The arrival of the plague sends a sleepy village into a frenzy in this excerpt from Iana Boukova's novel Traveling in the Direction of the Shadow.
And so Manol, the runt, was born, with clenched fists and broad shoulders. He came out with his eyes open but his shoulders became stuck and he remained this way, hanging between the world and the womb, making no sound, waiting for someone else to make a decision. And the old woman who was helping deliver him remembered the curse and spit into the embers to stop her hands from trembling. Whether as a result of her own efforts or with some other kind of assistance, she was finally able to pull him out, and while she wiped him down and angrily slapped his back to get him to cry, she said: “This one here was born twice.” And she tied his umbilical cord while she pressed her toothless gums into her lower lip and mulled over her words.
And he was almost four years old and still holding on to his mother’s skirts when one early evening a man entered the village, exhaustedly staggered across it, and stood in front of the last house on this side of the river, trying to recognize some sort of sign. Then he pushed the gate with his shoulder and entered Iovana’s yard.
On the morning of that same day, her second-youngest son, Damyan, had quarreled with his two older brothers over a whistle. It was one of the many toys carved by his father’s hands, which were never still: wooden dolls with impenetrable adult faces; dragonfly cages with latches and locks; and exquisite little carts where captured mice could be harnessed and then let to run around the yard. The whistle was no longer than a handspan, and—depending on which end of it was blown—produced two different sounds. The father had carved it with his restless hands, then given it to the youngest of the children sitting around him, so that the child could play with it—this was what Damyan claimed. Or he had simply handed it to whatever child happened to be sitting nearest to him, so that they would all eventually play with it—this was what the brothers claimed. But the verbal portion of the quarrel came to a rather quick end, since Damyan had overlooked the fact that his two brothers outranked him not just in age, but also in number, so they gave him a good licking without too many explanations, then left him alone to the receding dual sounds of the whistle: one wailing and the other mocking. When they were no longer audible, Damyan stopped crying, since crying on his own turned out to be much less exciting. He lay on his back and stared at the sky until his gaze cleared from the tears. One cloud resembled a reclining water buffalo, but with only one horn and a soft, crumpled wing that emerged from its left shoulder blade and dragged on the ground. And—although he continued lying there and staring at the sky while the cloud slowly lost its water-buffalo shape and turned into a frightened duck in the jaws of a legless dog with a broken tail—deep in his heart of hearts he knew, he could feel it in the anxious shudder of his stomach, that he had already made up his mind. He snuck through the orchards behind the house and entered the yard through a hole in the fence. The hole was there so that rainwater would drain away, but the smaller children had the habit of using it as a shortcut. Damyan grabbed half a loaf of bread and a rug, and snuck out the same way he had come without anyone seeing him. He spent the rest of the day chewing on bits of bread and torturing a beetle, which had the antlers of a large ruminant and a body that resembled a rabbit dropping. But by the early evening he was faced with the exact problem that he had spent all afternoon trying to avoid thinking about—the sun was setting and the woods were beginning to fill with darkness, and that darkness, with monsters. The darker it grew, the closer he moved to the village, drawn in by the light of the fires and the human voices coming through the open doors. He chose a freshly cut haystack in one of the yards, wrapped himself in the rug, and slipped into it. A dog barked and a man came out with a firebrand, but did not notice him in the shadow and went back inside. The dog went over to the haystack but did not bark again, and only its tail could be heard as it slashed through the air, and its panting with its tongue sticking out. The two of them were old acquaintances—the dog was big and yellow, with one upright and one drooping ear, and with a constant smile on its muzzle. It nestled close to Damyan and he slept peacefully until the morning, when he awoke, freezing from the dew. The sun still gave off only light but no warmth, so he headed out to the meadows beyond the village and ran around until his clothes and the grass beneath his feet dried off. Then he lay down in the warm grass and slept again, his eyelids pink beneath the sun. He woke up around noon, as ravenous as a wolf, and although he was whistling nonchalantly and kicking little stones around, he knew he was headed home, but chose the long way back so as to avoid admitting it.
