The Debtor is a novel with a fragmentary structure, and its plot is divided into two parts.The temporal frame is a period encompassing thirty years. In terms of structure, the novel is based on alternating fragments presenting the different characters:
A pregnant girl living in isolation in the house of a retired judge. It is the story of an unfair trial he conducted years ago and the rape and murder of a young woman that was hushed up by the authorities.
A young family and their relationship, which reaches the crisis point when they attempt to adopt a child.
A hospital where, after giving birth, underage girls often either disappear without a trace or their remains are found in the nearby forest.
The memories of love, which transcend the stylistic framework of the text and the reality it presents: pastoral landscapes, horses, sheep, a child and a father, who follow different paths together and pray for each other.
A flashback depicting a workers’ strike during which the workers and employees rip apart an innocent lamp—surreal scenes of violence and escalating madness.
A young woman living in her flat on the 16th and last floor, which is the sole thing she possesses. She endures abject poverty, debts, and nightmares.
An ornithologist, who wants to purchase the young woman’s flat in order to leave the house where he lives and where the attic teems with different birds.
This is a novel that simply refuses to tell a story. Instead, it conjures up images and states and, through the language of medicine, it follows them along the nerve endings: those lines of suffering drawn beneath the body’s surface.
Everything is prematurely deprived of whatever positive perspective, but there is still something that imperceptibly alters the pain and creates the sensation that a lifetime has been lived.
The girl woke up at night and looked around the room. She didn’t know where she was. She got scared. She started remembering—the last day at school, the violin lesson followed by the last kiss in the yard early in the morning, then the man who saw her to the airport and, in the end, the drive to the the old stranger‘s house. She looked around the room: a high ceiling, big, even enormous, windows with transparent curtains covering them so that from her position on the bed she could see the sky as if in a vision. A glassy dark blue sky and silent, indifferent stars staring through it.
She put on a pair of old man’s slippers left beside the bed and sneaked in the corridor. She listened hard. She couldn’t figure out where the old man’s room was, or the bathroom or the kitchen. No light was on in the entire house. She went to the window and looked though it. In the distance, she could see the lights of a small town and closer to the house was a television tower shining with bright red lights. There was a small yard with a few trees and their rotted leaves scattered on the ground.She decided to open the window but, due to the draught, a door banged and startled her. She felt an urge to exchange a word with someone, but there was complete silence in the house. It was obvious that no matter how many people lived there, they were all sleeping now. She lifted the edges of her nightdress a little and started descending the stairs. They screeched at every step, and she held her breath as she moved her thin legs one step at a time. The key hung from the inside of the entrance door. She looked around before turning it, then the lock quietly clicked. She just wanted to go out into the garden, but her heart was pounding as if she were committing some crime. She didn’t want to wake anybody up.
How many people live here?
She whispered it to herself and then she looked around. She walked among the trees. A couple of apple trees, a pear tree. She trampled on a piece of rotten fruit, took off her slipper, then picked up some yellow leaves and started wiping the sole. All of a sudden, she startled. She looked up to the windows, where it appeared that someone was watching her. She dropped the slipper on the ground and put it on. Her foot had become stiff with cold. She caught the edges of the nightdress, looked around the garden where the shadows of the trees were swaying. Leaves were scattering, and the rustling created the sensation that someone would come out of the dark end of the yard. The wind blew her hair in her face, so she didn’t notice the stone, hurt her foot and quietly groaned. The wind immediately blew the sound away and sent it to the gloomy nothingness of the nearby pitch.
There’s no one here. I have to go inside.
Once again, she glanced at one of the windows, where she thought she glimpsed the figure of a man standing up to his full height. Without a second look, she entered the house.
She turned the key again and silently began to climb the stairs. The more steps she climbed, the harder it was to hold back her tears. She closed the door behind her, flung herself down on the bed, then covered herself up with the blanket and cried until daybreak.
Early in the morning, it started raining heavily, as if it would never stop.
