Yordan Slaveykov, born 1976 in Vratsa, Bulgaria, graduated in Theatre Directing from the NATFA – National Academy of Theatre and Film Arts in Sofia in 2001. He is a theatre director, teacher, playwright, writer and screenwriter.
His first novel The Last Step was published in 2015. It won two national literature awards in 2016 – the 45th edition of the Bulgarian national contest for debut literature Yuzhna prolet (Southern Spring) and the Pencho’s Oak Award, given annually in recognition of literary contribution to contemporary Bulgarian culture.
The Last Step
Part One: Back then
THE LITTLE BROTHER
The idea of death has always appealed to me. The cemetery in the village where I was born and spent the first twenty-three years of my life was my favorite place of solitude. Our house was next to the last in village and a dirt road, named who knows why The Old Path, lead to the cemetery. One could never get lost on the Old Path since it paralleled the railroad tracks. I loved the sweltering afternoons when my mother and my father were having a break from all the daily physical labor that each country house demanded. It is then when I quietly opened the front door, to avoid any creaking and even more quietly I closed it behind and I set out on the Old Path to the cemetery. Later on, when my mother passed away I covered the distance from the house to the cemetery in about fifteen minutes. When I was just a kid though it used to take me a minimum of half an hour. To get to the cemetery one had to go through the rather unsafe railway crossing. There was no barrier, no sound signals or whatsoever. I always imagined I had to cross the two rails as soon as I heard the signal. I crossed them without the signal. For the thrill of it. Because of the danger. Sometimes I would stop, take my sandals off, step on the sun flushed rail and wait for the signal. The sound of the approaching train resonated, raced for a couple of kilometers ahead, reaching my bare feet, flowing into my body. That is how I felt the power, the size, the danger of the train. I would let the sound fill me for a couple of seconds then I would bounce off. I would put my sandals back on, run across the four parallel tracks and on the same Old Path I would reach the cemetery. It was located on a hill with trees planted around the graves, high grass filling everything in between and lots and lots of flowers. Not on the graves – live ones. And lots of birds. It was never quiet. Contrary to the popular belief that the eternal home is a quiet place, you could hear the song of the birds even in the most scorching of summer days. I very much enjoyed stumbling on graves I had never seen before. I sat close to the grave – I fell silent. I studied the memorial tablet. I tried to calculate how long the person lived before he or she got there. I was never shocked by the old people that had passed away. It was the children that sent chills down my spine. I stood there imagining it was me lying in the ground and someone else was standing next to the grave, crying for me. I held my breath, I tried not to breathe. Back then that was the only way I understood death. Someone who is not breathing, eyes closed. Today I do not find that plausible. Not that it matters. The deceased does have his eyes closed and is not breathing. I used to like looking at beautiful tombstones. Marble ones. With the names and dates carved into the marble. With a fence surrounding the grave. With vases on both sides of the gravestone. It seemed legitimate to me that if you loved someone you would make them a beautiful home where they can spend their eternity. My child’s mind went through the other option too. If you did not love the one who passed away, you just put a wooden cross and that was that. I stood there for a long time. Or until I got hungry. Which basically is the same thing when you are a child. I would head home in a state of tranquility. The sadness inside me resonated with the sadness that soaked the crapes. They balanced one another. When I got home I felt very light. Until the next time I would sneak out quietly again, to go and fall silent, and my inner sadness would congregate with someone else’s sadness, soaking the crapes. The same sadness which had arisen soon after yet another hospital release, after yet another life-saving surgery. The one who I loved the most in my big big family was my mother. When she found out she was pregnant with me she got scared. She already had two other children. A son and a daughter. They lived in poverty. In the times of the so-called developed socialism and planned economy there was work for everyone. Underpaid security. We never starved, but there was just enough money to cover our basic needs. Food, clothes, shoes, wood and coal. No exorbitant spending, no luxury. No vacations during the summer or the winter. Mother told some relatives she was pregnant. An unexpected child. An unwanted one. They told her to get rid of me. What a convenient term. You do not speak of a human being. It is killed. It is taken care of, one can get rid of it – something unwanted, annoying. A mosquito. A louse. And she told them Are you the ones who are going to be looking after my child, or is that going to be me? Where there is food and room for two, there is for three. So she kept me. At the end of August, nine months pregnant, with a pick on her shoulder and with my father by her side she went outside the village, across the river, over the old rickety wooden bridge to water our water garden. The whole village had lots there. About two hundred square meters arable soil in which people cultivated peppers, tomatoes, cabbage… My mother used to plant flowers between the vegetable beds. Other women couldn’t believe she would waste the space for it. She always smiled and said she enjoyed the colors. And I was happy with it. Whenever I went looking for the water garden I always found it. It was the only one with flowers. So she went there with father, her contractions started, her waters broke. She went into labor. A long and a nightmarish one. She needed more than forty-eight hours to deliver me. Silently. She said it made no difference if she screamed – the pain was the same. She had a very specific sense of humor, a sharp one. She was extremely ironic. When she gave birth to me she said to the midwife: Such agony. Give him to me so I can strangle him. The other woman’s reply came in the same manner: It is too late missis. You should have acted nine months ago. The caesarian operation method had not yet made its way to the rural town in which