East of the West: A Country in Storiesby Miroslav Penkov
A grandson tries to buy the corpse of Lenin on eBay for his Communist grandfather. A failed wunderkind steals a golden cross from an Orthodox church. A boy meets his cousin (the love of his life) once every five years in the river that divides their village into east and west. These are Miroslav Penkov's strange, unexpectedly moving visions of his home country,
A grandson tries to buy the corpse of Lenin on eBay for his Communist grandfather. A failed wunderkind steals a golden cross from an Orthodox church. A boy meets his cousin (the love of his life) once every five years in the river that divides their village into east and west. These are Miroslav Penkov's strange, unexpectedly moving visions of his home country, Bulgaria, and they are the stories that make up his beguiling and deeply felt debut.
In East of the West, Penkov writes with great empathy of centuries of tumult; his characters mourn the way things were and long for things that will never be. But even as they wrestle with the weight of history, with the debt to family, with the pangs of exile, the stories in East of the West are always light on their feet, animated by Penkov's unmatched eye for the absurd.
This debut collection from Penkov spotlights the best of the young (he was born in 1982) writer's output, much of which has been published in literary magazines. The opener, "Makedonija," sets the bittersweet scene, depicting a disgruntled old man nursing a grudge against the fellow who wrote letters to his wife 60 years earlier. "East of the West" is aForrest Gump–like romance 30 years in the making between a young man with a busted beak and the lovely cousin for whom he pines. "Buying Lenin" also presents a romance of sorts, between a grandson enraptured by America and the Stalinist grandfather who teases him. In all the stories, Penkov so fully occupies his narrators that one can almost hear their voices. In "The Letter," a thieving young minx plays a British transplant for an easy grand, then blows the cash on a spa day instead of her friend's abortion. "A Picture with Yuki" demonstrates the strangeness of the immigrant experience as deftly as stories by Ha Jin, as a young man and his wife return from Chicago to participate in an in vitro fertilization program in the capital of Sofia. Often these stories link the banality of day-to-day survival to the magic of Bulgarian myth, as in the final story, "Devshirmeh," about a divorcé father telling his daughter the story of a blood tribute.
An unapologetic love letter to a culture of many colors.
“An agile and assured debut . . . In each of these stylistically old-school yet freshly envisioned morality tales, Penkov burnishes brute circumstances to surprising beauty.” Elle
“Splendid . . . These stories are not the promising work of a first-time author. They are already a promise fulfilled--wise, bright, and deep with sympathy.” Alec Solomita, The New Republic
“Like Aleksandar Hemon, Ha Jin, and Edwidge Danticat, Penkov is a translingual. . . . His dexterous English prose [portrays] human beings left in limbo, without a compass.” The Dallas Morning News
“Penkov's stories combine toughness, vulnerability, and bravado. . . . This is a sparkling collection.” Catherine Taylor, The Guardian (London)
“A fantastic collection that lives up to its audacious subtitle . . . Penkov's writing style is clear and startling, filled with warmth and wisdom. . . . These are fearless, gutsy stories with tremendous impact.” Philadelphia City Paper
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Read an Excerpt
I was born just twenty years after we got rid of the Turks. 1898. So yes, this makes me seventy-one. And yes, I'm grumpy. I'm mean. I smell like all old men do. I am a walking pain, hips, shoulders, knees and elbows. I lie awake at night. I call my daughter by my grandson's name and I remember the day I met my wife much better than yesterday, or today. August 2, I think. 1969. Last night I pissed my bed and who knows what joy tonight will bring? I am in no way original or new. Although I might be jealous of a man who's sixty years dead.
I found his letters to my wife, from long before she knew me, when she was still sixteen. It was a silly find, one that belongs in romance novels, not in real life and old age. I dropped her box of jewelry. The lid flew to the side and the door of a secret compartment popped loose at the bottom. Inside lay a small booklet, a diary in letters.
I can't imagine ever writing the kind of letters a woman would preserve for sixty years. I wish it was not that man but I who'd known Nora, back when she was closer to a beginning than an end. Such is the simple truthwe're ending. And I don't want to end. I want to live forever. Reborn in a young man's body and with a young man's mind. But not my body and not my mind. I want to live again as someone who holds no memory of me. I want to be that other man.
* * *
For eight years now we've lived in this nursing home, a few kilometers away from Sofia, at the foot of the Vitosha Mountains. The view is nice, the air is fresh. It's not so much that I don't like it here. It's more that I really hate it. The view and the air, the food, the water, the way they treat us like we're all dying. The fact that we are all dying. But I suppose, if I'm honest to myself, which I rarely am, I should be glad we're where we are. It was hard to take care of Nora on my own, after her stroke. We left the apartment to our daughter, recently married, already pregnant, packed up and settled down in prison.
