I used to think that I was Leno's main passion, then that I could be Leno's main passion, displacing the City from his heart and mind, and even from the pages he wrote. But that was "before" and it was short-lived. Rather quickly, I realized that it was the exits, these invisible, unattainable points, that inspired his desire. None of them could be found on my body or person. We both realized this early on. But Leno held on to me: he wanted me by his side, nevertheless. I did not spend much time pouring over the letter. I had received many since he had "disappeared." The letters found their way to me wherever I was, at whatever time of day. It felt as if he was always a few yards behind me, as if he slept a few walls away from me, a few floors below me, in whatever building I had decided to stay. Not that I moved around the City very much.
There was an Instrumentarium in the neighborhood – one of the last ones in the City, according to the booklet they handed me at the hotel. The booklet was poorly written, but it had nice pictures. Most of them were by famous poets and artists who had visited the place, or had lived here. In the chapter on the Instrumentarium, the longest in the book, there were many pictures, mostly done by great artists, of the various instruments with which over the centuries the inhabitants of the City had tried to leave. The most striking image was a photograph of a carriage, drawn – the caption said – by out-of-city demons. Next to the photo, there was a smaller one of the interior of the carriage. You could clearly see some bones on one of the seats. The remains of the last person to try to leave the City with this carriage. When I went to the Instrumentarium, the manager, dressed like an old-time shop keeper – black pants, a short-sleeved white shirt and black gloves – told me that the carriage had been taken to the warehouse to be restored, but they could show me a collection of four-hundred-year-old maps.
"The technology of making maps has not changed much since," the man who seemed to have a glass eye, or whose thick hair threw a shadow that made his eye glint, told me. "But the maps in our collection are made with the blood of girls from aristocratic families – something that used to be, and still is, very rare."
I agreed to see the maps (I was not impressed) and to have a look at two volumes of poetry written by professional and amateur poets who had tried to leave the City after having consumed flesh from the wounds of the sick. There were some very good poems, but most of them were boring descriptions of vague states of mind and indistinct spaces. I don't believe that the disease can provide an exit from the City, or from anywhere else, for that matter. Except life, perhaps, although I have not come across any articles or stories claiming that anyone died from this disease. That is why I do not refer to it as "the plague." I respect it, however, as one of our great myths. If the theoreticians of the City (and cities, in general) are correct, no such place exists without its myths. It's one of the distinguishing characteristics of a city. In case someone leaves and sees a different one.
There used to be instrumentariums in almost every neighborhood, and also in the courtyards of the wealthier inhabitants. The rich would order copies of instruments; one mayor apparently even slept in a replica of the Bed of Tamara – she tried to leave the City with it, enveloped in her sheer nightgown and the translucent opium vapors, in whose power to open invisible doors she had believed since her childhood, after watching her uncle Deäd Ogonski's experiments with out-of-city demons. But now the instrumentariums were only museums, the quiet tombs of the creatures born of the feverish minds of the past. Most visitors were simple tourists, rather than potential fugitives. And thank God, because it was sad to see such visitors in the instrumentarium, driven not by curiosity, but by their desperate search for an exit, their love of history entirely supplanted by vain hopes.
My knowledge of the past and the pity I felt for those looking for an exit where none could be found, however, did not help me turn my visit to the Instrumentarium of the Shadow District into a tourist pastime. In the Instrumentarium, there was a model of the City, one of the most complex flight devices in existence, according to a few scientists, a dozen philosophers and numberless believers. I saw it on my second visit. I had gone for a stroll along the streets in the neighborhood, which I wanted to see at that special hour when the afternoon slides into the evening: when some of the birds in the park (not sure which) begin to sing more loudly, making louder also people's voices and the coffee shop conversations, just before all sound is hushed suddenly, as if unexpectedly suppressed by the falling night. In all the City's neighborhoods this happened at the same time, and I was sure that the Shadow District was no exception. I wanted to see it for myself. I wanted to confirm first-hand, from experience, this sound map, which I believed to be the best guide to any place. I would know that everything was fine when I heard precisely these transformations in the City's soundscape. I can happily report that the walk did not present any surprises and that, in this part of the City, too, the last calls of the buyers and the sellers, the customers and the waiters, sounded as loud as any call in the face of approaching darkness. Feeling ecstatic, I stepped over the threshold of the Instrumentarium, with no intention of actually looking around. I just wanted to find a quiet place. As if in a dream, I passed through the corridors and the halls, which were the glass coffins of the aspirations of inventors and madmen, reaching a suspiciously bright place, with a table in the middle, on which, as I came closer, I saw the model of the City.