But perhaps he had slept longer than he realized, since the village seemed unusually deserted for this time of day. On the street he ran into the priest’s wife and three other women. Still far away, the women stopped in their tracks as soon as they saw him, and the popadya asked him where he was headed. Home, Damyan replied, but the women did not budge, so he stopped and kept his distance too. Where had he been, the popadya asked, and, assuming they probably knew he had run away, Damyan admitted he had not been home since yesterday morning and had spent the night outdoors, sleeping in a haystack. Then the popadya approached and clasped his neck with two hard fingers, smiling all the while. There’s some warm chicken soup at my house, she said, and invited him over to have some. The three other women accompanied them. And it was there, in the half-dark kitchen of the priest’s house, while finishing his second bowl of soup, that Damyan suddenly realized something was wrong. He felt it the same way an image suddenly shifts in a dream, ever so slightly, causing an almost imperceptible difference, so that a face turns around and looks altered, and you know that the nightmare will begin in the next instant. He noticed their eyes watching his every move, and their tongues moving behind their closed mouths, and before the fear could overwhelm him, he jumped to the side in an attempt to dodge them, then slipped between their outstretched arms, bumped his head into one woman’s soft belly, got his legs entangled in another one’s flapping skirts, but managed to slip through their curled fingers and elude their shouts. Once outside, the sun blinded him but still he ran as fast as he could down the deserted street. He was so frightened that he ran past the wooden bridge and found himself across from his house, but on the wrong side of the river. In front of the house stood many men—some carried wooden clubs, others were empty-handed, and one held a rifle. Blows were heard, then his father emerged through the gate’s opening with an ax in his hands, the rifle went off and a red spot appeared on his father’s left shoulder, screams were heard from inside, the gate was shut, and the men threw themselves into boarding it up again with nails and planks.
He spent the whole day in a tree in the orchards, shivering in the afternoon heat and waiting for night to fall, so he could go home through the back of the house. But it was not even dark yet when, in the cinereous, sedimentary light, he saw his two brothers furtively sneaking out through the hole in the fence. And then he saw the men who had been hiding in the orchards and lying in wait for them, and they stood up with clubs in their hands, and their shirts glowed in the dusk. After the first blow, gold coins poured out the front of the boys’ shirts, glimmered, then soundlessly disappeared into the dirt beneath their feet. The men kept striking them and jumping backward, as to avoid getting sprayed by blood, and it all resembled some kind of a noiseless dance with cruel, rhythmic movements, while not a wail, nor even a whimper was heard from the two children, who fell to the ground with their arms around each other and without shielding themselves, and the men left them there, amid the dirt and the coins, threw down their clubs, and walked away.
He opened his mouth to scream but no sound came out, nor did he wake up, and that was when he was struck dumb forever, and he ran off into the woods, without direction, into the thickening darkness, in order to escape from the nightmare.
And when two or three years later, after having asked around, begged, and bribed, his oldest brother Kostadin finally found him, his skin scabby and his growth stunted, in a completely unexpected place and by accident, the boy tried by any means he could—through gestures and movements, through the guttural sounds that emerged from his throat, and through the crooked pictures he drew in the dirt—to tell his brother everything that had happened that day. He tried to tell him about the popadya and the other women, whose faces had suddenly changed, about the rifle that had gone off and struck their father in the chest, about the men in the white shirts who had beat his young brothers to a pulp. And Kostadin listened and understood everything. “They were witches,” he said, pressing his brother’s shorn head to his shoulder, so his shirt absorbed the boy’s tears and the dirt from his cheeks. “Don’t cry. They were sorcerers, and they put a curse on you. Don’t be afraid. They’re all gone. Thornitsa is gone, too, there’s no place called Thornitsa anymore.”
