it hurts right in the clock
nailed to the wall
tick-tock, tick, tick,
thump, thump, thump, thump
we barely inhale,
the time will come
soon, on the hour,
our arrhythmia is a disease
which makes us human
and keeps us from suffering
when the clock's pendulum
first strikes us
they call it time,
to no avail
a little brown bird inside
will ﬂy out
into the One it falls in love with
from its first strike
Ivan often recalled his deceased mother, thinking that aft er all, she had had a happy life. Or at least a life in which every moment of pain was worth it and just as valuable as every moment of overwhelming joy. Sometimes these moments mirrored one another so closely that Ivan didn't know was she was experiencing – birth or death, sickness or health, suffering or happiness.
His mother had fallen in love with his father when she was still in school and had later married him. She was quite educated, which was unusual for the time – the only literate child in the family. Because of her brains, her father had sent her to study law in Bucharest. She must have been one of the fi rst women at the law school there – definitely one of the first Bulgarian women – to benefit from the equal rights introduced by the new communist government.
But she didn't graduate. One summer, late into the season, she was back home and on her way to the corn fields to help her brothers and sisters with the harvest, when her father saw her nestle her head against Ivan's father, the two of them poorly hidden behind the unpicked corncobs. When she came home that evening, her father had burned all her books, leaving aside only a few novels, which he then tore apart for toilet paper. The next evening Ivan's parents fled to Bulgaria, where his father had family, and settled in the town of General Toshevo. Both his parents joined the collective farm there and devoted their lives to fattening ducks, herding cattle and mowing alfalfa. In their free time – they worked.
After his father's death, Ivan could barely get his mother to her feet. She refused to eat, speak or even drink water. He brought various doctors to see her. Once, she collapsed while working in the garden. Then his father's sister took her to the church in Dobrich (there was no church in General Toshevo), where the priest said a mass for his father. His mother came home with an icon, which she hung on her window frame. And she started eating and drinking again.
She slept in a small bed in one corner of the room, with windows in the wall above her head and to her right (when she was lying on her back). She had placed the icon – the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child – to her right as well, and set a red pelargonium above her head between the two windows.
Ivan realized that his mother was now praying for his father every day. Being a child, he thought she had been taught to do this by the mourners and was afraid she might die soon, too. But when he woke up every morning, he found her looking out the window, serene and with a smile on her face, as he had always known her.
"If we pray for your father, he will pray for us."
"There is no death…."
She went to bed and awoke in the morning, peering into the sagging sky outside through the cross formed by the window pane.
Ivan went to study veterinary medicine in Varna. He didn't even apply to the Institute in Sofia. He had barely left home when, during his first week, he was summoned back. Their barn had been broken into and the sheep stolen.
Such theft s had become more and more common, as the price of wool had risen and mutton always sold well on the market. Almost everyone in this small town – which was little more than a village – had sheep, collectively herded by a village shepherd. Over the next few years, people gradually slaughtered their sheep, others sold them or never bought new ones aft er their sheep were stolen. Hardly anyone made a living from sheep farming. Everyone had been raised on sheep's milk and with the smell of wool. They all loved the baby lambs, the bells and the bleating, which reminded them, against the blood-red sunset, that life still went on.
Some might say – per argumentum a contrario – "there is no death".
Ivan and his mother had ten sheep, which he loved to take out to pasture near the bus station. He would drive them back home at dusk, milk them and bring the warm, steaming milk inside.
After the theft, his frail mother had been rushed to the hospital. She wasn't scared, she said, just surprised. There were several of them – she had heard their voices. She told the police they were "pure Bulgarians, not Gypsies," and later admitted to Ivan that she had recognised their voices. They opened the gate and loaded the sheep onto a truck. Watching out the back window, she had crossed herself once they were gone and had waited until the morning.
After the interrogation at the police station, his mother was taken to the hospital for the second time. Three days later she passed away.
The memorial service was held in Dobrich, where she was buried next to his father.
After a couple of days, Ivan decide to take time off from the university and went back home to General Toshevo.
There he lived in the house on his own. He started having a drink now and again. Then he found a couple of his father's bottles of brandy and at age twenty got drunk for the first time in his life. One day, after a truly miserable bender, he woke up, only to find himself under the table. When he crawled out, he saw the words "I want to die," scribbled in a margin of Golden Years – a newspaper his mother had subscribed to and which he still received.