The girl was in the kitchen staring at the floor. The old man was sitting on a chair opposite her. Silence fell between these two people, who had never before met.
“It will soon turn into snow,” he reflected. “Aren’t you going to eat?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“My brother lives in town. He visits me regularly. He‘ll come soon to bring food. There are some meatballs here and stuff like that, so please help yourself. Besides, there’re tins of beans, bread and several bottles of wine.” He paused to think, and then added with a smile, “Do you want a cup of tea?”
“Everything’s gonna be alright.”
She remained silent.
After awhile, the old man got up and put plates on the table.
They ate in silence. At first, she put the spoon in the bowl of soup without looking at him. Uncomfortable, she swallowed very slowly. He didn’t look at her but turned to one side, picked his bowl up with both hands, and started drinking noisily. A bird was perched on the apple tree by the window, facing the house. It craned its neck and squeaked. The old man got up and broke off a bit of bread, then opened the window and put the crumbs on the sill. The bird came closer and stretched out one of its legs, slackening its wings. After adopting its normal posture, it began to peck.
The girl looked around, jumped from her chair and ran along the corridor. She couldn’t reach the bathroom at the opposite end, so she crouched and vomited. She heard the squeak of the bird. It obviously wanted more food. The man spoke, probably to no one at all.
She started crying. She went to the bathroom for a basin and a rag, turned on the cold tap and drank from her cupped hand before filling the basin so she could clean the puddle of vomit.
She went back to the kitchen. He must have heard her, but he was still standing by the window, feeding the bird. The rain had stopped. The clouds.The light. The yellow, rotting leaves that smelled of the humidity, the cool autumn air. No noise. Only drops of water falling from everywhere. The girl wiped her eyes with her sleeve, took her bowl and spoon, and went to the sink to wash them. She stared at the cold running water, then crouched again and sipped from her cupped hand. The old man was looking at the bird pecking at the bread crumbs:
“There is some boiled tea on the hotplate.”
The girl didn’t say anything.
“You want some more bread, don’t you?”
This question wasn’t addressed to her.
She went to rest. She opened the window, then got up and ran to the other end of the corridor. This time, she managed to reach the toilet. Again, she cried for awhile, then went back to the kitchen and drank some tea.
She returned to her room, getting into bed and covering herself with all of the blankets. She was shivering.
She began to feel suffocated and uncovered herself. She got up to open the window and inhaled the autumn air, which relaxed her. She returned to the bed but kept tossing and turning. Finally, she threw the pillows on the floor, faced the window, and fell asleep.
She woke up in the afternoon. She had dreamed about holding a small dove that was almost grown, but still not enough to fly. She was perfectly aware that the dove had escaped from the loft of a small boy, around ten years old, who bred pigeons in a forest, on a small green lawn—a place where bees could usually be found. The boy woke up early in the morning, when it was still dark, and to check the pigeons in the loft. The small doors were open, but all of the pigeons were there, except for one. Its carcass was lying on the ground, head severed.
The boy closed the doors and put food and water in the troughs, while letting out a loud, childish cry. He cried like a baby. He went back home and kept crying all day and night. Then he found a slingshot in the attic of the house where he lived, put it in his pocket and went back to the lawn with the loft. All night, he waited to see if an animal—or something else—would attack the pigeons.
Nothing happened. In the morning the girl held the small dove, still unable to fly, in her hands. It couldn’t chirp, the way every healthy pigeon could. It was their way of communicating and making their parents feed them. This one only gaped with its soft beak, making no sound. She knew that she had to chirp for it, but she couldn’t. She watched it open its beak, herself opening her mouth to chirp at the right moment. But her throat shrunk, and no sound came. She simply couldn’t do it.
She held the bird in her hands at eye level: the beak, the delicate tongue, the beady eyes. And her throat, suffering from the excruciating pain of the suppressed chirp.
“That’s right, it’s difficult when you know why you’re doing it. It’s difficult when you have to take responsibility.”
