Twin teenage sisters from a middle-class background are on the run from the authorities. They have joined a Partisan group based in the Balkan Mountains. The Partisans are a mixed bunch of young and old communists and peasant party members, all dedicated fighters against the Bulgarian monarchist regime and their German allies. Many have adopted colorful nicknames. Nail—short for Final Nail in the Coffin of Capitalism—or Digger—short for Gravedigger of Capitalism. Others have adopted the names of revolutionary heroes—Botev and Lenin. There is a renegade monk called Tikhon. There is only one other female—white-haired Extra Nina, whose grasp of Communist ideology has made her the commander’s trusted right-hand political officer. Commander Medved is a former refugee from the 1922 Bulgarian White Terror, returned by a Russian submarine eighteen years later to command local resistance against the Bulgarian government. He speaks Bulgarian with a heavy Russian accent.
After a long period of inactivity punctuated by police attacks, the group finds that one of their number, Botev, can no longer see.
Just five minutes later Botev regained his sight—just as unexpectedly as he’d lost it. He was terrified, as if he’d been hauled out of a deep well full of scorpions and snakes.
No one in the squadron had any specialized medical training. Some time ago Extra Nina had attended a midwifery course. Deaf Tanko (Vitan Churov from a village named Churov Spring) had passed an orderly’s course in veterinary medicine and so had been entrusted with the first-aid bag. They called him “Deaf” because he couldn’t hear anything in his right ear. He’d successfully cleaned up Lozan’s wound and bound it, but in this situation he just shrugged. Examination of Botev’s eyes proved fruitless—neither Deaf Tanko nor Extra Nina could find anything unusual or worrying.
“Did you eat something off the ground? Did you drink something? Did you fall on your head?” they pressed him with questions, like real doctors. “Has this happened before? Is there any blindness in your family?”
“Nnn, nnn, nnuh!” he mooed.
Just to be sure, they searched for the key to this mystery in his rucksack. Apart from assorted male junk and a considerable number of cigarettes, what fell out of the bottom was a white rag with polka dots and a lace border. Actually it hadn’t been white for a long time, it had achieved a yellowish tinge—Extra Nina lifted it with two fingers and inspected it in incomprehension. Then she turned to the partisans grouped around her. “What is this . . . comrades?”
The men shrugged with apparent disinterest.
“My knickers!” Gabriella shouted.
“Your knickers?! Why did you give them to him?”
“Nonsense! How could you think such a thing?” she cried. “One morning they’d just vanished into thin air. I thought that some magpie had stolen them . . . ”
“Magpie!” Medved snorted.
Gabriella threw the knickers into the fire with a mixture of disgust and regret. It wasn’t clear what the exact connection was between the knickers and Botev’s sudden blindness, but everyone felt there was something—something not quite right.
“Vere did you get zo many zigarettes?” the commander asked in his severest tone.
Botev hung his head.
“Admit it! Admit it!” Tikhon called out spitefully. “You’ve been trading in stolen knickers, haven’t you!”
“He wanted two cigarettes for that satanic rag, Tovarisht Kombrig! Ten minutes for two cigarettes. Capitalist! God punished him!”
“Tikhon!” shouted Nina.
“I meant to say Nature,” the former monk immediately corrected himself. “The law of nature punished him.”
“I didn’t ask for cigarettes. They offered them to me,” whined Botev, who had at last come out of his stupor. “I didn’t want to appear uncomradely. I’d even have handed them over without any cigarettes. Isn’t that right? Go on tell them, Maxim!”
“I, sort of . . . ” the young man stuttered in confusion.
“And vy vere zeze tings zo nezizary for you?” the commander demanded sharply.
“They weren’t necessary!”
“Why? So they could rub themselves off, that’s why, ha-ha-ha!” Tikhon explained. “Come on let’s stop playing dumb. Admit it!”
“You can talk, you mean to say you don’t rub one off?” shouted Svilen.
“I rub off,” Tikhon stroked his beard, “But not so much. Up to five times they go to rub off, Tovarisht Kombrig! Night and day. I knew something bad would happen . . . In our village we had someone blind. They called him the Goblin. Not only blind but dumb, too. Grandma would warn me that if I rubbed off I’d end up like him. If I just see your hands under the blanket. But who listens . . . how many stinging nettle strokes have these hands suffered, eh?”
