Strikurnar by Dánial Hoydal, illustrated by Annika Øyrabo

Strikurnar by Dánial Hoydal, illustrated by Annika Øyrabo

Portrait of Halyna Petrosanyak

Dánial Hoydal (1976, Tórshavn) is a Faroese author and translator. He studied rethoric and computer science at university in Keypmannahavn and works as a communication and marketing consultant. In addition to children’s literature, he has written texts for the first Faroese opera, Óðamansgard, and lyrics to Ólavsøkukantatun. He has written a variety of stories and poems that have been published in books and periodicals.

Portrait of Halyna Petrosanyak

Annika Øyrabo is an illustrator specializing in paper-cut illustrations. She studied at the Danish Design School and the Hochschule Für Angewandte Wissenschaften in Hamburg, Germany.

“Mrs. Vogel Doesn’t Need a Visa” by Halyna Petrosanyak, translated from the Ukrainian by Jeff Kochan

“Mrs. Vogel Doesn’t Need a Visa” by Halyna Petrosanyak, translated from the Ukrainian by Jeff Kochan

I.

Kurt probably did have a point, Ernst thought, as his BMW lost speed on the poorly lit Polish roadway that led to the Ukrainian border. It hadn’t been worth it to come here by car. Not only was the road badly lit, its state of repair also left much to desire. Ernst’s car, pampered by the impeccable German autobahns, bounced and wobbled weirdly from time to time. By Ernst’s calculation, it was only fifteen kilometres to the border.

He was driving to Ukraine, led by a light. A woman’s name – Zoriana, meaning “star” – was that light. He had already exchanged letters with Zoriana for seven months, since March 1996, and had been cultivating serious intentions toward her. And here he was, travelling to see her at last, excited, chewing over the possibility of disappointment. Yet Zoriana’s letters were sensible and smart, and she sometimes responded to what he had written with irony and wit. No tense resistance could be found in her correspondence. Her German was quite decent. Ernst perceived in Zoriana the mother of his children. He thought about this with a warm thrill in his chest.

Of course, Ernst had never been to Ukraine. A year ago, he had not even realized that such a country exists. For him, just like for ninety-five percent of Germans, the immediate neighbour to the east of Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary was Russia. And even though the Soviet Union had collapsed five years earlier, the place it had claimed in the minds of West Europeans had now been taken up by Russia. Only through Zoriana had he learned, with astonishment, that there was a language called Ukrainian, spoken by thirty million people. She insisted that Ukrainian was not a dialect of Russian, that it was as far from Russian as Dutch was from German. Ernst had discovered an entire world about which, until then, he had not had the faintest idea.

He learned that many of the things around him that were taken for Russian, were actually Ukrainian: Cossacks in wide trousers, embroidered women’s clothing, soup made from red beets (he had forgotten the name), and even the world’s largest aircraft, Mriya, as well as Serhiy Bubka, whose athletic accomplishments Ernst had long followed.

For his acquaintance with Zoriana, Ernst was indebted to Oksana. Oksana was beautiful and energetic, she loved to dress elegantly, and she was a good mother to her three-year-old daughter. She was the wife of Joerg, a friend from Ernst’s school days. They had married four years earlier, about a year after Oksana had arrived in Heidelberg from Lviv, in order to work on her graduate research at the University Library. She had been awarded a scholarship for young researchers. Their daughter had already been born when Oksana travelled back to Lviv to defend her dissertation.

Joerg was happily married, and Ernst wanted the same for himself. Loneliness bore down on him, he had just turned forty-four, and he wanted children and the comfort of family life. Alongside that, the modest restaurant on the ground floor of their building, a family business, required more attention, and his mother, who had just turned seventy-five, no longer entered it. For Ernst, relationships with women had somehow never worked out. His last girlfriend, to whom he had proposed marriage two years earlier, turned him down, saying that they could date, but she did not want to marry because she had good career prospects in her company. In a year, she could head the department in which she now worked. Her boss would soon retire, and the company director had hinted that, if she did not get married, she could prepare to take his place.

So, once during a visit to Joerg and Oksana, Ernst jokingly asked Oksana if she perhaps had a good-looking and unmarried female friend in Ukraine, one who might know German. The question was, in fact, a serious one, even though Ernst had framed it with a pretend playfulness. Oksana responded with enthusiasm: she did have a friend, from her cohort at university. She was thirty, lived in a small town, and dreamed of a family, but there was no man in sight with whom she could make plans. Did Oksana have a photo? asked Ernst, trying as much as possible to appear neutral. There was a picture, Oksana found it in an album she had brought with her from Lviv. Dark-brown eyes, large and smiling, peered out at Ernst. The woman’s face radiated joy, and a faint trace of flirtatious provocation. This might be her, Ernst thought, feeling his heartbeat quicken. Maybe, if she likes…

Oksana noticed Ernst’s interest, and offered to send a photo of him to Zoriana. She said she would do this herself, he just needed to bring a picture. Two days later, everything had been arranged: Oksana had written to Zoriana that Ernst would like to meet, and that he had serious intentions. About two weeks later, when he had already begun to forget about it, Oksana called to say that Zoriana had sent a letter: she did not mind meeting. Oksana gave Ernst her friend’s address, saying that he could write to her himself.

That evening, Ernst sat down to write a letter. How to begin? Dear Zoriana? No, perhaps something more neutral: “Hello, Zoriana.” And then? But the letter finally emerged. It was natural and friendly, and also … very open. Ernst had an instinct for when honesty was appropriate. This was just such a case. The response came without delay. The correspondence continued, and after ten letters Ernst already knew that this woman had been sent to him by providence.

He lived in an old three-storey building, which belonged to his family, on the market square in a small town in central Germany. The building had been built by Ernst’s great-great-grandfather, and his grandfather had opened a restaurant on the ground floor. The regular patrons of the restaurant were locals, mostly Ernst’s neighbours. In recent years, the number of tourists had grown. Not long ago, the entire business had passed suddenly into Ernst’s hands, and it brought in a decent profit. On the second floor, above the restaurant, was his mother’s apartment, and on the third floor, his bachelor apartment. He dreamed that the light of his Zoriana would begin to shine within those walls.

Ernst smiled while imagining their meeting. He had a feeling that it would not be a disappointment, and his heart brimmed over with love and happiness. He would invite her to his home for Christmas, in order to acquaint her with his world, and he would do everything to satisfy her. They would take trips together, go to concerts in the evenings, and have dinner in Ernst’s favourite Thai restaurant. Perhaps they would even go to the Alps: in one letter Zoriana had confessed that she dreamed of them. And, through their correspondence, it had already become clear, too, that Zoriana was not without practical attributes: she had made several astute observations about the management of the restaurant. And now Ernst was on his way finally to see her, to get acquainted with her, and to learn about Ukraine.

His friend Kurt, the owner of a hair salon across the square, almost directly opposite Ernst’s restaurant, had suggested that Ernst travel by train or rent an old car. But Ernst had not followed his advice. There could be no question of going by train, since Ernst did not know a word of Ukrainian, and renting a car did not seem necessary since, after four years, he had grown quite used to his BMW.

Apart from that, it did seem to him that Kurt had had a point.

II.

A long line of vehicles perambulated toward the border, soon slowing to the point where a quarter of an hour was needed to advance just a few metres. Interruptions in the forward flow sometimes grew especially long, with the column not budging from place for as long as forty minutes. Both ahead and behind Ernst, people got out of cars and buses, smoked, chatted briefly, some looking over with interest at the outsider, but no one tried to make conversation. The darkness was cut only by the headlights, and it was chilly and damp. A drizzle of rain turned into snow. Finally, after two hours of driving at a snail’s pace, Ernst saw the flags, first the Polish, and then behind it, in the distance, the Ukrainian.

But getting to them was tortuously slow. Ernst’s thermos bottle was empty, and the sandwiches he had prepared for the road were finished. But more than hunger, he was fixed on the need to use a restroom, the vicinity of which was uncertain. So he had to meet necessity in simple fashion, by the side of the road. He was not the only one to do this. At close to ten o’clock in the evening, after a period of nearly three hours, during which he had managed to transit a kilometre of road, Ernst stepped out of his car at the building of the Polish passport control. After opening his passport, a Polish border guard with white gloves looked across at him, and then toward his car, with an interest that was more genuinely human than professional. He did not ask a thing, simply put a stamp in the passport and said something in Polish, smiling faintly. He probably had wished Ernst a pleasant journey.

In their last telephone conversation, Zoriana had said that she would come to meet Ernst at the border, together with her cousin, who owned a car. She said that finding the way to her town without help, a one-and-a-half-hour drive, was something their esteemed guest was not likely to manage. But there must be street signs! Ernst had exclaimed with astonishment. At this, Zoriana had only laughed. Now he saw that she was right. They had planned to meet at six o’clock, and it was already almost eleven. A man finally appeared behind the small window of the Ukrainian border post. There were no white gloves on his hands, and he looked inquisitive and unfriendly. Opening Ernst’s passport, he said a few words that Ernst, of course, could not understand. Having not received an answer, the border guard gave him a look that promised nothing positive and, perhaps, he repeated what he had said.

Ernst responded in English. “I don’t understand.”

“So, so?” the guard said with surprise.

Not waiting for a further response, Ernst repeated himself in German, just in case:

“Ich verstehe nicht.”

“Shit,” the guard softly blurted in something vaguely like German, and spat in disgust. Ernst was quite unsettled by this. “Wait here,” the guard grunted in Ukrainian, and went off somewhere.

Naturally, Ernst had not understood, but he remained standing, concluding that the border guard had gone for help. He looked around. The light was dim, and a sort of grey pallor, quite strange to him, lay over everything, stirring up a feeling of terrible despair. Two young men appeared from somewhere in back. They wore leather jackets and track pants with white stripes down the sides, and, openly examining his vehicle, spoke with one another, not looking at him the entire time, as if he were not there. They spat once in a while, and one even kicked the toe of his shoe repeatedly into the rubber of a rear wheel.

“Nice car, eh?” Ernst said in German, addressing them in as friendly a tone as possible, but he received no answer. The men in the track pants crushed cigarette butts under their feet, and ducked into one of the cars that stood further back. Just then, an official came out through the door of a building with Ernst’s passport in his hand. Another, older, official was with him. Seating himself in the passport control booth, the second one looked over at Ernst.

Speaking in Polish, he asked, “What is the purpose of your visit to Ukraine?”

“Sorry, I don’t understand,” Ernst said in English.

“Oh, bloody hell,” the official said in Ukrainian. “He doesn’t speak Polish, doesn’t speak Ukrainian. He’s talking something there, but what … who knows?”

“Well, it’s probably German. Can’t you see? He’s German. Tell Yurko to make a good sweep of his “beemer,” what he’s driving there, and then he can go to hell.”

One border guard remained seated in the booth, and the other one went off somewhere with Ernst’s passport, gesturing sideways at the foreigner in a way that was probably meant to encourage him to drive forward, to free up a space in front of the booth for other cars. After all, what more could they want with Ernst?

After five minutes, a customs officer appeared with a German police dog on a leash. He was a heavy-set man who considered Ernst with interest. Asking something, and receiving from Ernst the answer, “Sorry, I don’t understand,” he motioned for the car door to be opened. He said something to the dog, who quickly sniffed through every corner of the vehicle, and afterward stood calmly next to its master. The customs official indicated a bag that lay in the trunk. Ernst opened it, the customs official began to sort through its contents, and, removing one of four packages of coffee, said in Ukrainian:

“You are allowed to bring only 500 grams, and here you have a whole kilogram.”

Ernst did not understand, and so the official demonstrated what he had said with gestures.

“Alright,” Ernst said, since he wanted finally to be on his way.

The customs official confiscated half the coffee and left satisfied, while Ernst received his passport and sat down behind the wheel.

Zoriana had said that she and her cousin would wait for him one hundred metres from the border crossing. But there was no possibility to stop there, and he was forced to travel on in the current of traffic. Ernst came to a stop only when the opportunity arose, parking at the roadside, and he decided to return to the border on foot. He was hopeful that Zoriana and her cousin were still waiting for him, even though it was already past twelve. He stepped into the darkness and, having walked a hundred metres from his car, suddenly heard the sound of its alarm. Without a thought, he rushed back, and, on arriving there, saw a dark silhouette at the car door.

“Stop! Stop! I’ll call the police!” he yelled in German.

The silhouette abandoned the car, and, moments later, the roar of an engine could be heard from a few dozen metres further up. Luckily, Ernst’s car door opened without effort, and, in light cast from the car, he saw on the ground the pick-lock that had been used by the thief. Wrapping it in a napkin, he slipped it into a pocket and sat down behind the wheel. He felt that he should proceed with an undivided focus and deliberation, since the situation had become unusual. It would be impossible to find Zoriana and her cousin here, even if they were somewhere nearby. It was even darker on this side of the border, and the street signs were barely visible and written only in Cyrillic, which it took Ernst time to read. The person who had tried to break into his car might try it again, so it was not worth it to leave the car. He had Zoriana’s home telephone number, but to look for a pay phone just then would have been unwise. Assuming there was even a public telephone here… His pager had been silent, but only for the last little while. It seemed there was no network here, as Zoriana would have already sent him a message. Ernst started the engine, and set off into the night.

After several hundred metres, he saw a road sign, but he would have had to stop in order to read it. The name of Zoriana’s town, it seemed to him, had not been on it, so he decided to drive on to Lviv. Even if there were a shorter road from here to his destination, finding it would be impossible. It was a forty-minute drive from Lviv to Zoriana, but he could always also spend the night in the city. The clock showed half past twelve.

