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Morsel for the Dead
Chapter 1:
Iovana, or The Birth of the Hero


And it is said that around these parts they sometimes deliberately do not pronounce the final words of their songs (which everyone knows anyway). And they call that “a morsel for the dead.”

Ian van Athen, in Traveling in the Direction of the Shadow


In the summer of 1827, the master mason by the name of Manol Iliev entered Tryavna along with the hot, oblique winds that stuff the throat with dust and turn the clothing inside out. His shoulders were broad and his gait was uneven, and behind his back he dragged his shadow, full of stones. All in all he was remembered more than he was loved. The town was mute, fused like mica from the heat, with no trace of mercy in the sky. He trampled the soil by the river, chose the spot, and began to build, while his apprentices followed his every move. He worked quickly, with both hands, and it was with both hands that he fought equally well too. Every Sunday, he scraped the blackness off his palms, changed his shirt, and went over to Hadji Gerasim’s house. They always invited him into the same wide anteroom, where the light entered from three sides and a multi-colored but mute bird paced around its cage. They served him a cup of sweet coffee, a glass of cold water, and a piece of sugar-coated lokum, as bright pink as freshly cut meat. He would drink the coffee quickly and the water protractedly, in small gulps, and in that time Hadji Gerasim would complete two rotations through his komboloi beads. “Yok,” the hadji would finally say, once again rejecting the mason’s request, and the mason would swallow his last gulp of water and stand up to leave.


The hadji had one daughter, and her hair was the color of wild honey in the middle of winter. One night the daughter jumped over the house’s fence, and the strange thing was, she neither scraped her hands nor ripped her dress, even though the stone fence was taller than a person and the night was dark, and she only had a little dew on her skirt when she reached the mason’s door at dawn. That was how Manol Iliev came to marry a second time, and it was at his wedding that Iovana first laid eyes on him.


She had spent two days traveling from Thornitsa to Tryavna with her father, and by the second day it seemed to her that the landscape remained unchanged and the oxen were treading in place. The beginning of autumn, rain had fallen, and she lay in the cart under a gray and flat sky, which was making her sleepy. Shortly before reaching town, they changed into their new clothes. At her age, at thirteen, she had not yet cut her hair, and her breasts were pointing straight ahead. A constant impatience wetted her upper lip. She loved night because of the day after it, and day because of the following day. She was counting and waiting.


At her cousin’s wedding, Iovana stood entangled in strangers’ gazes, and at the other end of the long table she could see the groom, who took up space for two and every time he drank from his cup seemed to be kissing it deeply, with tongue. Around her the people were seated so close together that their morsels and words became jumbled, then someone to her left mentioned her name, while someone to her right happened to say his, and that was how for an instant the two names met. And her heart began to ache underneath her necklaces, because they were not well suited at all.


Two years later in Thornitsa she saw his face up close. His bad days could already be counted in his beard, and only God knew his good ones. One morning during the first winter of the marriage, the newly wed cousin saw human footprints in the snow on the roof of the house, and her hair began to turn black. The taste of salty earth appeared in her mouth, her teeth began to break, and the humidity caused her mirror to turn dark and scaly like a fish. The illness lasted over a year and left her as abruptly as it had come, between two lit candles, one by her head and another by her feet, and with a thin, mother-of-pearl trail of saliva in the corner of her mouth, where her soul had left, in no hurry, like a snail. Just a few days after her death, he laid the final stone of the big bridge in Tryavna, which had three vaults and was wide enough for two ox carts, and he carved above it the year—1829.


That was a year of significant stirring around the Eastern Question, so little triangular banners, large shaded-in areas, and thick red arrows filled the map of the Balkans. Along the path of one of these arrows, Selim Bey advanced southward with his troops. Upon reaching Tryavna, they could not find a ford, because the river had overflowed, so the bey sent for the mason, to ask him whether the bridge would withstand the passing of the troops. The bey was a little man whose feet did not reach the ground when he sat in a chair, but his fame preceded him by several days, and along with all the other things that were said about him, it was also said that nobody who had seen him smile had ever survived. And now a smile was beginning to rise on his face like a cool moon over the clouds. Let him cross, the mason replied. The bey did not use interpreters since he believed you could not govern over anybody properly if you did not speak their language. This was why he spoke all the languages of the Empire, and garbled them all equally. The mason managed to make out something about apples rolling in the autumn, and heads doing the same year round, then something about praying to his infidel god for the bridge to withstand the cannons’ weight. During the entire length of the conversation, the mason kept his gaze fixed on the bey’s left slipper, hypnotically red and made from a velvet that absorbed the light. At one moment, the slipper stirred, which the mason took as a sign and began to speak. God’s affairs were God’s affairs, he said, and the bey’s were the bey’s, but the bridge was his own affair, and if he had to, he would stand beneath it while the whole army made its way across it. And that was exactly what he did.


