‘You’re so sour-tempered, Gergana’ asserted baba Zoya and kept knitting. ‘As if a lemon wedge is stuck to your tongue.’
I kept my mouth shut, didn’t want to argue with her. That’s not why I was there.
‘Have you seen Boyan?’
‘No, he hasn’t come home yet, no. Why? Doesn’t he drop by Mitko, the huntsman, anymore?’ The woman had such a mirror-like gaze. I didn’t see her, but myself in her eyes.
‘Maybe he’s in the tap-room with the other workers.’
Baba Zoya fell silent for a second. She put aside the green ball of yarn and took the black one.
‘The new tap-room on the square? The one that Radul’s younger daughter opened? What was her name?’
‘Vihrena,’ I spat the name out as if it were a cherry pit. ‘Boyan must come home any minute now. It’s just that patience is not my strongest quality, is all.’
Baba Zoya smiled.
‘It’s not patience you need, Gergana. If it’s about patience, you’d better weed out the basil from in front of the house and lie on the ground in its place.’
‘You don’t get it at all.’ My voice came out as if from between the teeth of the chainsaw Boyan used to cut the winter days in half and stack them to dry under the shed. So, the chimney wouldn’t get clogged up. But it would, anyway. If you don’t dust off the soot from a thing ever so often, it won’t breathe freely. It will wheeze, it will choke, and eventually die down. The same goes for people. And for interpeopleness. That close space between two, which needs to be tended like a fire. That’s what I call interpeopleness. If it starts spreading wide, if it starts growing, a whirlwind will force its way from around in no time, and before you notice the flare will die out. Lateral whirlwinds are enough and plenty. If you start narrowing the space, the flare will suffocate and again die out. That’s why I don’t poke my nose in Boyan’s business.
Baba Zoya dropped her knitting and looked straight into me. Her eyes peered into my soul as if they were the knitting needles, she twirled already second day to repair her husband’s old cardigan.
‘Gergana, how long have we known each other for?’
‘I’m asking you one thing, and you are changing the subject,’ said I and gestured to get up.
‘Answer me,’ croaked she in return, and I sat back down.
‘Since grandpa’s funeral.’
‘How many years?’
‘I was five, six. So, twenty-seven.’
‘Have I lied to you once in these twenty-seven years?’
‘I haven’t, so now hear me out. And then you’ll go home and think on what patience actually is. You are aware that me and your grandpa were once married.’
‘I am. You left him because you caught him with grandma…’
‘Shut it! You already told me what I know and what I don’t. Now you listen carefully.’
I felt my cheeks blush with shame and said nothing more. I leaned back and kept my quiet.
‘Your grandfather Philip, I noticed him at a seedlings stand at the fair, selling strawberries with his father. Strawberries we had plenty, but when mother saw me ogling him, she went home and persuaded father to buy two crates. He went out to the square, approached Philip’s stall and sized him up with a glare. The same way he would size up the stone wall at home before laying the bricks. For two years he crawled around its edges before finishing it. Finally, he called mother and made her sit on top. ‘You see,’ said he, ‘how sturdy it is. If you want to dance on top, it won't budge. That’s how well it’s plastered.’ It’s just that your grandfather Philip wasn't made of bricks, but of river pebbles, fine and rounded. You never know when you’ll slip on one and where you will find yourself. My father didn't say anything then. He shouldered the crates and went home. Within two weeks Philip and I were married and living in the house where your grandmother lives now. My parents bought it from a merchant who was about to leave for Germany. Later rumor around the village had it that he lost his wits about some Ukrainian woman, who stole his money and passport and left him on the street in Berlin. We never saw him again.
And we started living together with your grandfather Philip. Those were hungry years back then, but we somehow managed to scrape up for a second-hand cargo van good enough to get us to town. Inside Philip would load seedlings, cabbage, hazelnuts, eggs. He would arrive at the market stall before daybreak and return home after dark.
