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A Treasure Chest of Goodbyes

By Nataliya Deleva
Translated By Izidora Angel

Nataliya Deleva's debut novel, Four Minutes, translated from Bulgarian by Izidora Angel, is out tomorrow from Open Letter. The book focuses on characters whose voices are often marginalized in present-day Bulgaria, including its protagonist, Leah, who struggles to adopt a child because of discrimination against gay adoptive parents. In the excerpt below, Leah meditates on photographs and the nature of memory.

All I have from my split with my mother is the cream-yellow baby blanket, which I’ve carefully folded and buried at the bottom of a drawer. All I have from my split with Naya is A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez and a single photo. In the photo, Naya and I are standing next to each other, our arms around the other’s waist. We are eighteen. It’s summer, and we are standing in front of a house in the Rhodope Mountains, where we’ve gone hiking. We were headed for Trigrad but got lost, and with the sun setting quickly we needed to find a place to sleep. We ended up in some deserted village, no more than five houses in all. Outside one of the houses, on a log laid on its side like a makeshift bench, sat an elderly woman, her back bent by age. The baba invited us to spend the night in the empty house next to hers. “All the young people escaped to the cities,” she said as she ladled warm bean stew into two bowls and tore hunks of homemade bread, “the elderly all died away. The whole village is just me and two other babi.” She told us of her children and grandchildren, how they came up once a month to bring her rice and beans and flour and oil, how one of her grandsons recently emigrated to Germany for school. She gathered all the photos from the shelves to show us and I thought how these photos were her only thread to the world outside of these few remaining village houses. We watched her caressing the photographs, delighting in them as though she were delighting in the presence of real people, without registering the emptiness of her act. She held the memento mori in her hands, the trapped likenesses of her favorite people inside the photo paper, for whom she was now likely just a burden.

“I was hoarding items, gestures, words spoken and unspoken.”

Afterward, she took us to the house next door, brought clean sheets and covers and nimbly made the beds, all while still bent over in two. In the morning, we awoke to the smell of freshly fried mekitsi, set out on the table for us next to a jar of homemade wild strawberry jam. I’d heard about the legendary hospitality of the Rhodope people, but it always seemed like some sort of urban legend passed from person to person. But it was all real. As we said goodbye, we asked her to take a picture of us outside her house.

When Naya left, whether intentionally or by accident, she left behind the photo at the bottom of one of our drawers. I put it inside a wooden chest, next to my mother’s blanket. My treasure chest of goodbyes. I was hoarding items, gestures, words spoken and unspoken—the language memorabilia of other people’s farewells. I filled the chest with them so there’d be no room left for my own.

Excerpted from Four Minutes by Nataliya Deleva, published by Open Letter Books. Copyright © 2017 Nataliya Deleva. Translation copyright © 2021 by Izidora Angel. By arrangement with the publisher.

Looking for more? Read an interview with Nataliya Deleva and Izidora Angel on Reading in Translation.

Related Reading:

From the Edges of Europe: New Bulgarian Literature

"Iovana, or the Birth of the Hero" by Iana Boukova, translated by Ekaterina Petrova

"Old Proud Mountain" by Georgi Tenev, translated by Angela Rodel

Published Aug 16, 2021   Copyright 2021 Nataliya Deleva

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