Wet snow fell. The road was even worse than in Poland. His car jolted over the potholes, and Ernst was afraid of damaging it. He drove slowly, and was passed even by Soviet-made “Moskvitch” vehicles. At some point, he noticed that a Volkswagen Passat had been trailing him for a while, even though it would have been able to pass him long ago. Out of caution, Ernst reduced his speed, but the Volkswagen doggedly remained behind him. So, he was being followed, tailed, presumably by the person who had tried to break into his car half an hour earlier. Ernst pressed down on the gas, passed two vehicles, and looked in the mirror. The Passat had also fallen behind.

Forty kilometres remained to Lviv. Ernst had no idea where to go from there, but he was determined to break free from his pursuer. He did not reduce his speed, and increased the distance between himself and the Passat. And then, at some point, Ernst saw a sign that showed the name of Zoriana’s town. The town was thirty kilometres away, and, without hesitating, he circled around, switching to the direction shown by the sign. This road was still more dark and narrow. Looking in the mirror, he did not see his “tail.” The pursuer had evidently lost the trail, having failed to notice where the coveted BMW “7 Series” had turned off at the junction.

Ernst would eventually learn that, here, his car cost as much as an apartment in the centre of Lviv, and that it was an object of delirium for those criminal elements with high ambitions. He was later told that the bosses of serious criminal groups travelled in “beemers.” Higher up in the hierarchy, there were perhaps six hundred Mercedes.

When, after entirely circling the town, an exhausted Ernst finally found the desired address, well known from the exchange of letters – 7 Silver Springs Street – the clock showed a quarter to three. The house lights were on. The door that faced the late-night visitor opened immediately once the doorbell had been pressed, and there appeared in its frame the astonished, brown-eyed, beautiful Zoriana. Her pretty eyes smiled. Standing behind her were her parents, her cousin, and a cat.

III.

Ernst was awakened by the smell of cooking meat and a quiet but intense bustling in the kitchen: frying pans sizzled, dishes occasionally clattered, and water burbled. For breakfast, there were cutlets with fried bread and omelettes, milk-rice kasha with raisins and honey, and crêpes with cottage cheese and jam. Ernst tried to explain that, for breakfast, he usually had sliced bread with cheese, washed down with milk coffee. They immediately brought him sliced bread and cheese and coffee, but they did not forget about the rest. His plate was continually replenished with cutlets, fried bread, crêpes. They discussed the previous night. It turned out that Zoriana and Pavlo – that was the name of her cousin – had waited for him at the border from six until twelve o’clock, and that meant while he had been passing through customs and later looked for them in the dark. The entire time, they had been somewhere close by.

Now, looking into Zoriana’s eyes, Ernst forgot all about the troubles of the previous night. Zoriana was just as he had imagined: she was as if from a dream. They communicated well, and they were never short of things to discuss. The next day was dry, and they decided to take a trip to Lviv. But they left Ernst’s car behind, so as to avoid unwanted attention, and instead took a train in which Ernst felt as if transported back in time. The effect of Lviv, by contrast, was of a different order. Ernst discovered a wondrous world. They ascended the gloomy Citadel, from which they had a beautiful view of the city centre. Ernst took hold of Zoriana’s hand.

“You’re not disappointed?” he asked.

“Quite the opposite,” she said, looking into his eyes and smiling, “I’m definitely charmed.”

“Me too,” he said, and, for the first time, he leaned in toward her lovely lips.

From this moment on, they were a couple, and there was no force by which they could have resisted this.

Ernst’s vacation lasted two weeks. He had prepared in advance, bringing with him an official police invitation for Zoriana, and they agreed that she straight away submit an application to the German embassy for a guest visa. Here was the plan: Zoriana receives a visa for one month, Ernst introduces her to his mother and friends, and they celebrate Christmas together. He shows her his surroundings, and if she likes them, she becomes the queen of his world. They would make a home for themselves in Germany. Zoriana liked the plan, and she set about preparing the necessary documents.

The plan was not immediately fulfilled. Zoriana worked at one of the three schools in her town, and her salary was adequate. The embassy would need a certificate from her workplace that confirmed her salary. A small income heightened the risk of suspicion at the German embassy that the applicant did not intend to return home. Similar grounds for suspicion were family status – an unmarried Ukrainian woman. But nothing could be done about this.

The school principal’s suspicion was piqued by Zoriana’s request for a work certificate, and when the principal discovered that her teacher was, more generally, preparing an application for the German embassy, she became upset. Zoriana knew that for her work colleagues, ninety percent of whom were women, the fact that she was collecting documents for a visa would cause a sensation the next day. Finally, after three intense days of rushing around, through which she was accompanied by Ernst, who was astounded by the bureaucratic maze, everything was ready. Having gathered together papers translated and certified by a notary, Ernst and Zoriana sat in the train to Kyiv on Wednesday evening. He did not understand why it had not been possible to mail the documents into the embassy. In order to get a visa for the West, why did one have to endure a 500 kilometre passage to the East?

But the real test awaited them at the embassy. When, at close to eight o’clock in the morning, they finally found themselves near the building, they saw a colossal line, in which they had to stand for three hours. They were among the last to be allowed in that day, with the many people further back having stood in vain. Finally, just before noon, they left the embassy with a slip that gave them the right, after three days, to retrieve the passport with a visa. Or with a refusal. Travelling another 500 kilometres in three days? thought Ernst. Maybe they could ask a friend in Kyiv to pick up the passport? But Zoriana had no friends in the city. Waiting for three days in Kyiv? Also not the best option. So, they wandered around the city, and then boarded the train that evening, arriving in Lviv the next morning.

On Monday of the following week, the couple once again prepared themselves for the road. Return tickets for a sleeping berth cost almost as much as Zoriana’s monthly salary. The trip took the entire night. Travelling with them in the compartment was a tight-lipped middle-aged man in a necktie, and carrying a black briefcase. Throughout the evening, the man watched his neighbours attentively, but said not a word to them.

When, after lunch, they finally retrieved the passport at the embassy, and opened it, instead of a visa they found a stamp of refusal. When they asked for an explanation, the official at the window responded dryly, saying that the consul makes decisions on the basis of the documents submitted by the applicant. The visa section reserves the right not to disclose the reason for a refusal, but if they did not agree with the decision, they had the right, within a week, to submit an application, and then…

Zoriana was distraught, Ernst seething with anger. He asked when they could speak to the consul, and he was given a time – the consul reserved the last workday of each month for citizens. But December had just begun. It should be understood that an inquiry will bring nothing. They walked out into the street and Ernst said:

“Don’t worry, darling. I won’t let them ruin our plans for Christmas. We’ll think of something.”

On the return journey, Ernst quizzed Zoriana: where does one get a passport for international travel, and how long does it take? what happens when a passport has been lost or damaged? and similar things. Zoriana responded, saying that cases where an embassy refuses a visa application from a single, unmarried woman were common. Once they were at home, Ernst asked Zoriana to give him the passport, and he covered a table with old newspapers. Onto the papers, he laid down the passport, opening it to the page with the refusal stamp. Taking an ink bottle from the writing desk, he poured some of its contents over the stamp.

“What are you doing?” Zoriana asked with a burst of laughter.

“I like your reaction,” he said. “Don’t worry, sweetheart, we’ll get you a nice, new passport.”

“But, darling, I’ll still have to go back to them for a visa, and they already have a record of my application in their database, not to mention that they also rejected it.”

“Don’t worry, Zori, we’ll manage without them. Tomorrow we’ll request that a new passport be issued. How long will that take?”

“At least one week, and it’s really expensive.

“It doesn’t matter how much it costs. The only problem is that I’ll be back home in five days. But that’s not such a big deal. We still have three weeks until Christmas. We have enough time.”

IV.

The next day, after standing in line for a long time at the migration authority’s passport office, they submitted a request for a new passport, paying a modest penalty for the old, damaged passport that they had included with the application. The couple spent the next four days travelling, as well as visiting with Zoriana’s relatives. On two evenings, they dined by candle light, though not entirely of their own free will. In Ukraine, there were breaks in the power supply. In order to conserve electricity, the supply was simply interrupted, according to a schedule. But these peculiarities cast no shadow at all on Ernst’s happiness. And Zoriana’s family were also delighted with their future son-in-law. The fourteen-year age difference between the betrothed no longer struck Zoriana’s mother as an obstacle.

One evening, Zoriana and Ernst attended a concert by the Lviv philharmonic. The ticket price for the concert was, Ernst declared, absurdly low, and when Zoriana explained that the salary of the musicians barely reached forty dollars a month, he thought he must have heard her wrong. The performance was of a professional calibre, and, on top of that, Ernst discovered Ukrainian composers, being especially moved by Vasyl Barvinskyi.

On the eve of Ernst’s departure, the family decided that their guest’s car would be escorted to the border by Pavlo and his friends. Zoriana’s mother supplied Ernst with a package of road food that suggested her future son-in-law’s trip home could last at least a week. And then they said goodbye. For the first time, Zoriana sat in the car next to Ernst, and he thought with pleasure that her presence would soon become the most important daily attribute of his life.

Zoriana and Pavlo decided to remain at the border until Ernst had crossed it. The line was once again long, and the wait took almost three hours, but they were together.

“I’ll call you as soon as I’ve arrived home,” Ernst said, hugging her as they parted.

And he called the next morning.

A week later, Zoriana received her new passport.

“Terrific!” said Ernst into the telephone. “What do you need to be able to travel to Poland?”

“I’d have to buy a tourist voucher, it’s not expensive. With one of those, I think you can stay for up to a month.”

“Perfect. Get one of those vouchers and, on Friday in a week, use it to travel to the city of Zgorzelec. It’s on the border between Poland and Germany. Its German part is called…”

“Görlitz,” said Zoriana.

“That’s it, sweetheart. You’re very knowledgeable.”

“I’ve been diligently studying the geography and history of your country.”

“I love your diligence.”

“And I … you.”

“Also terrific. You’ll arrive at the station in Zgorzelec. I checked the time table of the Polish railway, there’s a night train from Przemyśl that arrives there. Bring enough things with you for a month…”

“What do you have in mind?”

“Trust me. You know I’m an adventurer, but an honest and sensible one.”

Zoriana laughed and decided to trust her honest and sensible adventurer.

 V.

 Zoriana felt excited as she prepared for the road. Until then, she had crossed the western border just once, and that had only been on a trip to Kraków. Like most pupils of the Soviet schools, she was wary of the border, having a persistent, deeply ingrained feeling that what lies beyond the frontier is hostile. For “homo sovieticus,” this feeling could not be entirely overcome. On the border, in one way or another, you find out who you really are. So, crossing the border is like a litmus test, it reveals your degree of intrinsic freedom. Yet, on the official scale of values used by Soviet people, the grade for “personal freedom” was below zero.

That was roughly how Zoriana felt when she opened her bag in front of the imperious Polish customs officer, with his white gloves. When asked by the border guard about the reason for her visit to Poland, she tried to answer with as much confidence as possible, saying, in Polish, “visiting friends.” No one ever believed such an answer. Ninety-five percent of Ukrainians who travelled to Poland were “shuttles,” a name given to small-scale traders in whisky, cigarettes, and other modestly sized items. The customs official was surprised to discover that there was nothing typical for a “shuttle” in Zoriana’s bag, and he even asked her if this was really all of her baggage.

Just in case the immigration authorities had wished to inquire more concretely about the friends she was intending to visit, Zoriana was prepared to name her father’s relatives, who lived in Kraków. Before Zoriana’s departure, her father had called them and asked that they, if need be, confirm that they were expecting Zoriana as a guest, and guarantee her accommodation for the length of her stay in Poland. But, luckily, she was not asked any questions about this.

The bus was crammed full with the wares of “shuttles,” a portion of which was confiscated by Polish customs officials, who shut their eyes to the fact that thirty-five to forty of the bus passengers were suspiciously stout, dressed in broad coats and long skirts. The officials already knew that, under those coats and skirts, cartons of cigarettes and bottles of whisky had been tied to bodies. But if one of them had tried to frisk the improbably wide bodies of one of these women, an extraordinary fuss would have erupted. So, as was usual, everything had been arranged such that the wolf was satisfied and the sheep left intact.

After customs control, which had eaten up two hours, Zoriana’s bus arrived in Przemyśl, well behind schedule, and it was only through some miracle that she made her train to Zgorzelec. She was full of disparate feelings: uncertainty and fear of the unknown, alternating with excitement, and then joyful euphoria – tomorrow morning, she will see him again! Ernst was the kind of man with whom Zoriana would gladly go anywhere in the world, it made no difference, to the east, to the west, the north, or south. She would have preferred that such a man had been born in her own country, and spoken her own language. But things had turned out differently.

In Zgorzelec, German border police entered the train. Zoriana’s heart almost sprang from her chest. But, because she was getting off on the Polish side of the city, they left her alone, not checking her documents. Stepping down from the train, she saw Ernst’s solitary silhouette. His calm embrace revived her optimism and composure.

“Let’s go, darling,” Ernst said. “I’m not here alone. My friends Otto, Doris, and Kurt are with me. They’re waiting for us in a cafe nearby. Let’s go drink a coffee, and get warm.”

“Friends? What do you have in mind, Ernst?”

“You’ll soon find out, sweetheart.”

The train station was on a hill, and they had to descend to the river to reach the city centre. The river, the Nysa, divided the city into two, and one of its bridges served as the border crossing. On the opposite bank lay the miraculously preserved old city of Görlitz. Here, Germany began.

It was cold, with snow lightly dusting the rooftops of the houses, and smoke billowing from the chimneys. After fifteen minutes, they were down at the river. Zoriana admired the Gothic dome on the opposite bank, near the ancient bridge.

“That’s the Cathedral of Peter and Paul. We can take a look at it today, if you like,” Ernst said.

“I don’t have a visa, and the church is on the German side, isn’t it?”