But nobody ever learned what he had prayed for while standing submerged neck-deep in the gurgling water, tethered to the foundations with a rope so that the current would not carry him away—whether he had prayed for his bridge to hold, or for it to collapse into the depths of the earth. But by the time they finally pulled him out, almost frozen and deaf from the rumble, he had already acquired his fame, for over his head—unbeknownst to him—had passed the foot soldiers with felted soles, and the cavalry with clomping, and the twelve steel English cannons, and the ammunition train, and its attendants—they had all passed and continued onward to the battlefield, where countless predatory yellow flowers would feed for years on the soft marrow of their bones.


And when that same spring the water overflowed and carried away the wooden bridge in Thornitsa, the villagers sent for him and asked him to build them a new one, from stone, over the river.


Whoever had once founded Thornitsa must have been running away from something. Some misfortune so terrible and sudden that he had left behind his home and his village without taking anything with him, apart from a sack of chestnuts and an unclear future for himself and his children. He had avoided the wide roads, climbed along the mountain’s pathless slope with his chest almost brushing against the earth and the tangled roots, and reached that steep spot by the river where the land gave birth to stones, the stones to thistles, and the thistles to thorns. He decided to stay and spend the night, and those who followed him spent the night too, but during that night and the day after it, a certain force came alive of the kind that turns temporary decisions into permanent ones, so he never did go any further, but also, years later—while people broke their shovels into the rocky soil and cursed their fate—he was buried in that place, and even more years later, his sons were buried there too. And this man must have had no luck at all, because the chestnuts he had brought with him turned out to be wild (or grew wild in the soil where they were planted), beautiful as а water buffalo’s eye but inedible, so the women used them to make a bitter concoction with which they washed their hair. One thing that was said about Thornitsa’s men was that they ate their gold, and another was that they slept with their hands clasped around their wives’ hair. The first claim originated from the suspicion that they could not have escaped from their former village completely empty handed. Every family in Thornitsa, it was said, possessed one gold coin for its firstborn son, two for the father, three for the grandfather, and half a coin for each of the younger brothers, while all the births, deaths, and trade deals took turns in such a precise sequence that the coins always remained seven. But most such talk usually turned out to be idle. More likely, the saying had to do with their custom of putting a gold coin in the dough to make the bread rise, or under the tongue of the sick to bribe the sickness away. Either way, the fact remained that the coins they collected to pay the mason were all jagged and worn thin like onion peels.


They built their houses from stone, low to the ground, with cellars as large as the houses themselves, as if each house’s shadow were buried in the ground. Mushrooms grew in their cellars, and grass grew on their roofs, over which goats climbed, and the mason kept losing his way in their yards—they had agreed he would sleep at the inn and take turns eating around their homes, but he always seemed to end up in the same yard, which had a chestnut tree standing in the middle of it, a scent of oil-fried onion and paprika floating about, a child peeing in the weeds, a dog barking on a leash, and a handful of people laughing and telling him he had once again come to the wrong house, then directing him to the right one. And almost a month had to pass before he finally made his way to the only two-story house in the village, the last one on this side of the river.


It was early evening, the sun had not yet set, but the high stone fence cast a shadow so black and cold that half of the yard already smelled like night, and the flowers in it were closing. In the other half, bees were still buzzing and Iovana was standing with her hands beneath her apron and a gulp of blood in her mouth, because the inside of her lower lip had split open. A rectangle of light appeared in the stone fence and the shoulders of the mason’s black body filled it when he paused for a moment, as if he was startled. He then crossed over the threshold, carefully bending his head, and his three apprentices followed him through the golden rectangle and also bowed, although there was no danger for them to hit their heads into the gate’s upper beam. She swallowed the gulp and came to her senses. From up close, she noticed that his whole face was covered in red blisters and sores from the sun, which had not spared him. She also noticed that rather than breaking his bread, he held it up to his mouth and sliced it over his thumb, so his entire thumb was covered in black, crisscrossed lines, as though he were paying for his every bite. She heard his voice only as he was leaving. “A fine house,” he said.


[ . . . ]


Intoxicated by the heat and helpless, she spent whole days listening to the sounds from the construction—the rhythmic banging of metal into stone, which made the heat grow, with no human words or laughter. Then around noon, when the sun bore down with no mercy, everything would quiet down for a while. It was impossible to catch a glimpse of anything, since the trees from the neighboring yards obscured this part of the river. The constant standing on tiptoes while peeking over the windowsill had made her thighs firmer, while her breasts could no longer fit into her cupped hands. Some rough fur had sprouted over the tenderest parts of her body and she no longer recognized her own scent. At night her heart echoed around the empty room and woke her. And neither a miracle, nor a misfortune.