I was born and she did not let them pull me out with a forceps which was out of the question anyways. It was a breech birth – I came out bum first, unlike other children. Bum first and my tiny arms wrapped around my head. Unlike other children. That is what I have always been. Unlike other children. Up to my fifth birthday I was ill. Constantly. Bronchitis, pneumonia, swollen lymph nodes. Operation. But all that seems naive compared to my last hospital visit. I remember it. A warm spring day. My mother took me to our neighboring hose, where a lonely, old lady lived. Her husband had died a long time ago. She had never remarried. She spoke of him with deep love. And in the present tense. I remember the color of the house. Yellow. A yellow two story house which I found gigantic. And a big staircase which lead to the living floor. The first floor was actually a vast basement. The reason why we visited was that the old lady’s daughter was there, spending a day or two with her mother. She had her son with her. A boy my age. While the women were talking in the other room we started a game of chase. The doors and windows in both rooms were open. That I remember. I chased him – he ran. I remember the room. A window across the door. A big bed in the middle, a wardrobe on the left. Solid. Brown. The boy jumped on the bed, and I decided to corner him, but from the other side, so I took a step forward and… I fell. I flew through the air. I flew. In the rug covered floor there was a hole. A big one. Knowing that, the boy went around it. I went straight into it. And I fell. In the basement. My flight was brief. A second at most. I felt no pain. I just heard a crunch. Somewhere in my head. After that I lost consciousness. They took me to a hospital. A hopeless case. That is what they told my mother. A hopeless case. Something like “Get rid of it”. She cried. The doctor told her “Stop crying missis. You have two children left”. No one would operate on me. Two broken neck vertebrae. Nineteen eighty-one. Primordial medical equipment. And yet. Yet the national pediatric consultant gave his brief. And a doctor’s name. They flew in the doctor by helicopter. The doctor had no right to be religious. But he was. He produced a tiny golden cross from his uniform pocket, kissed it and prayed to save me. If there is a God – he heard his prayer. A long operation. Hours long. After that I slipped into a coma. They told my parents there was a chance I would not wake up. Or if I did wake up I might have experienced brain damage. I was in that state for eight days… eight days.
Years after that I asked her how she had felt during those days. When it was not certain whether I would wake up or not. She looked at me. She stared for a long time. She started saying something but decided against it. I remember the sigh that accompanied her decision. I woke up on the eight day after the operation, at dusk. I looked at her. She sat on the little children’s chair next to the bed, waiting for me to come around. And when I did I told her I wanted to eat something and she started crying. At first they did not allow my mother to visit me. They would not let her stay in the room with me. That was the law. Only children who were up to two years old were allowed to have their parents with them. I was five. I do not know what she said and how she fought, but during my stay in the hospital my mother lived in the room with me. She spent more than half a year like this – sitting on the tiny chair next to my bed. There was no bed for her. She was not allowed to get one. She slept in the tiny chair – sitting, resting her head on my bed. Mother. My mother. My own mother. She was taking care of four or five other kids in the room. Boys. Older than me. Abed – just like me. Feeding, scrubbing bodies with wet towels instead of showers. Changing the bedpans. I remember one of the boys. Later on she told me in detail about him. His family was going on vacation to the seaside. The father was driving. The driver of a big truck lost control of his vehicle and slammed into them head on. Their car was reduced to nothing. His father, mother and little sister died on the spot. Every Thursday and Sunday his grandparents would come and visit him. And along with the fruit and juice they brought for him, they also brought another bag with a spare change of clothes. They went into the restroom on our floor, they took of their mourning clothes and put on the ones they had brought. Then they entered the room. Every time he would ask where his parents and little sister were. They told him they were doing okay, getting better and that they loved him and wanted to see him and they would visit soon… The boy was twelve or thirteen years old back then. I don’t know if he knew they were lying. Probably. One day he told my mother “Mom, can I have some water?”. And he started crying. Inconsolably.
I am the first born in the family. They say that the first born in every family gets the most love. It is the most eagerly expected. Especially if it is a boy. My mother and my father come from different parts of the country. My father from one, my mother – from another, they met each other and got married in a third place. My mother worked and studied, my father worked. When they got married they were so poor that they had to steal two forks and two spoons from the cafeteria where they had lunch when they were working. They brought them in their tenement so that they could eat together in the morning, at noon and in the evening. Our home is full of black and white photos from their wedding. From their registry marriage. My mother is not wearing a white dress. They could not afford it. My dad is wearing a suit. Mother is wearing a skirt and a jacket. Or a dark dress. I can’t remember. The photo is beautiful. They are beautiful. My mother is thin, fine, with long hair. My father is beautiful, he is smiling and has his arm around her. She is his wife now. My father has wavy hair. They look happy. They are happy. Soon after that my mother gets pregnant. Or just before the wedding. They get married and they move to live in the village where my father was born. After those events I was born. The first born. What blessedness. I must have been ten or eleven years old. Not more than that. I cannot even remember what was it I had done. Honestly. It was nothing more than what a boy that age would do. Maybe I smoked my first cigarette. Or I shattered someone’s window with my slingshot. Must have been something like that. Or at the most I came home with yet another poor mark from school.