When the stranger walked into the yard, Iovana was not doing anything, and the creaking sound of the gate startled her and scattered her thoughts. The stranger had an old man’s gait and kept his head bowed, as if his feet could not advance on their own but had to be moved by the power of his gaze. He stopped in the middle of the yard, examined the house from the threshold all the way up to the chimney, and only then greeted her. The first sound that came out of his mouth already made it obvious he was a foreigner, but she could not figure out his origins, because he pronounced every word differently, elongating the vowels, hissing some of the consonants, and stressing others. He was looking for her husband, the man said, was her husband around. Iovana replied that her husband wasn’t home yet, that he’d be late, and asked if the newcomer was hungry. He wasn’t, the foreigner said. Iovana drew fresh water from the well and the man drank straight from the pail while the water ran down his chin and his chest, and then poured the rest of it over himself, which washed off the dust, and together with it, ten years off his face. That was when it became clear that what had seemed like the eyebrows of an old man was actually one straight black brow, as thick as an index finger, stretching over both his eyes. How did he know her husband, Iovana asked, and the man said, Very long ago, followed by another word she did not understand. Very tired, the man said, very terribly tired, and asked if he could rest somewhere while he waited for her husband. Iovana took him to the barn and gave him some blankets, because Thornitsa’s summer nights were as cold as its summer days were hot. And then she forgot about him. Her husband really did come back late, and they noticed that little Damyan had disappeared with a rug and a loaf of bread. He had run away before, but this time they had decided not to look for him and let him sleep outside in the dark, so as to teach him a lesson. She did not remember the stranger until the next morning—a morsel of bread still in her mouth, she ran out to the barn and found him, with eyes parched under the straight brow, sunk in his own blood and excrements. And she could not scream, because the morsel in her mouth was soggy with saliva and choked her, nor could she do anything else upon realizing the plague had entered her house, and the sun began to shine mercilessly, as if all of a sudden it were noon, and the front gate was already being boarded up from the outside.
By the time anyone dared to enter the yard—two gypsies, a father and a son who made their living at the fairs by letting venomous snakes bite them on the hands, whom the villagers had talked into doing the dirty job using threats, promises, and the murdered children’s money—they discovered that the dead had already been washed, their eyes had been closed, and the candles had been lit. In a corner they saw the body of Iovana, who had sat down and covered her head with a kerchief, embarrassed before whomever would see her face in death. In the dark, and as always without giving itself away, her luck had done as much as it could. Because death had taken away her husband with the wound in his chest, and her second-oldest son Nikodim, and her daughter-in-law with the child in her belly, and her beautiful daughter with the green eyes and the limp, and her two boys whom she had sent out in the early evening with all the coins she could find to escape through the hole in the fence, through which only the small children could fit. But she had been spared her firstborn son, Kostadin, who was away on an errand, and her two oldest daughters, who were married and living in other villages, and Damyan, who was struck dumb and ran off into the woods, and when they lifted her body, they also found Manol, the runt, having desperately cried himself to sleep but alive, hidden beneath his mother’s skirts.
The gypsy father and son looked almost the same age and resembled each other like twin brothers with their yellowing eyes and their contorted hands. Their palms were completely covered in red colons and semicolons from the snakebites, while the venom running through their veins brought a permanent blissful smile on their faces and made their movements slow and measured. They gathered everything of any value or use from the house, but the priest, who at this moment was performing the funeral rites from a distance (with the muffled wall of villagers behind him), shouted at them to drop everything, all the household belongings, into the large pit with the dead, and not to take anything. As far as the boy, they were told to do with him as they saw fit. So they took him as far away from the village as possible, up into the mountain, and left him on a path, so that fate could decide whether he should live or die. And it goes without saying that the two gypsies got away unscathed, untouched by the disease, because they were the only ones who were not afraid.
Under the ground, far from the winds that knocked the apples from the trees and the birds from the sky, far from the winter that came in September, far from the snow that sent the roofs crashing down, Iovana remained among the bodies of her people, among the bowls from her kitchen, among the clothes from the chest. She was not alone.
From Пътуване по посока на сянката. © Iana Boukova. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Ekaterina Petrova. All rights reserved.