But a man's soul is slippery. You cannot weigh it against the others. Everyone's life is summed up in the little symbol that separates their birth year from their death. And everyone struggles their own way. There are people who stick out between the two dates, proud and erect like exclamation marks. My father, may he rest in peace, was such a man. I would stand up on my toes and still couldn't see his eyes because they were always staring at the sky. Not a person, but a road sign he was. Hit him, bend him to the ground, he would still come upright, and you will be the one to pay.
There are others, their lives are as flat and curt as railroad tracks. Of these I know many. Their entire earthly existence begins and ends with a dash, which finally floats on their gravestone, dull and meaningless. As if there never was a person, but a dry twig. It got filled with tree sap, blossomed, then its fibre stretched, the twig withered and fell to the ground with all the rest. From beginning to end nothing depended on it. God forbid such woody dashes.
And there are people like ellipsеs. Those you can neither predict nor feel when they grab you by the throat. Like three steps towards something once started but never-to-be-finished because it dwindles at the end of their life like a scalded blossom. They may have wanted to say something, they may have wanted to love someone... Everything with them remains past unsaid. So was your grandfather Philip. He locked his words at the end of his mouth and hushed up mid-sentence. When I found out that he was seeing your grandmother Sevda, I locked him in the cramped little kitchen and didn't let him out for three days. I fed him sliced strawberries - shoved the plate under the door - just enough to keep him from passing out from hunger. On the fourth day I entered the room, he was sitting in the corner by the door, scratching the wooden cupboard with his knife: carving and arranging the cuts one above the other, like a ladder. I left him there to climb his own self and went out.
A year passed like that. During that year I locked him seven times and seven times released him. And I never once thought of leaving him. I didn't ask him anything. And he didn't say anything in return. He stopped going to the market and by Christmas he fell ill. He would lie down, breaking out in cold sweat. There was no money left for firewood. Good thing mother had given us blankets. I would curl up into a ball at his feet and would hold the covers over him at night. When he felt I was falling asleep, he would throw the blankets on the floor and shiver from the fever. During the day he would open the window and stand in front of it, as he was all wet. He wouldn’t eat, nor he would drink. Finally, I called your grandmother Sevda. ‘I can't,’ I told her. ‘If you know how, come and bring him back.’ She did. The very next day she moved in with us, carrying only a bag of quinces, two dresses and half a loaf of rye bread. That was it. She brought your grandfather back with bread and quinces, and he, when he felt better, called me into the kitchen and locked me. Not three, one day he kept me. The next day he unlocked me. He had gathered my clothes in two bags. He passed by me as if I were that cupboard door, the one covered with carvings. He passed by me and left for town with your grandmother, and by nightfall I was back with my kin.
What happened next you already know, Gergana. A few months later, Denko and I got married. I then was resolved to buy the house opposite your grandfather’s. I had taken it into my head that seeing him every day would make it easier. I cried, I shouted, finally my in-laws agreed and we bought it. Life kept going, children and grandchildren were born to our house and to Phillip’s. They played together, ate together, grew up together. But that patience, when he locked me in the kitchen then, grabbed me by the throat, and wouldn’t let go for the rest of my life. If it hadn't been for your grandmother taking me by the hand and leading me out of the house that day, I probably would have pushed the latch myself and would have been scratching on that cupboard door like a stray cat all week. Because I was taught that the worst is to leave a person who you vowed to be your support and companion for life. Except that river pebbles cannot support you. And cannot be your companion, he who hasn’t started a journey with you.
Danila Raicheva was born in 1991 in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria. She received her bachelor's degree in English Philology and her master's degree in Translation Studies with English from the University of Veliko Tarnovo "St. Cyril and Methodius" and also studied Slovene studies at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia.
In 2020, she started writing fiction and won first prize in the National Literary Competition for a short story on a historical theme named after Tsoncho Rodev. Her poems and short stories have been published in the newspaper "Literary Voice" in Sofia, as well as in the literary website Fakel.bg.
In 2022, she graduated from the master class in creative writing of Zdravka Evtimova, which was part of the Apollonia Arts Festival. At the end of 2023, her debut book, a short story collection titled "One and the Same Woman," will be published.