Until that one Tuesday, which resembled all others, except for a dog that set out across the village, staggering as if drunk. The children chased it with stones, surrounded and forced it into corners, and a little prod was enough to knock the dog down, to make it fall sideways, unable to get up. Its eyes were foggy, inebriated, someone at the tavern had probably liquored it up as a prank, the children were laughing, the dog kept trying to stand up, but they kept pushing it down, until finally it managed to rise to its feet, somehow, and bit the innkeeper’s son. The children screamed and ran into their homes, the women came out, also screaming, and so did the men, with wooden clubs and nooses in their hands. Cries were heard from the inn, and it was all the way out by the orchards beyond the village that they finally managed to trap the rabid dog and dragged it back, strangled, with dirty yellowish foam on its muzzle.


Throughout that night, a candle burned in the inn’s window, while out in the yard the men kept drinking the innkeeper’s strongest rakia without getting drunk, and then someone said, mostly because something had to be said, that beyond the mountain was a woman who had been struck by lightning and now her shadow was like a dog’s, and that she healed people with a touch on the forehead. The man almost managed to explain where she lived, although not quite precisely, but he said the place was easy to find, because everyone knew it and many people traveled that way. In the morning, the innkeeper carried the child out in his arms, laid him down in the cart, and left together with his wife, and so the inn remained closed forever, because nobody ever saw them again, nor heard anything about what became of them. Thus it was decided that the master mason and his apprentices would be put up at the only home that could accommodate guests, the two-story house on this side of the river.


That was the beginning of that week, and its end was even worse. During the night, shortly before waking up, Iovana dreamt she was buying a pumpkin. Not from a stall at the market, but in some room, where it was half dark and the pumpkin’s color was radiating, bright yellow. It was a pumpkin as big as her embrace. The dream began with her entering the room and picking out the pumpkin among several smaller ones, and ended with her paying for it. She did not see the person whom she paid, but remembered only a small yellow coin that she placed in somebody’s palm. How will I carry it now, Iovana thought and woke up on a Sunday that started off on the wrong foot. At first, with invisible birds hiding among the tree leaves and screaming the same incomprehensible words over and over again, like names being pronounced backward. Then, with stubborn animals refusing to budge or suddenly turning their heads and baring their teeth. With flurries of curses spilling down the steep paths and lightning-fast backhanded slaps landing on the cheeks of children who did not deserve them. At the house, Iovana kept banging into the corners of the furniture and dropping everything she picked up. So cups kept breaking as a good omen and salt kept spilling as a bad one, and out in the yard her braids kept getting caught in the apple tree’s low-hanging branches as no omen at all. In the evening she found herself following the mason along the river, not on a path, but straight through the dry grass that reached high under her skirt and scratched her legs. His shoulders obstructed her view, and she realized she was trying to place her own feet in his tracks, as if they were wading in snow. They came to a spot where the heat had caused the river to retreat, leaving part of its bed to them. In the distance, the village houses were still visible, as was the bridge on its scaffolding, by now nearly finished. It was one of those bridges supported by nothing but its own weight and the perfection of its arc. Another arc was swimming in the sky—the moon, which rose like an eyebrow over a blind eye and did not cast any light. And in the half-darkness, she finally discovered his weight, and it was exactly as much as she could bear. He was a knife that healed a wound. With his teeth on her neck and his breath so hoarse it resembled a whisper, while a mossy fire filled her with deeper and deeper thrusts, all the way up until that blast, which hurled them aside as they still clung to each other, and the river overflowed with one single wave and soaked them to the bones. Everything around them—the frogs and the crickets—had fallen silent and now suddenly began screeching, sharp and accelerated. From the distance came the sounds of people shouting and dogs barking, he jumped to his feet and ran towards the village while wrapping the sash around his waist, the bridge had collapsed, several houses were enveloped in flames, and frightened human shadows were pacing among them. When she returned, nobody remarked on her absence, or her drenched clothes, or her smile, which cut fortune and misfortune evenly, in the whole panic that followed the big earthquake of 1831.


And over the next day, and the following days, the earth continued to sway and the pregnant women continued to vomit. And when it finally quieted down and people had more or less propped up their houses, only then did they think to count the thin-as-peels coins from the advance payment that the mason had returned to them, and not a single one was missing. And the mason himself disappeared together with his apprentices, and the villagers never saw him again.


