John, an American, is biding his time with the family of his Bulgarian wife as he drinks, smokes and makes enthusiastic but not particularly successful attempts to understand that strange Balkan country called Bulgaria.
Maya, a Bulgarian, is acquainted with the ancient history and agrees to help with the investigation.
The reckless journey brings John and Maya through dead villages and sanctuaries, abandoned cemeteries and luxurious villas as they meet treasure hunters, good cops and bad cops, and people, who have no future as they are too busy being obsessed with the past.
While the ring of assassinations encircles John and Maya, they discover that nothing is more scary than the amalgamation of organised crime and government that has erased the borderline between good and evil, between virtue and ignominy.
The Smile of the Dog is a provocative, dynamic archaeological thriller that entwines ancient and contemporary history, media, philosophy and politics, doomed love and the moral chaos of Bulgaria of the 21st Century.
The Smile of the Dog, the first novel by Vagabond editor Dimana Trankova,w as published by Collibri Press in Sofia, in June 2014; in Bulgarian. It is being translated into English and French, with publications pending in both the UK and France.
The man on the rock could never have imagined himself asking this question. But then again, he could never have imagined himself in this situation to start with.
"With an ordinary knife?" he said. His mouth was dry. He'd kill for a bit of water.
"It's not an ordinary knife," said the other man. "It's iron."
The man on the rock couldn't see his tormentor in the dark but felt his hot breath every time he put a cut in his flesh with that ordinary knife of his.
The man on the rock shook with the pain and the insult of it, with the cold mountain air too, and with the bleak emptiness that is left when dignity goes. At the beginning, he refused to talk, partly out of vanity and partly because he was afraid the stranger would sniff the fear hormone on his breath like a dog, and pounce on him with greater ferocity. But they'd been up here on the rock all night. Too much blood had flowed, its heavy smell intensified by the stench from his bladder. He felt very sorry indeed that he didn't have what his tormentor wanted, that he couldn't undo what had already been done to him, that he couldn't somehow fix everything.
He looked at the stars, brighter than ever, and imagined they were slowly revolving in the universe. The wind pushed his body, and he saw it being lifted up and carried away, over the mountain, towards the Milky Way. He knew he was going to die now, and he was filled with sorrow that his death was already here, and so undignified too. He'd be an ugly corpse, with these wounds to his face, these slashes – an embarrassing affair. He already saw the newspaper headings, the shocked faces of his colleagues, and the two among them – he knew exactly which two – who would gloat at his funeral. "Did you hear, they killed him with an ordinary knife", they'd whisper and nudge each other.
You're feverish, he told himself, and the insult of it hit him again. He forced his parched lips to part.
"You're making a sacrifice," he whispered. He still couldn't see the other man.
"For a sacrifice you need something more sacred."
"Iron is a sacred metal."
"No it's not. Flint is. Copper. Gold. Not iron."
For a wretched second he almost believed that his tormentor would buy this and let him go. The wonder, the beauty of that! But the man laughed.
"Bollocks," he said and bent over him. His dark form blocked the starry sky from view. The man on the rock felt completely abandoned.
"You're not appreciating what is being given to you," his tormentor said. "Iron is the most sacred metal in the world."
"The ancients thought it warded off evil," the man on the rock whispered. He couldn't give up, not yet. It was true. In ancient times, no birth or wake would go without the protection of an iron knife, comb, or nail, to stop the newborn or dead man from becoming a vampire. He was surprised at the clarity of his thoughts and made a painful effort to speak clearly too. "What was sacred to them was the ironsmith's trade. It's the people who give it form that are sacred."
"I've given this knife form," the man said evenly. "To others too. But what makes it special is the iron, nothing else. "
"The ancients knew iron was sacred before they gave it a name," he continued. "Before they were even human. They knew it was part of them and of all living things. The moment they crafted the first iron object, they knew they'd found the metal of the gods. Do you understand that?'
"No." he gurgled. His strength was leaving him along with his body fluids. He didn't see the blow coming. It smashed his mouth and knocked out several teeth, filling his mouth with blood.
"What's it taste of?" the man said.
He choked on it, and tried to turn onto his side to spit out the blood and saliva.
"Metal," he croaked.
"What kind of metal?"
"Iron," he whispered.
"Exactly. Iron. Blood tastes of iron, iron tastes of blood." His voice became dreamy. "Just picture our predecessors. How well they knew the smell and taste of iron. From the blood of animals and the humans they sacrificed, from the monthly cycle of women. They revered blood because they knew it meant life, it meant food for humans and gods alike, and it meant the birth of new children. And when, one day, they beat out the first iron, when they licked it, they knew they'd found the metal of the gods, they'd divined the secret of life and death. Then of course they forgot. But forgetting is a human characteristic and gods are inclined to forgive when they're in a generous mood."
