The Birth of the Hero
All that Yovana had left of him was a bite on her neck and an empty shirt. “Like a snake,” she said, after the first few months had passed. And though she said it to herself, the ‘s’ snapped like a whip and turned the scar violet. The shirt held an entire body inside itself, retained its outline through its scent, and at night slept next to her in the bed. But the shirt eventually gave up too, defeated by time, and nothing remained in it any longer. What could she do with a dead shirt but wash it and put it away in the trunk where it belonged, to never again take it out nor throw it out. The scar turned bloody every time she picked at it and tried to reproduce its crescent shape. Whenever silence fell, it pulsated in a rhythm different from that of her heart. It was a time without nights or days, with only a constant grayish light, hybrid, murky, foretelling no awakening. Yovana continued sleeping inside her body, which rose every morning and carried out its chores, and combing her hair until the comb almost broke. The days passed uncounted and unnamed, her blood kept track of the months, while the seasons kept track of themselves, two years, three years, three Easters, four Christmases. Until he suddenly cropped up where he had not been sown, with his shoes covered in foreign dust and his large hands hidden behind his back, as though he were holding a gift or a knife. And he said he had come to see her father. But she never found out what it was he had held, because there was no need, she said, she had already been promised to someone else.
Which was not entirely true. She had said ‘yes’ of her own accord, briskly, the way one throws a stone over his shoulder or spits into his bosom to chase the fright away. The scar had healed again, and when her hand went in search for it, it found nothing in its place. And she had neither listened to the words of the matchmaker with her little mustache, which kept moving while she spoke and seemed to crawl all over her face like a bothersome fly; nor had she looked at the man who was seated at the table across from her.
She continued living in the milky, genderless light that enveloped her, and slept while sucking on her braids like a child. One night, she awoke from the sound of rain, which the wind was scattering in uneven slanted lashes against the window, and realized she was counting down the days until winter.
It was during the winter that her wedding took place, with knee-high snow and large bonfires. People threw their coats into the snow as they grew heated from the wine and the commanding drum roll of the tupans. “Peppers like pissers,” the men sang, “petals like pussies,” and jumped higher than their own height. Some old women, small-faced and clenched like fists, turned their heads aside and winked at her knowingly, while she and the groom climbed the wooden staircase to the room. The man she had agreed to marry bent over to blow out the candle, and his lips beneath the blond mustache almost touched the flame. And if she had any luck at all, it always worked quietly, without giving itself away. Her lower lip, dried by astonishment, split open again and produced enough drops of blood to satisfy the zurnas and gadulkas that awaited in the yard and promptly began playing.
She was a strong woman. Everything came to her easily. Her bread always rose and the daisies in her yard grew as big as a man’s palm. Pregnancy added a drop of red to her hair, the births turned her breasts softer and more merciful. Whether because of her quiet luck or because of the gold coin that remained inside her body, she held onto her beauty. Her hands never became swollen, her knees never turned rough. She ripened sweetly in a perpetual autumn of caressing winds and benevolent light. Aged triumphantly.
Gave birth easily. The first time around, they put a coin under her tongue like they did for the sick and poured water through all the openings of the house. They found a trembling little man and tasked him with writing over the threshold the words from the psalm thought to help in such cases: “Tear it down, tear it down to its foundations!” The man sat down with his tongue sticking out, the chalk kept slipping over the blackened wood and breaking between his fingers, the letters came out crooked and illegible, he kept writing, erasing, and rewriting, and even before he had finished, the baby’s cries were heard and the curse had passed. But the coin was never found. If she had swallowed it, it stayed inside her body forever and never came out.
She gave birth to eight children and all of them survived, so the triangle between the front gate, the house, and the well was never covered in grass again. The yard was always filled with people coming and going, with children running around and dogs chasing their tails, with merchants, carts, and horses shifting their weight from side to side, with neighbors coming over for water, with startled chickens. Among all that commotion, a little to the side, in a silence of his own, sat her husband with his blond mustache and his handsome smile, with his always busy hands, amidst the muted, domestic strikes of metal against wood and that soft, angelic dust that remains after the wood is stripped of what is superfluous and given a shape. He started to make barrels by bending staves over the fire and binding them with hoops, so that after his arrival in Thornitsa the wine no longer turned sour by the end of each spring.