He flexed his four stubby fingers and shook his head sadly.
“Me too, they beat my hands with stinging nettles,” Kochan moaned.
“It doesn’t just make you blind,” added Digger. “In our village we had this Manol, a whole fifteen years he lay there paralyzed. Mum said: rub yourself off if you want to be like Uncle Manol, rub one off, but I’m not going to clean your shitty bottom afterward . . . ”
“Well they told me that you get fits from it,” said Lozan. “an illness, epilepsy if you’ve heard of it . . . ”
“If a child rubs himself off at home on St. Ignat’s Day,” whispered old Metodii, drawing on centuries-old folk wisdom, “the year will bear no fruit. Billy goat’s seed will be watered down and not catch on. Hens will lay less and cows won’t bear calves.”
A painful silence fell. In everyone’s memories there lurked some whiskery granny dressed in black, with stinging nettles in one hand and a birch switch in the other. And now this hunchback belligerence lifted itself out of forgotten corners, stepped out bold and ready to fight, only as ancient grannies knew how, when they have to chase off the demons we have inside. With waxy faces and glaring white eyes, they spouted forth terrifying warnings and heavy prophesies of impending doom, family curses, and painful death.
The knickers burned with a low flickering flame.
“How long has this outrageous behavior been going on?” asked Extra Nina.
Botev pointed at the girls: “From the moment these two showed up . . . ”
“What?” Gabriella and Monika stared in shock.
“You’re a lying bastard!” Bushy shouted. “I’ve seen you rubbing one off even before that! Back at Trichavo when you were on sentry duty . . . You infected the others!”
“Well, you don’t mean to say you’ve caught scabies?” interrupted Gabriella. “What is all this rubbing off about? We haven’t brought scabies into the unit, we’ve never been ill with scabies. We’ve had measles, which is awfully itchy, too, but that was a long time ago.”
At last, everyone giggled uncontrollably. Even something like a smile drifted across Medved’s face. But who knows why Extra Nina blushed and the girls exchanged puzzled looks.
“Can someone explain the meaning and the significance you place on this verb: to rub off?!” Monika’s eyes flashed with fury.
An embarrassed Extra Nina drew them to one side. She really wasn’t an expert on the subject, in spite of the midwifery course, and that’s why her explanation sounded quite strange. A few minutes passed before the twins understood exactly what the fuss was about.
“Oh, that was all!” Monika exclaimed.
“We’ve read a lot about masturbation,” Gabriella announced, “In one of my mother’s magazines there was an article by somebody called Shtekel, an Austrian academic. He maintains that masturbation is a completely normal human activity.”
“Yes, completely normal,” her sister confirmed, turned toward the men, and cried: “There’s nothing to be ashamed of, comrades. You don’t go blind because of this, you don’t go deaf, you don’t get fits. For centuries, masturbation has been demonized by reactionary forces so as to suppress the broad mass of the people. Today, science completely rejects these filthy lies and even thinks that they have brought irreparable harm to the human psyche. Long live free masturbation! Down with the tyranny of superstition!”
No one dared take up the new slogan, however attractive it sounded. The men lowered their eyes as if they feared some kind of trap. Or joke. The grannies didn’t give up so easily . . . Medved realized that their eyes had now turned toward him. It was only a matter of time and he already guessed what the question would be.
“How do they address the issue of masturbation in the Soviet Union, Tovarisht Kombrig?” Screw asked timidly.
Medved pulled at the ends of his tunic, coughed, and spoke: “Issue of mazdurbation does not appear on daily agenda in Soviet Union. Soviet people have more prezzing tasks to purzue. They cannot allow zelves to fritter energies on zuch frippery. I advise you too to zave your zdrength. Ve cannot rely on regular supplies. Every calorie is ezential for our zdruggle’s goals.”
Extra Nina waited for his words to sink into the minds of the fighters. Then she shouted: “If the people of the Soviet Union can, then so can we!”
“Why do you have to stick your oar in?” Lenin muttered.
