by Paulina Georgieva; translated from the Bulgarian by Marina Stefanova

The gulp of winter air fills my lungs with chills, then retreats with a sigh. It clears off old visions and carries them away. The visions vanish, soaring high, where they belong. They were here only for an instant - for comfort, hope or advice. They predate us, and send us off. They will be around after the last human is extinct. Then, finally at peace, they will tend to noon. They will dance floating in the skies, or descend at their whim – for no reason and with no duties. Unfettered visions bound only by their own immortality.

The branches of the tree in the front reach for my arms; I have no time for this game of ours though I know the tree enjoys it. It is still daylight, just before dusk swallows light. I love this hour. It is like me. Now, I am here - gone in a second.

I no longer recall my age. Lately, I am confused about the epochs. Sometimes, I feel as if I have woken up in Florence, and perk up my ears to hear the bells of Giotto's Campanile. Then, I look around the room and the time sets in the furniture of today devoid of any character. I miss the secretaries, the solid wood chests, the upholstered armchairs with intricate carvings of dragons, lions and gorgons. Ah, the tables back then! I remember how, after the Great Fire of London, six servants carried a mahogany table into our newly built house in Kensington. Back then even the doorways were different. Huge. I am a tall woman, and nowadays I stoop when walking through a door.

I wave at the tree, it flutters a farewell. I walk back into the room people now call “the sitting-room”. I have lived in worse places.

I used to read cards, coffee grounds, glass stones. People expect to see a magic object. They accept the incomprehensible only if reduced to something simple and mundane. A cup of coffee, for example. Wouldn’t it have been much more pleasant if the visitors drank wine! They wouldn't be crumpling their handkerchiefs nervously, and I wouldn't be staring needlessly at the black coffee grounds. I no longer partake in such charades. I sit across from the visitor, light the candle and look into their eyes. The visions appear around the flame swirling, I take a deep breath and blow out the candle. The visions rush into me and take me to a place people call the future. There, time is a blank slate without a clock or a calendar. Stories of love, death, loss or victory run through the slate. The women sitting against me often cry. My eyes are blind to them, but I can hear their ragged breathing; sometimes I catch a groan. They suffer even with good news from the future. Someone will grow up to be strong and brave, another will be educated, yet another will give birth to a long-awaited child. Wishes come true is a torment too.

Many years ago, during the witch-hunts, I stopped telling fortunes. I even stopped delivering children, my main livelihood. The church persecuted all the smart and self-educated women. Some were midwives like me, others were healers or just wise old women. Many of my sisterhood met their fate at the stake or on that wheel which slowly crushed the bones of the doomed until they expired in abhorrent suffering. Strangulation the night before the gallows was a merciful death. I fled France which was conquered by famine, war and drought. I became a cook in a roadside inn at the foot of the Alps, not far from the lakes. I posed as slightly retarded so I would be left alone. Then for the first time I dared to look at my own future. I do not know why I had never summoned the visions for myself. Perhaps out of fear of seeing myself screaming in flames, or out of superstition that I may lose my gift. But then, in that stuffy tavern, frequented only by envoys, wandering monks, soldiers, and troubadours at best, I wished to know how much time I had left. I said to myself “A life without visions is not for me. I’d rather know will there be visions in my future, or I shall put end it all tomorrow, after I light the fire in the hearth and make the bread." In the back yard, by the stables, there was a tree like that of today, with sturdy branches. I would swing a rope and climb onto a barrel, emptied by drunken guardsmen the night before.

That night, after clearing the table and feeding the dogs some game stew leftovers, I sat down by the hearth. The glowing embers pulsated like hundreds of burning hearts. I humped over the three-legged stool and threw one last log. Then, I took the candelstick and placed it on a stump in front of me. I lit the candlewick with an ember and waited until the flame was strong and dancing. I closed my eyes, took a breath and let it out against the flame. It was as if the visions have been waiting for me; I had not summoned them in a long time. They invaded me like an army.

People have asked me if I see human fates as separate images. Those are left for birth and death only. The beginning and the end warrant their own stage. The rest is remains of life that I gather by myself. I do not remember all the stories the visions brought that night but I will not forget the moments from Florence. While still standing with my eyes closed, in the middle of the night, in the roadside inn near the Alps, I gasped.

I spent my best years in the town of the Medicis. In Florence, women like me were held in high esteem. Noblemen would order both medicine and poison. The poisoned more than the cured. I was often invited to palaces to partake in festivities. I wore velvet dresses woven in the far lands of the Orient. Noblemen would bow to me, and noblewomen would nod conspiringly. I was the goddess of potions – the one who would help a person quickly fall asleep; and another one not to ever wake up. Back then, I would call the visions but only to inquire about important state affairs: who will be the new Pope; will the Ottomans get closer to the border; will that polygamous king from the Island have a male heir. Those were good times.

The twilight enfolds my window. The room is dusky; I have a few table lamps which I am not lighting tonight. The candle is ready and the matches are lying next to it, awaiting. I have been gifted with such a long life that were I to give it back I would not have the strength to carry it. I clearly remember my vision of this day. Several appointments separated by the nervous clatter of heels up the wooden stairs to the top floor of my old house in the center of this boring city. The ancient towns that have turned too noisy and crowded for my taste. Here I am - a tall woman, strangely erect for her years, with shiny silver hair. My hands have retained their youthfulness - no old-age crooked noded fingers. My eyes are clear, sparkling in blue. Sometimes women are flabbergasted upon seeing me. Whatever they think of me is a pale shadow of the truth.

I sit down at the table and light the candle. It is my time to depart. Noone to say goodbye to but the tree outside. No need for a farewell glance at a portrait, a medallion, a sacred object. The candle flame flares and I can see my companions flickering in anticipation around it. I release my last breath, with which I will turn into a vision myself, and I fly away to where I belong.

Paulina Georgieva is an author of short stories, with her work published in various media and recognized by literary competitions. Her stories delve into the hidden depths of the human psyche and explore situations that turn lives upside down. Her debut novel, "The Simulation," a psychological drama, is set to be published by Knigomania at the end of 2022.

Paulina has won several awards, including the Grand Prize at the 5th National Literary Competition "Atanas Lipchev" in 2019, the Special Prize at the literary contest "Box of Unsent Letters" organized by the Club of Cultural Activists "Nov Zhivetz" in Athens in 2019, and an award in the national short story competition "The Notebook" in 2019.

She holds a Master's degree in History from Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski. Paulina is a certified coach at the Institute of Integral Psychology and a leading trainer in HorseDream, an international horse-assisted leadership training program. Additionally, she is a Corporate Headhunter by profession.


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