by Nikolaj Hajtov
(translated from Bulgarian by Michael Holman)
To tell you the truth, this knot got into a tangle a good while back. I wasn't yet fourteen and had neither mother nor father. Father had been gored by Mizhou Selihov's cow, and the Spanish sickness carried off Mother, so I grew up with my old grandpa and grandma. But Grandma's right hand went stiff and there wasn't anyone to do the housework, so Grandpa set about finding me a wife. Didn't ask me about it though. In those days they weren't that worried what the young'uns who were getting married thought. Everything was arranged by the old'uns. Just the once I caught him talking about it to Grandma:
'But he's so young!' Grandma said.
'He'll toughen up,' said Grandpa. 'But we'll have to look around for a girl.'
What he looked for and how, I can't rightly say, but one day I got home from the pasture and found a great lanky fellow waiting for me with a huge pair of scissors stuck in his sash.
'Ramadan, my lad,' said Grandpa, 'we've got the tailor in to make you some breeches. How do you want them, dyed or plain?'
That's all I got asked. I was promised in marriage, married off, and all I got asked was : 'How do you want them, dyed or plain?'
Wednesday, it was, when the tailor came. Thursday my breeches were ready - dyed, with pocket flaps and braiding - and on the Friday the drummers were in the yard, thumping the big drums for the wedding. The drums were beating, the meat was boiling in the coppers, and still I didn't know who I'd be getting for a wife. I swallowed my shyness and tried asking Grandma.
'She's from the farmsteads on the hill, not from the village,' she said.
'But who is she? What's she like?' Grandma wasn't saying. And seeing as I didn't have the courage to ask Grandpa who she was and what she was like, I had to wait till evening. The hodja had finished wailing for us, the drums had finished their pounding, and the time had come for me to be alone in the room with my bride. But before we went into the room Grandpa called me to one side and said :
'Whatever you do and whatever happens, there's got to be blood in the morning! If you're a man already,' he said, 'do it like a man! And if you aren't, use your fingers or your fingernails. There must be blood though, or you'll be the laughing-stock of the whole village.' Then he shoved me into the room and locked the door.
I must have stood there about half an hour like a lump of stone, not daring to open my mouth or to take off her bridal veil. Then at last she took off the veil herself and showed her face. I was afraid my old Grandpa might have served me up with some old hag, but what I saw before me was a real butterfly of a girl, as white as milk, with eyes all misty - you should have seen her! I went on staring at her like some wild animal, and she stared back at me. Then she burst out laughing :
'Are you shy, then?' she said.
'Yes, I am.'
'Why are you shy? Just look what huge breeches you've got! And what a sash too! Shall we have a game of spinning the top?' And before I could say whether I wanted to play or not, she had grabbed me by my sash and was pulling me to and fro, winding me up and unwinding me again, like a top. . . . We were having such fun we didn't notice when the first cock crowed. Suddenly I remembered the blood, and my brow creased into furrows. 'Soon it will be dawn and the others will come asking about the blood. And then what?' She noticed something was wrong and asked me what was worrying me. So I told her.
'It's the blood!'
'I'll get you some,' she said. And she puffed herself up so her face turned purple and blood came gushing out of her nose. No point in going on about the blood, where we smeared it and how - everything passed off all right and I settled down with Silvina like we was man and wife. She was still a girl maybe, but she was a woman too. With womenfolk, the woman is already there in the child. Perhaps it's under the eyelashes or under the nails, but she's there all right! Men are different, though. A man isn't a man until he's got enough beard to prickle a woman's cheek. But when his heart gets set on a woman, like mine did, the head and the beard don't matter a bit. While we were winding and unwinding each other, laughing and playing, that heart of mine got itself all wound up too, and when it was given a tug to unwind it again, out it came, roots and all.