Since then each day is like the one before. Six thirty we wake up for medication. We eat breakfast in the cafeteriathin slices of buttered bread with three black olives, a sliver of yellow cheese, some linden tea. Dear God, I remember eating better during the Balkan War. I sit amidst a sea of trembling chins and shaking fingers and listen to the knocking of olive pits on metal plates. I talk to no one and no one talks to me. I've managed to earn this much. Then, after breakfast, I wheel Nora up to the gym. I watch her struggle to make a fist, to hold a rubber ball. I watch the nurses massage her withered arm and leg. I watch their supple arms and legs.
The second stroke left half of Nora paralyzed, and all of her mute. Most nursessome doctors, evenregard her as mentally challenged. She's far from that. I'm sure that in her mind all words ring clear, but they roll out disjoined, like baby talk. Sometimes I wish she'd keep the jabber to herself. Sometimes I am embarrassed by the way the nurses look at her, or me. It's obvious by now she won't miraculously learn to speak again. That part of her brain is ruined, the fuse has blown. So why can't she keep quiet? She manages to say my name and Buryana's, and if I do my best to vex her, sometimes she manages a curse. The rest is babble.
She babbles as I roll her back to our room or, if the day allows it, out in the garden, where we walk in circles. I like the garden only when the flowers bloom. All other times the earth is damp and black, and I cannot resist the ugly thoughts. When we're tired we sit down on a bench and fall asleep, shoulder against shoulder, with the sun upon our faces, and to anyone looking, I'm sure we are a lovely sight.
Then lunch. Then the siesta. Our daughter comes to visit once a week, and sometimes she brings our grandson along. But lately, with all the trouble she's had at home, she visits daily. She is awful company, my daughter. We leave little Pavel with his grandma, so she won't get upset, and in the garden Buryana talks of how her husband is chasing after another woman. Dear Buryana, I, too, might get upset. But here I sit on the bench and listen, because I am your father. I have no way of helping, no word of sensible advice. Hang in there, fighter. You'll be all right. Words mean so little, and I'm too worn out for deeds.
* * *
I am asleep and disconnected from what has been or is. Then I'm awake. It seems that someone has dropped a tray outside. The wind rattles the gutters, the trees creak and Nora breathes too loudly. I close my eyes. But what if someone drops another tray? What if Nora coughs or snores? I lie, anticipating sounds that might never sound, yet all the same keep me awake. It thunders over the mountain.
I put on my robe and sit by the window in Nora's wheelchair. I switch on the small radio. Quiet music pours out of the speaker, and I listen in the blue of the night, until a voice comes up to read the late-night news. The Communist Party is great again, more jobs for the people, less poverty. Our magnificent Bulgarian wrestlers have earned us more gold. Good night, comrades, be safe in your sleep.
Dear God, I won't be safe. There is no sleep. And I'm so very tired of the comrades, their all-encompassing belief in bright future days that somehow I've started to suspect might never come. I turn the dial until I find the muffled sound of a foreign station. Romanian, it seems. Then Greek. Then British. The voices crackle and buzz, because the Party is distorting the transmissions, but at least at night the voices are strong enough to hear. I listen to the English and all the words sound like a single long word to me, a word devoid of history and meaning, completely free. At night, the air is thicker, and one foreign sound drags after itself another and they converge into a river, which flows freely from land to land.
I travel with this river. But even so, how can I resist the current of my worries? I think of Buryana. How will she pay the bills, divorced and with a little child? How will Pavel grow up a man without a father? And then my eyes seek Nora, who snores lightly on her back. I watch her face, her wrinkled skin, her crooked lips, and I can't help but think that she is pretty, still. A man ought to be able to undress his wife from all the years until she lies before him naked in youth again. Which makes me wonder if she ever lay naked for that other man, the one who wrote the letters. If he cupped her left breast in his palm. But it is Nora's breast, and wasn't he a man? Of course he cupped it.
I reach for the jewelry box and pry the bottom open. I take the little notebook and weigh it in my palm. Someone has scribbled on the coverDear Miss Nora, Mr. Peyo Spasov, in his last hour, asked us to mail this book to you. This is as far as I can read now. Mr. Peyo Spasov. It's hard to think of a more ordinary name. He must have been a peasant, uneducated, ignorant and simple-minded. He must have earned his bread by plowing fields, by chopping wood and herding sheep. Most likely he spoke with a lisp, or stuttered. Most likely he walked hunched over from all the work.
It suddenly strikes me I've just described myself. Of course, I hate this other man, but what if he was not a peasant like me? What if he was a doctor's son? I turn to the first letter and read.
February 5, 1905
My dearest darling Nora. I'm freezing and my fingers hurt, but I don't want to think of such things. I'm writing you a letter. We're crossing the Pirin Mountains and tomorrow, if God decides, we will be in Macedonia. The Turks ...
