In Bulgaria, in 1934, on a muddy street in the river town of Vidin, Khristo Stoianev saw his brother kicked to death by fascist militia.
His brother was fifteen, no more than a blameless fool with a big mouth, and in calmer days his foolishness would have been accommodated in the usual ways—a slap in the face for humiliation, a few cold words to chill the blood, and a kick in the backside to send him on his way. That much was tradition. But these were political times, and it was very important to think before you spoke. Nikko Stoianev spoke without thinking, and so he died.
On both sides of the river—Romania to the north and Bulgaria to the south—the political passion ran white hot. People talked of little else: in the marketplace, in the church, even—a mark of just how far matters had progressed—in the kitchen. Something has happened in Bucharest. Something has happened in Sofia.
Soon, something will happen here.
And, lately, they marched.
Torchlight parades with singing and stiff-armed salutes. And the most splendid uniforms. The Romanians, who considered themselves much the more stylish and urbane, wore green shirts and red armbands with blue swastikas on a yellow field. They thrust their banners into the air in time with the drum: we are the Guard of Archangel Michael. See our insignia—the blazing crucifix and pistol.
They were pious on behalf of both symbols. In 1933, one of their number had murdered Ion Duca, the prime minister, as he waited for a train at Sinaia railway station. A splinter group, led by a Romanian of Polish descent named Cornelius Codreanu, called itself the Iron Guard. Not to beoutdone by his rivals, Codreanu had recently assassinated the prefect of Jassy “because he favored the Jews.” Political times, it seemed, brought the keenest sort of competitive instincts into play and the passionate reached deep within themselves for acts of great magnitude.
The men of Vidin were not quite so fashionable, but that was to be expected. They were, after all, Slavs, who prided themselves on simplicity and honesty, while their brethren across the river were of Latin descent, the inheritors of a corner of the Roman Empire, fancified, indolent fellows who worshiped everything French and indulged themselves in a passion for the barber, the tailor, and the gossip of the cafés. Thus the Bulgarian marchers had selected for themselves a black and olive green uniform which was, compared with Romanian finery, simple and severe.
Still, though simple and severe, they were uniforms, and the men of Vidin were yet at some pains, in 1934, to explain to the local population how greatly that altered matters.
It was a soft autumn evening, just after dusk, when Nikko Stoianev called Omar Veiko a dog prick. A white mist hung in the tops of the willows and poplars that lined the bank of the river, clouds of swallows veered back and forth above the town square, the beating of their wings audible to those below. The Stoianev brothers were on their way home from the baker’s house. Nikko, being the younger, had to carry the bread.
They were lucky to have it. The European continent lay in the ashes of economic ruin. The printing presses of the state treasuries cranked out reams of paper currency—showing wise kings and blissful martyrs—while bankers wept and peasants starved. It was, certainly, never quite so bad as the great famines of Asia. No dead lay bloated in the streets. European starvation was rather more cunning and wore a series of clever masks: death came by drink, by tuberculosis, by the knife, by despair in all its manifestations. In Hamburg, an unemployed railway brakeman took off his clothes, climbed into a barrel of tar, and burned himself to death.
The Stoianevs had the river. They had fished, for carp and pike, sturgeon and Black Sea herring, for generations. They were not wealthy, but they did earn a few leva. That meant the Stoianev women could spend their days mending lines and nets and the family could pay the Braunshteins, in their flour-dusted yarmulkes, to do the baking. They had, frankly, a weakness for the Braunshtein bread, which was achieved in the Austrian manner, with a hard, brown crust. Most of their neighbors preferred the old-fashioned Turkish loaf, flat and round in the Eastern tradition, but the Stoianev clan looked west for their bread, and their civilization. They were a proud, feisty bunch—some said much too proud—with quick tempers. And they were ambitious; they meant to rise in the world.
Much too ambitious, some thought.
A time might just come, and come fairly soon, when the Stoia- nevs would have to bow the head—who were they, one might ask, to have their damned noses stuck so high in the air? After all, had not the eldest son of Landlord Veiko sought the hand of the eldest Stoianev daughter? The one with the ice-blue eyes and thick black hair. And had he not been refused? A shameful slight, in the watchful eyes of Vidin. The Veiko were a family of power and position; property owners, men of substance and high rank. Any fool could see that.
