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Salim scurries to the hospital where his mother was admitted last week. His bare feet beat against the pedestrian street’s pavement, scorching hot from the July sun, and he’s naked from the waist up. Sweat streams down his dark face, but he wipes it off with the back of his hand and keeps going. Any other day, he would walk in the shade, making sure his path stays underneath the linden trees, but he has urgent business today, so he cuts straight across the heat.

Salim is almost seven, but he’s been roaming the streets on his own for a long time now. For his fifth birthday, they cut off the thumb of his right hand. His thumb may be well gone but on a hot day like today it begins to itch. Salim has no idea how this is possible and, what’s worse, he doesn’t know how to scratch it. “What does he need a thumb for, anyway, it’s not like I’ll be sending him to school!” his mother said back then. “Enough of this studying. He needs to get a trade!” She taught him how to slip his hand into women’s purses and snatch their wallets.

Salim has actually been pretty lucky. His older brother had his leg cut off all the way up to the knee and now they make him beg by the main street park, rain or shine. Now, his brother is just a beggar, while Salim is a master pickpocket—that is, he got a trade early on. What’s more, stealing brings in much more loot. At times he would come across a “real treasure”—as he calls it—a pocket mirror here, a special pen there. He never shows his mother these valuables, but just squirrels them away under his bed.

His father has been nowhere to be seen for two years now, and besides Salim and his brother, his mother has to take care of two more kids, girls of three and five. His grandma lives with them, too, for she’s old and can’t sweep the streets any more, can’t do any pickpocketing either, and isn’t even fit for begging in this heat. Every Wednesday, his mother sweeps the entryway, stairs and landings of a big apartment building in a nearby neighborhood, for which they pay her a total of 48 levs, “just ‘nough for bread.” But she got sick recently, and they had to call the doctor. When he pressed his hand against her belly, she let out a scream like she was dying. They took her straight to the hospital, did a scan and stuck some needles into her, then finally said she needed a new kidney, because both of hers had stopped working.

Salim hung around his sick mother’s bed for a while, then left the hospital, deep in thought. His mother had taught him so many things, she’d trained him as a master pickpocket, but never taught him how to steal someone’s kidney. With or without a thumb, it wouldn’t be easy. On top of that, Salim didn’t even know what a kidney looked like and where to look for one. For five days he couldn’t sleep or eat. All he did was mill around and wonder how to find a kidney for his mother.

This morning he got up early and went to the neighborhood convenience store before it was even open. His mom called it “The Garage,” even though Salim had never seen cars in there. He waited for a while before the cashier appeared, looking like she was not in any hurry. While still unlocking the front door, she gave Salim a suspicious glance.

“Hey, you, what are you waiting for? Get lost!”

“Auntie, can I have a piece of cardboard?”

“A piece of cardboard? What do you need cardboard for?”

“Um, I need it to make a sign. I don’t know how to write but I can tell you what to write on it for me. Please, Auntie!”

“What kind of a sign, boy? Don’t waste my time with your nonsense!”

“Well… it should say that I’m in need of a kidney. I’ll sit with it on the street by the mall and… if anybody has an extra one, they can give it to me.”

The shop owner first looked at him suspiciously, but then must’ve figured that the gypsy boy was pulling her leg, so she decided to respond in the same spirit.

“Why beg for a kidney? Just go buy one at the butcher’s shop—over there on the corner of Botev and Green Meadow.

“They sell kidneys at the butcher’s?” Salim’s face lit up.

“Sure they do. Where else, if not at the butcher’s?”

They’d been selling kidneys just around the corner this whole time, and he’d spent the past five days wracking his brain about where to get one! Salim rushed back home. They lived in a small shack on the other side of the railroad—five minutes away if you ran fast. He’d stashed away some cash he stole on the day when they took his mother to the hospital. It should be enough for a kidney, he thought. He ran like the wind. When he got home, he grabbed the money, held it tightly in his hand, and ran back to the butcher’s. Once inside, still panting, he opened his sweaty palm and placed the crumpled bill on the counter.
“Uncle, give me some kidney, it’s for my mom, she needs it.”

