THE GRIFFIN FISH
Translated by Loredana Mihani & Wayne Miller
The life of Pjeter Budi belongs to the earth; eternity belongs to the water.
On Christmas Eve, 1622, Pjeter Budi was traveling with four abbots. He was hoping to cross the turbulent Drin River in a small boat. The surrounding hills were pocked with caves, like in distant Bethlehem. A dog was traveling with the men.
The youngest abbot was named Nicolle Leka. He was the first one to climb into the boat. He reached out to pull Budi aboard. The other two men and the dog followed.
Just a few feet from shore, the boat overturned, and they all fell into the water. Budi was holding onto Leka’s sleeve, begging for help. Leka hardened himself and slipped out of reach, never to return.
With a bit of torn sleeve in his hand, Budi was swept away by the current.
The other abbots dragged themselves ashore. They were soaked. The dog clambered out, too, and began to run alongside the apocalyptic current, chasing a human image sealed in memory by the Drin River. As the dog disappeared from sight, he yelped with pain and was never seen again.
It was snowing, and the cassocks of the four abbots were icing over. It had been their sacred task to protect and keep the bishop, Pjeter Budi—but, idiotically, they’d let him drown. As they walked, icicles hung from their cassocks, cutting the tops of their feet. They kept walking—but to where? Every road was now circular, pouring back to the place of Budi’s drowning. They would become prisoners of this event, this crime, consumed by shame for the rest of their lives, even in death.
“Oh, my son—Leka, Leka,” Budi cried out inside himself while drowning in the Drin River. “Now let me die.” The cold sealed him up like a redemptive catafalque spinning around him at great speed. The Drin is not the River Jordan, nor one of the rivers of Hades—but for Budi, death came in the form of screaming waters, followed by golden, blinding eternity.
His nose, mouth, and lungs filled with water. Water surrounded him like a turbid, nightmarish, all-encompassing mirror. He remembered the Latin of Saint Paul: Videmus nunc per speculum in aenigmate: tunc autem facie ad faciem. Nunc cognosco ex parte: tunc cognoscam sicut et cognitus sum: “For now we see only a reflection, as in a mirror; but afterwards we shall see face to face. Now I know God partly; then I shall know him fully, just as He knows us.”
The terrible pain of drowning was fading. Death is always fleeting, was Budi’s final thought.
His limbs were nearly frozen, as were his eyelids, sealed wide open around his eyes. A branch in the water hit against his forehead (as if it had arrived from the cross of Golgotha). He became part of the Drin River.
For three days the river channeled Budi’s body toward the Adriatic. Slowly he reached the sea’s bottom—as though he were inside the clear, dimensionless sphere of God’s tear. God’s universe.
Small fish gathered around Budi’s exhausted body. Among them was a bigger fish, the king of these soundless animals. The fish began to nibble at the body, swallow bits of its flesh, muscles, ligaments. Three months later, Budi’s skeleton had been picked clean. The biggest fish had eaten his brain and eyes.
Only his ceremonial robes and his crozier remained among the coral.
Now, because of some strange force, the school of fish could no longer separate from each other. Together, they carried Budi’s body.
After that, these griffin fish could no longer eat. And the other fish—sharks, octopuses, squids, crabs—seemed afraid of them, steering clear of Budi’s fish-cluster.
For nearly a century the griffin fish drifted around the north of the Adriatic, a single divine entity. Then the school started moving south, where it lingered for another century along the Mediterranean coast. From there, it crossed through the Strait of Gibraltar and moved into the Atlantic for another century.
As this fish school was swimming toward the coast of Mexico, it suddenly encountered another, similar school of fish. This school had swallowed the body of the nearly insane American poet Hart Crane.
From then on these two groups of fish couldn’t separate from each other—they joined to form a mysterious unity of fragments.
Hart Crane had drowned willingly, having jumped off the deck of a ship. His metaphors, filled with dismay and horror and modern prophecy, had attracted these fish, assigned by God to join his exhausted and besotted body.
How strange and surprising are God’s plans! Only He could have conceived this surreal plot; only He is fully aware of hidden meanings.
Why was it that the fish of Pjeter Budi—an ecclesiastical, baroque, and temperate poet—became connected to the fish of Hart Crane—a modern poet, about as famous as anyone in world literature?
Of course they were unknown to each other—but their respective schools of fish quickly recognized one another, though three centuries lay between them.
These griffin fish remain unknown, unrecorded in the books of marine zoology, the infinite ichthyofauna.
Indeed, in the end we can only repeat the lines in clear, sacred Latin: Videmus nunc per speculum in aenigmate . . .
Thus things that seem incongruous can become united, the dark can become clear, the lives of long ago, completely unknown to each other, can become reflections of each other. What is not understood on earth can be understood underwater. Common anthropomorphic forms become symbolized by these strange, immortal fish of memory—which are full of significance, but which are also an oversight of immeasurable eternity.
 Pjetër Budi (1566-1622), Albanian bishop and author.
Read Moikom Zeqo’s “The Griffin Fish” translated by Loredana Mihani & Wayne Miller in the print edition of The Arkansas International 7.
Moikom Zeqo, a prolific author of poetry, fiction, children’s books, and monographs on history and literature, has published over 100 books in his lifetime including more than two dozen collections of poetry. He served as Albainia’s Minister of Culture in 1991, and as a parliamentary representative in the Albanian Popular Assembly from 1992-1996. From 1998–2004 he directed the National Historical Museum in Tirana. Since then, he has worked as a journalist, art curator, and freelance writer.
Loredana Mihani received her BA in 2015 from John Cabot University in Rome, followed by a Master of Studies in English from Oxford University through the Ertegun Graduate Scholarship Programme. Her own translations of poems by Moikom Zeqo have appeared in Asymptote. She is currently pursuing further graduate work at the University of Graz in Austria.
Wayne Miller has published four poetry collections, most recently Post- (Milkweed, 2016), winner of the UNT Rilke Prize and the Colorado Book Award. He has co-translated two books by Moikom Zeqo, most recently Zodiac (Zephyr, 2015), a finalist for the PEN Center USA Award in Translation, and he has co-edited three books, including Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century (Milkweed, 2016), and New European Poets (Graywolf, 2008). He teaches at the University of Colorado Denver and edits Copper Nickel.