My dearest darling. I shove the notebook in the box and hurry back to bed. Under the blankets I shiver and listen to imaginary sounds. I can't afford to read about this man. There is a chance, however slim, that he isn't what I need him to be.
* * *
"So she's kept a few old letters, big deal." Buryana takes off her sunglasses. Her eyes are red and puffy and she blinks while they adjust to the afternoon sun. We sit out in the garden, on a bench farthest from all other benches, but not far enough from the sound of the cripples who drag their feet and canes and walkers across the pebbly lanes.
"'Big deal'?" I say.
"Big deal," she says again, and I'm terrified by how calcified she has become, consumed by her failing marriage.
"You ought to read those letters," she says. "They might help the boredom go away. And read them to Mother. Why not? It'll bring her at least some joy."
Some joy! And so I say, "I won't take love advice from you." I mean it as a joke, of course, but Buryana is in no mood for joking. And soon I wish I'd kept my mouth shut, because from that point on it's all about her husband and that other woman, a colleague of his from school, like him a literature teacher.
She says, "Yesterday, I followed him out of the apartment. He met her in a café and bought her a garash cake. He got himself some water, obviously he had no money for more, and while she ate her cake, he talked and talked for an hour."
"You think he talked of you?" I say. She starts to cry.
"The worst part is," she says sobbing, "this other woman isn't even pretty. Why would he leave me for a woman less pretty than me? So what if I think that a grown man writing poetry is stupid? So what if I don't like to read? That doesn't make me a bad wife, does it?"
I put my arm around her shoulder and let her have her cry.
"This is a valid question," I say. A valid question. What's wrong with me? And while she sobs my thoughts drift and I imagine little Pavel, upstairs with Nora. They must be laughing, happy, both unsuspecting.
"You ought to talk to him," I say, and gather her hair in my palm, away from the wetness of her face. "You can't keep spying on him like this. It isn't right."
She straightens up. "I won't take love advice from you," she says.
* * *
It's night again. It could be yesterday's, or tomorrow's. A night four years back. They're all the same. I sit in Nora's wheelchair and listen to the world. I see beyond the walls, not with my eyes, but with my ears. I see the nurses, in their office, boiling coffee. The water bubbles. I hear needles clicking; someone is knitting socks. I hear the benches, the trees, the mountain. Each thing possesses a noise unique, and, like a bat, I drink the noise of all things, dead and living alike. My palate has grown a taste for sound.
I hear my grandson sleeping in his bed, my daughter talking to her husband. I hear my wife's dreams, sweet to her, but tasting of wormwood to me. No doubt she dreams of Mr. Peyo Spasov. And so it strikes me as only fair that I too should be allowed to sample the noise he's left behind. I take the notebook and read his messy writing.
February 5, 1905
My dearest darling Nora. I'm freezing and my fingers hurt, but I don't want to think of such things. I'm writing you a letter. We're crossing the Pirin Mountains and tomorrow, if God decides, we will be in Macedonia. The Turks have all the main passages guarded, so we had to find a new way through. Two of my friends slipped on ice, and were lost. The first one, Mityu, was leading the donkey with the supplies, and the donkey slipped and dragged him off the cliffs. So now we're hungry, spending the night sheltered between some rocks. The snow has begun to fall. Dearest Nora, I miss you. I wish I was by your side now. But you know how things area man can't stay put, knowing that in Macedonia the Turks are slaughtering our brothers, trying to keep them under the fez. I told you then and I tell you nowif men like me don't go to liberate the brothers, no one will. The Russians helped us be free. It's now our turn to help. I love you, Nora, but there are things before which even love must bow. I know with time you'll understand and forgive. Draw the knife, cock the pistol. That's what our captain, the Voivode, says. I wish you could meet him. He has only one eye, but a hungrier eye you've never seen. He lost the other in the Liberation war. He fought on the Shipka Pass, 1877, the Voivode. Can you believe that? He says the Turks were vicious then, but now, he says, we can take them. Of course it won't be easy. The Voivode says I have no father, I have no mother. My father is the mountain, my mother is the shotgun. All those back home you loved, he says, bid them farewell. It's for your brothers' blood we spill our own. But I can't say farewell, dearest Nora. And I can't hold the pencil any more. I'm cold. And please forgive. Love, Peyo.
Love, Peyo ... Why did I read these words? I vow not to envy or fear this man. Instead, I kiss my wife's good hand and kiss her lips, as if to mark her. She's mine now and has been for a lifetime, and that is that. I listen to the nurses down the hall, I listen to the benches and the trees. But in the moonlight my pillow is a rock, and so I lie beside this rock and so the snow begins to fall. I hear the rustle of every flake on my face, the chill spreads through my traitor knees and elbows. The Voivode lost an eye in the Liberation war. My God, what an awful thing to put in a love letter. I've seen men with their eyes gouged out. Men close to me, barefooted, with wrists tied together behind their backs. Hanged on the village square for everyone to see. As I lie in bed, eyes shut tightly, I still hear the rope creaking when the bodies sway, and I can hear the sound the bodies make swaying.