The butcher, a sturdy man with strong arms, bent his head toward the gipsy boy and smirked, but then he weighed half a kilo of lamb kidneys, packed them, and even gave him some change.

Now Salim is running to the hospital, plastic bag in hand—he is carrying half a kilo of lamb kidneys neatly wrapped in butcher paper. He reaches the entrance and rushes up the stairs, climbing two at a time. The hospital is packed, but nobody can stop him. His mother has taught him how to snake his way through crowds, without being noticed. “C’mon boy, put on your invisible hat and off you go to make us some money,” she used to tell him.

Salim finally gets to the third floor and storms into the room. Inside it, a nurse is taking the blood pressure of some old woman. She’s in the same bed where his mother was lying only yesterday.




He knocks on the door and I know I have to answer it. If I don’t, things will get ugly. I turn off the shower, the water stops. I don’t even bother to put on a towel, so water drips and leaves traces all over the floor behind me. I’m wet, barefoot, shivering.

I stand there, crushed between the cold wall and his burning body. His fingers move and slowly slide up the inside of my thighs. I can feel my heartbeat in my temples, in my stomach. His blood is rushing around his veins; mine has frozen. A light breeze makes its way through the cracked bathroom window and finds a hideout in my hair. I get goose bumps. My whole body shivers. I feel him throbbing inside me. His thrusts resonate deep inside my head. Memories from my childhood reverberate in my mind, as if caught in a trap in there.

I can sense the arrogant smell of power, the scent of dominance creeping up my neck, going down my shoulders, enveloping my small breasts. I need to find a way to detach myself from the present moment, to tear my thoughts away from my body, thoughts that suck on it like suction cups, like nasty oozing pus.

The water from the tap slowly drips onto the tiled floor… drip, drip, drip…

I look out the window: in the distance a sharp mountain top penetrates the sun and tears it open, a red glow spills all over the ridge, leaving painful marks. The long minutes stretch like bubble gum. I close my eyes and forget who I am, where I am… I forget everything.

He’s already finished. He will be back again tomorrow at dusk, when the darkness thickens intimately. He will knock on the bathroom door while I’m in the shower. It’ll be the same story, over and over again, every single evening, right before she comes home from work. In the shower, slowly, secretly, painfully, dreadfully… again and again, since I was seven. I’m thirteen now. He calls me “sweetheart.” I call him “Dad.”




People sometimes ask me what I learned from living at the orphanage. In the past I would try to come up with a palatable answer, something to make them feel good for having shown any interest. Lately, though, I’ve been telling the following story: Stoycho was six years old when the ambulance took him to the hospital, and we never saw him again. We were told that he had broken ribs, a fractured skull, and a brain hemorrhage, and that he died two days later. Earlier that day we’d gone to the graveyard on top of the hill and were already coming down. We used to go there secretly to steal the food people left at the graves of their deceased relatives as a kind of blessing. The most common thing we’d find was barley sprinkled with powdered sugar, in small plastic cups. Sometimes there would also be cookies and Turkish delight. We were supposed to take them back to the older kids. We knew we weren’t allowed to have any of it, but it was so hard to resist. We were starving, our bellies were rumbling, and yet we had to carry the found food back to the orphanage, untouched. Some of us couldn’t resist and secretly snuck a few small spoonfuls from the barley. If they got lucky, nobody noticed and they got away with it, and kept chewing on the sweet barley for a long time afterward into their dreams.

But one of the kids saw Stoycho take a bite and told the older children. Reporting to the older kids always got you a cookie as a reward. They beat up Stoycho like a dirty little mutt. The teachers watched through the window but pretended that they saw nothing. They let him lie there in a puddle of his blood. They eventually called the ambulance but it was already too late.

Stoycho had always been quite a ravenous eater. People told stories about how he used to hide in the roadside shrubs at dusk and wait for the goats to come home from grazing so he could suck milk from a passing mother goat. Why the goat didn’t run away and how she let him drink her milk, nobody knew. Living at the orphanage taught me how to survive. That’s all that mattered.


