There was something wrong with that room, he thought. The woman didn’t even look at him.
He drank his wine slowly, trying not to stare at her. Her words were flat, and there was wine in their sounds that pressed his eyes against the table. She had invited him to her study, to the armchair beside the heavy tomes by Shakespeare and Schiller. The books were arranged in alphabetical order first and second, depending on the weight of the gilt on their jackets. He had visited her place several times. Now he hoped she’d speak about the snow that fell like wet rags from the scuffed sky. Last time she had given him the same armchair. He had been silent, she had not done anything, absolutely anything, just sat, staring tactlessly at his face, sipping at her wine that must have cost her husband a fortune.
“I thought I’d never get over it,” the shards of her words whirred in his face. “I’d been saving my teacher’s salaries. I had put aside all the money I took from the private lessons in that backwoods village. My students’ parents paid me beans, tomatoes, eggs, rarely pennies. I collected the levs I got in my pillow.”
It was difficult for him to place that refined woman beside a shabby pillow and a sweaty bundle of banknotes stuffed in it.
“I had saved up enough to buy a small house. Houses in the country are not expensive as you know. The village was wild with howls of wolves in winter, with owls that lived in the linden tree in my landlady’s backyard. Autumn came with mushrooms that sprouted up overnight in front of my threshold. I put up with the owls and wolves for my students’ sake. Every night the growls of the wolf pack invaded my room instead of the newscast on the TV. I gave him all my money.” Her words tied an icy knot around his wine. When they first met, they made love, no kissing.
“He was important to me,” the woman went on. “At that time I thought a human being is meant for another human. Banal, isn’t it? I thought my life made sense only because I was born at the time when he picked mushrooms in my backyard and in the evenings sauntered with the owls to get to know the night. He was a poet. He dedicated his poems to me, to the river and the couple of owls. I believed my blood would disintegrate if I didn’t see him. In the evenings, in the daytime, at nights I ran to his house, which was on the outskirts of the village. In fact, all the houses were on the outskirts, the Town Hall and the mayor were the center. My room was constantly in a mess, the floor and the cupboard were covered in dust and I wondered where the dust came from in that clean village. The road was dusty, yes. Perhaps time and clouds turned into dust.”
He could not imagine the clutter in her room. Here even the shadows of the vases lay symmetrically on the Persian rug. The gold jewelry, the collection of sapphires and ancient swords glittered warmly, not a speck of clouds flitting over them.
“My salaries arrived with a delay of several months, I dreamt of the house I’d buy and he dreamt of becoming a great poet. I asked, ‘Isn’t it enough that you have me?’ It was not enough. He didn’t have enough money to go and live in Sofia. I knew he’d become a great man. I couldn’t live without his poems. I read them in the morning, in the evening, in the breaks at school. I gave him everything I had put aside. Folks paid me after harvest, after they sold their beans and the wheat. ‘I’ll give it back to you,’ he said and I knew he would. He had never lied to me. I believed his words the way I believed the clouds and the river that never ran dry in summer. He promised he’d come back during the spring term. Perhaps he’d make people’s hearts explode, I hoped.”
He wondered why she told him all that. He felt much better when her distant eyes did not linger on his face. Her words failed to bring him to the village where the river did not run dry. He couldn’t care less what the poet had done. He knew him.
“It was a pile of tattered banknotes that the guys had got for their tomatoes and Indian corn, so their kids could analyze ‘Wild Stories’ and other beautiful works of fiction which brought no one any good.”
He went away, and I received a letter from him in which he explained how hard it was to find a rented flat in Sofia and how lonely he felt. There were two poems for me in the envelope. The howl of the wolves became my happy path and his poems illuminated the whole village that had only outskirts and no center at all. There was the Town Hall, too, with the mayor in it and, from time to time, his old friend from the armored troops.
That was the only letter from Nickolay I got. I glued it to the wall, beside the calendar. I must have taken leave of my senses, I guess. I circled in red ink the words in his letter every day I had no news from Nickolay. The red circles became so many I could build a blood-soaked pyramid with them. After a couple of months that I spent in the company of owls, the folks from the neighboring villages dropped hints I had a screw loose.
They stopped sending their kids to me and I had no one to give private lessons to. One day I received a parcel: a magazine in which Nickolay’s poems were published plus an invitation card asking me to kindly attend Nickolay’s wedding. The card explained Nickolay had married a Milla Kirova. It let me know where the wedding feast would take place: Bulgaria Restaurant.