* * *
I was born a year after my brother. When I was twelve Mother bore another boy, but it died a baby. Two years after that she had twin girls. We lived in my grandfather's house and worked his land. Our grandpa was a lazy man, the laziest I've known, but had his reasons. He sat out on the threshold from dusk till after dawn and smoked hashish. He'd let me sit beside him and told me stories of the Turkish times. All through his youth he'd served a Turkish bey, and that bey had broken his back with work enough for seven lifetimes. So now, in freedom, Grandpa refused to do as much as wipe his ass. That's what he'd say. "I have your father to wipe my ass," he'd say, and hit the smoke. He drew maps of Bulgaria in the dust, enormous as it had been more than five centuries ago, before the Turks had taken over our land. He'd draw a circle around the North and say "This is called Moesia. This is where we live, free at last, thanks to the Russian brothers." Then he'd circle the South. "This is Thrace. It stayed part of the Turkish empire for seven years after the North was freed, but now we are one, united. And this," he'd say and circle farther south, "is Macedonia. Home to Bulgarians, but still under the fez." He'd brush fingers along the lines and watch the circles for a long time, put arrows where he thought the Russians should invade and crosses where battles should be waged. Then he'd spit in the dust and draw the rest of Europe and circle it, and circle Africa and Asia. "One day, siné, all these continents will be Bulgarian again. And maybe the seas." Again he'd hit the smoke and sometimes he'd let me take a drag, too, because a little herb, he'd say, never hurt a child.
And now, in bed, I suddenly long to fill up my lungs with all that burning so that my head gets light and empty. Instead, I fill up with memories of things long gone the way a gourd fills up with water from rain.
Our father was a bitter man, having to kiss his in-law's hand before each meal. Father beat us plenty with his chestnut stick and I remember him happy on a single day in 1905, when we celebrated twenty years since the North had been united with the South. He sat me down with my brother, poured each a mortar of red wine and made us drink to the bottom, like men. He told us that when next we got our Macedonia back he'd fill the mortars up with rakia.
Father was lost in the Balkan war, seven years after. I'd like to think he fell near Edirne, a heroic death, but I won't blame him if he just chose not to return. I hope he rests in peace. When Grandpa died, it fell to me and Brother to care for the women. We worked the fields of others, cut hay, herded the village sheep. And everyone spoke of a new war, bigger than the Balkan, and that war, too, at last, reached our village. Men with guns set up camp on the square, recruiting soldiers. They said all boys of such and such age had to enlist. They said if we helped Germany win, the Germans would let us take back the land that Serbs, and Greeks, and Romanians had stolen from us after the Balkan wars. The Germans would even let us take Macedonia back from the Turks and be complete once and for all. Our mother wept and kissed my hands and then my brother's. She said, "I can't lose both my sons in this war. But I can't let you hide and shame our blood." She sent the twins to milk two sheep, then put a copper of milk before me and one before my brother. Whoever drank his copper first would get to stay home and run the house. The other would go to war. I drank as though I'd never drink again. I chugged. I quaffed. I inhaled that milk. When I was done, I saw my brother had barely touched lips to his.
Dear God. Why now? Have I no other worries? I lie and I remember and listen to the falling snow from this old and foolish letter. I feel the cold of the mountain and see my brother holding that copper still full of liquid snow. For heaven's sake, Brother. Drink.
* * *
After breakfast I help Nora put on her robethe limp arm first, then the good one. I comb her hair and I talk to her like this: Did you sleep well, my dear? Did you have good dreams? Did you dream of me? I dreamed of crossing mountains and fighting Turks.
She looks confused. I help her to her feet. She smiles. Is this a loving smile? Or is she simply grateful for the help? We start slowly down the hallway, two cripples who use one another as crutches. We make a circle in the yard and then sit on a bench.
I say, "I never was a tactful man," and pull the little book of letters from my woolen jacket. I lay it on her knees. "I know about all this," I say. "I know that he loved you and that you loved him, too. This was before my time, of course, but God, Nora, I wish you'd told me. Why did you never tell me? At seventy-one, I'm not supposed to envy the dead."
I try to smile, but Nora's eyes are on the letters. She brushes the cover with a finger and it just now occurs to me that since her first stroke she hasn't held this book; that most likely, she'd reconciled with the thought of never reading his words again.
Why not? I turn the pages and clear my throat. Let this dead lover of my wife's come to existence once more, for her sake, if only for a day. Let me, her husband, lend him my living lips.
