear 

          I haven’t seen you in forever, Kuka, have you come for milk, I just poured ours out, ten and a half liters, is your cow still alive, didn’t she die a few months back, my body is a moth nailed to the wall by the pins of his eyes, eyes black as olives, eyes of tar, bodiless, pupilless, bodiless eyes, I cannot move

          the water snake is hungry, feed it
          come on, milky bride, douse it

          the shadow moves toward me quietly singing its song, its back blocks the light and it cannot reach me, the milk whitens the copper vat, it still ripples because I’ve been drinking from it with my hands, there’s still milk dripping down my elbows, only two more steps and the shadow will overtake me, I start for the door but the shadow blocks me, I go west and it’s already there, I go east, there it is again, I tighten my braid

          Kuka, I'm being married off tomorrow, are you coming to the betrothal, words fall out of my mouth, didn’t your cow die a few months back, I can’t stop talking, it’s what you do with crazy people, to rid their heads of crackpot thoughts, but what I'm really doing is holding up, holding up what’s bound happen, what’s already happened, it’s just that in this dairy, time lags

          snake resin hook
          snake resin hook

          I can feel his breath on me, he’s drunk milk before he’s come here, village talk has it that at dusk he enters the goat barn and drinks milk straight from the goats’ teats, there’s other things they say about him but I don’t want to know, Kuka is now right next to me, he stands over me like a stone pillar, I'm a moth, nailed to a brick wall by the pins of his eyes, his eyes don’t glow in the dark because coals glow only when you’ve set them on fire, his eyes are black as though they’ve been gouged out, or the person behind them has been  

          Kuka, don’t, let go of me

          go play with the other boys on the hill, I saw them on my way here, they’re still
there, playing tip-cat, I'll go home and won’t tell anyone that you were here 
          I shouldn’t have said that, Kuka’s strong arms encircle my waist and we
plunge toward the copper milk buckets, we fall and the buckets clang like church bells, the milk buckets are our wedding buckets, my dress swims in milk and mud pulp, the buckets ring to the beat of the rider, ding-ding-ding-ding then faster ding-ding-ding-ding

          get off me, motherfucker

          Kuka’s hand clenches my mouth, Kuka’s hand is now an inextricable part of my face, I take this hand and this stranger’s body as my own, ding-ding-ding-ding, I am no longer in this scene, I am witnessing everything from outside of my body, my hair swims in the warm milk, my eyes stare into a small hole in the wall which moves in beat with the galloping horse, I’ve never seen it before but there’s light coming through it, the hole in the wall, yes, I see it for the first time and from today on this hole exists because I see it, the hole hurts, it pains 

          are you pure
          I am pure

          don’t cry, Bekija, I hear my mother say, let whatever hurts you remain here, and the milk
of life floods my black dress and the church bells fall silent, the snake is fed, I close my eyes

          the eye of the water snake is a hook, my love
          the eye of the water snake is an ear

          after the breathing

          Kuka stands up, tightens his pants with twine, his cheeks burn, 
          he smiles at me and looks at me, sees me for the first time, hi Bekija,
have you just gotten here, I touch where the wet is, I see blood on my fingers 

          are you pure, Bekija
          daddy’s boy

          how many liters did the cow give today, Kuka asks and starts kicking at
a little stone, playing with it, chasing it, kicks it like a ball, he’s laughing and kicking, a child

          a little boy who doesn’t cost twenty oxen, which is how much I cost, because
he is a man, a real man now, whom would they believe, him or me, what do you think, there’s no point in telling anyone, I stand up and lean over the milk, I splash my face with it, splash where the red is too, pink trickles down my thighs, I tighten my braid, I smooth my hair back 

          I know what I'm going to do this very night 
          the little boy sees me and stops kicking at the stone

          you’re beautiful, let me walk you to your house, it’s dark out already
          no Kuka, I'll walk alone

          I can find my way home in the dark too


          I hear a voice whispering 

          wash yourself, drink water from your elbows, pour three handfuls of water in
          your bosom, wet your apron and wrap it around your face

          I see the shoes and the dress from my grandmother, the best man and the best woman lead the wedding procession, we walk down the dirt road, the fog mixes with the dust, two mountain men go past us, they carry sacks on their backs, no, they’re carrying two corpses, a man’s and a woman’s, they don’t greet us, they stare at the tips of their shoes, I, bathed in blue light, in my patent leather shoes, with grandmother on one side and Nemanja, ugly, hunched and rawboned on the other, everyone who surrounds us carries rifles and pistols with muzzles that reach beyond the Cursed Mountains, the beat of the drum measures our steps, at the very end of the procession, my father and my brother lead the horses on foot, my mother next to them, weeping, behind them, mysterious women in black wail and pull at their hair and howl like jackals, am I getting married or getting buried, I enter the room of my beloved Nemanja, where are you, grandmother, can I lie down next to you for a bit, I lie down next to my beloved, he is handsome, in the darkness of the room, his face disappears and emerges again, is that you Nemanja, I love you, Bekija, but you don’t know me, how can you love me, the Kanun says I can, take off your dress, I take off my dress, everybody’s hushed in silent expectation outside the house, their bodies frozen, like stone, take off your shoes, I take them off, someone shouts she’s not pure, the white sheet flaps out the window, the bride’s not pure, she isn’t clean, she’s not pure, she’ll perish young, she isn’t pure, my brother’s crying, Bekija, my dear sister, my father strikes him across the mouth with the back of his hand, she’s an idiot, she should have sat on her ass, Nemanja takes out the bullet from the trousseau, my father has placed it there before seeing me off, it’s all according to the Kanun, if the bride isn’t pure, she must be shot by the groom with the bullet given by her father as part of the trousseau, that’s what the Kanun says, that’s what the Kanun says, the women in black are pulling out their hair, their wails now vehement, they lacerate their faces with their nails, they want to take off their masks, to turn their faces, the hoarseness in their throats, their wet headcloths, I can’t hear the goats’ bells, I can’t hear them, you’ve got a hand of gold, Nemanja, shoot straight, shoot, my son, Nemanja aims and shoots me in the chest, I feel nothing, I'm still standing, a red mark on my dress

