"Have you been to the border?" he asked. His question – quiet, husky, and forbidden – got absorbed into the darkness and the echo of the other people's voices, and definitely convinced her that coming here had been a mistake. She should have stayed home tonight. Alone. By herself. On her own with her dreams.
But tonight, she took a shower, got dressed up to go out, put on a little perfume, and called a cab. As usual, she got there neither too early nor too late, around the time when the first guests had already had a couple of drinks and the music was blasting through the front door and spilling down the apartment building's stairway. She said hello to Zornitsa, got herself a glass of wine, took a little sip, as to not attract any attention, and tried to find a spot amidst the pointless conversations in the living room.
She did everything in the usual manner. But tonight the wine had a strange taste to it. The second sip made her head spin. The floor shifted underneath her feet, the sweaty bodies around her swayed, their voices rose, then fell to a whisper – to the silence of a desert where only the wind remained; of a dusty room where only spiders lived.
She wiped the sweat off her brow.
She couldn't leave now. It was too early and Zornitsa would think something was wrong, she'd ask what was going on, and she'd give her that look.
She squeezed through the swarm of people and went out on the terrace. She leaned against the railing and put the palms of her hands on the cold cement, where pots of geraniums were kept in the summer. Low clouds, red from the reflection of the city lights, crowded the autumn sky. Cleansed by the rains, the air in the capital was almost tasty.
And then, an unfamiliar man's voice asked, "Are you okay?"
She hadn't noticed him. He was leaning against the railing in the corner, away from the dim light coming from the living room – a tall, stooping figure with a dark face and arms crossed at the chest. For a second, she thought he was smoking and this brief and foolish idea made her sad.
"Well, I don't know," she replied, shook her glass, and smelled its contents. "But the wine definitely tastes strange today."
"Mine does too. And I thought I was imagining things," he said with such astonishment that she couldn't help but laugh and tell him,
Both of them took a sip, frowned, and agreed that the wine really did taste strange. He mumbled something about how out here in the cold at least the walls weren't swaying and she conceded. They had another sip, then turned their backs to the music and the other conversations, and started talking. It was an innocent exchange of the kind people usually had when they came over to Zornitsa's. A little bit about themselves, about their jobs, about movies, and other such nonsense. Had she ever been to the Empty Cave? No, she'd only heard about it. And had he? Yes, his workplace had organized a trip once. It must have been interesting? Yes, very much so.
They soon got to the borders of what was safe to talk about. They exchanged glances and fell silent. A gust of wind brought them closer together and they almost touched. He smelled strange. Like a man. A thick, forgotten smell, which unsettled her, although he – as well as the cold and the silence – was still preferable to the stifling hysteria on the inside. Yes, indeed, she thought to herself and yawned.
"Feeling sleepy already?"
"I'm usually in bed by this time."
She fell silent, startled by the ease with which she'd almost told him that she'd been spending most of her life sleeping lately, as well as by the possibility he might ask, "How come?"
But he changed the subject.
"Some more wine?"
"Sure," she said and shivered, since he was already on his way into the room and the evening seemed colder without him.
He came back with an entire bottle of wine and poured some into her glass with a flourish, so it overflowed and spilled onto her fingers. He let out a curse while she laughed and licked her fingers. They leaned against the railing at their previous spot and stared at the yellow eyes of the apartment buildings across the little neighborhood park, which peeked through the black trees.
They said nothing more but smirked, like two kids sharing a secret, when the music stopped and, following the brief silence soaked with the awkwardness of interrupted conversations, this year's version of that old tune about the traveler who gets a rose as a keepsake blasted into the night. It was a catchy popular song of the kind you hear your whole life that you can't help but sing along to every time. And so, there they were, Zornitsa's guests, already bellowing at the top of their lungs in the living room, their loud voices overpowering the original melody.
The man on the terrace didn't start singing. He poured them both some more wine and asked, directing the question not so much at her as at the prickly net of branches in front of them, "Have you been to the border?"
Nobody ever spoke about the border just like that. Nobody.
"I haven't," she said and headed towards the living room, but his desperate, "I have," tripped her up and made her take a look at him. His damp face was glistening in the darkness – it was the face of a man who was aware he was about to do something stupid but couldn't stop himself.
And he didn't.
"Just a little while before the Evolution, I wound up in one of those villages – the kind that used to be really vibrant before the Second World War, but after it ended and the border control was tightened, they started to get depopulated, and then completely died out after the Evolution. You know the kind I mean?"
"No, I don't," she mumbled, then entered the safe mugginess of the living room, merged into the sweaty crowd, and joined in on the last verse of the song about the traveler and the rose, but fell silent just a few lyrics later, when she felt a heavy hand on her shoulder.
"Come outside," the familiar voice murmured, husky and anxious.
"No!" she screamed in a whisper.
Any time now, They were going to catch wind of the forbidden conversation (Тhey could always sense these things) and Тhey would come and take her and everyone else in the apartment away (except for Zornitsa, of course), because everyone here deserved to be taken away.
"Come. You're attracting attention," he took hold of her wrist and led her towards the night and the wind, and she followed him because the song was dying down around them and the others were already watching the two of them – her, the frightened woman, and him, the frightened man.
When they found themselves out on the terrace and on their own, she tried to protest, to convince him not to speak, to stay quiet, just as he'd stayed quiet until moments ago. Honestly, she tried. But he embraced her, and his arms and words were scary and stronger than her, and she stayed with them, in them, and heard the story she wasn't supposed to hear.