February 6, 1905
My dear, lovely Nora. Today as we waded through knee-deep snow along the Bulgarian ridge of the Pirin Mountains we saw smoke rising from behind a boulder. We drew out our pistols, ready to spill some Turkish blood, but instead found a man and his woman, huddled by a tiny flame. They'd torn the man's shirt and burned strips of it to get warm. His nose was broken and the blood had turned black from the cold. The woman's face had been cut by a knife. I took my cloak and gave it to her for a while. Please forgive. The Voivode had us build a proper fire and boil some tea and while we waited for the water the man told us their story. They came from the other side of the border, these two, from some village in Macedonia. They had a small house there, a little boy of five. Two days ago a band of komiti, Bulgarians like us who'd gone to fight for Macedonia's freedom, passed through the village. Maybe afraid to anger the komiti, maybe out of kindness, these good people sheltered them in their house. The komiti slept, ate, drank (maybe a little too much), gathered strength and were ready to go on their way when, out of nowhere, a poterya, a pursuit party, arrived in the village. No doubt some local coward had betrayed our brothers. There was much shooting and much blood, Nora, that's what the man told us. When the Turks were finished, they dragged the komiti out in the yard, already dead, mind you, and chopped their heads off just for show. Impaled them on sticks for everyone to see. Then they took these two people's boy and promised to turn him Turk, so when he grew up he'd come back for the heads of his own folk.
Do you see now, Nora, why I've left you? Why, instead of your breast, it's stones and frozen mud and that cur the mountain that my head has to rest on? I curse the Turks, and the traitors, and all the cowards back home who choose their women before their brothers.
And with them I curse myself, Nora. I wish I, too, was a coward.
It's hard for me to finish the letter, and then, after I'm done, we sit in silence. I'd really like to see Nora's reaction, but all the same I find no strength to look her in the eye. I've always been good at looking away.
* * *
Our daughter comes to visit in the afternoon. Pavel is trotting behind her. He hangs on my neck and gives me a kiss. "Dyadka, how goes it?"
"Don't call your Grandpa 'dyadka,'" Buryana scolds him. "It's disrespectful."
He runs to kiss his grandma.
"Dyadka," I call him back to my side. "Come show me those muscles of yours." Proudly he flexes his tiny arm. "Like steel," he says. And then he tells me to flex my arm. "Like jelly!" He jumps on my bed, shoes still on, and bounces off the squeaking springs.
Nora, like me, is smiling. But Buryana tells Pavel to go tell his grandma a fairy tale he's learned and drops beside me on the bed. She brushes the blanket and smooths it down. She nods at her mother. "You think we can talk?"
"As deaf as a grouse, that one," I say, "while I myself ... I'm the ears of this world."
"Please, Father. I'm not in the mood."
That's a surprise, I think. And hush now. I, too, want to hear the fairy tale. But she goes on.
"I followed your advice and spoke with him," she says. She keeps on talking softly, and for once my mind gives up on sound. I suddenly remember how, as a little girl, she loved to ride her bike along the narrow sidewalk curb, despite my word against it. I'd make her promise me she wouldn't perform such risky stunts and she would say, "I promise, taté!" and only then I'd let her take out the bike. One day she stood at the doorway with a bloodied chin. She looked at me, fighting the tears as hard as she could. "I'm fine, you see," she tried to say. "No big deal, that fall." I held her, kissed her, and only then did she give in to them.
She is like this now, telling me about her husband. So many years later, my mouth fills up once more with that tasteBuryana's blood and tears.
"What did I tell you, just now?" she suddenly says. "Are you listening at all?"
"Of course I am. You spoke with your husband. He said he needed time to think."
"To think!" she says. "So I've decided we're staying here tonight. And maybe tomorrow."
I take a moment to think it over. This is such a little room, and even Nora's breathing floods it to the brim with noise at night. And nowtwo more people breathing, and tossing, and those creaking springs. This means no sleep, I know. Which means remembering the past. But what's an old dyadka like me supposed to do? And so I call the nurse and after a little fussing she brings two extra cots.
* * *
Dinner is done, the sun is setting, and while our daughter readies Nora for bed, I grab Pavel by the hand and lead him outside. A few old men are still nesting on the benches and I say, "Pavka, am I like them? Dried up and ugly."
"You are like them," he says, "except not ugly."
"I wish I was a kid again. But I don't suppose you understand."
"I wish I was an old man." He takes a silent breath. "I've noticed, dyadka, that when old men speak, the young ones listen. And no one listens to a kid. But if I was old, I'd talk to my dad."
We come by a tree whose branches are heavy with sparrows.
"I hate these things," I say. "So loud with their chirping."
We gather some pebbles and throw them, one by one, at the birds. They rise above us black and noisy. But once I'm out of breath, the birds return to their branches.
"Let's throw more stones," I say.