“It’s on the German side, but Mrs. Vogel doesn’t need a visa,” he said with a laugh.

“Who is Mrs. Vogel?,” asked a bewildered Zoriana. In German, the name Vogel meant bird. “What sort of bird?”

“You’re about to find out,” Ernst replied enigmatically.

They entered the cafe, and were met by a cheerful group, who rose from a table.

“Let me introduce you, Zoriana. This is Otto, my friend from school.

Otto, a slim man with pleasant features and a prominent bald spot, affably gave Zoriana his hand.

“Doris, Otto’s wife, she’s a designer.”

“So nice to meet you.” Zoriana gave her hand to the smiling, red-haired Doris.

“And this is Kurt Vogel, my neighbour, and the owner of a hair salon across from our restaurant.”

“Kurt’s wife is named Beatrice. She’s not here, but this name will be of use to you, darling. Remember: Beatrice Vogel.”

They all had a good laugh, but Zoriana did not understand why.

Ernst ordered them coffee and some toast.

When they had finished lunch, the friends rose from the table. Ernst paid for everyone, and they went out to the square, where their three cars were parked. Otto and Doris got into theirs, Kurt opened the door of his Opel, and Ernst invited Zoriana to take a seat in Kurt’s car. Ernst’s BMW stood next to it.

Together with the general merriment, Zoriana felt a certain unease.

“Zori,” Ernst said, looking into her eyes. “Don’t be worried.”

He brought out a small bag from the rear seat of the car, and opened it.

“We’ll now drive to the border point on the bridge, the German-Polish border. During these few minutes, you’ll need to be Beatrice Vogel. Here’s your passport. You’re Beatrice Vogel, the wife of Kurt Vogel. If they ask you anything, stay silent. Kurt, your ‘husband,’ will speak for you. Here’s a wig. Kurt made a copy of his wife’s hair in his salon, just like in the passport photograph. Put it on!”

Still feeling off balance from what she had heard, Zoriana put on the wig.

She was frightened, but it flashed through her head that this was the one possibility to save her love and future from a dependency on the German embassy.

With his right hand, Kurt adjusted the wig on Zoriana’s head and, taking out a makeup case, put some powder on her cheeks, and brushed shade onto her eyelids.

“All done,” he said. “Overall, it’s even pretty close. Beatrice’s eyes are a bit lighter, but that’s minor. The face is a little more oval. But, yeah, let’s just say that this has improved her a bit,” he said, laughing.

“Zoriana, Otto and Doris will go first, you and Kurt will go after them, and I’ll take up the rear. The border guard will collect our passports. Kurt will hand over his passport, as well as the passport of his wife, Beatrice. I doubt three vehicles with German plates and German passports will attract any extra attention from the border police. They’re just checking. So you don’t have any reason to be upset. You don’t have to do anything, don’t have to say anything. If things head toward a confrontation, just keep quiet, you can pretend that you have a toothache. Kurt will do the talking. Okay, sweetheart?”

“Okay,” Zoriana said, as cheerfully as she could.

Otto and Doris set off, and Ernst got into his car. Kurt started his engine.

About one hundred metres separated them from the border crossing on the bridge. There were only two cars ahead of their motorcade. The border guard greeted them, took their passports, and peered briefly into the interior of each car, amicably remarking that the noble gentlemen were, presumably, on their way back home. “Beatrice Vogel” moved not an eyebrow.

Her self-control astonished even Kurt.

After three minutes, the border guard returned their passports. They drove on.

And after another three minutes, the procession came to a halt in the parking lot of the German Görlitz.

An occasion like this should be celebrated

Portrait of Halyna Petrosanyak

Halyna Petrosanyak (1969, Ukraine), poet, essayist, fiction writer, and translator, grew up in the Ukrainian Carpathian mountains, and now lives in Switzerland. A poem from her 1996 debut collection won Ukraine’s Bu-Ba-Bu prize for the year’s best poem. She has since been awarded the 2007 Hubert Burda Literary Prize for East European Poetry (Austria), and the 2010 Ivan Franko Prize for Literature (Ukraine), and she has held residencies at KulturKontakt (Vienna, 2001), Villa Waldberta (Munich, 2011), the City of Graz (2013), and the Lyrikatelier Biel (2022). In addition to numerous essays and translations, Petrosanyak is the author of four poetry collections, one novel—Villa Anemona (Vydavnytsvo 21, 2021), and a collection of short stories, Don’t Keep Me from Saving the World (Dyskursus, 2019).

Portrait of Jeff Kochan

Jeff Kochan is a Canadian-Swiss writer, translator, and academic from Alberta, now living in Switzerland. His poetry, fiction, literary nonfiction, and translations have appeared in several Canadian literary journals, and his scholarly writings can be found in diverse international academic journals. He has translated into English the Bernese Swiss German poetry and the German postcard stories of, respectively, the Swiss writers Kurt Marti and Franz Hohler. He is currently translating into English portions of Ukrainian historian Zhana Kovba’s 2009 book, Compassion in the Depths of Hell: Conduct of the Local Population in Eastern Galicia during the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” (Kyiv: Dukh i Litera).

“Stitches” by Eva Moreda, translated from the Galician by Lindsay Semel

“Stitches” by Eva Moreda, translated from the Galician by Lindsay Semel

We were all watching Sister Elvira Lecumberri on tiptoe from the window as she climbed up the steep path that led from Agromos, the village, to Polar, the school. Sister Elvira Lecumberri, we called her, even though the last time we’d seen her she already hadn’t been a sister anymore; she’d left the order, left Polar, to marry. Yet there she was, climbing with that gait that we’d always admired, more dainty than we ourselves were ever likely to manage—time would tell—even though she was a very, very tall woman.

It was already getting dark, but we didn’t feel like going upstairs. Sister Elvira Lecumberri had been absent from us for two years but, as we now observed from the window, there wouldn’t be a third. In the darkness, squinting our eyes, we could tell that she was wearing a hat—the kind that ladies wore, our older sisters, for example—but we couldn’t tell if she had her habit on underneath, even though some of us were so anxious to see that we stuck half our bodies out the window. We were still young and could do things like that. That was the sort of thing we did at Polar.

The other day, Sister Mártara Junior read us the schedule. Third period, sewing, she said.

Sewing? we asked. Sewing was what Sister Elvira Lecumberri taught when she was still a nun.

She answered: That’s what I said. Or are you girls going deaf? And so we copied it down by hand, even though our pencils were trembling: Sewing.

Sister Elvira Lecumberri would put us in pairs—never the same ones. We took each other’s measurements and cut the cloth right against our bodies. These were not pieces that we could wear in Polar—we could only wear the uniform: the smock or nothing—nor at home, but we hung them in our closets and kept them there like treasures. We were at that age, after all.

Two years earlier, on the last day of the course, Sister Elvira Lecumberri walked into the classroom and announced in front of everyone that she was leaving the order to get married. We almost thought she would take off her habit right there the way she was going, but she didn’t. All the better, we quickly realized, because only an immature mind would desire such a thing.

Since then, we girls had started to better understand whom Elvira Lecumberri had married. He was the editor of a journal. A journal that some of us knew from our houses because our older brothers had begun to bring it home—the ones who were studying to be things like notaries, businessmen, or pilots, and wrote poems in their leisure time. When they did, our fathers scoffed and said: Let’s see what filth you’ve brought us now. You kids just love to be provocative, don’t you (our mothers didn’t say anything, because they were doing something else). But, when they got bored, the fathers would pick up the journal themselves and read it. Then they’d say: I’ll tell you what, there just might be something to this FA-SCI-SM. They said it like that. Some of us knew very well that the fathers weren’t as dumb as they looked, but they pronounced it that way to make us see that something of these modernities they’d already taken up.

For us, on the other hand, FA-SCI-SM caught us too young and too uninterested in what the world of the not-too-distant future, our brothers’ world, would hold for us. The gentleman became a household name for some of us, though—a man who started as a poet and became the editor of a journal. If this was possible, anything was possible, we maintained—or would be soon enough. (Some of us thought that even a girl could become the editor of a journal; others said that was impossible.) When we returned home for Christmas, some of us began to read that journal when our brothers or fathers happened to buy it. We read it only to see if Sister Elvira Lecumberri’s name would appear (now just Elvira Lecumberri), and occasionally it did: twice, and both for her charity work. Which we also did, us and the mothers. We were disappointed by the similarity, but we counselled ourselves: Once you go out into the world, you’ll have to do a bit of everything. We also reminded ourselves that girls who did charity work would never be told to measure and cut their clothes against their own bodies.

We heard about fascism the same way we heard about so many other things: vaccines, catastrophes, factories—matters for our fathers and brothers, those of us who had them. It didn’t escape us, though, how plump and handsome some of our fathers made themselves for their discussions about fascism, as if they were living their second youths; they brushed their hair back, shaved closely, and bought new suits. One or two younger men kept watch in the streets and, if we went with them, other women eyed us jealously. The world is going to change, our brothers would say by way of explanation, but our older brothers said so many things that we didn’t pay much attention.

We brought some of what we’d gleaned back with us to Polar after Christmas break, but so well disguised that it barely amounted to anything. The nuns didn’t want to hear a peep about fascism. Once, years before, the school was almost shut down because of fascism, and since then they were much more careful. An inspector had come. She was quite arrogant, well buttoned up into a dark coat with a belt at the waist. Back then, we were still young and we gathered behind half-open doors to watch her pass by, watch how she spoke first with Sister Dolor, then with Sister Mártara Junior, then even with the less powerful nuns: Sister Mártara Senior, Sister O’Malley, Sister Chinta, Sister Radegunda.

When she went to speak with the latter, Sister Dolor and Sister Mártara Junior’s eyes bugged out in horror. Sister Radegunda, even though she was paralyzed from the waist down and spent nearly all her time in her room, had studied in Hildesheim as a novice and liked everything with a whiff of Germany: magazines, old languages, old music. The inspector went to Sister Radegunda’s room and asked to see the magazines. She saw them and didn’t respond in any significant way, but Sister Dolor and Sister Mártara Junior got nervous and said: Nothing like this will ever enter Polar again. At least not if we can help it. We, innocent nuns that we are, can only control what we see; everything else is in the hands of God.

Therefore, it wasn’t fascism that was banned per se, because we couldn’t call it by its name inside of Polar, but a lot of things that came from the outside. Some things and not others; there was no hard rule, a detail that showed, for once, some prudence and intelligence on the part of the nuns. And so when Sister Elvira Lecumberri happened, the nuns didn’t comment one way or the other. Just once did we extract a remark from Sister Mártara Senior, back when she was still teaching our sewing classes. She said: This sort of thing happens in all the convents. What do you expect; she’s at that age, that Elvira Lecumberri.

In the first sewing class of the new course, we did everything we could to call Sister Elvira Lecumberri by her name so she would help us with this or that. Each time we deliberately called her Sister Elvira Lecumberri. We’d already observed that she was wearing her habit again, but. Sister Elvira Lecumberri this, Sister Elvira Lecumberri that; help me with this stitch, please, Sister Elvira Lecumberri. She did everything we asked—not with a smile, but she hadn’t smiled much before either (in Polar, only the older nuns smiled). We could only conclude that she was a nun once again, and that is how we came to know someone in the flesh for the first time who had been married and now wasn’t.

When we went down to Agromos on Sundays after mass, we bought that journal (when they had it) to see if we could find out anything else about the man with whom Sister Elvira Lecumberri had been married; we wanted to know who he was, how he was, if Sister Elvira Lecumberri had also cut his clothes against his body like she had us do. In the journal, we never found anything about him besides his name printed on the masthead—which wasn’t helpful, but it was enough for us to understand that the gentleman did, in fact, exist.

Soon San Martiño arrived and, with it, the first and last time that a pig was slaughtered at Polar. Sister Dolor had ordered Sister O’Malley to raise a pig outside the kitchen and Sister O’Malley, who was mute and Irish, raised him well and we were fond of him, but then on the day of the slaughter, since Sister O’Malley was inexperienced, all the meat was lost and Sister Dolor exclaimed: Never again, I swear.

By San Martiño, we’d already grown tired of buying the journal, but we still wanted to know more about everything: about the gentleman, about the married life he’d had with Sister Elvira Lecumberri, about why Sister Elvira Lecumberri had left us and then returned. (Deep down, we wanted to believe that Sister Elvira Lecumberri had returned for us, because, like us, she’d missed our sewing classes).

During the first weeks of the course, we studied Sister Elvira Lecumberri in the dining hall. Sister Elvira Lecumberri was serious and pale (before she’d had a caramel tone; she’d lost her color—during her marriage, before, or after, we’ll never know—and she never got it back). She wasn’t quiet. At the table she spoke plenty and the other nuns spoke back. About what, we didn’t know; what the nuns talked about between themselves was always a mystery to us, but we had the impression that Sister Mártara Junior spoke to Sister Elvira Lecumberri with an air of condescension, the same way she spoke to us when we got back from bathing in the swimming hole on Saturdays: What on earth were you thinking, going to the swimming hole alone without your bloomers?

We spied on Sister Elvira Lecumberri away from the table too. We took notes about what she did: that she walked down to Agromos alone, that she came back at unusual hours (though to be fair, we didn’t know how she behaved before, so). We took notes, but we learned very little for all our hard work. The idea began to congeal among us that something more needed to be done; we would need to make more of an effort if we wanted to find out anything worthwhile about Sister Elvira Lecumberri. If we were to get close to her, one of us would have to undertake the mission alone. Since the day we entered Polar, we had always done everything together, but we were beginning to understand that some things were better done separately.

After thinking it through, we chose a girl who we’ll call Imogen. Imogen wasn’t her real name—you needn’t know what it was, but it was similar—and Imogen’s mission was the following: fish the information that we wanted from the very mouth, the very body, of Sister Elvira Lecumberri.