It was time for my father to go to work. The night shift. I loved it when he worked nights. I was walking around the village and I was coming home. I was starving. Both of us met in the middle of our front yard. When we were close enough he lashed. His hand hit my face with its full might. I stumbled. He got a hold of me, turned me to face him and hit me again. On the face. As hard as he could. He took off my jacket. He took off my sweater. He kept hitting me. He was cursing. My mother came out and tried to break up the fight. He struck her too. She fell on the ground. He tore my shirt. He pushed me on the ground. I think he started kicking me. He took off my shoes. I could not fight back anymore. I only had my hands on my face. He took off my trousers. After that my underwear. He left me bare naked. He grabbed me by the hair and dragged me across the yard. In the front yard we had a lime tree, right next to the front gate. He made me stand right next to it and lift my hands in the air. Mother was screaming. He took off his belt and started whipping my back. I hollered. Our neighbors rushed on the street. Two men could barely hold my father back. He would not stop cursing and yelling that he was going to kill me, that he was not paying enough attention to me and it was high time I learnt who the father in this house was and I was going to obey him. Soon after that I ran away for the first time. I did not know where to go. I only wanted to be away from home when my father was there. Our house is very close to the railroad, which divides our village in two parts. They were respectively named The Upper and The Lower neighborhood. We lived in The Lower one. After you cross the rails you would find yourself in a field which from time to time was sowed with wheat, corn or sunflowers. After that field came the woods. I dressed properly, I found a hat and mittens. Our backyard, which we called the black yard, because it had no cement and we kept our animals there, was divided in two parts. The other part was where my parents sowed corn or alfalfa. I entered the latter part through a small gate. I closed it behind and ran across the garden. At the end of the yard my grandfather had planted about thirty threes. Sycamores. They formed a sort of a fence. After them came the railroad. I ran across that too, I was scared that my father would see me. I went into the woods. It got dark. It got cold. They started looking for me. I could hear them calling my name. I stood silent. Although I wanted to call out. I wanted to be found. I wanted to be held and kissed and told how much they loved me. And my dad to say sorry. I kept silent, because I was afraid. I spent the night there. It got very cold. I got hungry. I had not taken any food with me. I did not want to eat any food, bought by him. I stayed awake the whole night. In the morning he went to work, my mother called the neighborhood’s militiaman and some neighbors and they found me. We were silent during the short walk home. When I got inside my mother had started the stove – she had made French toast. The room was cozy and warm. I ate. I had tea. Mother told me she would turn on the heater so I could take a shower. I fell asleep before that. I woke up. I saw what time it was and I got scared. My father would be home soon. My mother told me he would not hit me anymore, that he loved me and he was sorry. He got home from work. We had dinner. After dinner he told me he wanted to talk to me – man to man. I put my hands on my ears. He looked at me for a long time. I wished he would hold me. After a month he gave me another beating. Not as brutal as the first one. He did not take my clothes off. He did not take his belt off. But he beat me. And I ran away again. After that he beat me again. I ran away once more.
Next summer my father, my mother, my sister and my little brother went to the seaside. For two whole weeks. On the Golden Sands beach. I could not figure out the reason, but they did not take me with them. They packed, they got on the train. My grandfather and I saw them off to the railway station. They left without me. I did not get to see the sea then. I wanted to see it so much. Very much. Very. I wanted to go to the beach. To get into the water. To go fishing. With dad. They came back. Happy. Tanned. They had brought me clams and sand. And a conch. I was happy to see them. When autumn came I found out they had withdrawn me from the school in the neighboring village where I used to go with my sister. They had enrolled me in a boarding school. In a town about sixty or seventy kilometers away from our village. How nice it is going to be, they told me. How I would change my surroundings and stop hanging out with children, who are a bad influence, they told me. How I would come back home every weekend, they told me. How truly, genuinely good the teachers and educators were, they told me. I asked mother and father how come they knew that the teachers and educators in the boarding school were good. My father got mad. He yelled at me. He did not hit me. My mother started crying and told me she loved me and she did not want me to go anywhere. I departed on the first day of school. My sister put her arms around me and whispered in my ear that she would be waiting for me every week at the train station. My little brother was delighted. He could not understand what was happening. He just kept saying: My brother is going, my brother is going. Soon after that I ran away from the boarding school. I wanted to go back home. Sometimes I think my whole life is one big run-away routine. I think to myself I was born to run. I got to the woods and I started walking along the railroad. I tried to remember from which direction I had got there on the first day of school, when I had arrived by train. That was where I was headed. I did not manage to get home. Night caught me on the road. I was constantly on the lookout for passing trains. Fog spread out. Even if there were any stars