She had a rule: everything had to be clear and simple. It meant she paid you well and used the service you offered her. Wiser people had thought of that a long time ago. Nadya never deceived her workers; she gave them every penny of their wages on the 17th of the month, and they, after plodding away at the weeds in the fields, grumbled without looking at her, “Thank you, Ma’am.”
They were stubborn and baked in the sun like bricks. They wouldn’t say “Thank you” to the doctor who extracted the bullet from a wound in their bellies, but they thanked Nadya because her bundles of banknotes were stronger than their heads and thicker than the dirt under their nails.
Nadya’s land was boundless; she had inherited it from her grandfather: rich fertile soil, overgrown with grass that remained green throughout the summer on the northern slope of Shar Mountain. There, the last snowdrifts thawed at the end of July. At all other places, snakes hissed and lizards mated. Miss Nadya, as hard as the marble roof-tiles above her house, had made up her mind to get very rich here, in the wilderness. She sowed her fields with wheat, maize, barley, and fruit.
Her seven workers, working their fingers to the bone in the valley among four hills, lived in the building that used to be her grandfather’s summer manor. He used to accommodate his young mistresses in it, but now the place exuded a pungent smell of dead creatures, forgotten in the rooms. The farmhands tilled the land in the spring, summer, and autumn. Nadya knew what held them here: the bundles she brought them on the 17th of each month. She was an odd woman and made it a point of making her men shave the bristles on their chins and cheeks when she paid them. She looked satisfied on hearing their obedient, “Thank you so much, Ma’am.”
Sometimes in the evening, she saw them in the thirsty summer, sitting by twos or threes on the ground under the linden tree, bottles of cheap brandy in their hands. Actually, you couldn’t really call it brandy. It was a sour, scorching concoction made of turnips that clouded your head like a brick. Nadya sold the true plum brandy abroad, in Greece or in Serbia. At her pub, the Maupassant, she sold the cheapest brandy an honest man could dream of. The same workers, their bruises still fresh, brewed the brandy from Miss Nadya’s plums and pears, and paid for it at the Maupassant. They drank and talked, but she didn’t listen to them; she knew their words were mostly strings of obscenities. The politest expression for a woman they used was “slut.” They described in detail what this or that hussy did for them and how much it cost them.
There was a tart in these parts named Boryana. The guys swore at her less harshly when she came in the evening to The Maupassant. Boryana usually came after the men fed the pigs. She sat directly on the grass, the blades dirty and squashed under her overalls, and she, too, drank from her hip flask. If it was Tuesday, she chose a guy from their group of unshaven farmhands, all of them smelling of dust, sweat, and horses, and took him behind The Maupassant.
On Tuesdays, Boryana, the girl the workers swore at softly, as if they were telling her “Good evening,” took one of them to the backyard where crates of beer bottles and brandy were stored. On Tuesdays, she didn’t charge the guy. Sometimes it happened that Boryana chose the same worker on two consecutive Tuesdays, but the other boys didn’t grumble. They waited for their turn, drinking. Boryana carried an axe tied to her waist, and she had a gun, too. Once, she cut a piece of a guy’s ear because the smart aleck had tried to run away before he paid her. Without the slightest hesitation, she roasted the piece of the ear, saying she did this as an example for all of the other farmhands.
Because of that, Nadya came to realize that Boryana was worth a kingdom and hired her to work at The Maupassant selling brandy, the beer, the packs of cigarettes, and canned goods, mostly canned sprat. That was the cheapest fish in these parts, and the farmhands loved it. They all were as tight-fisted as tongs. They squandered money on brandy, but it never crossed their minds to buy sprat, for they gorged themselves on Nadya’s fruits. Of course, no one paid her for those. They ate like elephants and perhaps had already gobbled down a twelve-wagon train of her fruits but she couldn’t order them to stop bolting apples and peaches, nor could she keep an eye on them all the time. The guys saved up every cent they laid their hands on. They caught grass-snakes that blissfully basked in the sun, skinned them, and roasted them. Boryana cooked grass-snake meatballs and rice at The Maupassant, and in the evenings she drank and sang with the boys.
“Why don’t you charge them on Tuesdays?” Miss Nadya asked Boryana once.