Салим бърза за болницата, в която миналата седмица приеха майка му. Крачи бос по нагорещените от юлското слънце плочки на ларгото, гол до кръста. Струйки пот се стичат по мургавото му лице, но той току ги обърсва с опакото на ръката си и пак подтичва. Друг ден ходи по сянката, прави си пътя да минава под липите, но днес има спешна работа и кара направо през пека.

Салим е почти на седем, но отдавна кръстосва улиците сам. За петия му рожден ден му отрязаха палеца на дясната ръка. Сега палеца уж го няма, но в жеги като днешната започва да го сърби. Салим не знае как е възможно това и по-лошото е, че няма как да го почеше. „Защо му е да има палец, и без туй на училище няма да го пращам – каза тогава майка му. – Стига толкоз учени, занаят трябва!“ И го научи да бърка в чантите на лелите и да им взема портфейлите.


Салим извади късмет. На батко му отрязаха единия крак до коляното чак и сега го карат да проси пред градинката на главната улица; няма студ, няма пек. Значи батко му е просяк, а Салим е джебчия, демек – със занаят от малък. Пък и с крадене къде-къде повече пари се докарват. Понякога си крадваше и по някоя скъпоценност, така им викаше – я огледалце, я някой специален химикал. Тези скъпоценности не ги показваше на майка си и ги къташе у тях под леглото.

Баща му не се е вясвал вече две години, а майка му, освен него с батко му, гледа и още две момичета – на три и на пет. С тях живее също и баба му, щото тя е дърта вече и не може ни да мете улиците, ни да краде, а в тоя пек и за просене не става. Майка му чисти всяка сряда двата входа на един блок до Махалата, за което ѝ дават 48 лева общо, „да има за ’ляб“. Но тия дни се разболя нещо, та викаха доктор. Тоя като я натисна по корема, и тя изплака на умряло. Закараха я веднага в болницата, гледаха я на скенер, бодоха я с игли и накрая казаха, че спешно трябвало да се намери нов бъбрек, защото нейните и двата спрели да работят.

Салим постоя до леглото на болната си майка, пък си тръгна умислен. На толкова неща го беше научила, такъв изкусен майстор джебчия го беше направила, но никога не му беше казвала как се открадва чужд бъбрек. И с палец, и без палец, хич нямаше да е лесно. А Салим даже не знаеше нито как изглежда един бъбрек, нито къде да го търси. Пет нощи вече не е ни спал, ни ял и само стои и мисли откъде да намери бъбрек за майка си.

Тази сутрин стана рано и отиде да чака пред вратата на кварталния хранителен магазин, на който майка му вика „Гаража“, но Салим вътре коли никога не е виждал. По едно време продавачката се появи, очевидно за никъде небързаща, и още докато отключваше големия катинар, хвърли към Салим подозрителен поглед.

– Ти какво чакаш? Я марш от тука!
– Лелче, имаш ли картон да ми дадеш?
– Картон ли? За какво ти е тоя картон?
– Ами... да напиша една бележка на него. Аз не мога да пиша, ама ще ти кажа ти да го напишеш. Може ли, лелче? А?

– Каква бележка бе, момче? Я не ме занимавай с глупости!

– Ами... да пише там, че ми трябва бъбрек. Ще седна на улицата до мола и... ако някой има в повече, да ми даде.

Продавачката го погледна с недоверие, после явно реши, че циганчето нещо се шегува с нея, и рече и тя да му отвърне в същия дух.

– Защо ще просиш от хората? Отиди в месарския ей там, на ъгъла на „Ботев“ и „Зелена поляна“, и си купи.

– Ама те бъбреците в магазина ли се продават? – На Салим му светнаха очите.

– В магазина ами, ти къде мислиш?

Да продават бъбрек на две крачки от Махалата, а той пет дни вече да се чуди откъде да го вземе! Салим хукна обратно към вкъщи. Живееха в една колиба от другата страна на железопътната линия, на пет минути е, ако тича бързо. Там е закътал едни пари от портфейла, който прибра в деня, когато откараха майка му в болницата. Все ще трябва да стигнат за един бъбрек. Тичаше като луд. Грабна парите, стисна ги в шепа и хукна обратно към месарския магазин в квартала. Беше почти без дъх, като стигна, разтвори потната си длан и остави на тезгяха измачканата десетолевка.