[ . . . ]


She happened to see the mason Manol Iliev only two more times. Once, when he passed through the village with his fifth wife, a tall girl whose lashes were so long that the color of her eyes was indiscernible. And back then it struck Iovana as odd, how much that slim, olive-skinned girl resembled her own blonde cousin, how they both had the same incline of the head toward the shoulder, and the same bitter shadow in the corner of the mouth. The second time she saw him was at the fair of Sveta Nedelya, while he was installing the large stone cross on top of the church dome. At first Iovana did not notice him, surrounded as she was by her people, with a bowl of walnuts in her hand, among the thousand-petaled noise of the crowds that had gathered from all over the region, while faint melodies, still squeaky and out of tune, tried to make their way through the noise and while the flesh of large animals slowly turned over the fire and the smell of roasted meat rose straight to the sky. But when the rifle cracked, everyone heard it, his body rose on tiptoes and his hands opened wide as he plunged down—that’s when she recognized him, amidst the protracted and stupefied ‘aaaah’ coming out of the crowd’s mouth, but she caught nothing more, because in the next instant she felt the trampled earth under her cheek and saw the walnuts rolling around her face, chasing one another, crashing and rattling, without stopping, as though they were propelled by some internal force beneath their shells. Far from the feet of the people, who now ran around and shouted out various conjectures—“. . . the father . . . ,” “No, the brothers . . . ,” “. . . after her death . . . ,” “. . . revenge . . . ”—in the moment before her children could rush over to her, call out her name, and wet her temples, she felt that familiar stir inside her body, that quiver of life—she was carrying a child.


[ . . . ]

Залък за мъртвите
Глава 1:
Йована или Раждането на героя


И казват, че по тези места понякога нарочно не произнасят последните думи на песните си (които така или иначе всички знаят). И наричат това „залък за мъртвите.“

Ян ван Атен из „Пътуване по посока на сянката“


През лятото на 1827 година майсторът на име Манол Илиев влезе в Трявна заедно с горещите, коси ветрове, които натъпкват гърлото с прах и обръщат дрехите с хастара навън. Имаше широки рамене и неравна крачка и зад гърба си влачеше сянката си, пълна с камъни. Изобщо него повече го помнеха, отколкото го обичаха. Градът беше ням, слюден от жегата и нито следа от милост в небето. Отъпка пръстта край реката, избра мястото и започна да строи, а чираците му го следваха във всяко движение. Работеше бързо, и с двете си ръце, а също с двете си ръце поравно умееше и да се бие. В неделя изстъргваше черното от дланите си, сменяше си ризата и отиваше в къщата на хаджи Герасим. Посрещаха го винаги в същото широко преддверие, където светлината влизаше от три страни и една шарена, но няма птица обикаляше клетката си. Слагаха пред него чаша сладко кафе, чаша студена вода и едно парче локум, яркорозов като прясно отрязано месо. Кафето пиеше бързо, а водата продължително, на ситни глътки и за това време хаджи Герасим извърташе две броеници. „Йок“, казваше накрая хаджията и тогава майсторът отпиваше и последната глътка вода и ставаше да си ходи.


Хаджията имаше една дъщеря и косата ѝ беше с цвета на полски мед в средата на зимата. Една нощ дъщерята прескочи оградата на къщата и странното беше, че нито ръцете си издра, нито дрехата си скъса, въпреки че зидът бе по-висок от човешки ръст и нощта - тъмна, само малко роса имаше по полите си, когато стигна призори пред вратата на майстора. Така Манол Илиев се ожени за втори път и на сватбата му го видя Йована.


Бяха пътували с баща ѝ два дена от Търница до Трявна и на втория вече ѝ се струваше, че пейзажът не се променя и воловете тъпчат на място. Началото на есента, беше валяло и Йована лежеше в колата под едно сиво и равно небе, което я приспиваше. Малко преди града облякоха новите си дрехи. На онази си възраст, на тринайсет, не беше още рязала косите си и гърдите ѝ сочеха право напред. Едно постоянно нетърпение мокреше горната ѝ устна. Обичаше нощта заради деня след нея и деня заради следващия ден. Броеше и чакаше.


На сватбата на братовчедка си стоеше, оплетена в чужди погледи, и на другия край на дългата маса виждаше младоженеца, който заемаше място за двама, и всеки път, когато отпиваше, изглеждаше да целува чашата, дълбоко, с език. Около нея хората бяха така гъсто насядали, че си объркваха залците и думите и някой отляво спомена името ѝ, а някой отдясно изрече случайно неговото, и така за миг двете имена се срещнаха. И я заболя сърцето под герданите ѝ, защото не си подхождаха изобщо.