“What?” Boryana said.
“Why don’t you take money from them on Tuesdays?” Nadya explained.
“Then I don’t work. It’s my pleasure,” Boryana said. “A woman should have fun from time to time.”
“What if one day they killed you?” Miss Nadya asked.
“Who will they go to the backyard with then? With the grass snakes, perhaps?” Boryana answered. “Who else will charge them so cheap? We live at the back of beyond here, there’s no other woman a guy could break his fast with. The two old wives in the neighboring village are pushing the daisies. Only you and I stay here, Nadya. But you are rich.”
So Boryana was a blessing in disguise for everybody in the manor. How come she dragged herself to these desolate hills? No one could tell for sure. Perhaps she had bumped off a guy in Pernik and hid among the three mountains, or she had stolen someone’s money and frittered away every penny on poker? Whatever the truth, the farmhands were extremely pleased with her. She had established firm working hours: 11-12 am, and well after midnight, 2-3 am at latest. She charged them 1 lev, and sometimes she allowed them to come to her backyard on credit, until 17th, when Nadya paid them. Boryana didn’t even write down how much money they owed her. She cut a notch with her knife on the bar of The Maupassant and knew exactly each guy’s debt. When Tuesday came she chose Kalinko and took him to the crates and the empty brandy bottles where her home was.
She had tamed the men with her axe, which she never removed from her skirt. Every once in a while, when she was still sleeping at 11 am, they brewed coffee and made sandwiches for her, especially if a guy’s shoe pinched him badly and he was itching to bring breakfast to her. Boryana kept her gun under her pillow, but when Miss Nadya asked the farmhands what they thought about Boryana, the guys said Boryana was worth a heap of gold or even more heaps, because if she went away from The Maupassant, they would slit and slash each other’s throats. Everything was all right with her and it was fabulous on Tuesday nights.
Nadya lived in her father’s house, an imposing two-story dwelling which turned its blind walls on the northern slope where the snow didn’t melt well into July. All the windows, except the two narrow ones, had been boarded up. Their dusty windowpanes offered a view to the lake where Miss Nadya went to swim. She had forbidden her farmhands to bathe in the water because she bred trout in it. Nadya made a lot of money on the trout and bought many books, all turning gray with the thick peaceful dust on them, she had a TV, a VCR, and a piano that looked gray, and the dust on them was ankle-deep. In the evening she, dog-tired after patrolling up and down the fields, sour with constantly digging at her farmhands, at 9 pm had a swim and went to sleep.
“You can move into one of the rooms in the manor,” Nadya said once to Boryana. “You’ll give me 10 levs per month, which is a ridiculously low rent.”
“Are you crazy or what!” Boryana had almost shouted at her. “Ten levs! Do you know how long I have to lie on my back to make 10 levs! I’ll never give you that much.”
“Okay, 5 levs per month,” Nadya said. “You can’t imagine how unbearable it is to be alone in an empty house. The stars snarl at me like that dog that died on account of the putrid fish I gave him. The moon shines and scares the trout all through the night. You have no idea how horrible that is.”
“You are right. I have no idea,” Boryana said. “I’ve never been alone. Look here, you stay alone in that big house of yours while seven men whine like the dog you poisoned with the rotten fish. It’s a crime. I hate to think about the way they suffer. They’re my friends, all of them, even Velin is. I’ve cut the price. Now I charge them half a lev. They are short of money, but they all want to get married after the autumn is over.”
“Okay then,” Nadya said. “Move into the manor. You won’t have to pay any rent. We’ll watch movies on the VCR together.”
“But I work until 2 am. Your VCR will come to bits while you wait for me,” Boryana pointed out. “You pay me my salary and I sell your brandy, your beer, and cigarettes, that’s true. You have to know that if you give me the sack, I’ll survive. I’ll have roasted grass snakes for lunch, and the boys will sit on the ground and not on the mattress you gave me. You know the mattress: you told me your grandpa met his maker, lying sick on it. I ask you fair and square: how can you live on a TV and on books? You can’t live on books. Why don’t you start charging the men…let’s say 1 lev and 20 cents? You are more learned than me and you deserve more. What’s fair is fair. They are as stingy as graves. They won’t give you more than 1 lev and 20. You look pretty enough to me, though. You could charge them 1 lev and a half. I guess nobody’s going to shell out 2 levs for you.”