(What did Imogen look like? Believe us when we say that we barely remember; what we remember, of course, are the important things.)

So we sent Imogen on the mission; we were already nearing the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the weather had turned quite cold. The nuns hadn’t let us swim in the river at the foot of the mountain for some time already. We told Imogen that she had to affix herself, endear herself to Sister Elvira Lecumberri, just like a niece or a younger sister. And so she did. From the Feast until the solstice, almost nothing happened. We watched Imogen getting closer to Sister Elvira Lecumberri, especially in the dining hall; she seemed to be doing everything that we’d told her to, but our hopes still weren’t very high. One has to give these things time, Imogen repeatedly reminded us in the dormitory at night, especially when we exposed more of our impatience than we should have.

Then Christmas break arrived, which was somewhat of a pity but no more than usual; we’d barely settled into Polar after the summer and we had to leave it behind again. We always left at Christmas and Holy Week, or almost always—not when our parents happened to go to Rome or Florence for Easter Sunday and left us to stay at school. That year, though, not one of us stayed behind at Polar. At home, alone as usual, we would think: What is she doing right now? It bothered us inside, in silence, that question.

The day we returned to Polar, four of us swore that we’d seen Sister Elvira Lecumberri during the holidays (one in A Coruña, two in Vigo, one in Betanzos). During those sightings, Sister Elvira Lecumberri always wore pants and never had her habit on. Even before finishing our first breakfast, we’d already concluded that none of that meant anything: mere coincidences, hallucinations that attacked us when we were alone. So we returned to the task at hand. With our bones still sore from the bus journey and the second term ahead of us, we looked to Imogen. While all of us girls at the table awaited her insights, Imogen only watched, half-smiling. What is it? We asked her. What? But don’t you realize that you can’t smile in front of the nuns? You shouldn’t smile; this we had all known since the day we stepped through the gate.

She said: But I’m not like you. I’m on a mission, or have you already forgotten? We turned our heads and saw Sister Elvira Lecumberri at the nun’s table, lifting a biscuit delicately to her lips. We sighed all at once, but we were always very sensitive anyway, returning to Polar after a holiday. Then the bell rang and we went to class. In terms of learning, it’s true that we didn’t learn much at Polar, but it would only occur to an outsider that we were there to learn; we were at Polar to be with each other.

At breakfast a few days later, we were surprised to see Imogen getting especially close to Sister Elvira Lecumberri in the dining hall, and then again the next day and the day after. You’d better watch yourself, we said to Imogen later in the dormitory while she sat Indian style on the bed brushing her hair. Look, we weren’t going to mention anything, but wasn’t the goal of your little mission to report back to us? When you sit with Sister Elvira Lecumberri in mass, when she asks you to organize the needle boxes, what does she say to you? She must say something. She must tell you something.

Something, concedes Imogen elusively. But these things take time. We were forced to admit that she was right.

She strung us along for weeks (she was clever that way, the pig). Then she started to tell us things, always a bit at a time. Look, she said to us in the dorm, putting on her know-it-all voice. Look, the two of them already knew each other from before, through Sister Elvira Lecumberri’s brother, who’s a poet and columnist (just like ours, we thought admiringly). Or did you think that the editor of a journal, a journal like that, no less, would come here to cozy up to nun?

A journal like what? the rest of us insisted earnestly. Deep down, the curiosity was consuming us; we, like Sister Elvira Lecumberri, had brothers, and some of them were poets and columnists, but how were any of them going to introduce us to their friends if we were always here at Polar? At home, we saw some of them in passing, but we usually hid because we weren’t presentable.

A journal like that, says Imogen. That one that you buy at Eliseo’s store in Agromos—or did you think that the nuns don’t see you? Of course they see you, and what’s more, when they see you, they want to follow you, but they control themselves. Listen to what I’m telling you: the whole country wants to move backwards, and it will. And when it does, the country won’t turn around again like Sister Elvira Lecumberri did.

Imogen’s words made the flesh inside our blouses tremble, because we knew that these sorts of things weren’t to be said, not inside Polar and not outside. Some of us even mustered the courage to respond, in voices a bit louder than necessary: Imogen, you’d better spit that filth right out of your mouth. We know that your grandfather kept pigs in the yard and killed them with his own hands; people like him, sure, they believe in all the things that this journal wants to bring to the country without shame, without thinking. We have more common sense. Imogen stretched out her legs on the bed and smiled again. That pig, we thought.

What bothered us most, though, was when we realized that Imogen had stopped reporting anything new; it became more apparent as heat began to linger in the air and the days began to grow longer—finer clothes, more hours of light to think and to notice things. Contemplating Imogen—her sleeves rolled up higher than before, her cheeks shining—many of us began to see her as separate from us.

Search and you will find, as it goes, and needless to say, what we found unnerved us; we marched like bullets to the chapel to kneel in prayer. Back then we still thought that certain things were incompatible; prayer we instinctively associated with the known, so it followed that prayer could dispel the unknown. We still understood everything in pairs.

The nuns didn’t mention anything, but they were suspicious. So much praying, they said when they saw us marching about the chapel at three in the afternoon, at eleven in the morning on a Saturday, after dinner. So much praying. Could it be because they don’t want to study? They need to study, because they’ll have to do something with their lives when tomorrow comes. The latter, which the nuns said casually, startled and confused us; we’d always known that words like past, present, and future didn’t make sense in Polar, but the nuns, who’d been there longer than us, used them anyway. What we wanted to do when tomorrow came, we had no idea, but we knew what we didn’t want to do: be nuns.

Trusting Imogen less and less, we began to observe Sister Elvira Lecumberri ourselves. We felt unsettled, because it had never occurred to us to distrust one of our own. At the beginning, it was hard for us to interpret what we were seeing. We spied on them rearranging the flower pots through the window overlooking the patio and, reading their lips, we found that it was Imogen rather than the nun who said: This goes here, Sister Elvira, and that goes there. Don’t you see? And Sister Elvira Lecumberri said yes and did as she was told. Then she rearranged the flowers as she’d had them before and then again how Imogen instructed. Imogen stuck too close to her; Sister Elvira joked, at first, that she wanted to escape (which surprised us), but then she would let the matter drop.

What do you have for us today, we pressed Imogen too eagerly at night. We still wanted her to tell us in her own words. She just brushed her hair parsimoniously, not nearly as bothered as we were, and shrugged her shoulders apathetically. This made some of us grip our own brushes with an angry fist, as if we wanted to strike Imogen in the rear with them. Others put a hand on her shoulder from behind as if to say: We were just hoping to hear your side of the story, we promise we’ll believe you.

Imogen hemmed and hawed, but she always ended up speaking, and she always had plenty to say. We asked her: What have you discovered about that man? She sighed and said: Lots of things. Do you know what? Sister Elvira Lecumberri, as much as she washes and scrubs, can’t rid herself of the smell of that man, neither inside nor outside. It’ll always be with her. It’s the same for our mothers and it’ll be the same for us.

Almost without thinking we answered: Spit that filth right out of your mouth, Imogen. (We did want to know more about those things, because we were at that age, but they also repelled us.) Spit that filth out of your mouth and tell us about what really matters: how did they meet, what did Sister Elvira Lecumberri see in him, an all that?

 

That’s what really matters, she said. It matters because the smell of that man—and now also of Sister Elvira Lecumberri—is the smell of their substance. Now the two of them think and smell the same, and that’s how we’re all going to end up thinking and smelling; it’s the law of nature.

At the time, cornered, we answered: Psh, Imogen. Psh. Forget about the mission right now; it’s not necessary anymore. Forget about Sister Elvira Lecumberri. We have to forget about her too; we’re not the same girls we were four or five months ago. Forget it. Deep down, the thought of forgetting about her just like that stabbed at us, because we were girls and curious, but it was more important to make Imogen forget so that she wouldn’t take us with her down this path. Imogen rejoined: How am I supposed to forget now that I’ve discovered the most important part. You’ll discover it too; you already have, really, but you’re pretending that you don’t understand. I’ll tell you something: that’s no way to spend your life.

That night, each in her own bed, we thought about what had happened during the previous months and we all arrived at a similar conclusion: that Imogen had embraced the teachings of that man she didn’t even know, because she was a simple girl who believed things as they were presented to her. The rest of us girls and Sister Elvira Lecumberri were clearly more mature, and that’s why we fearfully shut our eyes against everything bigger than us, and having closed them, we were in danger of getting swept along with everyone else. The other nuns didn’t count; they were very obtuse. The other conclusion we drew was that something had to be done. Now we were all a little bit closer to Sister Elvira Lecumberri, because Imogen, even as simple as she was, had strung us along here and there about the school however she wanted. Being so close to that nun gave us some consolation, perhaps all that we had during those years in Polar.

Spring had sprung by then, somewhat earlier than normal. In the first days of March, we were already altered, agitated by that whisper in the air around Imogen: Giovinezza. Giovinezza. Primavera. Di Bellezza. We tried to deafen ourselves internally, but we couldn’t; there were some things that we weren’t ready to learn yet. Spring also brought the usual excitements: finally going to bathe in the swimming hole, for example, to relieve the heat we’d accumulated all winter. Imogen came with us to bathe, and in those hours we almost believed once again that she was one of us, especially when we observed her flesh—the same as ours, we repeated to ourselves while we cooked in the water. Even on those very first hot days, the water was too warm and did little to alleviate our fevers. When she finished swimming, she got out of the pool naked, dried herself clutching the towel very tightly to her body, and smiled. That was the end of the illusion that she was one of us; at Polar, we all made ourselves serious—it was our lot to endure. Even when she wasn’t smiling or laughing, there was a happiness in Imogen that was not in us; it wasn’t the happiness of the girls of Polar.

Some days, sure, we managed to go on with our lives. We were horrified to think about what it was that we’d have to do. We couldn’t continue this way, but to do something also seemed impossible. Maybe we’d have been able to go on like that for many years, even until we had to leave Polar, if it weren’t for something that happened a few days later when we saw Imogen leave Sister Elvira Lecumberri’s sewing classroom.

It was like seeing her climb out of the swimming hole once again. Soon, Sister Elvira Lecumberri appeared behind her. This time she wasn’t pale but positively aflame. What’s more, it looked to us as though Sister Elvira Lecumberri was blushing because Imogen had just gotten something from her that she’d wanted very much—the thing she’d wanted most in the world—though we didn’t know what it was. We had to look away; we’d never seen anyone blush like that. Meanwhile, that filthy Imogen had the nerve to laugh. Climbing the steps to the dormitory, she looked at us, looked at Sister Elvira Lecumberri, and fell into stitches.

Another day, Sister Elvira Lecumberri was showing us a stitch and getting a bit irritated when it didn’t come out well. We couldn’t get it right, because we were thinking to ourselves that now we’d really have to do something. Whatever shall we do, we thought. The only answer that occurred to us was to continue as always, go bathe in the swimming hole and allow what would be to be.

The nuns must have noticed something. Look, they’re more sullen than normal, more withdrawn, a bit congested, they said when they saw us walking in the hallways towards the dining hall, towards the dormitory, towards the communal showers. They’re congested; the water won’t do them any good. They’d better not go to the swimming hole this Saturday. We started to tremble in alarm, which only encouraged the nuns. They said: Look how the shivers rise from their toes to the tops of their heads; you can see it all the way from the third floor patio. Soon we’ll have to send them to Sister O’Malley in the infirmary; that’s what she’s there for after all. We straightened up, plucked up, and ran outside. We even fought with one another to show that we were as strong as ever, pounding flesh with closed fists, which also helped us release what we had boiling inside. It goes without saying that Imogen, in those moments, didn’t come anywhere near us; she was off alone, the pig, smiling and silent as if nothing mattered to her.

Saturday finally came. We had study hall in the morning, but we spent nearly the whole hour looking out the window (studying was, of course, a pretext; many of us read novels or wrote in our journals). We went to lunch when the time came, and when we finished, went outside as if daylight itself pulled us towards the swimming hole. Walking down the hallway, we looked behind us to see if Imogen was there. She was, she came, and so something worried at our hearts, each of us separately, because if Imogen walked with us, some part of her must still be like us.

We got to the bottom of the hill and turned towards the swimming hole. We thought that maybe Imogen had been one of us before, but wasn’t now (remember that, at Polar, it was difficult to separate the present, past, and future). Warmed by the sun, we arrived at the swimming hole. First, we all occupied ourselves with undressing and admiring how the sun penetrated our skin. We approached the water, stepped in, dunked our heads, and came back up, as we always did.

The water seemed warmer to us than usual. We had already all gotten in when we noticed that Imogen hadn’t. We looked over to terraferma and saw her walking towards us. Here she came, smiling, her skin shining as if she were covered in scales, the pig. You’ll have to excuse us, but the bitch! There she came as if she were superior to the rest of us—which she was.

How can we tell you what happened next? Truthfully, when we saw her, we all threw ourselves onto her—some from above, others from below. Don’t imagine that we’d planned it like that; it was some primal force waiting inside. We hadn’t believed in it before, but Imogen had. We would also have you believe that we got rid of it that day once and for all, every drop. We didn’t think that any more would come out ever again.

When we returned to Polar, the nuns gathered us all urgently in the assembly hall. We told them the story, and the nuns agreed that they’d have done the same. Look me in the eyes, said Sister Mártara Junior when we’d finished, are you sure that you’ve told us everything you have to say? We have, Sister, cross our hearts, Sister. Well, that’s that, then. Go rest now and, if you can’t, go see Sister O’Malley for a cup of English breakfast tea. Tomorrow this will all have passed. It will have, Sister, we said like an echo, and we left. Sister Elvira Lecumberri was hunched over in the hallway watching us. We didn’t even turn our heads to look at her. We had lost interest in her; we were at that age.

