by Valery Stefanov; translated by Angela Rodel

Valery Stefanov, born in 1958, is professor of the History of Bulgarian literature at Sofia University. He graduated in Bulgarian Studies from Sofia University and since 1984 has been teaching there. He was also dean of the Slavic Studies Department at the university.

There's a folder at home that I rarely touch.

I'm afraid to. The folder holds part of my childhood letters. Collected by my mother. Although there are letters to my father there, too. When my parents burned up in a plane crash a quarter-century ago, I was twelve. I don't say "only" twelve, because even twelve years turned out to be enough to experience what I experienced.

The letters were written before that age, obviously.

After two years my grandmother was finally able to go through and straighten up some of my parents' dust-covered things. She found the folder among them. Stiff red cardboard with "Greta" written on the bottom right-hand corner. Along with childhood photographs, my mother had also collected childhood words. The feelings between them and me. The language I used to search out a path to them.

That collection of erstwhile words does a lot of things to me. Mostly it destroys me emotionally. Every time I think about it. Back then, there had been somebody to read my words. Now there is nobody.

Pain catches up with us, pain that never goes away. Ever.

I'm carrying that kind of pain around inside me. The letters are short. Written in a shaky kid's hand. On all sorts of paper, scraps and cards. Often in large printed letters.n

What an enthusiastic child!

Letter-loving. Loving.

There are certain evenings when I nevertheless feel like opening the folder. And when I actually get up the courage to do it. Even though I know how I'll come out of it.

Some of the words are on their way to disappearing. The letters are faded and thin. Hardly legible.

A small square note. Completely yellowed. "Mommy, I love you – lots!"

A Christmas card. With a lantern and a long red ribbon. "To Daddy from Gretel! Merry Christmas! December 24, 1981." My dad often called me "Gretel."

On a big piece of paper I had copied out the beginning of "Little Red Riding Hood." But I changed the mother's lines to fit the occasion:

"Once upon a time there lived a sweet little girl. Everyone who saw her loved her, but her grandmother doted on her most of all and always showered her with little gifts. Once the good woman gave her a riding cloak of red satin and because she looked so charming in it and never took it off, everyone started calling her Little Red Riding Hood.

One day Little Red Riding Hood's mother said: 'I love you very much, my sweet little girl!'

Happy birthday, Mommy! I love you very much, too!"

A letter of explanation. "Mommy and Daddy, here is a Christmas angel for you. We can put it under the tree. See you tonight. I love you."

A letter of invitation. Perhaps it went with some unknown gift? It's torn at one end. I can't remember the occasion. "Here you go, Daddy! I love and believe that you and I are like the Little Prince and his rose!"

My father was in charge of reading fairytales. Afterwards the two of us would reinforce what we'd read with cartoon movies – whichever ones we could find back then. Fathers like cartoons. As for mothers, I never found out.

At the time of the last letter I was already a big girl. I had read The Little Prince on my own and could make comparisons.

There are more letters. Two of them were written shortly after everything was over. Childhood letters – to a faraway address. To my faraway parents. I only saw those letters once, a long time ago. I never dared to read them again.

I set the folder aside. I don't want to read anymore.

I want to die.

To go where my father reads fairytales.

Where my mother carefully collects letters.


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