Alimpije Markovic, law clerk in the Palilula Municipal Assembly, left his apartment that morning not in the best of moods. There were several reasons for this. The first was his wife: the day before, when he had come home from the office, she had told him that their son, a high school student, had brought home his report card for the first term with three failing grades and a reprimand for a great many unexcused absences. Then, he had waited up until 11 o'clock that night for his daughter, a student, to come home, and had had a longish and unpleasant talk with her, after which he had been unable to get to sleep. Tossing on the bed, halfway between sleep and wakefulness, his mind had kept turning over his own troubles which might come upon him at work, because of his new boss, whom he still didn't know well enough. And because of the old secretary, who, he was certain, didn't care for him at all. There was no visible reason for this. As far as he could see, he hadn't done anything wrong - but one never knew what could be held against even the most conscientious member of the community in hard and complicated times.
On top of all this, early in the morning, in the unheated kitchen after a sleepless night, his wife had placed a cup of cold coffee on the table in front of him and asked for shopping money, which, at the end of the month, he didn't have to give her. After this, Alimpije Markovic felt that his troubles were too much for him. ''Too much misery for one man to bear,'' he thought, taking his coat and descending the dark staircase.
It was dark. The streetlights had been extinguished, and those of the heavens , still unlit, or still weak and not yet luminous, had not broken through the smoke, the fog, and the low clouds. The streets were almost deserted; only a stray passer-by hurried along here and there, hunched and chilled. Those who did not have to go out early, and could laze in warm beds as long as they liked, should count their blessings, Alimpije Markovic thought.
A few people passed by him, coming from the other direction or overtaking him. Workers hurrying to the depots of the city bus lines, charwomen hurrying home, their work finished before the shops and offices opened, early travellers, departing or arriving by train.
Two or three people greeted him in passing - those whom he passed practically every day in the street, not really knowing them - but even they only waved a hand by way of greeting, as everyone had his head bent.
Then two large women appeared, walking in his direction, taking up so much of the sidewalk that he wondered how he could pass them. Would he have to step down into the water, or would it be better to huddle close to the wall, and perhaps to move out of their path into the nearest doorway until the women had passed? He felt they would run over him, like a truck or a tractor come up onto the sidewalk; in his miserable mood, not wishing to collide with anyone that morning , he moved to the wall and stood against it sideways, facing the street, giving the women a free passage and waiting for them to go by. Even so, the one nearest him practically brushed against him. And precisely she, who seemed to him the younger of the two, said in passing, addressing her friend sufficiently clearly and distinctly for him to hear:
''I tell you: I am so very happy!''
Only that, and just so! He didn't even catch the other woman's answer, if she made one at all. Firm, not caring where they were stepping and not avoiding the puddles in the road, both women walked hurriedly, as if marching, and Alimpije Markovic had caught in the moment only that fragment of a sentence that met his ear in an instant, just as their passing had caused a current of air to brush his face and his nose was assailed by the smell of garlic from the cheap sausages the women had eaten that morning in their homes, or along the way . . . in some canteen.
''Merciful heavens,'' Alimpije Markovic said to himself in his depressed, worried, and downcast mood, splashing through the mud puddles, already feeling his feet getting wet in his thin, worn-out shoes, ''Who can be so happy on a day like this, going to work early in the morning along deserted streets, with only an occasional chilled and rain-drenched pedestrian walking along, bowed under his cares, wanting to take shelter in a dry, warm room as soon as possible?'' And why, for what mysterious reason, would a woman like that, not young, not pretty, not rich or idle, be happy and satisfied? Even more than that, why would she be so very happy?
''For love?'' he asked himself, accustomed to judging a woman's happiness by newspaper stories and office chatter. He didn't think so. From what he had seen at a glimpse in passing, she hadn't given him that impression.
Even if she were married, it seemed, judging by her appearance, and her age, that she had been in wedlock too long for her union to be the cause of such happiness on her part. After all, Alimpije Markovic knew this for himself, by looking at himself and his own wife. Admittedly, he had no cause to complain about her, but she certainly gave him no reason to seek to unburden his feelings to others, and that in the street, on a morning such as this.
