THE PLACE, An excerpt from a work in progress
A text by the 2015 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow Zornitsa Garkova
You can enter by the road from the south, the north, the east or even the west, although the west road, unfortunately, is not very good. Actually, even then it was quite bad and annoying to drive on, with lots of potholes; there would often be fallen trees. There is no reason to think that the road is better now. You cannot be sure what to expect, once you manage to get into the city. Even back then, the buildings had almost entirely lost their magnificence and charm, which was reminiscent of a decent past, and suggested a relatively prosperous future. The new buildings looked out of place, not only out of step with their time, but at odds with all time. A dog may turn up from around a corner and run after your car. You may think it would bark, maybe even become aggressive, or simply wag its tail, but this is unlikely to happen. The city, this huge artefact, will just stare at you blankly with its thousands of eyes, both dead and alive – some of which you can see, while others remain so well hidden that they barely suspect their own existence. So when the dog simply looks at you with an astonishingly wise look in its eyes, before it turns away to mind its business – don't be surprised. This city has been self-sufficient for a while.
You can search for the house at the end of a street, or rather, at the beginning of a next one. The house may have fallen apart already. When I saw it last, years ago, it seemed unable to support its own decay. But if it is still there, go through the central door and, at the end of the hallway, you will find a door leading into a room, which used to be wonderful at the time – it had an almost oval shape on one side, with a few large windows, and a work table under one of them. I remember there being a huge pile of magazines and some other papers next to the table; the chair was crooked and it wobbled, but no one ever thought of tightening its screws. Under the linoleum on the table (I remember it was green), you will find some sheets of paper, covered with writing. If you feel like it – read them, at your own risk. I cannot guarantee that you will like what you read. Also, leave the house before you start perusing them – who knows, some broken beam, a brick or a column might give in to the despair of time passing, and fall on your head. That is to say, you have my express permission, given my permission counts for anything, to take the pile of papers and do with them as you see fit. If, I repeat, the house is still there and if you manage to get into the city.
I never went to the house of which the General spoke so often – sometimes in a kind of hopeless incoherent delirium, at other times with precise instructions how to locate it. It never even crossed my mind to look for it. When I decided to run away, I chose to move as far away as possible. Thus I ended up in the south, where the trees' velvety trunks and their heavy drooping branches could hide me from the past.
When I came to the Place, the General had already lived there for a while. He was at the zenith of his good period, and he was laughing all the time, making indecent jokes, while the security guards let him pee by the bushes in the back yard, which he did singing old popular songs in a clear voice. At lunch, whenever he would fart in his typically loud and unperturbed manner, people would look at each other, seemingly disgusted and surprised (again?), but it was obvious that they found it amusing.
About a week later, in one of those late Saturday afternoons when the birds seemed to have disappeared from the face of the Earth, or at least from the Place's garden, and the flies crawled lazily over the balcony's railings, he fell into a fit. It all began with a fly. While wandering about the curtain, it accidentally jumped onto his shoulder and then got entangled in his graying beard. Absorbed in his thoughts, he unintentionally crushed it between his swollen fingers. When he realized what he had done, he started screaming and would not stop, until a lean, blurry-eyed male nurse in a dirty white overall rushed into the common room, pushed the General down onto the sofa and with one precise movement injected him with some tranquilizer. He gave him a second shot immediately after that, maybe just to be sure. No one volunteered to move his enormous body out of the common room. The General slept for a few hours and, when he woke up, the racket began all over again. This went on for the entire night, and the next day, and the next night. Gradually, everybody instinctively moved to the other end of the building. I remember the thread-bare blankets over tattered old bodies, huddling together on the rickety, worn-out leather armchairs, touching timidly, as if afraid the madness might spread and taint them as well. Tips of fingers were touching gently, a woman's hair delicately touched the hair of another woman, too advanced in age to expect anyone to touch her like this anymore. And although everyone was scared, there was some lightness in the air of those nights. If I remember correctly, I had to live through nearly twenty of the General's fits during my stay at the Place. And I can still remember them all, despite the lazy, sticky summer fatigue, which all this time spent in the south encrusted on my bones. At least here, the cities are no phantoms, and death does not meet anyone at the threshold – either upon entering or exiting life.