or a bright Moon it was impossible for me to see them. Hunger took over me. I was starving. I got off the tracks and went straight into the first village. Dogs were barking. I barked back. Just for laughs. It wasn’t a long time until I ran out of village. That is one of the peculiarities of small villages. The tour is brief. The paved road came to an end, giving way to a dirt road. In our village we call it a black road. The road on which the moon was not shining lead me to something like a cottage area. More like vineyards, each one accompanied by a little house. I went into the first one, where no dog was barking. Good. It was not open. I broke in. I shattered the window. Making my way in, I cut myself. I found some cans – fruit and pickled vegetables. I ate. I was full. I fell asleep on the floor. In the morning the owner dropped by. He saw the shattered window, had a peek inside, saw I was sleeping. He went back into the village to get the militiaman. They opened the door very quietly. Not to wake me up. They started kicking me while I was sleeping. Some people really enjoy beating other people up. Especially when those other people are weaker. I managed to ask the militiaman wheatear he could not find someone his own age to beat up. He smashed his fist into my nose. After that they said I had tried to run away, I tripped, fell on the ground and broke my nose. Years after that militiamen became policemen. And policemen acted in the same manner as militiamen. I was convicted after that. The militiamen turned over the case to the children’s pedagogical authority. An institution that deals with child criminals. And their reeducation. It was there where they found out it was not my first time to smash glass and eat from cans. I was found dangerous to society. I was not attending any normal school, but a boarding school. So I was convicted. They sent me in a reform school. Labor adorns men. That was the reason why we did so much labor in this school. We studied quite little. I remember the first night. And the second. The third. The dormitory. Bunk beds. Rugs between them. The stale smell of unbathed boys, of feet. Sweat. A light smell of urine. There was a keeper in the hall. He pretended not to hear anything. They turned the lights off. They beat me up. With no reason. Just so I would know I was the new guy and the old dogs were in charge. They urinated on my bed. I slept on the floor. Gullible me to think that the worst part was over. Breakfast – four top tables, the cafeteria was actually a basement space with windows through which you could see anyone’s knees if they were passing by the building from the outside – they pushed my food tray on the ground. They laughed. They did it again during lunch. And during dinner. I could not take it anymore. I was starving. I went into a frenzy. I hit one of them. That was a mistake. In the evening, in the dormitory, they raped me. For the first time. There were several of them. The one that I hit was one of them. It was brutal. They turned the lights off. I stood in the corner, but they were so many. First they kicked me until I fell on the ground. After that they put a pillow on my face. So that no one would hear me scream. Two of them were holding my hands. Two of them my legs. They took my clothes off. For a minute there I imagined I was home, and my father was taking my clothes off and he was going to beat me. They lifted my legs up. They were holding me very firmly. And they did it. I think I passed out after the third one. When I came to they had put me in my bed and tucked me in. I was bleeding. I was in horrible pain. A cutting pain in the lower half of my body. I got up. Slowly. Very slowly. Everyone was asleep. I went into the hall. The light was on. The keeper was snoozing in an old armchair, his newspaper resting on his lap. He woke up. He told me where the bathroom was, to go and clean up and warned me not to whine. That is how things were there. Every newbie went through this. It was nothing to be alarmed about. Tradition. In the bathroom there was only cold water. It cooled down my flaming body. The bathroom was lit by a single light bulb. There was a cracked mirror there too. I was alone with my shame. I did not cry. I went back into the dormitory. Everybody was still sleeping. I took a pillow from my bed. I went to the guy who I had punched during dinner. He was sleeping on the lower floor. I clutched the pillow. With both hands. Really clutching it. I approached his sleeping face. I did not know what to do. I wanted to cause him pain. And a lot of it. The floor creaked. He woke up. Opened his eyes. He did not move a muscle. He was not blinking. I was not blinking. The Moon was out. She always does what she pleases. And always shows her face when the time is wrong. He took his hand out from under his blanket. And he slowly approached my hands, still clutching the pillow. We stared at each other. We were not blinking. He touched my hand. His palm was cool. I let go of the pillow. I was hypnotized. He opened his mouth, his tongue brushed his teeth. To this day I remember what he told me. Go on. Do it. I want it all to stop. I could not move. I felt my heartbeat in my throat. I gathered as much spit as I could and I spat. In his face. He did not move. The following day after dinner they beat the hell out of me. He and his friends. My every muscle was sore. One of my eyebrows was split open, my nose swollen and my lip – split. I could not breathe. He came next to my bed, he propped my head up. He helped me drink some water. And he said it again. Kill me. Stop me. A couple of years later I was in prison and news of him reached me. They let him out earlier for good behavior.
He went home. He killed his parents. He slaughtered them. Like animals. And after that he cut his throat. Maybe I should have stopped him. I should have put the pillow on his face. Should have. Done something. Maybe he was aware of the monster which he was becoming. Maybe.