Две години по-късно в Търница видя лицето му отблизо. Лошите му дни се брояха вече в брадата му, а добрите един Бог ги знаеше. Една сутрин през първата зима на сватбата братовчедката видя следи от човешки стъпки в снега върху покрива на къщата им и косите ѝ започнаха да почерняват. Някакъв дъх на солена земя се появи в устата ѝ, зъбите ѝ се трошаха и огледалото ѝ потъмня и стана на люспи от влагата като риба. Тази болест продължи повече от година и я остави също толкова внезапно, както беше дошла, между две запалени свещи, една при главата ѝ и една при краката, и с една пътечка седефена слюнка в ъгълчето на устата ѝ, там, където душата ѝ си беше отишла, без да бърза, като охлюв. Само няколко дни след смъртта ѝ постави и последния камък на големия мост в Трявна, с три свода и широк за две волски коли, и изписа отгоре годината - 1829.


Беше година на голямо раздвижване по източния въпрос, когато триъгълни знаменца, големи защриховани участъци и тлъсти червени стрелки изпълваха картата на Балканите. По пътя на една от тези стрелки Селим бей се придвижваше с войската си на юг. Когато стигнаха Трявна, не намериха брод, защото реката беше придошла, и затова беят прати да му доведат майстора да го попита дали да мине с войската по моста. Беят беше едно човече, което, ако го сложиш на стол, краката му няма да стигат до земята, но славата му винаги го изпреварваше с няколко дена напред и наред с другите неща, които се разправяха за него, казваха, че не е оцелял този, който го е видял да се усмихва. И сега една усмивка беше започнала да изгрява на лицето му като хладна луна над облаците. Да мине, отговори майсторът. Беят не използваше преводачи, защото вярваше, че не можеш да управляваш добре някого, ако не знаеш езика му. Затова говореше всички езици в Империята и всичките еднакво завалено. Майсторът чу нещо за ябълките, които се търкалят наесен, и главите - цялата година, и за неверния си бог, да му се моли мостът да издържи оръдията. През цялото време на разговора беше крепил погледа си върху левия пантоф на бея, хипнотизиращо червен, от едно кадифе, поглъщащо светлината. В един момент пантофът помръдна, майсторът го прие за знак и проговори. Божието си е Божие, каза, и беювото - беюво, но мостът си е негова работа и, ако е нужно, ще стои отдолу, докато да мине цялата войска. Което и направи.


Само че никой не узна за какво се беше молил, потопен до шия в клокочещата вода, вързан с въже за основите, за да не го отвлече течението - да му издържи мостът, или да се продъни вдън земя. Но когато го извадиха накрая, почти замръзнал и оглушал от грохота, вече се беше прочул и над главата му бяха минали, без да го разбере, и пешаците с плъстени подметки, и конниците с чаткане, и дванадесетте стоманени английски оръдия, и обозът, и съпътстващите го, всички бяха минали и заминали към полето на бойните действия, там, където безбройни и хищни жълти цветя щяха да се хранят за години от меката вътрешност на костите им.


И когато същата пролет придошлите води отнесоха дървения мост при Търница, търнинчани дойдоха да го повикат да им построи нов, каменен, над реката.


Този, който беше основал Търница, сигурно беше бягал от нещо. Някакво нещастие толкова ужасно и внезапно, че беше си оставил къщата и селото, без нищо да успее да отнесе със себе си, освен една торба с кестени и неясното си бъдеще, за себе си и за децата си. Беше избягвал широките пътища, беше се изкачвал без пътека по склона на планината, почти опрял гърди в пръстта и коренищата, и беше стигнал на това стръмно място край реката, където земята раждаше камъни, камъните - тръни, и тръните - бодли. Беше останал да пренощува и с него и тези, които го следваха, и през тази нощ и деня след нея беше влязла в действие онази сила, която прави толкова трайни временните решения, и не само не беше продължил за никъде, но и след години, трошейки лопатите си в камъка и псувайки съдбата си, го бяха погребали на това място, а след още време - и синовете му. И трябва да е бил съвсем без късмет този човек, защото кестените, които беше носил със себе си, се оказаха диви (или подивяха в земята, където ги посадиха), бяха красиви като биволско око, но не ставаха за ядене и жените правеха от тях една горчива отвара, с която миеха косите си. Изобщо за търнинчани се казваше, че ядат златото си и спят уловени за косите на жените си. Това, първото, произхождаше от подозрението, че не е възможно да бяха избягали от предишното си село със съвсем празни ръце. За всяко семейство в Търница се говореше, че има една златна монета за първородния си син, две - за баща му, и три - за дядо му, и по половин - за по-малките му братя, като ражданията, смъртите и търговските дела се редуваха така умело, че монетите оставаха винаги седем. Но повечето такива приказки обикновено излизат празни. По-вероятно се казваше това заради обичая им да слагат златна монета в тестото, за да бухва хлябът, или под езика на болния, за да подкупят болестта. Каквато и да е истината, монетите, които бяха събрали, за да платят на майстора, бяха всичките нащърбени и изтънели като лучена люспа.