“Will you move into the manor?” Nadya whispered. “It is not the men I am interested in, Boryana; it’s you.”
“It’s okay with me if you love women, Nadya, but I won’t move in with you. There are seven farmhands I have to think of.”
“I’d just like to have someone to talk in the evenings,” Nadya said. “That moon makes me crazy. It’s glued to the sky like a roof-tile. Some day it will drop onto my head.”
“I don’t see anything wrong with the moon,” Boryana said. “We’ve been shooting the breeze… I could have made 5 levs so far. Can’t you hear the boys swearing? Try to understand them. You haven’t started swearing in this heat. It’s a wonder.”
“I have, but I don’t do it in front of everybody. All right, then, can you recommend one of the farmhands to me?”
“What exactly do you want me to do?”
“Recommend a guy to me who gives you half a lev.”
“You want me to explain what we do?” Boryana did not understand. “I do everything I feel like doing and I feel like doing a dozen of things at a time. Nadya, if you stopped riding that scatter-brained Balzac horse of yours through the fields, you, too, would feel like doing things. Start selling brandy like me. It could help.”
“You think I don’t want to?” Miss Nadya muttered.
“Let me tell you one thing: your brandy’s lousy, Nadya. Just between you and me, it’s a shame you make me sell that brandy. You should pay the guys if they agree to drink it.”
“To recommend a farmhand to me means to tell me who among them takes baths most often.”
“All of them do. They swim with your trout. They catch trout and I grill the fish for them. Nadya, I, too, want to make a lot of money. I’ll work one more month and I’ll say goodbye to this place, full stop!”
“What do you want to make money for? Tell me. Maybe I can give you higher pay.”
“I want to get married. Then I wouldn’t have to charge the guy 1 lev. I’ll do it for free, the way the water flows in the stream… He’ll be my husband. Do you understand? And I’ll do that not only on Tuesday.”
“I don’t understand,” Miss Nadya said.
“The boys are my friends. I like to make them happy. That’s why I love Tuesdays. Look, I’ve chosen one guy: Kalinko. You can say he’s too scraggy, but he’s the strongest one. Before he goes to sleep, he tells me, “You are pretty, Boryana. I want to look at you a minute more.”
“Who’s Kalinko?” Nadya asked.
“The guy with the scar between his eyebrows. He’s as meek as a dirt road. He’s the only one I trust and I untie the axe from my ass when I’m with him. The others seem to be meek, too, but you remember that guy whose ear I cut. You never know, it might be necessary to cut another ear one of these days.”
On August 17th, 1 pm sharp, Nadya came to The Maupassant with the money. The men were listening to Turkish belly-dancing music and, despite the heat, some stirred restlessly. Those languorous tunes were no old wrinkled women one could turn a deaf ear to. The Turkish belly-dancing tunes were splitting the air when Miss Nadya came riding Balzac, her chicken-brained horse. She wore a white flowing dress, white sandals, white broad-brimmed hat, and white gloves. Balzac’s hide and mane were sparkling white, too.
“Have you made up your mind? Will you move into the manor or not?” said Miss Nadya looking at no one in particular.
“Yes, I have made up my mind,” Boryana answered. “I won’t come to the manor. The boys need me here.”
Nadya took a fat bundle out of her bag and she paid Boryana first.
“Have you weighed up the pros and cons?” Nadya insisted.
“Yes, I thought things over and now I tell you: I’ll remain with the mattress your grandpa died on. Every night the guys and I bring it back to life. One forgets one’s been digging the cornfields for hours after his back settles down on that mattress.”
“Okay,” Nadya said and started paying her farmhands. Her nails were varnished a dazzling shade of white, and she didn’t smell of Balzac the chicken-brained horse, she didn’t smell of books or of dust, nor did she smell of the winds and fields she had crisscrossed on horseback. There was a sweet lake of fragrance around her dress that everyone respected. She hadn’t paid Kalinko yet. Finally, his turn came. He was tall and lanky: one could say the guy was a wet pair of pants, hanging on a clothesline.