Poverty made me sing. It is how I kept myself from screaming. While singing I was actually daydreaming. I was the oldest of three children. I have been taking care for my sister and my brother for as long as I could remember. Spoiled children. Weak. But I loved them. Flesh and blood. There was no other way. The three of us went to school. I prepared breakfast. I took them to school. It was in the village next to ours. I picked them up from school. I made lunch. Our parents were always busy. Always on the fields. I raised my brother and my sister. My mother gave birth. I raised. I did not sleep when they were ill. Always patching and tailoring old clothes. Trying to make them look appropriate. But my most vivid memories are from something else. From taking care of our animals. I was our sheep’s shepherd too. And the goats’. I took care of the pigs too. I am not complaining. Those were the days. The bad thing about it was that those were not our animals. I was taking care of other people’s animals. All summer long. Every summer. I smelled like barn and manure. I was a pretty girl. Slender. Fine. With long hair and a Roman nose. I wanted to become a pharmacist. I do not know why. It sounded so prestigious to me. My father would not allow it. A pharmacist and an actress for him was the same thing. Frivolous professions. Whorish. That is how he referred to them. Whorish professions. He did not want his daughter becoming a whore. He said he would shave my head if he found out. I ran away because of poverty only to end up in another kind of poverty. Just my luck. I ran away. It was not planned. One day it just happened. I stole some money. I knew where my mother kept it. I walked on foot from our village to the next. I took the bus from there to the closest city. I went to the station there and bought a ticket with the remainder of the money. I arrived late at night. With no money. Hungry and free. The same night I slept on a bench in the park, next to the river. No one bothered me. Those were the days. In the morning I found a militiaman and I told him a made-up story, about a dead aunt and the money I have lost. I even cried, for the sake of authenticity. He bought it. He got me breakfast and paid for it. He accommodated me in a dorm and helped me get a job. He did not want anything in return. That is how men were back then. I started working on a building site. Crane operator. An honorable occupation. Side to side with men. Far from family, the sheep and the pigs. Far from being a pharmacist. But I was making my own money for the first time. And that was when the miracle happened. I saw him. He was coming down from the scaffolding on the site. His hard hat fell right in my feet. Serendipity. I looked up and my breath stopped. Tall. Broad shoulders. Full lips. Wavy hair. And as it turned out – engaged. For the first time I felt fire in my loins. I found out his name. I followed him to the place where he was meeting his fiancé. I called out his name. He turned around. I smiled and reminded him we were supposed to meet tomorrow at the park’s entrance. I walked away. Behind my back all hell was breaking loose. He came to the park’s entrance with the clear intention of killing me. Instead he kissed me. I thought I was already pregnant. I taught him how to smoke and eat olives. My fingers brushed his beautiful wavy hair and I was happy. We got married in a couple of months. And the fairytale came to an end. He turned out to be poor. Like most young men in our country back then. Back then there was a minimum of a year’s wait to get a television, a ten years’ wait for an automobile and for a panel flat – more than twenty. My husband was a good man. My husband is a good man. He has a temper. But he doesn’t stay angry for long. Sometimes he hits me. But that is normal too. He has difficulty expressing his feelings. That is why most of the time I wonder wheatear there are any feelings or not. He is clumsy. Gawky. If he decides to make something with his hands it always comes out ugly. He is thoroughly deprived of the sense of how things work. I fear he might pass this on to our children. After we got married, we left the city and went to live in the village his father was born in. I ran away from one village. I ended up in another. His father was very thin, almost dry. Tall. A widower. Tough character. I kissed his hand, I called him father. I immediately set about cleaning the house, washing the windows, doing the laundry and cooking. I picked some flowers, I put them in glass jars. The house just lit up. I wanted to turn this men’s house into a home. And I did it. My father-in-law helped me out and my husband would occasionally not get in the way. My husband always managed to find a job, not that there were any other options. He never got the right job though. The job that would get him on the waiting list for an apartment in the city. Or if he did find such a job there always came someone with all the right connections to cut in line on the list before him. I yearned to live in the city. To have running hot water. To not have my rest room at the back of the yard. To have central heating. To wear dresses, not robes. To have high heels, not slippers. Not that I did not buy the occasional dress. I quickly gave up on them. There are not many places to wear a dress to in the village. Actually there is no such place at all. Those were my dreams. I was young and beautiful. And some other man could have make my dreams come true. Instead in no time I found myself mothering two children. Then came another one. My life was on repeat. Irreversible. When I had my first son I had no idea what I was supposed to do, nor what changes this event should bring upon us, nor how I should tend to this child. It is not true that you start loving the child immediately after it comes out of you. They gave me a wrinkled, ugly piece of meat that would not stop crying. He would not suckle. That is how I became a mother. I did not know what to do with him. I did not want him. I wanted to go home alone. I was exhausted from the last nine months. I needed a break. In a couple of weeks I started to feel motherly. My husband wanted to hold him. I did not want to give him the child. I wanted to keep him safe. My once beautiful husband now seemed too big and too clumsy. I was afraid he was going to drop the child. I did not want his huge hands on my baby. One day the baby was sleeping and I thought I could not hear him breathing. In a manner of seconds I just froze. I wanted to die. That is when I knew I loved him. When I was pregnant I came down with the jaundice. I gave it to my baby. Inside my womb. I stopped breastfeeding. I developed complications. My liver was damaged. My son made a full recovery. I never did. He was a calm baby and grew up to be a calm child. Thin face, wax-like, black hair, green eyes. Beautiful. Thoughtful. Quiet. I almost felt I did not have a child. He was present in my life, and in his, very delicately. I do not know how things went wrong. I do not know when. It was my first time being a mother. No one taught me how to be a mother. There is no school for that. No textbooks. There are no makeup exams for parents who failed. I would never know why he suddenly started doing badly at school, he started skipping classes, he missed a lot of them, so they called a parent’s meeting, then the pedagogical council and they punished him. I tried – I tried to help him, to understand him. I talked with him. Daily. Many times. I fought with him, I urged him. I could see that something was not right with my child. Something was changing him before my eyes. I did not know what it was. I procrastinated things with him. I begged him to talk to me. To tell me. There was no use. He was silent. Or he would say that he was sorry and he was going to make things right. His father had none of my patience. He started beating him. That I was never able to forgive him for. It is what I never forgave myself – I let my husband beat our child like one beats an animal.