"It's pointless, dyadka. They'll come back as soon as we're gone."
I pick up some pebbles and pile them in his palms. "Come on," I say.
* * *
It's time to sleep and in his cot Pavel starts singing. I'm surprised he hasn't lost this habit of lulling himself to sleep. His voice is soft and thin and clear. I roll over and smile at my wife. She smiles back.
"Dyado, I can't sleep. Tell me a story."
Of course you can't, my child. My blood is yours and blood is ageless.
Buryana is trying to hush him, but I sit up in bed and flip the night lamp on. I take out the booklet of letters and say, "This is the story of a komita. He died fighting the Turks."
"All right! A rebel story."
Nora doesn't try to stop me. Buryana turns in her cot to hear better. I read and they listen. I can't know what each of them is thinking, but we're connected through the dusty words. "And then?" Pavel says every time I stop to catch some air. "What happens after that? And then?" But halfway through the story, his breathing evens out and he's asleep.
My wife's lover, Mr. Peyo Spasov, has finally made it to Macedonia. Crossing the mountain pass, they have lost another friend to an avalanche. Peyo has barely survived himself, digging his fellows out of the snow. Now, when thekomiti reach a village, nobody offers them shelter. With knives and guns they persuade the people, for whose sake they have come to die, to take them in. The komiti spend the night in a small hut, by the fire. Their goal is to join a larger group of revolutionaries next day and take part in a massive uprising against the Turks which will ignite at once all over Macedonia. The land will be free at last. They don't know if the other komiti are waiting, or even alive.
Outside, the dogs begin to bark. The men sneak up to the window, and in the moonlight, they see a peasant pointing in their direction. Soon Turkish soldiers gather outside the hedge. The Turks light up torches, toss them to set the thatched roof aflame. The komiti open fire. The Turks return it. While the flames are spreading, with the butts of their guns the men inside hammer their way through the back wall, built from mud, straw and cow dung, and manage to sink into the dark unseen. They run up the slope, then find shelter by a heap of rocks. They're cold and it starts to snow again. Down below them the dogs are barking. Torches flicker and fly one roof to another, and one after the other, the thatched roofs burn. The komiti listen to women crying, afraid to make the slightest noise. They find no strength, the cowards, to go down and meet the Turks in battle. When the torches drown in night, like rats the komiti flee.
I set the little book aside and flip the lamp to darkness. They are asleep, quietly, softly. It's wrong to envy your own grandchild. But still I do. I envy Nora, too. No one has ever written to me like this. But I no longer envy that other man. Because, like me, he proved himself a coward, and though I know it's wrong, this gives me peace.
I go to check on Pavel. He's pushed the blanket away, and I tuck him in. Then I tuck in my daughter, my wife. I sit by the window. At seventy-one you can't expect to hear a story, any story, and take it as it is. At my age a story stirs up a vortex that sucks into its eye more stories, and spits out still more. I must remember what I must.
* * *
My brother came back from the war without a scratch. We never spoke of what he'd seen or done. I was ashamed to ask, and he was ashamed to say. We'd lost the war, of course, like all other recent wars, which was regrettable, since we never really lost our battles; we just picked the wrong allies. Or rather, our soldiers never lost their battles. Because what did I know? I herded sheep. So Brother joined me, up on the hills. We'd round the sheep at night and lock them in the pen, boil milk in a cauldron, make hominy and eat in silence while around us the mountain grew restless with barking dogs, with bells ringing from other pens. Sometimes the quiet inside me would weigh me down so much, I'd get up and yell at the top of my lungs. Eheeeeeee. And then my brother would yell the shepherd yell. Eheeeeeee. And from another hill we'd hear another shepherd and then another, and we would yell, like children, in the night.
It was shearing time, I remember, the spring of 1923. We'd shorn half of the herd and were just laying the fleece under an awning. The dogs barked and down the slope we saw a group of men, tiny at first, and then we saw they carried rifles.
We called the dogs off and waited. The men stood before us, six or seven in shepherd cloaks, hoods over their heads. But these were no shepherds. I could feel it. They held us in their sights and told us to lift our arms. I did, of course. But Brother watched them and chewed a straw. He asked if they were lost. One said, "We've come to take some lambs, some milk and cheese. We have a bunch of hungry comrades in the woods." He waved his rifle at me. "Go choose the lambs."