What fools could and could not see became something of a topic in Vidin following Nikko Stoianev’s death. A few leading citizens, self-appointed wise men and local wits, who read newspapers and frequented the coffeehouse, asked each other discreetly if Nikko had not perhaps seen the wrong Veiko. That is, Landlord Veiko. For Landlord Veiko was not in the town square that autumn evening.
Colonel Veiko was.
In his black and olive green uniform, marching at the head of the Bulgarian National Union—all eighteen of them present that night. You see, the wise men told each other, to call a landlord a dog prick was to risk a slap in the face for humiliation, a few cold words to chill the blood, and a kick in the backside to send you on your way. That much was tradition. It had happened before. It would happen again. But to say such things to a colonel. Well, that was another matter altogether, was it not.
Omar Veiko, in either manifestation, landlord or colonel, was a man to be reckoned with in Vidin. A man whose studied effeminacy was a covert tribute to his power, for only a very powerful man raised neither voice nor fist. Only a very powerful man could afford to be so soft, so fussy, so plump, so fastidious. It was said that he dined like a cat.
This Veiko had a mustache, a sharp, stiff, well-waxed affair that shone jet black against his cream-colored skin. He was a short man who stood on his toes, a fat man who sucked in his stomach, a curly-haired man who oiled his curls until they brushed flat. A man, obviously, of some considerable vanity and, like most vain men, a close accountant of small insults. A note of sarcasm in the voice, a glance of ill-concealed anger, a rental payment slapped overhard on the wooden desk. All such sins were entered in a ledger, no less permanent for being kept in Veiko’s razor-sharp memory rather than on bookkeeper’s pages. It was, in fine, the Turkish style: an effete, polished surface just barely concealing interior tides of terrible anger. An Eastern tactic, of great antiquity, meant to frighten and intimidate, for Omar Veiko’s most urgent desire on this earth was that people be frightened of him. He lived on fear. It set him above his fellows, content to live out their days animated by less ambitious cravings.
Some weeks later, Antipin, the Russian who pretended to be a Bulgarian, would nod slowly with grave understanding. “Yes, yes,” he would say, pausing to light a cigarette, “the village bully.”
“We know them,” he would add, eyes narrowing, head nodding, in a way that meant and we know what to do with them.
Colonel Veiko marched his troop into the main square from the west. The sky was touched with the last red streaks of the setting sun. The twenty-five minarets, which gave the town its fame along the river, were now no more than dark shapes on the horizon. There was a light evening breeze off the water and, at the center of the town square, the last leaves of the great beech tree rattled in the wind, a harsh, dry sound.
The Bulgarian National Union marched with legs locked stiff, chins tucked in, arms fully extended, fingers pointing at the ground. Legs and arms moved like ratchets, as though operated by machinery. All in time to Khosov the Postman, who kept the beat with a homemade drumstick on a block of wood. They badly wanted a drum, but there was no drum to be had unless one went all the way to Sofia. No matter. The desired effect was achieved. A great modern age was now marching into the ancient river town of Vidin.
Colonel Veiko and his troopers had not themselves conceived this fresh approach to parades. It had come down the river from Germany, twelve hundred miles away, brought by an odd little man in a mint-colored overcoat. He arrived by passenger steamer, with tins of German newsreels and a film projector. To the people of Vidin, these were indeed thrilling spectacles. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. Such enormous banners! Huge bonfires, ranks of torches, songs lifted high by a thousand voices.
The people of Vidin worked hard, squeezed the soul from every lev, watched helplessly as their infants died of diphtheria. Life was a struggle to breathe. Now came an odd little man in a mint-colored overcoat and he offered them pride—a new spirit, a new destiny. Omar Veiko, who could read the wind like a wolf, realized that this time belonged to him, that it was his turn.
First he made himself a captain. Later, a colonel.