Then I contracted anemia.
I could not eat. The smell of food made me throw up. I vomited when I saw the owls, I vomited when people talked to me, I vomited and not only my young students avoided me, their parents chose the opposite end of the village to get out of my way. It didn’t matter to me. I obstinately went to school, to the only classroom where the students had lessons, but the kids were scared. They clumped together by the door and peeked inside the room together with the mayor and his fellow-soldier from the armored troops. Wolves howled from the blackboard. One day the mayor and his old friend dragged me out of the classroom and took me to the ambulance that usually arrived in the village when somebody had died. The mayor himself drove me to the county hospital in Radomir.
I don’t remember how long I saw owls, wolves, the outskirts of the village, Nickolay’s letter and the circles in red ink. I remember that I wrenched out the needle through which the doctors infused drugs into me to make me a human being again.
I trudged from the hospital to the village a week, maybe two weeks. Lorries stopped and gave me a lift. I did what the drivers wanted, and I did things that the drivers could not think of. Every evening of that month sick with wet snow, I ate a piece of the magazine with his poems. The lorry driver did not understand I fed on poetry. He asked me if I was in my right mind, but it was not because of my right mind that he kept me on the passenger’s seat. Not because of my right mind the lorry deviated from its usual route, turning to the nearby groves, to the driver’s country shack where he gave me as a present to his cousins.
“It was only natural I lost my job in the village with the owls and the only classroom. I lost the mushrooms and the mountain, I lost the howl of the wolves, but sometimes I can still hear it, especially when I drink from this wine, Sir.”
He avoided her eyes, cold like a screech of the owls she was talking about. Her face was a wolf’s howl that bit the gilded jackets of the books.
“I didn’t have any money, I didn’t even have clothes. The sweaters I put on smelled of lorry drivers, of groves and cousins, but at least they did not smell of Nickolay. There was no village and no mayor of the armored troops in them.”
She fell silent, her eyes pressing the collection of ancient swords. That woman’s study was in fact a picture gallery and it constantly rained in her pictures. There were black and white drawings, and there was a collection of sapphires and gold that appeared black. Her study had nothing to do with the wayside groves, the drivers and the wolves in her mountain. Perhaps rains were different: some were for the books with gilded jackets, others remained in her cold eyes for good.
He could not understand why she gave him that expensive wine that probably cost as much as one of these houses with owls in the attics and mushrooms in the backyards. Maybe that bottle cost more than the whole village that had outskirts and a mayor, and no center at all.
“Your husband will be back soon,” he told her, astonished that she remained unimpressed with his remark.
“No, Petar won’t be back soon,” she said. “You are a quiet man. It’s my pleasure talking to you.”
“First, I became Mr. Petar Savov’s housekeeper. Imagine the chaos in the woods I was accustomed to, the notebooks, the sheets of paper, the dictionaries I’ve cluttered my desk and bed with. There were Nickolay’s poems, too, glued to the chest of drawers, to the table and the mirror. My room had walls built of poetry, of owls and the moon. I never knew where my pens and my bag were. My head was Nickolay’s words he had written for me, for my dry flowers in an empty plastic bottle.
In Mr. Savov’s house all swords lay at a 45 degree angle to the base of the boxes. The brocade on the sofas is folded 12.5 centimeters from the floor.
I could cook scrambled eggs. I milked my landlady’s cow and drank the milk from the bucket. I ate sorrels and bread when I was hungry in the breaks. I drank raw eggs and rain water. Mr. Savov adored French cuisine and hired a cook from Fevre-sur-Mere to train me. It was agony learning the names of the 127 spices the French cook had brought with him. Imagine me cooking a smoked duck with sugar beet, caramel sauce and raisins. I had boiled potatoes before, and that was all I had cooked. I had to arrange two inch spoon 8.6 centimeters from the oyster saucer and the three inch knife 2 centimeters from the spoon.”
The wine from the ancient Bordeaux cellar scorched his throat. Her words were mad ducks in caramel sauce and raisins, and he could hear their wings flapping in his face.
“I can’t imagine that,” he said.