Portrait of Eva Moreda

Eva Moreda was born on the northern border between Galicia and Asturias in 1981. She has been active actively publishing novels in Galician since adolescence and is currently a professor of musicology at the University of Glasgow.

Portrait of Jeff Kochan

Linsday Semel is an emerging translator, freelancer, and organic farmer living in northern Galicia. Her book reviews have been published in the Women’s Review of Books, Kirkus, and Asymptote, where she was also a long-time staff member.

Things To Do After My Death by Miklós Vámos, translated from the Hungarian by Ági Bori

Things To Do After My Death by Miklós Vámos, translated from the Hungarian by Ági Bori

Sanyi Kovács was well-liked in Ladánybene, although he despised his village with every fiber of his body. What he despised even more was his father, whose child-rearing method was limited to an old bully stick, its shriveled surface lined with a few cracks. When Sanyi asked where the bully stick came from, there was never an answer. Answers were rare to come by in the Kovács family, and therefore the questions began to dry up, too.

His father, Béla Kovács, was hated by everyone in Ladánybene. His house was the last one on the street near the Csikós ploughland. He shoed horses in a small shed, tucked away in the corner of the backyard. He was Slovak, but people assumed he was a Gypsy, though the last name of his grandfather—Sanyi’s great-grandfather—was Kožicky. The family supposedly had been relocated from Slovakia during the time of Maria Theresa. Béla Kovács took on smaller locksmith jobs to better his situation, but his dark skin continued to prevent him from being able to shake off the prejudice against him. During the Holocaust he was rounded up and taken away with the Gypsies, and he could only identify himself and save his skin when his wife ran after them, waving around his great-grandfather’s baptismal certificate to prove who he was.

He was a barbaric, arrogant man who refused to let anyone contradict him. He was mad at the world for labeling him a Gypsy, mad at his ancestors for not laying aside substantial assets. Mad at his wife for bearing him only one son. He did not take into account that she miscarried their second child because of the cruel beating he gave her with a whip, for what he claimed was some sort of unfinished domestic duty. She frantically ran out to the street to get away from him, with their son Sanyi trailing behind her trying to protect his mother from his beastly father who, without hesitation, flogged him too, across his face, leaving him with scars, which, once they healed somewhat, the townspeople assumed were pock marks, so he also called them that. No one warned him that picking off the abscesses would leave him with life-long scars.

He ran away three times, always with a cloth sack tied to the end of a stick, but the gendarmes took him back home each time. His return was met with brutal beatings from his father; he hit him so hard with the bully stick that for days he couldn’t even stand on his feet. This’ll teach you, you scumbag!—he yelled, as he thwacked him. Bam, bam, bam!

One day the Reverend Mihály stopped by the house and tried his best to exhort Sanyi’s father to pull himself together, but he refused to hear the priest out, no matter how hard he tried to talk some sense into him. He stood his ground and was firm in his resolve: No one can tell me what to do, I fathered the child, and I can wipe him off the face of the earth, if I want to. And now, if you excuse me, Reverend, get the hell out of my house!

Sanyi did only six grades in elementary school; afterward, his father sent him out to work in the fields, often to take over for him, so that he could carry on with his farrier job, which brought in more money than the revenue from the crops. He must have been around seventeen when one day his mother could not completely remove a stain from his father’s shirt. She took the initiative and lay down on her stomach at her husband’s feet, so that the majority of the lashes would be absorbed by her back. His wife and son were surprised when, instead of reaching for the whip, Béla Kovács began to undo his belt. Sanyi’s mother whimpered and begged her husband, Béla, please don’t use the buckle, I beg you, may God have mercy on your soul, don’t use the buckle! But her yowling only added fuel to the fire and before she could say another word, the metal buckle landed on her back, across her spine, nearly breaking her bones. Sanyi jumped to her rescue, did his best to act like a human shield, but the buckle somehow hit his eyes, causing him to momentarily lose sight. He grabbed the closest thing, which happened to be a rake, lifted it above his head as he would an ax, and swung it really hard. Béla Kovács collapsed. His mother screamed, Sanyika, ohmygod, my dear Sanyika, what have you done, ohmygod, what have you done?! She kept shaking her husband, trying to resuscitate him, but her attempt was in vain. By then, Sanyi had regained his sight, turned around, and went out the door. It was drizzling cold raindrops, as if they were tiny pebbles falling from heaven, landed on his head. Was that God sending some sort of sign?

 He made his way to the police station where, instead of offering a greeting, he announced: I killed my father and I want to turn myself in.

It took a long time for the jury to return with the unanimous guilty verdict for voluntary manslaughter. The defense attorney assigned to the case argued that his client acted in self-defense, but Sanyi brushed his lawyer’s deflective attempts aside: With all due respect, I might have murdered my father intentionally, because we couldn’t live with him no more. His mother was inconsolable throughout the trial. Sanyi turned eighteen the day before the verdict was delivered, and that also played a role in him receiving a ten-year sentence. He was sent to the infamous Csillag Prison in Szeged.

Sándor Kovács was well-liked in prison, too. He seemed to blossom behind prison walls. Sanyi, what’s with the constant happy mood? asked a fellow prisoner. With all due respect, I really don’t know. Are you always happy? I think I am.

The prison guards liked him too and showed favors toward him when, upon request, he started to churn out hand-carved children’s toys—tiny rocking horses, soldiers with bayonets, small statues of the Virgin Mary and Saint Peter—from whatever materials they brought in for him. Initially, he was tightly monitored and could use the small hammer and chisel only in the main office and under close supervision, but he quickly proved to be trustworthy. It became clear that he meant no harm to anyone, including himself, so they entrusted him with the library. He carried around the prison’s well-worn books on a handwoven rattan tray. His enthusiastic book recommendations resonated across the long hallways with gusto, as if he had actually read the books he was endorsing.

Twice a week a teacher came to the prison and, under his guidance, Sanyi diligently learned the alphabet along with basic grammar and mathematical skills. The same person also taught Russian and English. Sanyi chose English, though the guards tried hard to convince him to pick Russian. It would have been a more practical language for him, they said. But he could not be swayed, plus he was not electrified about the Cyrillic alphabet. He made up his mind that once he got out, he’d do anything but agricultural work—he no longer wanted anything to do with farms and stock-raising. He would be a white-collar worker, a city dweller.

Time came to a screeching halt behind bars. The passing of the days, weeks, and years barely registered with Sanyi. His facial hair was so thin that he did not bother to shave it and just let it grow wild. One of the guards said he looked like John of Nepomuk, whose portrait was painted on a nearby church wall, and when Sanyi got out, he could go see it. He didn’t give any thought to the day when he’d be released from jail. He felt content being institutionalized and had no desire to be free. While other prisoners could not stop counting the days until their sentences were up, Sanyi blissfully immersed himself in the myriad days that to him simply felt like a never-ending oceanic current. He often attended mass in prison; instead of reciting prayers, he covertly watched on the silver screen of his mind his own self-directed movies, which projected a future full of joy and hope. At the end of his ten-year sentence—assuming he was not let out early for good behavior—he’d be twenty-eight, with his whole life ahead of him. He was sure that the day he stepped across the prison gates, the sun would shine, and he would feel a spring breeze on his face. He somehow felt certain it would be springtime.

Prisoners were not allowed to read the newspaper or listen to the radio. But snippets of news still made their way into the prison through the friendlier guards. The most basic information that came up again and again was that the government was granting blanket amnesty to prisoners. Many prisoners who thought themselves to be the smartest claimed this to be true.

One day a guard confided in Sanyi that a revolution was underway. No way, thought Sanyi, there are no revolutions under Socialism. But more and more signs indicated that the guard was telling the truth. The prison doubled the number of its guards and decreased its extracurricular activities, such as daily walks, where prisoners might clandestinely exchange inside information. One of the prisoners found a discarded newspaper by the fence and quickly read it before it was confiscated. University students were demonstrating in Budapest. Authors were protesting and preparing manifestos. Mother of God, thought Sanyi.

The next day the guards rattled the rows of cell doors and ordered the prisoners to head to the shower room with their assigned groups. What the hell? Prisoners were allowed one shower a week, and they just had one yesterday.

They were chaperoned downstairs to the visitor area in groups of six. None of them could believe that they were actually being released. Their civilian clothes—stored in paper bags for years, now heavily covered in mold—were handed back to them. The few who escaped the villainous mold were not better off, because they had gained so much weight during their imprisonment that they could no longer squeeze into their old garments. Interestingly, the button-up shirt and linen pants Sanyi Kovács wore the day he came to prison still fit him perfectly; his shoes also felt comfortable, only their shoelaces had become thin and tattered with age.

Next, they were herded into the inner courtyard—a straight path led from there to the double iron gates through which they were to gain entry to the outside world—where a few men hung around, dressed in pristine business suits, waiting for the prisoners to arrive, so that they could shake hands with each one and wish them good luck on behalf of the Budapest Revolutionary Committee. One of them was a famous actor whose brother was also locked up for political sins.

Sanyi Kovács stepped through the iron gates and paused for a moment on the dusty road. It was a cool autumn day, but the sun was out, and it warmed him against the gentle breeze that cooled his face. He had no inkling of where he wanted to go. He stood with his feet glued to the ground and played around with the small allowance in his pocket that he received from the prison officials. It was enough to purchase a train ticket to Ladánybene, but he did not feel like going there. Not long prior to his release he received news on the passing of his mother. Despite the heavy loss, he was unable to come up with a better plan, so he took the train to Ladánybene. No one recognized him at the train station, and no one recognized him later either as he ambled along the crooked streets of his hometown. His family home by the Csikós ploughland appeared to be neglected and dilapidated. He kicked in the unlocked gate. A few cats and a stray dog scattered. Weeds brushed up to his knees as he approached the veranda and sat down on the rickety stool where his mother used to catch her breath after a long day of hard labor. He had no plans whatsoever.

A whiff of sour mold from the damp walls penetrated his soul like an executioner’s sword. He was not expecting that. He fell to his knees and sobbed, whimpering like his mother used to way back when. He cried for his poor mother who withered away in a lonely existence. He also thought of his father, whom he sent to his death; it has been years since his memory had last crossed his mind. The report of the forensic pathologist stated that his father died instantly when the rake’s three prongs went through his skull, damaging the most vital parts of his brain. Sanyi could not imagine the rake lodged in his father’s skull, though he tried many times during the criminal proceedings.

Does it make me a horrible person that I killed my father? he mumbled to himself. He was unable to feel guilt but, for the first time ever, he regretted not having listened to his lawyer who had wanted him to tell police that he had acted in self-defense, and emphasize the flurry of emotions that surrounded the murder. Perhaps he wanted to atone for his sins? Or did he want to punish himself for creating a situation where his mother not only lost her husband, but all of her income as well? After her husband’s death, she could only support herself by selling off all her belongings, piece by piece, starting with the tools from the shed, then the agricultural equipment, and finally the three plots of land and her meager furniture from the house. Shortly before she breathed her last, she was in negotiations with an agricultural cooperative that was interested in buying her house to use as a granary, but she passed away before the deal was sealed. Sanyi wouldn’t have minded if the house had sold; he’d planned to leave anyway, as soon as he could, and head to Kecskemét. Or to the capital, the city full of excitement.

In the afternoon the town’s main square erupted in gunshots. Someone knocked on the street-facing window: Who’s inside the house? Sanyi walked up to the gate: It’s me, Sanyi.

There stood his childhood friend, Józsi, Józsi Balog, holding a hunting rifle in his hand. Reaching through the vertical planks of the wooden gate, he grabbed Sanyi and pulled him closer, and gave him a bear hug. Sanyiii, you’re home? Sanyi stepped back, opened the gate, and hugged him back. They were both overcome with emotions. Triggered by memories of childhood mischief—for which they got their fair share of punishments—Sanyi shed tears of joy and gratitude for having been reunited with his childhood friend.

I didn’t know you were let out of prison early, rejoiced Józsi, curling his words with a heavy Gypsy accent that Sanyi detected immediately. He used to not talk like that, or Sanyi hadn’t picked up on it before. He whispered in Józsi’s ear: Amnesty. Józsi was ecstatic: Great! Come with me! Where are we going? Józsi explained that a revolution had broken out: My friend, he said, it’s 1956, and we have a revolution on our hands! Let’s chase away the president of the council and the party secretary! Life will be much better without them, trust me!

Some of his optimism rubbed off on Sanyi; he located his father’s beat up Flobert rifle in the shed and, despite not being able to find any bullets, decided to take it with him. By the time they made their way to the main square, at least thirty armed men were shouting in front of the town hall. The town’s three policemen, their faces as white as ghosts, blocked the entry of the building and waved their pistols around. One of them kept repeating in a robotic manner:  Keep moving people, or there will be serious trouble! No one paid attention to him. It was a group of Gypsies—wielding long-handled hoes—who first worked up enough courage to chase away the police officers: Don’t even think about shooting at us, there is a revolution, in case you didn’t know!—they swarmed the building. By then, the party secretary and other officials had managed to sneak out the back door.

The Gypsies knocked over some cabinets inside and broke a few windows—that was the end of the Ladánybene Revolution.

At night they held a meeting at the elementary school; all the attendees wore cockades on their shirts, flaunting the national colors of Hungary. Sanyi got his from Józsi. They formed what they called a Revolutionary Committee, whose sole responsibility was to govern the town. The Gypsies unanimously cast their votes for Józsi Balog, so he became president. Once his position was secured, he insisted on Sanyi being his vice-president. Afterwards they went across the square to the local pub to celebrate that now they were the ones in power. Sanyi hardly ever consumed alcohol, so the bootleg pálinka went straight to his head, and he soon found himself under the table. Józsi took him home and laid him down on the bed, the only remaining piece of furniture in the so-called parlor of Sanyi’s house. He slept through the next two days of the revolution. He never heard his friend knocking on the door, reminding him that it was time to attend the meetings; therefore, the other four members of the revolutionary committee were forced to make important decisions without his input. The meetings usually took place in Józsi’s backyard, in the summer kitchen.