A year passed after I gave birth and I managed to convince my husband we need to take a shot and try to make it in the big city. In the capital. I worked as a genitor, but that did not bother me. We were living in the city. My children would not tend to sheep and goats; they were going to have walks in parks. The children. The one that I loved most was the girl. My daughter. I delivered in the capital. She was everything I was not. She was prematurely born. She had a malformation on one of her eyes. She was almost blind. They operated immediately. They saved her from going blind. But the eye which they worked on remained visibly smaller. It broke my heart. She had a strange regime too. Up to her second birthday she would sleep all day and stay up all night. Every night. Me and her father lived in a rental home and we worked shifts. Brother and sister loved each other very much. I remember that when she peed herself, he would take off her wet panties and her tights and try to put them on. It was about that time when my father-in-law got ill. His daughter was living in the capital, she had a job a family and an apartment. There was no way she was going back to the village. It was me and my husband who did go back. We had jobs and a family too. But we had no apartment. And so the scales tipped. We went back. To look after him. So he would not be alone. To help him out. So much for my dreams. I left those to her. My daughter grew up to be a bright and stubborn child. She was very good at drawing. She read a lot. She did not have a lot of friends. She was always self-conscious about her eye. I noticed that and I kept telling her it was a minor defect, barely noticeable, that she was mommy’s girl and I loved her very much. I would not allow her to do any choirs. I would not allow her to set foot in the kitchen. That got my husband angry. He said I was not bringing her up like a proper girl. I did not want my girl becoming a house-wife like me. I did not want her to spend her days in the kitchen and the bedroom. When not in the bedroom – watching TV. When not watching TV – in the restroom. I did not want her to wonder where to wear her dresses to. I did not want her living in the countryside. I did not want her talking to rude people. To work shifts in the factory. I did not want her getting married when she turned eighteen, just like I did. I wanted her to have a different life. I dreamed of her becoming a famous artist or a writer. How her beautiful paintings would adorn the walls of prestigious galleries and museums. Or how her novels are sold worldwide. Or how they would interview her on television and she would say: Everything that I am, I owe to my mother and the way she brought me up. I am seeing this on TV and my tears of joy are rolling down my cheeks. I laugh. A laugh of joy. Then she stopped drawing. She started writing poems. I encouraged her. I still keep the notebooks with her poems. I replaced the novels in my dreams with poetic books and I was still happy.
My little one came unexpectedly. Most probably I would have had an abortion, if my husband’s relatives were not rooting for the same thing. I kept the child in spite. I never came to regret this. Giving birth to him was excruciating. Difficult. It took ages. Soon after I gave birth, they discovered there was something wrong with my kidneys. One of them just stopped functioning properly. I started having problems with my blood pressure. I was less than thirty years old, I had three children and bad health. No one has ever given me so much love as my little son did. Never. That child loved me with every fiber in his body. He never asked me to love him back. He demanded my love for him to be at least as strong as his. He was constantly ill – suffocation, lung problems, asthma… he demanded my full attention. And he loved me to death. He did not get a lot of sleep when I was working the night shift. And when I finally got home, tired, he would ask me to read him a story and told me I could sleep with one eye closed and keep my other one open. He slept in my bed. Until he got into the fifth or sixth grade. No one else could find a good enough reason for that, but the two of us. That way I did not have to share my bed with his father. It was a battle between the two of them. For my bed and for my heart. My child needed me. I did not need his father in my bed. The little one made the change from an unexpected baby, to momma’s boy. He was a willful child. Capricious. It took him years to start eating spices. He was capable of removing a microscopic peace of parsley in his food, place it on the table with disgust and stop eating. He was a chubby child, he lost weight afterwards. He had very sensitive skin, so the clothes he wore were always inside out – the edges, stiches and labels sticking outside. Otherwise they would irritate his skin. He was bossing his friends around, but they loved him. He quickly developed quite the strong sense of justice. Of what was good and what is wrong. He had his own moral tape line, with which he measured everything and everyone. Pity the soul who did not measure up. Bless those who did. He became friends with some gypsy kids from our village – he did not like our neighbors’ kids, he read a lot, he read as if he were an adult. Passionately. He finished his first book when he was about five – his sister taught him to read. He has not stopped since. He was clever. Too clever for his age. No matter his age, when he was growing up – he was just too smart. And very lonely, very melancholic. I could perfectly see it. And I stopped loving him. I started adoring him. Because I saw my sadness in him.
Having a nickname is like having an incurable disease. You cannot die of it. But it cannot be cured. You are scared. Your name is erased. And your essence. And it does not matter who you are or what you did. Or what you did not do. Sometimes I think that when I die, no one would remember my name. Only my nickname will be engraved on my tombstone. The eyeless.