“Kalinko, you come with me,” Miss Nadya said. “I need to have some work done in Dad’s house.”
“But Ma’am…” Kalinko muttered.
“Come with me,” she repeated.
“It’s Tuesday, Ma’am. It will be Tuesday in the evening, too and…” he started, but Nadya didn’t listen to what he had to say.
“I’ll pay you in the manor,” she said.
That Tuesday evening, Boryana roasted grass snakes, a whole tub of trout, and made a bucketful of tomato salad, although the tomatoes could scarcely be called ripe yet. Tuesday was their Sunday. That Tuesday they collected a lev each and bought a keg of brandy. When October ended, they’d have more money than all the winds in this valley, and they’d go to Pernik. The town of Pernik teemed with girls; the girls in the streets there were more than the paving stones and each girl would love to marry you. When you got married you’d leave 1 lev by her pillow every night, or you could leave her even 2 levs, but you wouldn’t tell her why you do that. Of course, you did that because you had got accustomed to it and when you put the money by the clean pillow you’d think for a moment about Boryana. You couldn’t forget how beautiful she was.
Meanwhile, no one knew what Nadya was up to, so they could only rack their brains trying to riddle out why she wanted that Kalinko guy in the manor. No matter what, the farmhands collected a lev each for the turnip brandy and Boryana made a bucket of green tomato salad for them. That Tuesday they guzzled turnip brandy. The sky turned green with the heat, and the cornfields looked blue, and Boryana was in their heads all the time. No doubt the snakes were to blame for all that. The boys bolted down trout, spat the bones on the grass, and swilled down the turnip brandy.
In the evening Boryana felt blue. Perhaps Nadya had ordered Kalinko to sweep the floors in the manor with the windows all boarded up, or perhaps she’d made him paint the boards white. That Tuesday Boryana chose one guy, then another one, but her sadness was so black that the farmhands collected one more lev each. They gave her the money to buy a necklace when at last the autumn ended. They knew that, like them, she was saving up to get married. Then, she wouldn’t charge her man 1 lev the way it was honest and fair, the way she treated them all. She’d roast trout for him, she’d wash his dirty clothes for him, and all weekdays would be Tuesdays for him. That would mean that their life together would be a stream in the valley, their summers would be like the water in the lake, which kept the trout free of charge under its stones. But what would those guys do without Boryana in the wilderness? Yes, one should earn enough money to get married, it was true, but how was it possible to make money if one remained Boryanaless in this scorching heat?
On the following day Kalinko didn’t show up. He didn’t dig in the cornfields, nor did he weed the pepper gardens. It was not until late in the afternoon when the farmhands noticed a gentleman emerge from the manor house. He wore a suit as white as a trout’s belly, his shoes looked as white as trout’s eyes, and his Panama hat was as white as trout’s gills. Could it be Miss Nadya’s fiancé?
“Somebody new is here!” Boryana breathed, spat on her hands, and rubbed at her face to make it clean. “Hey, a nugget of gold comes our way! Let’s make him one of us.”
The boys reluctantly left the chunks of bread they were chewing. If a guy was up and about since 4 am, watering the tomatoes and peppers, noon would seem as far away as midnight. However, all of them stood up, shouldered their way through the empty crates, and tied their pants with pieces if string. They didn’t buy belts, saving up instead to go to Pernik. The girls there were more than the bricks in the walls and all of them were still single. First and foremost, all the girls in Pernik were pretty.
The man in the white suit approached them. As a matter of fact, he ran to them so quickly that the legs of his pants almost ripped along the seams. Right away everybody noticed that the man wasn’t Miss Nadya’s fiancé. It was Kalinko.
“Kalin, come here!” a booming voce said and they instantly knew who was giving the order: Miss Nadya. “Come back now.”
The white sleeves froze in their tracks, the white shoes dug a ditch in the scorched grass, and Kalinko’s voice, as small as the gills of a dead trout, wheezed, “Ma’am, may I remain with them, please?”
“No. Come here,” Miss Nadya said.
The white hat bowed down, and the white shoes shuffled back to the manor house. The windows, all boarded up, waited.
“What’s wrong with him?” the boys wondered.
