It is 1890 when three young women head toward a meadow hidden in the woods outside the village of Shipkovtsi, Bulgaria. As Trina, Vella, and Dobrinka meet in front of an old monastery, a family treasure held secret for generations is revealed. In the end, there are three piles of gold-one in front of each sister-but one pile is bigger than the others. An inheritance has been unfairly divided, leaving two sisters feeling cheated.
In ASHES of WARS, Radka Yakimov narrates the story of the descendents of two of those Bulgarian sisters. Reconstructed historically on the basis of recorded facts, stories handed down from generation to generation, and her own personal recollections, Yakimov chronicles the main events that impacted the lives of four generations of Bulgarians throughout the twentieth century. As she relays a saga about the twenty-three men, women, and children who escaped in search of a safer place, Yakimov takes her readers beyond the confines of Bulgaria into Yugoslavia, to a refugee camp in Trieste, and finally to new lives in Canada and America.
ASHES of WARS profiles the courage, grit, and determination of the people of a beautiful Balkan country torn by wars and oppression, but sustained by hopes for a brighter future.
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Ashes of Wars
By Radka Yakimov
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Radka Yakimov
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Three Sisters
On the southern flank of the mountain peak of Lyubin, and just below its crest, lay the village of Shipkovtsi. Vast, cavernous valleys spread far south and deep beneath the hamlet like a gigantic carpet woven from the finest yarn in all shades of green—from the brightest hues to the darkest ones. To the west, bluish silhouettes of distant mountains shimmered in the hot air. A forest of beech trees—their delicate leaves trembling at the slightest breeze—covered much of its eastern skirts, only to be replaced by a mangled carpet of dense, low thickets creeping along its shady northern side. And just a hundred meters above the village stood the summit of the rocky peak, where large boulders and stones strewn around a melancholy ruin evoked memories of an ancient presence.
The only road leading to the village of Shipkovtsi—merely a path covered in low grass pushing through hardened mud—twisted and turned around the steep terrain. It was the route used mainly by horsemen and cattle-driven carts but that travelers on foot seldom took. For those, there were several steep, hardly distinguishable paths fanning out from the village of Shipkovtsi into the directions of hamlets and villages scattered among the hills and valleys around the peak of Lyubin.
On this particular day, three young women were treading along three different paths coming from three different directions, all heading toward a meadow hidden in the woods and close to an old monastery. It was a cool and secluded place far from prying eyes and yet close to the safety and protection one could find behind the thick stone walls of the holy abode.
The sisters—Trina, Vella, and Dobrinka—were born in the village of Shipkovtsi. All were in their twenties and had married in villages away from their birthplace, as was the customary practice in the sparsely populated mountainous area. Their facial features had a lot in common with one exception: the fair skin, blond hair, and deep blue eyes of Vella contrasted with the dark skin, brown hair, and black eyes of her two sisters. All were dressed in traditional garb: a sleeveless dress, called a litak, made of cloth woven from hand-spun black wool yarn, richly decorated around the edges with whimsical motifs of twisted colorful guytance and rows of shiny sequins, worn over a white tunic made of cotton with embroidered, large sleeves, a keyhole neck opening, and a hem finished with white lace all around the edges. Headscarves tied at the nape of the neck, knitted socks, and soft moccasins completed their traditional costumes worn by all women of the district.
From far away there was little to distinguish one sister from the other except for the oldest, Trina, who was descending fast and carefully along a steep path leading away from the village of Shipkovtsi while balancing a large bundle of cloth hanging from a staff resting on her right shoulder. Its four corners were tied in a knot. Her sisters—on the last leg of a long journey that had started at early dawn—were climbing laboriously after threading for hours across hills, rivers, and valleys. The going was getting hard, but they didn't mind the arduous task, for the strong anticipation of a happy surprise to come shortly kept their spirits high and fueled their strength.
It was around noon and the heat was intense. But the meadow surrounded by forest was pleasantly cool when, one by one, the three women emerged from the thickets. Trina was the first to arrive. Deftly she manipulated the staff, letting the bundle slide along it until it landed in the grass. She lifted her head to take a look at the sky. The sun was almost at its zenith. They should be close by now, she thought as she settled herself comfortably on the soft ground. Shortly, the second sister, Vella, entered the meadow from the opposite end. Her face was glistening with tiny drops of perspiration brought on by the heat and the exertion of climbing the last steep stretch of the path she had followed. Immediately she dropped next to her older sister and impatiently pushed the kerchief from her forehead till it slid off her blond, braided hair. She scooped the soft cloth into the palm of her hand, and, pressing it hard against her face, wiped the moisture off it. It felt good. Presently the third and youngest one, Dobrinka, appeared from behind the monastery's walls—all freshness and smiles. After exchanging the customary greetings, all three deposited themselves at the edge of the forest under the wide shadow of an old beech tree, forming a circle around the bundle, which Trina had placed on the spot earlier. Carefully Trina untied the knot and let the cloth fall away. A pile of tightly squeezed balls of woolen yarn collapsed. In silence the two younger women darted expectant glances at the oldest one.