How it happened, I tell you, nobody really noticed. Everything was going along nicely, smooth as water, as they say, and no one had the faintest idea that there was a rock under the water, waiting to hole our boat and smash it to pieces. Silvina used to spend most of her time at home looking after Grandma, and she always had some soup waiting when we got back from the fields. She swept up, did the housework, and our old house shone like the sun. Even the rafters joined in the merriment, decorated by Silvina with all kinds of flowers and herbs. She washed the little window in our room and polished it three times a day, and in the morning she looked at herself in it when she did her hair. What hair she had! From one position it was fair, but shift around a bit and it was kind of reddish, like it was glowing. Move again, and it was alive with yellow and gold! When she began to comb it, I Just stood and watched. And I'd go on gazing at her till Grandpa brought me back to earth again :
'Come along Ramadan! The goats will be starving!' What a torment it was with those goats! That lazy old summer sun would stand still in the middle of the sky and wouldn't come down! It didn't give a damn that I had a wife in the village and was itching to jump up and fetch it down with my crook, and then bury it in the ground so it would never rise again! Then it would always be night and I would always be lying next to her or blowing on her eyelashes. It was a little joke we had, a kind of game, really: when I woke up in the morning I used to blow on her eyelashes till every hair was in place. I'd promised Silvina I'd bring her back a horn comb for her eyelashes when I went to the market in Filibe with Grandpa. But it never got any further than a promise. . . . We'd been out hay-making. Grandpa and me, and when we got home in the evening we found the house dark and empty - no wife anywhere. Grandma said Silvina's brothers had taken her away. She'd tried to stop them, Grandma had, but they'd shoved her aside and taken Silvina. They wanted her to collect the rest of her dowry they said, bundled her onto a horse, and before anybody could stop them, they thundered off in the direction of the beech woods.
No point telling you what a state I was in, but when Grandpa saw me grab a knife he caught hold of me and shouted to Grandma :
'A rope, give me a rope!'
Grandma fetched a rope, and Grandpa tied me to a post and said :
'I want you for seed, so you're not going nowhere! Not until Assan Dervishov hears the cry of his great-grandson will he let you go. Then you can kill yourself wherever you like!'
Then he jumped on the mule and dashed off, shouting to Grandma:
'Mind you protect the seed of the Dervishovs, or I'll carve the head from your body!'
Grandma knew her old man too well, so she didn't untie me. It was like a hundred leeches clinging to my heart. I felt that weak I was almost dead, and my only hope was that maybe Silvina's brothers had really come about her dowry. They were her brothers, after all, not complete strangers.
In this way I managed to kid myself till morning came and Grandpa returned. The mule was all foaming, and Grandpa was tattered and torn where he'd been through the bushes. He shoved me into my room and locked the door. Then he and Grandma went off to their room. There was a wall between the two rooms with a chimney in the middle, where the wall was thinner, so I could hear what they were saying. I crouched down in the fireplace and listened. Grandpa was speaking very softly, but I could hear everything.
'He's lost his wife,' he said. 'Her brothers, good-for-nothings that they are, have discovered she's still a virgin and have given her to Roufat in exchange for a couple of billy goats.'
'What's happening now?' asked grandma.
'Now they're dragging her off through the woods,' said Grandpa. 'Heaven only knows when they'll get back. . . . And even when they do, she'll be little use to me with a stranger's seed in her belly!'
'So what are you going to do about it ?' asked Grandma.
'Do you know what I'd like to do?' Grandpa said. 'I'd like to get to work on those Roufats with my double-barrelled shotgun and crack them like lice! And I will too! But not yet. I'll get Ramadan married off first and I'll wait for my great-grandson to come along, and then I'll make Roufat's mother rue the day she was born!'
These were the exact words Grandpa used, and they drew me further into the fireplace. I crouched down completely still. And that's where they found me early next day - lying in the ashes ! That same morning Grandpa brought the hodja and they made me swear I wouldn't hang myself, nor drown myself in the river, nor quarrel, nor fight. . . . and that I'd provide Grandpa with a great-grandson before I blew out my brains. . . .
From then on everything that happened hit me right here in the heart. It plunged into me like an old packing needle. The first needle was driven in when Silvina returned to the village. The Roufats lived next door. There was just the single fence separating us, but nobody saw them return. For a month and more Silvina didn't show herself. The brute had messed her about and had bitten her cheeks to shreds, and she didn't dare show her face. Then the story got round about what had happened to her and how.
Roufat had taken a liking to her the first day he'd seen her walk into the courtyard, and he'd made a hole in the wall so he could watch her. He was seven years older than me and a right good-for-nothing. He didn't go to the fields or collect wood, but gave his father a hand in the butcher's shop instead. He drank plum brandy, bared his teeth and made a great show of his money.
They had two billy goats, the Roufats did, with beards, and two huge bells round their necks, and when the bells rang you could hear them ten hills away. Redjep and Yumer, Silvina's brothers, were a greedy pair. Shepherds they were, and mad about bells and billy goats. So they bargained with Roufat - they wanted his goats, and he wanted their sister. They realized she still had the Belly of a virgin and they gave her to him.