“Comrades!” Screw leaped up, his voice trembling with emotion. “As secretary of the Youth Organization in the name of all our conscientious members, I swear a solemn oath that we will stop this practice!”
“We swear, we swear . . . ” chorused some uncertain voices.
Medved scratched his head in some disbelief. Botev was slinking by the fire with his eyes cast down. Walking past him the commander stopped and fixed him with that heavy unblinking gaze that everyone avoided. “It is not nice to zdeal comrade.”
“I haven’t stolen. I just borrowed them,” the unfortunate man wept. “I was going to return them the first chance I got.”
“Today you reach out for knickers, tomorrow a comrade’s bread. Just zo you know, nyext time ve’ll shoot you.”
In the evening the temperature fell fast. The partisans pulled on every pullover, sweater, jerkin and woolen over-breeches that came to hand, snuggled under covers, and huddled up close to one another. The fire gradually died out. Only the paraffin lamp in the General Command’s tent continued to flicker. In front of the tent flap Stoicho stood sentry with a bayonet stuck into the ground. Medved had called the squadron’s officials together. From time to time the clicking sound of a typewriter flew through the air. It was clear to everyone that vitally important questions were being discussed, leading to strategic decisions which perhaps quite soon would change their fate.
The two girls brought the tips of their noses together to warm them up.
“Do you know,” whispered Gabriella, “whatever that Shtekel rabbits on about, this still doesn’t seem at all comradely to me . . . ”
Monika stayed silent a few seconds and then whispered in her turn: “I wonder, though, whether we’ve provoked them in some way to behave like this?”
“How would I know . . . Perhaps we’ve secretly wanted them to like us? We’ve shown some feminine coquetry or other weakness, which has aroused particular desires, inappropriate for the struggle?”
She paused for a moment.
“We allowed them to see us naked!”
“It wasn’t on purpose!”
“No, it wasn’t.”
There followed another few minutes of silence. A soft warmth stole between their noses.
“When we die heroically in battle, they’ll understand we weren’t that sort . . . ” growled Gabriella. “But it’ll be too late.”
And with that thought both girls began to weep simultaneously.
Not a stone’s throw away from them the peasants snored, rolled into one another like a row of pumpkins. Botev was shivering on his own under a rug, shunned by everyone as if he carried the plague. Bushy had his own bag, lined with sheepskin, into which he wound himself tight as if it were a cocoon. Tikhon had latched onto Digger and Uncle Metodii because he was cold. For comradeship’s sake they took him in, and in gratitude he farted for them under the canvas. On Uncle Metodii, who had been swimming in another reality for some time, the stink made absolutely no impression. But Digger couldn’t even think to cover his head. His ears were frozen under his thin cap. Apart from this, he was upset that Lenin had been invited to the meeting and not him. His ears took in the muffled voices of the youngsters, lying behind the bushes.
“And so what’s the upshot of all this now?” Lozan called out. “It’s that they’ve lied to us like village idiots.”
“And it’s not just you,” Nail added grimly: “your father and your grandfather . . . back to the ninth generation they’ve been lied to and maybe more.”
“It’s not as if it’s the only lie that’s been spread about!” sighed Dicho.
“You’ve always got to ask whose interests this serves,” Screw pointed out.
“The exploitive classes!” a group whisper flew up.
“They’ve got the most beautiful wives, they’ve got mistresses, not just one apiece, they allow themselves all kinds of pleasures . . . ” Screw continued pitilessly. “And what about the people? Two bare hands. And that disgusts them!”
“Yes, masturbation is a proletarian activity,” agreed Nail.
“But this business with the knickers, there’s something not quite comradely . . . ” said Lozan. “We’re just insulting our comrade women. What will they think of us? A band of mutants!”
“They said we could.”
“Well, maybe we can but it’s not comradely,” Dicho broke in. “In the Soviet Union they don’t behave like this. They’re brave girls and they deserve respect. We have to find a way to make up for this awful impression.”
“We’ll make up for it,” Svilen spoke quietly.
“When we die.”
“Come on, rub one off and go to sleep, mates!” Digger couldn’t stand any more.
“Never!” the answer flew back. “We’ve given our word.”
© Alek Popov. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Christopher Buxton. All rights reserved.