Children, especially girls, can be cruel. They fixate on your defects and bring them to the foreground. I did not wear any glasses. I refused. I broke all the pairs I had. But you could see it without them. It was obvious to the naked eye that one of my eyes was smaller than the other. The eyeless. Hey, Eyeless, better watch your feet so you don’t stumble. Eyeless, could you count my breakfast money, please? Hey, Eyeless, how do you comb your hair, how do you brush your teeth, can you see yourself in the mirror?…
Eyeless this, Eyeless that… Eyeless all day long, no exceptions, no weekends. I never cried, I never complained. Once or twice my brother beat up one of them. I told him not to. Things got worse. They cornered me after school – the boys. Good boys, our neighbors. They pushed me on the ground and started kicking me. They we asking me: Eyeless, where’s your brother now, eh? And they called me names. I dreamed of being a princess. To have two identical eyes. And to be loved by all boys, I dreamed they all want to marry me. I really wanted the boys to just let me love them. And marry them. And they would forget my nickname. I was a good writer. I was a good artist. Alas they were not impressed by those talents of mine. Whenever I went out on the street, or in recess in school, or wherever it was, regardless if I was alone or with my friends it was all I heard. The nickname! I loathed them. And I loved them at the same time. I craved their attention. And I was determined to get it. To win them over. At any cost. I went to the places where they hung out – at the stadium, on the hill, next to the locked church, in the woods surrounding our village. At first they chased me away. They would call me names to my face and I would just leave. Afterwards they were just making fun of me. Eventually they stopped paying attention to me. Just as if I was not there. But I was. I learnt how to play their games. And to win. I earned their respect.
Halfway. When I started making games up – I won their attention. I was not a good archer, because of my eye, but whenever we played Cowboys and Indians everyone wanted me on their team. I came up with brilliant hiding places for the Indians. And great tactics for the Cowboys. But before they let me in, I had to be baptized. It was during a summer break. At midnight. My parents were asleep, I went out.
The boys were waiting for me at the stadium. They told me my task was to go to the cemetery alone. And come back with evidence that I had actually been there. I said nothing. I was not afraid of the dark. I set out. I came back with a bouquet. I gathered the flowers from the graves. The boys laughed their lungs out. I threw it at their feet. One of them kicked it and the laughing seized. Something heavy fell on the stadium’s grass. Matchboxes were produced. Matches were lit. Amongst the flowers there was a crucifix replica I managed to dislodge from a wooden cross. Someone gave out a whistle. That was their reaction. After that – a silence as loud as a wild applause. They got on their bikes and set about the dark rural streets. But before they did, each and everyone of them came to me and gave me a hearty pat on the back. Like guys do. But I became no tomboy.
My life changed, it started to resemble a fairy tale. I became a princess. The boys looked at me with respect. With admiration. I became one of them. The only girl who had been given the honor. An enchanting summer. Each morning I woke up with the sense of having overslept, being late, that the day would not be enough for all the games we had to play. The hours would prove short for all the expeditions we planned on setting out on. We demolished the old rickety bridge over the river and started building a new one. That job turned out to be more difficult than we had imagined. And instead of giving us a hard time, all the adults decided to give us a hand. Headed by the mayor, who had a leather helmet and a motorbike. Our enthusiasm spread throughout the village. And on the river work was going at full speed for a couple of days. Our fathers would stop by and have a cigarette, we would drink lemonade, our mothers would cook and bring lunch. Three blessed days. Afterwards me and the boys designed birdhouses. Our village is surrounded by woods from both sides. On the left river side is The Oak Woods. On the right side – The Pine Woods. We built a lot of houses and we hung them in the threes. When autumn came we were going to put food inside – wheat, sunflower seeds, corn… I felt part of something big. For the first time in my life I belonged to a group of people who accepted me the way I was. I looked upon other girls from the village with disregard. They on the other had looked at me with envy. I felt beautiful and loved. I was beautiful and loved. I was the brave girl in a boy’s party. I started making up games. That was when they all went crazy. Everyone participated in my games – all ten friends of mine and I. They forgot about my nickname, as if it had never been. And even more – I too forgot about it. And I was happy.
I was a beautiful princess, locked up in a vast castle (a tree), who needed to be rescued. Half of them were knights, the other half – the castle’s guards. Or a slave, property of greedy slave owners… or a brave girl-pirate with whom the boys traversed the seas and oceans in search of loot and adventure. My favorite game was the one where a beautiful blind girl wanders the world all by herself. She finds herself in the hands of bad people, who make her their slave. One day the son of the worst of them all falls in love with the blind girl, has a fight with his father, defeats him in a duel and saves the girl. The two of them get married and set out on a quest to find a cure for the girl’s blindness.