One morning she watched him leave, standing in the loaded cart with the reins in his hands, and the next day they brought him back to her, stretched out at the bottom of the cart, his mouth parched by the fever. This was soon after the birth of her fourth boy, so she left the baby with her oldest daughter and forbade anyone from entering the room. She took off his sweat-soaked clothes and wiped him down with a rag dipped in water and vinegar, but his body did not respond to her touch, as though it had forgotten her, and the water trickled from between his lips before he could swallow it. She squeezed her breast and a few drops of milk sprinkled over his face. She let his sense of smell grow used to the scent of the milk and to the breath of her bosom, and his cracked lips to grow used to the shape of her nipple. But his lips were not a child’s, and his teeth instinctively sank into the source of nourishment and made her breast bleed. For a few days, she nursed him with this mixed trickle of her own milk and blood, until he began to open his eyes and his eyes began to recognize her. And from then on she developed the habit of holding onto his shirt while falling asleep, so that he would not slip away from her.
She continued marking the passage of time by the minor and major events dotting the perfect circles of holidays and seasons: by the big tree, which a storm tore out, then stuck back into the ground with its roots pointing upward, still covered in soil and little white worms, and resembling naked rickety branches; by the endless succession of scraped knees, mumps, and stubborn coughs; by the bird that fell into the well and the reeking water, full of black plumage, that they drew for days afterward; by the death of her father; by her boys’ first mustaches, when their clear childish sweat curdled and acquired a threatening smell, like burned resin; by the ginger-haired goat that knocked over her youngest daughter and broke her bone, which never healed properly, although Yovana sometimes suspected it was no accident that the goat had crossed their path, because her daughter had enormous cypress-colored eyes and mother-of-pearl skin, and only the heavy limp could somehow ease people’s fear of her beauty; by the river, which overflowed twice and reached the threshold of the house; by the shoes that wore out and needed replacing, and the handfuls of salt consumed.
By Iana Boukova
Translated by Ekaterina Petrova
Excerpt from TRAVELING IN THE DIRECTION OF THE SHADOW
Iana Boukova is a Bulgarian poet, writer, translator, and essayist. Born in Sofia in 1968, she has a degree in Classics from Sofia University. She is the author of the poetry books Diocletian’s Palaces (1995), Boat in the Eye (2000), and Notes of the Phantom Woman (2018), the short story collections A as in Аnything (2006) and Tales With No Return (2016), and the novel Traveling in the Direction of the Shadow (2014). Her poems and short stories have been translated into Greek, Spanish, French, German, and Arabic, among others. English translations of her texts have appeared in various anthologies and journals, including Best European Fiction 2017, Two Lines, Drunken Boat, Zoland Poetry, Take Five, and Absinthe. Boukova is also the editor and translator into Bulgarian of over ten collections and anthologies of Latin and modern and ancient Greek poetry, including Sappho’s Fragments, the collected poetry of Catullus, and Pindar’s Pythian Odes. She has lived in Athens since 1994, where she is a member of the platform Greek Poetry Now and an editor on the board of FRMK, a biannual journal on poetry, poetics, and visual arts.
Ekaterina Petrova is a literary translator, nonfiction writer, and interpreter. She holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa, where she was awarded the Iowa Arts Fellowship and helped edit the Exchanges Journal of Literary Translation. She also holds an MSc in European Politics and Governance from the London School of Economics and a BA in International Studies and German Studies from Macalester College. Currently based in Sofia, Bulgaria, she has spent time living, studying, and/or working in New York, Berlin, Cuba, Northern Ireland, and the south of France. She has been a translator-in-residence at Open Letter Books in Rochester, New York, and at the “Pristina has no river” artists-in-residence program in Prishtina, Kosovo. Her literary translations and nonfiction writing have appeared in various Bulgarian and English-language publications, including EuropeNow, Ninth Letter, Drunken Boat, B O D Y, Vagabond, Dnevnik, Capital Light, Balkan Travellers, One Week in Sofia, and Bulgaria On Air.
Ekaterina Petrova is the winner of the annual contest of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation for a Bulgarian writer/translator-in-residence at the National Centre for Writing in Norwich. Attached is an excerpt of her current translation in-progress by the Bulgarian writer Iana Boukova.