The lights went off.
Although I clearly remember being startled, looking around and clenching my fist, while grabbing at my bag with my other hand, I cannot say that I was frightened. At least I wouldn't say so now, while I am writing this. I felt confusion, but not fear. I think that something held back my confusion, preventing it from turning into fear. So when the light came back on, although now only as a beam focused on the model, I was not surprised; I simply followed it with my eyes. The light started from what seemed to be the model of the Instrumentarium where I was. It crawled over the streets of the Shadow District, stopped at a building and began to blink through its windows; then the beam spilled through the door, disappeared for a moment and reappeared elsewhere – at the model of a large mansion, where it literally exploded. It then leapt out of the explosion and left the limits of the City model, vanishing. I watched it in complete silence.
After quite a delay, I noticed that the light, suspiciously bright again, was back on in the hall.
I closed my eyes and saw it again, crawling, leaping over the streets of the model. I opened them, and it was gone. Then something else in the reflection of the City caught my eye. I imagine that no matter how hard I try, I cannot answer the question of what exactly this "something else" was. I tried to find it straight away, while I was still in the Instrumentarium, but I couldn't. I tried to find it afterwards, during the days and nights following my visit to the Shadow District – in vain. Apparently, this "something else" was to remain forever beyond my reach, and perhaps precisely its being unattainable had caught my eye, leaving it for a while – how long? a few seconds, minutes, centuries? – free to roam over the facial features of the simulacrum in front of me. And while my eyes wandered over the miniature streets, peeking through the tiny rectangles of the windows, turning around the public squares, my consciousness remained empty, able to register only the movement of my eyes, but none of the signs along their path. What was it that had opened within me, under my skin, under my skull even? – I could not tell, I could not remember, I could not even try to guess. Yet this emptiness, full as it was, has endured in my memory. An emptiness that is illusory, I believe. I suppose that the fish looking out of the fish bowl sees exactly this kind of emptiness. It looks at whatever there is out there, but cannot read or remember it. What a pity that I did not have the memory of a fish, that I could not just wave my fins and tail in the water and, turning to swim in another direction, no longer think, no longer carry the sensation of what I had seen. Another comparison forces itself on my attention, while I am writing this. An entirely different one. Or is it the same? The emptiness I felt while watching the model of the City resembled the emptiness on or beyond the white page. The emptiness before one's gaze, and at times in one's mind. The difference was that, on the white page of the model, I could write nothing. Maybe my hands, holding the quill, could write something. But not I – ever. I hurry to refute the idea that perhaps occurred to you – that Someone Else could slip behind my eyes, and that this someone else could fill the page with words. This is not what I had in mind. Although I would concede that it might be close to the truth. Or to one of many truths.
Vladimir Poleganov was born in 1979 in Sofia. He graduated with a degree in Clinical Psychology and Creative Writing from Sofia University, and is currently working on a PhD in Bulgarian literature there. He is the author of one collection of short stories, The Deconstruction of Thomas S. (published by St. Kliment Ohridski University Press, 2013). In 2015, his short story "The Birds" was included in the Best European Fiction 2016 anthology of Dalkey Archive Press. In 2012, his short story "The Well" won second place in the Rashko Sugarev National Contest for short stories. His works have appeared in various literary magazines in Bulgaria, such as Sledva (2011), More (2012), Stranitsa (2014) and Granta Bulgaria (2014), as well as in the literary newspaper Literaturen Vestnik (2013).
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.