She didn’t know if the words had come from the voice in the garden. She got out of bed. She had begun to sweat and now the frosty air made her shiver. She went back to the bed, took one blanket, and wrapped herself with it before approaching the window. The old man was talking to someone. There was a plastic bag in his hand full of neatly arranged boxes—more food, probably. He accompanied the visitor to the end of the path, then returned. She closed the window and went to change.
The smell of straw in winter. The village. The mud. The bleating of different animals coming from all directions. The child—a small girl, about seven years old—who crosses the whole yard, jumps over the fence, and joins the animals. Two horses remain in the stable this winter. Shiny, maroon. A crossbreed with a specially selected Arab stallion. Not suitable for heavy agricultural work.
She opens the small door; the horses stir. Their eyes are as big as apples. In winter, they grow darker. They lack movement. In spring, they become irritable. It is then that they begin to bite, wound, and kick one another.
Now, they simply look at her. The child has heard many stories about people who have been kicked by horses. She knows she shouldn’t enter, but she does so all the same. She knows she should stay a meter and a half away from the horse’s rump. She jumps over and steps between the horses.
If they wanted to, they could kill her. Just one blow would be enough. She stands between them. They stir. When they are irritated, they make sudden movements with their hind legs. When they’re bored as well. You can distinguish irritation from boredom—a zigzag movement is usually a symptom of boredom. When they toss their heads or hind legs, it’s not a good idea to stand between them.
The child is young and stands between their bellies. If they decide to trample her, they will and that will be it. She can crouch and suck from the mare. She is just as tall. They can also bite her, as they do when they’re irritated. The trauma is worse than from a dog bite.
The child may unsettle any of them or startle them with a sudden, unexpected movement. After all, they are not used to having a child between them, trying to touch their manes. She pulls the mare’s mane. Now she wants to get on its back. Surprisingly, she is not afraid.
A few days earlier, she brought them water. One of the horses stuck its head in the bucket and drank up five liters in less than ten minutes. The child filled it back up with the help of a small jug. Then she pushed it back to the horse.
The other horse came closer, then raised and tossed its head, splashing the child’s face with mucus and water. It neighed quietly. That could be taken as a sign of trust.
But a single kick is more than enough. Death comes as a result of a closed-head injury due to the force of the blow. Concussion and injury ensue. Brain functions halt, and cardiac and respiratory vital centers are paralyzed, which has a direct causal relationship with death. There may be more than one blow. By both horses, in turn. The animals may be startled, and undisguised aggression is a reaction against fear. It guides their instinct and ruins their composure like a chain reaction, a domino effect. Then the traumatic aortic disruption acts as a secondary cause, resulting from a blow to the back between the shoulder blades.
One of the horses snorts and barely looks at her. The other stamps with its front hooves. The child imagines that she is a foal and crouches to suck from her mother’s teat. Awhile ago, she ate hay, imagining that she was a lamb.
After the death, an investigation is conducted. Five policemen and two forensic pathologists. They lift the body. The horses are taken away to be shot. Eventually it is found out that there is no crime. Just an accident.
All of this is very likely to occur.
Yet the mare casts a glance at the child, eyes as big as apples, and starts sniffing her hair. She has stolen a piece of bread from the house and takes it out of her pocket. She drops the crusts on the hay, jumps over the fence, and runs from the stable. Outside, the sun is going down. The air is encapsulated in the lungs. The cool odour of the well. Somewhere, at this very moment, many new horses are brought into the world and many people die from their traumas: crushed heads, fractured vertebrae, bones, punctured internal organs, and so on.
The child doesn’t know that all this is possible. On the way back to the sheep pen, she jumps cheerfully.
She’s still young, still unborn. She can’t see that life is hanging by a thread or, rather, by a hair. Not a horse’s hair, but the hair of a woman’s head.
The old man got up early every day and went out to smoke in the garden.
The girl learned to touch the bird. She left crumbs on the sill and waited for it at the usual times—in the morning, at noon, and in the late afternoon. It usually perched on one of the branches of the tree opposite the house. They didn’t know where its nest was. They couldn’t determine what species it was, either.