The end of summer was upon us. Our parents had already bought us new backpacks, the occasional winter clothes, a pair of sneakers for our physical education classes. Everything had been bought from the fare in the closest city. Mornings became chilly, days became shorter, just like an old and worn out piece of clothing. The boys and I decided to play one of our games just one more time. One of my games. We drew sticks. The outcome was that we had to play The blind girl. We were at the stadium. The boys had left their bicycles near by. It was in the afternoon. I went back to my place to get a blindfold – that is how I played The Blind Girl – with a blindfold on my eyes. The idea was not to be able to see at all. Not just keep my eyes closed. I found one of my mother’s babushkas in the wardrobe and I took it. I went back to the stadium. I put the blindfold on my eyes and I fastened it. One of the boys checked it. I stood still, my legs slightly apart, I spread my arms and I started whirling. Ten times in one direction. And ten times in the other. So I could get disorientated. To truly become blind. And the game began. The blind girl, who had lost her way, was wondering in complete darkness, guided only by her sense of sound. The boys were making sounds with their mouths. They mimicked the sound of horse hooves. A river. Birds, dogs, they started roaring like beasts. Suddenly two of them grabbed me by the arms, covered my mouth and started leading me somewhere. Those were the rules of the game. The bad guys were kidnapping the Blind Girl. Someone tripped me. Someone put his foot behind me and pushed me backwards. They let go of me. I was not expecting that. I fell on my back. It hurt. Someone put his hand on my mouth. Roughly. Forcefully. I waved my hands. They pinned them to the ground. I started struggling. I started kicking. They restrained me. Something was happening. That was not in the rules of the game. I felt that it was something evil, but I did not know what exactly. Or I did not want to know. I was fourteen years old. They took my clothes off. From the waist down. They were touching me. They were examining me. I did not see it, but I felt it. They did not speak. Suddenly someone said: Let’s do this!
And so it started. They tried to penetrate me. I was a virgin. They were inexperienced. They spread my legs to the limit. Someone came up with the idea to put some clothing underneath my back. Boys and men always come up with things, that make their lives easier. They took turns. With no success. Eventually one of them did make it. He hollered. The others cheered. After that everyone had his turn. Thank God not all of them could do it. Out of stress or out of shame or out of fear, some of them could not raise. I knew it was over, when they let go of me and one of them kicked me: Get up, you blind whore! You’re fine. Don’t pretend this isn’t what you wanted all summer. Now you got it! I heard the scratch of a match and the lighting of a cigarette and then they left. I did not faint. I was not so lucky. I tried to get up. I could not. I laid there for a long time. For hours. I tried to get on my feet again. I made it. The lower part of my body felt very hot. The upper – ice cold. I went home, I did not have dinner. I washed myself in the bathroom. I went to bed. I felt so ashamed. I prayed I would die. Instead I fell asleep. I told no one. I thought they were going to banish me from home, so I kept silent. None of the girls were friends with me, except one, but I could not bring myself to tell her. Of course the boys bragged about it. Not soon after that all my classmates knew. They knew their version. The boy’s version. How I had been asking for that the whole summer. Some help in becoming a woman. No one inquired about my side of the story. At first glance nothing changed in my life. I kept going to school. I stopped drawing. Not that I hadn’t done that before. I started writing a lot. And I hid everything I wrote. In my writings shame mutated into anger. Nothing changed. Except the nickname. It evolved. No one called me Eyeless anymore, I was now The Eyeless Whore. I am thankful that my brothers and the rest of my family did not find out.
Father. My father. The father. Dad. Daddy. After that – grandfather, grandpa, old man. In between – husband, spouse… I am all of these things. I was not ready for any of them. I like being alone. Living alone. A hermit. The most appropriate word. I got married, because my wife was beautiful. I was flattered she wanted me. She claimed I was beautiful too. I do not know. I do not remember. She was neither my first woman, nor the last – so it was not because of sex. Enter the children – that is how things are supposed to be. The first one, then the second one and surprise – the third one came into this world. I was happy with them. I carried them around in my arms. But I was no good at telling fairytales or singing songs. I mean which guys is? I did not understand them. Neither what they wished for, nor their whims. It was as though I had never been a child. As though I was born eighteen years old and had never traversed the world of children. When I became a father I was horrified to discover that such a world existed. I loved them. In my own way. They were my children, after all. I sometimes beat them. When they deserved it. And not all of them. Maybe I just beat up my oldest son. I cannot remember. Their first words, their first steps, their first day in school brought me joy. I celebrated with them. But there has always been this distance. I just lacked something. I could never fully fit in. I do not know why that was. How can I name something that I do not even know what it is? My children did not complete me. Later on they grew up – enter the grandchildren. I hoped that something inside me would find its way out, something would change. That I would feel part of something. In vain. I loved my grandchildren, I still love them… And when they visit me and leave me afterwards – I forget about them. It was the same with my wife – may she rest in peace. I loved her. I have hit her. That does not change the fact that I loved her. Our marriage did not complete me either. I do not have any talents. I used to draw pretty well. I stopped a long time ago. I cannot remember the reason. I read a lot, but only historical books. And with time my interest in reading faded away. I watch television. A lot. Not that I enjoy what I am seeing, but at least I get informed about what is happening in our country and across the world. I get up early in the morning. I turn on the radio. I listen to folklore music. And news. I start the stove. Even when it is warm. I love fire. I love the sound with which wood burns and turns into ashes. Into nothing. I like to mash these warm, gray ashes between my hands. Sometimes there is an ember amongst the ashes. I mash it too. It burns my palms. It hurts.
Translated by Lyubomir Lyubenov