I wanted to see Silvina very much, but that brute kept her locked up, so it was impossible. I worked out how I could manage it though, and when it got dark I climbed onto the roof of our house and hid behind the chimney. From there I could peep through a tiny window into the Roufats' place. It was only a weeny little round thing, that window, but when they had the paraffin lamp lit inside, I could see everything. Well, nearly everything, anyway. ... I could see them sitting at table . . . clearing things away, making up the bed and then lying down to sleep. ... I could see Roufat untying his sash. . , . And . . . I couldn't see her eyes, but her head hung down like her neck was broken. . , . And he kept grabbing hold of her head, propping it up on his thumbs and then biting her like a wild animal. . . .
So long as they had the light on, my heart melted like a candle. How it didn't melt right away and vanish completely, I don't rightly know, but there was always enough for another evening, and another. . . . Grandma found out I was hiding behind the chimney and she told Grandpa, but he didn't let her finish:
'Let him sharpen himself up,' he said. 'Get some malice under his belt! That'll learn him to go taking a woman's blood from her nose!'
Whether Grandpa was right or wrong, it's not for me to say, but he was certainly right about the malice! When your sorrows are too many to bear, it's only the malice that keeps you going. Ever seen a scarecrow stuffed with straw? No heart, no bones, just straw holding it up? Well, that malice was my straw! Nothing else holding me up -just the malice I'd stored up for Roufat. Always on my mind - under the blankets and in the fields. Night and day I thought how I'd hack him to pieces with an axe, or stab him in the belly with a knife so he wouldn't die immediately, but would suffer. . . . And I thought how I'd drag his guts over the ground, and trample them with my feet and tear at them with my fingernails. Later even that was too good for him: the knife would be too quick and he wouldn't suffer enough, so I thought up a new torture for him : I'd throttle him, very slowly, taking rests in between. But then I realized that once I got my hands on him I wouldn't be able to let go, so I gave up the throttling idea as well and thought up different tortures instead. Three hundred times I killed him and brought him back to life again. My head was on fire. A thousand times I slaughtered him and flayed him alive. My hands were shaking, and I gnashed my teeth, and in the end the straw in the scarecrow burst into flame. I fell ill and went down with a fever.
Then Grandpa got scared - not about me, but about the seed of the Dervishovs. He bundled me up and took me off to Trigrad to see big fat Aishe. She stuffed me full of bitter potions and rubbed me with all kinds of ointments, and in a week my fever went down and I was cured-Grandpa didn't take me back to the village. He left me in Tigrad with Deli Yumer's goats. And he told Aishe to give me all the potions she wanted, only I wasn't to come home till I had a beard and moustaches. And that's just what happened: whether it was the potions did it, or my age, a few months later moustaches and a beard darkened my face. . . . Not much of one, but it was a beard all the same! My heart softened a bit too - must have been the same herb : the herb of life, it's called, and you take it for love. Then Grandpa came for me :
'Come on,' he said, 'I'm going to get you married. Because my hands are itching to make Roufat's mother rue the day she was born !'
'Marry me off if you want,' I told him. 'Bury me in the ground! Do whatever you like, only you're not touching Roufat! He's for me!'
I made him promise, and I got married too, right there in Trigrad. No playing around this time: the nightdress was done properly and everything happened the way it should, and I had a child born not in the ninth month, but in the seventh! He must have known Grandpa was in a hurry, so he popped out a couple of months ahead of time.
It was years since I'd seen Grandpa laugh, but he laughed this time. . . . And then he laid himself down to die. Laid himself down, he did, three days after the child was born. Walking to and fro and laughing one minute, then he flopped on the bed and his left eyebrow started bouncing about. He called me over.
'Ramadan, my boy,' he said, 'my eyes have seen the seed of the Dervishovs, and now I shall take the good news to your father. And as for Roufat, I'll leave him for you.'
And with these words Grandpa passed on, leaving me to deal with a wife, a child and Roufat too. Come on Ramadan ! I said to myself, now let's see how you can manage three things with one pair of hands. Three things: an enemy, a wife, and a child. All straw to hold up the scarecrow. So he can walk straight. You graze the goats, plough and eat, but Roufat the butcher has got your heart and your liver, and he can squeeze and twist them whenever he wants!