Of his friends in General Toshevo, only the biggest losers had remained in town. The rest had either emigrated or moved to Varna, Plovdiv or Sofia. One of them was working for an IT-company in Burgas.
One night, Ivan found himself totally drunk at the tavern, in the arms of fat Mariana (the only woman who had ever taken a shine to him). Without knowing why, he had had sex with her right there on the lawn in front of everybody. She giggled and hugged him, crushing him with her large breasts, while he kept grinning away with an alcoholic glint in his eyes. Perhaps he had been happy when it was happening, but the only thing he felt after sobering up was ridiculous, unbearable shame.
Then the academic year started and he went back to Varna.
Another cigarette. Night settled upon eye sockets, covering everything in darkness and beginning its arithmetic. A bank-loan could ruin your life. Two loans could be doubly ruinous. If you take out a mortgage for an apartment, you have to repay this mortgage over 15, 20, or even 30 years. Ivan was clutching the cigarette butt, trying to count – 15, 20, 30. A fist as big as a child's hand was thumping him on the chest, making him restless and not allowing him to put out the little toxic fire that provided the only light in the night. What if she really demanded this of him?
He stubbed out the cigarette and lay down next to Elena, listening to her breathing as he fell asleep in fear.
A hand. It reaches out at night and starts dusting, so that nobody can see. Say, do you dust at night? Darkness covers all the corners, and it is impossible to see all the specks rising up into the air. Only a dream can hold this little hand, which brushes away the dust with its palm, its skin wiping clean whatever has been collected in the day, lifting everything into the air with light and fluid movements, so that nothing can ever be seen or understood.
And the hand starts to caress – first the hair, it runs its thin and gentle fingers along the balding crown and the whole body shudders without feeling ashamed that it is an old man with a thirty-year-old body. He comes with the house, this old man. The hand does not pull back, and the old man is already numb, it is very cold, and we can't get warm because the bills have not been paid, and as-of-yet unconceived credit is already moving in the wet womb of the beautiful woman by his side, and the hand is not embarrassed that Elena is sleeping next to him, and it still caresses his balding head, then moves to his face, and it does strange things to this face, which has always been ugly, even when making a wry expression, and it has grown uglier and uglier, dwindling with the years like a speck brushed into the air, and the hand caresses him on the forehead, on the cheek, this face has always frightened women, some did not take fright, and one even got it into her head to clean it with detergent, scouring powder and a little bleach, but this hand delves right into the dirt and is never squeamish but asks him to kiss its dirty fingers without closing his eyes.
Before Elena got up, Ivan jumped from the bed and went to the bathroom to wash, so that she would not see that he had once again dreamed of the gentle hand, which brushed all the specks of dust into the air and before dawn had caught the most imperceptible of them in its small fingers.
This is how he woke up some mornings. His heart grew heavy, it was dilapidated, they said, several doctors had examined him already and this made Elena suspicious, and he nervously lit his cigarettes, frowning; he had gotten it from his mother, her family had been like this, in each generation someone's heart had given out at a very early age. And it didn't matter how he lived – whether he smoked or drank or talked to the gods every morning, his healthy body bursting with healthy spirit, one day he would pop off and leave the others behind, still young, thump, thump, thump, and finally he would slam the door in his relative' faces, almost spiteful with all his teeth still in his head.
Thump, thump, thump.
The gate of their country house also creaked like this, since nobody had repaired it after his father's death. It hung from some old rickety hinges, painted green, with four or five boards hammered across another two – it looked like the crooked smile of some old mutt, and at night, while he still lived in General Toshevo, when he had to go to the toilet (which in their house, too, was still a separate outhouse) he shuddered, because the stiff old boards looked like his mother's black silhouette, which swayed in the night wind and gave off noises swinging up and down – thump, thump, thump.Bowing down to the ground. Тo God.
Marianna Georgieva was born in 1986. She graduated with a degree in Law from Sofia University. In October 2012, she started a master's programme in Creative Writing at Sofi a University. Her work has been published in Granta Bulgaria and Th e Literary Journal. She writes poetry and prose.
The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and Vagabond, Bulgaria's English Monthly, cooperate in order to enrich the English language with translations of contemporary Bulgarian writers. Every year we give you the chance to read the work of a dozen young and sometimes not-so-young Bulgarian writers that the EKF considers original, refreshing and valuable. Some of them have been translated in English for the first time. The EKF has decided to make the selection of authors' work and to ensure they get first-class English translation, and we at Vagabond are only too happy to get them published in a quality magazine. Enjoy our fiction pages.