“I had a friend, an ornithologist, and I showed it to him when he visited me, but he couldn’t tell, either. After awhile, he came back with some books, comparing the images and descriptions, but there was nothing similar. He even grew enthusiastic because he believed that in that wilderness, where it was relatively quiet and peaceful, some new and unfamiliar species had appeared. He asked me to stay at my place for several weeks so that he could examine it. Then he went back to the town to fetch his gadgets.”
The old man seemed embarrassed and fell silent.
“And what happened?”
“To him? Nothing. He passed away.”
It was better to stop explaining. In any case, she would become distressed even by the frosty wind blowing through the cracks of this deserted house, so he fell silent. She took a few steps forward, approached the window where the bird was looking for crumbs and tapping the sill with its beak. She watched it, wiping her eyes with her palms.
She woke up and got out of bed. She entered the kitchen; he wasn’t there. She opened the window and crumbled some bread. She saw him below. After awhile, she went down to the garden with a small bowl of milk in her hand. She looked around and left it under a tree. A cat immediately appeared from somewhere and started lapping it. The girl squatted down beside it stroking its head and speaking quietly.
The old man was smoking with his back leaning against the wall:
“Don’t touch the cat.”
The girl looked at him and kept on stroking the cat.
“It won’t hurt me.”
The man tossed his cigarette butt, shooed away the cat and pulled the girl by the arm:
“Don’t touch the cat.”
“Because I say so. When you see you mother, she will explain it to you.”
“Why should she explain this to me?”
“Because it’s none of my business.”
She suddenly got up. Everything swam before her eyes. She stood there for awhile, leaning against the wall. Then she went into the house and slammed the door. A moment later, she was outside again, asking him for a cigarette.
“Otherwise I’ll vomit.”
The old man passed her the packet without looking at her. Just because he didn’t want her to see him smiling.
No pleasant moment, experience, or even memory had happened to him recently. The bare tree trunks, the thick darkness among them, the memories of a gone world haunted his dreams more and more often. He could see them disappear every day. He could see them dying every day: first they walked in the distance, trying to hide from him the way wild animals sought a quiet and solitary place to breathe their last. Then they began to do it without hiding, unabashed. At some point they stopped caring, one by one: they were shameless and had lost their inhibitions. They did this as if it were deprived of sanctity. They increased in number to whole gangs, flocks passing by his house. Some of them dropped in for a cup of tea or a drink, but most of them didn’t want even that. Sometimes they were holding hands in twos, threes, or fours, first shouting, then singing songs, and finally—as the years went by—there was only silence. Ultimately, they started taking a short cut—right through him. He tried to hold them back: the soft blond hair, the thin arm, the sleeve of someone’s shirt, even a patch of rose fabric and a white ribbon. But it all remained in his clenched fist while they disappeared. They were gone.
How could he possibly explain all that to her?
He held the bowl of milk in his hand, pensively looking at what was at the bottom. Then he raised it and drank it up. He leaned against the brick wall of the house with the empty bowl in his hands, as if waiting for a second helping.
They—those who preferred to hide their life in the remotest parts of the world the way the brain pushes traumas to the most secret, dismal, and impenetrable places and tries as best it can to avoid them because it knows that, from the dark corner, a small and dirty head will appear, will stretch out its sinewy and muddy arm that will dig its fingers into every fold, and will try to get even. The same way a greedy thief breaks into a house, catches the owner by the throat, and demands, “Where’s the money?”
Like attentive hosts they preferred it to everything else—an overloaded day, work and planning how to draw senseless railway axes across the sky with prosperity flowing through them. They, those who didn’t want to raise their own children and sent them away, as if they were criminals sentenced to imprisonment in a camp, where no one knew what was in store for them.
They didn’t know what they were doing.
That was dreadful, and he had never expected it.
Until then, he would probably take care of her as best he could. At any rate, only a few months were left.