– Чичо, дай малко бъбрек, че трябва на майка.

Продавачът, едър мъж със здрави ръце, сведе глава към циганчето, досмеша го леко, но му изтегли половин кило агнешки бъбреци, даже и ресто му върна.

И сега Салим бърза към болницата с половин кило бъбреци, увити в амбалажна хартия и пуснати в найлонова торба. Стига пред входа и се втурва по стълбите, по две стъпала наведнъж взема. Пълно е с хора, но никой не го спира. Майка му го е учила как да се промъква през тълпите, без никой да го забележи. „Айде, слагай шапката невидимка и отивай да изкарваш пари“, така му казваше.

Стига до третия етаж и връхлита в стаята. Там една медицинска сестра мери кръвното на някаква възрастна жена. В същото легло, в което до вчера лежеше майка му.















Чука на вратата и знам, че трябва да отворя. Ако не го направя, ще стане страшно. Завъртам кранчето, водата от душа секва. Не виждам смисъл да си намятам хавлия; оставям следи след себе си – мокра, боса, потръпваща.

Стоя, притисната между студената стена и изгарящото му тяло. Пръстите му шават и се плъзгат бавно по вътрешната страна на бедрата ми. Сърцето ми тупти в слепоочията, в стомаха. Кръвта препуска във вените му; замръзва в моите. Летен бриз се промъква през прозореца на банята и се скрива в косата ми; настръхвам, треперя цялата. Той пулсира в мен. Тласъците отекват дълбоко в главата ми, спомени от детството вибрират в мислите ми, като хванати в капан.

Усещам арогантната миризма на сила и надмощие да лази по врата ми, по раменете, по малките ми гърди. Трябва да намеря начин да се абстрахирам от настоящето, да се насиля да откъсна мислите от тялото си, впити като вендузи, като гнойни налепи.

Водата от кранчето монотонно капе по плочките... кап, кап, кап, кап...

Поглеждам към прозореца: острието на планините в далечината намушква слънцето и го раздира; червените му отблясъци се разтичат по билото, оставяйки болезнени следи. Няколко минути се точат като дъвка. Затварям очи и забравям коя съм, къде съм... забравям всичко.

Свърши вече; утре пак ще дойде по залез-слънце, когато мракът се сгъсти интимно. Ще почука на вратата в банята, докато се къпя. Едно и също отново и отново, всеки ден, преди тя да се върне от работа; под душа, тайно, болезнено, мъчително... Отново и отново, откакто бях на седем. Сега съм на тринайсет. Той ме нарича „миличка“. Аз го наричам „татко“.





Понякога ме питат на какво ме е научил животът в Дома. В началото се опитвах да намеря някакъв поносим за хората отговор; нещо, което да ги накара да се почувстват добре за това, че са проявили интерес. Напоследък разказвам следната история. Стойчо беше на шест, когато линейката го откара към болницата и повече никога не го видяхме. Бил със счупени ребра, фрактура на черепа и мозъчен кръвоизлив, издъхнал няколко дни по-късно. Връщахме се от гробището на хълма. Ходехме там скришом и обирахме подавките, оставени по гробовете, за Бог да прости. Най-често заварвахме жито, поръсено с пудра захар, в пластмасови чашки, понякога се намираха обикновени бисквити и локум. После ги носехме на големите. Знаехме, че не трябва да ядем от тях, но беше ужасно трудно да устоим. Умирахме от глад и носехме в ръцете си храната, забранена за нашите къркорещи кореми. Някои не успяваха да издържат и похапваха скришом от житото. Ако имаха късмет никой да не ги усети, минаваха между капките и после дълго дъвчеха сладкото жито насън.

Едно от децата видя Стойчо и каза на големите. Когато кажеш на големите, получаваш обикновена бисквита. Пребиха го като куче. Възпитателките гледаха през прозореца, но се правеха, че не виждат. Оставиха го да лежи в локва кръв. Накрая все пак извикаха линейка, но беше твърде късно.