Строяха къщите си от камък, ниски, с големи мазета колкото самата къща, като сянката на къщата, вкопана в земята. В мазетата им растяха гъби и по покривите им - трева, кози се катереха по покривите им, майсторът се губеше в дворовете им, бяха се уговорили да спи в хана и да се храни поред по домовете, но се озоваваше винаги в същия двор с кестен в средата и мирис на запръжка, едно дете пикаеше сред треволяците, едно куче лаеше завързано, някакви хора се смееха и му казваха, че пак е сбъркал и го упътваха. И трябваше да мине почти месец, преди да стигне до единствената двуетажна къща в селото, последната от тази страна на реката.


Беше привечер, слънцето не беше още залязло, но високият зид на оградата хвърляше една сянка толкова черна и студена, че в половината двор вече миришеше на нощ и цветята се затваряха. В другата половина още жужаха пчели и стоеше Йована с ръце под престилката и глътка кръв в устата си, защото долната ѝ устна се беше спукала от вътрешната страна. Един четириъгълник от светлина се отвори в оградата и черното му тяло го изпълни с раменете си, когато спря за миг като изненадан. После прекрачи прага, навеждайки внимателно глава, и след него през златния четириъгълник влязоха и тримата му чираци, и те навеждайки се, макар да нямаше никаква опасност да си ударят главите в гредата на портата. Отпи глътката и дойде на себе си. Отблизо видя, че лицето му е цялото в червени мехури и рани от слънцето, което не го щадеше. Видя също, че не чупеше хляба, а го режеше с ножа върху палеца си пред устата и целият му палец беше покрит с черни, преплетени резки, все едно плащаше за всяка своя хапка. Гласа му чу чак когато си тръгваше. „Хубава къща“, каза.


[ . . .]


Упоена в жегата и безпомощна, по цели дни слушаше звуците от строежа - ритмични удари от метал в камъка, от които горещината се усилваше, без човешки думи или смях. По-късно, по обяд слънцето ставаше съвсем безжалостно и за кратко настъпваше тишина. Да види не можеше нищо, защото дърветата от съседните дворове скриваха тази част на реката. И от постоянното надигане на пръсти през перваза на прозореца бедрата ѝ бяха заякнали и гърдите ѝ не се побираха вече в шепите ѝ. Някаква твърда козина беше избила по най-нежните места на тялото ѝ и не можеше да познае собствения си мирис. Нощем сърцето ѝ отекваше в празната стая и я събуждаше. И нито чудо, нито нещастие.


До онзи вторник, който приличаше на всички други, само едно куче тръгна през селото и залиташе като пияно. Децата го подгониха с камъни, заобикаляха го, препречваха му пътя в някой ъгъл и му стигаше само едно побутване, за да се строполи на една страна и да не може да стане. И очите му бяха мътни, пиянски, трябва някой да го беше напил в кръчмата за майтап, децата се смееха, тъкмо се надигнеше - и пак го бутаха да падне, изправи се накрая, както можа, и захапа сина на ханджията. Децата избягаха с писъци по къщите си, наизлязоха жени, пищяха и те, и мъже с тояги и примки. От хана се чуваха плачове, чак някъде при градините, извън селото успяха да го приклещят и се завърнаха, влачейки бясното куче зад себе си, удушено, с мръсна жълтеникава пяна по муцуната.


Цялата вечер в прозореца на хана горя свещ, а на двора мъжете пиеха от най-силната ракия на ханджията, без да се напиват, и тогава някой каза, най-вече защото нещо трябваше да каже, че имало една отвъд планината, ударена от гръм и сянката ѝ като на куче, и лекувала с докосване по челото. Почти обясни къде е, макар и не съвсем точно, но било лесно, защото всички знаят мястото и мнозина пътуват натам. На сутринта ханджията изнесе детето на ръце, сложи го в колата и заминаха с жена му, и ханът така си остана затворен, защото никой повече не ги видя тези хора, никой така и не научи какво се е случило с тях. А майстора с чираците му решиха да го настанят в единствената къща, която можеше да приеме гости, двуетажната от тази страна на реката.