“Mr. Savov gave me the sack a number of times. I stayed in a garret owned by two Turkish women who sold second-hand clothes at the Housewife’s Market. They let me spend the night under their roof because I taught them to speak Bulgarian. One of them told me, “Your eyes are great.” She was not interested only in my eyes, but when she went on saying what else was great about me I left their place and strolled at midnight along the Housewife’s Market. It was beautiful and quiet, no crush, no shoppers, the stalls like owls hovering over the sidewalks.
I visited an old lady and her cat that was almost as big as the woman. The front door of her apartment gaped open all the time like the Town Hall of that village. She walked with difficulty, gasping and choking, and when I entered her home she said she’d call down curses on me. I was not scared of curses. I had eaten so many pages of that poetry magazine and so many trucks had given me a lift from the hospital to the owls in the village. I learnt the 129 spices of the French cuisine and I made Mr. Savov’s bed every morning, leaving 12.5 centimeters of brocade visible from the floor.
I still don’t know why Mr. Savov sent his bodyguard to bring me back to his house. Surely not because I glued dozens of pages of “Wild Stories” all over the lumber room he had allowed me to move into. The letters on the pages reminded me of the kids I taught to read and write, of their parents who paid me tomatoes and hot peppers they plucked from their meager gardens. He did not bring me back to his house on account of the heap of second-hand jeans and T-shirts, which I had left behind.
The Turkish woman who said my eyes were great gave the clothes to me and asked me to recite “Visit Your Mother’s Place” for her.
She cried for her mother’s place, for the cherry trees covered with clouds of white blossoms, and her tears dripped onto my hand. She wanted to drink her tears from my hand, but I fled to the old lady and her cat.
The old lady stopped calling down curses on me. Once she gave me money to buy aspirin for her: she fought death with aspirin and hoped to win the game. I did not steal her money and when I came back from the pharmacy, instead of curses she gave me her full blessing. It could hardly bring me any good. Once she and I recited together Goethe’s “Ruhe” and she sobbed. It was not because she was hungry or lonely. She felt her shadow flit beyond the Housewife’s Market and no one but me would see death passing through the gaping front door of her apartment.
Mr. Savov’s men dragged me from the Turkish women’s garret, from the old lady’s shadow and the desperate songs of her cat. They brought me back to the lumber room where the walls told the wild stories. In fact, the walls were the kids I taught in the only classroom of my life. When Savov asked me why I wasted my time on these scumbags from the Housewife’s Market I lied to him I wanted to become a nun.
Savov is a silent man like you, but he doesn’t drink. He just sits in his armchair, intent, waiting, watching me set in order his spoons, his swords, his cigars. He threw out his fashion model for no apparent reason at all, maybe because the girl had set fire to my books in the lumber room. He didn’t have to prove to me he was a man of genius, I knew he wasn’t.
It was after his child was born–that is, after I gave birth to Savov’s son and the doctors said the baby was normal–that he stopped throwing me out of that lumber room. He forbade me to amble down to the Housewife’s Market. I went there all the same. I hoped the old lady and I could recite “Ruhe” once again, but her shadow had already vanished beyond the clouds and her apartment had a strong metal door. Her cat was nowhere in sight. The Turkish woman told me, “I’ll give my mother’s best golden coin. Please, stay with us.”
Savov’s son is a healthy lad and he proudly shows him off to his friends. I know all the spices of the French, the Bavarian and the Italian cuisine. I can make spaghetti with 21 different sauces. All brocade bedspreads in the mansion are exactly 12.5 centimeters from the floor.
Drink all your wine, please. Prepare yourself. That will make it easy on me. I hope my husband finds us. I don’t see any reason why he should keep me here any more. I have money – enough to buy the only classroom in that village.
He rose from the chair. She was a generous woman. She had left a bundle of banknotes for him in a saucer exactly 12.5 centimeters from her sapphire collection, just like the first time.
She looked at him and the glass of expensive wine in his hand shook.
“Nickolay sends you this,” he said. His words sounded sharp, like ancient swords in the golden air of her books. “That’s the money he owes you. He hired me to find you for him.” The banknotes in his hand looked humped. There was wolf’s howl in them. “Nickolay’s looked for you.”
The woman took a sip of her wine. Her hand as thin as the river that did not run dry in summer did not go for the money.
“He told me that after he sent you that magazine with his poems he could not write any more,” the man said.
1 Bulgarian Lev= 50 U.S. cents
“Wild Stories” is a short story collection by Nikolay Haitov, a classical Bulgarian writer.