Стойчо по принцип си беше гладник. Разказваха, че са го виждали да се крие надвечер в храстите до улицата и да причаква козите, когато ги прибират от паша. Бозаел мляко от коза майка. Защо козата не е избягала, а го е оставила да бозае, никой не знае. Животът в Дома ме научи да оцелявам. Само това имаше значение.

Translator's Note

First Steps toward Social Inclusion—Seeing the Invisible

In the last twenty years, the most popular literature exported from Eastern Europe has dealt mostly with issues related to life under communism and the post-communist period (see Andrew Wachtel's great article on Eastern European literature stereotypes in the West, in Primerjalna književnost volume 33). English readers have enjoyed a series of literary masters from Milan Kundera to Václav Havel, from Ivan Klíma to Pavel Kohout, from Ismail Kadare to Herta Müller, from Georgi Tenev to Wioletta Greg, from Dubravka Ugrešić to Georgi Gospodinov. The list goes on and on; a list of Eastern European writers telling stories of dictatorship, oppression, psychological struggles, or simply relating their schizophrenic everyday life during communism and its aftermath. The theme, albeit colorful and intriguing, has remained somewhat limited because of the largely disengaged interest of the Western audience and its almost-voyeuristic look at the effects of political regimes on human existence. As a translator, I’ve been looking for other stories from Eastern Europe—narratives that address contemporary social issues, which may or may not be directly related to the communist past of the region, themes that apply to all of us as citizens of the world. Recently I found an author that injects her fiction with social issues that are pertinent to people East and West. Her narrative makes us look at ourselves, asks us to become engaged readers and take a stance on the subject right away rather than remain mere observers of stories about other people and places from a distant moment in time. The author is Nataliya Deleva, and her book is called Invisible.

Deleva’s debut novel Invisible (Невидими) offers an intriguing literary experience that raises important questions about social inequality, poverty, physical disability, sexual abuse, queerness, and ageism. Deleva’s fragmented fictional narrative weaves these topics into the stories that compose her novel tying them together by a common theme—the social invisibility of her characters. The text takes the reader to places and situations from the past in the author’s home country, Bulgaria. The fast-paced narrative style breathes suspense into each one of the stories in the book, crafting a multifaceted and colorful patchwork of important social inclusion concerns. The novel’s language preserves the gilded grace of a classical narrative while the individual stories within it—vivid vignettes—invite the reader to engage in a postmodern reconstruction of the overarching story in the book.

In the leading storyline of Invisible, Leah, a woman in her mid-thirties, relates her experience of growing up in an orphanage, revealing how her childhood without mother and without love has affected her current existence. Leah’s life in the orphanage is defined by daily rape, feelings of abandonment, and lack of proper adult care. Years later, Leah decides to go back to an orphanage as a volunteer. There she notices a little girl who struggles with issues similar to those from her childhood. Leah decides she wants to adopt the little girl and give her the opportunity to have a mother—Leah’s own childhood dream. In post-communist Bulgaria, they face exhausting red tape obstacles, which delay the reunion of mother and child. The story has an open ending, inviting the reader to hope that, despite overwhelming bureaucracy, love will prevail, and Leah’s childhood dream will come true for the little girl.

The title of the book in the original language translates into English as invisible. Pivoting her novel on the concept of visibility, Deleva declares her intention to cast light on characters whose existence remains beyond the everyday conscious gaze of society. These are minority members, sexually abused children, disabled people, unwanted orphans—all marginal groups that remain in the shadows of social life. Seeing them means acknowledging their existence, which is inconvenient to mainstream society. We all are able to see Deleva’s characters among us; but to do so, we need to make an effort. Reading Invisible is a step toward becoming aware of our own discomforts, of our own fears, of our own reluctance to see what is already there. Ultimately, the novel is a step toward making consciously the invisible visible and disseminating further that gaze in an attempt to promote social inclusion.

Elitza Kotzeva


In the Classroom