When Sanyi finally came to from his drunken stupor and joined the group, he was so hungry he could eat a horse. Józsi’s mother fed him a generous portion of bacon, warm homemade bread, and cottage cheese made from fresh sheep milk. He couldn’t thank her enough. The slightly hunchbacked old woman laughed and reassured him that there would always be food no matter who ran the country, as long as people had vegetable gardens and a few farm animals, which he needed to have too, if he wanted to survive. Sanyi nodded, though he had not the slightest idea where he would even start. God willing, things would work themselves out.

They heard on the radio that the Russkies were going to leave Hungary; the news made them happy; they cheered and clinked their glasses. But instead, more Russkies came in. The roads were swarmed with tanks and trucks, heading toward Budapest. Józsi sensed trouble ahead.

They decided to leave their hometown behind. Józsi Balog’s uncle lived in the nearby town of Dabas, so they headed in that direction. After hiding out there for a few days, Sanyi had enough and decided to set off to Budapest on his own. He walked during the day and spent his nights under the stars, curled up in the fields.

He almost made it to Budapest when he was stopped and arrested by Russians on the outskirts of Vecsés. They frog-marched him to an equipment yard that had been designated as an assembly point. By the time Sanyi arrived, at least five hundred people had been packed in there, waiting their turn. Frightening news circulated among the captured. They would be executed after interrogations. Or executed without interrogations. There will be malenki robot, like back in ‘46, then off to Siberia again, moaned the older men. Or to concentration camps, like the ones where the Germans kept the Jews, and that will be the end of us!

None of the options seemed promising. Sanyi made up his mind to escape at the earliest opportunity. The first chance came when they left the equipment yard on horse-drawn carriages, supposedly to go to a storage shed to bring back canned goods and bread. One Russian soldier with a machine gun was in charge of the seven prisoners, but he sat up front, next to the coachman. When they turned onto a wider street, Sanyi threw himself over the side and rolled into a weedy ditch that was used to divert water away from the streets. He feared with each passing second that the carriage might come to an abrupt halt, but it never did. He closed his eyes, lay motionless, and thanked his lucky stars.

Once darkness fell, he continued his journey, trying his best to stay away from populated areas. It was bitterly cold and he didn’t have any warm clothes, which left him with no choice but to steal a cloak and a horse blanket from a barn he passed along the way. Józsi’s mother had sewed him a neck pouch for his papers and handful of coins, whose overall value amounted to a pittance. He wandered aimlessly, but at some point he had to admit to himself that he had completely lost his bearings. And now a railroad crossing blocked his way. In the distance he spotted an approaching train, inching closer and closer, its wheels weighed down by heavy cargo; it eventually came to a full stop, producing a high-pitched, screeching sound. What a godsend, thought Sanyi, as he hopped up on the last coach. When the train began to move again, he cozied up in a small area that housed the brake system. He dozed off straight away.

It wasn’t clear how much time had passed before he was woken up by two uniformed men. He reflexively raised both of his arms. Everything is fine, calm down, they told him, we’re just ordinary railroad workers.

The three of them got along so well that the two men confessed to Sanyi that as soon as the train reached Rákosrendező, they would hop onto another train that would take them close to Sopron. From there, only a stone’s throw away was the Austrian border, where they could cross illegally and go anywhere! Even to England?—asked Sanyi, starry-eyed. Why not, sonny? In Austria we’ll automatically become refugees and get a Nansen passport that’s good for any country, except Hungary. Har!

Portrait of Halyna Petrosanyak

Miklós Vámos (1950, Budapest) is a Hungarian writer who has had over forty books published, many of them in multiple languages. He is a recipient of numerous literary awards, including the 2016 Prima Primissima Award, one of the most prestigious awards in Hungary. His most successful book is The Book of Fathers, which has been translated into nearly thirty languages. His ancestors on his father’s side were Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Fortunately, his father—a member of a penitentiary march battalion—survived. Out of the five thousand Hungarian Jews sent off to their deaths late in World War II, only seven came back. His father was one of them. Vámos was raised in Socialist Hungary unaware he was a Jew. In an effort to save himself from his chaotic heritage, he turned to writing novels.

Portrait of Jeff Kochan

Ági Bori originally hails from Hungary, and she has lived in the United States for more than thirty years. A decade ago, she decided to try her hand at translating and discovered she loved it. She is a fierce advocate for bringing more translated books to American readers. In addition to reading and writing in Hungarian and English, her favorite avocation is reading Russian short stories in their native language. Her translations are available or forthcoming in Apofenie, Asymptote, B O D Y, the Forward, Hopscotch Translation, Hungarian Literature Online, the Los Angeles Review, Litro Magazine, MAYDAY, and Northwest Review. She is a translation editor at the Los Angeles Review.

Teendők halálom után by Miklós Vámos

Teendők halálom után by Miklós Vámos

Kovács Sanyit szerették Ladánybenén. Ő viszont szívből utálta a szülőfaluját. Annál erősebben csak a szülőapját, akinek legfőbb nevelési eszköze egy öreg, itt-ott repedező bikacsök volt. Sanyi megkérdezte, honnét szerezte, de nem kapott választ. A Kovács családban ritkán jöttek válaszok, ennek következtében a kérdések is elapadtak.

Kovács Bélát, az apját nem szerették Ladánybenén. A legutolsó ház volt az övé Csikós dűlőn. Lovakat patkolt, a kert sarkában lévő fészert használta műhelyként. Cigánynak tekintették, pedig tót volt, a nagyapját – Sanyi dédapját – még úgy hívták: Kožický. Állítólag Mária Terézia királynő idejében telepítették át őket Szlovákiából. Kovács Béla kisebb lakatosmunkákat is vállalt, hogy javítson a helyzetén, de hiába, sötét árnyalatú bőre miatt nem volt képes leradírozni magáról az előítéletet. A holokauszt idején elvitték, a cigányokkal együtt, csak akkor tudta igazolni magát, amikor a felesége utána futott a nagyapa keresztlevelével, amelyen szerepelt a dédpapa neve.

Durva, fennhéjázó ember volt, nem tűrt ellentmondást. Haragudott a világra, mert cigánynak minősítették, a felmenőire, mert nem gyűjtöttek össze jelentős vagyont, a feleségére, mert csak egy fiút szült neki. Azt nem vette számításba, hogy egy másikkal azért vetélt el, mert ő ostorral kergette az asszonyt ki az utcára, valamiféle háztartási mulasztás miatt. Sanyi igyekezett megvédeni az anyját, ő is kapott néhány határozott sújtást az arcába, később ezeket himlőhelynek gondolták az emberek, attól fogva ő is azt mondta, hogy igen, elvakarta a keléseket, őt nem figyelmeztették, hogy akkor megmaradnak..

Háromszor szökött meg, vándorbotra kötött batyuval, de a csendőrök mindig visszavitték, olyankor az apja úgy megverte a bikacsökkel, hogy lábra se tudott állni. No, ebbül majd tanulsz, te barom! – és durr, durr, durr!

Mihály tisztelendő úr eljött a házukhoz, próbált Kovács Béla lelkére beszélni, ő elhajtotta: Ebbe senki ne dumáljon bele, én nemzettem erre a világra, ha akarom, én is pusztítom el, no, viszlát, tisztelendő úr, kívül tágasabb.

Sanyi csak hat elemit végzett, utána az apja a földeken dolgoztatta, sokszor maga helyett, mert a patkolás többet hozott a konyhára. Tizenhét lehetett, amikor az anyjának nem sikerült kimosnia egy borfoltot az apja ingéből, önként feküdt hasra a földön, hogy az ostorcsapások a hátát érjék. Kovács Béla ekkor – mindannyiuk meglepetésére – a derékszíjat rántotta ki a nadrágjából, hogy azzal üssön. Az anyja vinnyogó hangon könyörgött, Béla, ne a csattal, az isten álgya meg, ne a csattal! – ez olaj volt a tűzre, a fémdarab keményen durrant az asszony hátán, csontot ért. Sanyi odaugrott, élő pajzsként, a csatt a szemét találta el, furcsamód mind a kettőt, szinte megvakította. Megragadott valamit, ami gereblyének bizonyult, úgy emelte két kézzel a feje fölé, ahogyan a nagybaltát szokták, s odavágott vele. Kovács Béla összecsuklott. Az anyja jajveszékelt, jaj, édes Sanyikám, mit tettél, jajistenem, mit tettél! – rázogatta, élesztgette a férjét, hiába. Addigra Sanyi visszanyerte a látását, kifordult az ajtón. Szemerkélt az eső, a hűvös cseppek úgy landoltak a feje tetején, mintha parányi kavicsok hullanának a mennyekből. Isten ad jeleket?

Elkullogott a rendőrségre, köszönés helyett bejelentette: Hát, agyoncsaptam az apámat, gyüttem börtönbe.

Soká tartott még, amíg kimondták az ítéletet, szándékos emberölésért. A kirendelt védőügyvéd az erős felindulás megállapításáért küzdött, Sanyi azonban minden terelő kérdésre fittyet hányva azt ismételgette: Nem tom, tisztelettel, lehet, hogy meg akartam ölni, mer ez így má nem mehetett tovább. Az anyja végigzokogta a tárgyalásokat. Sanyi az ítélethozatal előtti napon töltötte be a tizennyolcadikat, ennek is köszönhetően tíz év szabadságvesztésre ítélték. A szegedi Csillagba került.

Kovács Sándort a börtönben is szerették. Mintha kivirult volna. Állandóan mosolygott. Sanyi, te minek örülsz már megint? – kérdezte egy rabtárs. Én, kérlek szépen, nem tudom. Mindig boldog vagy? Asszem igen.

A smasszerok is kedvelték, kivételeztek vele, amióta kérésre gyerekjátékokat faragott nekik, hozott anyagból. A vésőt és a kalapácsot csak az irodában használhatta, szoros felügyelettel. De látták, nem akar ő semmi rosszat se másnak, se magának. Csodás pici hintalovat, szuronyos katonát, Szűz Máriát és Szent Pétert készített, szalonnadarabkákkal fényesítve. Rábízták a könyvtárat. Vesszőtálcán hordozta szét a rongyos köteteket, s úgy ajánlgatott bizonyos regényeket, mintha olvasta volna.

Heti kétszer bejárt egy tanár, Sanyi szorgalmasan gyakorolta a betűvetést, a helyesírást, mag a számtani alapműveleteket. Ugyanaz az ember nyelvet is tanított, oroszt és angolt. Sanyi az angolt választotta. Pedig a smasszerok az oroszra akarták rábeszélni, annak több hasznát venné. Ő azonban ragaszkodott az angolhoz, a cirill betűkhöz nem volt kedve. Elhatározta, ha kikerül innét, mindennel foglalkozik, csak földet nem túr, állatot nem gondoz. Nadrágos ember lesz, városi.

A rácsok mögött megállt az idő. Sanyi alig érzékelte a napok, a hetek, az évek múlását. Arcszőrzete olyan gyér és vékonyszálú volt, hogy hagyta nőni. Az egyik fegyőr szerint Nepomuki Szent Jánosra hasonlít, akinek arcképe látható a közeli templomban, majd megnézheti, ha szabadul. Ő a szabadulásra nem gondolt, nem is vágyott. Jól érezte magát. Míg a többi rab szünet nélkül számolgatta, hogy mikor telik le az ideje, Sanyi élvezettel merült a napok végtelennek tetsző óceánjába. A börtönmiséken sokszor részt vett, noha az imák helyett a saját belső filmjeit nézte, amelyek élvezetekkel teli jövőjét vetítették. Ha kitölti a tíz évet, s nem eresztik ki innen a jó magaviselete miatt, huszonnyolc lesz, amikor a többszörös rácsajtókon keresztül a szabad életbe léphet. Még előtte az élet! Úgy képzelte, sütni fog a nap, és fúj a tavaszi szél. Azt valamilyen okból biztosra vette, hogy tavasz lesz.

Újságot a rabok nem olvashattak, rádiót nem hallgathattak. Mégis beszivárogtak bizonyos hírek, a barátságosabb smasszeroktól. A legalapvetőbb, újra és újra elterjedő értesülés az volt, hogy általános amnesztiát hirdet a kormány. Ezt szerették bizonygatni a magukat legokosabbnak hívő elítéltek.

Egyszer csak azt a bizalmas hírt árulta el Sanyinak valamelyik fegyőr, hogy kitört a forradalom. Ugyan má, gondolta ő, a szociálizmusba nincsen forradalom. De egyre több jel utalt rá, hogy talán mégis. Megkettőzték a smasszerok számát, és csökkentették a kedvezményeket, például a séta időtartamát, ahol a rabok feltűnés nélkül cserélhették ki értesüléseiket. Valamelyikük talált egy eldobott újságot a kerítés mentén, gyorsan átfutotta, mielőtt elkobozták tőle. Tüntetnek az egyetemisták Budapesten. Az írók kiáltványokat fogalmaznak és tiltakoznak. Uramatyám.

Másnap bezörgettek minden cellába, s megparancsolták, hogy körletenként vonuljanak a zuhanyozóba. Mi a fene? Hetenként csak egyszer mehettek oda, s tegnapelőtt voltak.