What was it, then? What was it about, and what had the woman been thinking of , saying what she did?
Suddenly, to his great wonder, that one single, isolated sentence, which he had heard in passing and with the flimsiest particle of his attention as the women were walking past him, came to embody and disclose so many unusual, secret , and fateful issues, as if, like some magic conjuration from a tale of the Orient, it had suddenly unfastened and drawn wide open the great doors of the heavenly, universal firmament, with all its endless, infinite, and incomprehensible reaches, with room for as many human destinies as there were heavenly bodies in the Milky Way in the summer. And what seems to us a simple whitish path in the night sky proves, when viewed through the narrow funnel of a telescope, to be a teeming multitude and indecipherable network of different, autonomous stars, as if we had peered into the seemingly uncomplicated life of someone else's inhabited rooms and discovered, to our surprise, the complex life of a family unknown to us.
And with all the cold, unpleasant damp that was increasingly gripping him, and his own troubles which weighed him down as he walked, bending his back - discovering in the words of that unknown woman passing by an intimation of the pleasant echo of distant silver sleigh bells, of happiness - he, Alimpije Markovic, felt how that accidentally intercepted sentence was beginning to excite and to warm him, lifting him from the numbness into which he had sunk, and from the dreariness of daily life.
If the woman had said she was unhappy, worried about her work or concerned about her daughter or son; if she had complained of her small salary, of the high prices at the market, or her shabby apartment, he would not have noticed her words.
But in the foul mood in which he'd left his home, in the damp and desolate morning that heralded the rest of the dreary day, it seemed to him that he had slid from the threshold of his home, as from a quay or from the deck of a ship, into icy, muddy, dirty water, which was bearing him along. The sentence had placed within his grip a life belt that could keep him on the surface, and had offered him something firm and permanent.
''I tell you: I am so very happy!'' rang in his ears.
Had she received some news that morning which had made her so happy: a better job in the enterprise where she worked, so she wouldn't have to go out so early, into such foggy and unpleasant mornings, or spend her working hours pushing her way through crowds in packed, stifling buses? Or perhaps she had simply been pleased by a small sign of attention - a present for her birthday from her husband and child.
For, Alimpije Markovic asked himself, did human happiness always require a great and important reason? Or did a kind, pleasant word, a small sign of attention and goodwill, sometimes suffice? And this very simple realization of the modest causes and reasons for human happiness seemed to light one light after another within Alimpije Markovic, as he walked to his office, until he was glowing inside, festively lit like the New Years trees they had decorated at home while the children were still small.
He pushed his head out of his coat collar, like a tortoise poking out of its shell. He paused on the corner, and before crossing the street, looked back down the road he had covered.
''I tell you: I am so very happy!'' He seemed to hear the woman's voice again. This time, no longer silvery clear, but somehow caressing, dovelike, cooing and warm, like an invitation just for him. Judging by that voice, the young woman might not even be as rough and soldierly as he had thought in passing. Perhaps she was even pretty, or at least attractive and sweet, with something good and gentle in her expression, Alimpije Markovic thought, and wished he could see her again, for just a moment. Forgetting the piles of papers waiting on his desk, and his decision not to be late for work that morning, he turned and retraced his steps, hurrying between the pedestrians, dodging or brushing aside those who blocked his path.
But the two women in grey conductors' overcoats were nowhere to be seen. They had gone too far, turned off into a side street, or perhaps dropped into some shop.
Entering his office building, he thought that perhaps it was better this way. There could only have been one answer to his question, perhaps completely insignificant, nothing to do with him, his moods, and troubles. This way, with no precise or complete explanation, that statement of happiness would remain to him an isolated, joyful cry!
Bright and smiling as he walked, late, along the stairways and corridors past his surprised colleagues, Alimpije Markovic had the feeling that, this morning, someone completely unknown had accidentally made him a great gift. Alimpije Markovic, law clerk in the Palilula Municipal Assembly, felt enriched and happy because he had noticed those unusual words, had picked them up, out of the dirty street, and, taking them with him, had placed them in honoured and respected positions.
Translated from the Serbian by Maja Samolov. Excerpted from a longer story that originally appeared in ''Relations,'' a Yugoslavian literary review.