"Here they are," Trina said. "Let's get to work."
She moved her gaze from one of her sisters to the other, then took hold of the ball closest to her, deftly plucked the loose end of the thread tucked inside it, and started to unravel the yarn. As the top layer of yarn peeled away, a smooth, round piece of metal gleamed through the net of thread; another turn of the ball, and a shiny gold coin landed softly on the cloth.
As the pile of loose yarn grew under the nimble fingers of the three sisters, so did the heap of gold in the center of the cloth. When all the balls of wool yarn had turned into a pile of wool and all the coins were found, it was time to divide the treasure.
Again Trina took charge. She was the oldest, and she was the one who had carried the secret of the hidden treasure for years. In accordance with the instructions passed on to her from her grandmother, she had kept waiting for the time specified to fulfill the wish of one unknown ancestor. So she got on with the final task. And it was this part of the story that kept it alive for generations to come. In particular it was the lamentations of the blue-eyed, fair, and by all accounts prettiest of all, Vella, that kept the tale from falling into oblivion. It was the way Trina had distributed the coins.
"Here is one coin for me," Trina had said as she placed the first golden piece next to herself, "and here is a coin for you, Vello," she said, placing the next gold piece in front of her sister. Then she had turned toward the youngest sister and done the same. "Here is one coin for me, and there is one coin for you, Dobrinke."
And so Trina had proceeded with the ritual with a solemnity and authority none of the sisters dared to question. At the end there were three piles of gold—one in front of each sister. However, one pile was twice as large as each of the remaining two.
Each sister took her share and went back to her home, each to a different village. And there was never any discord between the siblings after the event in the meadow hidden in the beech forest close to the monastery. Of course, Trina had no reason to feel dissatisfaction with the way things had gone, and the two younger women might have been pleased enough to have come to such an unexpected fortune, and felt only thankful, for luck had smiled at them, and there was no cause for complaints. However, as time went on, and as fate would have it, a generation later the aging children of the prettiest of the three sisters were heard recalling the lamentations of their mother:
"It didn't bother me that Trina took twice as much of the gold. She was my sister and I loved her. But it bothers me what she did for the unfairness of it all. First, she had already married into a well-to-do family, so her needs were not bigger than mine. And, even that aside, it was not fair. After all, it was my inheritance that she cheated me of."
This very last statement of hers made it clear that, in the end, all the love for her sister and the appreciation of the fact that it was a case of one sister taking advantage of her two siblings was not what made the difference. It was the injustice done to her inheritance, rather than the unfairness of it all, that she could never forget. But then, can anyone blame her for such a thing?
The Road To Sofia
ABOUT THE SAME TIME OF THE same year, someplace way to the northeast of the rocky peak of one mountain, where three sisters were dividing a trove of gold coins concealed in balls of wool yarn, a young lad was treading along a steep trail meandering through the grazing land of another mountain and into the steps of a tall, fair man—his father. The short grass was coated with moisture, and the going was hard and slippery. To make matters worse, the morning dew had penetrated the thin skin of Nikola's pigskin moccasins, and dampness was creeping along the thick, woven rags wrapped around his calves, fastened by pieces of heavy rope crisscrossing the material all the way up to his knees. Nikola's blue eyes were cast down at his feet, carefully watching his steps. Both father and son were saddled by large bags thrown over their shoulders and carried thick staffs in their hands for support and protection.
The mountain was long and old. It stretched across the entire breadth of the country, and at this section, a spectacular gorge created by the waters of a river called Iskar cut through the mountain rock, exposing numerous caves—home of hermits, hawks, and eagles—scattered all over the sheer vertical cliffs. An entire peninsula was named after the mountain range: the Balkans. Of course, at this particular moment all of that mattered little to the duo descending toward the plains below on their way to a place far to the south. Their ancestral village lay up in the folds of the hills that had kept it hidden from strangers for hundreds of years. The people born and raised there were fiercely independent, and as the legend went, not too long ago they had gone as far as collecting a small band of locals ready to fight the liberators the entire country supported. But this is the kind of people they were—fiercely independent.