The man on the rock heard the other get up and move away. His voice came from a distance:
"Have you seen a water spring with a high content of iron? Iron in water is heavy and sits on leaves and branches, on stones. The colour is rusty and it smells a bit like blood. You can imagine how the ancients were afraid of coming near the spring, its smell, the feeling that something was behind them, an enemy, a predator. A god."
The man on the rock said nothing. He looked at the stars and trembled, and wondered why he felt so very cold and why there was the splash of water. He felt a terrible sadness.
Then he heard a whisper in his ear:
"She's thirsty. It's been a long time since She last drank. But I'm ready to deny Her this feast, make Her wait, and take you to a place where you'll be helped. Your wounds aren't as bad as you think. Do you want to live?"
"Yes!" the man moaned.
"Okey-dokey. Then tell me where it is, and I'll take you away from here.'
"I don't know!"
"But you said you knew. You've written about The Knowledge. We came here at the appointed time. You insisted it were just you and me, without the others. Now you have to tell me."
Whatever he said would only make it worse.
"If you didn't believe in what you preached yourself, you wouldn't have come here. Right?"
He couldn't answer this. Until yesterday, he thought he believed.
"Right?" the man shrieked and plunged the knife into his stomach. He nearly passed out this time from the pain. His intestines were punctured.
"Stop! I lied!"
"Why did you lie?" The knife was churning inside him and he imagined it was the man's sharp nails that were pulling and tearing inside his guts, making a big ball from his innards and when the ball was big enough, he'd throw it up to the stars, like an offering.
"I thought…" he groaned, delirious, "you knew something new and we could…. Together... Please stop."
"So you really were bluffing. How could you be such an idiot.'
"It was Gabriela's idea," the man on the rock whispered, though all hope was gone from him.
"Are you sure?" He sounded genuinely curious.
"Hers, all hers. It's all her fault."
"Not very gentlemanly on your part, you know. You're supposed to defend her with your last breath."
"Ask her. She knows. She lied to me. She lied, the bitch."
The other didn't say anything. The man on the rock lost consciousness but came round again when he felt he was being lifted up by hands and the pain exploded in his gut with renewed force. He thought the stars were coming closer. The hands felt strong and warm, like his father's, back in the day when he'd put him up on his shoulders, before the State Security men came in their black sedan and took his father away forever and his life filled with whispers about debts to the State.
But the hands were not his father's.
"I know about the debts…" he whispered.
"You're ranting. What debts?"
"I know you're afraid," the man with the hands said. "Don't be. So many have dreamt of being in your place. I'll take you straight to Her. With Her, there is no pain or sorrow, no lies. In exchange for this favour I'm doing you, I ask for one thing. Tell Her that the hunt has begun."
The hands cast their charge down. No, the stars were not any closer. He fell into the darkness.
"Purpose of visit?" said the border control officer in the glass cabin. The artificial light made her face green.
"Pleasure," John said and swallowed the sour saliva left by the beer on the plane.
The woman stared at him with genuine surprise.
"Honeymoon," John explained. "Of sorts." Then he felt annoyed for explaining himself to some random official who didn't care one way or another. He looked for Emilia in the EU queue, but she was stuck behind someone and didn't see him.
"Welcome," said the green woman without any feeling, and stamped his passport. "You can stay on Bulgarian territory for three months. And don't forget to register with the police."
"Thanks. I doubt we'll stay that long." John smiled but her face remained impassive. He stepped over the invisible airport line which marked the beginning of Bulgarian territory. He looked for a smokers' room, didn't see one, and put a piece of chewing-gum in his mouth instead. Just hang in there a bit longer, he told himself.
Emilia appeared a few minutes later.
"When we weren't in the European Union, we waited in queues. And now that we're in the EU, we're still waiting in queues," she hissed past him, and rushed into the baggage hall. She found a good spot by their baggage belt and waved to him to join her with a trolley. He'd never seen her so nervy before. He smiled at her, but she frowned back and turned to face the revolving belt.
When their suitcases turned up, Emilia threw herself at them, pulled them off the belt with unsuspected force, pushed them onto the trolley before John could do anything, and started with the trolley towards the exit. Just before the exit door, she stopped and looked back at him with sudden panic – blind to the other passengers pushing past her. She had travelled the world to return home, and now she was scared of taking the last step, John thought.
"Come on, Eims" he said and took the trolley from her.