At first I told myself that the child needed to grow a bit, to be weaned from its mother before I slit Roufat's belly open. Then I said to myself: let him learn to walk first! But before he got to walking Silvina started going about the yard with the baby in her arms. Very slowly she walked, like she'd walked a long way already. Her face was hidden by her yashmak, so I couldn't see it, but her eyes turned this way and that, seeking to catch a glimpse of me.
I bored a hole in the hay-loft and began to watch her. And while I watched her from the hay-loft, Roufat kept an eye on her from the window, and my wife kept an eye on me. Good thing she was meek and mild, my wife, no shouting and arguing. She shed her tears in silence and didn't say a word.
The days slipped by, always the same: whether I was ploughing or digging or grazing the goats, I always hurried back before dark. I stuck my eye to the hole in the hay-loft and waited for Silvina to appear. If I saw her, the poison and the weariness melted away. But if I didn't, I'd think of Roufat and grind my teeth in envy the whole night long. I throttled him, poisoned him and flayed him alive, and my soul could find no peace. Many's the time I decided to finish him off, but then I remembered that prison walls had no holes for me to watch Silvina through, and I weakened and put things off once more. . . . And so life went on, day after day, year after year. If my children hadn't grown up and got married and had children of their own, I wouldn't have known how many years had passed. The oak fence between us and the Roufat's place rotted away, but our worries didn't change. And it can't have been easy for Roufat bedding down each night with a block of ice and waking up every morning with an icicle at his side. For though he'd already been drinking a good bit he began to drink even more. Whatever he thought about it, his reign was over. His butcher's shop was taken from him and that crushed him still further. And since he couldn't make good the loss with anything else, he made it up with plum-brandy. And that plum-brandy cut clean through to his backbone and landed him in bed. His daughter got married in another village, and Silvina was left with Roufat, all by herself.
About a month ago I did away with the rotten fence and walked round Silvina's yard like it was my own. From there we went into Roufat's room and sat down. For the first time the three of us were together! For the first time in forty years Roufat and I looked each other in the face, with Silvina between us. I have a sinful soul, my friend, and I don't mind telling you that I wanted to clasp Silvina in my arms there and then, in front of Roufat, so he could see her in my arms, like I'd watched her in his, my whole life through. But she wouldn't let me.
'It's enough that we are here,' she said. 'Because he was an animal is no reason for you to behave like one too!'
And now what? you might ask.
Well, this is roughly the way things stand. Roufat is always cold, and seeing as Silvina doesn't have a donkey, rather than her bending her back and carrying wood for Roufat's stove, I get it for her. A donkey-load of wood every day and still it isn't enough. The forest wardens have already reported me once, and now they're threatening to report me again. So I go out at night. I strain my eyes, rip my hands with the chopping, and when the wardens are asleep I drag the wood home along the gully. I'm breaking my back, for someone who burnt out my soul! Here am I, warming the body of a man who for forty years held me either in ice or in fire. But I can't stop! If I do, Silvina will have to get the wood herself. So you can forget about stopping. Only sometimes I even have to help him with his food; and he's that heavy to lift, when I change his bedding and, if you'll pardon the expression, get rid of his piddle. But she's a woman, she hasn't the strength to go lifting like that, so who helps Roufat? Ramadan, of course! And I have to do it, or it'll all be left for Silvina to do. ... I hear what people say in the village : 'Look at that, what a neighbour! What a man!' But they can't see what's going on here, inside. . . . Inside, my friend, there's boiling pitch, boiling and bubbling! I'm waiting for Roufat to pass on, so I can get married to Silvina, but the old brigand keeps putting it off. And that gets the pitch bubbling worse! I want to lie under the same blanket with her, like man and woman, and to hell with everything else. . . . Wife, children, a whole pile of grandchildren - I'd walk over the lot of them to go to her, but there's Roufat sprawled on his back like a lump of wood between us! And time is flying, my friend, and my knees are getting weaker. And if I lie with Silvina like man and woman, there's no saying we won't wake up like brother and sister. Sometimes I get to thinking: he's suffering, we're suffering, why not open the gates of hell for him? After all he's been knocking at them himself for a year or more. I wouldn't strangle him or drown him : just leave him in the cold for a couple of nights - that would do the trick. That's the way out, it seems to me, but when it comes to doing anything, I see Silvina's eyes looking at me and so I let things slide and head for the forest to collect firewood for Roufat. . . .
So here I am marking time at this crossroads and not knowing which way
to go. If you can tell me, please do, but if you can't, just lend a hand
with loading these branches onto the donkey. Because that old brigand is
waiting, and his teeth are chattering with cold, and I really must be on