Their livelihood came from raising sheep. For few generations, as far as Nikola's father remembered, the sheep were healthy and the people living off them were content with their fate. Then an epidemic—a foot-and-mouth disease—wiped out the entire stock, and suddenly, the once-wealthy clan found itself impoverished and hopeless. So one day Nikola's father, Grigor, told his only son to pack a change of clothes. The next day, before dawn, he left accompanied by his young son and headed to as far a place as he could find—away from this place of poverty and sorrow—in search of livelihood. His heart was heavy with misgivings about the wisdom of his decision and its consequences for his family, especially for his son, a bright and smart lad who dreamed of big things and a bright future. The wife and the two daughters were left in the village—waiting.
It was a long and rough journey that the father and son had undertaken. Silently they kept marching only as people born and raised in the mountains can. A steady pace and intuitive knowledge about their surroundings maintained their confidence that as long as they kept traveling through the hills, they would be fine.
The first night they rested in a clearing in a forest not far from a fast-running brook. Earlier in the day they had stopped by a spring to quench their thirst and wash their faces with the miraculous water that, according to local belief, made blind people see. The second leg of their journey led them farther south through the foothills of the Balkan Mountains. Toward the end of the day, when the sun was setting to their right, they had just reached the top of a hill when suddenly a vast panorama of open fields appeared in front of their eyes. In the very far distance a monolithic heap was standing guard. Below it an array of settlements dotted the vast canvas of the flat plateau. Somewhere among them was Sofia, a destination Grigor had only heard of: a big town where he could start a new life. His heart was filled with a vague hope and clear determination as he traveled forward with the young lad in tow. This night father and son spent right below the hill facing the huge valley hidden by the darkness of a moonless night. Only the stars shone brightly in the clear sky.
Dawn came early for Nikola: much earlier, he thought, than in the village huddled in the folds of the hills. The boy and the man shared the last piece of bread, packed up their bags, and started on the last leg of their journey south to Sofia.
It was late in the night when father and son reached the outskirts of a village. All were asleep. Tired and hungry, the two turned around in search of a place to spend the night: far enough from the houses and safe from animals. A dog started barking close by, and that made them move even farther. At the edge of a thicket of woods, they found a place good enough for the purpose. A few hours later, they were awakened by the chimes of bells. The village was already bursting with activity. A flock of sheep was coming their way.
The stout, short man with dark brown eyes and brown hair was leaning on a long, thick staff in an attitude of silent indifference. His intense curiosity was betrayed only by the intensity of the short repetitive glances he kept throwing in the direction of the approaching strangers.
"Dobra sreshta," Grigor said.
"Dobra sreshta," the shepherd echoed. "You are not from around here," he declared after a pause, while scrutinizing the strangers' blue eyes and stature.
"No, we are not from around here," Grigor confirmed. "We are on our way to Sofia," he continued obligingly.
"Hmm ... What are you going to do in Sofia?" the shepherd wondered aloud. "You don't look like city folk," he added, averting his eyes from the stranger. "You look to me like folk from the mountain."
Pleased with his last remark, the shepherd turned his full attention to his flock and sent a string of sharp whistles at the dogs, getting them ready to move on.
"Hey, Uncle, wait, for God's sake!" Grigor called after the shepherd. "Sofia can wait," he said. "Me and my boy have been on the road for three days." He cleared his throat before continuing. "Is there someone in the village looking for people like us to hire? Perhaps looking for a ratay?" Grigor's voice was cracking. "Any job would do."
The shepherd's face lit up with a warm smile as he turned around and faced Grigor square in the face.
"Ah, why didn't you say so in the first place?" he said, shaking his head disapprovingly. "You're lucky, Balkandjia. Hey, look over there. Do you see that house?" he asked, pointing with his staff toward the center of the village.
"The chorbadjia is looking bash for what you are offering. The last ratay left him a few days ago. Moved to Sofia," he added with a wide, good-natured grin across his face.
"Spolai, Uncle," Grigor said with a slight bow.
Without wasting any more time in idle talk, he headed with long strides toward the village. His son followed him closely. The shepherd didn't linger either. With a salvo of sharp whistles and curt orders he proceeded on his way to catch up with the flock of sheep already on the move—pushing and shoving each other in a disorganized rush and in a direction only the dogs seemed to know. Some distance away, he stopped for an instant to wipe the moisture off his forehead. His face broke into the same good-natured grin as he remembered his encounter with the two lost peasants—fresh from the mountain. "Tsk, tsk, tsk ... Those Balkan people ... On the stupid side ...," he murmured.
The words drowned in the capricious melody of chiming bells.
Excerpted from Ashes of Wars by Radka Yakimov Copyright © 2011 by Radka Yakimov. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsThe Three Sisters....................3
The Road To Sofia....................7
A Soldier's Return....................11
Struggles And Hopes....................20
The New Urbanites....................36
After The Victory....................91
East And West....................134
A Stroll In Manhattan....................158