"We have no lambs for your comrades," Brother said. A man stepped forward and with the stock of his rifle smacked him across the face. But when he spoke it was a woman's voice we heard, and when the hood came down, a woman's face we saw. She spat down on Brother, who lay in blood and straw. She asked him if he reckoned they did all this for pleasure. If they enjoyed living in dugouts, like dogs. She said they fought for the people, for brotherhood, equality and freedom ... "You're very pretty," Brother said and coughed up some blood. "I'll make you my wife, I think." The woman laughed. "Go get the lambs," she told me. Her comrades tied Brother up. I boiled milk while they slaughtered a lamb and speared it over the fire. They stayed with us that night, talking of how it was the working people who ought to rule. They spoke of change. That September, they said, there would be an uprising. Thousands of comrades would join to overthrow the tsarist regime. The centuries-old wrath of the slave, they called it, would be unleashed at last. I suppose they weren't bad peoplejust hungry and foolish. The woman sat down beside my brother and gave him milk to drink. I begged them to let him loose, but she said she liked him better, tied so.
It poured that night. I took a brand from the fire, stepped over the sleeping comrades, and went out of the hut to see if the fleece was getting wet under the awning. My brother and that woman lay naked on the heap of wool, smoking. The rain seeped through the thatched roof and in the light from the brand their bodies glistened.
"I'll go with them now," my brother told me in the morning.
And so he did. They gunned him down in August. I was back in our village then. Policemen banged on our gates and rounded up me and Mother, my sisters, the neighbors. The whole village was goaded on to the square.
They'd set up a gallows and on the gallows hung men and women, together.
"These here are partisan rebels," said the police. "Communists we shot in the woods. Some are, no doubt, from your village, your sons and daughters. Give us their names and we might let you bury them in peace."
We formed a line and, one by one, walked by the corpses. It made no sense to hang people already shot. But it made for a terrible display.
"You know this one? And how about this one, you know her?"
And then it was my turn to stand before the gallows. I held my eyes shut as hard as I could and there was nothing in the world then besides the sound of creaking rope.
* * *
It's Saturday morning and Buryana begins to dress her mother.
"Let me do it," I say. "I can't skip a day."
For lunch we eat chicken with rice, and Buryana tells me to ease up on the salt. For eight years nobody has told me such a thing and it feels strange, but I obey. For dessert we get yogurt with sugar and Pavel eats my cup as well. His mother tells him to ease up on the sugar and we laugh. It's not really funny, but we laugh anyway. A nurse brings Pavel an apple and he thanks her, though I can see he's disappointed.
We let him do his homework in our room and walk a few slow circles in the yard. Buryana keeps quiet, and I, too, have no idea what to say. We find Pavel reading from the book of letters. "Grandma," he's saying, "who did you love more? Grandpa or the komita?"
I catch myself waiting for her answer. It seems that Buryana, too, is waiting. Of course she loved the komita morehe must have been her sweetheart, her first big love. Most likely, I've come to think, they were engaged. Most likely, they made plans together, imagined a little house, a pair of children. She wouldn't keep his diary for so many years otherwise. And then, with their love peaking, he was killed. I know that much without yet having read the end. At first she felt betrayed. He'd put some strange ideals, brotherhood and freedom, before his love for her. She hated him for that. But then one morning, almost a year after his death, the postman brought a package with foreign stamps. She read the diary, still hating him. She read it every day. She learned each letter by heart, and with the months her hatred thinned, and in the end his death turned their love ideal, doomed not to die. Yes, that's what I've come to think now. Their love was foolish, childish, sugar-sweet, the kind of love that, if you are lucky to lose it, flares up like a thatched roof but burns as long as you live. While our love ... I am her husband, she is my wife.
But then, as if to pull me out of my own mind, Nora takes my hand and holds it. I kiss her hand. "Let's read," I say. I almost shout it, suddenly with a light and empty head. I take the little book.
The komiti reach their meeting destination, the village of Crni Brod. The sun is already setting behind the mountains. The village is very quiet. A man comes forward to meet them. The komiti ask him, "Are the Voivodes here?" "Yes, the captains are here, the man answers, they're waiting in my house." "And you're not lying?" the komiti ask. "I swear by my children," the man says, and crosses himself three times. He leads them through the village. Black ropes of smoke unwind from the chimneys and the iced roofs blaze with dying sun. The snow crunches under their boots. Nothing stirs.
They arrive at the house. The man pushes the gates open and the Voivode along with two others follow inside. Then suddenly a shell hisses in the snow and Peyo falls, wounded in the thigh. Around him the komiti thrash about like fleas on a white sheet. They've been betrayed.
Somehow, without firing a single shot, Peyo limps away. His blood is gushing out. He collapses outside a house, conscious long enough to feel two hands pull him inside.
We sit. It seems that a long time passes without any sound. I go through my drawer until I find an old pack of Arda from the days when I still smoked. I push the window open and light a cigarette and once again no one protests. The taste is awfulstale and damp. When I'm finished I light a second. I watch my wife's reflection in the glass. I wonder if I have brought up things that should be left buried. But I want to read the end. I know she wants to hear it.