Hatosával kísérték le az embereket a földszinti helyiségekbe, ahol a látogatások zajlottak. Senki nem akarta elhinni, de valóban szabadultak. Visszakapták a civil ruhájukat, ezeket papírzsákokban őrizték, többnyire megpenészedtek. Akié nem, az se járt jobban, mert a rabság idején kihíztak mindent. Érdekes módon Kovács Sanyira passzolt a cejgnadrág és az orosz nyakú ing, amiben bevonult ide, a cipője is illett a lábára, csak a fűzők szakadoztak el.

A kétszárnyú vaskapuhoz vezető első udvaron néhány öltönyös ember álldogált, valamennyi szabadulóval kezet fogtak, és sok szerencsét kívántak a Budapesti Forradalmi Bizottság nevében. Egyikükről lehetett tudni, hogy híres színész, a bátyja is itt raboskodott, a politikaiak közt.

Kovács Sanyi megállt a poros utcán. Ősz volt ugyan, de a nap sütött, s fújdogált az enyhe szél, cirógatta a haját. Most aztán hová? Kaptak búcsúzóul némi pénzt, tellett volna vonatjegyre, hogy eljusson Ladánybenére. Oda azonban nem kívánkozott. Kevéssel azelőtt kapta a hírt, hogy az anyja, aki újabban már nem látogatta, meghalt. Hiába, jobb ötlete nem lévén, mégis odavonatozott. A vasútállomáson és a görbe utcákon nem ismert rá senki. A Csikós-dűlő végén a ház elhagyatottnak látszott. A kertkapu nincs lelakatolva, berúgta. Néhány macska és egy kóbor kutya rebbent szét. A gyom térdig ért. A verandán leült a dikóra, ahol az anyja szokott megpihenni az egész napi lótás-futás után. No, most aztán?

Furcsamód a nedvesedő vályogfalakból áradó savanyú penészszag hatására sújtott le rá az éles fájdalom, akár egy kivégző bárd. Erre nem számított. Térdre hullott, és zokogott, vinnyogó hangon, ahogyan az anyja szokott. Istenem… szegény anya, elemésztette a magány. Most, hosszú idő után az apja is agyába ötlött, akit ő küldött a halálba. Eegen… az igazságügyi orvosszakértő szerint egy szemvillanás alatt meghalt, a gereblye három foga ütötte át a koponyacsontot, létfontosságú területen fúródva az agyba. Sanyi ezt el sem tudta képzelni, noha a bűnügyi eljárás alatt sokszor megpróbálta.

Megöltem az apámat, motyogta, milyen ember vagyok én? Nem volt képes lelkifurdalást érezni, de most már bánta, hogy elutasította az ügyvéd javaslatait, először azt, hogy önvédelemnek állítsa be a történteket, aztán hogy az erős fölindulást hangsúlyozza. Talán bűnhődni akart? Vagy szenvedni azért, amilyen helyzetbe az anyját taszította, aki nemcsak a férjét vesztette el, hanem a bevételi forrását is. Csak úgy tudott gondoskodni magáról, hogy eladogatott mindent, kezdve a műhely szerszámaival, folytatva a mezőgazdasági eszközökkel, a bútorokkal és a három parcella földdel. Mielőtt végső álmába szenderült, tárgyalt az egyik téesszel, megvették volna a házat magtárnak, erre már nem került sor. Sanyi nem bánta volna, ő úgyis elmegy innét, amint lehet s szabad. Kecskemétre. Vagy a fővárosba, ott pörög az igazi élet.

Délután lövöldözés kezdődött a falu főterén. Valaki bezörgetett az utcára néző ablakon: Ki van odabe? Sanyi ment a kertkapuhoz, csak én.

Gyerekkori pajtása, Józsi állt ott, Balog Józsi. Kezében kétcsövű vadászpuskával. Benyúlt a függőleges lécek fölött, és magához rántotta, átölelte: Sanyiii, te ithol? Sanyi egy pillanatra hátrébb lépett, kinyitotta a kaput, és visszaölelte. Úristen, mennyi mindent csináltak együtt kiskorukban, tették a rosszfákat a tűzre, s kapták a kiadós veréseket az apjuktól. Sanyinak újra csorogni kezdte a könnyei.

Hát én azt nem is tudtam, hogy téged kiengedtek! – Józsi hangjának most már nagyon cigányos lett a kunkorodása. Korábban nem így beszélt, vagy Sanyi nem vette észre. Amnesztia, suttogta. Naccerű, gyere velem! Hová? Hát te nem tudod? kitört a forradalom, barátom, elkergetjük a tanácselnököt meg a párttitkárt, és most má jó lesz!

Derűlátó lendületének egy töredéke átragadt Sanyira. Ő is elővette az apja ütött-kopott flóbertpuskáját a kamrából, s noha töltényt nem talált hozzá, vitte magával. Mire odaértek, legalább harminc fölfegyverkezett ember rikoltozott a tanácsháza előtt. A faluban szolgáló három rendőr holtsápadtan állta körül a bejáratot, pisztollyal hadonászva: Oszoljunk, emberek, mer baj lesz! – ismételgette az egyik gépiesen. A kutya se törődött vele. A cigányok bátorodtak föl leghamarább, kapanyéllel terelték félre a rendőröket, eszetekbe se jusson, hogy lőjetek, forradalom van, ha nem tudnátok! – betódultak az épületbe. Addigra a tanácselnök és a többi hivatalos személy már meglépett a hátsó kijáraton, széjjel spricceltek.

A cigányok ledöntötték az iratszekrényeket, és kitörtek néhány belső ablakot. Aznapra ennyi volt a forradalom Ladánybenén.

Este az iskolában tartottak gyűlést, kokárdákkal az ingükön. Sanyinak Józsi adott egyet. Megalakították a Forradalmi Bizottmányt, amelynek feladata a falu vezetése. Balog Józsi lett az elnök, a cigányok egyhangúan rá szavaztak, ő pedig addig erőskötött, míg Sanyit választották helyettesének. Utána átvonultak a kocsmába, megünnepelni, hogy mostantól ők az urak itten. Sanyi szinte soha nem ivott alkoholt, a vegyes pálinkától hamar berúgott, és az asztal alá csúszott. Józsi vitte haza, lefektette a tiszta szobában az egyetlen ágyra, ami megmaradt a bútorokból. Sanyi a forradalom következő két napját átaludta, hiába zörgetett be érte a barátja, hogy menjenek gyűlésbe. Így nélküle hozta meg a legfontosabb döntéseit a Forradalmi Bizottmány öt tagú vezetőségéből a többi négy. Józsiék nyári konyhájában.

Mire Sanyi csatlakozhatott hozzájuk, már nagyon éhes volt. Józsi anyja megetette szalonnával, friss kenyérrel és juhtúróval. Nem győzött hálálkodni. Az enyhén púpos asszony csak nevetett, enni azér mindig jut, akárkik a kormányok, csak lehessen állatunk meg kertünk, erre tik is ügyeljetek. Engedelmesen bólintott. Fogalma se volt, hogyan kéne ügyelni rá. Majd alakul.

Hallották a rádióban, hogy a ruszkik kimennek, nagyon örültek, erre is koccintottak. Ehelyett a ruszkik inkább bejöttek. Az országúton görögtek a tankok és a teherautók Pest felé. Ajjaj, mondta Józsi, bajba leszünk!

Úgy döntöttek, meglépnek innen. Balog Józsi nagybátyjához mentek, Dabasra. Ott töltöttek néhány napot, aztán Sanyi köszönetet mondott, és elindult Budapest felé, gyalogosan. Ahol ráesteledett, megaludt a földeken.

Vecsésen tartóztatták föl az oroszok, fegyverrel kísérték egy gépállomásra, amelyet gyűjtőhelynek rendeztek be. Legalább ötszázan vártak itt a sorukra. A legkülönbözőbb rémhírek terjengtek. Kihallgatás után nyomban kivégzik őket. Sőt kihallgatás helyett. Megint az lesz, hogy málenkij robot, mint negyvenhatba, s visznek Szibériába, sopánkodtak az idősebbek. Vagy olyan lágerba, mint a zsidókat a németek, oszt nekünk annyi!

Ezek egyike sem ígért semmi jót. Sanyi úgy döntött, az első adandó alkalommal megszökik. Erre akkor nyílt mód, amikor lovaskocsival kihajtottak a gépállomásról, valamilyen raktárba indultak, kenyeret és konzerveket vételezni. Egyetlen géppisztolyos katona volt hét fogolyra, az is a bakon ült a fuvaros mellett. Amikor bekanyarodtak egy szélesebb utcára, Sanyi átvetette magát a saroglyán, s belehengeredett a gyommal sűrűn telenőtt vízelvezető árokba. Lehunyt szemmel számolt magában húszig, míg a keréknyikorgás elhalkult. No… megúsztam?

Csak akkor folytatta útját, amikor besötétedett, igyekezett a településeken kívül maradni. Fázott, nem volt nála meleg ruha, kénytelen volt lopni köpenyt és lópokrócot egy istállóból. Iratait és kevéske pénzét a nyakában lógó vászonzacskóban tartotta, amit Józsi anyjától kapott. Fogalma se volt, merre jár. Vasúti sínek állták útját. Éppen közeledett egy hosszú tehervonat, csikorogva meg is állt. Isten küldte, gondolta, és fölmászott a vaslétrán az utolsó vagon peronjára. Amint a szerelvény indult tovább, letelepedett a fékezőfülkében. Hamar álomba merült.

Nem tudni, mennyi idő múlva ébresztette föl, két egyenruhás. Sanyi automatikusan a magasba emelte a karját. Nyugi, fiam, mink vasutasok vagyunk.

Annyira összebarátkoztak, hogy elárulták Sanyinak, ők a maguk részéről átszállnak egy másik vonatra Rákosrendezőn, és meg sem állnak Sopronig. Mostan át lehet szökni Ausztriába. Onnan meg, ki hová vágyik. Anglia is lehet? Mér ne, fiam, Ausztriába hontalanok leszünk, kapunk nanzen útlevelet, az mindenhova jó, kivéve Magyarországot, hehe.

Portrait of Halyna Petrosanyak

Miklós Vámos (1950, Budapest) is a Hungarian writer who has had over forty books published, many of them in multiple languages. He is a recipient of numerous literary awards, including the 2016 Prima Primissima Award, one of the most prestigious awards in Hungary. His most successful book is The Book of Fathers, which has been translated into nearly thirty languages. His ancestors on his father’s side were Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Fortunately, his father—a member of a penitentiary march battalion—survived. Out of the five thousand Hungarian Jews sent off to their deaths late in World War II, only seven came back. His father was one of them. Vámos was raised in Socialist Hungary unaware he was a Jew. In an effort to save himself from his chaotic heritage, he turned to writing novels.

“Through the Plague” by Yordan Yovkov, translated from the Bulgarian by Teodora Gandeva

“Through the Plague” by Yordan Yovkov, translated from the Bulgarian by Teodora Gandeva

By the will of God, the plague struck

that summer, and all the land turned desolate,

the towns and the villages. Not a single village was spared

because of our sins!

Old chronicle

Word had it that the plague had struck the villages nearby, places not farther than a day’s journey away, and that people were dying so fast that those who survived could hardly manage to bury them. The fearful news horrified everyone and, as was the case with every other menace — when brigands were on the rise or a war was brewing — the men gathered at the church café, and the women began to discuss the news in the village squares. Since the danger was the same for everyone, acceptance came easily, and in this atmosphere of closeness, many could even joke and laugh. But in the evening, when they came home and were left on their own, the ghost of death would rise again, relentless and terrible. On the following day, each thought their neighbor was plagued, locked themselves away in their homes, and latched the doors. Everyone hid in anticipation of the toll of the bell or а lament from a nearby house.

Even the weather itself was unhealthy, seemingly stifling. The air, poisoned by the heavy miasmas of carrion and dirt, was veiled with dust. The parched earth matched the dust-covered houses, trees, and streets, and everything was dark and gray. Not a drop of rain had fallen for months. Over the mountain range, the forests were burning. During the day there was only smoke, but in the evening the burning line of fires blazed upon the dark shoulders of the Balkan Mountains, which rounded off in a huge circle and grew bigger.

All these things, so ordinary at any other time, now took on weightier meaning as if they were portents. Fear was crippling the strength of character and clouding the minds of everyone. The terrible disease was lurking everywhere, and everyone was trying to help themselves, as they were told they could, and should, do. Garlic became a rare and expensive medicine. The power of magic wasn’t forgotten, either: one could see dried basil, red thread, and a bat’s wing or frog’s leg hanging in strange bouquets at many thresholds. There were the remnants of boiled herbs in the multicolored streams that lined the streets. Someone burned cow manure in their yard. Soon such fires loomed next to each house. Thick, smelly smoke filled the village, mingled with smoke from fires in the Balkan Mountains, that covered the whole area in fog. There was not the slightest whiff of wind. The silence became even deeper and ever more frightening.

Then a few days passed. No one died, it seemed the plague hadn’t come yet, and perhaps it wouldn’t come after all. People set aside their cautiousness and began talking with each other – at first through the fences, then they gathered in the neighborhoods and finally came out on the streets. Yet the plague wasn’t the only evil. During those few days, people in every house felt the need for so many things. They were running out of flour and hunger – no less of a danger – was beginning to show its frightening face.

Women were wailing and entreating their men; the men would meet by the hedgerows, exchange a word or two, and then stare at the ground. The village would be on fire with terrible disease any day now, so what could they do? Hide in the Balkans? Yet each of them had five or six bellies to feed, and the most important thing to think about was bread. It took a clever, hearty man to step up, say what should be done, and lead the village. People started whispering Hadji Dragan’s name even more often: He was the man who could save the village. At first, people were cautious to keep this amongst their nearest neighbors, then the word spread from neighborhood to neighborhood, and not long afterward four old men, chosen from the whole village, were on their way to Hadji Dragan’s house. They were going to tell him that the fate of the village was in his hands.

