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