          am I dying or being born

          it’ll all be over now, Nemanja walks out of the house, everyone’s quietly clapping, the village idiot comes into the room, is that you, Kooka, it’s me, he lifts me from the bed and carries me out in his arms like a bride, now I can finally hear the goats’ bells and they soothe me, Kooka cradles me in his arms towards the mouth of the river, the bells toll but these are not wedding bells, this is the funeral toll

          wash yourself, drink water from your elbows, pour three handfuls of water in
          your bosom, wet your apron and wrap your face

          I wake up 
          I get out of bed, kneel on the floor and pull out the box with the trousseau from under the bed, the bullet is there, on top of my blue dress, I am going to be married off tomorrow, I take the bullet, walk out into the hallway and put it in the pocket of my father’s fur coat, I wake him up, I will become a sworn virgin, are you sure, I am, are you pure, I'm pure

          wake your mother and Sále, the wedding’s off


          ever since I was born
          I’ve wanted my mother to dress me
          in blue
          if she makes me wear another color
          I sob
          for I was still in my mother’s womb
          when I heard things
          like my father saying
          iskam sin / I want a boy

          Bekija, daughter, you’ve destroyed us, a sworn virgin, how could you, it’s my wish, mother, then consider the groom’s honor stained, you’ve gotten us into a blood feud, you’ve destroyed us, child, you’ve destroyed us, what do you mean sworn virgin, haven’t we given you everything, what kind of devil has gotten into you, shush, you witch, it’s her wish, so be it, the Kanun says that she can turn away before the wedding and take the vow, she won’t be the first or the last in this village, we will protect the family’s honor, blood will be shed, so it shall be, the Kanun above all else, Bekija, choose, my father hands me the black ribbon

          who says you can’t touch death

          you can, on the arm of someone condemned to die, the black ribbon on the arm of every other man in the village, of everyone in a blood feud, of everyone who has to die, of everyone who has to kill, Nemanja must kill a man in our family to reclaim his honor, Bekija choose, who will it be, me or your brother

          my brother cries tearlessly, my father breathes heavily, the Kanun has finally seized him, blowing up his chest with its highest decree, the law of honor, my father lifts his left arm, my mother cries, I look at my father’s arm, if only he could levitate with his entire body for this honor so that he won’t succumb to some disease or perish in his sleep, so that he may go, marked by the two fingers of honor across his forehead, one movement of my arm and the painting falls to pieces, Bekija, choose, the air thickens, the ceiling slants downward

          it wasn’t meant to be this way 

          the water snake is hungry, feed it
          milky bride, douse it

          the thick beams close in on over the heads of the two men, I take Sále’s arm and tie the black ribbon around it, my mother sobs the way mothers sob when they’ve been told their son has been killed on the battlefield, her long petticoat sails over the room and wraps around the door like black smoke, the ceilings returns upright, the air thins, the breathing returns

          Sále doesn’t move, he’s no longer trembling, he isn’t crying
          Sále’s already dead, that’s why there’s no breath left in him

          keep your manhood, Sále, or stain it, let it be according your will, my father says, kisses my brother on both cheeks and leaves the room

          here’s your son, Murash, here, my mother wails in the cellar, her cry blackens the entire house, it passes through the beams, crosses the attic, pushes through the bricks on the roof and shatters one into the cement, the cat jumps into the shrub, my mother’s howl shoots above the village houses and searches for an open window


Rene Karabash (b. Irena Ivanova, 1989) is a multi-award-winning Bulgarian writer, screenwriter, playwright and actor. She was the recipient of several Best Actress awards for her leading role in the film Godless, including the Silver Leopard at Locarno and the Bronze Horse at Stockholm. Her poems have been published in literary anthologies around the world. Rene is the founder of The Rabbit Hole — a creative writing academy where some of Bulgaria’s most prominent writers teach. Her debut novel, She Who Remains, won the prestigious Elias Canetti award for literature, and was shortlisted for every possible national prize. She Who Remains has been published in Arabic, French, Polish, Bosnian and Macedonian, with more languages in the works. A movie based on the book, adapted for the big screen by the author, and a co-production between Albania, Germany, Italy and Romania, is currently in pre-production, with principal photography set to begin in 2024.