"Over there, at the border, an old shepherd once told me about the woman who filled the hole. It happened a few years after the communists came to power. At that time, the old shepherd was still a boy and he was herding a small flock of sheep, which grazed up in the hills," he briefly fell silent. "Over there, along the border, there are these rolling hills," he added and the quiet dreaminess of his voice awoke in her a memory of air that squeaked with cleanliness, of blue skies and soft hills, of deserted dirt roads and withering grass that threw long shadows onto the dust at sunset.
"One day, when he was in the border zone with his sheep, the boy encountered a woman. A strange woman. A woman from the city. Obviously out of place. The woman approached. She told him she was hungry. The boy got scared, tossed her the food he'd brought for lunch, and ran away before the border guards could show up."
"And then, he went to them and turned her in," Maya said.
"He may have turned her in," his coarse sweater scratched her cheek, just as the sunburnt grass had scratched her legs once, among the hills under the boundless sky. "But he didn't do it straightaway."
Yes, that must have been what happened. He had turned her in, but not straightaway. The thought was somehow comforting. Her face nuzzled up against his chest; as she breathed in his scent, she thought about the way the fields smell when it's late autumn and it's cold but the sun is still there to warm the grass, the bare bushes, and the hard clumps of earth, and to promise to the world that nothing lasts forever. Even the winter, which is coming and which will kill everything that isn't strong enough – even the winter doesn't last forever.
"The next day, the boy brought some food to the woman and took her to an abandoned cave monastery. That's where she told him her story. She was Jewish. From the capital. Before the war, she'd fallen in love with a German man who had come here for work. They got married. When our government started discussing the Law for Protection of the Nation, the two of them realized that hard times were coming and left the country. He found her a place to live in a neutral territory and came back here to take care of some formalities. He never returned. The war ended, the changes here were underway, years went by, but there was no trace of him. Finally, she decided to come here and look for him. Illegally."
His hands squeezed her. It hurt.
"She got caught before she could even cross the border. They took all her belongings and raped her. When they got tired of her, they let her cross over to our side."
"What was her name?"
"I don't know. The shepherd didn't remember. Perhaps he never knew."
He swallowed and tensed up. Maya snuggled up against his shoulder. Come on, she thought, go ahead. I know the nastiest part is still to come. I know you want to tell me it. I also want you to.
"On the third day, when the shepherd went back to the monastery, the woman was gone. He looked for her but only found the little pouch, in which he'd brought her some food, in some shrubs. And then, tales of a captured saboteur woman started going around the village. She was raped again, like she had been on the other side of the border. But this time, they didn't let her go. They made her fill the hole."
Once, when the word "journalist" still used to mean something and she'd used it in reference to herself, with both pride and self-irony, Maya had written about the escapees from the Eastern Bloc who had been killed in the border zone and buried in anonymous graves. But that was long ago. Before the Evolution. Before They showed up and the border appeared, and before so many other things became forbidden.
"The hole," she uttered, feeling the emptiness through her thoughts, her lungs, her throat, her lips.
Until now, she'd never realized how hollow the word "hole" sounded.
"Border jargon from back in the day," he said. "As in, ‘He filled the hole. She filled the hole. They filled the hole.'"
"And nobody knows where she was buried."
"Nobody. But you know what the worst part of it is?"
"The shepherd told you the story with some kind of sadistic pleasure," she said, because that was what usually happened.
"Yes, he did. But that wasn't the worst part," his whisper melted away and rather than hearing the words that followed, she sensed them through the vibrations of his body. "To him, this story wasn't that important. He only thought of it when I explicitly asked him if he'd ever seen anyone trying to cross the border illegally and escape the regime. And it wasn't even the first story that came to his mind."
"What else did he tell you?"
"I don't know," he said. "I don't remember."
They stood there, clutching onto each other, pressed by history, by memories, by the shared fear that they'd made a mistake.
"And here I was, thinking you've already left," Zornitsa chirped from the direction the door.
She was smiling, as usual.
"Well, I . . . we," Maya broke away from the stranger's embrace.
"We came out here to get some fresh air," he added.
"It really is pleasant, isn't it," Zornitsa tilted her head to the side, since she thought that doing so made her look young and innocent. "The guest bedroom is unoccupied."
"Actually, we were just . . ." Maya began, but he cut her short,
"You're welcome," Zornitsa chirped and went away.
"What a horrible woman," he mumbled when they were on their own again. "Just horrible."
"If she's so horrible, then what are you doing here?"
"I'd rather have Them think everything is all right with me."
He slightly turned her towards him and kissed her.
He wasn't a good kisser, but that didn't matter. He smelled good and his scent made her warm inside, and that was enough.
"Come on," he said and reached out his hand.
"Come on," she caught his hand and followed him.
The guest bedroom was unoccupied, indeed.
DIMANA TRANKOVA is an archaeologist by education and a journalist by vocation. Since 2006, she has been a part of Vagabond Media, where she was the managing editor of the bilingual airport magazine Highflights and the magazine for travels in Greece, Go Greece!. Currently, she is an editor at Vagabond magazine, where she writes travel and local culture features. She is also the co-author of a series of nonfiction books in English and/or Bulgarian on the country's historical and ethnic heritage: East of Constantinople/Travels to Unknown Turkey (2008), A Guide to Jewish Bulgaria (2011), A Guide to Ottoman Bulgaria (2011, 2012), The Turks of Bulgaria (2012), A Guide to Thracian Bulgaria (2015) and A Guide to Roman Bulgaria (2016). She is also the author of two novels, The Smile of the Dog (2014), which was also published in France (2017), and The Empty Cave (2017).
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.