The uniforms were sewn up by a tailor named Levitzky, whose family had for generations outfitted the local military: Turkish policemen stationed in the town, Austro-Hungarian infantry going to war against Napoleon, Bulgarian officers in World War I, when the country had sided with Germany. The fact that money passed into the hands of Levitzky, a Jew, was regrettable, but was viewed as a necessary evil. In time such things would be put right.
The uniforms were soon ready. The heavy cotton blouse was olive green, an Eastern preference. The trousers and tunic, of thickly woven drill, were a deep, ominous black. A black tie set off the shirt. Each tunic had a shoulder patch, a fiery crucifix with crossed arrow. The uniforms were received with delight. The heavy double-breasted cut of the jackets made the National Union members look fit and broad-shouldered.
But the caps. Ahh, now that was a problem. Military caps were not the proper domain of a tailor—that was capmaker’s business, different materials and skills were required. There was, however, no capmaker about, so the job fell on Levitzky.
A progressive. A reader of tracts on Palestinian repatriation, a serious student of the Talmud, a man who wore eyeglasses. Le- vitzky had an old book of illustrations; he thumbed through it by the light of a kerosene lamp. All Europe was represented, there were Swiss Vatican Guards, Hungarian Hussars, French Foreign Legionnaires, Italian Alpine regiments of the Great War. From the last, he selected a cap style, though he hadn’t the proper materials. But Levitzky was resourceful: two layers of black drill were sewn together, then curved into a conical shape. The bill of the cap was fashioned by sewing material on both sides of a cardboard form. All that was lacking, then, was the feather, and this problem was soon solved by a visit to the ritual slaughterer, who sold the tailor an armful of long white goose quills.
Colonel Veiko and his troopers thought the caps were magnificent, a little flamboyant, a daring touch to offset the somber tone of the uniforms, and wore them with pride. The local wise men, however, laughed behind their hands. It was entirely ridiculous, really it was. Vidin’s petite-bourgeoise tricked out in goose feathers, strutting up and down the streets of the town. The grocer preceded by his monstrous belly. The postman beating time on a wooden block. Laughable.
Nikko Stoianev thought so too, standing with his arms full of Braunshtein’s loaves on a soft evening in autumn. The Stoianev brothers had stopped a moment to watch the parade—very nearly anything out of the ordinary that happened in Vidin was worth spending a moment on. Veiko marched in front. Next came the two tallest troopers, each with a pole that stretched a banner: the blazing crucifix with crossed arrow. Three ranks of five followed, the man on the end of each line holding a torch—pitch-soaked rope wound around the end of a length of oak branch. Five of the torches were blazing. The sixth had gone out, sending aloft only a column of oily black smoke.
“Ah, here’s a thing,” Khristo said quietly. “The glory of the nation.”
“Levitzky’s geese,” Nikko answered, a title conferred by the local wise men.
“How they strut,” Khristo said.
They took great strength from each other, the Stoianev brothers. Good, big kids. Nikko was fifteen, had had his first woman, was hard at work on his second. Khristo was nineteen, introspective like his father. He shied away from the local girls, knowing too well the prevailing courtship rituals that prescribed pregnancy followed by marriage followed by another pregnancy to prove you meant it the first time. Khristo held back from that, harboring instead a very private dream—something to do with Vienna or, even, the ways of God were infinite, Paris. But of this he rarely spoke. It was simply not wise to reach too far above what you were.
They stood together on the muddy cobbled street, hard-muscled from the fishing, black-haired, fair-skinned. Good-natured because not much else was tolerated. Nikko had a peculiarly enlarged upper lip that curled away from his teeth a little, giving him a sort of permanent sneer, a wise-guy face. It had got him into trouble often enough.
In good order, the unit marched past the grand old Turkish post office that anchored the main square, then reached the intersection.
Colonel Veiko thrust his arm into the air, held tension for a moment, then shouted, “Left . . . turn!”
They marched around the corner of the open square, heading now toward the Stoianevs, white feathers bobbing. Veiko the landlord. The grocer. The postman. Several clerks, a schoolteacher, a farmer, a fisherman, even the local matchmaker.
Nikko’s grin widened. “Hup, hup,” he said.
They watched the parade coming toward them.
“Here’s trouble,” Khristo said.
Copyright 2002 by Alan Furst