Такова ѝ беше началото на тази седмица, а краят още по-лош. През онази нощ, малко преди да се събуди, сънува, че купи една тиква. Не от някаква сергия, а в някаква стая, където беше полумрак и тиквата светеше с цвета си, яркожълта. Беше една тиква, голяма колкото прегръдката ѝ. Сънят започна с това как влезе в стаята и я избра сред други, по-малки, и свърши с това как плати. Не видя на кого, помнеше само една малка жълта монета, която остави може би в нечия длан. Как ще я нося сега, си помисли Йована и се събуди в една неделя, която започна накриво. Първо с някакви птици, които крещяха, невидими сред листата на дърветата, едни и същи непонятни думи като имена, изречени наопаки. С животни, които се инатяха, запираха се или внезапно се извръщаха и си показваха зъбите. С множество псувни по нанагорнищата и опаки светкавични шамари по бузите на деца, които не ги заслужаваха. В къщата Йована се блъскаше в ъглите на мебелите и нещата падаха от ръцете ѝ. Така чаши се чупеха на добро и сол се разсипваше на лошо, и на двора плитките ѝ се закачаха в ниските клони на ябълката без никакво обяснение. А привечер се намери да върви след него без пътека покрай реката, направо през сухите треви, които дращеха краката ѝ високо под полите. Раменете му преграждаха погледа ѝ и усети, че се опитва да стъпва в стъпките му, все едно газеха сняг. Спряха на едно място, където реката се беше отдръпнала в жегата, оставяйки им част от леглото си. В далечината още се виждаха къщите на селото и мостът върху скелето си, почти готов. Беше от тези мостове, които не ги крепи никаква опора, а само собствената им тежест и съвършенството на дъгата. Още една дъга плуваше в небето - луната, която изгряваше като вежда над сляпо око и нищо не осветяваше. И в полумрака най-сетне научи тежестта му - точно толкова голяма, че да може да я понесе. Беше един нож, който излекува една рана. Със зъбите му върху шията ѝ и дъхът му - толкова хриплив, че приличаше на шепот, докато мъхнатият огън я изпълваше на все по-дълбоки тласъци, чак до онзи взрив, който ги отхвърли и двамата встрани, вкопчени, и реката преля с една-единствена вълна и ги измокри до кости. Всичко наоколо - жаби, щурци - беше замлъкнало и отведнъж започна да крещи остро, учестено. Отдалече се чуваха човешки викове и лай на кучета, мъжът беше скочил и тичаше към селото, увивайки пояса си, мостът беше паднал, няколко къщи горяха и уплашени човешки сенки се щураха между тях. Никой, когато се върна, не забеляза отсъствието ѝ, нито измокрените ѝ дрехи, нито усмивката ѝ, която режеше поравно щастието и нещастието, в цялата настъпила паника, която последва голямото земетресение на 1831 година.


И на другия ден, и на следващите земята продължи да се люлее и бременните не спряха да повръщат. И когато все пак утихна и подпряха криво-ляво къщите си, чак тогава се сетиха да преброят люспестите монети от предплатата, която майсторът им беше върнал, и не липсваше нито една. А майсторът с чираците си изчезна и никой не го видя повече.


[ . . . ]


Само още два пъти ѝ се случи да види майстора Манол Илиев. Веднъж, когато мина през селото с петата си жена, високо момиче с толкова дълги мигли, че не можеше да се разпознае цветът на очите му. И ѝ се стори странно тогава колко това слабо мургаво момиче прилича на русата ѝ братовчедка със същия прекършен наклон на главата към рамото, същата горчива сянка в ъгълчетата на устните. Вторият път беше на панаира на Света Неделя, когато поставяше големия каменен кръст на купола на църквата. Йована не беше го забелязала, заобиколена от своите, с една паница орехи в ръката, сред хилядолистния шум на хората, събрани от цялата околия, в който някакви мелодии, пискливи още и нестройни, се опитваха да си пробият път и меса на големи животни се въртяха бавно над огъня, така че мирисът на печено се издигаше право в небето. Но когато пушката изплющя, всички я чуха, тялото му се надигна на пръсти и разтвори широко ръце в устрема си надолу - и тогава го позна, сред провлаченото и оглупяло а-а-а, което излизаше от устата на тълпата, но не видя нищо повече, защото в следващия миг усети стъпканата земя под бузата си и орехите се търкаляха около лицето ѝ, настигаха се, блъскаха се и шумоляха, без да спират, все едно някаква вътрешна сила ги движеше под черупките им. Далече от краката на хората, които тичаха във всички посоки и крещяха предположения „бащата...“, „не, братята...“, „след смъртта ѝ...“, „отмъщение...“, в онзи миг, преди още децата ѝ да се спуснат към нея, да викат името ѝ и да мокрят слепоочията ѝ, усети онова познато изместване във вътрешността на тялото си, онова живо потрепване - имаше дете в себе си.