“Nothing. He’s okay. I told her he was the cleanest among you.” Boryana explained. “And she knows I untie the axe from my ass when I am with him. She knows Kalinko tells me, ‘Let me look at you a minute more’.”
“I tell you ‘Let me try this side, too’,” thundered one of the farmhands, as hefty as the mole in the lake with the trout.
“It’s not the same,” Boryana cut him short. “Isn’t she a bitch?”
“Sometimes she is, but she pays well,” the man as strong as the mole pointed out, and he was absolutely right.
The night was thick with skidding bats, the moon shone, a big bottle of brandy in the sky, and there was more moonlight than water in the lake. Suddenly, Boryana waved her axe; she was accustomed to sensing if someone touched her while she was asleep. Perhaps Miss Nadya got all muddled up about what she wanted and had come to take Boryana to her bus with the white dresses.
“Boryana, wake up. It’s me.”
“I don’t work after 2 am,” Boryana mumbled, trying to go back to sleep.
“It’s me, Kalinko. Boryana, wake up. I still don’t have enough money. I even don’t have half the money… Will you marry me, Boryana?”
“Marry me, Boryana. I’ll borrow money from you and we’ll get married. Later I’ll give you everything back…to the last penny. You know I always have.”
“Are you sick?” she blurted out, then noticed the moon that lingered on the sky. She knew Kalinko was as meek as clay and one had to encourage him first, so she said softly, “Now tell me what happened.”
“Miss Nadya makes me… she makes me tell her what you like. She doesn’t believe it’s different every time. She said the stars hated her and that she’d go out of her mind.”
“Go out of her mind? Why?” Boryana murmured. “She can buy you shoes and different suits for every single day of the week.”
“No. She wants to buy you white dresses for every Tuesday in the year. And she wants to visit you on her grandpa’s mattress like we do, for 1 lev. I ran away. Marry me and let’s beat it. I hope you haven’t killed anybody in Pernik.”
“No, I haven’t. I kicked a guy’s ass, that’s all.”
The wind was as hot as boiling tea and the stars were impatient to meet the month of September in the sky. But September nights were still far away; half a summer of slithering grass snakes and yellow cornfields separated the boys from the money they should make before they caught the bus to the pretty girls in Pernik.
“I don’t want a girl from Pernik, Boryana. Wait a minute more. I love looking at you.”
The next evening, when the bats were jumping in the hot wind, a woman in a white dress, white hat, and white sandals emerged from the manor house, shouting, “Kalin! Kalin!”
Her sandals hit the dust, her hat wobbled on her head like trout that had just thrown its spawn in the lake, her gorgeous white dress, unbuttoned down to her navel, hung loosely on her.
“Kalin, where are you?”
In fact, the woman knew where Kalinko was, and right away ran to the mattress beside the crates and the empty brandy bottles.
“Boryana, Boryana, get up and come here.”
But Boryana didn’t show up. She was not there. Miss Nadya established that fact when she lit up the place with her powerful flashlight. The only thing she saw was Boryana’s axe, and a couple of grass snakes, left to soak in a bucket of turnip brandy.
“Boryana! Boryana!” the woman shouted so shrilly that some of the workers stirred, although it was too early to go dig in the fields, weed the peppers, or water the tomatoes. “Boryana!”
The farmhands got up and saw Miss Nadya cry, her flashlight illuminating the tears on her face.
“Boryana…” Miss Nadya sobbed. The workers pushed each other, unable to do anything.
“Have a sip of that brandy, Ma’am,” suggested the man who was as big as the mole, but she didn’t even look at him. Her lips quivered, lisping a sting of quiet words, as if she was thirsty and couldn’t reach the moonlit lake.
After two weeks the workers left the house which Miss Nadya’s grandfather had built. They took their money on the 17th of August, and on the following day when Miss Nadya, forgetting to put on her white dress, rode Balzac and checked the fields, she saw that the house was empty. Two broken crates, several empty beer bottles, and a grass snake’s hide were left near the torn mattress. Perhaps Miss Nadya wasn’t aware that even if a guy ate green tomato salad four times a day, Boryana was in his mind all the time, and Boryana was in his eyes, too.
Tuesday became more important than Sunday. Tuesday would not come to the manor house if Boryana wasn’t there.
Miss Nadya knew that for sure.