Along the way, the old men thought less about the plague and more about how they would enter Hadji Dragan’s house. He was a quick-tempered and unpredictable man, who sometimes greeted his guests as though he didn’t know what to do with them, and sometimes directly scolded and sent them away. When the old men reached the heavy, iron-clad gates of Hadji Dragan’s house, Grandpa Neyko knocked on the latch, while the rest of them put their hands on their walking sticks and stared at the ground. To everyone’s surprise, when they told Hadji Dragan who they were and why they had come, he immediately let them in.

Hadji Dragan’s yard seemed different than the one the old men had known. The servant walking in front of them seemed to be stepping on his toes, his demeanor timid. None of Hadji Dragan’s large family could be seen in the yard, and the big Anatolian dogs did not even move on their leashes. But twigs of large yellow quince trees were showing through the garden fence, and the old men thought that if they looked so beautiful, it was because there would soon be no hands to tear them off. When they reached under the vines and looked up, there were not as many leaves as there were grapes. And these black, big bunches seemed to them likewise to presage a calamity.

They found Hadji Dragan upstairs in his room, sitting cross-legged on the sofa, with a chibouk in his hand, and five or six other empty chibouks lined up on the wall behind him. In front of him on the red carpet stood a cup of coffee, and thin strips of tobacco smoke were floating in the beam of sunlight that entered through the window. The old men silently walked in, wearing soft leather slippers, and sat on the pillows. Hadji Dragan was not very fond of talking and directly asked them what had brought them to him.

Grandpa Neyko started talking wisely, measuredly, and slowly – first about the plague, about the villagers’ fear, then about the increasing poverty, and he was just about to start talking about the imminent hunger, when Tiha, Hadji Dragan’s daughter, came into the room. She brought coffee for everyone. The old men were relieved to see at least one cheerful soul in the house. Tiha’s eyes, elongated and black like plums, were still shining devilishly, her hair was neatly tucked away on the sides, and her cheeks were as fresh peaches. She couldn’t help but joke as she was handing the cups to the old men. She managed to whisper to them without her father hearing her, that she wondered how the plague had not taken such old people as them.

“God forbid, child,” said Grandpa Neyko, “when it comes, it doesn’t choose between old and young.”

“No,” Tiha laughed again, “I heard she needed old skins now, and she would kill the old ones first.”

By the time the hadji could hear what they were talking about, Tiha had left. Grandpa Neyko coughed on one hand to cover up the girl’s joke, and on the other, as a way of getting ready to speak. He talked about the plague again, then about the famine, then about the plague once more. Finally, he finished and said:

“The village looks to you, Hadji. You’re our only hope…”

At that decisive moment, the old men lowered their eyes in anticipation to hear how Hadji Dragan would respond. Suddenly a cheerful, throaty laugh echoed through the room: Hadji Dragan was laughing. The old men looked at him in astonishment. Hadji Dragan was a big man, and as he pulled back laughing, his whole body was shaking and his face had become red.

“So, is that why you came to me?” His thick voice rumbled. “Well, I… Ha-ha-ha! I’m preparing a wedding today, and here you are, talking about dying.”

“What are you talking about, Hadji,” said Grandpa Neyko, “is it allowed?”

“Why not? It’s Tiha’s wedding today, I’ve told you. I have one girl left, I will marry her off, too.

“Is that right, Hadji? People are dying…”

“Who’s dying? Where are they dying? What are you blabbering on about? There is no plague, I tell you. If anyone’s dying, they’re dying out of fear. That’s how it goes – if a person is scared, if he wants to die, he will die. I’m not out of my mind; if there really was a plague, would I even be putting on a wedding?!”

The old men shuddered. The hope that everyone secretly held in themselves awoke and they trusted it.

“The hadji is right,” they were saying to themselves. – “It couldn’t be a plague; it must be fear…”

Only Grandpa Neyko persisted.

“What about hunger? Nobody has any flour anymore.”

Hadji Dragan waved his chibouk around.

“My barns are full. There’s enough to feed the whole village. I will give everyone flour. I will not give it to them just like that though, they’ll have to pay me back when they can, but I’ll give it to them. As for the wedding, we’re going to celebrate.”

Later, when Tiha entered the room and brought a full pot of Hadji Dragan’s old red wine for the third or fourth time, she found the old men talking all at once, merry and drunk. And she walked among them, smiling and throwing her jokes at them even more boldly.

            “You’re commemorating yourselves while still alive,” she told them.

The old men shook their heads, laughing, and in the sweet intoxication of the wine, which seemed to rock them on swings and make them forget their age, this black-eyed girl seemed so naughty, so beautiful!

* * *

The afternoon passed as Hadji Dragan had said it would: the wedding began. Bagpipes were playing and drums were played at full blast in the thick smoke of the fires amid the deadness that now reigned in the village. Women gathered in at the fence doors and meeting places. What was going on? Were people going crazy in the village? And when they found out that Hadji Dragan was hosting his daughter Tiha’s wedding, they said the same about him:

“Is he crazy? Doing something like this at such a time!”

But no matter how much they condemned Hadji Dragan, the beating of the drums cheered them up, they became merrier, rejoiced, and finally ended up admitting that Hadji Dragan was doing a good thing. That Hadji Dragan knew what he was doing. But one mystery remained unresolved: why was Hadji Dragan marrying Tiha off to the same young man whom he had denied a month ago? At the time, they thought that Tiha wanted to wait for Velichko Dochkin, whom she’d wanted to marry, but he had been away for three years. What had happened then, the women wondered— had she quietly given up on Velichko, or had Hadji Dragan changed his mind?

This is what they were talking about in the village squares. Meanwhile, Grandpa Neyko walked down from one end of the village to the other. Why was Hadji Dragan giving his daughter to Lutskan’s son, a good and wealthy young man, rather than wait for the return of Dochka the widow’s son – poor as a church mouse, not that all that concerned him… Hadji Dragan knew what he was doing. What was important for Grandpa Neyko was that Hadji Dragan’s barns were opening for the village and whatever happened, there would be no famine. This he would tell the women as he passed by, concluding:

“There’s no plague. If there was a plague, would Hadji Dragan be crazy enough to organize a wedding?”

He would say this not only to cheer others up but because he believed it. And cheerful, and important as any village mayor, with a slightly clouded head from Hadji Dragan’s old wine, Grandpa Neyko continued on his way. He was trying to get to the lower end of the village because he had a job to do over there. He knew that while the young and the old wondered where to hide out of fear, there, in the lower neighborhood, the ragged and the scoundrels were gathering in the pubs saying:

“No plague can catch us. The plague is out for the rich. We will be the ones to outlive them.”. Grandpa Neyko found them in the pub holding their glasses, listening to the drums, and looking at each other as if confused. “What is going on?” they kept asking each other.

            “A wedding, that’s what’s going on,” Grandpa Neyko answered, leaving them looking each other in the eyes and still wondering.

When Grandpa Neyko returned to Hadji Dragan’s yard, under the black grapes, he saw people playing the horo dance. They were playing like crazy, drenched in sweat as if they had been bathing. Hadji Dragan no longer had any enemies, the whole village had gathered in his yard. Whoever was at the dance was dancing, and those who weren’t were going to the barns to fill their sack: Vulko Kehaya, Hadji Dragan’s kehaya, poured wheat as if it was gold and marked the tally sticks with his knife. Grandpa Neyko felt content.

This was how this unprecedented wedding went on over a whole week. As soon as the new day broke, everyone ran to Hadji Dragan’s. People cheered each other and danced to their limit. But there was something sick about all that gaiety. They drank wine to put their worries to sleep, they laughed to hide their fear. And they looked at each other shyly and each one thought that the other knew something bad but wasn’t saying it. In the evenings the fires would light the Balkan Mountains. Once they returned home, the same people who had been having fun at the wedding now locked their doors and listened timidly. Suddenly they would feel a lump in their throats, as they were falling asleep, they felt as if they were suffocating. In the faint glow of the lamp, their faces looked as pale and tormented as the faces of the dead.

Hadji Dragan’s yard was still full of people. They were waiting to take the bride out. But then something happened that caused great confusion amongst everyone: eagles appeared from the north, high above the barns. Everyone watched them. So many eagles. They had spread their wings wide and they didn’t seem to fly but glide as if carried by the wind. Where could these eagles be headed, the people thought, if not to a place where there was a carcass or a corpse? They were surely headed straight to the lower villages, which is where the plague was, where people were dying. No one said that aloud, but everyone thought it.

“What are you staring at?” Hadji Dragan’s strong voice echoed. “Play!”, he shouted to the astonished bagpipers. “Play the chorbadjiisko horo. The heavy one. Go ahead, play!”

And the bagpipers, each with a golden coin given by Hadji Dragan shining on their foreheads, blew the bagpipes. And the dance swayed from one end of the yard to the other. Hadji Dragan himself led it, two heads taller than the others.

Everyone was overcome with delirious joy again. But there were a few who were whispering something on the side.

“Look at how red Hadji Dragan’s eyes are!” someone said.

“He must have drunk too much.”

“No, he has been crying!”

Inside the house, there was no one left in the room where they had dressed Tiha except for her. Her friends had gone out to watch the eagles. When Rada, who was Tiha’s most loyal companion, came back inside, she saw that Tiha had covered her face with her hands.

“You’ve been crying!”, she said.

“Who, me? Do you think I cry?”

Tiha was laughing, but the tears were shining in her eyes.

“Ah, Tiha, dear sister, there are so many eagles! Ah, it’s not a good omen!”

“Leave that be!”

“Tiha, little sister, don’t be angry.” But why did you choose such a time, you could have waited. Velichko could have returned.”

“Velichko?” Why should I care about Velichko, I have a husband. Who knows where the plague may have struck him? I hope those eagles are now ripping apart his flesh!”

Her eyes darkened for a moment, but then immediately filled with light again, and she laughed. Her other friends came into the room. They put a red veil over Tiha’s black hair, and the girls’ fingers quickly began to arrange the veil’s folds.

It was a tradition for the bride’s family to cry when the bride was leaving her father’s house. But now it was not just the family who was crying but everyone, even people who hadn’t shed a tear in their lives. Hadji Dragan had to intervene again, and the wedding ceremony headed toward the church.

Nothing happened along the way except for the horseman they saw entering from the other end of the village. The man had been racing on his horse with all his might. Who could he be, what was he bringing?

The church filled with people. They lit the candles on the chandelier, and the bride and groom stood beneath it. The ceremony had begun. Suddenly there was a noise from the door.

“Didn’t you see him?”, a female voice cried, and in the ensuing silence, people recognized the voice of Dochka, the widow.

“He’s just come home,” she continued talking to those closest to her. “He jumped off his horse, and as soon as I told him, he headed straight to the church…. he must have come here.”

“Come? Who has come?” someone asked nervously.

“Aaaah! The plague has come!” a female voice screeched from inside the church.

And as it was crowded, in a moment the crowd turned, ready to run.

“Wait, people!”, some men shouted. “There’s nothing to be afraid of, nothing!”

The people calmed down a bit and started going back. But up front, by the church altar, there was an empty space. And there, in that place, a man appeared, young but blackened and dusty. His eyes, fixed on the bride, burned like coals, and he was swaying. He tried to step forward but cringed in terrible convulsions, black spots forming on his face. His legs sagged and he fell.

“He has the plague!”, someone shouted. “Run!”

Everyone rushed back, shoving one another and shouting. Then the crowd ran from the church like a herd of animals, leaving the space lit up. Only Tiha stood under the chandelier. She wanted to run too, but she saw a woman and stopped: it was Dochka. She looked at the fallen man at the altar, wringing her arms, her eyes crazed.

“Oh, God, what can I do?” she was shouting, “he’s my son, but he has the plague! Oh, my God!”

She got closer to him several times, then turned back, and finally, pulling at her hair and crying, she ran away.

Tiha then approached the plagued man – it was Velichko, she had recognized him as soon as he appeared. She leaned down, turned his face, then sat on the stone step in front of the altar, put her head on her knees, and looked him in the eye. Her veil fell and covered her face and his. Behind them, Jesus watched them from the darkened icon, with his right hand raised.

Portrait of Halyna Petrosanyak

Yordan Yovkov (1880, Zlatitsa) is a pivotal figure in 20th-century Bulgarian literature. His profound connection to Bulgaria’s cultural heritage shaped his artistic vision. A prolific author, Yovkov demonstrated literary prowess in poetry, plays, and short stories, blending realism and symbolism to depict Balkan traditions and universal themes. Yovkov’s stories, with their intricate exploration of love, spirituality, history, and human experience, resonate universally. They transcend geographical and cultural boundaries, offering English-speaking readers a chance to delve into the complexities that define the human condition, as seen through the lens of Bulgarian life.

Yovkov’s global impact is evident as Thomas Mann featured “The Sin of Ivan Belin” in his world’s best short stories anthology. Ivo Andric revered Yovkov, Jules Romains admired him, and Yachar Kemal equated him with Chekhov, solidifying the significance of Yovkov’s contributions on a global stage.

Portrait of Jeff Kochan

Teodora Gandeva, a modest language enthusiast with a BA in English and American studies and an MA in translation and editing from Sofia University, is devoted to introducing the richness of Bulgarian literature to the global stage. Teodora’s translations have been featured in publications such as World Literature Today and Asymptote, underscoring her commitment to transcending literary borders. Having previously served as an interpreter and lecturer at the University of Architecture, Civil Engineering, and Geodesy in Sofia, Bulgaria, and contributed to the Bulgarian edition of L’Europeo magazine, Teodora has seamlessly transitioned into a full-time dedication to the art of translation. When not immersed in the world of words, she takes delight in the whimsical escapades of her feline confidante, Dorian, and the enduring mysteries of the boundless sea.

Trafika Europe