There was once a shepherd boy who would play upon a wooden flute as he watched his sheep or sit and cut a new flute as they cropped the slopes. On mornings when the wind was still in the trees, before the muezzin lifted his voice in the call to morning prayer, the sound of the flute would echo down the hillside. From where he sat, the boy saw the ewes and their lambs drifting back and forth across the grass like the clouds in the skies above and from time to time he cast a glance above him to the treeline where mostly only the birds came and went. He also watched the valley below, the boats up and down the river, the road where the soldiers marched or the farmers came to market and the towers of the pasha’s palace that rose above the white-walled town. On some days he thought he could see the pasha’s daughter as she passed at a window.
The day came when a line of men with knives and guns marched out from the forest and spread themselves along the edges of the meadow, driving the sheep before them, snatching away the lambs. When the boy ran to stop them he was cuffed on the head and fell to the ground, then was tied by his wrists and taken. In the next days, in the forest, while the men ate the roasted meat of the lambs and passed bottles from hand to hand at their fires, he heard their talk and knew that these were the bandits who fought against the pasha’s soldiers. Some were dressed in sheep-skin, like him, some were dressed in farmers’ jackets and some in the broadcloth of the towns. One man wore eye-glasses to look at his maps and papers and the others listened when he talked.
Because the boy knew the mountain slopes and the forests, he was allowed to live, and because the man with the eye-glasses was killed by soldiers that winter, the young shepherd led the few bandits who were left. He put by his flute and learnt to shoot a gun, and thought of what he had watched from the hillside, and when two summers had passed his band was known by the soldiers, the farmers and the merchants whose boats they plundered. In the spring of the third year he entered the pasha’s palace at the head of his men. None in the palace were in any doubt as to who this man was, with his blood-boltered boots, the pistol at his waist and the fierce moustaches that swept down his shadowed face, nor in any doubt as to what he meant for them.
The pasha weighed up the choice between the strangler’s cord in the capital and some face-saving arrangement here in the province and suggested that young bandit marry his daughter. The girl spoke, saying that she could not marry the bandit chief. ‘Years ago, I used to look from the tower of my father’s palace to the hills above where a shepherd boy played songs of love and longing on his flute for me each morning; his face was as bright as the sun and as clear as the mountain stream. But one day I heard his flute no more, and never saw him again. I cannot marry a bandit while that boy still lives in my memory.’
The bandit chief glared at her for a long while and then said, “You may go, then, with your father, back to the capital and to whatever awaits you there. I will not force you for I, too, once had a love like that and I would not lose it for all the world.’
SAMUEL P. WILCOCKS. Wilcocks translates from Czech, German, Romanian and Slovene into English and lives in Giurgiu on the Danube with his family. He received the German Ambassador’s Award for Literary Translation (London) in 2010. His translation of Hugo Loetscher’s Noah and Dietmer Dath’s Die Abschaffung der Arten( The Abolition of Species) are forthcoming from Seagull Books (May and June 2012, respectively).