The Turks have butchered all the komiti, some defiant peasants have sheltered Peyo, but his wound is going septic. I see him clearly now, in my own bed, writing hectically, trying to lock all these events onto paper while he still has some strength. His eyes are black, shiny with fever, and his lips glisten with the fat from the rooster soup the peasants have fed him. But no soup can help. He is kissing death in the mouth.
I turn the final page and read what appears to be a rebel song.
I got no father, I got no mother,
Father to scorn me,
Mother to mourn me,
My fatherthe mountain.
My motherthe shotgun.
"That's it," I say, "there's no more writing."
Pavel jumps off his cot to grab his apple. He polishes it on his shirt and takes a bite. He offers some to his mother, to Nora, to me. But neither of us speaks.
Then a nurse knocks on the door. "You have a visitor," she says.
* * *
Quiet, we sit, while out in the yard Buryana is talking to her husband, deciding their life. I can't see them from herethey've moved away from the window, under the trees.
"Why can't I talk to father?" Pavel asks. He sets the half-eaten apple on the ledge and picks up the booklet. "I'll memorize this poem for school, then. I'm bored."
"Pavka, stay with your grandma. I'll be right back."
I limp as fast as I can down the hallway and I'm close to the exit when Buryana walks in. She wipes her cheeks. "It's finished," she says. "He's moved out of the apartment. Which is good news for you, I guess. Four in a room..." She fakes a laugh and I hold her in my arms, for the first time in many years. I kiss her forehead, eyes and nose.
"Go back to your child."
Her husband is still sitting on a bench, face in his palms. I startle him, sitting down. I'm old, I think to myself. I'm ancient. When I speak, the young ones listen. But what do you say to a man whose love for a woman is stronger than the love for his own son, for his own blood? Nothing will make this man regret.
I lean back on the bench and cross my legs, regardless of how much pain this brings me. I smooth the creases of my pants.
"'I got no father,'" I say, "'I got no mother. Father to scorn me, Mother to mourn me. My fatherthe mountain. My motherthe shotgun.'" He's puzzled, I can tell, biting his lip. Blood rushes to his face. These words make little sense to him, old rebel words of loyalty and courage, and yet they clasp his windpipe in a fist.
* * *
Once Buryana and Pavel are gone, I tell Nora all that's happened. I spare her nothing. There should be no secrets between us now.
"She is a strong woman," I say, "our daughter. She'll be all right." I don't know what else to say. I look at the little booklet on my desk, while with effort Nora pushes herself off the bed. Her hip gives a pop, the springs a creak. I rush to help her, but she shakes her head. No, no, she wants to say. I can do this myself. Let me, myself. She picks the booklet up, and in an instant it is alive. Its dusty body trembles from the touch. A sparrow, which shakes its feathers free of dew. A man's heart, which beats itself to life again. A hand she leads away, ungracious, horrible, horrific. I watch her drag her withered foot across the room and lay the booklet in its box. She lowers the box in a drawer and slides the drawer shut. Her face is calm. Farewell, old boy, it says, old love.
I wonder if the rebel's grave is still there, in that Macedonian village. And if we went there, would we find it? An empty plan starts to take shape. What if I pulled some strings? There are one or two old comrades who can help us out. What if they loaned us a car, stamped our passports? We'll take Buryana and Pavel with us.
I lower the half-eaten apple from the ledge and flip it in my hand. How calm your face, Nora, I want to say, how even your breaths. Teach me to breathe like you. To wave my palm and turn the raging surf to glass.
Instead I call her name. Slowly, she limps over and eases down beside me. "I've never told you this," I say. "We never buried Brother. That was a lie. We never took him off the rope. I'd heard rumors, stories from people in our mountain, of how when mothers recognized their gunned-down children the tsarists pulled them aside and shot them on the spot. And so I told Mother, 'I beseech you in your daughters' blood, keep walking. Don't say a word.' And Mother was so shocked then she stood before my brother and didn't even reach to touch his feet. We walked right past."
I know that this will never be, but still I say, "Let's go to Macedonia. Let's find the grave. I'll borrow a car." I want to say more, but I don't. She watches me. She takes my hand and now my hand, too, trembles with hers. I see in the apple the marks of Pavel's teeth and, in the brown flesh, a tiny tooth. I show it to Nora and it takes her eyes a moment to recognize what it is they see. Or so I think.
But then she nods without surprise, as if this is just what she expected. Isn't it good to be so young, she wants to tell me, that you can lose a tooth and not even notice?
Copyright © 2011 by Miroslav Penkov
Meet the Author
Miroslav Penkov was born in 1982 in Bulgaria. He arrived in America in 2001 and completed a bachelor's degree in psychology and an M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of Arkansas. He has won the Eudora Welty Prize in Fiction, and his story "Buying Lenin" was published in The Best American Short Stories 2008, edited by Salman Rushdie. He teaches creative writing at the University of North Texas, where he is a fiction editor for the American Literary Review.
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