[ . . . ]

Translator's Note

Iana Boukova’s novel Traveling in the Direction of the Shadow is composed of numerous distinct but connected plotlines that break away, digress, wander off and meander, come back together, run in parallel or intertwine, reoccur, then separate again. On the one hand, the possibility to break the narrative into standalone pieces provides a convenient way to share parts of the novel with readers before it’s published as a book. Even an isolated excerpt is enough to offer a glimpse into some of the novel’s overall thematic, aesthetic, and stylistic features: the powerful rhythm, cadence, and flow of its prose, which are more characteristic of poetry than of fiction; the lush, yet highly controlled literary expression that extends beyond the quotidian and confronts the very conventions of language; its humor and compassion, even as it examines the vulnerability of human existence; its intertextual kinship with global authors, such as Marguerite Yourcenar and Gabriel García Márquez. These, not incidentally, are some of the features that make the text so challenging but at the same time so exciting to translate.

On the other hand, however, reading isolated excerpts as standalone pieces obscures the rhizome structure and complexity of the novel, which are also among its essential features. In Traveling in the Direction of the Shadow, rather than holding readers by the hand, Boukova constantly invites them to make their own way within the network of carefully supplied cues and to actively participate in disassembling and then recreating the narrative. Formally, each of the novel’s eight chapters tells the complete, cradle-to-grave “biography” (though almost never chronologically) of the character that the chapter is named after. But it is up to the reader to recognize patterns, make connections, arrange sequences, and assemble different fragments, both within each chapter and across the novel.

The excerpt included here makes up about a third of the first chapter, titled “Iovana, or The Birth of the Hero,” while the rest of the chapter has already been published—as three separate excerpts—elsewhere. My intention is to offer readers at least a couple of different reading options. One option would be to read the except as it appears—as a standalone piece, which follows a more or less linear narrative thread, recounts Iovana’s encounter(s) with the master mason Manol, and ends on the cliffhanger of an unexpected pregnancy. As the novel’s opening, even this relatively short excerpt manages to introduce the chapter’s main character, establish the time, place, and atmosphere of the novel, and showcase many of the literary qualities mentioned earlier. 

The second—and in my opinion, more compelling—option offers a way of getting a fuller experience of the novel and getting a taste of how it operates on a bigger scale. This option involves reading the excerpt here while also following the links included within it, in the order that they appear, to the already published other parts that make up the rest of that chapter. The first part, which comes immediately after Manol’s entry into Iovana’s yard and his observation that hers is “a fine house,” tells the fascinating story of Iovana’s grandfather and how he came to build the only two-story house in the village, ending with Iovana’s own birth. The second excerpt, which takes place after Manol’s disappearance from the village, tells of Iovana’s subsequent marriage to another man and, in the span of just a few powerful pages, covers decades of her life, during which she “ripened sweetly in a perpetual autumn of caressing winds and benevolent light,” gave birth to eight children, and “aged triumphantly.” The last excerpt picks up right where the one included here leaves off, with the birth of Manol, the runt—Iovana’s youngest child and the novel’s protagonist (thus allowing us to finally make sense of the second part of the chapter’s title). That excerpt was originally published in April of 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was taking over the world, and I find it both moving and unsettling, thanks to its uncanny, eerily resonant account of the arrival of the plague to Iovana’s house—an account that ends with Iovana’s own death.

Though it may seem slightly unusual, inviting readers to click around to different parts of the chapter and connect them in an overarching whole can be said to replicate, in a surprising way, the overall experience of reading the novel. Although they’re of course presented in a rather low-tech manner—as words on paper—certain images, elements, and motifs within the book function almost like hyperlinks, which careful readers have the option of noticing and using as orientation points within the rhizome narrative.

Finally, it’s worth noting that I worked on this excerpt as part of my MFA thesis, which is why my translation still very much bears the traces— both in the shape of general strategies and specific words—of my inspiring mentors, the generous members of my thesis committee, and some of the brilliant fellow translators that I had the joy and privilege to work with during my time at the program. So, for example, I’ve left Hadji Gerasim’s (originally Turkish) “Yok” untranslated—not only because a plain “No” or even a more emphatic “Certainly not” do not do justice to the vehemence of the hadji’s categorical refusal, but also as a little nod of gratitude to Aron Aji, who’s remained a great supporter of the project even after I graduated from the program. Sharing this excerpt with the editors and readers of Exchanges feels like an incredibly special sort of literary, if not literal, homecoming.

Ekaterina Petrova


In the Classroom