I still sleep in the afternoons, forever exhausted by the unabating midnight screams of the General and the strange summer haze filling the clinic's halls and offices in those afternoons. In the spring and summer, in the early mornings, the changeable mountain climate would transform our rooms into cold damp holes, turning the blankets into cold damp rags, under which we felt even colder. If it rained in the morning, or during the night, we could not sleep at all. Whenever there was rain, one of the ladies – perhaps I call them ladies out of pure politeness – who was about 65 years old at the time, would howl, grieving over her lover lost in the war. And if there was a thunder storm, her wailing was joined by the painful sobbing of a girl who, just like me, had found herself in the clinic by some absurd and monstrous accident. I remember that she never got out of the Place alive.
Sometimes, when the weather is stormy, I am woken up by a slight tapping on the window. As if an impatient lover is throwing little stones at it. My first sleepy guess, however, is always that it's the General. Then I get scared imagining that someone in a white overall is about to bend over me, holding a huge syringe. Then the tapping returns and I try to locate it. Next to my window, there is a big Paulownia whose gentle round shells, resembling Spanish castanets, softly rap on the dirty window pane. Behind the tree in the distance, as a backdrop to the scene, the sea in the bay roars, as if about to leap over the cliffs and rush through the narrow streets of the sun-crisped town. I often feel like going down to the sea, especially at night, but the few times I have tried to, I simply came back, just before sunrise, stiff with cold and even more confused and lonely.
When it rained, our General was calm. He was more than calm – he was reasonable and clear, and even his face, which turned gray during his fits, on rainy days became a knot of clean, pleasantly colored and taut skin. He looked healthy. One such night, when the General knocked on the window of my room for the first time, I started, filled with horror, which only intensified after I recognized his huge nose flattened against the window pane. He spent the night in my room, which I had to myself then, as my elderly roommate, whose name I can't remember, had died a few days before. We spoke almost the entire time, and I was amazed not only by his willingness to talk, his clarity and reasonable words, but also by the inevitable barrier that I could feel and that one always felt in a sufficiently long conversation with anyone. There were things the General could not talk about, or he didn't want to. Or both. Perhaps I did not realize it at the time, or perhaps this impression he gave me grew with time, while a whole lot of other things – memories, sensations – faded and disappeared. To our bad luck, a male nurse caught us in the morning and, for a long while afterwards, the General came nowhere near my room. First, because he was kept in isolation, and then because for months he raged in his fits and changing moods, and it was impossible to communicate with him.
Somewhere near the end of my first year at the Place, things began to change. It happened gradually. The staff grew smaller, although no one ever said anything about it. The elderly ladies with silver hair, who would usually talk a lot, now kept silent and turned their worried eyes, looking around, when the meals got considerably scantier. Then, almost by accident, we learned that the nearby coal mine had closed and that the town was losing its population quite quickly, although no one would tell us why. Then there was no one to take care of us – while we were like children, used to being told what to do, and when and why. Again, I realize now that through the prism of the years past, I see the events unfolded differently. I see them as they actually happened. Right in the middle of winter, when there was no coal anymore, and we were shivering with cold more than ever, the General had a bad fit. The cold was dry, and there was a strong wind outside. I used to think then that the climate conditions were the sole reason for his fits, but I no longer believe that. I felt certain that I could not establish any strict pattern in his fits, but now I am ready to bet against my previous self that there was a pattern. Oh God, yes, there was a pattern, but it was related to something so indefinite, so abstract and, at first sight, so distant from the General, that I had no way of seeing it.
Zornitsa Garkova was born in the town of Pernik in 1981. She graduated from a local high school and received a degree in Bulgarian philology in 2008. In 2012, she graduated from the master's programme in creative writing at the Faculty of Slavic Studies of Sofia University. Her works have appeared in Stranitsa magazine, Granta Bulgaria magazine and in the newspaper Literaturen vestnik. In 2013, her first collection of short stories, The Way of the Ants, was published by St. Kliment Ohridski University Press. She lives and works in Sofia. She writes poetry and prose.
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