On the other side, the wall of welcoming bodies was so noisy and unruly, Emilia felt as if it would collapse any moment and crush her. The sound of everyone speaking Bulgarian shocked her, she was unused to it after years in the States. Then she recognised the three faces in the crowd, all of them smiling tearfully. She burst into tears and ran into her mother's arms.
John stopped near-by with the trolley. The four of them were crying, laughing, and talking over each other. He recognised their faces because he'd seen them on Skype, but seeing them in the flesh was still strange. Ivan, the brother, was stockier than John had imagined. He was the first one to break away from the family and shake John's hand.
"Welcome," Ivan said, "I'm glad to finally meet you." His hard hand squeezed John's painfully.
"Me too," John said. "Emilia has wanted to do this for ages. Do you mind if I wait for you outside? I'm dying for a smoke."
"No you haven't put on any weight. I don't know how you manage it. You know your our neighbour's daughter, she put on weight too, you know the one that looks like a model from Auschwitz? Don't look at me like that, it's how we talk here, you've forgotten. Now, everyone is dying to see you, but I said No, Emilia will be tired, the trip is long, let them rest for a couple of days. You won't recognise cousin Katya, she's got a new boyfriend, but nobody has seen him yet. But you know that already. I forgot we're on Skype all the time."
Eventually, her mother ran out of breath. The whole car went quiet. Emilia sat in the back of her brother's new Skoda, squeezed between her parents, and watched the traffic along Tsarigradsko Road which led into the city centre. The only thing she could see in the night were street lights, shop windows, and billboards. Most of this wasn't here when she left.
"This is not your first visit then," Ivan said.
"No, I was here once briefly. Just one night, actually," John said.
"Do you remember anything?"
"Well, now you'll have more time." Ivan said. They entered the centre, passed some artistically lit-up buildings, and drove into a neighbourhood of tall concrete apartment buildings from the Communist era and shopping malls from the post-Communist era.
They stopped in front of a building that looked just like the others in the concrete jungle. With much fuss and courteous arguing over who should carry what, the suitcases were extracted from the car trunk, and Emilia and her parents got into the lift. John, Ivan and the suitcases found themselves on a narrow landing which had a familiar stench of cooking, damp, and cats. Ivan lit up. John was taken aback but followed suit.
"You won't be needing this," Ivan nodded at John's leather jacket. "Didn't Emi tell you that the summers here are hot?"
John smiled. He just wanted to lie down and sleep.
"We bought it in Bangkok. Emilia said that if she saw me wearing my old jacket, she'd cut it up with scissors. But I love the old one, so I thought I'd save it and get this cheapish one."
Ivan laughed. The lift arrived and they loaded up. It was just like the lift from his previous visit all those years ago.
When they reached the sixth floor, the ceremony of arrival was in full swing. Her mother's voice echoed in the stair and her father was pottering excitedly in the narrow corridor. The rest of the humble apartment was taken up by
Ivan's wife and their two young kids who had never met Emilia and John before, and thought they lived on Skype.
"So it's true," Emilia said. "When you come home after a long time, everything is smaller."
They were lying in the darkness of her old bedroom. The dinner, which was supposed to finish early because the guests were tired, had dragged on for hours and only ended when the kids fell asleep on the couch. Everyone overate and over-drank.
"You'll get used to it," John mumbled.
"Mm," Emilia said. She sensed him relax and go to sleep which comforted her. She lay motionless for a while, and had a little cry, then got up. She felt her way in the dark.
"Emilia, is that you?" her mother's anxious voice came from the parents' bedroom.
"Nothing, I'm just thirsty."
"Get the mineral water in the jug. You dad got it this morning from the Mineral Baths."
She continued to the kitchen and poured herself a glass from the tap. It tasted the same as before. On the way back through the corridor, her mother called out again:
"Are you okay?"
"Yes, mum, I'm okay. Good night."
Emilia lay in the darkness and fretted she would spend the night wide awake. And with that thought, she fell asleep.
DIMANA TRANKOVA is an archaeologist by education and a journalist by vocation. She has authored over a thousand articles on travel, politics, history and archaeology in her native Bulgaria. She is the coauthor of several bestselling non-fiction books such as East of Constantinople/Travels in Unknown Turkey (2008), A Guide to Jewish Bulgaria (2011), A Guide to Ottoman Bulgaria (2011, 2012) and The Turks of Bulgaria (2012). She has been the executive editor of Highflights, Bulgaria's English-Bulgarian travel magazines, and of Go Greece!, Bulgaria's magazine about Greece.
The Smile of the Dog (2014) is her first novel.